What History Tells Us About Us

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2018 by jcwill5

History can be a great teacher.

It’s relevant because, through history, we can test our pet ideas and today’s popular views against the millennia of human experience and against essential human nature at work across all cultures and places.

The hard realities we find at work can disabuse us of magical ideas like the inevitable arc of human progress, the perfectibility of the human nature, etc.

For when we compare our present character, our tendencies, and our base responses with those of our ancient forebears, it is quite shocking how little we humans have actually changed.

So what do we find in our own long history?

A Violent Human Race

First, human beings are inherently, compulsively violent.

Peace, instead of being the norm, is the exception and history is littered with both small and great ways humanity has resorted to both organized and unorganized violence to settle its disputes.

The ancient world, both prehistoric and historic eras over all the stone, bronze, and iron ages, was totally full of raids, invasions, tyrannies, enslaving, murders, rapes, and wars.

Both inside and outside the most ordered State of the ancient world–the Roman Empire–violence was barely checked and often unchecked.

The generation upon generation blood feuds between neighboring clans, tribes, and regions drives so much of our history and creates so many of our tragedies.

Law was invented, largely, to check the blood feud and to deescalate these infinitely escalating violent disputes.

A Selfish Human Race

Second, human beings are thoroughly selfish.

Behind almost all of the violence is a collision of wills, a sense of real or perceived injury against one’s honor or a dispute over women and goods or a coveting of resources and riches.

Like toddlers, the creed “what’s yours is mine, I’ll take it” has been a hallmark of the human race.

We don’t live and let live, we invade, steal, and grab whatever we can from whoever we can and try to get away with it.

Concepts like “the rule of law”, “checks and balances” and “the right to a fair trial” are much rarer in history than “frontier justice” and “grab what you can”.

History amply shows us that lawlessness is the historic norm in a violent, selfish world.

An Unjust Human Race

Third, human beings–even the very worst practitioners of violence and selfishness like the Nazis–blame the other guy and justify themselves.

The classic triangle in family systems thinking–villain, victim, hero–is a window into how we see and respond to others.

We always think of ourselves (or our group or our kind) as the victim, blame the other guy, and look for a hero to save us and take vengeance on our enemies.

But on the other side, our enemy fiercely believes they are the victim of our own side’s evils, labels our heroes as their villains, and raises up their own heroes to fight back against us.

Whether it’s the dysfunctional family, or the blood feud between clans, or a world war between alliances of nations, this nefarious triangle of mutual injustices is at work driving how we see reality and how we respond to it.

History tells us we humans minimize our own injustices and justify them as being right and necessary, and highlight the other guy’s evils and call them inexcusable and unforgivable.

A Biased Human Race

Finally, human beings are shown by history to be biased against outsiders, especially those who live right next door.

Our worst evils are done inside of families and to our closest neighbors.

In history, it’s next door neighbors, neighboring clans and tribes, and neighboring nations are the ones most likely to despise and fight each other.

We naturally prefer our own kind, our own tribe, our own culture and hold in great suspicion and avoid associating with the other kind, the other tribe, and the other culture.

Little children mock and tease those who look different, talk different, or act different than the majority–and don’t have to be taught to do it.

And human history tells us that we adults very naturally divide into opposing camps, parties, and factions who favor our side and despise the other side.

The Bible calls this the sin of partiality.

Universal Sin of Partiality

We can be partial to the poor or partial to the rich.

We can be partial to the long-timer or partial to the newcomer.

We can be partial to our own race/culture/society/nation, or partial to the victims of our race/culture/society/nation.

We can be partial to our own family and friends, or partial to the stranger and outsider.

And we are especially partial to our own self–circling us back to selfishness, violence, greed, etc.

The truth is everyone is partial to something or someone at the expense of somebody else or something else.

And from partiality come injustices, disparities, and structural, entrenched evils that favor group one over another.

And from injustices come resentments, malice, violence, and a host of evils done in the name of righting wrongs where we commit new wrongs to redress old ones.

Is there any escape from our own nature?  Can we ever break out of these cycles? Is there any hope for the human race?

Indeed there is–but not in the places we normally look or the voices we normally listen to.

More on that the next time….

