How I motivate and organise my at-home study

I have spent much of my life studying by correspondence, partly because I find it suits my lifestyle choices, and partly because with the illness and disability problems I have, it tends to be what works.

There are complexities regarding organisation, motivation, and time and stress management, which are worth thought.  These have changed depending on what is going on in my life.  When I was studying Open University short courses while travelling to (very part time) college* at the age of seventeen, neither organisation or motivation were really an issue.  I lacked adequate mental stimulation at that time in my life, I only had to remember to take two books in my bag, and the railway journey served as a clear piece of external structure.  However, later in life, once I had failed to get a degree studying full time in a conventional way, and attempted instead to do it by correspondence, I started to struggle.  The projects were too big and diffuse, and took too long for there to seem any light at the end of the tunnel of actually finishing anything, particularly as I kept needing extensions.

I succeeded in graduating well despite this.  But when I signed up for an M.A., I worked in a slightly different way.  My course involves two ten week lecture courses (for which there is a lot of reading) and two six-thousand word essays in each of the first two years, and a dissertation in the third year.

Here are some things I’ve used or am trying out.  What works is likely to differ for everyone.  There’s no point in trying to fix what isn’t broken – no point in trying to focus your concentration if you have no trouble concentrating – and there’s no point in trying to take a “work without interruptions” approach if the reality of your circumstances currently involves caring for a toddler while you study!  It’s one thing to say “avoid this if possible, it often helps” another to give up because it isn’t possible.  What I’m trying to organise are a lot of very long, complicated projects, and what I’d need to do if I had a lot of short, individual tasks would be different.

Have some sort of motivational chart or book, with rewards for completing a certain length of time or small task.  The tasks I do are much too big and too long for them to seem as if they have an end, and if I look at that end I feel overwhelmed.  So I have a sticker book and get a star for every hour completed, graduating up from bronze to gold with each hour done (three hours in one day is pushing it for me, as I have limited stamina).  I also get a round smiley sticker if I have done a certain number of hours in a week or all the reading for an (online) lecture when a course is running, and a special reward sticker if I have done all the reading for a whole course, a particularly high number of hours a week, or handed in an essay.  I also have an effort sticker for meeting a daily challenge (if I’m sick I may only aim to do one hour a day, for example) and one for doing all the day’s housework (more on this later).  When I do something, the achievement that I can see immediately is the sticker and what it represents.  It is both satisfying and helps reassure me that I am actually getting somewhere and that the overall task does have an end.

If you don’t know from experience, spend a few hours with Myers-Briggs working out what your best study approach is likely to be.  The study management guidance we got at school insisted that was somehow better to do your homework instantly when you got home from school, worse to do it after a break and your meal, and positively evil to do it before school in the morning.  I can see how they were thinking, but what’s right is what works.  If it works better to get up at five in the morning and study for two hours before getting dressed, then so be it.  Much better than pushing to work when you come home from school if you’re not an afternoon person.  Just try not to be working on homework that’s due in that day, unless you’re the sort of person who finds pushing a tight deadline both conducive to flourishing and the best way of doing excellent work.

One of the pointers Myer-Briggs gave me was that I have a personality type that’s fairly ambivalent about structure.  It usually works better for people with my personality type to have some structure but not too much: i.e. a few things at set times and other things done as and when.  Myers-Briggs may also give some guidance as to whether you’re likely to do better with silence or surrounded by human activity, multi-tasking or concentrated work, and so on.  However, it is guidance – a place to start – not a law of the Medes and Persians which cannot be altered!

Find the right length of time to concentrate for.  A lack of external structure may be difficult in a lot of ways, but it does have the advantage that you may be able to work to your own natural, individual rhythms, rather than having them imposed from outside by a timetable of one hour and ten minute periods.  If you find that a quarter of an hour on, a quarter off, works better than an hour and ten minutes at once, or that three hours in a row without a break is your best bet, it isn’t constrained by institutional preferences and compromises (only by household circumstances…).  I find what works best depends on what type of task I’m doing, so if I’m reading, I need more frequent breaks and a more spread out timetable than if I’m writing.  When writing, I find spending longer in one go works better.  I used to go to sleep in chemistry lessons at college* because I could only concentrate on learning about the complexities of orbitals or the structure of haemoglobin for about forty minutes at a time.  That may be unusually extreme, but one might as well max out all the advantages of the correspondence situation.

