Adjusting the morning routine

For awhile now, a year or more, laying in bed for more than six hours hasn’t worked for me. I can do it, but the extra two to two and one half hours doesn’t make me any more rested, just stiffer once I do get up. So I’ve gotten up very early, around 4am after having gone to bed at 10pm, and catch another couple of hours sleep later in the day. My morning routine has been to make and drink a cup of coffee during the first hour, meditate for the second hour, then one more hour of quiet before getting the rest of the family up at 7am.

During the first and third hours I read through my information feeds. It’s pleasant enough, and usually clears the decks so I can spend at least some of the rest of the day focusing on tasks without the constant temptation to browse through my feeds. I say “my feeds” rather than “the internet” because at this point I’ve done some severe curating of places I will go on the internet looking for reading or viewing material, and will generally stop looking when the feeds run dry rather than go looking elsewhere for new stuff. So even though I spend more time consuming those feeds than I would like, I don’t feel like any of the time is wasted — maybe not the best use of my time, but still not wasted.

Right now I’m thinking I’d like to spend the early morning time differently. Reading through feeds wakes me up in a certain way, which definitely influences the meditation that follows — not as badly as, say, reading through work emails when I first open my eyes (I don’t have work emails anymore, anyway), and nothing that I read disturbs my peace — but it does take awhile for my mind to quiet down when I meditate, something I suspect would happen much quicker if I hadn’t been reading. Still can’t jump into meditating right away, though, I need the coffee and the waking time to be alert enough.

And there’s the fact that I’m — maybe — squandering two early morning quiet hours. Even though my days are very quiet and free of external distraction, that’s even more the case in the morning, before dawn, with no traffic outside and the rest of the family in bed. It’s a good opportunity for my mind to go to a differentl place. And there’s plenty of time later in the day to catch up on the feeds.

I’m not sure yet what to try as a replacement activity. Reading books? Research? Working on essays? Journaling? Something different than the written word, or just outside my normal range of activities? I’ve been playing with electronics lately, a bit different than the usual symbol manipulation. Or I could get back to handwriting, or move on to calligraphy or drawing.

Stepping stones

This essay by Gordon Brander offers a good summary of a problem solving approach which is in AI circles is often called hill-climbing, one he calls warmer-colder.

To play, you pick an objective, and then measure your progress toward that objective. Line goes up and to the right? Do more of that thing. Line goes down? Do less of that thing. Many of businesses and projects are managed this way.

But this only works for neatly organized search spaces. A maze, for example, is not neatly organized.

If you try to navigate this maze by the warmer-colder method, you’re going to move toward the objective, and get stuck against the first wall. Every other direction will look worse, because it will take you further away from your objective. Paradoxically, you must be ready to repeatedly walk away from your objective if you are to have any chance of reaching it.

(This is called a hill-climbing problem by analogy with trying to find a path to a mountain peak. If your strategy is to require that the next step take you higher, you are likely to get stuck at the top of a foothill, not able to proceed to the goal because every possible next step leads down.)

A better strategy is what Brander calls collecting stepping stones.

Imagine a lake. Scattered across the surface of this lake are stepping stones. You want to cross the lake by hopping from one stone to another, but a thick fog hangs over the water and you can only see one or two steps ahead before the fog shrouds your view. […]

If we try to cross this lake by following only the stepping stones that lead toward our objective, we’ll soon get stuck. But what if we let go of our objectives? What if we focused on trying to find new stepping stones instead? This is novelty search. Instead of looking for something specific, you look for something new.

Why does this work better than trying to get closer to the goal?

Stepping stones are also combinatorial. Each new stepping stone we discover expands our potential to find even more stepping stones. Collecting stepping stones is a luck maximization algorithm. By collecting and combining stepping stones, we might arrive at our destination by accident, or somewhere more interesting!

