The Cost of Freedom

It was close to midnight and my husband and I were tidying up our home. I’m not really sure why we do this, but for some reason it makes us feel better if we can all come downstairs in the morning to neat and tidy and give our children the pleasure of systematically destroying it through the day. And then we repeat the routine the next night. I often survey the domestic landscape – the legos peppering the floor, the milk cup lying on its side dripping onto the carpet, the furniture-turned-into-fort, the toys trapped in hardened play dough, the strip of squeaking green goop from the $1 section at Target that became one with the carpet a few months ago. I usually frown and worry that people would judge our housekeeping, but deep down inside kind of feel that our home is meant to be lived in, not preserved as some kind of museum.   It is the stains that speak to the life inside these doors- the colorful, incredible life our children bring to me each day.

On this particular night, I was wiping down countertops when I heard a sleepy and familiar call for “mama.” I immediately turned toward the stairs to see my little boy descending to find me. In his tiredness he reverted to his infant crawl and slid down the steps on his belly. Landing at the bottom, he pulled himself up and looked up at me with eyes longing to close again. One pajama leg had scrunched up above his knee. His white and green shirt had climbed and was resting over his sweetly protruding belly. His fantastic head of dark curly hair was flattened on one side and sticking straight up over his head. “Mama,” he repeated huskily, this time with the relief of something found as he held up his arms. I embraced this image while I bent down to lift him gently to me, taking a mental picture I hope to hold onto. I felt profoundly aware that this was how I will always remember him. He will be graduating from school, standing at the front of an aisle, receiving an award…he will be a 30 or 40 year old man before me and the image of him standing there as the picture of innocence in his little pajamas is the image that will flash through my mind.   It is how I will always see him- as a little boy, a picture of innocence and perfection, and truly my heart walking around outside of me.

I have a close friend who hugged her grown son a few days ago, sending him off as he deployed with the military for the Middle East. I have ached for her, putting myself in her shoes as best I can at this stage in my life and imagining what it would do to my own heart to see my son off to such a destination- the longing, concern and deeply rooted fear that would overwhelm my heart.  Her son became a father for the first time just two weeks before he was called to leave. As his family took him to the airport to begin his journey, a photo was snapped as he held his baby girl to say goodbye. She is so tiny, eyes closed and nestled comfortably inside the crook of his strong arm, his hand cupped around her head as he draws her close and places a kiss on the top of her small head. It is an absolutely beautiful picture that would make even the most composed of us melt. His little girl will treasure that photo and all it will say to her as time stood still for a revealing second.

I couldn’t stop staring at it. My husband’s face immediately softened. My sister immediately started to cry.  What is it that we are responding to?  It the vision of love, it is the beauty of new life and the protection of a father for his baby girl.  It is the sadness we can feel for two lives so sweetly intertwined that must endure days apart.  And it was ultimately a response to the price of freedom. I think perhaps we tend to talk of the price of freedom as the lives lost and the billions expended. But this picture is the ongoing price of freedom- the sacrifice that an individual, their newborn child, their husband or wife, their mother, father, husband or wife, siblings and anyone who loves them makes for the many freedom serves.   This soldier will be away from his little girl, imagining moments he longs to witness, for what I do get to see and experience- for the priceless fact that my children go to sleep at night surrounded by peaceful quiet rather than the sounds of fear. So that when my son wakes from a nightmare I can assure him that there really aren’t any “mean guys” close by. So that they can have big yet possible dreams of the opportunities life may offer. So that I can be planting a new garden with my son and showing him how exciting it can be to watch a cucumber grow.

I want to thank this man and his family. To the soldier himself, thank you for traveling away from those you hold dear to protect something you believe in. To his daughter, for the rests in the crook of your father’s arm you will miss; to his wife, for your courage, for managing both the day and night shift, for sacrificing sharing the days with your partner for a time, and for taking note of the details for all that happens in your life and the life you have built together so you can paint him a picture each day; to his siblings for sharing one who will always be one of the dearest friends you will know; to his father for the example, nurturing and participation that contributed to taking him from an impressionable boy into a man you admire. And to his mother, whose mind’s eye must travel instantaneously and ceaselessly between a toddler in his pajamas and vulnerability to a man in his uniform and conviction. Thank you for supporting his call even when it means spasms for your heart, as it walks around outside of you in a far away and uncertain land for now.

As I considered the ongoing cost of freedom, it occurred to me that there has only ever been one exception. This is Holy Week, the days leading up to Good Friday. The Christian faith remembers this day as the day Jesus went to the cross to pay the price for our ultimate freedom. It was a redemption from brokenness- from transgression and the darkness in humanity, offering us instead reconciliation with our Creator and intended purpose. And it is the only freedom that has ever been entirely secured in a single act. It does not require others continue to sacrifice to preserve what was won. It cannot be dissolved by any future act.  It is won.

