Unplugging (from the bad stuff)

Last fall a friend sent me a link to this blog post by Cal Newport, a computer science professor who is “particularly interested in the impact of new technologies on our ability to perform productive work and lead satisfying lives,” according to his About page. Newport points to another blog post by expert woodworker Christopher Schwarz explaining why he had stopped interacting with the public via email:

Trust me. It’s not you. It’s me. I had multiple public email addresses for 17 years and answered every damn question sent to me – no matter how odd or how much research it required. I helped lazy students with their papers on hand craft. I found links for people too lazy to use a thing called Google. I answered sincere but incredibly time-consuming emails from people who wanted to tell me their life story and get detailed advice on the steps they should take to become a woodworker.

It all became too much, so Schwarz simply deleted his public email address, and now rigorously ignores any emails from the public which happen to find their way to him. Which earned him Newport’s admiration.

Mine, too! I spent some time looking around Schwarz’s website, in part because our son Jerry has shown some interest in woodworking. Remarkable work, beautifully photographed. I was also delighted to discover that he has publicly declared himself to be an anarchist. That goaded me into scheduling a road trip to Schwarz’s workshop on the proper Saturday of the month, with Chris and Jerry in tow. We didn’t talk anarchy—it was actually a bit awkward, since I couldn’t think of much to say that wouldn’t come off as fanboy-ish—but we bought some of his books, and perhaps there will be more opportunities down the road.

Newport’s final paragraph got me thinking.

In more detail, what impresses me about Schwarz is that he rejected the fear of missing out — on a new lead, on a new opportunity, on a new fan — that permeates so much of our digital age business culture …

No question that FOMO is a much bigger problem than any of us suspect–not only does it put us in a position of weakness and dependency, but I don’t think people are aware what vast amounts of time they devote to avoiding missing out.

Early last year I once again took the pruning shears to my information feeds, this time cutting away anything that made me the slightest bit agitated, irritated, or bored (not much left!). Afterwards I was startled at how much less I knew about the news of the day (I was barely aware of the two hurricanes last fall, and didn’t hear about the Mexico City earthquake until three days after the fact) and how much time opened up as a result. And I’m less agitated, irritated, and bored–how sweet is that?

… and started instead from a simpler question: how do I get better at what I do best? Honest answers to this query rarely involve spending more time online.

Well, depends what you mean by “spending time online.” Socializing, commenting, following controversies, contributing to controversies, posturing or following on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram … all true. But of the time I spend getting better at what I want to do well, or more knowledgeable about what’s important to me, a large proportion is spent in online research and study. Chris would say the same, I think.

We live in a golden age for autodidacts, where experts share their knowledge freely and anyone with an internet connection and the proper search skills can do a deep study on just about any topic they choose. Lots of time-wasting temptations mixed in there, of course, but easily avoided if you pay attention to what you’re doing.


Three good thoughts for the day

The first comes from Dallas Willard, via Richard Beck’s blog:

Our mistake is to think that following Jesus consists in loving our enemies, going “the second mile.” turning the other cheek, suffering patiently and hopefully–while living the rest of our lives just as everyone around us does….

We cannot behave “on the spot” as [Jesus] did and taught if in the rest of our time we live as everyone else does. The “on the spot” episodes are not the place where we can, even by the grace of God, redirect unchristlike but ingrained tendencies of action toward sudden Christlikeness. Our efforts to take control at that moment will fail so uniformly and so ingloriously that the whole project of following Christ will appear ridiculous to the watching world. We’ve all seen this happen.

Knowing what is right does not lead to doing what is right. We have to somehow become a person from whom right actions flow naturally.

The second comes from C.S. Lewis:

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.

A lot about what we need to understand about right action can only be understood in the midst of acting that way. We can’t really know what it is to love our neighbor without loving him, however imperfectly, and in the loving we can see what it really means to love, and perhaps see our way to loving better. We need to get up close and look, and look long and hard, and then look again.

The third comes from Seth Godin:

What you say is not nearly as important as what we hear.

Which means that the words matter, and so does the way we say them. And how we say them. And what we do after we say them.

