Let’s Go to Theology Class! Week Ten

Unfortunately, my weekly theology class posts got a bit behind. So today I am jumping to the tenth week of class. I started Systematic Theology II today, and will begin summarizing lessons from that class next Monday.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

We are presented with a critical theological question: Have we inherited Adam’s sin nature and his guilt?

MY PERSONAL BELIEF IS we are all held accountable for our own sins and called to work out our own salvation daily (Phil. 2:12). Paul says we are to do whatever God puts before us without complaining or questioning, adding, “for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13-14, RSV). Ezekiel covers this issue succinctly in chapter eighteen. He writes about a “word from God” in which the LORD said Israel was to no longer refer to the proverb that “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2).God clarifies in 18:4 that it is the soul who sins that shall die. This passage of Scripture clearly indicates that a father must “model” good and righteous behavior for his son.

Through what psychology calls social learning theory (to borrow from my undergraduate studies), children tend to mimic the behavior of their primary care givers or role models. This dovetails nicely with Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” If an upright father begets a son prone to evil and violence, that son shall lose his life. In fact, “his blood shall be upon himself” (18:13). Moreover, if a father who has done evil begets a son who chooses a righteous path rather than repeating the sins of the father, “he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live” (18:17, italics mine). God said, “The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (18:20).

I would be remiss, however, if I did not address Exodus 20:5b, which says, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” I’ve heard this passage explained from a sociological (albeit Judeo-Christian) perspective. The Zondervan Bible Commentary indicates that “the third and fourth generation reflects the greatest probable extent of the range of members of any one family actually living together in one household.” In other words, God wanted the Israelites to see the “lasting” impact their choices would likely have because of the nature of extended families at that time. This seems to indicate the “social learning theory” of children and grandchildren observing and imitating sinful or disobedient behavior. Isaiah 14:1-23 suggests it is Israel’s cause that will be pleaded in the quarrel with Babylon prophesied in Revelation 18.

There is much symbolism afoot regarding the oracles on God’s word to the nations (Isa. 13:1-23:18). I see this as a corporate issue rather than one of individual “guilt” or condemnation. Paul addresses the concept of guilt under the New Covenant. He says, “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned—sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come…if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:12-14, 17).

If we look at the question of inherited guilt versus inherited sin from a position of covenant, we can better understand that there was no remedy for our sin nature under the Old Covenant. Consider the Abrahamic (or Land) Covenant. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations and of many descendants, and that He would give the entire Land of Canaan to Abraham’s heirs. Unfortunately, many Jews had begun to mumble and complain, and to doubt God. They were fearful of the “giants” occupying the land promised to them by God. Because of disobedience and fear (indeed, the lack of faith, which is sinfu), the Israelites living at the time of the Land Covenant were barred from entering. God was angered, but His response was very specific: “Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land which I swore to give to your fathers, except Caleb the son of Jephun’neh; he shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land upon which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the LORD” (Deut. 1:36, italics mine).

Wayne Grudem, in Systematic Theology, is adamant that we inherited Adam’s guilt. The biblical authority for his position is Romans 5:12: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” He also cites Romans 5:18, “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.” In context, however, the apostle Paul seems to be talking about justification and reconciliation, juxtaposing it with condemnation and trespass. Paul writes, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (5:19). There is a comparison here of law, sin, and offense to grace and righteousness. The Revised Standard Version does not use the word “guilt” in any of these passages. Neither does the KJV, NASB, or the NIV. Instead, there are numerous references to sin and trespass. The word trespass in Greek and Hebrew indicates an action or offense. It seems to point to an “event” wherein man chose to defy God and commit a forbidden act. For me, we inherit Adam’s nature to sin and disobey, but we are not held accountable for his personal act of disobedience. If this were so, would the Word of God not explicitly state that we are condemned because of Adam’s disobedience; that we must be sentenced to eternal damnation to excuse Adam’s offense?

In addition to the above exegetical reasons, I do not think God expects us to carry our own guilt, let alone the guilt of previous generations. Paul wrote these words, which I believe will clarify how we are viewed by God, and how we should see ourselves, under the New Covenant: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 7:24-8:2). Grudem says, “The most persuasive answer to the objection [that we inherited Adam’s guilt] is to point out that if we think it is unfair for us to be represented by Adam, then we should also think it is unfair for us to be represented by Christ and to have his righteousness imputed to us by God” (p. 495). I agree with Grudem in part, but I don’t see it as indicating we are “guilty” of someone else’s sin or offense. Paul says sin came into the world by one man (Rom. 5:12), and, accordingly, the judgment following man’s original offense brought condemnation (Rom. 5:16). Agreed. Man is condemned to sin because we inherited Adam’s sin nature. Paul does not say, however, that we are being held accountable (adjudicated as guilty) for Adam’s original offense.

In fact, looking into Romans 5 using the Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament, I see reference to sin entering the world through one man, which verse fourteen calls “transgression” and “offense.” Because of this original offense, “many died.” Analysis of verse seventeen indicates death reigned because of original sin, but it has been countered by grace through the “second” man, that is Christ. According to the Zondervan Bible Commentary, Romans 5 serves to contrast the hopelessness of man (through Adam) with the gift of righteousness (through faith in Christ). Adam is said to be “a pattern, foreshadowing his future Counterpart: both are heads and inclusive representatives of the human creation, Adam of the old and Christ of the new.” This makes perfect exegetical sense to me. This “foreshadowing” includes all of  mankind, as Adam’s disobedience carried with it the consequence of both physical and spiritual death. Because of Adam, man was forcibly removed from the Garden; this served to cut him off from “direct access” to the tree of life and communion with God.

A “veil” as it were was put between man and God. The Zondervan Bible Commentary includes a quote from F. J. Leenhardt: “Since the entry of sin each man who is born into the world… finds a compromised situation confronting him…each generation and each individual act in such a way that the inner strength of rising individuals and generations is enfeebled, deflected and at times destroyed.” It seems clear to me that we are not held accountable for Adam’s original sin, therefore we are not guilty of that offense. However, we are under the control of sin because of Adam’s initial transgression. All have sinned since the time that our first parents disobeyed God. Our inherent sin nature takes away our freedom to choose righteousness and goodness. But through the obedience of the “second” man, there is therefore no condemnation. We are not held accountable for our own sins after accepting Christ. How could we be held to answer for what Adam did?

My thoughts on this matter are rooted in Augustine and Arminius. It was Augustine’s opinion that because man is a totally depraved sinner, lacking the ability to choose righteousness or good, it was necessary for God to initiate the process of salvation. Augustine believed that all individuals existed in Adam’s nature, so Adam’s sin was actually our sin. He said we inherited the guilt of Adam’s sin and its ultimate penalty: death. Of course, man was banished from the Garden, and, therefore, access to the Tree of Life (archetypal Jesus?). It seems the Reformed belief is that Adam was our “corporate” representative, and that when he sinned it was counted as sin for everyone. God’s grace is required in order to preordain man to choose properly, and it must precede any response to salvation. Augustine held that this so-called prevenient grace was given only to the elect.