Choose a time management technique It may work better to have a timetable (always study from 8-10 in the mornings) or to have a to-do list which includes spending a certain amount of time studying (N.B. I found Julie Morgenstern’s “time management from the inside out” very useful here: she has a lot of different techniques to suit a lot of different styles and circumstances).  A lot of work-from-home advice can be usefully applied to study too.

Put everything on the same “to do” list if you have the difficulty of always feeling you should be doing something else.  I’ve just set up a cleaning programme called Tody with my housework, and then I added 4 half hours of study to the list for every weekday.  It is quite amusing because this means that when I tick off half an hour of foraging around in a concordance and a study Bible it says, “it’s getting cleaner!”  But I’m hoping I’ll have less trouble with feeling I should be studying if I do housework, and should be doing housework when I study.  It gives me a limited number of housework tasks a day and I don’t feel pressurised by the rest of the housework because I know each task will come up on the list of things to do today in due course.  I’ve also put people contact and leisure activities on there to indicate to myself that they are necessary to wellbeing in due proportion as much as doing the washing up is.

Treat human contact as a necessity: people need different amounts of time with others, but we are a social creature, and very few people can be alone for weeks on end without suffering.  This is not a problem I’ve managed to solve, but it is one I’m increasingly coming to recognise.  I was pretty isolated before lockdown began, between my disabilities and living in a remote place.

Try the same sort of management and planning techniques that are used for work projects: find something that suits the nature of the study you’re doing, and it may help a lot.  It’s also a useful transferable skill.  (And a way of helping take study seriously as work…).  I’ve just drawn up a flow chart for my current (6000) word essay, which includes doing research in a concordance, rereading a couple of texts, checking the institution’s referencing guide before I get as far as referencing, redoing the plan, as the original proposed structure doesn’t quite work, reordering the draft, writing a final draft, proofreading and so on.  I’ve still to find a piece of software that’ll do a neat diagram for me.  But it helps keep it in order.  Breaking down complex projects into specific parts is the only way I can tackle them without them seeming completely overwhelming.  The sort of tasks I’m doing probably need project management apps.  If it’s a matter of having 15 short tasks each week with different deadlines for different teachers, you might be better served by more of an administrative assistant app.  Also – amusingly – Tody (the app I’ve started using for housework and has spread out into other things) will give you deadlines and create task priority lists, if you find that easier than trying to retrieve information from a calendar or diary.  As someone with dyslexia/dyspraxia, I find that approach particularly helpful.

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Have a study space if possible: even if it is just a small desk under the stairs.  Or have a dedicated piece of furniture where all the stuff needed for study is stored, preferably close to where you actually study.  If you find it energising to move around and study in different places in the house – or need to sit in different places so you can be on call for children – look for a cabinet on wheels… keep tools organised in a way that works but is mobile.  It is worth trying to make it physically easy to study if you can.  It isn’t helpful to find that studying means sitting for an hour in a horribly uncomfortable chair with an unpleasant background space and craned over a computer or desk at a bad angle.  Yes, one can teach reading by sitting on the ground and drawing letters in the dust, one can learn to read by crouching down and peering at said letters**.  And if that is all that can be done it is worth doing.  But it isn’t a desirable situation.  If you can keep the effort and energy for the study rather than for enduring discomfort, it’s worth doing.

If computers/phones distract you, try minding your inner child with a parental control or productivity app.  I don’t have one set up at the moment due to technical problems, but I have found this helped.  It meant I had to be aware of it if I was getting distracted.  I had one called Salfeld on my computer for a while, which had the immense advantage of being able to set individual limits for my email and Wikipedia, but to be able to access the websites I need for my study indefinitely.  However, it was annoyingly buggy from time to time, and didn’t show me where I had got to in my time limits in a simple way.  There are also apps that will do something like growing a “tree” which will metaphorically “die” if you do anything with your phone for a certain length of time.

