My Deceased Son’s Answer to What It’s All About

photo (2)Headstone still fresh on his grave, my eldest son showed up in the middle of the night with the key to the meaning of life. In this dream where Parker appeared, I was guiding my three surviving children through a city I knew well. It was evening, I was sad and wrung out and felt pressed to get to my car, to get back home.

Suddenly behind me I heard my youngest, Luc, (seven years old at the time), squealing like a newborn. Call it my Mother Bear, call it my short fuse, I swung around to snap the head off of whomever was bugging my boy.

The instant I spun, lip curled and neck tensed to snarl, instead of a “Hey! Cut it out!”, I snagged on the “ow” of “out” and gasped. There, in shorts and his favorite blue t-shirt with his trademark cropped hair was 18-year-old Parker, as unscathed as the last time I’d seen him alive, the day before he died.

He was playfully dangling his youngest brother over a trash can.

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Luc on Parker’s shoulders.

You know that full body-and-soul whiplash that yanks you from nearly biting through someone’s jugular to buckling to your knees and kissing their feet? Melting, I lunged toward Parker, and he, (with a look that said, “Oh, Mom, you know I was just kidding around,”) handed his little brother to his sister and reached for me.

His shoulders were familiar, as was his smell. Desperate, I pled, “Tell me, honey. Tell me everything you’ve learned.”

He pulled back a bit. That mini freckle on his nose. That scar on his eyebrow. That one steely fleck in his right iris. It was my child’s face, only seasoned. Slower.

I waited for words.

Bending down, he whispered, “This is it,” and he took a small breath. He searched my eyes, then:

“Every relationship is to bring us to God.”  

I strained.

He stared.

“That’s … that’s it?” I gaped, “There’s nothing more? Nothing else?”

His soft eyes remained fixed.

And the dream closed.

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The boys, July 2007

Every Relationship Is to Bring Us to God

Since that dream it’s been my mantra. And like most mantras, it slips out too slickly, sounds cliché, yet has more layers than the Himalayas, more depth than the trenches of the Pacific. It risks oversimplification, and yet it will take my whole life to comprehend. But here’s how I’ve broken it down up to now:

Every relationship.

Every.

This means the obvious: all my bona fide biological ties, my family. Then my family through marriage. Then my besties, my closest friends. Then all ranks of associates and regular contacts like teachers, students, classmates, work colleagues, teammates, neighbors, congregation members, parents of my children’s friends, the lady who delivers my mail on her yellow bike even in the snow and rain, the commuters who share my daily ride on the bus, the blue-haired widow who waves as she walks her Dachshund past my window evenings at eight.

All are people with whom I share different degrees of blood and intimacy, experience and history, all people with whom I share space, time, ideas, efforts. All people with whom I share myself and who share with me something of themselves.

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Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi, and Iranian German Students

Family, Friends, Strangers, Followers, Foes

Everyone.

In addition to these ^ relationships, there are interactions with those I meet sporadically or even just once. Like the guy loading my mulch on a cart at the garden store. And the lady who cut me off on the freeway exit ramp this morning. Or the infant who cried all through that transatlantic flight. And the parent who slept with his headphones on while his infant cried all through that transatlantic flight. And the crew on that flight. The passengers on every side. The pilot, whom I never saw and who never heard the infant, but whose voice we all heard and whom I trusted to take me “cruising safely at 37,000 feet.”

I interact, most of the time mindlessly, with all of them.

Then there are those I’ve never actually met, but with whom I’ve had some sort of fleeting or superficial interchange. The rabid politician in the news, the celebrity whose fifth marriage is material for a trash mag I leafed through at the doctor’s office, the musician whose song I wail along with in the car.

And the virtual relationships, the FB acquaintances, Instagram posters, Twitter commenters. Blog followers.

And the people on either end of history; my ancestors, my progeny.

Or people on either side of the globe; my countrymen, my political foes.

Relationships. Every last one.

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Every Relationship Brings Us To …

All this social interaction, all this mortal jumble? It’s more than learning about teamwork, or an effective way to get stuff done. And it’s also more than learning tolerance and compassion and patience with crying infants and drivers on the Autobahn.