It takes two to be understood. Not just speaking clearly, but speaking in a way that you can be understood.

Empathy is not sufficient. Compassion is more useful, because it’s possible to talk to someone who is experiencing something that you’ve never experienced.

This describes a thing where I’ve moved from not doing it at all, to doing it awkwardly and artificially, to doing it as a practice, to doing it habitually, to having it as part of my nature. In the beginning I thought what I had to say was the important thing, and the person listening was obligated to figure it out. Then I realized I was wrong, and that I was obligated to make myself not just understandable but understood. That was at least twenty years ago, and much of the time since has been spent getting to a place where now it will hardly even occur to me to speak unless I am more or less certain I can speak in such a way that the hearer will understand, clearly and exactly. Not that there aren’t times when I have to speak anyway, because the need to say something outweighs my inability to say it clearly. But in those situations I practically have to force myself to do it.


“I really liked Richard Beck’s latest blog post, The Kingdom of God is Seeing.

If you’ve heard me talk over the last two years you might have heard me talk about how the kingdom of God is perceptual rather than moral. Specifically, the kingdom of God isn’t a matter of becoming a good person. The kingdom of God is a matter of seeing. If you see clearly then the goodness–right action–follows as naturally as breathing.

He describes a moment of revelation that Thomas Merton experienced in Louisville KY (one that merited a historical marker!), and then writes:

My observation here is that Merton doesn’t, in this moment, need to try, through an act of will, to “be a good person.” Instead, having come to see clearly, right action is easy and spontaneous.

This hints at what has been a guiding principle for me for many years, though even now I don’t understand it well enough to put it into simple, clear words. All I know is that seeing clearly, whatever that means, is somehow the key to the good life.

The good life is fundamentally a matter of doing the right thing. The best life is the one where the natural response to any circumstance is the right one. Doing things right means we have to be able to do the right thing, which requires a determination to do the right thing, i.e. to become a person who always acts rightly. But prior to that is the need to perceive what is right. And I think if you perceive clearly what is right, you will be drawn irresistibly (and joyfully) along the path that ends in a life of naturally does the right thing.

Years ago Doug Jones shocked me by writing that faith is a sense, a way of perceiving what is real. Perhaps it is the only way to perceive what is real. Suddenly most of what the Bible had to say about faith and faithfulness made sense to me.

I’m tempted to make a small adjustment to that well-known passage from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And see the place for the first time.

Joan Didion

I’ve been revisiting Joan Didion lately—as have a lot of people, I guess. At first I didn’t understand why, and I’m still not completely sure. I’d read her early work back in the day, Slouching Toward Bethlehem (essays) and Play it as it Lays (novel) and The White Album (more essays). I was impressed by her writing and fascinated by the stories she told, but wasn’t sure what to make of it all.

There is a resurgence of interest in her now, a new book (haven’t read it yet) and a documentary on Netflix (not great, but pretty good). I guess what caught my eye this time was one of her famous quotes being endlessly repeated: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I believe that more and more, and yet less and less do I think it is a good way to live—since it also seems true to me that we tell ourselves stories to distract ourselves from what’s actually going on, and if that’s what it takes to live, well, that’s a pretty dismal view of life.

So I started re-reading the early essays, and the writing is more astonishing than I remembered—and the message more obscure as well. Pellucid, jarring, elegantly crafted descriptions that leave me more baffled than ever about what I was just looking at.

So why is it somehow important to me to keep going back to her, rather than putting her on the shelf and moving on? Today someone quoted a bit of “The White Album” (the essay) and now maybe I get it.

We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

Aha. This is the trap that mindfulness meditation is trying to escape, to set aside the narratives and see things as they actually are. No surprise that what you end up seeing is unrecognizable, and baffling. But keep looking.

This is a pretty good take on what Didion may be trying to do in her writing. And the Netflix documentary is worth 90 minutes of your time, if for no other reason that the filmmaker was family (nephew Griffin Dunne) and she is way more comfortable and frank with him than in the usual interview. Also—and this may sound weird—Didion is a remarkable physical specimen, fascinating to watch. She is in her early 80s, weighs almost nothing, veins bulging on nearly fleshless arms. Still sharp as a tack. Hands gesturing in the air as she talks, but with no relationship I could discern to the words she is saying. Absolutely without pretense. Not at all the sort of weird I expected—but still weird, just a very different sort.