This is quite similar to what Calvinists call special or electing grace. Arminius believed that man is depraved in every area of his being and, therefore, devoid of any righteousness or goodness. He did not believe we suffer any penalty for Adam’s original sin. In fact, Arminius said, ” It may admit of discussion, whether God could be angry on account of original sin which was born with us, since it seemed to be inflicted on us by God as a punishment of the actual sin which had been committed by Adam and by us in Him…. I did not deny that it was sin, but it was not actual sin…. We must distinguish between actual sin, and that which was the cause of other sins, and which, on this very account might be denominated “sin” (emphasis mine).

Wesley is well-known for believing nothing is sin, strictly speaking, except one’s individual transgression of a known Law of God. Based on Romans 5:15-19, Wesley believed that the death of Christ completely absolved Adam’s posterity of the eternal guilt of his original sin. In any event, I believe two things regarding God’s preordained plan for redemption: (1) that it was intended to provide the ultimate blood sacrifice for all of man’s sins, regardless of who committed them or how intentional or “accidental” those offenses were; and (2) that the death of Christ severed the “chain” of sin at the time Adam sinned (as God and all His intentions are not subject to time restrictions), and continues to this day to have interrupted the chain of guilt. We still have to consider Scripture, some of which you quoted in your reply to my initial post. Psalm 51:5 says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (RSV). Ephesians 2:3 tells us we are “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Matthew Henry indicates that Ephesians 2:1-10 addresses the nature of sin, man’s tendency toward sin, man’s state of “being naturally children of disobedience” and “children of wrath.” He adds, “Being born of God: he lives, being delivered from the guilt of sin, by pardoning and justifying grace.” 3 According to Dake, Ephesians 2:3 is specific to our being sinners by nature, born into sin. Romans 5:12 says, ” Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam” (emphasis mine). What does this mean to you? If we are held accountable for sins “not like” those of Adam, does Paul indicate here we are not adjudicated “guilty” for Adam’s individual sin, but are burdened with our own transgressions after the nature of disobedience exemplified by Adam? Please understand that I believe we inherited our sin nature from Adam; I am not convinced we are considered “guilty” in God’s eyes for Adam’s personal offense, i.e., his disobedience.

Universalism would say all babies go to Heaven because they believe everyone (eventually) will be saved. Universalism is not based on biblical doctrine. Because the Bible reveals that we are born tainted by original sin, we cannot claim that infants are born in a state of innocence. This question requires careful and faithful biblical exegesis and theological reflection. From a sentimental vantage, many will assure the parents of those whose child died very young that their child is in Heaven, but we must never base doctrine on what we hope may be true. We must determine what the Bible reveals to be true. It is also important to note that merely basing our answer on election actually avoids answering the question. Let’s remember that God is absolutely sovereign in salvation. He provides salvation to us despite the fact that we do not deserve it and can do nothing to earn it. It is all of grace. Accordingly, I believe Jesus graciously and freely receives those who die in infancy, but this is not based on their innocence or worthiness. It is based solely on His grace, and made possible by atonement He purchased on the cross. Any response beyond this would require an exegetical study.

References

Bruce, F.F., editor, Zondervan Bible Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 2008.

Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1994.

Henry, Matthew, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.), 1997.

Marshall, A., editor. The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1958.

 

Let’s Go to Theology Class! Week One

Summary of the first week of class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

AS I NOTED PREVIOUSLY, theology is an attempt by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world. Trevor Hart (1995) calls this exercise faith thinking. Although theology is typically undertaken as part of a higher education endeavor, the activity known as “Christian Theology” should be an inevitable consequence of life as a thinking Christian. Systematic Theology is defined as “an integrating discipline that studies how the church may bear enduring, timely, and truthful witness to God as revealed in Jesus Christ.”

Theology today specifically denotes the contemporary effort to speak about God in an orderly way. In order to understand how this can be accomplished, we must first look at the major approaches to knowing. Hart presents the quest for knowing through three distinct approaches: objectivism, relativism, and critical realism. He brings these three systems of thought to bear on theology. Hart sees theology as fidelis quaerens intellectum, which he identifies as “a believer seeking understanding,” adding, theology is best understood as “the attempt by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world” (p. 1).

Objectivism

 Hart believes theology is an inevitable activity of faith. He points out that good theology “is the disciplined and critical reflection of the community of faith upon the gospel entrusted to it” (p. 11). He says Christian theology is properly an inevitable consequence of life as a thinking Christian in the real world. He points out, however, that modern thought allows man to see only “the facts” of a particular matter, “…[striving] to clear away the accumulated detritus of interpretations, personal judgments and perspectives” (p. 45) which would do away with all untestable beliefs and assumptions. This is accomplished by testing all things before making a judgment. Hart calls this objectivism. By this, he means nothing—interpretations, assumptions, biases—should get in the way of determining truth. Skepticism states that nothing exists beyond which is perceived by the senses. Hart believes where religious faith is concerned, there is a disposition of passionate commitment to truth on an ontological basis—not a skeptical perspective.

When considering the subject of goodness or morality, an objectivist believes, according to Scott B. Rae (2009), that moral precepts existed prior to being espoused in God’s special revelation (Scripture). This is an ontological belief that there is a universal morality or truth independent of man’s interpretation. Rae states, “Objective goodness has always existed since it is rooted in God’s character [and] is revealed through natural law prior to God giving human beings the Bible” (p. 49). Hart (1995) says during the Enlightenment man attempted to provide “a clear set of standards and methods for determining what, in a given situation, might merit rational or moral justification” (p. 49). This mirrors the “reasonable man” standard we’ve seen in American jurisprudence. Such a viewpoint would amount to an a priori belief in truth or morality as an absolute. The difficulty is how this approach remains impartial and plays out against relativism.

Relativism

It has often been stated that in the absence of absolute truth or morality, it would neither be right nor wrong for Adolf Hitler to decide the supremacy of one race over another, or whether cannibalism is right or wrong given it is acceptable among tribes in the Amazon but not in the Western world. Relativism is considered skeptical as it doubts any universal claim of knowledge or certainty. Hart says because “what we ‘see’ is determined in large measure by the mental categories which we bring to bear on the sensory data” (p. 55) we are to a large extent a slave to our worldview. Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) describe worldview as “a pair of glasses through which we see the world” (p. 4). This is the very mechanism through which relativism operates. Because worldviews are not the same as a formal philosophy, we’re plagued with navigating between “the Scylla of objectivism and the Charybdis of pluralism” noted by Hart (1995, p. 48).