“Every relationship is to bring us to God,” maybe, has to do with this:

Author Toni Morrison, in an interview, remembered having been the young mother who, when her kids walked into the room, scanned them up and down looking for faults. She’d be thinking, Tuck in your shirt, or Comb your hair. She felt that her critical stance meant she was caring for them, which I get only too well. It is what I was doing in my dream when I wanted to ream out the thug behind me who was, I thought, evidently hurting my youngest child. I was set for censoring.

Morrison then offered another approach. She said, “Let your face speak what’s in your heart. When they walk in the room my face says ‘I’m glad to see you’. It’s just as small as that.”

There Are No Neutral Interactions

An approving glance. An encouraging smile. A forgiving shrug. A step forward. A brave nod. This is how we move ourselves and others toward the best in humanity and toward deity.

A whispered judgment. A punishing glare. A jealous glower. A turned back. A swift dismissal. A spin around to bite through a jugular. This is how we move ourselves and others away from each other, away from divinity.

What if I were to enter all my social encounters not perched to swoop in with criticism, or stiffened behind all sorts of false boundaries (like a difference in race, religion, political grouping, jealousy, shame, whatever), but poised, instead, radiating one primary thought: “I am glad to see you”?

I believe it would change me, the other person, the encounter, everything.

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I know.  You’re saying, “I’m glad to see you” is easy when you really are glad to see someone. And in my case in the dream I was more than glad. I was unzipped, liquefied with love and longing for my son.  Let me say the obvious: when there’s been no bad blood, and you see your absent beloved again, every minor critique you might have stockpiled during mortality vanishes in the hot flash flood of love.

But what about all the other relationships? What about most of them, the ones that exact superhuman effort from us? The ones where we’d rather say, “I’m glad to see you … go“?

That’s where Parker’s advice really gets traction. While most great mythic traditions and even modern pop spirituality claim God is found above and outside of the messiness of human interaction, maybe while sitting solo and contemplating a snowflake from atop a lone peak, I’m saying that God is found in the trenches. God is down here in the grit. God’s in the mix.

And so, too, say the experts. Harvard professor Michael Puett comments on what ancient Chinese philosophers would think about modernity’s going–it-solo attitude, and why our personal relationships are what mortality is all about:

They [Chinese ancients] saw each of us bumping up against other messy creatures all day long. This is what it means to be on this earth: our lives are composed almost entirely of the relationships we have with those around us.

 For most of us, those relationships aren’t easy. [Can I get an amen?] That’s because, as these philosophers understood well, as we endlessly bump up against each other, loving one another, trying to get along, we tend to fall into patterns of behavior. We react in the same predictable ways. Encounters with people draw out a variety of emotions and reactions from us: One sort of comment will almost invariably draw out feelings of anger, while a certain gesture from someone else might elicit a feeling of calm. Our days are spent being passively pulled in one direction or another depending on who we encounter or what situations we are in. Worse still, these passive reactions have a cascading effect. We react even to the subtlest signals from those around us. A smile or a frown on a passerby can cause a slight change in our mood in an instant. The reactive patterns we get stuck in — sometimes good, but more often, bad — ripple outward and affect others too.

In other words, there are no neutral interactions. All of our actions and reactions send vibrations into a vast webwork that either brings us and others to God (or to wholeness, light, love, healing, The Source of All Meaning, whatever you call The Best Thing You Dare Imagine), or drives us and others from the same. Every thinkable link I have to every last human being plays not just a part in how I grow and experience meaning and joy, but adds in some (major or infinitesimal) way to others’ wellbeing. And that truth is why relationships are what it’s all about, and why they are at once so infuriatingly hard while being so immeasurably valuable.

Every Relationship Brings Us to an Understanding of God

Yes, there are those few relationships that flourish without a lot of effort, and therewith offer a glimpse of what godliness might feel like. But more often relationships are plain old spiritual work. They grate on us. Leave us blistered. There are those, too –– and we’ve all had them––that don’t just pumice us. They skin us alive.

And how do those relationships bring us to God? In my experience, they bring us to an understanding of God’s nature. They let us learn of Him.

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Him. Let me take license and talk specifically for a moment about the God I worship. The Being I strive to comprehend and hope to emulate responded majestically in all relationships, but particularly in the most injurious ones. Herod, Pilate, Judas, Peter, Roman centurions, mocking Sanhedrin, ungrateful lepers, and the centuries’ long saga of modern scoffers and arrogant erudites –– before them all and for them all Jesus Christ stands blameless. No figure in history, no God of any other myth possesses the dignity, selfless love and self-mastery in human relations that Christ embodies. No other being I know of has not only withstood betrayal, exploitation, usury, abandonment, cruelty and hidden agendas but has gone so far as to absorb abuse in all its forms and transform those evils into healing for all, including the abusers.