A nice aphorism

I saw a review of a just-published biography of Jann Wenner, founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, and thought I might like to read it, having been a devoted reader from the early 70s through the late 80s. The library had a copy on order so I placed a hold and had it in hand a few days later.

I read the first few chapters, and decided: no, I don’t want to spend the time it will take to read this. It covers a part of the culture that was once part of my life, but I left it behind 35 years ago and have better things to do than reliving those (mostly vicarious) experiences. I took it back last night and I picked up another new book I’m really looking forward to reading. And this morning I ran across a good review of the Wenner biography, which linked to a New York Times article about how Wenner and his biographer had a falling out, and those two more than satisfied my curiosity about the book.

And so we come to the barely-related inspiration for today’s post, the final sentence of the book review. The reviewer, who worked at Rolling Stone for many years and at several points was courted by Wenner to write the biography himself, laments the fact that as good as the biography is it seems to miss something essential about Wenner’s character, a quality that allowed him to assemble a crack writing staff and give them the freedom they needed to blaze important new trails. Since it’s good writing, I’ll quote the whole final paragraph:

A funny thing happens when a part of your life becomes official history. No matter how good that history is, the writer can’t help getting a crucial aspect wrong. All the facts might be correct, but the spirit is lost. The effect is like a body without a soul. Everything we read about the past is bound to be incomplete because, though we might know what unfolded, we can never really know how the experience felt. The story that gets pieced together takes the place of the memory, then becomes the memory. Because this book is so good, its portrait of Jann Wenner will stick in our heads. History is not what happened, but what remains when everything else is forgotten.

This is a good thing to remember when reading any biography. But what caught my eye is that last sentence: History is not what happened, but what remains when everything else is forgotten. No offense to the writer, but it was just too good, so I Googled it and found that it is a variant (perhaps his own) on a cluster of aphorisms that have been around for awhile, the essence being:

Culture/Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything you’ve learned.

I like that because I think it restates a core aspect of character development, namely that the job is not to become skilled at a particular virtue or discipline, but to become a person who embodies it. That is, we work at patience not simply to collect and polish a set of skills to apply in trying situations, but to actually become patient—a state of being which will allow us to meet trying situations those skills aren’t designed to address—we come to understand patience deeply enough to craft new responses on the spot—and will radiate its effects throughout our character by putting us in closer alignment with God’s creation.

I should note that the reviewer’s variation actually repurposes the observation, moving it from one about individuals to one about societies.

And I want to use this as an excuse to repeat one of my favorite anecdotes:

[Vladimir] Horowitz was asked if the number of extremely talented young pianists concerned him. Did he fear losing his position among the stellar performers? He responded no, that he didn’t fear them. They are very talented, he agreed, and they practice like demons, making high demands of themselves, and then they go on stage before an audience and practice some more.

An experiment

I thought it might be interesting to publish a raw piece of writing here, the first part of something that may take me a good while to finish. The piece itself needs reworking, and may change quite a bit as I rework it into something that says what I think—and as I continue to discover what I think.

The title of the piece for now is Come Alongside, and describes what I think is one good way to walk the path of character development, Christian or otherwise.

Why are we stuck?

Richard Beck recent wrote a series of posts called “The Most Important Word in Christianity” (one, two, three, four). They’re good reading, short and to the point, but I think I can summarize it fairly as follows:

  • Christians have an understanding of the fruitful Christian life and a desire to live it, but in general make no progress toward that end.

Seriously, just take a look at your church. How many times have you heard the call to more Sabbath, simplicity and prayer? A bet a million times. Now ask: Is your church any less busy or stressed out than it was ten years ago?

  • We fail to develop the fruits of the Spirit because we don’t intentionally set out to develop those fruits.

For example, how many of us woke up today with an intentional goal to be more gentle? I expect very few. Which means, by the end of the year, none of us will have become more gentle. That’s a Fruit of the Spirit, a key marker of being like Jesus, totally ignored.