I’ve always preferred exploring the available possibilities to single-mindedly pursuing a goal. For example, Chris and I spent eleven satisfying years as semi-professional musicians, looking to develop a broad competence in all its aspects—running a business, performing for an audience, relating to people professionally, developing a repertoire, learning the history, sharpening our instrumental and singing skills—rather than focusing on a single strategy for success. And as we came to understand the music performance space comprehensively, it dawned on us that we were highly unlikely to achieve even moderate success—the things necessary for it required excellence we didn’t have and weren’t willing to develop, plus compromises we weren’t willing to make and dues we weren’t interested in paying. At which point we gave it up, in an instant, with no regrets. (Well, Chris did do one more thing, namely play fiddle in a working bluegrass band for a summer, but only because he wanted to scratch it off his bucket list, not in hope of something developing from it.)

Brander’s essay caught my attention because it describes an approach to life very much like my own—I now have the book he based it on and will read it soon—but it came across my radar because he is working on a note-taking application I have been tracking for a few months:

What if we reimagine note-taking through this lens? Every note you take is a stepping stone, expanding your combinatorial space of possibility.

From this point of view, Subconscious is about building a stepping stone collector. Geists, search-or-create, backlinks… every feature we are building toward is aimed at collecting and combing stepping stones to generate yet more stepping stones. A serendipity engine.

I don’t know that I’ll need the tool he’s building—many others have the capabilities he mentions, including the ones I’ve been using—but I like his philosophy, and find it helpful when thinking about how to about building and using my own collection of notes.

Taking notes

I am learning to take notes. Or taking a stab at it, anyway. By “taking notes” I mean writing something down in response to something I read or hear, copying verbatim or restating in my own words or summarizing bits and pieces, intending to use what I write as an aid to thinking and eventually writing my own thoughts and ideas.

I rarely took notes as an undergraduate, never at all in five years of graduate school–one of my dissertation advisors commented on it, in a sort of horrified amusement. Note-taking itself wouldn’t have made much difference in my college career, I was doomed to failure (a fortunate one, for me) by deeper character flaws. Being the sort of person who naturally took notes might have saved me–or led me to abandon that career much, much earlier–but the lack of notes didn’t hurt me, as far as I could tell, I remembered what I needed to remember and found I understood much better when I devoted myself to listening.

But I was not a non-note-taker out of principle. I just never learned how. I’m sure I took a stab at it now and then, but it wasn’t something I was taught and I never understood the goals, the purpose, the benefits, the techniques–whatever I tried soon proved itself of no use, and I gave it up.

(That approach to new pursuits has served me well, as far as I can tell. I have a knack for enduring tedium, and so I can stick with a practice for a long while without seeing a return, as long as I have some reason to think the return will eventually come. And I have deliberately developed a knack for detecting early when the return is likely never going to come, as well as when the returns have diminished to where the practice is no longer profitable, and in both cases I’ve learned to quickly abandon the practice without regret–I learned something, or took what it had to give, and that was enough.)

While meeting with my Great Books reading group back in the early 90s, I did adopt a practice akin to note-taking, namely highlighting the readings and writing comments in the margins. That was very helpful in the monthly discussions, and although the marginalia dropped away as the discussions did, I have since then always read with a pencil or highlighter in hand. I didn’t often revisit the highlights physically, but I did in my mind–somehow highlighting would drive passages a bit deeper into my mind–and when I did need to find a passage itself I usually could.

Since long before I began reading seriously I’d spent my days creating at a computer, and with the work being largely text-based, I had a sense that clever software could help ordinary people collect text passages, relate them, and build on them. Many approaches were proposed, some were turned into working tools, but none caught on, certainly not at the level of, say, spreadsheets. The past ten years have seen renewed interest in trying, with many small companies hoping to make a spreadsheet-like breakthrough in the area.

One thing that is different this time around is pocket-sized computers (smartphones, Kindles) which we use for reading far more than we did with desktops or laptops. Which has given rise to new tools for working with what we read. I do a lot of online reading, and things I have only lately been able to do include:

  • Highlight a passage in an ebook, which will be automatically saved to a personal database I can search.
  • Receive a daily email with a collection of thematically related passages I have saved in the database.
  • Save a copy of the body text of a webpage (or PDF, or transcript of an audio or video) to the database.
  • Annotate, classify, and link saved passages as well as original writings.
  • Explore the database with a browser augmented in ways that make the task smooth and simple.

None of these, separately or together, constitute a note-taking system, but they are promising building blocks. And there is a lot of effort being poured into assembling these capabilities (and others) into a comprehensive tool that embodies one or another approach to note-taking–of which there are several, none a clear winner.