Like everyone, I’ve known a small portion of those injuries I just listed. When I have, (like recently, when a close friendship took a turn I never expected into an unmarked dead end), I had to fight to muzzle my Mother Bear, retract my claws, and swallow my snarls.

And right then, in rushed Parker’s words. They helped me breathe through what felt to me like lovelessness directed at me and my family, but just as important, they showed me how far I am from mastering The Master’s manner in response to hurt and betrayal.

What have I learned, then, from what my son taught me in a dream?

That all relationships –– including the ones we might have to step out of for everyone’s wellbeing –– are gifts that help us approach God.  By reflecting on His exquisite response to even the ugliest human tendencies (others’ and our own), we see how far we mortals are from His standard of loving-kindness and perfect compassion. In the end, then, every relationship brings us not only to God, but also to the God within each of us.

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(Portrait: Courtesy of Jennifer Quinton ©)

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What do you think? Which relationships have taught you the most? Tried you the most? Are those two kinds of relationships one and the same?

What have your best and richest relationships taught you?

Taking the definition of “relationships” a step further, what other interconnections besides those with humans “bring us to God”?

And to the basics: What does “bring us to God” mean to you?

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

 

 

 

Global Mom (and Dad) Hit Harvard

Pardon this interruption for a quick public service announcement.

What: Melissa (Global Mom, author, public speaker) and Randall (Global Dad, international global executive, best all around guy) address the topic:

GLOBALLY MOBILE CAREERS AND FAMILIES: HOW TO THRIVE

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Where: Harvard Business School, (Aldrich 107), Boston, MA.

When:  Wednesday, April 27th, beginning at 8 pm … and lasting until they drag us away

What else? Question and Answer session

What kinds of questions?

  1. Does going on an international assignment help advance or progress your career faster? Or is “out of sight, out of mind” the rule at corporate headquarters?
  2. How did your four children respond to moving not only frequently, but far and always into foreign languages/cultures?
  3. Melissa, what did it feel like to be solo parenting four children in foreign cultures while your husband traveled internationally or even lived/worked in another country for many months on end?
  4. Randall,what was the hardest part about being separated from your wife and children, and what did you do wen you returned to help both the family and yourself rediscover balance?
  5. What specific things did you do as a family to hold together after the tragic death of  your eldest son in the middle of an international move and while living a foreign  country?
  6. What lessons have you learned from other cultures about balancing careers, marriage, and parenting?
  7. What warnings (or enticements) would you offer young professionals considering globally mobile careers?

And whatever else YOU want to ask. We’ve never met a question we didn’t like.

 

Admission is free. We hope to see you and your friends there!

 

 

 

Repost: My Christmas Sermon Given in Frankfurt, December 2014

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

Hanging prominently in the entryway of our home is a painting.

In its original, the painting is life-sized, as big as this entire podium. Off-center are three people: Joseph, Mary, and the Child. Joseph is shown on his knees on the ground, one hand draped on the shoulder of Mary, the other placed over half of his face, his eyes closed, mouth half-opened, as if caught mid-groan, mid-prayer, mid- revelation. Mary also sits on the ground, her legs stretched straight out before her, draped in a smooth white hand-spun cloth. Her one hand reaches up to gently clasp the hand of her Joseph. She looks tired but radiant — one strand of loose hair falls as she tips her head forward gazing down into her arms, which hold a small, reddish brown baby. The child is nuzzled up against her to nurse. That first taste of mortality.

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Kneeling also on the ground and leaning into the scene facing Mary are two women––midwives, we conclude, because they’re washing their bloodied hands in a basin. They complete the circle of family who’ve helped bring this baby into this world.

Then almost as an afterthought, there are the dog and two puppies, straining their looks upwards, aware of something else ––something bigger, something cosmic, even––going on right over their heads, all around them.