I sometimes feel we have too much of a culture of “oh, we shouldn’t need this stuff, just be disciplined.”  Yes, that would be nice, but I’m not.  It is the reality.  By using some extra tools I can achieve the same end: as there is nothing wrong in itself with the tools, it is appropriate to use them (only avoid the pitfall of spending all time and effort looking for the right tool rather than studying.  I’ve found these things rather like what’s said of using nicotine replacement therapy for giving up smoking.  It hopefully puts the aim within reach, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easy).

 If possible treat study time in the same way as you would a lecture or lesson. At present, I’m using Pomodoro, running it for half an hour with a ten minute break.  While it is running I try to avoid doing anything I wouldn’t do if I was attending a lecture.  I will take a jumper off or plug the computer in, but I don’t abandon the task to make a hot drink or to put laundry in the washing machine.  I’m still working on not answering the phone: it tends to stress me, and there’s no point turning it off because I’d never remember to turn it back on.  I find half an hour a good length of time, because it is enough to do concentrated work, but not enough to feel overwhelming.

If you procrastinate about starting, try setting a timer and then aim to be in place to start when it goes off, again, act as you would for a lecture.

Estimate the time needed for each task: (Julie Morgenstern again) this will take practice but it is important.

Understand what stresses you: and look for ways of reducing it.  I plan relentlessly because not having a plan tends to result in my stressing about not being on track; and I tend to get confused by all the subsidiary tasks (e.g. checking the referencing guide) as well as about what needs to be done next (I need to do the concordance work before I re-read the philosophical texts).  Others find that planning and feeling they have to work to the plan stresses them far more than not having too much of a plan, and find it better not to.  There isn’t any right set of things to be stressed by in context.  Its down to who you are and how you react to the particular circumstances.

Be realistic about what’s possible.  This is a difficult skill, and again, I’d refer people to Julie Morgenstern on time management.  The basic idea is to write down an estimate of how long something is going to take and then to time how long it actually does take, until your estimates are usually right.  And to do things like adding in the fact that you’re probably going to be interrupted 3 times for an average of ten minutes each in every two hours of work, and therefore can only do an hour and a half on the requisite task in every two hours.  Being realistic both helps get stuff done, and reduces stress.  Set manageable goals according to your personality.  I find I need to achieve my goals most of the time, or I get discouraged.  Others may find themselves responsive to more of a challenge, and aim to set goals that are met about 50% of the time.  There’s no right or wrong here except what works for you.  However, I would be surprised it if helps anyone to set goals that are literally impossible and are never met.

It’s important to get enough rest: another impossibility in the modern world, and a very subjective one, making it difficult to write about.  But not in any way a waste of time.  Lying on your bed reading a paper book/listening to calming music/watching a bubble lamp, or even sleeping, for half an hour, or taking a long bath, or whatever else, may actually make you more productive when you return to your work.  Exercise, too, is important.  What I’ve found over the years is that if I study without exercising, my mind gets much more tired than my body, and then I find it (even more) difficult to get the necessary amount of sleep.  Also, if you are newly studying, it may cause you to need more sleep than you did before.

Remind yourself what you’re trying to achieve when discouraged: both in practical terms (e.g. better job) and human development terms.  As a culture, I feel we undervalue education.  I remember being very grieved to come across a programme that was following children in the Andes struggling up and down several hours of difficult and dangerous mountain paths to get themselves to and from school, when I had been volunteering in schools and listening to the teachers telling the children how boring learning was.  One may not enjoy every minute of it – when I’m trying to write an essay I do wonder why on earth I committed myself to this – but that’s not the same as having a background culture of thinking education an annoying imposition rather than a worthwhile privilege.  And no-one should excuse poor quality teaching on the grounds that education is inherently valuable – it still matters to engage and interest in as far as possible.  But education is part of being human, part of developing as a person, part of becoming better able to serve others.  It’s worthwhile.