For a few months I’ve been using a tool being developed by Readwise. I had been a subscriber to their fairly modest original service for a few years–they would automatically collect the highlights I made on my Kindle, then send me a daily email with five or more for me to review. Originally I thought the service was only marginally useful, but not annoying enough to cancel. So I let it run, and would glance at the email most days. Eventually I found that re-reading the highlights was rewarding, and started paying closer attention. Then I found that if I read them in the web app I could highlight within the passages, tag them, and make notes on them, which I started doing, which led me to engage thoughtfully with them without much extra effort. The guys behind the original tool decided a couple of years ago to expand their scope and build a comprehensive tool for online reading, one that would make such reading significantly better.

Their approach to reading seems to be very much like mine, so I have high hopes for the tool they will eventually produce. The early version I’m currently using is promising, so much so that I’ve committed a lot of time to learning and using it. But I don’t need it to succeed beyond a certain modest level. If it makes it easier to do the things I’m already doing (listed above), consolidates those things into a single tool, and produces some unexpected benefits like their highlight-surfacing tool did for me, I’ll be very happy.

At the edge of my map

I just received today’s installment of Austin Kleon’s weekly newsletter, and it resonated. In fact, the ringing has gotten louder throughout the day. He writes about being at the edge of his map, a stage of life where the path forward is uncertain, stretching into uncharted territory, lacking in details or even hints as to what is to come, offering no guarantees that following it will be profitable. But not for the first time.

I can relate. Though my experience is different in important ways from his — he is thirty years younger than me, yet to turn 40, and so he is (probably) both anxious for the fog to clear so as to assure that he and his family will be well, and comfortable with the uncertainty because he has been here before and knows that his life and work has equipped him to not only endure these circumstances but thrive in them — he can proceed with the confidence of a skilled mapmaker, knowing that exploration will eventually reveal a path which will add new and valuable territories to those he knows now.

Meanwhile, I know that my family and I will be well, whether I venture off into unexplored territory, or turn back and revisit ground already (but not thoroughly) explored, or just sit here at the edge of the frontier and do nothing. Our finances are secure, our children are launched or nearly so, and our day-to-day occupations are more than satisfying. And, although I’m comfortable not knowing how to proceed, and well aware through experience that the Next Thing is out there, I’m no longer sure that time and patience will eventually lead me to the Next Thing — because there just isn’t that much time left. In the past it has not only taken awhile for the Next Thing to show up, but it has needed much time and effort to pursue that Thing to the point of profitable return. I’m not opposed to doing something new. But I’m now considering whether the time spent waiting for and then learning the Next Thing might be better spent revisiting and elaborating Old Things. Or perhaps just taking a long, close look at where I find myself now.

Kleon says he plans to confront his current uncertainty by

Reading a lot of books. (Looking at other maps.) Writing and making art. (Making my own maps.) And lots and lots of listening. Staying open to possibility. To the discovery of parts unknown to me.

All that sounds right for my situation too, except for the making art part. I have more than a thousand books on my shelves and Kindle that I’d like to read or re-read, and I think it would help me get started if I set aside my loftier aspirations and just read them, not as a means to some other end but merely for the pleasures and other incidental benefits the reading will provide. And I miss writing regularly, and I think it would help me get back to that if I set aside the ambitions I’ve piled up and elaborated over the past few years, and just write at a manageable level for the pleasures and incidental benefits of that.

So I’ll be giving daily blogging a try again. At the moment I have no idea what approach will be sustainable, so like some experimentation is ahead.

Kleon ends his newsletter installment with a poem from Wendell Berry called “Our Real Work”:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

By Berry’s lights my mind is certainly employed! But I’ve been baffled before, and learned to be comfortable with that.

Time to regroup (again)

Sometimes I think my entire approach to living is summed up in this anecdote from George Bernard Shaw:

I was about five at the time, and I was standing at my father’s knee whilst he was shaving. I said to him, ‘Daddy, why do you shave?’ He looked at me in silence, for a full minute, before throwing the razor out of the window, saying, ‘Why the hell do I?’ He never did again.”