Most of the canvas is about what is unseen, this huge whoosh of beings––angels dressed in white robes––swooping from one side of then up and around and over the heads of the family––up out the top right corner of the painting, into and across and throughout the heavens. You might not see their faces from where you sit––some are stunned, some laughing, some singing with their heads thrown back, some shedding tears. Again the angels fill the biggest part of the canvas, well over half of it, and give the whole scene its swirling movement and surging energy.

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You know what this is. It’s the pictorial rendition of what I sang for you last week, “O Holy Night,” the night of our dear Savior’s birth. The holiest family and holiest night in all history, the most meaningful moment for all mankind and even to the entire creation, worlds without number, time without end.

It’s a Christmas painting, a holiday painting. But for me, it’s about far more than one Holy Night or Holy Family or holy day or holiday. It’s both a universal and intensely personal painting for me, and so it always hangs in our home, not just during this season, as a year-round reminder of our family’s most personal, most holy night.

What I want to share with you is personal, believing that the more personal a thing is, the more universal. But I know that I do so at certain risk. I ask that you will pray that what I’m going to share with you, you will receive with the Spirit. There is no way sacred things can be understood but by the power and translation of the Holy Spirit. I’m going to share sacred things about this son’s birth and our son’s death.

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Seven years ago, while vacationing at my parent’s home in Utah, I received a late night telephone call. A voice told me that our son Parker had been involved in a serious water accident. I was told Parker had been trying to save the life of a college classmate who had been drowning. That boy survived. But Parker, I was told, had been “underwater for a very long time, Mrs. Bradford.” He was, however, “stable.” I should nevertheless come as fast as I possibly could.

My husband Randall was still in Munich, overseeing details from our move that very week from Paris, where we’d lived for many years. I called him and told him to come––somehow come––to Idaho immediately.

  • As I drove alone 5 hours through total darkness from Utah into the rocky, dry desolation of southeastern Idaho, I wasn’t thinking of the Holy Family. I had no thought of Mary and Joseph’s long, arduous 8-10 day trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Instead, I was praying aloud behind the steering wheel of a rental car. I was pleading with God to save my child. He would, I knew it. And after all, remember, I’d been told Parker was “stable.”

  • I wasn’t thinking of the stable in Bethlehem with its animals and smell, its straw, its dirt floor… as I walked into the hospital with its antiseptic smell, its white walls and fluorescent lights, its scrubbed medical personnel.

Instead, I was trying to take in what I saw: my son stretched out on a gurney, a white sheet covering his lower body, a ventilator shooshing air into his lungs. I clutched my scriptures in my arms, the first thing I’d put in my overnight bag. I’d planned to read them to my son while he recovered, while science and faith worked miracles, while my firstborn came out from a deep coma, came back to life. Now, instead, I whispered ancient prophets’ testimonies into his ear.

  • I wasn’t thinking of shepherds leaving their flocks or wise men traveling from the east as family and friends got word of Parker’s accident and called or came––by car, by plane––from the west coast and the east coast, western Europe, Asia, gathering literally with us as we labored against death.

No, I had no thoughts of shepherds and wise men, nor was I thinking of Mary’s possible midwives. Instead, I watched the two nurses who came frequently to check on my son and adjust his tubing.

  • And I wasn’t thinking of heavenly hosts. Well … at least not at first. Until I became aware of a presence and felt something happening in––filling up––that hospital room. I felt a gathering, a vibrating, warm, thick presence of spirits. While that gathering took place, the veil between the mortal and immortal realms grew thin. There was a palpable presence in that room. Those who came and went commented on it. Right there, in the face of unspeakable horror was an undeniable never-before-known holiness.

I waited the many painful hours until my dear husband, by a series of miracles, arrived. At 7:00 p.m. that next evening, pale and breathless, Randall burst through the doors. I watched every frame as it passed without soundtrack, feeling torn to pieces like a melting hulk of upheaval, as my boy’s best friend and father steadied himself against the scene that met his eyes. From one step to the next, he aged fifty years. “Parker, oh, sweet son. Sweet, sweet son.” Silence and awe. There are moments that cannot and should not be rendered in words.

  • And it was then and there, together, bent over the body of our gorgeous child that our thoughts did go instinctively to The Holy Family. With our child stretched out under a white sheet on what felt like an altar before us, with me wrapped in a blue polyester hospital blanket, my husband groaning, weeping, praying, seeking revelation, we thought about Mary’s and Joseph’s and our Heavenly Mother’s and Father’s exquisite and infinite agony. We felt the smallest, sharpest edge of their immeasurable sacrifice.