On the cross Jesus alone paid the ultimate price for freedom, a freedom that reunites rather than separates.  We are all tremendously indebted to the men and women who defend our physical existence and daily freedoms.  It is also our beautiful reality that we have a Savior who offers our souls an ultimate freedom and a price that has been paid once and for all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“What are you hopin’ about?”

I have a little boy.  He was not one of those babies who slept through the night at 8 weeks.  Even now, a continuous night of sleep is a rarity. Before he was two he was sitting at his little blue table with his head in his hands and told me he was “strugglin’ with something.”  He is not easy going.   He is profoundly special, a deep soul beyond his small number of years.

Today was not an easy day and as I rocked our unhappy newborn in another failed attempt to calm the little one, my little man came up and leaned on the arm of the chair.  He studied my face for a few seconds and then asked, “Mama, what are you hopin’ about?”  I realized I was looking off into my thoughts and he had caught me.  I was amused by his choice of words.  It isn’t the typical way we say, “what are you thinking about,” and in his unpolished knowledge of language he had made it more accurate, more insightful, more personal.

For when I do get lost in thought, those worries, fears, musings, and regrets are very much tied up into what I hope for in the now and at times what I mourn and hoped for yesterday.   What is it about life, that even as we stand in the center of things we are intensely grateful for, we find the corners of our mind where we feel insecure and uncover reason and room to question our value and contribution to those around us and our world.  My thoughts are never just “thoughts,” as I consider this idea.  They are always a context for an old or a new hope or longing – a wish. In that particular moment I could (internally) answer that ‘I want colic and reflux to disappear so my baby can feel happy’ but more accurate would be “I adore this baby and I am afraid I am failing at something I desperately want to be good at.  It literally pains my heart to hear distress from one so tiny and in my protection.  I fear there is something I am not doing right and if I was doing that thing right I would be a better mother and my baby would not be crying.   I hope I can figure out what to do to be able to soothe my child.  And PS, on a much lesser note I hope I find the time to shower and feel composed again one day soon too.”

Some days it is about my friendships, my job, my disillusionment with law or government, my confusion about catastrophe and suffering, my comfort or questions and the mysteriousness of God.   And in all of these things, what I am hoping about only finds rest in one place, a place beyond the scenario within the thought itself.

Earlier this year I was visiting the beautiful country of Turkey.  I walked through a home for the elderly destitute and as I quietly stepped into a common room, an elderly woman began passionately asking me something in Turkish.  I do not know the language, but the intensity was clear and she was visibly anxious.  I found one of the Sisters who worked in the home to come translate for me.  She explained that the woman suffered from Alzheimer’s and every day in her confusion she thought her family was supposed to pick her up and every day, she asked someone and anyone she could find to help her find them.  I felt so badly for her, imagining what it must be like to live through this disappointment of feeling like you have been abandoned or forgotten, every day.

The Sister told us how this mother had a son who visited her regularly.  “She doesn’t recognize him,” she said.  “One day I told him I was so sorry, that it must be hard to have his mother not know who he is.”  Her son responded, “That’s okay.  I know who she is. “

Such beautiful, powerful words.  We have this deep desire in us to be known.   This was such a picture to me of finding that on earth and the reality that this kind of love and intimate knowledge is a limited reflection of our relationship with God is deeply stirring.  The belief that in our confusion and lost-ness we often don’t recognize Him or see that He is sitting near…but He knows who we are.  What relief, what solace, what rest that brings.

While my thoughts are made up of my hopes for who I wish I was, for who I want to be, my hope is really only met with respite rather than angst when it lies in such a person and not the various things that occupy my worrying mind.   He knows who I am, and with this comes a place of peace where all of my hopin’ can hang its hat and exhale.

A French proverb says, “Hope is the dream of soul awake.”   Hope is a good thing.  It reminds us we are alive and keeps us engaged in living.  Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him.  But our thinking – our hoping- is the language of the heart and so it seems that it, too, will feel anxious until we allow all of that hoping to rest in someone larger and greater and truer than hopes past, present, and future.

It is the eve of Thanksgiving and we now step into the Christmas season. For some it brings a good kind of nostalgia and joy in hope met or restored.  Yet for others it is a sad nostalgia and a season of private and particular loneliness as they remember or live in loss.

I don’t know what you are “hopin’” about today, but I sincerely wish you rest and peace.  Even in your confusion, your hopes and despairs are known.  Sometimes that can be enough to find rest for today.  And hope for tomorrow.

