What Frozen Teaches us about Power, Privilege, and Community

Just as polar vortices sweep through America, Elsa, one of the main characters in the latest Disney princess movie, Frozen, unleashes her icy power in the fictional kingdom Arendelle, across theaters everywhere. In addition to delighting progressive audiences by satirizing Disney’s own trope of “marriage at first sight”, the story compels viewers, young and old, to find courage to be their true selves. The Oscar nominated signature song, “Let It Go,” poignantly expresses the sentiment of letting go of fears, secret pains, and pretense. Fans of the song, from celebrities to little girls, have been belting the tune theatrically from kitchens to car rides to the internet.

G.K. Chesterton says,

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

A good story is more than a pleasurable experience, but empower us to live a changed life. Frozen is filled with beloved characters and catchy melodies, but also has much to teach us about power, privilege, and community.

*Spoiler Alert*

 The queen of the kingdom of Arendelle, Elsa, was born with a special ability to manipulate ice. After an accident where she hurt her adoring sister, Anna, she was scared into hiding her powers by locking herself away in her room at the castle. The fear of hurting others and the shame of being different kept her from exercising her powers altogether.

Power is not distributed equitably in society. When we think of people in power, we think of kings and presidents, celebrities and tycoons. But depending on our individual contexts, most of us hold a certain degree of power over others. Society is such that members are held in submission to those in authority: employers over employees, adults over children, the rich over the poor. Even within marginalized peoples, there are varying degrees of power. Being aware of the imbalance of power helps us protect the vulnerable and hold the powerful accountable. Sometimes in our conversations regarding justice, we end up shaming those who hold power. What Frozen teaches us is that power is not inherently evil, and fear and shame are never the criteria with which to determine how to steward the powers we are gifted with.

At her coronation, Elsa fails to conceal her powers, and holding on to the shame she has internalized, she copes by running far away. She experiences an epiphany to let go of her fears and decides to “test the limits” of her power by building a stunning ice castle on top of the mountain. Later, when Anna tries to convince her to go back home, she releases a terrifying snow beast to chase Anna away.

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When we are in a position of power, we have the choice to use it to create beauty, or to unleash terror. Like Elsa, sometimes we cover our secret fears and insecurities by lording our power over others. As a mother, I hold the power within my words to tear down my children or to lift them up. We can choose to both build up a castle of confidence and security, or speak words which trample, destroy, and chase away. We are capable of both great evil or great good.

Beautiful as the ice castle may be, Elsa built it in order to keep herself safely isolated from her kingdom, from all the people she cares about, and everything worth protecting. This isolation, although well intentioned, resulted in her complete ignorance of the suffering of her people, frozen in a state of eternal winter because of her powers.

Despite the globalization of our world, it is still extremely easy for those with privilege to live in isolation from those without. We consume products made in developing countries by laborers working under inhumane conditions. We eat food safely distanced from the cruelty inflicted on animals in the process. Our powers inadvertently inflict great harm, but as long as we live up on the snowy mountain, we need not confront the injustice. The freedom Elsa experiences blinds her to the suffering of her people. This makes one consider whether freedom enjoyed at the expense of others is freedom at all.

The story goes on to resolve the conflict through a series of events involving several characters. Kristoff sacrifices his own apparent feelings for princess Anna to save her from a fatal wound. The villain surfaces and threatens the lives of both Elsa and Anna. At the climactic end, Anna risks her own life and happiness to save her sister, and Elsa discovers through this selfless act that only true love can wield her powers to save her kingdom.

I am reminded the work of making things right in our world requires the work of not only those in power, but the ordinary folks. Anna, the awkward princess, Kristof, the smelly mountain man living in the margins of society, and even Olaf the snowman, a whimsical side character, all play a central role in bringing resolution. An African proverb says,

If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.

Justice work can never be done in isolation, but requires the efforts of all the players in society: artists, musicians, politicians, journalists, businessmen and women, educators, parents and children. It can only be done in community with ordinary people, with extraordinary love. Elsa finally learns the deliverance both for herself and her kingdom, is not to hide in shame, nor to isolate her powers, but by allowing it to flow organically through giving of herself fully in relationship with her community.