“For God so loved the world,” John wrote, “that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

—(John 3:16)

And then came these words: “Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, survival, any kind of survival? Percentage-wise, less than ten percent. Meaningful survival? Less than five percent.”

It took that whole holy night, that long labyrinth-like passage we spent wandering together through our minds and hearts, to come to terms with what this meant. And though “come to terms” would take not just one night but months and months into years of long nights of the soul, we did in fact feel a gradual enveloping. Enveloping. That is the best word I can find to describe it. Slowly, coming from all around us, Randall and I noted a sturdy-ing, something that stabilized us, that settled us down into deep assurance.

After walking outside of the emergency room past the landing pad where the very helicopter stood that had brought our son there only hours earlier, under the stars and the moon that seemed to hold their breath with us in terror, and after speaking aloud to God and to Parker, we made that walk back into his room.

There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. We brought all the waiting family and friends––you can call them shepherds, wise men and wise women, midwives––into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed.

I was not consciously thinking of angelic choirs and had no spirit for “Glorias in Excelsis Deos.” But, in that stillness and through a ton of ruins that was my soul, my voice broke through. It shocked me. It pushed through without plan or my permission. In the shimmering stillness I began singing, “I know that my Redeemer lives . . . ” And by the end of that phrase, the whole room joined in. Heaven floated down, encompassing us like a great, weightless, sky-blue silk curtain.

And we––a normal, not-really-holy-at-all family, with a hospital room for a manger, nurses for midwives, and unseen angels for a chorus––stood there, encircling Parker’s form. And we sang harmony with angels. We sang to this child, we sang to heaven. We sang and sang. Souls sliced open, we sang our Parker into the next life. Then that sky-blue silk curtain wrapped us in silence.

We removed life support. His lungs released a final sigh of this earth’s air. And as his head tipped gracefully to one side, the earth fell off its axis and began spinning strangely, drunkenly, into unchartable and inaccessible regions out of which only a God can escape, or from which only a God can rescue.

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Now. … Why do I do this to myself, sharing all of that with you? And of all times, why now? Isn’t it Merry Christmas? Why such a mournfully tragic story for our Christmas message? Or you might ask, How, Melissa, can you even talk about this? Don’t you want to forget it? Wipe it out of your memory forever? Talk about lighter stuff? Tinsel? Jingle-jingle? Ding-dong? What happened to Jolly Old Saint Nick? Rudolph? Frosty … ?

That First Christmas after we buried our Parker, I had no energy for a jingle, or a single, thumb-sized decoration. No energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos Parker had helped me pack away while we laughed and joked so casually, so carelessly, just twelve months earlier. I couldn’t for the life of me generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.

As I considered the birth of the Christ child, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the King with glory roundabout and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will. Lose. Him!!”

Because, you see, that birth in Bethlehem is inextricably linked to Gethsemane. The straw upon which Christ lay in a manger points to the cross from which he would hang. The infant cry that his father Joseph heard echoes forward to his adult cry that his Father Elohim heard, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Indeed, wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

“You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It’s of one piece. It is a single plan. It considers ‘the fall and rising again of many in Israel,’ but always in that order. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and Only Begotten Son in the flesh, born ‘away in a manger, [with] no crib for his bed,” makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your eye can see.”

––”Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?” p.68

…Yes, I now knew something on a bone-deep level. Mary lost him. We will lose things. That is true. There are no guarantees that the person sitting next to us right now will be there tomorrow, or even the next hour, the next breath. No guarantees that what might lend our life much of its security and satisfaction in this moment will remain beyond today.

But what is guaranteed, and what is truer than Saint Nick, Rudolph, and Frosty is that, because of that Holy Family and that Firstborn Son no loss is designed or destined to be permanent. Because of His birth with its in-born death, because of Bethlehem that foreshadowed Gethsemane, because of the cave-like manger that links to the garden tomb ––because of Him, all of our individual and collective long nights of the soul are taken into account and born up with His rising.

But more than that, they are taken into the outstretched arms of an infinitely compassionate Savior whose love and mercy far surpass any and all mortal losses, any and all degrees of grief, any and every horrible holy night.

