Quick! What the Hell is Ash Wednesday?

So much of religion centers on food.

The faithful, it seems, are constantly feasting or fasting. Indulging or holding back. In Christianity, this feasting-fasting cycle is never more apparent than during the Easter season, which kicks off with Mardi Gras (feasting!), followed by Lent (fasting!), which finally — and mercifully — culminates in Easter (feasting again!)

Yesterday was Mardi Gras (AKA Fat Tuesday) — which means New Orleans had one hell of a street party. Many Catholics were getting their  ya-ya’s out because today is the beginning of Lent (AKA Ash Wednesday) — the day that millions of people around the world stop buying Starbucks, swearing like sailors, gossiping about their co-workers, and eating entire sticks of butter while watching porn.

Poor bastards. What happened to everything in moderation?

Anyway, here’s the low-down on Ash Wednesday.

Holiday: Ash Wednesday

Religion represented: Christianity

Date: Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter Sunday.

Celebrates: The first day of Lent.

What is Lent? The 40-day “fasting” period leading up to Easter. (Observers are afforded six built-in “breaks” — every Sunday during Lent, which means Lent begins 46 days before Easter.)

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Maybe a 5.

Star of the Show: Jesus

Back Story: According to the Gospels, Jesus spent 40 days wandering the desert, and fasting, before beginning his ministry, which led up to his death. Ash represents the idea that people came from ash, and to ash they will return — a reminder of Christians’ mortality. Also, ash is symbolic of penance, contrition and a desire to “burn away” sins..In the early days of the church, only Christians who had committed “grave sins” were marked with ash (Think the “Scarlet Letter A”) and prohibited from reentering the church until they had recited the Seven Penitential Psalms and performed 40 days of “penance and absolution.” Now, of course, Christians partake voluntarily.

Associated Literary Passages: Mentions of ash can be found in 2 Samuel 13:19Esther 4:1Job 2:8Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21, among others.

Ash Wednesday: Observers attend worship services, where a priest or minister combines ashes with water or a little oil, dips his or her thumb into the mixture, and uses it to make the sign of the cross on parishioner’s foreheads.

The Food and Fun: Food and fun? Um, not so much, unless you include Fat Tuesday — which occurs the day before Ash Wednesday and serves as Christians’ last hurray before Lent. Traditionally, Christians are meant to “give up” something they enjoy and instead give to charity. For example, one might give up watching TV and instead donate that time to volunteer work. Or a person might give up Dr. Pepper and use the money saved to buy toys for poor children. That sort of thing. It’s actually a really beautiful idea — taking away something we love and, in a sense, giving it away to someone else. Selflessness at its best.

Conveying meaning to kids: Maybe show a picture of a person with an ashen cross on his head. Explain that, on Ash Wednesday, lots of Christians go to church to receive this symbol. (If you haven’t touched on the fact that a cross is a religious symbol, now would be a good time.) People who receive the cross, you can say, are showing their devotion to their God and their desire to turn away from sin (bad acts), so that they will be invited into heaven when they die. Then you can explain the three aspects of Lent and introduce the idea of giving up something you love and giving to someone in need. If the children are interested in giving Lent a whirl, maybe brainstorm some ideas and embark on the experiment together.

Be sure to check out other entries in Relax, It’s Just God’Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents.

A version of this blog originally appeared in February 2012.

From the Mind of an 8-year-old: ‘Who Made Up God?’

Rope SwingMy daughter is on her rope swing, looking out into the blue sky just beyond the fence line of our front yard. She is thinking quietly. And deeply, as it turns out.

“Who made up God?” she asks.

“What?” I say. Because I am inside and can barely hear her.

“Who made up God?” she asks again. I walk to the open door, pondering the question. It sounds as though she might expect me to name someone — an actual person responsible for the creation of this great character that she’s heard so much about.

“Quentin Tarantino,” I think about saying, but don’t.

I go back to my old reliable: Some people believe... It’s imprinted in my brain by now.

“Well, you know,” I say, “some people believe God is not made up at all—”

“—yeah yeah yeah, I know,” she says, totally interrupting me.