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Crisis of Despair

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2018 by jcwill5

Despair is such an ugly word.

We naturally recoil from it.

The Horror of Despair

Despair describes a state of hopelessness, of giving up on things ever getting better, of finality and irreversible loss.

It is a place we never want to go to, and a place we want to leave as soon as possible.

Suicides and self-harm happen in the place of despair.

Loss of faith happens in the place of despair.

Hostility is born in the land of despair.

So are desperate, heinous acts by people who feel they have nothing left to lose and no way out.

Even to the Strongest Believers

Yet despair happens even to the best of people, to those with the strongest faith.

Interestingly, the Psalmist asked, “Why are you in despair, O my soul?  Why are you cast down within me?”

Job, as well, had this to say to his accusatory, blaming friends, “For the despairing man there should be kindness from his friends.”

John Bunyan’s classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, has the main protagonist, Christian, end up a prisoner in the castle of the Giant Despair later in his faith journey.

In our lengthening years, and among the most mature saints, there will be a season of despair that mush be faced and overcome–which sounds so counter-intuitive.

Later in Life Despair

I agree with John Bunyan.

Later in life our youthful dreams and youthful hopes are much less likely to happen and probably won’t ever happen in this life.

Sad things we thought would resolve or change for the better are set in stone.

Ugly traits, bad habits, and deficits about us that we felt we’d eventually overcome have become chronic conditions and areas of lifelong poverty of soul.

We aren’t going to end our days as that perfect, all-together, all-successful person that the pop culture fairy tales tell us we will be.

It dawns on us that we’ll never be President of the United States, or a world famous celebrity, or a tycoon who owns his or her own island.

Some relationships that once were precious are irreparably broken and once close people are permanently distant and estranged.

Despair Intensified

Then our parents and our friends begin to die off.

Our careers stall as younger candidates for jobs are the ones who get them.

Our nest empties and our homes echo with too much silence.

Our bodies begin to ache and hurt and protest and won’t cooperate–and they get fatter and wrinkled, too.

The culture and society we once knew, loved, and felt at home in has changed and left us a stranger in a strange land.

Which is why, among the older believers, the Giant Despair is lurking and seeking to ambush us without warning.

My Own Confrontation with Despair

With my mom’s passing, my dream of maternal nurturing has died a final death.

This long unspoken dream, centered around a deepest unmet need from my childhood, is over with no possibility of realization.

So I found myself carrying an impossible weight and separated from God by an infinite emotional distance in recent weeks.

But I didn’t understand why all this was happening.

It took a few weeks before I had a name for this burden:  despair.

It was a stage of grief where one really, really knows our loved one is never coming back and accepts our loss will never be unlost.

So I was carrying the weight of fresh despair and it was crushing me.

The Nighttime Exchange

Late one night I finally found a name for my nameless enemy, and it struck me that I was bearing a weight I was never meant to carry.

Christ bore all the despair of sin on the Cross for me–but I was holding onto my share of it as if it was a possession I was jealous of surrendering.

And I knew, I knew surrendering that full weight of my despair and offloading the unholy freight was my one way out and up.

I chose to entrust my despair to Christ, and to embrace the settled reality that He already carried it for me and relieved me of this impossible burden.

Oddly enough, the lightening of spirit was palpable and immediate.

And this insight helped me see that there were many other areas of impossibility and “never will change” situations from the previous 8 painful years where I had secretly despaired and self-bore it all.

So I surrendered these things too:  spiritual and emotional damage from a toxic church, spiritual harm to my adult children I cannot reverse, a career path and good income lost, losses of relationships that are permanent.

This surrender was deeply freeing, and continues to be so as I watch over my heart for any despair slinking back into it.

Hope Awaits for You

Will you join me in signing over the ownership of all your despair areas to Christ?

Will you join me in offloading the weight and the freight of your despair onto Him?

And will you join me in receiving from Him in exchange an abounding, renewed hope that’s founded on His grace-giving, redemptive love for us?

Will you let Him love you in your places of deepest, most painful, entrenched despair?

God’s plan is to kill off all of our youthful, hidden, and false hopes of self-success, self-fixing, self-sufficiency, and self-importance… and then provoke a crisis of despair in us.