I believe that the Son so loved us that He descended from heaven to heaviness to meet every one of us in the dark and hollow places of our lives, our souls. And God so loved the world that he offered His Son, a sacrifice that transforms mortality with all its perils and deficits into the gift of immortality and life in His presence.

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O Holy Night. Your holy night. No, I never, ever want to forget mine. In fact, I think of our holy night every day. I think of it because I long to be there where I saw Things As They Really Are. And how are they, really? In the isolation and darkness of such a night you see and sense what is hardly visible or palpable in broad daylight. Somewhere there, as you wait on the Lord––as you lie flat, motionless, arms wrapped over your shredded heart, holding your breath or weeping aloud––you feel the hint and muted hum of light reverberating within your soul, a vibration coming from a source nearby. Of course, it was there all along, that lucent presence, that light-that-shineth-in-darkness. But you couldn’t comprehend it. In your agony and desperate disorientation, you couldn’t comprehend it.

In silence, in retreat, in your necessary entombment, your soul gradually reorients itself and, with a slow turn, you see the source of that soft vibration. You realize He was seated next to you in that darkness, quietly waiting, His eyes mellow and steadying, His hands resting calmly on your head, emitting real heat.

There, touched by God’s incandescent grace, a grave is transformed into a bed of rebirth. Your cold body is warmed to new life. Noiselessly, He stands. And you, drawn by ardor, follow as He rolls away the stone with an outstretched finger. Just one glance, and you understand that He is asking that you reenter the world with its sometimes-blinding sunlight and frequent neon facsimiles. He is asking that you follow Him from death to a new life, which you gratefully give back to Him.

So once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.

And that, my sisters, brothers, and friends everywhere, is true joy to the world.

Floods Hit Quickly: Digital Safety in a High Speed World

Mach Speed Changes

The scholar and technology expert leading the parenting discussion group slapped her hands together and shook her hair back from her face. We parents, gathered in the conference room of a high school to hear her speak, didn’t seem to get it, and were now wrangling through the Q&A. Why the heat? We resisted her premise.

Resisted? I flatly disbelieved her. At least I wanted to.

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                                                                                     theguardain.com

“What all this data means,” said this author of multiple articles and a seminal book on kids and technology, “is that the tactics you used 5 years ago to raise your kids won’t cut it today.” She cleared her throat and said that again, slowly, her eyes level. Then she added, “In 5 years, what you were doing today won’t cut it. And in 6 years, what you were doing a year earlier than that won’t cut it. Times are changing. And they’re changing at mach speed.”

That warning came well over 5 years ago. And I, despite my incredulity at first, and like any parent paying attention to the trends, have seen her prediction come true. We’ve seen mach speed up close, and, gums flapping, are now white knuckling it against the coming whiplash of inevitable warp speed.

What our lecturer hadn’t mentioned was something that she might not have been able to foresee. “Speed” in this digital age refers to more than how rapidly technology and the world it’s driving are changing. “Speed” is obviously about how rapidly all these influences are changing our kids’ choices, brains, behavior.

How do you keep up with warp speed without getting warped yourself?

Floods Happen All at Once

At the risk of overstraining the metaphor, I need to go back to our house flood to essay an answer.

When we walked into our home on January 1st 2015 after a week away, we were shocked to find the entire ground floor flooded. My first thought: Hadn’t we been paying attention to a leak in the previous months? If we’d had even a clue, we’d have been responsible renters and stopped said leak. Had we overlooked any previous plumbing problems in the house? (No.) Had we forgotten to winterize outdoor water lines? (No.) We’d double-checked that every faucet and valve had all been off in the bathrooms and laundry area before leaving, hadn’t we? (Yes.). Our house had been, by all indications, downright watertight.

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So what happened?

Something had gone seriously wrong. An external water source sprung, and since the entryway from the garden to the house wasn’t secure, (its structure and weather-stripping weren’t sound), most of the water entered right under a single door frame. What we discovered later (after jackhammers took out the whole screed, or concrete sub-flooring) was that the foundation of the house wasn’t secure, either. The rest of the flood water had seeped in under outer walls right to the foundation.

Hundreds of liters of water made their way in. In no time at all, safe and dry became swampified.