Critical Realism

Critical realism attempts to define a postmodern view by claiming there is no unified truth, dogma, or set of beliefs. As it is not necessarily a unified theory, it takes a skeptical view of reality. Hart presents MacIntyre’s belief that traditions are justified merely by their “appropriateness as accounts of reality” (p. 68). The difference between relativism and realism is ontological, regarding how facts and objects are interpreted. But it is also concerned with whether truth or “reality” is knowable at all, and, if so, should it be evaluated subjectively or objectively? As Hart explains, the realist gives “an account in which the universe and most of what goes on in it are completely independent of our thoughts” (p. 64-65). This requires transcendence of our subjectivity, which is a tricky proposition. Realism wishes to divorce private thought from public thought—separation of church and state. Hart notes Polanyi’s belief that we cannot remove ourselves from subjectivity through assuming a mere spectator’s role; instead, we must commit ourselves to one standpoint “as the best and most reliable route” (p. 65) to reality. It involves having a universal intent.

Concluding Remarks

For a system of thought to be compatible with “faith thinking,” it cannot be subjective, for this would place God in a “box” contingent upon individual belief. The Bible states, “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time; also, he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end… I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has made it so, in order that men should fear before him” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, 14, RSV) [italics added]. Christian theology requires the believer to accept God objectively as an ontological reality. Man is to be governed by God’s special revelation (Scripture) regardless of what appears to be true in His general revelation (Creation or the “real” world). Christians can’t pick and choose which Scriptures they want to follow or believe to be true. Accordingly, true systematic Christian theology establishes the inerrancy of God’s Word as one of its universal doctrines.

Perhaps one of the most relevant examples of man choosing which Scripture to believe and which to ignore regarding lifestyle involves the matter of sexual orientation. There have been many schisms within denominations, sometimes leading to the establishment of an entirely different sect, because of the unwillingness of homosexual believers to see Leviticus 20:13—”If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them”—for the truth it represents. Systematic theology can only benefit the church when it is undertaken from an objective viewpoint with a complete belief in the ontological truth of Scripture.

Class is on a one-week break for Labor Day from September 2 through September 8. Accordingly, my next weekly Let’s Go To Theology Class! post will be Monday, September 16, 2019. Please feel free to rejoin the conversation at that time.

Bibliography
Hart, Trevor, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf &        Stock Publishers, 1995.

Phillips, W. Gary, Brown, William E., and Stonestreet, J. Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co., 2008.

Rae, Scott B. Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Press, 2009.

 

 

New Series: Let’s Go to Theology Class!

Beginning September 2, 2019, I will start a weekly blog post, providing a summary of lessons assigned in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

THEOLOGY IS AN ATTEMPT by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world. Trevor Hart (1995) calls this exercise faith thinking. Although theology is typically undertaken as part of a higher education endeavor, the activity known as “Christian Theology” should be an inevitable consequence of life as a thinking Christian. Systematic Theology is defined as “an integrating discipline that studies how the church may bear enduring, timely, and truthful witness to God as revealed in Jesus Christ.” Theology today specifically denotes the contemporary effort to speak about God in an orderly way.

Theology is not a formal discipline in Scripture—the topic most related is wisdom. Biblical knowledge of God is (at its very core) relational, involving whole persons within God’s covenant community, and contextual, inviting freedom for discerning obedience. This dovetails nicely with the renewing of our minds through Christ. Responding to divine inspiration, as believers we are to pursue the understanding of God and His will for us (see Romans 12:1-3). The practice of systematic thinking—avoiding obvious contradictions and aspiring to orderly reflection—seems theologically essential given the Gospel’s claim of one God, and the doctrine of salvation through faith alone in Christ Jesus alone.

Systematic Theology affirms the approach of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) as final arbiter of truth. This is the approach Martin Luther used as he prepared the 95 Theses he presented to the Catholic church at the outset of the Reformation. The Bible, not priests or the pope, have ultimate authority over every aspect of Christianity. Given the tendency of man to muddy the waters—adding his own instruction regarding the Christian life—it must be held that Scripture alone provides the information needed to walk in the faith. Indeed, Scripture is God’s special revelationi.e., particular divine self-disclosure by Word and Spirit  (see Hebrews 1:1-4).

Trevor Hart believes that regardless of our intellectual resources, we are called upon to bear faithful witness to the source of our life and hope. Naturally, not all of us are called to be evangelists or apologists in an official capacity. He says, however, “But just as surely as there is a ‘priesthood of all believers’ in God’s church, so too there is a theological prerogative belonging not only to an elite academic priesthood, guardians of the sanctuaries of learning, but to all God’s people” (p. 2). Faith must seek to understand itself. Faith—when it is truly faith rather than a mere intellectual assent to a proposition—will always seek to enter into a fuller and deeper knowledge of that which matters to it most. Such study must have an interrogative rather than doctrinaire attitude.

First Peter 3:15 says, ” Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (RSV). Matthew Henry (1997) says in his commentary on this verse that we are called to sanctify God before others through word and deed. In addition, we are to be able to defend our faith with meekness, thereby explaining the ground and reason for what we believe. This is the very basis of apologetics—discourse that shows and tells why the Gospel deserves respect and, ultimately, allegiance. Because Christianity is the way to life, not just an intellectual system, apologetics deals with goodness and beauty, affections and practices, as well as truth. Indeed, Christianity is more relationship than systematic religion. Aapologetics is anything we can say or do that helps people take Christianity more seriously than they did before.

Granted, apologetics is not theology per se; it is, however, the manner by which we apply systematic theology to the spreading of the Gospel. It is is the mechanism by which we are commanded to “defend” or explain why we believe what we believe. For me, apologetics is God’s call on my life. I intend to study systematic theology and apply what I learn to defending the Gospel, whether in written form or in point/counterpoint exercises with today’s New Atheists. It’s interesting to note that I thoroughly enjoyed performance in forensic competition as a high school senior, especially as a member of the debate team!

The Format

In presenting these synopses, I will adhere to the following basic format.

  • An applicable Bible verse. Bible verse that sets forth what Scripture states regarding the subject.
  • Statement of the Topic. Clear statement of the subject (or thesis) will be provided.
  • Statement of My Response to the Assignment. An abridged version of my answer to the assignment.
  • Application to Daily Walk. Detailed description of how the weekly lesson can be applied to our daily Christian witness.
  • Concluding Remarks. Summary of the lesson in a manner that will clearly state what was learned and the implications of the lesson on today’s church.
  • “See Also.” List of recommended reading or further study will be provided in order that you might be able to expound on the subject and, therefore, apply it to your daily witness.

I look forward to sharing with you what I learn in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology. Hopefully, this will help us all to be better equipped to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, and to do so with all confidence, meekness, and fear.

References

Hart, T. (1997). Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

 

It’s Christmastime!