I am reconsidering all the time. Only a few times did I never do the thing again, such as the time I walked away from academia. Many more times, maybe most times, I went over my reasons again and decided they were good enough to continue. But often enough I’ve redone the calculations and decided that it’s time to, if not abandon the thing, at least put it on the shelf for awhile, perhaps for a long while.

Last night I was fully ready to continue on with the October project, which would involve tackling a bigger than usual post (an account of the Great Books reading group). Waking up this morning, I wasn’t so sure. By the time I started my walk at 8:30am I had tentatively decided not to continue, and when I returned 45 minutes later I was sure, and comfortable with the decision.

Three things led me to change my mind: a question posed by Servetus, a blog post by Austin Kleon, and an email from a reader.

The question from Servetus:

But if (as you continue to assert) the world is more generally Christian than it was 2100 years ago, and the command to evangelize is more historical relative than most Christians have taken it to be, what is the motive to engage in spiritual exercise (or write a spiritual autobiography)? I get that you’ve become more of a “you do you” person yourself over time, but the “why” of writing and the matter of who might or should read what you have to say hangs a bit on this problem of why the person should engage in spiritual exploration (even in the absence of leadership).

I’m taking the question more broadly than I think Servetus intended, by asking myself: what exactly is the purpose of writing out this story? I was pretty sure there were good reasons, and I think there still are, but the question started me thinking about whether this was the best or even a good route to what I hoped to accomplish.

The blog post by Austin Kleon corrects a common misunderstanding about his signature exhortation to “show your work”:

The biggest misinterpretation of Show Your Work! is the idea that you should show everyone everything all the time. Just set up a 24/7 webcam over your desk and let people watch. […] Not only do I think it’s a bad idea to share while you’re actually doing your work, I think it’s a fast track to destroying your work.

The whole blog post is worth reading, but this opening zeroed in on a pain I was increasingly feeling — although it was good to be publishing without trying to meet my standard for finished pieces, they still weren’t finished enough, and that was making me unhappy (not to mention putting a burden on the reader). Which led me to think: one of my shortcomings as a writer is that I don’t write drafts that aren’t meant to be seen, which means I don’t rethink or rework much, I just finish and publish, or abandon.

And these challenges-to-myself to write and publish daily are not especially helpful. I’m still pushed to be more polished than I might if I were writing privately, but don’t have the time or the energy to give the pieces a decent polish, or even check that they’re coherent, that I didn’t lose the thread as the words were being laid down. There’s always the possibility that I might go back later and rework some of the material further — but there’s already twenty years worth of material which has failed to motivate me to do that, new material isn’t likely to change that, however raw.

All that leads me to think that I need to give private writing (and rewriting) a serious try before making efforts like this publicly. No guarantees I will do that, but at least in the notes I was making for this series I have a lot of fodder for private writing.

The email was from a longtime reader, though not recently, who had stumbled across the blog again and spent some time catching up on recent posts. He ended his encouraging note by saying that the blog had been a positive influence on his life. Which was heartening, and a possible reason to stick with blogging — but it also occurs to me that one of the reasons I might get a note like that is that the blog persists on the internet, all twenty-or-so years worth of entries, and will continue persisting whether or not I add to it. Meanwhile, given the nature of a blog, none of the past material gets revisited or refined, it is what it was at the time of writing. But I have a few projects in mind, websites that collect the best material I’ve found on various topics, with some amount of commentary from me — the inspiration being the old Cumberland Books website, which many people found helpful or enjoyable even without buying the books we sold. And I’m thinking that investing my writing time in those projects may be a better use of that time, crafting entries that say what I want to say while wasting as little of the reader’s time as possible.

Part of the reason for this very slow windup to telling the story of our time in the Bristol intentional community was to defuse any expectations that there was anything gossip-worthy to be revealed. And since I now don’t expect to tell that story in full anytime soon, let me leave this with the very short version. In 2001 we found ourselves in a very rural part of Colorado, plenty of savings, laid off from my job (at my request), at loose ends and alone. We were lonely and ready to move to a more populated area. Bristol came across our radar screen through their monthly newsletter, and after reading through all the back issues online we thought it might be a good next place to live — even if the community didn’t work out, the people seemed nice and the church seemed nice and the area seemed nice.