Cherry Foster

 

*College: UK sixth form college: typically ages 16-18/19.  I was actually 15-16 the year I was doing chemistry, but the circumstances were a bit odd.  Some secondary schools (age 11-16) have a sixth form attached; it is normally the separate institutions that are referred to as colleges.  They often have adult students as well.

** I believe it was said of Mother Theresa that she did this in Calcutta, but I don’t know the reference.

Posting the Book?

This is a series of questions called “The Ultimate Book Tag” which I preferred as a holiday post to trying to solve problems of theological praxis or how to sew zips in so they don’t tear back out.  It makes a change from posting a photograph of an animal!

1. Do you get sick while reading in the car?

Not usually.

2. Which author’s writing style is completely unique to you and why?

Uh, what?  If that means, “Which of the authors I have read has the most unique style?”, then, um, probably Shakespeare.

3. Harry Potter Series or the Twilight Saga? Give 3 points to defend your answer.

I haven’t read the Twilight Saga, and I didn’t finish Harry Potter.  I suppose that counts as a vote for Harry Potter, but it might be hard to justify it at length.

4. Do you carry a book bag? If so, what is it in (besides books…)?

No.  I put books in my bag.  I do not carry a book bag.

5. Do you smell your books?

Not on purpose.  Well, not usually.  At least, not on a daily basis.

6. Books with or without little illustrations?

With if the illustrations match the text and have artistic quality.  Without if not.  I never appreciated the type of book which described a golden arrow resting on a red velvet cushion, but accompanied the text with an illustration of a silver arrow resting on a gold and blue brocade cushion.

7. What book did you love while reading but discovered later it wasn’t quality writing?

Goodness, I’ve enjoyed a lot of books enormously which I’d hardly feel were exactly masterpieces of literary composition.

8. Do you have any funny stories involving books from your childhood? Please share!

There was the time when I tried to borrow a book on pregnancy (an age-appropriate book about biological development, not a book depicting graphic or inappropriate sex) from the primary school library, and got forbidden in case my parents objected!  They didn’t.  Despite having established that, the teacher the following year tried to forbid it all over again.

Why on earth the book wasn’t marked reference if they objected to its being borrowed, or kept out of reach of the younger kids if they thought it wasn’t appropriate, I never found out.

9. What is the thinnest book on your shelf?

On my shelf?  In the singular?  What?

10. What is the thickest book on your bookshelves?

Probably “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”, though at least one of the Bible commentaries runs it fairly close.

11. Do you write as well as read? Do you see yourself in the future as being an author?

Yes, I write.  But being “an author” or not is something of an “how long is a piece of string” question.

12. When did you get into reading?

As soon as I could read, though I didn’t enjoy stories until I was probably 9 or 10.  The school made such a fuss about that.  Somehow not wanting to read stories is a sign of depravity!  Or something.

13. What is your favourite classic book?

Probably “The Lord of the Rings”, though “The Blue Castle”, “Alice in Wonderland”, and “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe”, run it pretty close.

14. In school was your best subject Language Arts/English?

No.  It really was not.  Though I did better at secondary school because I actually liked literature.  Not that this always helped because people were obsessed with the notion that we’d find it boring.  So instead of being allowed to enjoy something like the Ancient Mariner and write on it and how it worked we had to carve it up and turn it into a film.

(Yes.  I do have strong opinions on education.  Moving on…)

15. If you were given a book as a present that you had read before and hated…what would you do?

Leave it quietly on a bookshelf somewhere for sentimental reasons.  Though it might find its way to a charity shop in the end.

16. What is a lesser known series that you know of that is similar to Harry Potter or the Hunger Games?

The Worst Witch.  Which I think is actually better composed than Harry Potter* from a literary point of view.  It is more coherent, the text is more tightly composed without unnecessary happenings or words, and the characters and the plot fit together better.

*Such of it as I’ve read.

17. What is a bad habit you always do (besides rambling) while blogging?

Forgetting to tag the posts.  It happens about half the time and then I have to go back and edit them.

18. What is your favourite word?

Well, if you mean, “what word do I use most often?” I would guess probably “it”?  Or perhaps “to” or “the”.