She is 8, see, and 8-year-olds do not need to be told things they’ve been told before. Because 8-year-olds have brains like steel traps. They remember everything. Except, you know, where they last left their backpack. And their lunch box. And their homework and shoes and every hand-held electronic they own. But, like, everything else.

“I mean,” she continues, “who was the first person to have the idea of God?”

“Okay, that’s a really great question,” I say, because it is, isn’t it? Incidentally, I do not know how to answer this particular question, but I do know precisely where she last left her backpack, lunch box, homework, shoes and Kindle.

This is 40.

Anyway, I say something about how the idea of God and gods has been around for many thousands of years. No one knows who the first believers were, but the idea might even go back to the first humans. Probably, I tell her, it wasn’t just one person but a bunch of people who started believing around the same time.

“Why?” she asks.

Another great question. “People believe in God or gods for all sorts of reasons,” I say. “It makes them feel good to not be alone. It makes them feel good to believe that something larger is out there, watching over them. And it makes some people feel good to believe that they’ll live on after they die.”

The answer satisfies her — she moves on to something else — but it doesn’t satisfy me. I start wondering: How far back does belief go? What exactly were those early believers lacking or longing for? What is it that led them to spirituality?

So I did some Googling.

unesco5Here’s what I found out:

1. There’s no telling for sure when belief in the supernatural first took root. What we do know is based on archeological finds that point to ritual behaviors. Rituals = supernatural beliefs, or at least that’s the idea.

2. Evidence of rituals dates back at least 130,000 years; that’s when we know homo sapiens intentionally buried their dead — suggesting that they may have believed in some sort of an afterlife. (Burials actually go back to the Neanderthal period, some 300,000 years ago, but we don’t know whether those burials were intentional.)

3. These early rituals didn’t involve gods, per se. (This was 125,000 years before Zeus even entered the picture.) According to scholars, the beliefs of these early humans probably resembled totemism or animism, both of which are practiced today and emphasize the spiritual essence of all living things. In totemism plants and animals are thought to possess supernatural powers, and totems are thought to “interact” with individual peoples or tribes, thus serving as their emblem or symbol. (Not unlike school mascots.) You can read more about totemism here and here. I plan to. It’s fascinating stuff.

I still can’t answer Maxine’s questions about the when and the why of religious belief, but next time she asks, at least I’ll be a little more prepared about the what.

“Mommy, What’s Satan?”

Of all the religious concepts that I’ve discussed with my 8-year-old daughter, Satan has been one of the toughest — partly because it seems awkward to speak of something so nasty and awful in a matter-of-fact way. But that’s precisely what makes it a great addition to “Mommy, What’s That?” a new series I launched last week, where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas to children in a non-religious way. So here goes. Satan:

The short answer:

Satan is the “bad guy” in the Bible.

The long answer:

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In the Hebrew Bible, God is the hero who wants people to be good, and Satan is the villain who tries to tempt people into being bad. (Think Batman and the Joker.) Some people believe Satan is just a fictional character. Some people believe Satan is a real being who changes forms so he can trick people into doing bad things. (Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden.) Some people think Satan is just a symbol of the “bad” parts of human beings — because no one is perfect, and everyone is bad sometimes. Some people believe Satan is a “fallen” angel who turned against God and now lives in a place called hell. You will sometimes hear people talk about “the devil” — they’re talking about Satan.

“Mommy, What’s an Angel?”

From Leonardo Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks AngelShortly before Christmas, I got a text from a friend:

“What’s an angel?” she wrote. How do I explain this to a 3yo from an agnostic POV? I told him I had to get back to him!

In mixed-faith and non-faith families, the simplest questions can jam up our thinking. Even the most straightforward answers can cause massive confusion.

“According to the dictionary, honey, angels are spiritual beings believed to act as a messengers of God, conventionally represented in human form with wings, a halo and long robes.”

Um, like, no.

At the same time, we kinda gotta say something.

That’s why, beginning this week, I’ll be running a new series, where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas in a non-religious way.