This is the 3rd year I’ve reblogged this original piece I wrote about what Christmastime was like growing up. I hope you enjoy it.

Wow, only six days til Christmas Day. The year went so fast I almost forgot there were twelve months. Sometimes the days seem to run together. Partly because of the limited daylight. It’s typical for office workers this time of year to go to work in the dark in the morning and come home after work in the dark. Add to that all the rushing around as Christmastime draws near. Time slips without seeming to move the hands on the clock.

When I was young, time seemed to stand still on Christmas Eve. About six o’clock on WNEP 16 out of Scranton, PA, up-to-the-minute tracking of Santa Claus on radar would begin. It always felt like bedtime would never get here. And when it did, I would never be able to get to sleep. It’s Christmastime, I would think. Santa’s coming. If I go to bed. If I close my eyes and give in to slumber. Impossible, is what I used to think as I looked at the clock again and again, hoping it was time. Everything moves like a snail. Funny, but none of the adults seemed to notice this time problem. They would eat and drink and sing and dance around the living room, smiling and toasting one another. They were oblivious. But how is this possible, I would wonder? How can they be so calm?

Santa’s coming. Quick, everyone. Finish your merriment and put the dishes in the dishwasher. Clean up. Get a plate of cookies and a glass of milk ready for Santa. He’s coming! Straighten up the living room. Move those extra chairs out of the way. Santa needs to put my new bike there. Oh wow, this is taking so long. I can’t stand this. I really can’t. The excitement is causing me to nearly tremble. I have to pee, but I’m afraid to tell anyone. Maybe I can wait til I go upstairs to brush my teeth. It’s as though I think time will slow down even more than it has already. Oh, I have to go now! No waiting til bedtime. Well, what can I do? Nothing. I look at the clock. I don’t believe the hour hand has moved more than a half inch. You’ve got to be kidding me!

After what feels like half a week, it’s finally time to go to bed. I run up the staircase, nearly slipping and planting my face in the carpet at the top of the steps. I dash into the bathroom and head straight to the toilet bowl. I barely get my snaps open before the water works begin. Without having to be told, I grab my toothbrush and get brushing. I know Santa’s watching. I’ve known that for a long time. Have to listen. Have to be good. He is always checking. Sometimes twice. I’ve been nice. I’ve not been naughty. I finish up and sprint to my room to climb in my bed. I am thinking that maybe I should skip my prayers tonight and go straight to sleep. But wait, Santa will know if I don’t say my prayers. So I fold my hands and I get started. Short, but sweet. Done in ten seconds. I reach up and kiss my mom goodnight. She tucks me in and I squeeze my eyes shut real tight, hoping that will cause me to go right to sleep. It doesn’t. My heart is pounding. I can feel it in my ears and in the ends of my fingers. I can’t help but thinking, This is going to be a long night.

Believe it or not, before I know it I am opening my eyes. I look at my clock. It’s six o’clock. At first, I’m thinking the clock never even moved. That it’s still the same time it was when I looked at the living room clock. Then it comes to me. It’s morning. I can’t imagine what might be waiting for me downstairs. I scream out loud. I can’t help myself. I just can’t. Mom shows up at my door grinning from ear to ear. Dad is standing behind her. Good. It’s time. No more waiting.

I nearly tumble down the steps as dad calls out, Take it easy Sport. I am not even all the way down the steps when I see the handle bars. Yep! Handle bars atop a brand new shiny bike. The bike is surrounded by dozens of presents. I am speechless. I took at mom and dad, and then I go sit on my new bike. Mom already has her Instamatic up to her eye, taking my picture. Dad says, Well, what do you think? I just grin and lean in to the handle bars, pretending I’m flying down Race Street hill, leaving a trail of flames behind me. Then I remember, there are presents to open. Man, this is just fantastic. I dive in, ripping at the wrapping paper. Present after present, I am blown away. I stop for a brief moment and think, This was well worth the wait.

Merry Christmas to everyone. Stay safe. Be healthy. Be thankful. And above all else, be patient. Because sometimes the clock just doesn’t seem to move at all.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

© Steven Barto 2014

It’s Christmastime!

Wow, only two days til Christmas Day. The year went so fast I almost forgot there were twelve months. Sometimes the days seem to run together. Partly because of the limited daylight. It’s typical for office workers this time of year to go to work in the dark in the morning and come home after work in the dark. Add to that all the rushing around as Christmastime draws near. Time slips without seeming to move the hands on the clock.

When I was young, time seemed to stand still on Christmas Eve. About six o’clock on WNEP 16 out of Scranton, PA, up-to-the-minute tracking of Santa Claus on radar would begin. It always felt like bedtime would never get here. And when it did, I would never be able to get to sleep. It’s Christmastime, I would think. Santa’s coming. If I go to bed. If I close my eyes and give in to slumber. Impossible, is what I used to think as I looked at the clock again and again, hoping it was time. Everything moves like a snail. Funny, but none of the adults seemed to notice this time problem. They would eat and drink and sing and dance around the living room, smiling and toasting one another. They were oblivious. But how is this possible, I would wonder? How can they be so calm?

Santa’s coming. Quick, everyone. Finish your merriment and put the dishes in the dishwasher. Clean up. Get a plate of cookies and a glass of milk ready for Santa. He’s coming! Straighten up the living room. Move those extra chairs out of the way. Santa needs to put my new bike there. Oh wow, this is taking so long. I can’t stand this. I really can’t. The excitement is causing me to nearly tremble. I have to pee, but I’m afraid to tell anyone. Maybe I can wait til I go upstairs to brush my teeth. It’s as though I think time will slow down even more than it has already. Oh, I have to go now! No waiting til bedtime. Well, what can I do? Nothing. I look at the clock. I don’t believe the hour hand has moved more than a half inch. You’ve got to be kidding me!

After what feels like half a week, it’s finally time to go to bed. I run up the staircase, nearly slipping and planting my face in the carpet at the top of the steps. I dash into the bathroom and head straight to the toilet bowl. I barely get my snaps open before the water works begin. Without having to be told, I grab my toothbrush and get brushing. I know Santa’s watching. I’ve known that for a long time. Have to listen. Have to be good. He is always checking. Sometimes twice. I’ve been nice. I’ve not been naughty. I finish up and sprint to my room to climb in my bed. I am thinking that maybe I should skip my prayers tonight and go straight to sleep. But wait, Santa will know if I don’t say my prayers. So I fold my hands and I get started. Short, but sweet. Done in ten seconds. I reach up and kiss my mom goodnight. She tucks me in and I squeeze my eyes shut real tight, hoping that will cause me to go right to sleep. It doesn’t. My heart is pounding. I can feel it in my ears and in the ends of my fingers. I can’t help but thinking, This is going to be a long night.