So we visited for a couple of weeks, and then decided to move there and join the church. The community turned out not to be what we wanted, but that was OK, we were able to limit our participation. The church turned out not to be what we wanted, but at least during our four years not so bad as to chase us away. The people were always nice, though mostly not our sort. Towards the end, when we reached the point where we started thinking about finding another church in the area, but only because our involvement was at low ebb, I finally read some books on my shelf by Joel Salatin, which inspired us to think that farming might be a better life for us. But farm land in the area was prohibitively expensive, while 250 miles to the west in Kentucky it went for maybe 1/5 the price. So we moved on, again. This isn’t to say that there weren’t tensions and changes of mind, or that I wasn’t privy to gossip-worthy stories, only that none of that really had much bearing on our decision to come or our decision to go. Our thinking has changed significantly since our time there, but the changes weren’t the reason we left, they came years later as we decompressed.

Have you considered this?

Probably in every Evangelical strain of thought there is a subgroup who see Christian life as intellectual warfare, with the most committed being those determined to prevail through superior rhetorical firepower. This is especially true among the Calvinists, who joke about new believers having to go through the “cage stage”, being so filled with the zeal of a convert that they turn into “arrogant, fiery, and argumentative Calvinists who seem like the only cure for their cruelty is time in a steel cage” (Tim Challies). The Calvinist phase of my experience is yet to come, but even in my circles there were those who had plunged into the material and wielded their knowledge like a weapon. This could have been me, since I was no stranger to intellectual duels and was greedily gobbling up whatever I could put my hands on — the Bible, Christian history, Christian doctrine. But somehow that path didn’t appeal to me. Perhaps because my ten years in industry had humbled me, in a good way. (I’ll write later about me and humility, but here I only mean to say that I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people way smarter than me, and at one company they were good and kind and decent to boot — adjusting myself to that environment made me among other things slow to speak, quick to listen.)

Which made me a bad candidate for traditional evangelism. Not that it was a live topic in a liberal Episcopal church, but it came up often enough in my reading, and I saw firsthand how much lip service was given to the idea in actually Evangelical churches I attended later. Not much was more heroic than singling out unbelievers and bringing them to faith through a clear statement of the gospel. The importance was repeatedly emphasized, our reluctance (which was tangible!) was repeatedly held up for shame. But I didn’t get it. That path to faith bore little resemblance to my own — in fact, what little experience I had on the receiving end in the days before I believed had put me off the possibility, not drawn me closer. In this anecdote from Navigators missionary Jim Petersen, I was definitely Osvaldo:

Osvaldo was one of the first Brazilians I talked to about Christ. He was working as an industrial chemist when I looked him up. We knew each other through his brother, with whom I had studied the Scriptures while I was in language study. Osvaldo was curious about what was going on because he couldn’t imagine his brother becoming involved in anything religious. His brother just wasn’t that kind of person. So, when I invited Osvaldo to dinner in our home he eagerly accepted.

The conversation began with Osvaldo asking questions about our motives for being in Brazil and about what was happening between his brother and me. The best way I could think of to answer his questions was to explain the gospel to him. I got a piece of chalk and a Bible and used the wooden floor as a chalkboard. I spend the next two hours showing him a favorite diagram I often used to explain the message. I was quite satisfied with my performance, and when I finally finished I leaned back to observe his reaction, certain that he would be on the verge of repentance.

Instead, he gazed at my illustration, then at me. He was puzzled. “Do you mean to tell me that this is why you came all the way to Brazil—to tell people that?

This post from ten years ago relays two other related anecdotes from Petersen that are worth reading. And in fact Petersen was a strong advocate, perhaps an originator, of what he calls lifestyle evangelism (and later lifestyle discipleship), which I discuss briefly in this post. The idea is that it is the example of our lives which persuades the observer, not the story we tell. Longtime readers here will not be surprised that I was heavily influenced by his thinking.

One of the major changes in my life in recent years came in exactly this way, through reading Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier, a very funny memoir about how he found his way to mindfulness meditation, and the differences it made in his life. His example and experiences persuaded me to do the smallest but most important thing, namely give it a try. Taste and see. No commitment, just a willingness to test out the practice with an open mind, knowing that it’s not forever, able to turn away from it at any time. And as I learned, probably from his book but maybe later, the Buddha said the same thing: don’t take my word for it, give it a try and see if it does anything for you.