Then He says, “Come to Me!  Let go of those ego dreams and fantasies!  Bring all your despair here!”

And He says, “Hand it over Me and permit Me to lavish you with enduring, real hope through the grace of My Son.  He’s your true hope now!  He’s the One who turned despair into a resurrection hope that never fails or falters in the end!”

The Weight of the Desert

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 2, 2018 by jcwill5

I find myself carrying weights around.

Not the ones you’d find in a gym.

Emotional weights.

The Pattern of Heaviness and Freedom

And as I journey through life with Christ, I find a pattern at work:

Something traumatic happens.

There’s a “bigger than me” something oppressing me after the events are over.

I enter a desert season where a slow, grinding kind of crushing happens to my soul–where the Bible becomes the letter that kills and I feel exiled from a life with God.

A crisis is reached where that weighty something gets a name and becomes known.

Then I consciously and very specifically pray about it, transfer ownership of that weight to Christ, and see Him carrying it for me.

Intimacy and connection with God are restored through Christ’s sin-bearing, burden bearing work applied to my innermost self.

Then He helps me enter into a new level of freedom and insight, allowing me to escort others through their deserts and find oases in their journey.

Nameless Oppressions

Some of the crushing burdens of the past are sin’s horror, sin’s terror, sin’s alienation, and sin’s shame.

In each case, there was a season of struggling against an unnamed foe.

A season of carrying an impossible but undefined weight that crowded out God and others.

A season of being made temporarily worse so I could be made permanently better.

Interestingly, the New Testament describes being “conformed to His image” and “the fellowship of His sufferings”.

Conformed to His Cross

It is where our pain becomes the Pain–His Pain.

Where our sufferings mirror those of Christ in some small way.

Where some aspect of fallenness, some side-effect of sin is in play and we need to be saved all over again.

And when that tormenting burden finally gets a name, we recognize we now have something in common with Christ’s sin-bearing experience on the Cross.

A contact point through which we can transfer the burden to Him and see Him bearing it entirely and forever for us.

A great exchange happens, and a supreme encounter with His redeeming love happens as well.

Sin’s Desolation

This time around it was the desolation and devastation of sin.

The barren, bleak place one enters in seasons of deepest loss.

Our soul becomes a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world.

We are left devastated amidst a landscape of barren sterility.

No sustenance or greenery is in sight, and our would withers.

Like the man with the Legion, we howl amidst the tombs tormented and alone.

Like the children of Israel, I was on a seemingly unending wilderness journey with no end in sight.

And the difficult part is we really don’t realize what’s going on in this desert of grief we’re in.

The Resolution

Last night it came to me.

I have been carrying the devastating desolation of sin without realizing it.

It was a burden too great for me, far too large for my puny shoulders to ever carry.

But well within His infinite capacity and well borne on the Cross already by Christ.

Desolation and devastation were no longer my burdens to carry, but His.

And the obscene weight of it came off.

In the devastating and desolating experience of His Cross, He bore it all for me there.

One more inner weight has come off.

One more silent torment has been lifted.

One more Jordan River has been crossed.

One more movement from self-bearing and self-sufficiency towards letting Christ bear everything.

One more story of liberation to tell, and one more nameless foe has been named.

The Agony of Betrayal

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2018 by jcwill5

“Life’s deepest wounds have come at the hands of people who were the closest to me.”

I heard this statement last summer at a talk about trusting others given by a dynamic leader of a growing organization, and you could see the pain etched on his face.

And if you look closely at the events of Holy Week, it’s etched on Christ’s face as well.

Portraits of Betrayal

The one giving us a Judas kiss.

The person who stabbed us in the back.

The turncoat who was suddenly revealed him or herself in public to speak against us.

The enemy disguised as a friend who secretly fed our enemies gossip about us.

The traitor cloaked as a supporter who worked behind our back to undermine us.

We’ve all had them in our lives.

We’ve all been wounded at one time or another by personal betrayal.

And, probably, we’ve all justified and given ourselves permission to walk away from friends, burn bridges, and/or join forces with their enemies.

The Agony Unlike Any Other

Because people who are closest to us occupy our hearts, their betrayals wound us the most deeply.