  • Spiritual disciplines, good in themselves, will not produce fruit because they are not designed to produce fruit.

Consider how Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount. Having set out his vision of God’s kingdom rule in our lives, Jesus doesn’t conclude with the suggestion that we should practice prayer, fasting, Sabbath, and silence so that the Sermon can be formed in our lives. No, Jesus ends by saying this: “The one who hears these words and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon a rock.” […]

Jesus’ vision of spiritual formation is simple: Put these things into practice. Don’t wander off to do other sorts of things. Intentionally do these things. Intentionally put these things into practice. Yes, prayer and fasting are mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount, but intentionality in practicing prayer and fasting is primary.

  • We can progress in fruitful living by cultivating the actual fruits.

My biggest problem with Christian spiritual formation efforts is the lack of attention given to the Fruit of the Spirit. Somehow, prayer and fasting are supposed to cultivate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I’m not wholly convinced that’s the case, all things being equal.

Here’s a crazy idea: I think you cultivate something like patience by being focused and intentional about being patient.

To my mind Beck is right about two things: (1) the fruits of the spirit are not cultivatable indirectly, i.e. practices such as prayer and fasting and Bible study do not by themselves produce the fruits, and (2) the fruits are cultivatable directly, i.e. we progress in them by practicing them.

This has been my experience. I’ve done both, and I’ve made progress in the fruits. For the record, I’m prepared to back up that claim in the case of joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—love is harder to quantify, and I’ll leave it to others to decide whether I’ve progressed there. I’ve also worked at the spiritual disciplines with varying levels of diligence for twenty-five years now, and I am confident now that, beneficial though the work was, it didn’t produce the fruits. At best it deepened my understanding of them, intensified my hunger to bear them, and cleared the way of certain obstacles.

So, Beck says e.g. we are not growing in patience because we are not focused and intentional about developing patience. But doesn’t this simply beg the question? We know we should be patient, we want to be patient, pastors urge us to be patient, we have before us the perfect model of patience—with all that, what keeps us from being focused and intentional about developing patience?

I’ve sat through enough sermons where the pastor was Homer Simpson to my television in this clip:

TV Host: Well, sir, it has been an uneventful week in Badger Falls… where the women are robust, the men are pink-cheeked… and the children are pink-cheeked and robust. [ Wild TV audience laughter ]

Homer What the hell’s so funny?

TV Host: At the Apple Biscuit Café… where the smiles are free, don’t you know… Sven lnqvist studied the menu. Finally, he ordered the same thing he has every day. [ Wild TV audience laughter]

Bart: Maybe it’s the TV.

Homer: Stupid TV! [Starts banging on TV] Be more funny!

Well, OK, pastor … but how? Is the path to patience so obvious that deciding we want to go there is enough, the work to be done will unfold before us as long as we set forth with intention? This hasn’t been my experience.

Richard Beck says the missing ingredient is intentionality, that we don’t progress because we make no serious effort to do so. I agree, but I think that such effort never materializes (or dies on the vine) because of a second, more important missing ingredient: clear and simple guidance on how to proceed. That we are left to work out for ourselves. For those few who are able to chart their own path, the progress will come. The rest are left to drift.

But as I suggested in my post earlier this week, the failure should not be chalked up to the individual but the community.

Most Christians know they are called to behave a certain way, and many are doing their best to answer the call, but they don’t seem to be enjoying it one bit. They are not content, but they don’t know why, and constant exhortation from the pulpit to just be content isn’t making it any easier. They don’t yet have the answers. But I think the answers are out there. I think that Christian thinking actually works, and it’s completely fair for someone to point out to the teachers that they can’t be telling the whole story if a Christian who honestly and diligently applies these teachings doesn’t experience joy and contentment as a result.

There are answers. But until we figure out how to (a) live them in our own lives, and (b) teach others how to live them in theirs, we don’t really have them.

Clear and simple guidance is a possibility, but somehow the community isn’t delivering. We can’t deliver an answer we don’t have, and we don’t have an answer until we have lived it in our own life and taught others how to live it in theirs. The pieces are floating around—some know how to live it out, some know how to teach—but we’ve forgotten as a community how to collect, cultivate, and communicate wisdom for living.