Miracles, sin, salvation, dharma — they’ll all be covered in the coming months. Please feel free to suggest concepts to explain, or to share how you have gone about explaining these things.

In each segment, I’ll start with the most basic, abbreviated answer — the one appropriate for my friend’s three-year-old. Then I’ll add some context. (How much explanation is appropriate depends on the age/maturity of each individual child.)

Sistine Madonna, detail

“What’s An Angel?”

The Short Answer:

An angel is like a person with wings, kind of like a fairy.

The Long Answer:

Angels are a part of many religious legends and stories. They are said to live with God and do only “good” things. That’s why people might use the word “angel” when talking about a person they think is very good. (Parents sometimes call their children “little angels.”) Some stories say God has special angels, called “guardian angels,” who watch over the people of Earth and help keep them safe. Some religious people believe human beings become angels when they die. 

Some people think angels are real. Other people think angels are fun to think about and read about, but that — like fairies — they don’t really exist. 

 

Talking About Belief With Kids: When Logic Threatens to Overshadow Kindness

UnknownMy daughter, Maxine, is 8 years old and really getting the hang of logic these days. If A is true, then B must be true. If you believe A, you must believe B. If A doesn’t exist… You get the drift.

Anyway, Maxine’s little cousin Jack  (4) is very into the movie Frozen right now, particularly the character of Elsa, the snow queen. Recently, when chatting about beliefs, he told his mom, “I believe in Elsa” — which is so cute it makes my heart hurt. But when I told Maxine about Jack’s statement, she immediately went into critical mode.

“Jack can’t believe in Elsa,” she said.

If Jack believes in Elsa, she explained, he has to believe in Olaf (the snowman friend) and Sven (the talking reindeer). This was clearly illogical, and the whole thing bothered her. You could tell she wanted to call Jack up right that instant and tell him how wrong he was.

This is not to say that Maxine is free of her own irrational beliefs, of course; she has plenty of them, believe me. But she is, for the first time, beginning to make logical arguments of her own and experiencing a very strong desire to set people straight when they come to the “wrong” conclusions. (God help us all.)

Belief

The whole thing has made me realize that this is a great time and opportunity to talk with her a little about tolerance. After all, how kids respond or react when someone holds irrational or illogical beliefs is a huge indicator of their level of tolerance, is it not? How Maxine responds to her little cousin’s announcement could easily indicate her ability to exercise restraint, compassion and kindness in the face of absurd testimony. And, let’s face it, she will be hearing (and reading) a lot of that in her life.

We already know kids need to be encouraged to think critically about different beliefs, to weigh those beliefs against what they know to be true, and to figure out what makes sense to them. This is important stuff for kids.

But thinking critically about other’s beliefs is very different from criticizing others’ beliefs. We need to explain to our kids that people have lots of different reasons for believing the way they do and sometimes those reasons won’t make any kind of sense. But everyone has a right to their own personal beliefs, and they don’t deserve to be made fun of, or criticized, or talked into changing those beliefs. Unless their beliefs are hurting someone, people deserve to be left alone.

We all do.

If Maxine chooses not to believe in God, that’s nobody’s business but hers. If her cousin believes in Elsa, that’s nobody’s business but his.

Four Poignant Minutes from ‘This American Life’

historical-photos-pt3-martin-luther-king

In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, do yourself a favor and listen to the following four-minute clip from This American Life, Episode #188. The entire episode, which centers on children using “perfectly logical arguments and arriving and perfectly wrong conclusions,” is titled Kid Logic. It originally aired in June 2001 and has been making its rounds ever since because it’s just. that. good. If you haven’t heard it, and hopefully you already have, be prepared. It might may you cry. It will definitely make you think.

(Among Kid Logic’s other highlights is the hilarious and adorable story of a little girl who, in second grade, comes home from school announcing that she has finally discovered the true identity of the tooth fairy. Listen here.)

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Also, a quick thank you to Kids on the Coast, an online magazine in Australia, for including me in its Jan. 17 article Believe It or Not. You’re good people, Australia.

