The New Selfishness

I’ve been reading Leo Babauta‘s fantastic blog Zenhabits. He’s giving up various habits for a month and replacing them with something healthier. This month, he gave up coffee and replaced it with tea. I suggest you read his latest post because it isn’t really about coffee, and what I’m about to write may not make sense otherwise. His journey in sacrifice is about self-betterment and understanding his desires. That’s a very noble goal. I enjoy Zenhabits and have a great deal of respect for Leo Babauta’s work and worldview.  I enjoy blogs like The Minimalists and the One Dress Protest because they offer a tantalizing alternative to consumerism and a meaningless existence. They prove that we can sacrifice the unnecessary things in life for time and resources, which we can then use to fuel our true ambitions.

Giving up coffee to better understand your urges and temptations is a great practice. In fact, long before modern Minimalism, monks and ascetics were living the simple life with similar intentions. Likewise, Orthodox and Catholic Christians still sacrifice several times a year for the sake of God, soul and neighbor. But therein lies the difference. For whom do we sacrifice? For God, for neighbor, or for self?

I have my doubts about whether self improvement through reduction (or giving things up) is really making us better people unless we have a selfless goal. It’s the “self” bit in self improvement that gets to me. What good is the fast if we focus only on the fast? What good is the sacrifice if we do it only for our own gain? To paraphrase Maximus the Confessor, “fasting without prayer is the fast of demons.” And in the same way, self-improvement made solely for the self is the self-improvement of the damned. It’s something I call The New Selfishness. On the surface our sacrifice is all about denial, but denial of self for the betterment of self is still selfish.

I’ve long considered giving up caffeine, alcohol, meat, milk, and video games, only owning one pair of jeans and giving up internet access. I’ve finally reached the conclusion that I shouldn’t. Why? Because my motivation is selfish. If I give up caffeine, for example, I may feel a sense of pride. I may be more alert without my cuppa in the morning. But it also means I may be too tired to go out with friends after a long day. That outing is what will build character and bolster friendship. It brings joy to both me and my circle of friends in a way sacrifice never could.

So if Leo gives up coffee and becomes a deeper, better person for it, then I applaud his efforts. For him, it may be the right choice. But for me, right now, it would be an act of empty self-betterment at the cost of other, more important things. I’m not an ascetic and I like it that way. My relationships are deeper and life is fuller because of my lesser habits. I’ve noticed that those who do the most good are often completely unaware of their personal goodness. They’re focused on doing instead of reducing. So as long as I’m serving Christ and my brothers and sisters, my own self-improvement can wait.


When Considering Marriage…

If you would not sacrifice home and safety for a person, than you are not truly in Love with them. If a job or city comes before your beloved, you are only indulging in a false and fleeting ecstasy which you have mistaken for Love. It is a love of convenience and insecurity.

But there is another kind of Love. It stares into a fault-laden human soul and gives of itself to build up what is lacking. It gives without even the thought of receiving. And in so doing it does not even recognize the fault as such, but as an opportunity for greater Love.

When you find the one who Loves you like this, and if you can return that Love, then you can never let them go. But be careful that you do no accept a fleeting ecstasy as love and tie yourself to it, because when the real Love comes along, you will be powerless to keep it.


“Character is how you treat people who can do nothing for you.”

It was just after lunch hour and things were quiet in the glass-walled cafe. Some popular 90’s song was playing out of a cheap speaker just loudly enough to drown out the lack of conversation. You walked from behind the counter, smiling, slender, extra large chocolate chip cookie in hand. When you offered it freely to the little girl in the pink dress a few booths down, it made her day.

Your goodness has not gone unnoticed.

Traitor’s Knife – an interview with Elizabeth Kaiser

TK red2wc copy

Available on Amazon Today

Sometimes the best way to change the world is by writing your own.

I’m here with Elizabeth Kaiser, author of the new YA fantasy book Traitor’s Knife – a sequel to 2011’s Jeweler’s Apprentice – to talk about writing and her latest story.

From an off-grid childhood to digital publishing, Elizabeth has taken the quantum leap into the tech age. She lives with family & farm animals in the Midwest, but her online home is and E.Kaiser Writes-A-Blog where she respectfully does not flood anybody’s inbox.

In her first book in the Five Gems series, Jeweler’s Apprentice, a bookish heroine, Fia, stumbles onto a court secret while trying to save the princess (who turns out to be in no danger at all). To get her out of the way, Fia is sent on an apprenticeship to a high mountain jeweler. Meanwhile, a civil war in the neighboring kingdom is spilling over into the jeweler’s house.

The sequel, Traitor’s Knife, continues Fia’s adventures as she encounters refugee children, a disturbingly upstart former messenger, saboteurs and accidents happening everywhere.

JLaren: What inspired you to start the Five Gems series?

Elizabeth: I started the story line as a gift for my youngest sister, Abigail. She was turning 16, and always a big supporter of my writing, and I wanted to do something special for her. But she hates all the “sweet 16” cliches (as well as most others), so I set myself the challenge to write a cliche-free story about a girl who was 16. I think I mostly succeeded, and she loved the novel. She loved it so much, she insisted there be more to it, and so we came up with more… a lot more! We now have a projected 5 book series, and Traitor’s Knife, this summer’s release, is the second book.