Believe it or not, before I know it I am opening my eyes. I look at my clock. It’s six o’clock. At first, I’m thinking the clock never even moved. That it’s still the same time it was when I looked at the living room clock. Then it comes to me. It’s morning. I can’t imagine what might be waiting for me downstairs. I scream out loud. I can’t help myself. I just can’t. Mom shows up at my door grinning from ear to ear. Dad is standing behind her. Good. It’s time. No more waiting.

I nearly tumble down the steps as dad calls out, Take it easy Sport. I am not even all the way down the steps when I see the handle bars. Yep! Handle bars atop a brand new shiny bike. The bike is surrounded by dozens of presents. I am speechless. I took at mom and dad, and then I go sit on my new bike. Mom already has her Instamatic up to her eye, taking my picture. Dad says, Well, what do you think? I just grin and lean in to the handle bars, pretending I’m flying down Race Street hill, leaving a trail of flames behind me. Then I remember, there are presents to open. Man, this is just fantastic. I dive in, ripping at the wrapping paper. Present after present, I am blown away. I stop for a brief moment and think, This was well worth the wait.

Merry Christmas to everyone. Stay safe. Be healthy. Be thankful. And above all else, be patient. Because sometimes the clock just doesn’t seem to move at all.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

© Steven Barto 2014

Teenagers, Monkeys, and Mirrors – Developing Self-Image in a Cyber-Addicted Society

Inside her classroom at Coral Springs Charter High School, Susana H. was in distress. The Florida teacher, seven months pregnant, was suddenly experiencing labor contractions. She sat down in a desk chair and struggled to endure the pain – her mouth open, her eyes wide, one hand on her brow. That’s when one of her students, junior Malik W., pulled out his mobile phone. It was time for a selfie. In dreads, cap, and big sunglasses, he flashed a big happy-go-lucky grin for his camera while angling the lens to show his grimacing, pain-stricken teacher in the background. “Selfie with my teacher while she is having contractions,” he tweeted.

Selfies. They bring new meaning to the word self-conscious. These quick, seemingly innocent self-portraits – typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media – serve many functions. They can be a preened vision of a public self, a bragging moment of accomplishment, a display of humor, or a declared irony to the world, almost a performance. The ubiquitous mobile phone with its mirror-image camera technology, makes self-portraits easy to take, delete, filter, or fix, and even easier to share.

Some kids would call what Malik in our example did, taking his own picture with a featured but unsuspecting person in the background, a kind of photobomb selfie. It’s a prank or joke. Photobomb moments are something like a tourist’s snapshot souvenirs. I was there. But this time, the background wasn’t Mount Rushmore or Niagara Falls. It was Malik’s teacher’s suffering. Whatever you call it, in the time it took for the teacher to reach the hospital to be examined by doctors, Malik’s pic was making the rounds on social media, first to other high school students at Coral Springs, and then quickly beyond. By evening, it was viral and had been retweeted by thousands. When asked later by local TV news reporters what possessed him, Malik said he was just hoping to record the unexpected event for himself and “for her.”

It went viral mainly because people found it funny. BuzzFeed raved: “Behold! The greatest selfie of all time.” Was it funny? Sure, if you don’t take a moment to consider this act in a deeper way – and what it means to use a human being in distress as a visual joke in the background of a curated self-portrait shared on a public social network. There are more troubling trends to notice here – invasion of privacy, breach of good manners, absence of empathy, not to mention a demonstrated lack of respect for pregnancy, motherhood, and classroom setting, and a teacher’s authority. Let’s be honest: Nobody looks to teenagers as role models of civility and decorum. They can be jokesters, disrupters, provocateurs. Pushing the limits is what they do best. Why? In psychological terms, they are said to be forming self-concept, or identity, and enjoy experimenting with boundaries and taking risks.

They also crave feedback, which helps them figure out, eventually, who they are – and what the world expects of them. So when teenagers take selfies and share them, what are they hoping to discover? Probably themselves. Prior to the Internet, this crucial time of identity formation was spent in the real world – a more intimate greenhouse where feedback, both positive and negative, was received from a real-world audience of friends, family, and figures of authority. The social norms and what was expected of these developing human beings was fairly consistent. Twenty or thirty years ago, would a teenager have been allowed to take a photograph of a distressed teacher in a classroom and, without permission, been allowed to publish it in a magazine?

The Internet is now a primary adventure zone where teenagers interact, play, socialize, learn, experiment, take risks – and eventually figure out who they are. This blog post will try to grapple with this shift, and look at the impact of this new environment on youthful identity formation. Could growing up in cyberspace change a teenager’s sense of self? Why not?

WHY SO HEARTLESS, SELFIE?

The same year as Malik’s cyber-celebrity moment, another controversial selfie was seen by millions. A lovely young woman with long blond hair, aviator sunglasses, white knit scarf, and matching hat was caught in the act of posing for her own selfie while, behind her, a suicidal man was hanging on the rails of the Brooklyn Bridge. What, aside from basic psychopathic tendencies, would cause a person to be so cold and unfeeling about another human being’s emotional crisis? Let’s stop and contemplate this. Just as Malik made a joke of his teacher’s  moment of physical crisis, the young blond (she would remain anonymous), whether she planned to share her selfie with a wide audience or not, was apparently making fun of a stranger who was so emotionally troubled and confused that he wanted to end his life. Yes, her selfie seems more heartless than Malik’s selfie, but aren’t the sense of disengagement and lack of empathy eerily similar? The day after the Brooklyn Bridge incident, an observer’s photograph of the anonymous young woman took over the entire front page of the New York Post with the apt headline “SELFIE-ISH!”

This slap of disapproval only encouraged a new trend. In 2014, when traffic was stopped on a Los Angeles freeway due to a man threatening to jump from an overpass, a group of drivers left their cars to pose – big smiles – for group shots and selfies with the suicidal man in the distance behind them. The same year, a policeman in Istanbul was called to the scene of the Bosporus Bridge, where a desperate individual was clinging to the rails. The suicidal man jumped three hours later, but before he went, the officer took a selfie. The bridge and the jumper were in the background. More recently, in March 2016 – in perhaps the ultimate example of this trend – a hostage on an EgyptAir flight posed for a bizarre smiling selfie next to a hijacker in his suicide vest.

Let’s try to consider the mind-set of these people – not the distressed suicidal individuals, but the selfie-takers. Were they conscious of what they were doing? Or were they so lost, so separated from ethics and empathy, that they weren’t able to clearly consider their actions? Are they emotionally impaired, or has cyberspace impacted their judgment? A condition that results in lack of empathy toward another person’s distress is narcissism. This is a personality trait that exists to varying degrees in almost all human beings and can be facilitated by cyberspace. A little narcissism can be a good thing. Actors are famously perceived as the ultimate narcissists, and the psychologically healthier ones even crack jokes about it. They aren’t necessarily heartless people. But a narcissist’s desire to be noticed and become a focus of attention can override a concern for other people – and result in callousness about their suffering.