So it is in our increasingly digital environment. Our virtual connectivity, coursing more and more through handheld gadgets which more and more of us, including more and more young kids, manipulate, works like a system of hyper-speed aqueducts that transport an arbitrary mix of the necessary, the fabulous, the exciting, the inane, but also the corrosive into our lives. The flow is unavoidable. It is constant. And it’s potent, pushing against our entryways and under our foundation with more force, ubiquity, and instantaneity than ever before. Certainly more than even our lecturing expert and her colleagues might have imagined only half a decade ago.

Sealing Against the Gush

Kids lack the emotional maturity and discipline – the sound weather-stripping, if you will — that most adults have developed to navigate the depths of the online world. From fabulous to toxic, data and stimuli flood or seep into and soak their minds the way water enters an open door and soaks your sofa.

What happens, then, when a flood of corrosive data (Bullying? Violence? Sexually explicit images or messages?) gushes into a young mind?  As a school psychologist, who treats kids with tech-related issues, told a group of concerned parents like myself, “In recent years, I’ve seen a whole lot more real decent kids slide into trouble. In no time flat.”

From dry to drenched at warp speed. If any of this sounds at all familiar to you, then welcome. Many parents are standing in figurative floods, ankle (or neck) deep in water, wondering, “Hadn’t we been paying attention to a leak somewhere? If we’d had even a clue, we’d have been responsible parents and stopped the flow. Had we overlooked any previous weak points in our child, in our family, that make him or her or all of us vulnerable to digital dangers?  Had we forgotten to filter, set limits, model healthy digital citizenship? Did we double-check every device and gadget, and direct our family to real (as opposed to virtual) activities?”

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Some Tips

The school psychologist then taught us to watch for signs that, in spite of all our precautions, there might be a “flood” in our family. While parents have probably noted any one or two of the following red flags in their child, it’s a combination of three or more that would be cause to check your doors, foundation, and, yes, even your Windows 10.

  • A change in sleeping and eating habits
  • Anger at being interrupted while on the computer/device
  • A slump in interest in normally enjoyable activities
  • Visible restlessness when not on a computer/device
  • Withdrawing from social activities/family to be alone on computer/device
  • Losing track of time when in front of computer/device
  • Hiding online activity from parents
  • Strained vision/dry eyes
  • Secretiveness, unwillingness to share feelings
  • Agitation, aggression, depression

You might be interested in these resources about teens and social media, or about technology, teens and college students. Or how technology has changed our perception of time, or the general relationship between technology and speed.

Share Your Opinion

From your experience, was the first technology expert right?

If so, how has “warp speed” affected your parenting, your family relationships, your children’s behavior?

If not, how are you doing whatever it is you’re doing?

From your experience, was the second expert (the school psychologist) right?

If he wasn’t, what, in your opinion, keeps a kid from “sliding”?

Watertight? Swimming in Today’s Digital Ocean

Our Little Citadel

There was a time when my husband and I thought if we made our home a fortress and stood sentinel at its drawbridge, a major part of our job as parents was done. Queen and King of our little citadel, we’d keep our hawk eyes on every coming and going. Good stuff in; bad stuff out. We managed making a stronghold for our family.

(But then, there was also a day when our house didn’t spontaneously spring a leak and leave us waterlogged for the better part of a year…)

Back in that Once-Upon-a-Time time, physical fortification worked. For example, because we weren’t excited about most public television, we decided to raise our kids sans. (We got the TV for those parent-approved DVDs, but otherwise never hooked the thing up for local channels, forget cable.) They read lots of books and integrated deeply during our years in Norway and France. And since we weren’t thrilled about video and computer games, we just never got them. One child did play them occasionally at a friend’s house, but he never did it enough to get hooked.

And so on.

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Thus we managed. From our turret. Overlooking our moat. Admiring the pet crocodiles we’d tossed in for effect.

Then all at once, the whole world flooded.

The Digital Flood

At least it seemed like the flood was all at once. Somewhere in the early half of the 21st century — Monday, September 3rd of 2007, to be precise — I realized our fortress was under serious threat, tides were climbing swiftly, and soon we’d be neck deep in something I would never be able to control.

That was the day our eleven-year-old started a new school. In it, the One-to-One program was being piloted, meaning that personal laptops were required for every student and for all classroom work. That same year, same school, our youngest, then seven, also began doing much more schoolwork through digital means. I volunteered every week in class, and noted that many of his grade school aged classmates had smart phones. Some slightly older kids, still preteens, had social media accounts. At the same time, I discovered our sixteen-year-old was downloading movies, sitcoms, and something I learned was called Youtube clips on her laptop. (And I’d thought she’d been doing extra homework.)