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Why do we fall?

Climbing stairs has become one of my young son’s favorite pastimes.  Up…and down, up….and down.  He never seems to tire of it.  He would do it all day long, and it is admittedly not one of my favorite activities.  It means I spend a lot of time on the steps, too, standing behind him and ready to try to break his fall on the climb where his little foot inevitably slips and he begins to fall or slide down.

As we climbed for the umpteenth time yesterday,  I was unable to help him when that slip came.  He fell forward this time rather than backward and his baby face ran into the unforgiving floor.  He dissolved into tears and as my heart raced and I scooped him he pointed to a pudgy finger at the step to tell me who or what had wronged him.  He buried his head in my neck for a short minute, and when the tears subsided and I had gently dabbed at the mean dots of blood on his lip, he refused the ice cube in a towel I offered and began to try to wriggle free.  He was looking at those crazy steps again.  I started to take him to the adjoining room and activity.  Mostly, it seemed his fall provided a good reason to do something safer.  And partly, I was really tired of climbing stairs.  Two good reasons (one more than the other), but I didn’t want to send him the message that when you fall, you need to resign from the game.  And so I placed him back on the stairs, not at the bottom, but on the midway step where he had fallen.  And he eagerly began his ascent again.

Later that night, my husband and I watched Batman Begins.  We are planning to see The Dark Night Rises later this week and we thought we would refresh our minds with Part One of the epic triology .  Of course, it took a total of three nights because we kept falling asleep as soon as we hit play.  This is no reflection on the movie but rather our relatively new ability to fall asleep in under five seconds.  If you pause too long in a sentence right now, I might fall asleep sitting up and looking at you.  But anyway, when we finally made it through I saw the scene where Alfred rescues an unconscious Bruce Wayne from the burning Wayne Manor.  The villain of the story has set it ablaze and left Bruce for dead.  A fantastic family home falls to the ground, turning treasured photos of Bruce’s lost parents and a longstanding family legacy into ashes.  As Alfred carries him out to safety, Bruce laments that he has failed in his attempt to save the city of Gotham and suffered a deeply personal loss and quest as well.  Alfred’s response was to quote something Bruce’s late father said when he consoled a young Bruce after he fell into a well. “Why do we fall, Master Wayne?”  said Alfred.  “So that we can learn to pick ourselves back up.”  It was appropriate for the young boy who had stumbled; it was still appropriate years later for the grown man in a much deeper well.

These two moments of my day seemed to entwine into a meaningful theme and reminder.  It is so much easier when you are a child though, right?  The falls become harder, the bruises run deeper.  Or is it?  For my son, that was his first bloody lip.  The safety of a playmat was in plain sight and all of his mothers initial body language was to encourage him away from the challenge.  It’s a lot harder to keep going, when someone gives you not just permission but empathy to bow out.  And for all that he knows and in his world, that probably took about all the determination he could reasonably muster.  I really admired him yesterday.  He went right back to those steps, and to him on that day and in this time, that was his Everest.

It is an important lesson in life for all of us, and I appreciated the reminder.  The climb, the fall, and the wounds change for each of us as we walk our respective journeys through different seasons.  A fall is inevitable.  However, we can choose where we climb and how we decide to respond to injury.

“We fall so that we can learn to pick ourselves up,” is more than just a cruel game of life.  For I think it is when we pick ourselves up and walk on- by the grace of God, limp and all- that we truly walk at all.

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Prostitution and Human Rights

I have been reading current news articles about the controversial proposal released by the UN last month.  In their momentous report, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law more than urges the rest of the world to legalize prostitution, for the sake of safety and regulations that could reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS.  The Commission is comprised of 15 members considered to be leaders in their field and in public life who were called upon to provide leadership on HIV related issues and the law.  After 18 months of research and meetings, this proposal is their conclusion and public recommendation issued to the world.

In the closing paragraph of his preface, Commission Chair Fernando Henrique Cardoso writes that “this report presents persuasive evidence and recommendations that can save lives, save money and help end the AIDS epidemic. The recommendations appeal to what is common to all our cultures and communities—the innate humanity of recognising and respecting the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals.”  The UN Commission “forcefully calls for governments, civil societies, and international bodies” to embrace twelve conclusions.  Among them is the decriminalization of private and adult consensual sexual behaviors. including voluntary sex work.

There are so many layers, within this issue.  I have an immediate emotional response to the idea of the legalization of prostitution.  And while there is ultimately a symmetry between this reaction and my rational consideration of the issue, I need to recognize this is not a foregone conclusion for many who care about it just as much as I do.  I have friends and respected colleagues in the humanitarian field working specifically in the area of human trafficking who find this question of prostitution legalization to be complicated rather than the obvious many want it to be.