If you mean “what word do I like the most,” well, difficult.  I like five syllable words which have nice assonance and rhythm once you’ve worked out how to pronounce them, and mean something it would usually take a whole sentence or more to express, or is very difficult to describe without a specific word.  “Impassible” is fun, though it only has four syllables.

19. Are you a nerd, dork, or dweeb? Or all of the above?

I’m probably a geek.

20. Vampires or Fairies? Why?

Fairies.  Vampires give me nightmares.

21. Shapeshifters or Angels? Why?

For amusement, shapeshifters.  I spent too much time on the (rather speculative but nevertheless interesting and informative) metaphysics of angels.  I don’t know how many shapeshifters you can get on the head of a pin!  This makes reading about them more relaxing.

Admittedly, I do tend to notice if fantasy writers haven’t thought their story-world’s metaphysics through in a reasonably coherent way, regardless of what they’re writing about.

22. Spirits or Werewolves? Why?

I don’t mind.  So long as it is fantasy and not horror…

23. Zombies or Vampires?

For preference, neither!

24. Love Triangle or Forbidden Love?

Now I want to start comparing “Frozen” with” A Midsummer Night’s Dream”…

Forbidden love occurs in both, though with a rather unusual twist in “Frozen”.  There’s sort of a love triangle in both too, if the Kristoph-Anna-Hans thing counts.

Perhaps it isn’t so much of an “either-or” thing?

25. Full on romance books or action-packed with a few love scenes mixed in?

I definitely prefer romance as a side dish rather than a main.

 

Cherry Foster

A Question of Value

Conventional feminism and real freedom

Suppose someone takes their daughter, or a young friend, to a social gathering*. This young woman is conscientious and high-achieving, and she’s at the stage of thinking about what she wants to do with her life, or, better still, about how she can best serve given her God-given temperament, interests, and talents.

At this gathering, she meets and talks with two women in their late sixties, one of whom has recently retired after being a consultant doctor for many years, and the other of whom has spent her life as the stay-at-home mother of her three children and as a housewife and homemaker.

On the way home, discussing these conversations with her grown-ups, would you expect both these women to be held up as role models for her? Would their different life choices be regarded as equally good ways for her to consider using her gifts and talents by her teachers, her parents, her school careers advisers?

Freedom, I think, would mean having the choice between paid work or traditional woman’s roles equally valued, advocated, supported, and respected.  Not a situation where girls are pushed into medicine and engineering in order to prove someone else’s political point!

We seem to have an odd tendency as a culture to say nice things about stay-at-home motherhood when directly challenged, but to talk and behave the rest of the time as if it was a waste of people’s time and talents, which no intelligent girl or woman could possibly “want” to engage in.

The acceptance that stay-at-home motherhood is not the right way for every family to do things, and the insistence that it isn’t a laudable ambition for a young woman** who’s drawn in that direction to “want” to occupy herself chiefly with the daily care of her family, are very different things.

Cherry Foster

 

*Or suppose, being at the stage I’m describing, you go to a social gathering, etc. I couldn’t write it to include that grammatically without it being hopelessly confusing.

**Or for a young man.  The gender specific language here is chiefly because I am trying to make a point specifically about women and feminism, not because I think stay-at-home fatherhood is wrong, or that it should be off the map.  I am not an egalitarian but a complementarian: I don’t want men who are suited to usually feminine roles, or women who are suited to usually masculine roles, to be prevented by prejudice or convention from doing them, but I don’t think it helps to try to obliterate the tendency of some roles and tasks to devolve more to men or women.  Rather I think, where relevant, a masculine or feminine environment should be aware of its tendencies and understand what it needs to do to welcome and include members of the minority gender.

Choose love – true love that is deeper than involuntary inclination

Why I don’t think that the current catchphrase “you can’t choose who you fall in love with” is an argument for same-sex marriage or the morality of sexual acts between people of the same sex.