As with so many personality traits, psychologists have defined a spectrum of narcissism – generally assessed by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Individuals with high scores demonstrate an inflated sense of their own importance, grandiosity, extreme selfishness, enormous self-regard, and a deep need for admiration. Behind the mask of ultraconfidence, their self-esteem is very fragile and vulnerable to criticism. Why get into all of this? Because teenagers (as well as children) can display narcissistic-type traits due to the simple fact that their sense of self, or “self-concept,” is still being formed. They can seem to be uncaring about others because they are distracted by the work of creating an identity. Teenagers will try on new selves and new clothes and new hairstyles to the point of total disengagement with anything else going on in their family life or home. For a teenager, this sort of experimentation, along with risk-taking, is one way that identity is formed. Going too far is part of the process – almost a requirement.

Who am I today? Who do I want to be tomorrow morning? They look for answers in the feedback they receive from their peers. And today, to a greater and greater degree, this feedback happens online, not just from their friends but in free online astrological profiles, personality questionnaires, and a plethora of phone apps that will analyze their handwriting, music tastes, food preferences, and even bathing styles. Teenagers are consumed by their own reflections, in other words, hoping to figure out who they are. What happens when the bathroom mirror, where teens used to state at themselves, is replaced with a virtual mirror – a selfie that they just took with their phones?

MONKEYS AND MIRRORS

In a famous study done forty years ago, great apes – chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas – born in the wild were placed before a full-length mirror on a wall. At first, the wild chimps reacted as if another chimp had appeared in the room; they vocalized and made other threatening gestures at the mirror. After two or three days, they began to understand the image in the mirror as a reflection of themselves in some way. Interestingly, they began exploring their own bodies before the mirror – studying parts of themselves they hadn’t seen before, or couldn’t see without use of a mirror.

In psychology, one way to describe what happens in front of a mirror is called mirror-image stimulation, referring specifically to “a situation in which an organism is confronted with its own reflection in a mirror.” An animal that shows signs of recognizing the image in the mirror as it own is said to have “passed the mirror test,” which is strong evidence of having developed self-concept. This is not innate, but learned. Self-concept is used in human social psychology to describe how people think about, evaluate, or perceive themselves. The actual definition is “the individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is.” A monkey that has self-concept demonstrates an awareness of a self that is separate and distinct from others, as well as constant.

What are teenagers learning about themselves by looking at their own selfies? Could this impact the development of self-concept? The study also raises this question: Could young people who have grown up with too much technology and not enough face-to-face interaction with peers remain more isolated, retreating to the comfort of their own digital reflection rather than turning to their friends or family for comfort and physical interaction? Could this cyber effect encourage children or young teenagers to lose interest in others – or never develop it in the first place? Since there hasn’t been time for proper developmental studies in this area, we just don’t know.

Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers’s work is valuable in terms of illustrating how a young person develops identity. He described self-concept as having three components: (1) the view you have of yourself – or “self-image,” (2) how much value you place on your worth – or “self-esteem,” and (3) what you wish you were like – or “the ideal self.” Given the advent of social media, perhaps we need to add a fourth aspect of “self” Rogers didn’t consider. In today’s technology, identity appears to be increasingly developed through the gateway of a different self, a less tangible one, a digital creation.

Let’s call this “the cyber self” – or who you are in a digital context. This is the idealized self, the person you wish to be, and therefore an important aspect of self-concept. It is a potential new you that now manifests in a new environment, cyberspace. To an increasing extent, it is the virtual self that today’s teenager is busy assembling, creating, and experimenting with. Each year, as technology becomes a more dominant factor in the lives of teens, the cyber self is what interacts with others, needs a bigger time investment, and has the promise of becoming an overnight viral celebrity. The selfie is the frontline self, a highly manipulated artifact that has been created and curated for public consumption.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FEEDBACK

To understand feedback more deeply, we need to go way back to the work of sociologist Charles Horton Cooley in 1900, decades before the advent of the Internet or when monkeys were stuck in front of mirrors. Cooley came up with what he called the looking-glass theory. Cooley used the concept of a person studying his or her own reflection as a way to describe how individuals come to see or know themselves. In the case of Cooley’s looking glass, the information that we use to learn about ourselves isn’t provided in a mirror’s reflection. It is provided by others – their comments about us, the way they treat us, and things they say. In the looking-glass self, a person views himself or herself through others’ eyes and in turn gains identity. In other words, the human self-concept was dependent upon social feedback. Philosopher William James, the so-called father of psychology, expanded this idea by pointing out that individuals become different people, and express their identity in different ways, depending on whom they are with.

Now let’s fast-forward to the next century and do the math – and consider the psychology of this effect in cyberspace. If you have a repertoire of many selves – potentially as many as people who know you – social media could exponentially expand the number of selves you create. Is your “self” environmental-specific? Are you the same person on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, SnapChat, and LinkedIn? Does this new explosion of selves cause a splintering of identity or, particularly for teenagers, who are going through critical stages of identity formation, cause developmental problems? And what about critical feedback? Presenting yourself to the whole world is a risky business. It’s hart to imagine an individual alive who hasn’t experienced some form of rejection, subtle or strong, embarrassing or humiliating. But you can also be accepted for the self you present – and feel rewarded by pleasant feelings of pride and affection.

Let’s imagine you have just turned thirteen. The five years ahead of you are a natural time for questioning and seeking. You’ll be trying new clothes, mannerisms, friends, interests, and pastimes. You’ll probably begin experimenting with what you think of as adult behavior. This helps you make sense of the self within, as you unconsciously piece together an identity, like a collage. You are working to create a constant, steady, reliable, knowable, and familiar self. What kind of information – or feedback – is the virtual mirror going to give you? In this regard, the cyber environment may be much more overwhelming than the real world. To begin with, the sheer number of “friends” has grown, and therefore the volume of feedback will be far greater. Prior to the Internet, a teenager would have a limited number of social groups to juggle – family and extended family, schoolmates, maybe neighbors. Now the number of social groups is potentially limitless.

The cyber self is always under construction, psychologically and digitally. Even while the real you is sleeping, the cyber you continues to exist. It is “always on” – evolving, updating, making friends, making connections, gaining followers, getting “likes,” and being tagged. I started this blog in December 2014. To date, I have 181 regular followers; however, 9,840 people from 93 countries have visited my blog since its inception. The constant source of feedback we receive today can create a sense of urgency, a continuous feedback loop, a sense of needing to invest more and more time in order to keep the virtual self current, relevant, and popular. This is especially true of a blog.