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We may not have magical cryokinetic powers, but we all have a part to play in resolving the global crises facing our generation. Disney has given us a story to help us reflect more deeply on the powers inherent in our interconnectedness, and how we can best move towards life, leaving the death of winter behind.

Finding the Face of God

Over a meal, my daughter wondered what God looked like. She figures we’ll find out when we get to heaven.

*PSA for Sunday School Teachers: do not threaten the gospel on children. As in, ask Jesus into your heart otherwise HELL.*

If all we speak of the good news is a salvation to heaven, children, who are far from pondering death, cannot grasp the hope that is within their reach in the present. 

Pete Rollins says, the Christian question is not whether there is life after death, but whether there is life before death. Similarly, my daughter thinks she won’t see the face of God until heaven. Nothing can be further from the truth. I am reminded of something I posted on facebook after meeting my friend’s newborn son, shortly after he was confirmed with a Down Syndrome diagnosis:

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I have solid Scriptural evidence to support my statement. In Matthew 25, Jesus says when we feed the hungry, it is as if we are feeding Jesus himself, the incarnation of God. God is present in the margins.

Holding baby Russell is a taste of the Christian hope. In addition to the heavenly scent that emanates from him, a mixture of sweet baby milk breath and Johnson & Johnson soap, his slanted almond eyes and the extra space separating his big toe from the others bear witness to his frail vulnerability. I think we are often drawn to the innocence of babies precisely because of their helplessness. They require tender care for their every need, and we are most deeply satisfied when we give of ourselves. The circle of life is one of receiving and giving of love; back and forth, to and from. A baby coo or a lopsided sleepy grin is capable of melting the hardest of hearts. Russell’s special needs only serve to amplify the exchange of love, drawing those around him to give more of themselves. It is the essence of the gospel.

The truth is, those who are visibly poor, physically ill, and babies with Downs Syndrome bring the face of God to the forefront of our attention. They blatantly demand we encounter what blogger Glennon Melton has coined, “the brutiful life”. The harsh realities facing the future of baby Russell somehow doesn’t diminish the solid hope he promises through his riveting, soulful eyes. It is both brutal and beautiful.  

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Photo provided by baby Russell’s Mom*

Some of us are more reserved with our brutiful lives, and it takes extra work to excavate the face of God. We hold our secret pains within us until they threaten to tear us apart from the inside out. We pretend everything is okay for so long and so often we have almost believed it ourselves. We don’t ask, and we don’t tell. We live in the shadows of our own lives, watching it play out as a disconnected reality, avoiding all costs with confronting the ghosts of our brokenness. We hide from the face of God. 

I am convinced the Christian hope lies in life before death, given to us through pockets of love like the moment I held baby Russell, who brings to surface the needs of humanity – to cry, laugh, sleep; to be fed, held, cared for, and loved. The world may regard the extra chromosome as a deficit, a falling short of humanity. But the gospel resides within him, the face of God is unmistakable, to show us all how to live more fully.

*Please be assured my friend has given me permission to write publicly about her son here in this space.

TCKs and Tired Conversations

When the question is asked, “where are you from?”

Most  people give a straightforward answer. TCKs tell really long winded stories involving our parents’ career choices with boring political/historical details.

Then one of two things happen:

1) The person reacts with strong interest and curiosity and fires lots of questions. In my case, people often say,

“Oh, so you’re from Taiwan, your English is so good! I never knew people in Taiwan spoke such fluent English.”

Then, I’d have to explain that yes, lots of people in Taiwan speak good English, but I grew up in an American school environment where everyone spoke English. Local Taiwanese people speak Mandarin, or their dialect. And yes, I speak it as well, but I have better Mandarin than Taiwanese even though my parents exclusively speak Taiwanese to me growing up. Clear as mud, right? It drains me of energy to explain my complex background, often to the result of my conversation partner being more confused than informed. I end up feeling hurt, confused, and misunderstood.

Or, the other possibility,

2) The person is disinterested in my story. Their eyes glaze over and you see them subtly finger their smartphone, eager to turn the subject away from the story that IS MY LIFE. They’re either self absorbed or simply too ignorant and lazy to make the effort to hear my story. This leads me to feel hurt, confused, and misunderstood. 