In the global discussion on the ramifications of legalization, the city of Amsterdam is an obvious example to draw from as one who famously opened its doors to sex work in the year 2000.  It was said to be a vote for women’s rights, where women could freely engage in a legitimized profession with an empowering safety net of regulation.  One can’t help but note that for any country with legalized prostitution, this particular decision in the name of women’s rights also has the added benefit of significant financial gain for any supporting government.   Once a recognized profession, prostitution provides the certainty of millions of additional dollars each year in income tax revenue from an industry that historically thrives whether the economy is thriving or crashing.

The city of Amsterdam has been intentional about regulating it, implementing a healthcare program that provides quality care and treatment to sex workers and conducts regular testing to reduce STD and HIV/AIDS transmission.  They have a police task force presence in the district to reduce acts of violence against sex workers.  And they have funded annual monitoring and reporting for coercion, human trafficking, and illegal activity.  Research disclosed frightening revelations over the years and to their credit, the city council publicly acknowledged this.

In 2008 , the BBC reported that Amsterdam was aggressively cracking down on the district to eliminate known sources of human trafficking and organized crime.  Thirty percent of brothels were initially closed down for illegal activities.  To aid in combatting the “decay” of the city center activities, the city council’s declared goal was to ultimately close down 50% percent of the brothels.  “Money laundering, extortion and human trafficking are things you do not see on the surface but they are hurting people and the city. We want to fight this,” said Deputy Mayor Lodewijk Asscher.  “We can still have sex and drugs but in a way that shows the city is in control,” he concluded.  In 2012, a new law was passed that will be implemented in 2013 and raise the age requirement of a sex worker from 18 to 21 as well as require a fluency in the Dutch language.  It has been controversial with their citizens, but the city council is moving forward with this effort aimed at reducing trafficking as younger girls and those unable to speak the local language are more vulnerable to abuse.

However, with all of its problems, the red light district of Amsterdam does report a low HIV/AIDS prevalence credited to the health care monitoring and government regulation of the industry.  The UN Commission now making headlines was charged with the goal of identifying ways to reduce HIV/AIDS.  While people against legalized prostitution will site Amsterdam and its increase in trafficking and organized crime to defend their stance, advocates for legalization will likely also site Amsterdam and its low HIV/AIDS prevalence to support their opposing position.

While I do not agree with the UN’s conclusion, if one were to look at it purely on the basis of a response to HIV/AIDS, it would have to be acknowledged that legalization that leads to regulation could arguably help reduce the rate of transmission.   You have countries with legalized prostitution (though legendary for its decision, Amsterdam is certainly not alone), countries with illegal prostitution and regulation, others with illegal prostitution and no regulation, and then those in a complicated category that allows for certain activities but not others.   A comparison could be drawn between Amsterdam’s reportedly low prevalence to reported estimates of up to 80% HIV/AIDS prevalence in Asia’s largest red light district in Mumbai where prostitution is illegal.

Some respected friends and colleagues tell me that while they may morally be against prostitution, they aren’t sure it is the government’s role to make it illegal.  The sex trade is an outworking of the human heart, they say, and will exist whether it is legal or not.  They are also on the ground in the throes of a very complicated and dark world.  They know individual stories and try to advocate within systems for those who are trapped.  As I’ve listened to their experiences, rather than the guarantee that a system where it is legal presents the clearest danger one of the most vulnerable environments for a woman seems to be where prostitution is illegal, but unregulated.  Here, a victim has no place to turn- there is no police task force patroling and accessible programs are limited and often struggling for financial support.  Aid workers see this.   They also struggle to work in an arena like Amsterdam where so much they morally oppose is permissible and glorified, but with legality came government programs and intervention and regulation they can, in theory, appeal to when needed.

In a world where there is much black and white and right and wrong, they do explain a kind of gray that explains their uncertainty.  To recognize this does not change my personal belief and the conclusion I have thoughtfully come to, but it heightens an awareness of a complicated world that continues to deeply sadden me as a human being and specifically as a woman.

Will prostitution continue to exist if it is illegal?  Absolutely.  But the abuse of a law does not adequately justify its absence.  If it were so, we shouldn’t have any laws at all.  One of the critical functions of good government is to create an environment that protects the intrinsic rights of its people- fundamental rights that affirm and respect the essence of a human being.