Everything You Need to Know About Islam to Get Your Kids Up to Speed (Okay, Maybe Not EVERYTHING)

Islamic girlYou know what my life is missing? A Muslim kid.

There’s no doubt that if I had Muslim friends with a Muslim child, I would be telling my 8-year-old a lot more about Islam than I do — not just because I would want her understand her friends’ beliefs, but because it would naturally just “come up” more often.

Having a living, breathing religious person in our midst really is the perfect invitation for religious literacy I’ve ever found. And vice versa! That’s part of the reason I’m glad some of my friend’s children know about my lack of religious beliefs; it gives those families an opening to talk about atheism and agnosticism in a compassionate way.

That Muslims so far have been given short shrift in my household is particularly disappointing given that Islam is one of the most widely misunderstood of the world’s religions. So, starting today, which happens to be Muhammad’s Birthday, I’m determined to find a few new ways to work Islam into our conversations. Anyone want to join me? If so, here are the basics:

Islam

Founded: 610

Deity: Allah (“The God” in Arabic)

Famous Dogma: There is only one true Allah, and this Allah neither begets nor is begotten. (This is  different from Hinduism, which encourages the worship of many gods, and Christianity, which encourages the worship of Jesus as Allah’s “only begotten son.” Muslims revere Muhammad, but they do not worship him.)

Prayer rugs

Methods of Worship: Prayer (required five times a day, using prayer mats that face a building called the Kaaba in the middle of Mecca), reciting/singing the Qur’an, almsgiving, and fasting during the month of Ramadan. Formal services occur at mosques every Friday at noon.

Symbol: Star and the crescent

crescent-200

Major Sects: Sunni and Shia

Sacred Texts: The Qur’an and the Hadith

Life-Cycle Celebrations: Naming ceremonies, marriages, pilgrimages to Mecca  — which are called Hajj.

Traditional Views of Afterlife: Righteous believers — those who pray, donate to charity, read the Qur’an and believe in one true Allah — are said to go to Paradise, a garden-like place of pleasure. Hell is depicted as a fiery place where those who do not conform to the teachings of the Qur’an will be banished forever.

BurkasClothing: The Qur’an encourages all Muslim men and women to dress modestly, but some Muslims have interpreted parts of the Qu’ran in a way that requires women to wear hijab (pronounced hee-JOB), clothing that covers the head and/or body. Most American Muslim women wear only head coverings as their hijab, while more devout Muslim women may be seen in face veils and abayas — long cloaks worn over their clothing. Only in very strict countries (such as Afghanistan) do women wear hijab in the form of full burkas, which cover their entire bodies, head to toe, including their eyes.

MuhammadMajor Narrative: Muḥammad was born in 570 CE in the Arabian city of Mecca. He was orphaned at age 6 and placed with family members — first his grandmother and then his uncle. He was a merchant and a shepherd and was known around Mecca as a man of high character. As an adult, Muhammad regularly took a few weeks off to meditate by himself in a nearby cave. During one visit, made when he was 40, Muhammad said he heard a voice speak to him. It was, he later learned, the angel Gabriel (yes, the same Gabriel from Christianity) acting as a sort of liaison to Allah and delivering messages intended just for him. Allah, Muhammad said, told him that there was only one true Allah, and that Muhammad should call himself a prophet and deliver messages about how to be a good Muslim — to be forgiving, charitable and empathetic to those less fortunate. Muhammad did as he was told, and was said to receive messages from God throughout the next two decades. Those messages eventually were compiled into the Qua’ran.

Interesting Fact: Depicting the prophet Muhammad is expressly forbidden in Islam, which is why Arabic calligraphy is such a popular art form in Islamic countries.

Important Holidays: Ramadan (a month of fasting celebrating Allah’s first contacted Muhammad), Eid ul-Fitr (a feast celebrating the end of Ramadan), Eid al-Adha (celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for Allah), and Mawlid al-Nabi (Muhammad’s birthday.)