I think you’ve found something original with jewelry making as a main theme. What made you choose it?

I chose jewelry making as a main activity because it was something that was uncommon in fiction in general, and something I know quite a bit about. My other options of Horses, Farm, Shepherdess, Herbs, were all sooo overdone, they’ve nearly become cliches. So they were out! And gems have always fascinated me. They were easy to write about, and Abi’s a sucker for a good stone of almost any color so I knew she’d fall for it. I think we all do! There’s something eternally mysterious about gemstones; they’re just so gorgeous. And most of them are pretty useless as far as actual uses, but their allure has held fast in our hearts and minds for centuries and centuries. (I love finding photos of ancient jewelry, even more today than I did as a girl!)

That’s quite a gift! I bet Abigail really enjoyed it. You mentioned you had a lot of material written. This might be jumping the gun, but have you written parts of the next 3 books after Traitor’s Knife? Is there a master plan for the series?

There is definitely a master plan! Now that Abigail is on board for the plotting… well, let’s just say things got detailed fast! So detailed I can’t remember it all, and I’m glad that she has a mind like a dicta-bird on these subjects! Yes, there are parts written of future books, and a whole lot more that isn’t! We’re pretty excited with the way Traitor’s Knife really upped the tension of the tale in Jeweler’s Apprentice, and we think readers will love what happens as the series spirals up. Our heroine, Fia, continues to grow and master herself as well as her craft, and each successive novel sees her stepping up her game to a new level each time. What started as a coming-of-age story for a girl who loved jewelry making has gotten involved with the face of wars and the repercussions all around. Of course, this is set in a non-industrial world, so wars are hand to hand, but still devastating to those directly involved.

Elizabeth Kaiser

Elizabeth Kaiser

Even though the book is set in a non-industrial world, are Fia’s experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

I would say that her everyday experiences are very much things I’ve experienced, with small twists here or there. But I grew up in a barely-industrial world, so to speak. A good chunk of my childhood was without electricity, so candles, hauling water by hand, doing chores by lantern light; those are all things I’ve done myself. And yes, it makes a huge difference when writing about that sort of thing. The war/tension… a lot of that comes from my voracious reading habit during those electricity-less, TV-less years, and so I feel I’ve done a pretty good job of writing about those things realistically. Beyond the “plain facts,” everything an author writes has to come from someplace within them; so yes, those feelings, those fears, I think it speaks to all of us. Especially to my generation, I think we’ve definitely grown up in a much scarier world than our parents did, and I think that fact isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Life is scary, it’s out of control, and that’s good to recognize because only in that place do we truly we meet the One who has it all under wraps. So, yes, to a little bit of everything, I guess!

Which books from your “voracious reading habit” influenced your writing style most? Who’s your favorite author?

Oh, that’s a toughy. I guess my favorite author is easiest. Tolkien would be the answer, and the Hobbit is my favorite work of fiction. I love the language. He polished that book to perfection; in a way that LOTR didn’t have time for. I can pick it up and read any sentence and come away with a smile. It’s just that good. Like I said, I love the language, and one of the thrills of writing is being able to use words to paint pictures…and a great source of truly inspiring, hard hitting words is the KJV (King James Version of the Bible). That’s got a flow and a flavor to the words that can’t be replicated. So I do get a lot of inspiration there, but I make sure my writing doesn’t slide off the edge of words-for-words sake. Another place where the Bible is great at, succinctness. Very to the point in most places, and yet there’s so much for the imagination to fill in.

It’s hard to beat God and Tolkien for sources of inspiration. You paint some excellent word pictures in Jeweler’s Apprentice. Was there a particular scene or chapter of your latest work that was particularly enjoyable or challenging to write?

I guess the climactic scene, where they’re on a snowy mountain trail in the cold and all the action that builds up to and then explodes. That was a little intimidating as I faced it, but once I started it just all came pouring out scene by scene. When I had finished putting in everything that needed to be there, I stepped back and looked at it, and to my amazement it all flowed. There wasn’t really anything that needed to be tweaked… it just WAS. That was pretty neat. And I’ve received feedback from beta readers that they adore that climactic scene. So that always gives me the warm-fuzzies!

It sounds like the story just comes to you. That’s real talent. Do you have any advice for other aspiring writers?

Well, first off I’d say that writing can only mirror life, not replace it. So focus on real life above all, and if writing is in your blood, it’ll work out. Never be afraid to do something poorly before you can do it well, and always, Always, ALWAYS look out of the lessons in everything around you! There’s scads of them, and your most important tale should always be your life’s own. After all, you might be the only true story some people ever exposed to. Beyond that, read lots, study lots, and practice lots! And never think that “good enough” is something somewhere out there. Life is in the little things, so that is what we need to pay attention to.