This may explain the obsessive interest among teens in curating their selfies. When the process of identity formation in real life becomes confusing and difficult to control, as it is for most teenagers at some point, what could be more satisfying than being able to perfectly calibrate and manage the portrait that the online world sees? To some extent, we all engage in image management, but it now begins at an earlier age, and in some cases before identity has been properly formed. This may lead to identity confusion. After all, which matters the most: Your real-world self or the one you’ve created online? Probably the one with the greater visibility.

CYBER MIGRATION

Amazingly, plastic surgery among teenagers is another area that has been impacted by the norms online. The easy curating of selfies may be linked to a rise in plastic surgery. According to a 2014 study by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS), more than half of the facial surgeons polled reported an increase in cosmetic surgery for people under thirty. There is also a rise in children and teenagers requesting teeth whitening and veneers reported at dental clinics. “Social platforms like Instagram, SnapChat and the iPhone app Selfie.im force patients to hold a digital microscope up to their own image and often look at it with a more self-critical eye than ever before,” explains Dr. Edward Farrior, president of AAFPRS. “These images are often the first impressions young people put out there to prospective friends, romantic interests, and employers, and our patients want to put their best face forward.” Sadly, surgeons have reported that bullying is also a cause of children and teens asking for plastic surgery, usually as a result of being bullied rather than a way to prevent it.

Okay, so let’s put all these trends and technological developments together – from teenagers using apps to filter and “improve” the appearance of their selfies, to the  rise of plastic surgery among young people, the escalation in provocative self-presentation, and the quest for the perfect body. What do these developments tell us, given that we know human beings look to feedback in order to develop identity? Imagine for a moment the shy thirteen-year-old who feels uncomfortable speaking to others. For this child, posting a selfie will be easier and more rewarding – no actual contact! Now imagine that child progressing through the stages of identity formation and never having to practice being a human being on the stage of real life. This is what causes isolation in adulthood.

SELF-ACTUALIZATION

The cyber self, while it offers glimpses into who you are, is a literally detached self. This cyber self is like a hand puppet that is speaking for you but isn’t really you – and can actually be quite different from the authentic real-world you. In other words, the real you has turned the cyber you into an object: The selfie is proof of this objectification. By posting a selfie, you are required to experience yourself as an object that is presentable or not. You judge your selfie from a detached distance, even if it is posted impulsively. This self-objectification, and the sense of detachment from true self, could explain many of the negative behaviors seen online. It feeds disassociation. Detached from your cyber self, you can feel detached from your actions – and come to believe you aren’t truly accountable. Now let’s think about a teenager in the process of identity formation from the age of ten, eleven, twelve to late teens, a crucial window of time to create a strong foundation and sense of self. This process is critical to development, and can have an enormous impact on the rest of an individual’s life and sense of self-esteem.

Carl Rogers described “self-actualization” as an ongoing process of always striving to be one’s ideal self. A “self-actualized” person is one whose “ideal self” is congruent, or the same as, his or her perceived actual self or self-image. Rogers believed that this sense of being, or having become, the person you want to be is a good marker for happiness, and a sign of a fully functioning individual. If you accept his description of happiness, then it’s troubling to see the results of a survey of children and teens, ages eleven to sixteen, in which half agreed with this statement: “I find it easier to be myself on the Internet than when I am with people face-to-face.”

The transition from childhood to adulthood is a critical developmental phase, what psychologist Erik Erikson described as a “psychosocial stage.” For an awkward adolescent or teen, it may be a lot easier to avoid painful experiences performed on the stage of real life, but these are often important developmental milestones and come with consequences if missed. Identity may not be fully developed – and what one wants to do or “be,” in terms of a future adult role, may not be fully explored. Social coping skills may not be acquired. Learning to navigate the tension or lack of comfort that the real world sometimes brings is necessary for the developmental process, as youth explore  possibilities and begin to form their own identity based on their explorations.

Failure to successfully complete a psychosocial stage can also result in a reduced ability to complete further stages. For Erikson, the next stage is intimacy versus isolation, occurring between ages eighteen and forty, when individuals learn how to share more intimately with others and explore relationships that lead toward long-term commitments with someone other than a family member. Avoiding intimacy for fearing relationships or commitment can lead to isolation, loneliness, and often depression. This is why we need to talk more about the repercussions of teenagers failing to establish a sense of identity in real life as well as cyber life. The result of such a failure can be what Erikson calls “role confusion,” when young people become unsure about themselves or their place in society. Some experts believe contemporary boys are in crisis due to excessive use of technology. The digital self tends to become less and less like the real-life operator.

The cyber self is a masterful creation – funnier, wittier, better looking than the real self. But the problem lies with the vulnerability of this split-self existence. And it’s a serious problem. If you look at all the studies done over the past ten years on cyberbullying, you’ll see that few of the solutions and awareness campaigns have worked effectively. Each year, more teenagers are devastated, even destroyed, by experiencing bullying online. Why? Think of the time and energy that teenagers put into their cyber selves – the self-portraits they’ve painted. When the cyber self is attacked – called “stupid,” “ugly,” “a loner,” “a loser” – then this could cause a catastrophic inter-psychic conflict, an emotional clash of opposing impulses within oneself. Look at it this way: If the best version of you that technology can produce is rejected, how does that make you feel about the only self that’s left, your real one?

THE PRIVACY PARADOX

In real life, would a teenager girl walk around with a photograph of herself naked – and show everybody at school? Would she undress in class and pose suggestively? That’s what happens, potentially, every time a sext is sent. Besides impulsivity and narcissism, what are the other possible explanations for this disinhibited behavioral shift online? Teenagers exhibit a lack of concern about their privacy online. It’s an interesting shift because so often in the real world, many teens are self-conscious and tend to seek privacy. But online, something happens. Even teenagers who are well-versed in the dangers and have read stories of identity theft, sextortion, cyberbullying, cybercrimes, and worse, continue to share as though there is no risk.

I read an article in my hometown newspaper, The Daily Item, published online on May 7, 2017 regarding the Netflix mini-series Thirteen Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s book of the same name. I watched the show, which follows the final weeks of a high school girl who commits suicide. The writer of the Daily Item article interviewed local educators regarding Thirteen Reasons Why, specifically focusing on whether the young girl in the show justified her suicide and blame others, and whether the final scene was an unnecessarily graphic depiction of the act. The topic of teen suicide is one that is emotionally volatile, and is currently of much concern to educators.

Olivia Masser, director of the Milton Public Library, believes Asher’s story Thirteen Reasons Why unwisely portrays Hanna Baker as a martyr. Masser admits that the story raises awareness of the serious issues of sexual assault, cyberbullying and teen suicide. As Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) indicate, “…there exists a ‘quiet desperation’ that drives humanity to think about the question, ‘Does life have meaning?’” This question is faced by every teenager growing up in America. Certainly, when Hanna is sexually assaulted and bullied, and photographs are posted online that make her look “easy,” she is already struggling to find her way at a young age. She asks the ultimate question, “Why am I here?” What meaning was left in her otherwise meaningless life now that she’d been raped, bullied (including online), and labeled a “slut?”