Nobody except C.S. Lewis had told me this was one possible approach to experiencing faith. But what he said stuck with me, and eventually became a deep tenet in my practice. In the beginning I didn’t have the no commitment part down, I was just hungry enough for what was promised that I had no fear about stepping up. Eventually the fervor died down, but as new opportunities came along I remembered the benefts of earlier stepping up. And I remember as I was thinking about whether to become a tither, the thought occurred to me — this isn’t a lifetime commitment, I can change my mind the moment it becomes clear to me it isn’t a good idea. So I took the step, and we tithed for many years, occasionally making sizeable one-time contributions on top of that. (And then we changed our minds, and stopped, but without any regrets over the earlier giving.) While at All Saints, maybe a year or two into tithing, I was asked to give a testimony regarding it during a Christian Ed session. The only thing I remember saying was the part about what made it easy to decide was knowing I only had to give it a try, and could turn on a dime if I changed my mind. Not all that many people were in that session (who wants to go to such a class?), but I saw the eyes of a couple of people light up when I said it.

Have you considered this? I tried it out, this is what it was like, here’s where it delivered for me and where it didn’t. You might want to give it a try.

(Remember, very rough draft!)

Deciding to homeschool

I’ll give a short account here of our decision to homeschool precisely because it was not a Christian decision for us, unlike for most other people, and that fact may offer a deeper glimpse into how we approach life, spiritual and otherwise.

One of our regular listens on the local Christian radio station was Focus on the Family, James Dobson’s program. It was a major influence on us as we gradually aligned ourselves with Team Evangelical, helping us to understand the subculture while also offering lots of practical advice from an Evangelical viewpoint on how to structure a family. Looking back, I’d say that what made it Evangelical was that it took the traditional, conservative approach to child-rearing and family life and poured Christian ketchup all over it. We weren’t discerning enough at the time to recognize that. But in a way it wasn’t important, we needed an approach, and though drenched with ketchup there was an approach underneath that rang true to us.

The program was responsible for one (and only one, I think) important decision for us, the decision to homeschool. Well, that’s too strong — it didn’t persuade us to homeschool, it just brought the possibility to our attention. Debbie had heard James Dobson interview Raymond Moore, a key figure in bringing homeschooling back from the dead, around the same time we were pondering what to do about Chris’s schooling. We had enrolled him in a private school, Kirby Hall, and although it seemed to be a fine school overall, superior to a good public school (as far as we knew), none of that matters when it comes down to one kid’s experience with one particular teacher. He wasn’t thriving, had been fine in kindergarten but his first grade teacher didn’t like him, and we had gone from complacent to frustrated over participating from a distance — we didn’t know exactly what was going on, and we could only affect the situation in limited and hands-off ways. For second grade we moved him to the private school attached to a local megachurch, Great Hills Baptist, but things didn’t improve.

Probably his downfall was that he wasn’t enough trouble to merit special handling — he was a dreamer, and messy, and easy for the teacher to shove into a corner while she was occupied managing the most troublesome of the twenty-odd students in the class. There was at least one meeting with the teacher, Debbie was very worried about him, and finally she asked if I thought we could homeschool him. My reaction was basically, what’s that? At the time I had no conception that such a thing was even legal, much less a possibility. But she had already done the research, and I didn’t take much convincing. That was the end of our experiment with institutional schooling.

Homeschoolers offer lots of justifications for homeschooling, most of which don’t resonate with me. Some of my own reasoning is probably post hoc rationalizing rather than original motivation — but that’s fine! Recall that I have a longstanding inclination to jump first based on instinct, then figure out the reasoning based on inside experience. I’ve written recently about some conclusions, here and here. But there is one I seem not to have written about, as far as I can tell, and it is probably the most important.

It’s too much to expect paid professionals to love your child.