In order to cope with the above two scenarios, when encountering the question, “where are you from?”, we often resort to twisting the truth, giving an alternative concise, simple answer just to avoid the longwinded story. We begin to live the closeted life, carrying the burden of a secret identity, which over time, leads to feeling hurt, confused, and misunderstood.

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To sum up, TCKs bruise easily. You can’t tell, because we seem so sophisticated and culturally savvy. We know how to pack a suitcase and know all the international flying tips. We are strong and resilient to change; always ready for the next adventure. But underneath that confident demeanor is a wound inflicted by tired conversations.

We need people to give us grace. We need to figure out how to get past the tired conversations into deeper relationships where our stories no longer become “conversations”. People who have tried to wade past the complexities allow us to have a respite from all the explaining. When instead of being caught up in the exotic growing-up stories so many of us have, they are focused on who we have become. TCKs come in all different shapes and sizes, it is hard to speak, literally and figuratively, a universal language when it comes to describing us. We want to be known for our specific interests, passions and dreams.

If there is an opportunity, observe a TCK when they meet one of their kind from childhood. You will notice exuberance from seeing an old friend, yes, but also a palpable relief from the tired conversations. Theres is a liberty which comes from being understood, known.

TCKs, how do you answer the question, “where are you from?”

First Time Donating Blood

My hands and feet got cold and clammy. My knees became a bit weak and I felt faint and on the verge of passing out.

This was BEFORE I gave blood for the first time today.

I was one of those kids who was deathly afraid of needles. My mother wrote notes citing religious reasons getting me out of mandatory vaccinations at the public schools in Taiwan. The phobia of needles, like all phobias, is an irrational fear. For me, it’s the idea of a foreign sharp object puncturing my skin that induces severe panic. I have been known to pass out, blabber endlessly to nurses, and sweat profusely in the event of an upcoming shot. I have always gladly preferred severe pain multiple times the prick of a shot even knowing it would alleviate the pain.

That is, until labor. Labor pain was what it took for me to overcome my fear of needles as I gladly accepted the shot of epidural in my back to save me from hours of hell on earth. (Apologies to hard-core natural birth mommies, you do your thing, I’m gonna tell it like it is.)

I have always promised to donate blood if I ever overcome my fear of needles. Years have passed since I gave birth to my two children but I still haven’t gotten around to doing it. Good intentions, it turns out, can be easily delayed. I was out running an errand today and drove past a big red banner asking for blood donations to replenish a rapidly emptying blood bank. My human decency puffed out its chest and declared this the day I fulfill my promise to society.

I came home to prepare lunch for the family and decided to use a two hour window between lunch and a later engagement to go donate blood.

I walked up to the registration table, feeling very much like a hero, but with a dose of fake humility mumbled, “I’d like to give blood.” I expected the workers to be wowed by my selflessness and profusely thank me for my charitable gesture. They did not. That’s okay. I fill out the forms and was directed up to the 6th floor of the building.

I was greeted by large floor to ceiling automatic glass doors decorated by red heart decals. Us Taiwanese excel at cutesy heartwarming graphics. Hello Kitty, anyone? I was asked to take a number even though there was only one other man there. They sent my completed form in with my number and instructed me to eat some crackers. For some reason, I brilliantly decided to not eat lunch until after I gave blood. Clearly, I’m a virgin blood donor. I chow down nervously on my crackers and texted my symptoms to my family on the smartphone.

“Feeling faint.”

Then thought I’d better clarify,

“Haven’t given blood yet.”

Five minutes later, they called me into a tiny little cubicle closed off by yet another automatic sliding door. A nurse asked me a litany questions concerning whether I have been involved in sexual work or suspect I might have contracted HIV. I understood the reasoning behind the protocol, but I feel a stab of sad for people whose answers may differ from mine.

Then she casually tells me she will prick my finger to check my blood flow. I don’t really get why they need to do that. A surge of panic rises as I had not expected this extra prick. I had no time to waste in calming myself back down, taking several deep breaths and reminding myself I can handle a small prick in the finger.

*Quick prick*

It wasn’t bad at all – tiny prick. She squeezes my finger and guess what, my blood flow was just fine. Blood came oozing out then it started to hurt! Ow, ow, ow, what in the world?! I started cursing under my breath, in disbelief a little prick on the finger could hurt so much. This did not help my panic attacks as I started to sweat again, followed by chills from sweating in cool, wet, winter Taiwan.