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Recommended Reading: My First Ramadan by Karen Katz (ages 3-5); The Best Eid Ever by Asma Mobin-Uddin and Laura Jacobsen (5 and up); Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story by Hena Khan and Julie Paschkis (6 and up); Celebrating Ramadan by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith (7 and up); , Muhammad by Demi (8 and up)

Recommended Viewing: Muhammad: The Last Prophet, an animated film about Muhammad’s life, is intended for small children. For slightly older children, there’s Koran by Hearta touching HBO documentary that follows three 10-year-old Muslim children.

Middle Eastern foodRecommended Eating: “Haram” refers to foods not permitted under Islamic law (alcohol and pork being the main prohibitions) “Halal” refers to foods that are permitted — including any meat which has been slaughtered according to Sharia law (for example, the animal must be treated well, must not suffer during death, and must face Mecca at the time of slaughter). Other good stuff: hummus, Baba ganoush, tabbouleh, pita bread, rice, kebabs, chicken shawarma…

•••

After writing this post, I realized that I do know a Muslim child. In a way, we all do. Malala Yousafzai, who is fighting for the rights of all children to receive an education in Afghanistan, could well be considered the new face of Islam. Non-Muslims may not agree with her religious beliefs, but her actions as a human being transcend all of that. What we hold in common is far more powerful than what what sets us apart. Let’s make sure we let our children know that.

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Quick! What the Hell is St. Valentine’s Day?

Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: Feb. 14

Celebrates: A Christian martyr who lived in ancient Rome.

What it is, really: A day people celebrate romance and love by giving each other flowers, cards and candy hearts.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: St. Valentine’s Day ranks at about .5, religiously speaking. This, according to my sister’s Catholic in-laws, who said St. Valentine is rarely, if ever, mentioned at Mass. In fact, Valentine’s Day is widely considered a secular holiday.

Stars of the Show: St. Valentine

Back Story: No one really knows. In fact, it’s probably that Valentine referred to not one saint, but several. Sometimes you’ll hear that St. Valentine was a priest killed for continuing to perform marriages even after Emperor Claudius II outlawed them in 3rd century. Supposedly, according to this story, Claudius thought single men made better soldiers and prohibited marriage for a time. But this is legend, rather than belief.

Associated Literary Passages: There are none.

So what’s a saint?: The word “saint” has different meanings. But usually when we hear the word, we’re talking about a Catholic who has been dead a number of years and who now serves as a sort of liaison between people and God. Catholics often pray directly to certain saints in hope that their prayers are more likely to be heard. And many saints — “patron saints” — have specialties, relating to the places where they lived, the professions they held, or some particular malady or situation they encountered during their lifetimes. Here’s a list of patron saints, broken down by their specialties. I found one, St. Drago, who is the patron saint of unattractive people. Poor guy. Jesus is considered the first and best saint.

The difference between Christian and Catholic: A Catholic is a Christian whose church is led by the pope. Catholics believe that their church alone was “founded” by Jesus Christ, and that the pope is the sole successor to Simon Peter (St. Peter), who features prominently in the New Testament and was pivotal in the spread of early Christianity. Click here to find out more about Catholicism.

Becoming a saint: Sainthood used to be rather informal. Christian martyrs  — those who refused to turn against their religion and were killed for it — and other pious people were often “sainted” after they died. In more recent years, however, the Vatican has imposed specific requirements to canonization. In order to be considered a saint, one must perform two miracles after they’re dead. Yes, you heard me right: After.

Conveying meaning to kids: Use the holiday to explain a little bit about Catholicism. You might start off by explaining that although all Christians traditionally believe that Jesus was the son of God, Catholics have other beliefs and special rules they follow. You can tell them that many Catholics believe that God has helpers in heaven, called saints, and that these helpers listen to people’s prayers and ask God to answer them. You might ask your child to pay attention to all the places “saint” appears in their everyday life — from the name of the New Orleans football team, to the names of cities and islands and universities, skin products and watches. You might find out if there’s a saint who shares your child’s name.

That and, of course, Valentine’s cards.

 

 

 

Are Mormons Christian? Here’s the Simple Answer

This weekend I was sitting in the living room with my daughter, listening to music on my iSomething-or-Other, when a song from the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon came on. The song was “Hello,” the musical’s perfectly executed opening number (and the one featured at the 2012 Tony Awards, below.)