This is a thought I recall having early on, when I was pondering why the institutional school experience had served Chris so badly. Eventually it occurred to me: why should it have been a good thing for him? We were paying a few hundred dollars a month for a system to take care of him for about half his waking day. Was that even a fraction of what it would cost to get him individual attention when he needed it? And when he didn’t need it, was it fair to him to be consigned to an environment where the most important thing was that he not make trouble, because the system breaks down when more than a small percentage of the kids make trouble, a segment of the population already occupied? Once I saw that I had no ill feelings about the teachers or the system. I had been making an unrealistic, unreasonable request, that these people take over a major responsibility of mine, at bargain rates to boot. We were glad to have Chris back home, where we could give him attention when he needed it, and let him occupy himself as he liked in a familiar environment the rest of the time.

Again, it was not an especially Christian decision we made, but it was one of the most important. It locked down several aspects of our family life for many, many years (and still continues to do so, though tapering off). And it was the first time we took back a major responsibility from a social institution, starting a trend that eventually became a core quality of our life together, prompting us to question just about every instance where we had turned over responsibility for something we might possibly have done for ourselves.

The Lives of Others

The lives of others are precious to me. I want to know all the possibilities for living, the opportunities that can be seized and the consequences for seizing them, to inform my own choices as I walk my own path. I’m glad to experiment, but four thousand weeks is a tragically short time, barely enough to experiment deeply with a few approaches, and experimentation crowds out actual living — no point in experimenting at all unless you eventually commit to something and live it out. Given that hard limit, I escape it to an extent by intently studying the lives of folks who have chosen a path different than mine and walked it with commitment.

Some of what I see is attractive, some inspiring, some repulsive, some puzzling, some pitiful, some glorious. I try to take it all in without judging (but with discernment). I’ve found that over the years the practice has made me steadily less judgmental, and whether or not that is a virtue in itself, it has greatly contributed to my personal peace with the world at large, and I’m grateful for that. And the practice has changed me, for the better — occasionally I see things in the lives of others that affect me deeply, showing up a gap in my life I want to fill, or holding up a mirror to something repulsive or pitiful in myself, allowing me to see it clearly and then want, really want to change it. This is probably why I so liked the film The Lives of Others, about the Stasi agent assigned to watch a playwright and his girlfriend, and whose life is changed by the watching.

I’ve benefited from studying the lived-out examples of others, good and bad and just very different, and nearly all my writing is offered in the same spirit. It’s beyond most of us to figure out how to live through sheer experience. Too many have chosen the easier, natural path of mimesis, learning how to behave by watching and copying others without thinking much about what that behavior means. I don’t crave being different, I’m perfectly happy to do what the crowd is doing — but I want to know why that is the best way to behave, and have a broad understanding of the consequences, and to choose to behave that way after thinking it through. I’ve engaged in that process steadily and repeatedly, and it’s worked well for me, at least in my judgment. I’d like to offer up an account of my experiences as an example of one way to live, not necessarily superior to others, but with a rich collection of benefits and drawbacks, some which I’m able to point out, others I may be blind to but perhaps the reader will see for themselves in the account I give of myself.

I’ve long ago given up trying to persuade others with my words, because I’ve concluded it’s an ineffective means of improving the world. I will occasionally write to help someone to see something — but only a specific someone, and a specific something, and only after working hard to understand what they are seeing and not seeing, and then considering whether there is some thing I can say to open their eyes in a gentle and loving manner — if not, the damage I might otherwise do to them (and myself) is almost always too great a risk to take. So I’m limited to living out a hopefully persuasive example, and sometimes explaining myself when the situation calls for it, like now.

I’m not sure that the unexamined life is not worth living, but I’m pretty sure that examining one’s life can bring value to it like almost nothing else. I’ve raised my kids to know that my love for them does not depend on the path they choose to follow, I’ll support them in whatever choice they make as long as they’ve chosen thoughtfully (and I’ll love them even if they don’t, but I won’t endorse it). Only one has put that to the test so far, and the test wasn’t difficult, but that’s how I view things and how I hope to be able to behave when the time comes.