It is agony to be betrayed.

And it is unlike any other kind of agony because we realize we’ve been deceived by someone who promised to be good to us.

But, when push came to shove, instead of having our back they knifed us in the back.

Which is why Judas Iscariot figures so prominently in the events of Holy Week.

The one and only man from Judea among a group of Galileans, Judas, socially, held a higher status.

Jesus gave him a one of the favored seats at the Last Supper and handed him the first morsel, another sign of great favor.

He treated him as a favored friend.

The Deep Darkness in Judas

But something dark, greed and ambition, was at work within Judas.

He helped himself to the alms box, the pursue with money for the poor that Christ’s traveling group used to carry with them.

He spoke against the woman anointing Jesus’ with costly perfume, not because he cared about the poor but because it deprived him of pilfered money.

He wanted the power of one close to the King so he could enrich himself.

When push came to shove, Judas loved the money he got from being around Jesus far more than Jesus.

Ultimately, his relationship to Christ was a using relationship

And when Christ was no longer going to be useful in that way, he turned on Him to open up the faucet of money again and to enrich himself in the process.

When Jesus’ kind of kingdom and His refusal to seize power stymied this agenda, Judas tried to force Christ’s hand by getting him arrested–for 30 days wages.

Judas used the kiss of friendship as a signal for arrest, and so Christ asked a very pained questions, “Judas, do you betray me with a kiss?”

Bringing Betrayals to Him

Betrayal can sour us in ways few other things in life can.

Betrayal can close off our spirits in ways few other traumas can.

Betrayal can easily make us live barricaded lives, cause us to develop over-guarded hearts, and condemn us to isolation and distrust.

Which is why it is so critical that we bring our betrayal wounds to the ultimately Betrayed One, and own up to our own many betrayals of Him as well.

Betrayal Swallowed Up in His Betrayal

In the Holy Week drama of Christ, and in Judas’ terrible role in it, we come to understand that Christ died not merely for the deeds of sin, but for the betrayal of sin as well.

He bears the betrayals against us and make them His own through what Judas did to Him.

And He bore our own betraying of God and others, suffering the just punishment we traitors deserved out of agape love and infinite kindness towards us.

He both heals the wounds of betrayal and breaks the selfishness that causes us to betray.

“I have been so hurt from being betrayed that I find it impossible to trust anyone–help me!”

“I have loved the wrong things and been a traitor and can’t stop myself from doing it again and again–help me!”

These are the confessions of honest people who understand they are more like Judas than Christ, and who need a miracle of redemption, healing, and restoration to be whole again.

And who find the responding, compassionate, freeing love of the all-loyal Betrayed One to be all they’ve ever needed or wanted.

Grief’s Wasteland

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2018 by jcwill5

There’s a hidden phase of grief that is rarely spoken about.

It happens when everyone else moves on with their normal lives while you, the mourner, enter the most desolate wastelands of your grief.

Entering the Wastelands

I’ve seen widows and widowers go through this.

Now I’m in it.

It’s why there’s been no new blogs for a few weeks.

I just haven’t felt like posting on FaceBook or writing new blog entries.

It’s not like there’s been nothing going on or no new lessons to share.

There has, and there are.

Isolated and Barren Country

Last summer I drove through the NE corner of California between Reno, NV and Klamath Falls, OR.

And I was struck by how totally barren and unpopulated it was.

It was sage brush country, an arid Great Basin region that defied all mental pictures of California.

Lovely in its own way, yet terrible in its sheer desolation.

Which is why I keep thinking about it as an apt metaphor for where I’m at now.

Finality and Loss

Part of it the finality of losing the second parent and of now being the oldest living generation in my family.

Part of it is the amplification of mother loss–losing her nurturing to Asperger’s, losing her physical presence as a child to her full time employment, losing her always speaking voice to a stroke five years ago, and now losing her finally to death.

It’s made me take a deep dive into my soul and necessitated a drive through some ugly wastelands lurking within.

It’s been hard to walk with God, hard to feel close to loved ones, hard not to gratify this intense need to distance and isolate myself.