Maxine was fascinated by the song. She loved all the doorbell-ringing, and the goofy voices, and the part when Elder Grant asks, “Are these your kids?” She must have replayed the song four or five times before moving on to something else. But, all the while, I knew she didn’t really “get” any of it.  She’d never seen a Mormon missionary. She’d never even heard of Mormons.

So I gave her a quick run-down. I told her Mormons were part of a religious group, and that Mormons are known for going door-to-door to talk about their religion.

“Oh!” Maxine said. “I thought everyone was coming to their house.”

Nope, I said, the other way around. Mormons ring other people’s doors to tell them about the Book of Mormon, which is kind of like their Bible. Sometimes, I told her, you’ll see them in our neighborhood. You can tell they’re Mormon because they usually wear white shirts with black ties.

“And bicycle helmets,” my husband added, because he’s helpful like that.

We left it there; I’ve learned not to over-do it when it comes to religious literacy. But ever since then I’ve been thinking about how, if asked, I would frame the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Would I categorize it as Christian or non-Christian?

mormon_christian_pinback_buttons-r8d2c999466724c59a514028d6bab01bd_x7j3i_8byvr_324That question has been the source of great debate since shortly after the church was founded in the 1820s. Mitt Romney would tell you that LDS is most definitely Christian. My Presbyterian uncle would tell you the opposite. images

Romney, who ran for president in 2012 and had a vested interest in being perceived as part of the majority, would surely emphasize that Mormons believe Jesus is the son of God and their savior, and that the only way to heaven is by following his example. (Pretty Christian-sounding, right?)

Yet LDS has adopted a whole manner of other beliefs that go far beyond what lies in Christian doctrine. The main one, of course, is that a guy from Vermont named Joseph Smith became a prophet of God who, with help from an angel, unearthed the ancient writings of other prophets, which all but instructed him to establish a new church. (Decidedly non-Christian.)

It doesn’t matter to me personally whether Mormons are Christian or not. In the eyes of non-believers, most religions operate on the same planes of being anyway. Hindus could call themselves Zoroastrian, and I wouldn’t have much of an opinion about it.

But I do want to be able to answer my kid’s questions as accurately as I can, so… Are Mormons Christian? After some consideration, here’s a simple answer:

Most religions evolve from other religions: Someone longs for something different, or learns something new, and starts spreading a different message than the one that came before. When enough people pay attention to that message, a religion is born. One could argue that Western religions — including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism — all grew out of the same basic principal: There is one God. When you remove all the special customs and “side-beliefs,” one might say that Judaism is basically Christianity without the Jesus; Christianity is Islam without the Muhammad; and Mormonism is Christianity with the Joseph Smith.

Is Mormonism its own distinct religion? Definitely. Is it based in Christianity? Definitely. Done and done. Next house— er, question.

4 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Heading into a Confrontation

Confrontation

Confrontation: (n.) a face-to-face meeting; the clashing of forces or ideas; a situation in which people fight, oppose,or challenge each other in an angry way.

Like most people, I have sort of a love-hate relationship with confrontation. I’m drawn to it and repelled by it in almost equal measure.

On the one hand, confrontation is a necessary byproduct of honesty, integrity and self-worth. To be capable and willing to confront that which we find offensive, unacceptable or harmful is the mark of a strong character, is it not? Those who shrink from confrontation may well be considered “nice,” but are just as likely to be considered “weak.” Plus, sometimes, confrontation is a great release; by holding back our feelings, opinions or fears, we are quite likely to become victims of our own spinelessness. (That, or maddeningly passive-aggressive.)

On the other hand, confrontation can be — and often is — a wholly obnoxious thing to behold. In the wrong hands, confrontation becomes selfish, foolish, reckless and hurtful. I know more than a few people whose confrontational demeanors are motivated not by any real passion or concern, but by their own low self-esteem and desire for attention. Confrontational people are as likely to be labeled “strong,” as they are to be labeled “overbearing.” Indeed, without forethought or reflection, confrontation is merely wasted energy that damages relationships and accomplishes nothing.