History tells of revolutions for freedom won for future generations. Movies like Braveheart powerfully remind us of both the grave cost and awesome privilege of liberty.  Yet freedom itself is a kind of paradox.  To truly protect freedom for the people, a government must also limit it.  Any law effectively protects the freedom of one and simultaneously limits the freedom of another.  American law protects the individual right of one to live and in doing so limits the liberty of a murderer.  It protects the freedom of a consumer to obtain the truth and limits the freedom of a business to commit fraud and intentionally deceive.  Upholding freedom is inextricably linked to the very limitation of it in another capacity. It is neither theoretically nor practically possible to create a world of absolute freedom.  And so, our choice is to determine which freedoms we will choose to uphold.

With its singular objective, this UN Commission has responded to one global problem in part by compromising its very premise of human rights.  They are advocating for a perceived solution at the cost of a different set of problems.   And in doing so, they invite- they forcefully invite- the world to participate in a different kind of human rights violation.

At its essence, prostitution is always a form of objectification and exploitation.  This makes it not only morally wrong but worthy of legal intervention from a government that seeks to affirm the intrinsic rights of every individual.  It is exploitation even if a sex worker is a willing participant, for someone’s willingness to subject herself to something has never been what defines exploitation.  There are numerous laws on our book in which a consensual act remains accountable to law enforcement; a willing worker does not redeem the exploitative behavior of a sweatshop owner.

Furthermore, the UN has written a prescription that is also practically impossible.  They forcefully call for the legalization of prostitution while also calling for efforts to reduce human trafficking.  But one breeds the other.  It’s like calling for the chicken and outlawing the egg. If prostitution is allowed to flourish it is inevitable that human trafficking will likewise increase in an environment that heightens demand and shelters illegal activity.

What is so tragic in our time is not only the existence of prostitution and pornography but also the creative ways we have found to justify them.  When men and women alike defend these industries as progressive steps toward freedom- sexual freedom and liberation for women specifically- it’s hard to miss the irony.

In the movie Crazy Stupid Love, Ryan Gosling’s character Cal sums it up with an interesting observation.  While he isn’t speaking about prostitution, his commentary poignantly reveals how we have managed not only to normalize the objectification of women, we have made it trendy.

“The war between the sexes is over,” he declares.  “We won the second women started doing pole dancing for exercise.”

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House of Mirrors

This last week has been full and my mind has been a twister of impressions, ideas, uncertain and seemingly fearful conclusions.   And then today, a respite.  I found this particular break in the clouds in the form of picnic with my son as we relaxed on his baby blue blanket in a favorite park tucked away in a corner of Europe.  Several days of clouds and rain gave way to blue sky and warm sunshine, a fantastic day to walk to the market and fill the bottom cubby of his stroller with picnic perfect accessories of fresh baguettes, freshly shaven slices of smoked turkey, and a mild British cheese the woman behind the counter chose especially for my little companion who boasts a surprisingly diverse palette.  We scooped a handful of deep red Turkish cherries into a small brown bag and left the market to make our way to a grassy table.

We nibbled and he explored dandelions, a treasured moment that offered me the opportunity to begin to internally settle.

Last week I spent a few days in Amsterdam’s red light district to visit two projects that I work with in my role at Wellspring International.  I always find this world famous destination to be a dark place, but the shadows were particularly pronounced this time.  Perhaps it was traveling back and forth between such boldly different worlds now- the disturbing scene of quaint cobblestone streets filled with every conceivable and inconceivable offering that claims to satisfy erotic fantasy, and the haven found in the innocence and sweetness of my child.  It felt strange to have a foot in both galaxies, and as midnight chimed one night and I trekked back to the hotel where he safely slept, I felt the weight of the heavy cloud cover overhead upon my shoulders.  I didn’t mind the rain that dampened my clothes and lightly wet my hair as I walked on the nearly empty street nearing my refuge.  I was grateful for a gentle shower before I peeked in on innocence again.

The red light district has changed since I set foot there eight years ago.  In that first encounter, I remember noticing that the women behind each one of the 400 windows represented so many ethnicities, as well as varied shapes, sizes, and ages.  That was notable to me as I sought to understand a strange world that paid for sex with a stranger where part of the fantasy purchased is the fulfillment of a desire to forget she is, in fact, a person with a real name who exists for greater purpose than his pleasure.

Last week, I noticed that the majority of the girls seemed to be so young and I questioned if several truly met the legal age limit.  They also seemed to look similar to each other in both complexion and build.  And each one was so noticeably thin.  I commented on this to my friends who have a much greater understanding of this world than I do through their involvement in work that provides food and assistance to these women, and they affirmed there had been a noticeable shift.  The girls working in the brothels often turned down a baguette with their meal as they didn’t want the carbohydrates, and they were hesitant to eat even a small bowl of soup as they carefully monitored their daily caloric intake.  Male clients wandering the streets commented aloud that the girl that stood before them on display was too fat.  It seemed odd to me that clients had become so picky about their intentionally “meaningless” sex.  And at the same time, I recognize that on some level this does make sense as they are paying for a fantasy, so why not have the fantasy fulfilled complete with  idealistic image.  But this has not always been the case, so why the recent change?