She sent me out to the waiting room again – a few more people had trickled in. I craned my neck to see what the room looked like where I would actually give blood, checking out the scene. There was a large sign asking people to “check in” on facebook, which I dutifully did.

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Behind the sign were two rows of big, cushy, black automatic reclining LA Z Boy chairs with a station of medical supplies situated nearby. They try to make things as comfortable as possible for blood donors.

Finally, they called me in and sat me down on one of those comfy chairs. I stretched out my arm and they tied that rubber stringy thing on my upper arm, like SUPER tight. I thought to myself, “is this necessary?!” Then they patted my arm looking for the vein and determined it was apparently too thin for blood extraction. So I had to switch to a chair on the opposing side so they can draw from my left arm.

The way I cope with needles now is I try not to look at it. I can handle the minimal pain, it’s not the pain that bothers me, it’s the sight of the needle. I exaggeratedly twist my head as the nurse began applying the brown disinfectant alcohol on a huge swab of my inner elbow and she warns me as she was about to insert the needle. She was very professional and the pain was minimal. However, I made the mistake of deciding to look at the needle after it was in, thinking maybe I can get over it. BIG MISTAKE. The needle was MASSIVE. I don’t even know how she got that thing in me, it is a HUMONGOUS needle in my fairly thin arm. I felt nauseous immediately. Mercifully, they proceeded to place a piece of gauze over the needle, I assume so donors DON’T HAVE TO STARE AT THE HUGE STICK IN OUR ARMS.

It did not help matters that I could actually feel my blood gurgling out of me during the process. For someone queasy (obviously) in hospital-y stuff, I was feeling very uncomfortable indeed. Ten minutes, they told me it would take, so I tried to occupy myself by playing on my phone, all the while trying to ignore the foreign object sucking blood out of me.

After it was over I did feel faint for real. Which I hear is normal. But I drank my free juice and rested in the comfortable recliner until I was ready to get up. I asked to take a picture of my blood of course, so proud I had done a good deed.

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Weird to think someday, someone out there may have my blood coursing through their body. I imagine if I were to bump into the person, my heart would skip a beat, recognizing her product flowing nearby, and we would make casual but meaningful eye contact.

Have you ever given blood? Do you agree, or not agree, that the needle is extremely large?

Extraordinarily Ordinary

I was so annoyed at the Duck Dynasty ordeal and I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. Less than two weeks prior, the world lost a great leader, Nelson Mandela, who leaves us a legacy of love, forgiveness, and brave reconciliation. Media circulated beautiful tributes, yes, but within 13 days, attention shifted to an entertainer, and what he did or did not say. Our attention is being vied for every which way. It is getting increasingly difficult to focus on what is primary.

Drama sells.

Scandal sells.

What is ordinary does not.

As a blogger, I am training my senses to look for compelling stories. Extraordinary acts, exceptional words, dazzling visuals. I am told in order to tell a good story, I must live a good story. There’s plenty of average in the world – I must be AWESOME.

Well, guess what? It turns out I am extraordinarily ordinary. I’m not funny, I stumble over my words, and I sing off-key. My character is also quite average. I am capable of being kind and generous, but also inclined to lose my temper, complain, and at times be downright mean. My life has been dotted with some significant milestones, like the moment we found out we were pregnant or our big move to China, but mostly the days are filled with breakfast, school/work, dinner, and bedtime routines. Ordinary. Average. Mundane.

Yet I show up to tell my story, and to tell yours because I believe our ordinary-ness doesn’t diminish our stories. Without boring blacks and greys, the artist can’t add nuance to her shapes; without shadows the painting can’t come to life.

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Sometimes extraordinary is in the eye of the beholder. The first time my husband lifted our babies into the air and caught them back into his arms, the expression of wonder and delight said, “you are my SUPERhero, daddy!” The adoring children gave him an inivisible cape and turned the average man I married, extraordinary.

Sometimes extraordinary requires context. The routine act of getting out of bed may be a miracle for the one suffering deep depression. The simple choice of ordering a soda is no small feat for the alcoholic. Showing up to work day after day while dealing with pain and loss takes tenacious courage. What seems ordinary on the surface can possibly be a person’s greatest triumph.

