What The Dress Says About Us

Yesterday the primary disagreement in the world focused on a single dress and its mysterious color—white and gold or blue and black? #TheDress swept social media and took center stage over news about a potential shut down of Homeland Security, 2000 Christians kidnapped by ISIS, and net neutrality. What does this say about us? I’m afraid to answer, but also not surprised.

I get tired of hearing about how selfish our country is, the growing apathetic majority, and a decrease in civic engagement. Those things might be true, but they are also depressing. I try to be hopeful, rooting for my fellow humans and trusting that things can change. And then the Internet breaks over colors, something we all thought was a definite as black and white—or would it now be gold and blue?

The reason #TheDress caused such an uproar is because it targets our very notions of fact and truth. The United States is a culture polarized by a desire for clear answers. Things are either right or wrong, here or there, Republican or Democrat. You either believe in this, or you don’t. There are some people who try to champion the middle ground, but even that turns into its own separate platform.

In contrast, The Dress highlights the subjective nature of our world and makes us question things we thought were certain. Despite the overwhelming attempts of optometrists and graphic designers to explain the science behind it, many of us skim over those parts of the news story (I know I did). I don’t want to hear that it is “subjective” or “based on lighting” or “fluctuating between our optical rod and cones.” Technical intricacies are annoying. I want a definitive answer.

But that isn’t how the world works. During the semester I spent abroad in India, I was constantly frustrated by the pluralistic nature of things. People were so comfortable with uncertainty, every Hindu god had multiple names, and there was never an easy answer to even the most basic problems. In many eastern cultures this is the case, and people live within that conflict in a way that baffles my American mind. Now I wonder if they would even care about what color that dress is.

As silly as #TheDress phenomenon is, it points out some important things about our culture, beyond our sad obsession with news that is not really news.
  • We are easily upset by disagreement
  • We want definitive answers
  • It is hard for us to accept subjectivity

Even for those who pretend to not care, deep down you wonder how it is possible and what the truth is. Anne Lamott described this sensation well in her newest book Small Victories:
     “Redefinition is a nightmare—we think we’ve arrived, in our nice Pottery Barn boxes, and that this or that is true. Then something happens that totally sucks, and we are in a new box, and it is like changing into clothes that don’t fit, that we hate.”

Sometimes you have to redefine what you think you know for certain. In a culture that clings to absolutes of right and wrong, this truly is a nightmare. Trying to admit that The Dress is a different color than how you see it will be as uncomfortable as actually wearing it (because let’s be honest that dress isn’t the best).

In the end, the color of that dress really doesn’t make any practical difference in our world. But it matters for our sense of self, the security in what we think we know, and how sometimes we need to accept the possibility that something else might be true or someone might see it a different way.

Does uncertainty make you uncomfortable?
What can we take away from this sensational disagreement?

Advertisements

The Truth About Rejection

At first, it sucks. After an hour, it still sucks. Some time later, it gets better. Supposedly.

The sky swells as the sun abandons this side of the world, clouds block out the hope of stars. The cracked desert wonders why the rain never actually materializes. Even the moon seems hazy on the whys and why nots. You ponder the planets, the depth of the universe, and you feel a deeper sympathy for poor rejected Pluto. Rejection happens in space too, you say. Maybe you hide under the covers, letting the air grow heavy with your exhales. Sleep seems like the best solution, but your heavy eyelids aren’t enough to keep the gremlins of negativity from threading through your mind.

The initial thoughts spiral something like this: oh well, so that’s that, they didn’t like me, what do I care, I guess I do care, I could’ve done better, why did I say those things, maybe they are threatened by success, who am I kidding I’m not a success, what is success anyways, why does it matter, why can’t I stop thinking about this, why why why. Ice cream.

I’ve never experienced a tornado in real life, but I think my brain can relate to it after being rejected. It swirls through vortexes, around space and time until the wind dies down and everything I had previously settled has been disrupted.

Rejection is the disruption of what you thought you knew was good.
 
The good part is it means you can redefine what good is. 

As a recent college graduate, rejection is something very common for myself and many of my peers. We spend hours upon hours looking and applying for jobs we aren’t even sure we want. But when we are told we can’t have that job, we believe we wanted it more. My most recent application took me through a month long process of a 15 page proofreading test, an initial interview, and a second two hour phone interview.