Society seems to be saturated right now with an obsession for the ever increasingly narrow standard of beauty.  It does not seem to be limited to one particular culture and it grows ever more unattainable for the unaltered or healthy woman.

My last day in Amsterdam, I read an article about the criticism of Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl Kate Upton.  In a blog posted on the proudly “thinspirational” website Skinny Gossip, Upton was blasted for being a “squishy brick,” a “fatty,” and a “little piggy…with fat thighs,” among other disturbing sentiments.  The blogger said it was really “too bad, because at the beginning there was some hope for her [Upton].”  And clearly, all hope is lost, she concludes.  I am not sure if the author means hope for success, hope for a good figure, or hope for happiness in life but I don’t think there is any reasonable definition of hope that renders rational the statement that Kate’s weight is keeping her from attaining any of those things.  I think I can safely conclude that the blogger likely sees success, a good figure, and happiness as inextricably linked rather than three distinct independent features of a life experience.

There has been a public backlash, as there should be, but even in the impassioned responses of Kate’s defenders I have found there to be a subtle hint of the harmful thinspirational ideology that has woven its way into our cultural mindset.  Several blog comments articulated snaps for Kate, cheering for her to be proud of herself the way that she is.

But what way is she?  It carries the hint of a kind of sentiment that we use to say you should accept yourself in spite of something.  But there is no reasonable in spite of here.

In an interview with psychology expert Cooper Lawrence, Neil Cavuto discussed the Skinny Gossip comments.  While clearly not criticizing Upton, he asked Lawrence to comment on his observation that Upton is “meatier,” than many models, and he qualified this to explain that by this he meant she is not a “waif.”  Cavuto contrasted her to Victoria’s Secret models who previously joined his show.  Though undeniably beautiful, he said, he likened their painfully thin appearance to that of “prisoners of war.”

While he perhaps could have chosen his words better, I found myself disappointed that Lawrence appeared hesitant to concede that Upton does not fit the current painfully thin runway model stereotype.  Perhaps she got hung up on the word “meatier,” but she seemed to miss an opportunity to affirm that Upton does look a bit different than many current models, and this is not a bad thing.  I can’t help but wonder if we have grown conditioned to the idea that to say a woman is not “very thin” or not “as thin as…” would be to say something negative about her.  This is sad to me because as hard as we try to keep the current unhealthy standards at bay it seems evident they do influence our own definitions and perceptions.

In my short experience it has become increasingly clear that Amsterdam seems to be a kind of magic mirror that merely exposes the realities of the current world in which we live.  I am drawing a connection between two perceived very different worlds here.  But maybe that’s just it- the mindset seems to be only becoming less different.

And as a woman, admittedly it is becoming increasingly difficult to breathe confidently amidst the suffocating pressure in our current climate. My son was four days old when a friend commented on my still swollen belly, making an unfavorable comparison of me in contrast to Hollywood stars who apparently had an attractively flat stomach immediately after giving birth.

In interviews and blog discussions about the Kate Upton critiques, I’ve noticed several qualifications and cautions lest we be perceived as criticizing those who are “naturally” thin.  Fair enough at face value.  But to quote the great classic film The Princess Bride, we keep using that word and I don’t think it means what we think it means.  I’m not sure it should be considered “naturally” thin if you survive on 1000 calories or less each day, yet this is a reality for so many women.   The pressure to be thin- to be naturally thin- is simply overwhelming.

The offensive and misguided remarks about Kate Upton are certainly absurd.  And yet they are essentially the same cold and harmful sentiments communicated to most women.   Most of us do not look like her, but that changes neither the cruelty, damage, or validity of the message.

Confucius said this: “Everything has beauty, but not everyone recognizes it.”   The familiar oft quoted adage says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Perhaps it is not beauty that is lacking in what we deem substandard, but rather a weakness in our eyes beholden to a greatly influenced mind.

Every day we are inundated with the airbrushed messages of media.  What can we do to change this picture?   It is a daunting struggle and admittedly I do not know how to practically resolve this.  A first step must be to recognize that it is false, that it is simply wrong and we are oft pawns on a chessboard of advertising and media.  We do not have their reach or power to persuade, but we run into dozens of little girls every day.  Little girls we will never meet, impressionable minds and spirits that will soak up every silent message around them.  That does mean we have a voice much louder than we tend to remember.   What message will we pass on- will it be one that will affirm a raging media blitz, or one that help to free her from it?