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Over the course of that single year, I watched rising, churning currents, the foisting tide of stimuli climbing our bastion walls. Whirls of Twitter, eddies of Pinterest, later surges of Instagram. Then came the stream of WhatsApp, WeChat. Snapchat . Torrents of Skype, LinkedIn, Tumblr. In no time – in the following few swift years — the tide spilled clean over the upper edge of my fortification. Today, I’m dog-paddling wildly, maybe like some of you friends, just to keep afloat. Talk about a sea change.

No wonder the latest digital tool is called Periscope.

The Flood and The Ocean

I need to add quickly that, as with nearly every flood, the current is mostly plain water. Common, innocuous — even life-sustaining, potential-filled, phenomenal — water. We need free exchange of information, and we need connectivity.

Furthermore, I’m certainly no techno-Grinch.  I haven’t taken to living off-the-grid, eschewing texts for smoke signals, homesteading and homeschooling in the Yukon, hauling wood chips for grilling road-kill possums on a spit, and weaving my own cloth from hemp and acorn floss.

No. I’m here with you on this screen, btw, passionately part of the modern world, and, um, on Instagram, Twitter, my three pages on Facebook …

But I am increasingly alarmed by three qualities of the digital ocean: the swiftness (we can’t possibly keep apace); the surreptitiousness (we can’t possibly plug every point of entry); and the mix (we can’t possibly filter all the possible toxins.) So please, elbows on the table, brows furrowed, I want a toe-to-toe, rigorous conversation with you about this.

If the digital ocean has radically and permanently revolutionized everything, what does that mean for parenting? From my teeny sample group of our own four children (raised pre and post flood), and from my larger sample group of countless youth and young adults with whom I’ve worked closely as a teacher, leader, counselor and lecturer in many different countries around the world, I’ve learned that our digital ocean has profoundly altered – heightened the need for vigilance and spiritual wisdom in — parenting. No home, including my own, is watertight. No physical fortress holds against this kind of pressure. We need something else, our kids need something else, and that something else has to be so much better than bricks, mortar and denial.

Check Out These Resources

To illustrate, consider if you are fully aware of what is happening in your child’s digital world.

Are you sure you have a clear sense of your child’s online activity?

Have you discussed in your family whether your child is being bullied, or is herself an online bully?  

Do you know of others involved in cyberbullying?

In disgust, fatigue or exasperation, have you gone off grid? Or have you considered instead, as I have, immersing yourself mindfully in the ocean?

Do you have stories you can share about how the digital ocean has altered your child’s behavior, including sleeping and communication patterns? Or what have you observed regarding the digital ocean’s effect on family cohesion – for better or worse? For depth, you might read this, or  this,  and/or this, and then share your comments.

Do you monitor your child’s online activity? 

What do you know about your child receiving (or sending) sexts?

Finally, and most pervasive and pernicious of all, how informed are you about young children, teens, and porn, deemed in this piece to be “the biggest health concern”?

If you’ve had success in responding to these needs, what is it you’ve done?

Finally, if you are interested in scholarly research on the topic, I really appreciated this piece.

A Sea Change, the Internet, and Swimming in the Infinite

As you can sense, our nasty house flood stirred up in me more than concerns for our physical watertightness. Above all, that flood was an ugly wake-up call to how vulnerable we are to the figurative floods that encroach, soak, infiltrate, and inundate. No home — whether a moated fortress or a firm German rental, like ours — is, in the face of today’s digital ocean, ultimately unassailable. No one is watertight. The age of fortress parenting with its high walls and sentinels is as outdated as the medieval fortress itself.

The Internet doesn’t hold us buoyant in a digital ocean.  It lowers us into complete immersion. So is our modern world. Today’s toddler who swipes her Daddy’s iPhone screen as naturally as my first toddler plugged his pacifier back into his own mouth, is growing up totally saturated in the vast digital ocean.  And with that ocean comes wonder, beauty, possibility as well as undertows, predators, and devastation. Given that truth, how will we – and as importantly, how will our children — learn to swim, and not drown in, the digital ocean’s infinite possibilities?