Needless to say, rejection hurts more when it has a longer build up.

Rejection is also a close relative to shame, that feeling of worthlessness keeping you from admitting the incident to others.

Personally, it helps me to analyze those feelings more, letting the logic mix with emotion into a dose of truth. Why is it hard to admit when someone rejects me? Probably because I don’t want to reveal that someone didn’t want me, as if giving life to my fears of worthlessness. This circles back to a problem I discussed in my last post though: letting others define my worth.

Would rejection be scary if I truly believed I was wanted and loved no matter what? Would it be hard to admit my rejection to others if I wasn’t afraid of others believing I was unworthy, which is a lie?

Somewhere in time we decided that rejection was always and only a bad thing. We also forgot that Christ came to redefine how we view rejection. His death and resurrection returned us to a perpetual state of un-rejection where we are accepted and loved by God.

With these things in mind, I can redefine rejection. If I believe the truth that I am loved and accepted by God, then what is being rejected is not my worth, but my false conceptions. I built an idea up in my mind as good, and the rejection of that idea simply means I need to redefine what I thought was good. Perhaps there is something even better out there for me, this good was not good enough.

Oh the possibilities! Rejection stops hurting when we look at it as a new opportunity, a chance to seek a greater good than what we previously hoped for. Redefine rejection by rejecting what you thought was good.

I don’t usually use The Message translation, but I love the way it clarifies the meaning of this verse:
“We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13)

It’s ok to hide under the covers for a little while, it humbles us into remembering we are human and gives us compassion for people and Pluto. But God’s mercies are new every morning – the sun didn’t really abandon you, it was just giving you time before it came back with it’s warm reminder of a new day.

When have you felt rejected?

How did it work out for good?

Days of Rest: A Window Into Post-Grad Life

For 16 years my life has been structured around a school calendar. Now I am free floating, unrestrained and undefined.

I moved to a new city (free rent thanks to my gracious brother and sister-in-law), don’t have a job (by choice), and have no clue where I will be three months from now (I have ideas, just no evidence to justify decisions yet). The typical question I’ve gotten for months now is “What’s next?”

If I’m not hangry or tired I will reply with a polite explanation of the many random tasks on my plate right now (part time publicity work for an author, studying for the GRE, reading copiously, planning a trip to Sweden in September, questioning my life plans). But if I am in a rush or don’t feel like blubbering to a stranger I often reply “I’m not doing too much, just trying to relax while I can.”

Although this definitely doesn’t incorporate everything, it is a simplified truth that I return to. Rest is NOT something I was taught how to do in my lifetime of schooling. So now I’m trying to embrace the somewhat lazy-river of post-grad life, even when I’m splashing around in a panic thinking I’m drowning in that river. To be clear, I’m not drowning. I just don’t know how to relax well or what it means to not be a student anymore.

When I first started this blog a couple years ago, I spent a long time thinking about what its focus would be. Thanks to my indecisive nature I decided on a more general vision: the elements of life that define us, and what it means to step outside of those boundaries. It developed from a soap box I’ve carried for a long time–the injustice we all experience when we are put into boxes that don’t accurately define who we are.

For 13 years I defined myself as a dancer, and when that definition was no longer an option I floated in an ocean of identity that ebbed and flowed in stormy seas until I finally found a shore to land on. I then found myself outraged at how our culture had defined other things like men, women, love, Christians, and success. I am still working on redefining those things for myself outside the boundaries of cultural norms.

Now that I have graduated from college–the culmination of 16 years defined as a student within the boundaries of public and private educational systems, school calendars, and grade point averages–I must again redefine a significant part of my life.

It was Socrates, one of the first educators, who said that “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” My opinions on the educational system are better left for a separate post, but for now I will say that I am incredibly grateful for the teachers who kindled the love of learning in me. However, despite their hard work, I don’t doubt I was simultaneously filling my vessel of self-worth with my status as a student.

I will always be a student, but the last two months have reminded me what it means to learn outside of classrooms and libraries. Learning is one of our greatest privileges; it is a freedom that can only be lost through individual apathy. As Frederick Douglass, Helen Keller, and countless others have shown us–learning is something we must chase after, redefine in whatever way works for our situation, and embrace whole-heartedly in order to truly succeed.