Sometimes extraordinary is knowing where to look. My daughter and I watched the classic, Mary Poppins, over Christmas Break. The beloved nanny had to use magic to make things fun for the children. However, in order to change the jaded adult heart of Mr. Banks, all that was needed was to remind him, on his everyday route to work, to pay attention to the little old bird woman selling bags full of crumbs for tuppence a bag. Seeing this unimpressive woman brought to the forefront of his mind what truly matters in life. The ordinary infuses tremendous meaning. 

This, then, is why I believe in the ordinary story over media hype. When ordinary people gather and look upon one another with eyes of grace and love; when they care enough to not judge, but appreciate the context; when they show up every day and pay attention, they begin to tell stories of love, forgiveness and brave reconciliation, ones as compelling as the life of the late South African president. They ground us in what is primary and inspire us to stay the course. Words from the wise wizard Gandalf the Grey,

I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.

To all my ordinary family, friends, and readers: I don’t want to tell you how to live a good story.

*I’m telling you you already are.*

Don’t Resolve to be Someone You’re Not

Some of my favorite people in the world are crass, wildly inappropriate, and slightly neurotic. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe because I admire (envy) their defiance of social conventional norms, or because they give me permission to express my own neuroses. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re constantly negative and raging, don’t expect to be invited over for dinner anytime soon; but an edgy personality with a sometimes bad-ass attitude – that’s kinda cool.

*Wait, did I get stuck in a time warp as a teen girl?* 

2014 is upon us shortly and resolutions are sure to fill up our news feeds with various formulations of how to “be a better person” in the New Year. I guess it’s time for me to routinely put “be more patient” back on my list. I think I was 0.67% more patient in 2013 than 2012, so that’s, progress? At this rate, according to my rudimentary calculations, by 2050 I should be 27.38% more patient than I was in 2004. I will be slow and steady, always filter my words, and…

totally not myself anymore. 

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When our resolutions fail year after year, maybe it’s because we were never meant to be the ideals we have set for ourselves. 

What happens when my crass friends clean up their language, or the inappropriate ones start acting prim and proper? They become less interesting versions of themselves. Instead of setting unrealistic virtuous goals, maybe we need to start expanding our definition of what makes a better person.  I read a paradigm shifting book years ago called “Now, Discover Your Strengths”. The premise of the book is to overturn the common misconception of spotting our weaknesses and improving upon them. Instead, we ought to discover our strengths and spend our time and energy maximizing those areas.   In other words, stop trying to be someone you’ll probably never be (i.e. a patient person), but become more fully who you are.

I found this idea not only practically helpful, but also theologically profound. Some of us inside Christian culture have made the mistake of truncating the gospel to a behavior modification system. Jesus is not Santa, constantly checking to see if we’re naughty or nice. He came to pave a way for us to become more complete versions of who God had created us to begin with. As Christians, we believe we are created in the image of God – a God who is kind, gracious, compassionate, and just. But let’s not forget Scriptures also depict a God who is jealous, angry, indecisive, and impatient. We have deemed certain character qualities negative and weak, when all along our perception of God-imaged creatures have been far too narrow. The diversity of human personality and range of emotions ought to be affirmed as good. We don’t only need Nice Christian people in our world – we also need people who are strong willed, quick-witted, creative, cynical, and yes, crass with a bit of a bad ass attitude.

What the gospel does require is for us to capitalize our strengths and orient them towards Truth, Beauty, Justice, and Love. We have been liberated from the behavior modification system in order to live into speaking life, creating beauty, fighting for justice, and loving unconditionally.

This year, don’t resolve to be someone you’re not. Resolve to live more fully into this life.

Guest Post – Christmas Overseas

I’m privileged to be writing over at Communicating Across Boundaries again today with a Christmas post:

While consumerism drives the secular world into a frenzy with pinterest pretty decorations and glamorous bags of gifts, all God’s people are driven ragged with a similar impulse to pack the calendar full of evangelistic events, and we emerge out of the season thankful, but unraveled.

 Can it be, that in our fervor to give others the message of Peace, we have left unclaimed the very gift for ourselves?

Read the entire post here.