Disclaimers: I am not saying in what follows that to have homosexual inclinations is a choice. I am conscious of – and deeply troubled by – the inconsistency within my church institution, in sanctioning things that are against the New Testament standard of chastity for people who are heterosexual, while being strict (in theory at least) about them in people who are homosexual. Granted, I want consistency restored in the direction of restoring New Testament standards of chastity for heterosexuals at the institutional level, but I do recognise the real grievance and the real inequality in upholding these standards for one group of people and throwing them out for another.

I am not not NOT saying that sexual activity between two consenting adults, no matter how unethical I’d argue it is, is evil on the level of rape, particularly of the rape of the most vulnerable and the most entitled to protection and respect – i.e. children. And I do not, in any context, argue that something should be illegal merely because it is unethical. Moreover, I appreciate the historical need certain groups of people had to disassociate themselves vigorously from those who were trying to argue not for the legality of non-violent sexual acts between consenting adults in private, but for the removal of necessary and legitimate protections from children, and the cultural inconsistency I’m pointing out may partly result from that.

Now I shall proceed regarding what this post is actually about!

 

The current catchword for the liberal agenda on homosexuality seems to be, “choose love”. “You can’t help who you fall in love with, how you feel about sex, therefore, same-sex marriage and sexual acts between people of the same sex etc. must be good and right between people who are that way inclined”.

What I wish to argue is that this “therefore” is not actually correct. (That is, that the premise is true but that the conclusion does not follow).

It is a fundamental – and I believe quite correct – insistence of the agenda that uses the “choose love” type catchword, that people are not responsible for their romantic or sexual inclination: therefore, that this should not be subject to moral judgement, and I feel they tend to imply that it must follow that this means it must be good and right to indulge that inclination.

But one cannot then consistently say, as I feel our society tends to: “homosexuals and heterosexuals merely develop differently; this is completely involuntary,” and “paedophiles are inherently disgusting”, as if people with that sexuality are making the moral choice to have that inclination.

That is, if we assume that the development of a sexuality is not voluntary, and should always be respected and acknowledged as part of the person, we have to assume that this is so for everyone, including those whom we currently still condemn merely for being what they are, and who, it is a reasonable guess to say, are probably made to find it more difficult to be virtuous by the social disgust for their natural inclination (given that this seems to be what it has been like for people who are homosexual in the recent past). Acceptance of their experience and support in acting rightly towards children would be a far better response from society than condemning people because they are tempted to misuse children.

I don’t need to argue the case that it is evil to actually use children sexually – that is now mutually accepted on every side of this debate – however much some people on either side have failed to live it, or have wrongly condoned those failing to live it. (Our guilt as Christians is greater because we ought to be upholding a higher standard).

However, the fact of paedophilia, and the fact that it is agreed in the case of people who are paedophiles, that they must be celibate, means that it can never follow merely from the fact of a romantic or sexual inclination that it is right to act upon it. We cannot define doing what we are inclined to do as “love”, regardless of other considerations. Of course, this is not an argument for the whole of traditional Christian chastity ethics, but it is one of the main reasons why I feel that the “choose love” argument is not merely inconclusive, but actually false. It isn’t an argument for the things it purports to be an argument for. I find it deeply frustrating to be continuously bombarded with it as though it obviously ought to change my mind!

However, while I don’t think “you can’t help who you fall in love with” offers any moral conclusion about what it is right to do sexually or romantically, it does dictate certain things about the right pastoral approach. That is, we should not be saying to our young people “trust God and he will make you straight” – that does not seem to be true – but “trust God and he will help you find chastity and true flourishing – as he does all those of us who experience these things differently from you”. And this should be what is said to a teenager who is developing paedophilia as much as it is to anyone else. In fact, I get the impression that a lot of people who are heterosexual, particularly those from certain places and certain church cultures, have also been taught to regard their involuntary sexual desires as wrong in themselves. It is important to make sure it is understood that sins of thought in this matter are what we deliberately do (like consciously indulging a fantasy of being in bed with the last attractive person we met in the street), not what we involuntarily think or feel (such as a picture of that person undressed coming randomly and disconcertingly into our heads).