As I float through this uncharted territory I must constantly remind myself that my identity is NOT as a student chasing the grade, but instead as a student chasing the world where grades don’t matter and learning is the fire that sustains my life. This is the time to throw out the vessel altogether, if only to prevent myself from filling it up with a worthless job of climbing ladders. Vessels fill up eventually and reach a point of satisfaction, but a fire must be kindled and fed daily so that we are always learning. The point of life is not to reach a filling point, but to sustain the deeper fire which fuels a life beyond the boundaries of ordinary living.

I am now a student without a syllabus in a classroom without constraints. Although it can be scary at times, I’m trying to focus on the horizon, lighting my fire to get me through the darker nights. God’s mercies are new every morning, and hope arrives when I remember I’ve hopped the fence into a brand new world to explore. At that point I kick back and embrace wherever the river takes me.

Overlooking Albuquerque from the top of the Sandias Mountains

Overlooking Albuquerque from the top of the Sandias Mountains

 

What did you learn when you stopped having to go to school?

How has your identity as a learner been formed?

Limitless Limits

Would you consider yourself limitless? Or how would you define yourself?

The essay “Faustian Economics” by Wendell Berry starts out with a observation about the apparent belief that the American way of life is somehow indestructible. If you are like me, just the word “economics” would make you hesitant about reading this essay–economy is practically a bad word in today’s economy. However this essay is more about the limits within our social system and economy of life, so I  recommend it if you are looking for something highly thought-provoking. Berry goes on to explore a number of other dilemmas that the American mindset of limitlessness has presented, but his initial comments on being limitless and defining ourselves stood out to me.

“The problem with [Americans] is not only prodigal extravagance but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait. We have insistently, and with relief, defined ourselves as animals or ‘higher animals.’ But to define ourselves as animals, given our specifically human powers and desires, is to define ourselves as limitless animals–which of course is a contradiction in terms. Any definition is a limit, which is why the God of Exodus refuses to define himself: ‘I am that I am.'”

Definition is something that has long perplexed me, not only as an English and Communications major, but as a human being trying to determine my identity. That is why I made it the framework of what this blog could be about. In an age of endless individualization we are all striving to be unique and to carve out an identity that defines us as such. We try to be limitless in these identities and redefine any definitions the world attempts to brand us with. However, my experience has taught me that greater comfort and joy is found in discovering that someone has the same fears and hopes as I do, rather than feeling like I am isolated in my uniqueness.

Somewhere in elementary school I began to hate the color pink. This was not a light emotion, it was a strong distaste for anything of that hue that has lasted until today. Until recently, I never considered that my dislike for that color was a small rebellion in an attempt to be unique among the overwhelming sea of little girls covered in tones of pink. I believed that not liking that color opened me up to a limitless world where I could be free from gender prejudices, but of course we all know this isn’t true.

Limitations refuse to be easily managed or understood. The Israelites barely lasted a day when Moses came them the limit to not worship an idol while he went up on the mountain to talk to God. But then a couple hundred years later, their ancestors the Pharisees had taken those limits too far. For parents, it is a tricky line between allowing children to make mistakes and setting boundaries to keep them safe. More often then not, we all try to push those boundaries anyways. Language itself is a prime example of the human dilemma of definition–because words and the way we use them are in a constant flux of meaning that doesn’t follow the same rules as a hundred years ago, and there will be different rules a hundred years from now.

The solution to this dilemma, according to Berry, is to accept our limitations so that we can actually make the most of what we can be within those limits. Berry notes that we “confuse limits with confinement,” the same way that I thought the color pink was a limit confining me to girlish prejudices. But if we give up on the search for a limitless unique identity, we might accept the identity God has limited us to in our human existence. My faith means that I do believe in a future beyond this human existence that goes beyond our limits, but that doesn’t come till later when Christ returns again.

For now, I must accept that God has limited me in a way that allows me to actually thrive more. My human definitions of what life should be are actually more limited than what God has in mind. Limits are not hard and fast rules that put up impassable walls, they are the framework God gives us to find our way back to the center of our being. It is at the center of ourselves that we become truly free, thriving in the essence of what we were created to be.