Ugly Connections

I now increasingly see a most ugly, long-hidden connection between maternal deprivation and an entitled drive to enjoy mitigating comforts and compensatory pleasures.

Of course I’m not speaking of the conscious, rational mind where principles, good theology, and objective wisdom reside.

It’s a broken heart crying for it’s mother and knowing its cry will never be heard in this life.

And settling instead for life’s crumbs.

Meanwhile, life is moving on and I’m moving full on into the anger phase of grief.

Tantrum Time

My sin monster is stamping its foot and protesting and shouting, “How dare You let this happen again?!” at God.

It’s slogan is this:  if I can’t have my mother’s nurturing, then I won’t accept anyone else’s love, either!

It’s on a campaign to retaliate against God for His apparent failure to amend the problem.

So it is wagging a relentless campaign to deprive God of my presence and strike back at Him somehow.

If I feel this way, then God’s going to feel this way, too.

Take that!

Of course this thinking makes no logical sense and is utterly self-punishing and self-defeating.

Freeing Truth

The truth is God is the God of the orphan and has a special place in his heart for those deprived early in life of parental presence and love.

The truth is He has allowed this Grand Canyon within my soul to exist so that He and He alone could fill it–and He will fill it.

The truth is He is supremely patient and has navigated millions of His children through these terrible wastelands of grief.

The truth is He is a God of all compassion and all comfort, brimming with mercy and tender, gentle care.

In Time for Good Friday

When in doubt I look at Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God, and His extraordinary care for the forsaken unfortunates of His time.

He is the silent partner in this blasting desert, the oasis who sustains me along the way, and the ultimate friend waiting for me on the other side.

And the truth, of course, is He Himself knows what utter forsakenness, sheer abandonment, and ultimate grief feels like–the crucifixion!

Christ has been my co-sufferer all along and folds all my suffering into His own.

The truth is He is holding onto me with firm and kindly hands even when my grip on Him is loosened.

He will outlast my tantrum and bring me up from the depths to the surface again.

And, as I write this, it occurs to me that this is Holy Week.

And that, my friends, is no accident!

Descent into Alienation

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2018 by jcwill5

Not everyone has a happy experience in public school.

Not everyone fits in well and graduates in better emotional, social, or spiritual shape than they did in first grade.

Not everyone has attentive or competent parents who closely monitor their emotional welfare.

Some find public school to be a refuge from a hellish family life, and, for others, their private hell is only deepened when they arrived at school.

School as Hell

I was one of the group that did not prosper in the public school system.

For me, a great deal of my experience as I worked up the latter of education was a feeling of growing social alienation.

Thankfully, unlike many others, there were enough interventions at key points to keep me from ending up in the revenge place.

By the grace of God, my alienation was checked and never reached a point of punishing both the institution and lashing out against my tormenters.

Which is why mass school shootings by extremely alienated students touches a deep place in me.

Having Asperger’s and being parented by a workaholic father and a mother with the same condition did not set me up to prosper.

I did not fit into the “normal kid at school” box and fit into the “outside looking in” box.

I was big enough to escape physical bullying, but never made many friends and often felt alone at school.

Rage-Bowling

There is one period in fourth grade that stands out, where I was beginning to take my rage out on younger kids in an anonymous way.

I would repeatedly kick a soft, four-square ball high in the air and hope they would land on younger kids’ heads.

And when the younger kids’ recess was over and they would run back to their line-ups, I even rolled a ball across their path in hopes of making one of them trip.

Then it happened, and a nice little girl fell over one of my rolling balls and skinned her knee and came up crying.

And I felt the greatest remorse and guilt–never doing these intentionally hurtful behaviors again.

There, buried in my heart, empathy rose up and helped me to see that hurting others would not make my own hurt go away.

But what if no empathy had been there?  Where might that my path had led if there was no check and balance within me?

Self-Harming Paths

Another incident stands out from a few years later, in Junior High.

It was in 7th grade that I was forcibly placed into a Jewelry-making class by a system and a principal that had no empathy–despite my making an appointment to see him and personally ask to be given another class.

Which, of course, I took as a moral threat to my fragile, Junior-high masculinity.

So I purposefully failed the class–a passive-aggressive response to feelings of alienation and of being completely disregarded by supposedly responsible adults.