According to Danah Boyd, the TED Talk celebrity and visiting professor at New York University, most teenagers scrutinize what they post online very carefully. In her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Boyd argues that teens adjust what they present online depending on the audience they want to impress Everything is calibrated for a specific purpose – to look cool, or tough, or hot. When it suits them, teenagers can be enormously savvy about how to protect the things they want kept private, mostly from their parents. For example, they might not care if Facebook knows their religion, but they do care if their parents find out about their sex life.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

We just might owe teenagers an apology. We are failing to protect and defend them in cyberspace. Period. We are failing to understand and therefore protect their developing selves. Tech companies have made billions of dollars while looking the other way. Opportunistically, they have jumped in to offer solutions to emerging obstacles, creating social platforms such as SnapChat, Wickr, Confide, and the German-based Sicher, where risqué images can be sent and viewed. While they supposedly can disappear almost as soon as they are posted, in fact there are many ways they can be saved. Do teenagers need to explore and have adventures? Yes. And we should let them. But the risks in the cyber environment are real.

And what about the more nuanced and much-harder-to-study risk of harm to a developing identity? Juggling two selves, the real one and the cyber one, is a lot to expect of young individuals who are still figuring things out, about themselves and the world. We are likely a decade away from seeing the cyber effect on psychological and emotional well-being and the formation of a sturdy and sustainable self. We can see signs and clues coming already in the new norms of sexting, the obsession with the cyber self, premature sexualization, the plastic surgery among younger people, the escalation of body and eating disorders, and the rise of narcissistic behavior (if not true narcissistic personality disorder). These trends should be cause for alarm. Narcissism and excessive self-involvement are both known attributes of those who suffer chronic unhappiness.

A teenager may think he or she is creating a better “self,” a better object with each selfie. Every selfie taken, and improved upon, causes an erosion or dismissal of the true self. With each selfie taken, and invested in, the true self is diminished. In a way, it’s similar to the phobia in Amish tradition that each portrait photograph robs the soul. Adolescents are naturally prone to “storm and stress,” during which kids will often experience mood swings, fight with parents, and engage in risky or dangerous behavior. We can’t blame the Internet for that. But we can wake up and see that it’s even more important to protect them there.

And, parents of teenagers, if you find a sext, sit down and talk about it. Resist the urge to shut down or confiscate all your son’s or daughter’s devices. The point at which you banish your teenager to his or her bedroom – hating themselves, hating you, and hating their lives – and take away their phone and computer, you are depriving them of their entire support system. That can be too hard. They need to vent. They need to reach out to friends. Let them. And finally, if anything goes wrong in their cyber life, tell them not to try to handle it on their own. That’s what parents of teenagers are for.

References

Aiken, M., PhD. (2016). The cyber effect: A pioneering cyberpsychologist explains how human behavior changes online. New York, NY: Random House

Asher, J. (2007). Thirteen reasons why. New York, NY: Razorbill

Phillips, W., Brown, W., and Stonestreet, J. (2008) Making sense of your world: A biblical worldview, second edition. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing.

 

How I Become Myself

“I said sit, damn you, sit.”
I’ve been fidgeting, practically dancing
in my seat.
I have a short attention span.
I’m hyper.
I can’t help it.
So here I am, cowering again;
Looking for a way out; to run and
hide in my secret fort. An old
metal dumpster turned on
its side, between two
abandoned buildings.
It smells like piss from the
bums who seem to keep
mistaking it for a porta-potty,
and yet it smells better than
ice-cold Harvard beets
shoved in my face:
“I said eat ’em. Now! Or it’s straight to bed!”
Promise? Sounds good to me.
I just sat there until everyone
got tired of busting my balls
and I went to my room.
I did not eat the beets.

Much happened in my life after the
Harvard beets “incident.”
(Not that it was the sole cause.)
Booze and drugs followed;
and women; lots of women.
Antisocial behavior
and prison walls.
Big, thick, made of rocks
too big for any man to carry.
This was a job for machines.
I learned that God doesn’t
talk to me
when I’m high, or when I’m
pawning stolen jewelry
to by crack cocaine.
And He’s not fond of
fox hole prayers.
He wanted me to get beyond
all the garbage in my life.
He had a plan.
He always did. All He could do
was wait for me to want it too.

His plan certainly didn’t
involve me selling weed
and smoking all the profit;
painting houses for drugs and
calling it self-employment.
He didn’t want me growing up
wasted
day after day
on one drug or another,
eating welfare food, and getting
thrown into the county
jail,
then the state
penitentiary.
He wanted me to be who He
made me to be.
He wanted me to use the talents
and gifts he gave me – not let them
lay in the “attic”
I like to call my
mind, doing nothing more
than collecting dust.

Here’s the inverse:
To hell with all this
negative talk about how I’m
nothing
and I’ll always be
nothing.
God made me in His own image.
Do you realize what that means?
Either God’s a low-life
drug dealing petty thief, in and out of jail,
(which He ain’t!), or
this phony life I’ve been chasing
is for nought.
I started to realize I was
wasting my time; I was
squandering what God gave me.
I remembered:
God has not given us the spirit of fear;
but of power, and of love, and of a
sound mind.

I know what you’re
thinking:
So then where does all
this crap, this violence, this hatred,
this disrespect, this fear, this indifference,
this intolerance, this racism come from?
Wait,
my friend.
I don’t know the why of all that,
but I do know I was made
for something good.
You
were made for something good.
Everyone was.

God’s will for me is to
grow into who I am, and reach out in love
to those who are suffering,
placing their needs above mine.
That’s part one.
Moreover, He has given me certain gifts
and talents to use in ministering
to my fellow man.
That’s part two.
That is the person I
am meant to be.
It has always been so.

So, how do I become myself?
Be the me God intended me to be?
This includes you too, my friend.
Ain’t no “white” thing or “straight” thing
or “Christian” thing, because it
doesn’t exclude anyone.
Not
even
you.
Oh, you have done some things too?
But in God’s eyes, you aren’t what you’ve done before,
and you aren’t to be limited by the color
of your skin,
or your family of origin,
or whether you understand
the science of Albert Einstein.

God made you in His image.
He made me.
He made us all.
There is one body,
but many parts.
If I want to know the real me, all I
have to do is stand still, silent, listening.
And that’s what I did.
I listened for God, and I
heard Him in my heart.
I found the real me.
I finally became myself.
I ain’t belong to nobody else!
Not anymore!
I don’t even belong to the booze and drugs.
Not anymore at all.
It starts with listening for God’s voice
and being willing to believe what he says
you can be.
You, too, can become what God wants you to be.
Just listen and decide.

© Steven Barto 2017