 

As a philosopher and a Christian I would of course say to people who are homosexual, as to all others, “choose love”. But the set of actions which I think constitute choosing love are not those of the liberal agenda. What I would say in this context is: “choose love. Be physically celibate*. Choose the love which goes deeper than involuntary feeling, and respects the fact that the bodies of two people of the same sex are neither adapted nor designed for sexual activity with each other.”

The body in Christianity is part of the person, a good part of the person, and its biological and personal nature should be thoroughly and completely respected in the context of any sexual act. I am always frustrated, actually, by the similar argument in the context of Ellis Peters’ work, where Brother Cadfael justifies his (heterosexual) affairs with statements along the lines of “it would be an insult to repent of loving a woman like Mariam”**. It is not of loving her that you are bidden repent, but of the fact that you did not treat her with the fullness of love, to either not receive her body, or to commit your whole person utterly to her in marriage until the death of one of you***.

I am not, in saying that true love is deeper than involuntary emotion opposing “true love” and “involuntary emotion” in any black/white way. True love often encompasses involuntary emotion, or is built thereon. Despite the fact that I don’t believe marriage is about “two people in love”, I wouldn’t recommend a man and a woman marry without affection of that type, as the level of spiritual maturity it would take in this culture and in these circumstances to come to “true love” within a marriage without building its practical side partly on “in love” and on long term friendship, seems to me to be astronomical. But true love, love that really seeks the good of the other, can also sometimes mean overcoming our involuntary preferences, as when a mother or father lets their infant child attempt to climb up the climbing frame without assistance for the first time, despite the fact that they’d rather keep them completely safe and not let them acquire the probable bruises!

To those who would say to me frustratedly “you just don’t understand”, I know that this is quite true. I am heterosexual, and I am, more fundamentally, not you. The only way I can understand your experience of these things is by trying to hear what you are saying about it. And that is very necessary for moral enabling and practical support. We do need to build Church communities that support and encourage people in living the demands of the Gospel, rather than ones that lay heavy burdens on people and will not move to lift them themselves.

However, it does not seem to me that “you don’t understand the experience” is an argument for a change of principle. This is partly because the arguments I am making as to what it is right to do or not do are based on the dignity and nature of the body as part of the human person. I think that to argue that we can change the dignity and nature of the body by what we think or experience is to argue that the body is a possession of the mind, rather than equally a part of the person, and I think that to be incorrect. Mental and emotional experience matter, but they aren’t things that can logically overturn principles based on the nature of the body, because these principles are based on things which in this context necessarily take precedence over mental and emotional experience if the body is also to be truly regarded with honour. (This argument potentially works in an atheist/secular context, in that it does not rely directly on theology, though the emphasis I put on the human body as part of the person is undoubtedly shaped by the Christian tradition).

Primarily, though, within Christianity, the principle is based on the idea that God loves us, and he therefore gives difficult commands only because it is truly better for us, not because he is out to get us. There is no way it is consistent with the scriptural narrative to say “because I find this difficult, because it will lead to suffering, because it isn’t what I want, it can’t be God’s will”. Gethsemane alone would rule that out. On the other hand, there is also no way that we should be indifferent to human suffering or struggling. If one part of the body suffers, all others suffer with them. It is important that the approach within the church be pastoral, not in the sense of changing the principles, but in the sense of acknowledging the real extent and nature of people’s challenges in living the Gospel.

Ultimately, I would argue that this whole issue of how one behaves sexually and romantically, for anyone regardless of their sexual/romantic inclination, is not about choosing love or not choosing love, but about coming to understand what it truly means to love.

 

 

* I oppose same-sex marriage because it would be illogical in the context of what I think marriage is, but I have no strong opinion either way on romantic but physically celibate relationships between two people of the same sex.

** I have not the book at present, so while I believe the attribution correct, this may not be a precise quote. The argument I am making does not rely on its source.

***See also 1 Corinthians 6:18, and the following verses.

 

People are welcome to comment. However, I suggest reading at least the disclaimers at the beginning again first (make sure you understand more or less what I’m really saying – or ask if I haven’t been clear), assume the goodwill of anyone who disagrees with you, and use arguments (“I think X because…”) rather than trying to shout others down.