This all sounds nice in theory, but it is becoming increasingly real for me as I approach graduation. Many people have told me that I should be excited, because I have limitless options and opportunities awaiting me. Honestly, I hope that’s not true. On the flip side, I have been waiting for God to plop the plan in my lap and give me the limits of what comes next. But in the rush to discover limits or exceed them, too often we lose sight of the reality of where we are right now. I have begun to realize that if I stress out now about defining my future, I will not be making the most of my current limitations. For now I am limited to the city of Chicago, a campus of old friends and new acquaintances, and four months of classes and homework. Some would see these things as constraints. I see them as frames just waiting to be filled. Within those limits there are endless possibilities, and if I’m too busy trying to define the future I will miss out on how defining the present can be.

I took this picture on a recent trip to Sequoia National Park. From this viewpoint the mountains seemed to stretch on endlessly, but the sunset reminds us that, although there is always a limited horizon each day, it is still a beautiful fulfillment of the best it could be.

I took this picture on a recent trip to Sequoia National Park. From this viewpoint the mountains seemed to stretch on endlessly, but the sunset reminds us that, although there is always a limited horizon each day, it is still a beautiful fulfillment of the best it could be.

What limits do you see in your life right now?

How can you turn those into goals to fulfill rather than limits of confinement?

What role does definition play in your life?

Note: In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve added another page to those at the top that cover the basics of what this blog is about (“Redefine”), “Who” I am, other sites “You” might be interested in, and how to “Follow” my other writing (which will be expanded more in the future). Now there is also the “2014” section, which details my goal for this year to read at least 2 books per month. The essay I just discussed comes from the book I’m currently reading entitled Best American Essays: 2009, edited by one of my favorite poets Mary Oliver. Stay tuned for more updates on this book, as well as others, and the jumble of my thoughts that come with them.

Be Still and Believe

You might have noticed that it’s been a good long while since I last posted. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I’m going to halt my incessant need to apologize and be honest: I needed this break, and I’m not going to be sorry about taking it. Truthfully I’m probably speaking to myself right now more than you, because you are probably much more forgiving of my not blogging than I am of myself.

 

Either way it has been a good month for me – one filled with lots of reflection and purposefully less doing.

I read this article today on Relevant Magazine’s website titled “The Question We Should Never Let Make or Break Us,” and it spurred me back to a courage I had temporarily lost, or maybe never even had. The article centers on the issue of how we let our jobs or what we do define who we are. This is incredibly common in our culture, and it is contrary to the radical idea of letting who we are simply be a definition in itself.

The writer, Rachel Dymski, said this:
         “I find myself fighting the battle, with others and within myself, to be something. We all do. But I’m learning that the way to this being is not by constant, distracted doing. And so, one by one, I let go of these trophies of doing, and find my heart is lighter than it was when I gripped to them so tightly.  My worth, it seems, was completely independent of these trophies all along.”
 

 
My whole life has been filled with this kind of identity, where my trophies of doing defined who I was. First, I was a dancer, because for thirteen years that’s what I did day in and day out. Next, I was a leader in our student government, doing all I could to be someone who made a difference. Then, I was a college student, who was thus defined by what I did in terms of study: English and Communications major. Now, I have faced all of these things, and have still found my identity incomplete. Why?

Sleepy Dreams and Eccentric Reality

The theme this year for chapel and our University Ministries organization is “eccentric.” Pastor Judy spoke both last Sunday at collegelife and Wednesday in chapel to introduce this theme to us as students.

photo from http://www.geekologie.com – sunrise over the pacific ocean

But I need to stop before I get ahead of myself, because the truth is that my brain is not really flowing well at the moment. I honestly don’t feel like doing much but going back to sleep, which is partially why I didn’t get around to posting consistently this week. Some people struggle with temptations like lust, selfishness, greed, or gluttony. Although I am not immune to those things, my current trap lies in complacency. This is my third year at the same school, there isn’t a lot going on for me this semester, and all I want to do spiritually is nap. Why not right? I’ve worked hard the last few years, gotten through many challenges, and encountered God in all new ways. So I would be fine to rest for awhile where I am right?