What will Amsterdam look like in another eight years, what will the mirror on the wall reveal?

I do not know all of these answers, and I am aware that I have my own internal battle to fight.  I do know that it makes a walk in the rain to where innocence sleeps seem all the more lovely.

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The Day After Father’s Day

It’s the day after Father’s Day, but the sentiments we ponder and articulate about our dads on that occasion linger the day after and go far beyond the national celebration.

My sister and I have had many a conversation about the importance of fathers and how we think our society has done a great disservice to dads and children alike by underestimating his presence in daily life.  I often wonder if fathers know how much we need them and how much they affect us because I think they get messages to the contrary- some subtle and others overt.

For example, in the United States, any length of paternity leave following the birth of a child is a relatively new idea and still a rare perk from an employer.  Yet I think this societal affirmation is a genuinely valuable thing.  It recognizes a significant role and affirms the importance of a father’s participation in the life altering new presence of a child from the start.  It is not just the mother for whom life should or does change and  this is a positive message from society that we view fathers as valuable to this transition and part of this family evolution; that neither the bonding, joy, fatigue, or critical change to life are exclusively a mother’s privilege or responsibility.

Beyond infancy, we tend to affirm that a father has a strong influence over his son’s personal development and sense of self, but for some reason we have underestimated his impact on that of his daughter.

It is interesting for me to note the changes in my relationship with my parents as I have grown older.  My relationship with my mother remains strong, and has evolved into a kind of special friendship as well as a mother/daughter relationship.  My relationship with my father has remained less fluid in that with him, I always feel a kind of nostalgia to be a little girl.  I find it either embarrassing or amusing that each time I am around him I revert to a 6 year old in many ways.  I find myself trying so hard to be clever and funny because I feel important and affirmed when I can make my father laugh- not just a chuckle but the kind where he throws his head back, closes his eyes tight and laughs so hard it is silent at first before his breath exhales into that rich sound that tells me, I did it.   In moments when I travel three decades, I find I take a deep breath and can rest for a time when he tells me he is proud of me.  It is like a whisper that today has been enough.

I recall reading the book, The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, who recorded the differences she observed in the female brain compared to the male brain from infancy through the stages of adulthood.  There was a particular story she recounted of a young father who told her about a time his 4 year old daughter sat talking with him, or talking to him, rather.  She was meandering from one story to the next and her father was absentmindedly nodding or offering an occasional “uh-huh,” as he multi-tasked.  He assumed his daughter was merely thinking out loud more to herself than to him until she surprised him with a prolonged pause.  She marched over to where her dad sat, raised both of her chubby hands to place them on his cheeks and turning his face to look directly at her, she said, “Daddy, listen.”  Her father was both amused but sincerely moved and successfully received the message that it mattered to his daughter to know she had his attention as she shared her thoughts, an insight to her self.

I watched a well done video yesterday that is really worth sharing.  To fathers everywhere, listen: You are important.  Your voice is powerful and can drown out a myriad of confusing messages from a world that often leaves us confused about our value, strength, and purpose.  Don’t let the world confuse you about a significant part of yours, either.

Dad’s matter- Father’s Day, the day after, and after.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHKcO_C4JlE&feature=youtu.be

 

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The New Abortion Debate

A few months ago I had the privilege of being a guest on the Lorna Dueck show aired on Canada’s public network in Toronto.  As both host and producer, the accomplished Dueck invites guests from varied backgrounds and beliefs to dialogue about current issues.

She began our conversation with a significant question: what does the issue of sex-selective abortion say about humanity?

A tragic issue that has significantly impacted several countries in East Asia and is currently growing in North America, sex-selective abortion is chosen by parents with a preference for a son, who choose to abort their baby when a sonogram reveals the mother to be carrying a daughter.  India is said to have 20-30 million “missing women,” as a direct result of the intentional choice to abort a baby because she is a girl. For this same reason, a recent study estimates that by the year 2020 China will have 40 million unmarried men, a number equal to the entire population of young men in America.  In one province of China, the only female babies born over a specific period of time were those that had been wrongly predicted by sonograms to be a male.

I have learned that when left to the natural order, a society will typically be 51% female and 49% male.  This ratio creates the best possible scenario for healthy community, from marriage, reproduction, and even economic growth.  As direct result of the drastic change in ratio caused by sex-selective abortion, crime rates, bride trafficking, sexual violence, and even female suicide rates are all rising. Economic growth is falling in regions where the number of females has fallen.