Traitor’s Knife comes out today on


Some days you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing in the universe. And some days that’s not a bad thing. Today I talked with authors and adventurers and dreamers about the life exceptional. I walk a thin line between a desire for the safety of a 40 hour workweek and the infinitely more worthwhile desire to see, redefine, and take on the world. Most people I meet encourage me to run to safety. But sometimes, the other voices all ring together and tell me that I need an adventure.

There’s hundreds of thousands of voices telling us how to live – with less pain, more productivity, healthier, wealthier – but only in safety. Don’t risk too much or run too far

And there’s nothing wrong with safe. If you like that sort of thing. Nothing wrong. But nothing exceptional.

But other voices utter unsafe words like travel, love, fight, feel, create. Unsafe.

Sometimes you need the other voices. Unconventional. Let’s take a trip to Europe, publish a book, live outside the normal, debate everything, love someone, drive anywhere. Let’s have an adventure. 


“Evil exists because we value the art above the artist, as if a single product was greater than a person’s potential.” -Someone on the internet


Human beings are fragile things. You give us a bit too much of this chemical or that one and we degenerate into a pile of sadness or think ourselves invincible. It makes one wonder just what we are and why our fleshly state has so much power over our personality and desires. Which further begs the question of whether my personality is little more than a peculiar balance of molecules that could be tipped by a few drops of a competing substance. Likewise, it makes me appreciate the delicate balance with which we were all created. And still more, it gives me great sympathy for those who struggle with anger or depression. 

Just how much of “us” is psychological and spiritual and how much is off-center chemistry? 

…..and no, I’m not doing drugs. Just slightly sleep deprived and I recently read something on the subject.

A Hard Battle

Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. -John Watson (some say Plato)

These are wise words. My coworker is worried he’ll be laid off in a few weeks. My friend can’t find a job and is running out of money. Another friend is fighting depression. Another is lonely. In my happiness it’s easy to overlook their pain. 

For every demon I see afflicting a friend, there are dozens more beneath the calm exterior of every self-sufficient man I encounter. Everyone, without exception, if fighting a hard battle. Even at the best of times we’re fighting against our passions, our selfishness, our conflicting desires. The flesh is at war with the spirit, and your kind words or hurried tone may deliver grace or destruction in equal measure.

Feed the spirit. Give someone a hug. Say hello. Fight for all men.

Dreams That Should Have Died

“Burn your TV in your yard / gather round it with your friends / warm your hands upon the fire / and start again.” -Toad the Wet Sprocket

I’ve liked this song since the first time I heard it. It’s about minimalism and prioritizing relationships over things. There was always one verse I didn’t understand…”Take the dreams that should have died / the one’s that kept you lying awake / when you should have been alright / and throw ’em all away.”

My dreams? But my dreams make me human. They give me a purpose and destination. Why would I throw them away? I never understood that sentiment until now.

Toad was talking about material dreams – the plans we have about where and how we’ll live, work, and grow. The dreams we’re urged to throw away are the ones that corrupt good relationships, just as money or belongings can come between friends. Material dreams, cash and things aren’t evil, but essential. Yet when they’re loved too much, even more than people, they keeps us from happiness.

I learned this the hard way. A girl and I once dreamed together of a simple life with a garden, an old house, homeschooled kids, love, and charity. Somewhere along our path together, she decided that her dream was an 8-5 and an apartment. She thought my dreams had become too extreme, lacking the comforts she wanted. Instead of talking to me about how our dreams had changed, she just left.  She assumed that our lives were now incompatible, and so we needed to separate to pursue ourselves instead of each other. Make no mistake, she wasn’t giving an excuse to make a breakup easier, but really thought she needed to give up a genuine love for the sake of her new dream.

I’m not telling you this to make you feel sorry for me. It’s a cautionary tale. Your material dreams, like your income or possessions will change over the years. They will mature, change, fade away, or come true, but they shouldn’t rule you. The people you love shouldn’t be tied to a material dream anymore than to a place or a financial status. Toad the Wet Sprocket was right – throw away your dreams if they corrupt your relationships with those you love. Learn to compromise. Put love above dreams.

How is Man Meant to Live?

Yesterday I started a commune in the shade laden foothills of the Shenandoah mountains. To say commune is really too generous. It was just the four of us starting over and exchanging the perpetual madness of life for a simplistic joy of living. A small cabin with a waterwheel on 5 acres of rich soil and muddy clay. Picturesque. Pleasant. The work to get here has been overwhelming, but as tribulations often end with greater peace, so did our sweat and difficulty bring us the peace of a better kind of existence. The world was crushing in on us. It seemed…and perhaps was true…that each week brought a new public shooting, a new financial collapse, and a new low for a society striving for perfection of perversion. In short, a new sadness.

This little cabin is my answer to the question “How is Man Meant to Live?” But it’s a fantasy.

I don’t have a cabin in Virginia, a waterwheel, or even a back yard. I have an apartment, an 8-hour workday, a good meal, good friends. A fine life. Still…something is wrong, not with my individual life but with our collective lives. The cabin is a fantasy I share with many others who’ve realized that the system is broken. No cabin in the woods will change that brokenness, but it can be changed. My fantasy is an escape from tragedy, I admit. But it’s also a desire, a seed, a spark, and a beginning of a plan for something better.