I write all this because I gather it’s a less than common viewpoint for a writer to take — at least I don’t see it much in the wild, and when I write I’m often mistaken for someone who is championing a certain way of thinking, a certain way of living. Not at all. We all have to choose, and live with the consequences of those choices. Many people I’ve known don’t care to have their choices examined or questioned, or the consequences made public. That’s their privilege — I honestly believe that, there’s no human duty to expose yourself to such scrutiny, it’s scary and uncomfortable and likely to be used as a weapon against them — but the few who have gone ahead anyway and presented themselves for examination have given me a precious gift, one I want to honor, and to repay by offering up my own humble version of the gift.

So feel free to question or challenge anything I write here. I’m not writing to make a case for what’s best, but sometimes it can help get the point across by explaining further or defending in the face of criticism. I won’t take it personally! But I may not rise to the bait, either.


Long-time reader Servetus tells me that she detects an emerging theme of self-discipline in these spiritual autobiography posts. True, but I think the deeper theme is a growing sense of self-sufficiency, which requires a good amount of self-discipline to make it work. I am definitely not self-disciplined by nature or upbringing — very lazy, in fact — but I’ve learned to confront and mostly conquer that weakness through deliberate effort, which probably resembles self-discipline and may in fact be something close to it.

One of the next stages of the story bears on this. I was looking through my old posts to jog my memory, and found that ten years ago I had more or less written the post I wanted to write, and it’s not bad, so I’ll cheat a bit on my commitment and just repeat it verbatim.

I suppose everyone encounters the concept of discipleship in their own way and time, but once encountered the inevitable next step is a prolonged period of moaning about how hard it is to find someone to do the discipling. For me it happened about seventeen years ago. I was in a weekly Bible study with some of the other evangelical-leaning Episcopalians at my church, a Christian for just a few years, and ran through the standard litany of complaints about how unnamed “mature” Christians (I had none in mind) were apparently neglecting their mentorly duties to me and others, for reasons I couldn’t fathom.

To make the point, I turned to an older couple in the group, married perhaps forty years at that time. and said, “Look, surely if a young couple came to you and asked for guidance and wisdom about being married you’d be glad to give it.”

Instead of the vigorous nodding I expected to get, I got a deer-in-the-headlights look. Even after forty years of marriage my friends reacted in terror to the thought that someone might actually ask them for advice—after all, they might follow it, and it might not turn out well, and then who would be responsible?

That’s what I imagined they thought, anyway. Perhaps so, perhaps not. But in any case I eventually realized that avoiding the burden of an obvious role is a shameful neglect of one’s duty to others. When I turned fifty I told people I didn’t consider myself properly prepared to be a fifty-year-old man in the community, but since I was the fifty-year-old man God had given them I would do my best to measure up.

Still, I think there was way too much wishful thinking in the idea that I could have walked the path better with mentoring. Looking back on it, most of the walking was walking I had to do alone. To the extent that I unthinkingly followed the guidance of purportedly wiser men, I suffered. It is simply too much to ask another person to know your mind and circumstances thoroughly enough to make wise decisions for you, or even to explain to you how to decide a given situation wisely. Wisdom is not a set of rules which dictate the path, it is a set of eyes which allow us to view a landscape for what it is so that we can chart our own highly individual path.

One other thing about finding a mentor, which I’m not spiritual enough to couch in biblical terms but is still a reality that must be wrestled to the ground. Musicians also dream of being mentored by someone more highly skilled than they are, because they expect the mentor will be able to smooth the path of learning for them—tell them just how to handle situations they face, introduce them to the right people, point them in the right directions.

But as a very experienced musician once told me—what’s in it for the mentor? Highly skilled musicians get their satisfaction and challenges from working with people at their own level. Such a one might do a certain amount of pro bono work among the novices. A very few might even be called to work among the novices, and those we call teachers. But it is too much to expect a highly skilled musician, of whom there are very few, to spend a significant amount of their time bringing along the novices, of whom there are very many. Better to do the work of learning among your peers, helping one another, challenging one another to grow in the music.

Similarly, I think it is wise to not look for any significant amount of hands-on mentoring from an experienced Christian. For those who could do the job, the demands on their time from those who want to learn is already intense. Better to just observe them closely, take any wisdom they choose to share with you very seriously, and otherwise spend your time working with your equally needy peers, edifying one another, caring for one another, exhorting one another to love and good works. Leave the elders plenty of space to continue their own growth, among their own peers.