I suppose it’s obvious why I’m writing about this. In the Land of Confrontation, Religion is a frequent visitor. (Or is it the other way around?) In the last few years, as I’ve blogged my way through any number of religious issues, I’ve had to evaluate and reevaluate what I am willing to confront, and when, and how. It’s made me think a lot about confrontation in general, too.

In my 40 years on the planet, I haven’t always gotten it right. I’ve said things I wish I hadn’t. I’ve made big deals out of nothing. I’ve intimidated people, hurt their feelings unintentionally, come away feeling guilty and remorseful. Likewise, I’ve chosen not to confront things that I should have. I’ve opted for status quo in order to avoid discomfort. My own fear of hurting peoples’ feelings or of getting an angry reaction have kept me from saying things that might have “freed” me of pain, fear or frustration; from understanding others’ perspectives; from strengthening bonds with those I love; or from making myself a better, more honest person.

These days, though, when it comes to confrontation, I seek a middle path. I try to confront others with deliberation, consideration and kindness, with an eye on what can be gained and what can be lost. It’s been my experience that aiming for the center gets me closer to becoming the person I want to be — and the person I want my daughter to be. After all, how we confront our differences with other people, religious or otherwise, says an awful lot about who we are.

But what does a middle path look like? Every confrontation has the potential for failure or success, so how do we know who and what’s worth confronting? How do we measure the risks versus the rewards? When should we go big, and when should we just go home?

Running through the following series of questions can help you get some clarity:

1. How important is this issue?

Whether you’re on the giving or receiving end, confrontations can be emotionally exhausting. Confronting people over every problem or concern will quickly turn you into a high-maintenance drama queen. That said,  it’s a mistake to believe that only “big issues” are worth confronting. Small issues often deserve our attention, too. If you find yourself thinking about a problem for an extended period, unable to “move on” in your mind, then it’s probably an issue worth confronting. Will it go your way? Maybe, maybe not. But your feelings are important; treat them that way. Otherwise, you risk selling yourself, and your relationships, short.

2. How important is this person?

The closer you are to a person who has, say, offended or hurt you, the more likely it is that you’ll need to confront them head-on. It’s why we argue with our spouses and partners more than just about anyone else; those arguments may be painful, but they’re usually worth it. That’s not necessarily the case when offensive comments or hurtful behavior come from those in your “outer circle” — distant relatives, occasional acquaintances, Internet friends. If people don’t matter to you in your day-to-day life, confronting them on much of anything will hold little long-term value. And it may send the message that they’re more important to you than they really are.

3. Have I had time to reflect?

We all have triggers — subjects that take our stress levels from zero to 60 in under a second. When triggered, we are likely to react emotionally, rather than to respond rationally. If this is the case, take a giant step back. Breathe for a while. Your initial reaction may or may not be the right one. And, either way, giving yourself a day — hell, even an hour! — to recalibrate won’t weaken your position and may very well strengthen it. With a cool head, you’re likely be perceived as someone with a legitimate, thoughtful concern rather than dismissed as a hot head with anger-management issues.

4. What do I hope to accomplish? 

Every confrontation should have a stated purpose. Maybe you need to know something, for instance, or you need something to change.  Maybe you want to educate people, or be heard and understood. Maybe you need to admit something you did or will do or want to do. Whatever the reason for seeking out confrontation, try to do so appropriately and deliberately. If a confrontation holds the potential to hurt someone’s feelings, or make you sad, or damage your friendship, be doubly sure that your purpose is noble, necessary and worth the risk. That way, you’ll have no regrets — even if things don’t go your way.

Oh, and one more thing: Don’t forget to accept confrontation graciously when it comes your way. When approached with kindness, confrontation is a gift. It signals your importance to the person doing the confronting, and your reaction will either encourage or discourage the person from sharing their feelings with you. Be a role model. That way, when the situation is reversed, you’ll have laid the groundwork for a mature and compassionate meeting of the minds.

Happy New Year, everyone!


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