Brownie Points

On responding well to the fluctuations of ability common in dyslexia/dyspraxia

A village hall, dusty, yellow floor, magnolia walls. A group of primary school age girls* in yellow jumpers and brown trousers or culottes, sitting around the hall tables, with circles of floral fabric and of cardboard.

Needles slip around the circles of cloth with varied skill. Some girls double their threads; some use single threads and accidentally unthread their needles. The stitches are pulled up, gathering the cloth to cover the cardboard. The base of a pincushion is formed.

I was good at sewing; I had sewed a lot at home. I was the first to finish. I spent most of the time helping other girls with less experience.

Brown Owl gave me five brownie points for achievement.

The same scene the week after. More circles of fabric. Instead of cardboard circles, the tables are covered in stuffing and plastic lids, lids from chocolate spread and peanut butter jars. Needles are pulled through cloth, this time to gather the fabric over a lid full of stuffing. Then glue is spread on the underneath, and the lid is stuck to the fabric covered cardboard, hiding the stitching, and adding an extra layer of strength to unskilled work.

I was, again, the first to finish the stitching. But as I pulled the gathering stitches up, I broke the thread.

I started again. Again it did not take me long to get around the circle. And again I broke the thread trying to gather the fabric.

Even now, twenty years later, and doing professional needlework, I never try to gather with sewing thread. I use crochet cotton or some other tough, smooth thread that is too strong to break by hand. Why this task, and only this task defeats me, I am not clear. I have a presentation of dyspraxia that has affected gross motor skills but not fine ones (a pattern I think is fairly common in post-stroke damage but unusual in developmental dyspraxia). Perhaps there is something in that particular task which uses the affected part of the brain. Or perhaps it is just harder to put right than most other mistakes that can be made while stitching. But this type of situation is my normal experience. Suddenly, in the middle of something I was good at, came a task I actually could not do, for no apparent reason. Sometimes – worse – it was a question of being able to do or not do literally the same thing on one day and not on another. How inherently frustrating that is can surely be imagined.

I cannot remember how many times I tried to gather that piece of cloth.  In the end, I was the last girl to finish, assisted by one of the leaders, highly frustrated and feeling somewhat humiliated.

Brown Owl gave me five Brownie points for persevering.

It was not a typical response to that frequently occurring situation of being both good and bad at the same thing. The typical response was anger, contempt, and punishment. I was messing around, doing it on purpose, not making an effort. My year two teacher picked up my work on a bad day and told the rest of the class “this is how your work should not look”.

I don’t want to be too hard on my teachers, who were certainly not individually to blame, though I feel our culture surrounding children is. Children should be expected to co-operate (and it should be them not the teacher who is blamed if they don’t) and adults should not assume arrogance rather than frustration, lack of effort rather than an odd pattern of talents and abilities.

I did not receive a correct diagnosis of the problem till I was seventeen, or a full one until I was twenty (the diagnosis at seventeen missing the fact that I had CVI). By which time, sadly, I had complex post-traumatic stress disorder from the combination of bullying by schoolfellows and lack of appropriate support or acceptance in an environment which for a child with that set of difficulties was extremely difficult and hostile.

Looking back, I think apart from not judging (i.e. it not being the default answer to assume that a child who struggles is doing it on purpose rather than having real difficulty), the main things to do for a child with this tendency are to encourage them just to plod on through all the frustrations, to praise them for doing their best on a bad day even though their work is mediocre, to accept (and to encourage them to accept) that their abilities do have an unusually high tendency to fluctuate day-to-day, or within a particular category of activity, and that this is an ok way for someone to be.

And I will be for ever grateful to Brown Owl for doing exactly that.

Brownie uniform photo credit Lia copyright to attribution
This isn’t precisely the uniform I wore, but it is more similar to it than the current UK uniform is, with badge sash and long sleeved yellow top. As I remember it, the navy blue in that picture was dark brown in our uniform, as was the word “Brownies” printed across the front of the sweater. Photo credit: Lia; photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

*For international readers: Brownies in England were aged 7-10 when I was a member.  I was probably eight or nine.  Primary School is 4-11.  Year 2 is ages 6-7.