The wrong lesson I learned was it was both safer and more relieving to quietly self-harm than take it out openly on others.

Which, by the end of Junior High, meant a descent into substance-abuse and hard-core music.

Internalized Alienation

I had internalized alienation and was even alienated from myself and had joined with the system in punishing myself.

For every shooter that takes it out on others, there’s probably a million of us who end up taking it out on ourselves to deal with the pain of school-based alienation.

Yet, thankfully once again, some interventions happened to first disrupt my self-harming, self-isolating alienation and then reintegrate me into the world of other people.

Unlike the dozens of school shooters and millions of self-harmers, profound social alienation did not have the final word.

But still it echoes and still I guard against that downward pull in my soul some forty years later.

More on that rescue later….

Extreme Alienation and Shootings

Posted in Humble musings on today's culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2018 by jcwill5

All of us feel alienated from the world of all other people at one time or another.

For most of us, these feelings prove temporary and our status changes.

We grow up, get better at making friends, learn social skills, and develop of web of caring people around us.

Often somebody notices and intervenes, reconnecting us and healing our alienation.

Extreme Alienation

But for some, their alienation grows and becomes extreme.

So extreme, they no longer feel like a part of the human race.

So extreme, they harbor rage within them against anyone and everyone.

So extreme, they begin to fantasize about punishing everyone around them with as much violence as possible.

While not the only factor, most mass workplace shooters and school shooters share this one defining trait:  extreme alienation.

Portrait of the Violently Alienated

They are frequently loners, with few ties or friends with their peers.

Their family ties, their upbringing, is chaotic at best and non-existent and abusive at worst.

They have little ability to work through petty conflicts, instead letting every perceived slight build and build and build until a breaking point is reached.

To be sure, mental illness is indeed a factor in mass school shootings, as shown here.

But what is often the case, and very difficult to flag, is an escalating level of anti-social behavior.

And this, in turn, is fueled by a deep-seated, long-festering sense of profound alienation from all others.

Leaving the Cult of Autonomy

I have waited for over a week since the Parkland school shootings, partly because emotions were so raw and partly out of respect for those grieving.

In the sea of commentary and activism, several articles and opinion pieces caught my eye because they touch upon something profound:

The best way to prevent school shootings is to make sure that no child, no high schooler–nobody–is every allowed to reach a state of extreme alienation.

Instead of blindly following the philosophy of rugged individualism and personal autonomy, and paying a social cost for bowing down incessantly at these altars, we begin to see ourselves as part of the human race again.

We begin to notice who’s alienated, who doesn’t belong, who is drowning in their sea of pain and aloneness, and work together to re-engage them and restore them.

We responsible adults keep an eye out for those small children growing up in chaotic, non-bonding families, and get them safe mentors and nurturing adults early on.

Instead of building schools around a one-size-fits-all, industrial production model, we notice early on who is not fitting in and who is unable to live inside the school “socialization” box and why.

Just like we know who’s going to be Homecoming King and Queen by first grade, we also know who’s forever outside.

A Counter-Example

If you listen to stories of people who have surmounted their childhoods and terrible upbringings, almost always there will be a caring adult, an anchor person in their life, who was good to them and who saw them as too valuable to waste and who consistently listened and spoke hope to them.

I have a friend who is a retired pastor that once ran a street ministry to children for many years in the streets of downtown Portland, OR.

He related a story of a little boy who came to his puppet show and who, weeks later, ran up to him to ask where his puppet friend was.

“He’s my only friend!” the little boy exclaimed.

And my friend, years later, still got tears in his eyes every time he told that part of the story.

He never tires of celebrating times when his former students reach out to him as adults and thank him for literally saving their lives.

Then they tell how, thanks to his personal ministry to them, they escaped the streets, found faith and meaning, and now have intact families in the places they’d moved.

An Ounce of Prevention

We may not be able to magically stop all school shootings, but every last one of us who occupy positions of responsibility, influence, or care can pause and notice the alienated children in our lives.

And do all we can to disrupt and reverse that alienation.

And this checking on welfare, consistent listening, engaging with, and story-telling might save a whole bunch of people from harm later on.