What does it say about humanity?  What does it say of how far we have come, or rather how far we still have to go in the area of human rights, and specifically, respect and protection of women’s rights?

In March 2010, the cover of The Economist pictured a tiny pair of pink shoes.  The headline read “The War Against Baby Girls: Gendercide, and exposed the sobering reality of sex-selective abortion and reported that nearly every continent is now affected.  It is not about poverty- there is no correlation between poverty and sex- selective abortion.  In fact, the rates are as high and higher in wealthy economies and affluent communities.  It is not about education, either.  The rates are higher in communities with levels of higher education.  And China’s one child policy cannot bear the blame as the issue exists far beyond its borders.  The Economist article attributed it to the collision of three things: an age-old preference for males, a growing preference for a smaller family, and the technology that makes it possible to predict gender in utero. “It is no exaggeration to call this gendercide,” the article stated. “Women are missing in their millions—aborted, killed, neglected to death.” In 1990 an Indian economist, Amartya Sen, estimated the number of eliminated women to be 100 million.  That was over twenty years ago.

Women have long battled discrimination- equal rights to vote, equal rights for access to education, equal rights to pay for the same job completed. Women have fought to be seen as more than tools of reproduction, more than means for sexual gratification.  One look at music videos and we see that modern day objectification is not only rampant, but quite trendy.  And with all of our societal progress through congressional acts that afford rights and what kind of life she is equally worthy of and the opportunities entitled to her, we now find ourselves in an unprecedented dilemma regarding a rather fundamental right-to-life question.

In 2007 the High Court in Mumbai, India, publicly and boldly responded to their issue of sex-selective abortion in upholding an amendment that made it illegal.   “Pre-natal sex determination would be as good as female feticide.  Pre-conception sex determination violated a woman’s right to live and was against the Constitution,” the High Court said, making a profound statement about the fundamental issue and victim: women.  The problem and occurrence, however, raged on and not in India alone.

There has been much talk recently of the “war on women,” in our current American political climate.  Yet what of this war on women?

If members of any ethnic group or any special interest group were being targeted- eliminated- in this way, it would be appropriately called mass genocide.  There would be a public outcry, and even possible military intervention in keeping with the historic commitment world leaders made at the United Nations 2005 World Summit to “protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”  This followed a 2001 document released by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS).  The Responsibility to Protect report redefined collective security by introducing a concept of shared responsibility. Following this revolutionary assertion, governments and international leaders, civil society organizations and ultimately the United Nations General Assembly Member States embraced the Responsibility to Protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

But where does the alarming reduction in the ratio of female to male lives fall?  What of the millions of female lives affected by sex-selective abortion?   They do not fall into a recognized category of genocide, or a war crime, or a crime against humanity because it falls in the very big crack of an intense ethical and social rights conflict.

The abortion debate has consisted of those who stand on the side of Pro-life and those who stand on the other side of the issue, universally called Pro-choice.  Pro-life advocates hold to the belief that life begins in utero, and that the opportunity for life certainly must be the highest of all human rights.  And that basic, all-encompassing human right logically and ethically supersedes the right of any finer select group of individuals. I believe it would be fair to say that the main conviction of the pro-choice position is the protection of women’s rights- meaning, the right of a woman to make a decision for her body and her life.  To be clear, given the nature of this discussion and critical detail I think the distinction needs to be made that the heart of the abortion debate is not about the medical exceptions, and so when we speak of a pro-choice advocate’s belief of a woman’s right to make a decision for her life, we are not speaking in the sense of the preservation of her life, but rather the kind of life it is believed she is entitled to choose for herself.

The new problem is that in sex-selective abortion a woman’s right, by this definition, is being protected and enacted to commit an act of violence against women.

It seems to me that those who stand on the pro-choice side of the abortion debate now find themselves in both the center of a conflict of interests and grave contradiction.

Sex-selective abortion has critically changed the debate.  It is now a discussion of women’s rights vs.…women’s rights; a woman’s rights to a kind of life vs. a woman’s right to any kind of life at all. They stand in direct conflict, and which value will women’s activist groups, politicians, international organizations, parents, ethicists, and individuals choose to preserve and protect?

Well over 100 million female lives have been prevented, or lost.  Who will speak up, who will intervene in the first global genocide- a gendercide, and this kind of war against women?

Lorna Dueck’s question, “what does the issue of sex-selective abortion say about humanity?” is a meaningful question.  The very fact that it is a legitimate question reveals a history.  The fact that it still awaits a complete answer speaks to a radically different if not fragile future, not just for millions of more women, but all of humanity.

 

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