But … how?

In the mid-90s I saw a training video for Alpha course leaders where Nicky Gumbel, the Anglican priest who created the course, talked about once going on and on in pastorly tones about the importance of prayer, to which his wife responded in essence, yes, well and good … but how?

He then advised the small group leaders that, when they introduced prayer into their groups (about five meetings along, I think) they should initiate it … and keep it simple. As he said, if the group leader opens with a elaborate, articulate, delicately phrased prayer, those in the group with little or no experience of prayer at best are likely to think “Wow! That was wonderful, I loved that! Of course, I could never do such a thing …” Whereas if you open the meeting with “Dear Lord, thank you for the lovely weather this week, amen” those folks are likely to think “Huh … well, I can surely do better than that!”

Provided this is what you think prayer is about, then the above is great guidance—clear, simple, and practical. We might wonder why a collection of advice just as practical doesn’t exist, a training manual for those new to prayer (as far as I know it doesn’t, at least in the sense I’m describing). I think the reason is a simple one—the above bit of advice is specific to a time and place and situation, provided by an expert in such things, and if we were to collect all such advice even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written, only the tinest fraction of which would be relevant to a given person’s life.

And we don’t really need such a comprehensive library. We would be fine with just one book, as long as it were addressed directly to us and the writer added to it the things we needed to read at just the time we needed them.

Such books are occasionally written, though not always by setting pen to paper. They are written by mentors on the hearts of those they advise.

I think mentoring is nearly a lost concept in modern Christian circles. No one wants the responsibility that comes with doing it, and although many will make noises about wanting to be discipled no one wants to subject themselves to the actual discipline, which involves humility and docility and other quaint character qualities.

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?

From my Sent folder

I should know better than to predict when a piece will be ready. The one I predicted a few days ago is still in process, and I don’t know how long it’ll take to finish. No matter. For now I’ll follow Alan Jacobs’s occasional practice of posting something he has sent in an email to a friend.

In this case the friend asked me what I thought about William James’s essay “The Moral Equivalent of War”, which argues that cultivating a warlike nature is good and necessary but forging it in actual war is a bad and destructive thing, therefore we should look for outlets that are “morally equivalent” to war, other activities that cultivate the needed characteristics.

If now—and this is my idea—there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population, to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would follow. The military ideals of hardihood and discipline would be wrought into the growing fiber of the people; no one would remain blind, as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man’s relations to the globe he lives on and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

I love William James, but not his conclusion here. This is what I wrote to my friend.

Your reading program certainly takes you to interesting places! I remembed The Moral Equivalent of War only as Jimmy Carter’s rallying cry to confront and defeat the late 70s energy crisis. I knew he had taken the concept from William James, but had never bothered to go to the source. Thanks for giving me a reason to do that.

I disagree with James’s conclusion. But I also think he is one of the smartest and wisest thinkers ever, and I definitely agree with his instruction to fellow pacifists (among whom I’d count myself):

Pacifists ought to enter more deeply into the aesthetical and ethical point of view of their opponents. Do that first in any controversy, then move the point, and your opponent will follow.

Since I grant that James’s conclusion follows from his assumptions, I had to figure out which one(s) I disagreed with. And I think where James and I diverge is in seeing certain qualities of character as important, even vital to creating the good life:

We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command must still remain the rock upon which states are built.

He may be right that states require those qualities of their citizens–but that’s a problem for the state, not the individual. Moreover, the four qualities he mentions above, along with the rest, clash pretty strongly with the Christian virtues, and in some cases are in direct opposition.

James was a man of his time, when the American project was a roaring success and jingoism reached its zenith. I read a book called Imperial San Francisco which looks at the history of that period and makes it clear that Americans were bursting with pride at having conquered a continent and ready to move on to the next one, Asia; the ads and articles cited there urging the public to continue pushing the frontier west into the Eastern hemisphere … well, it curled my hair to read it.

I can see that he was in a peculiar position, having been bred to see those “virtues” as such, civilized enough to know that using war to instill them would lead to global disaster. But I think he was wrong about the virtues we need. The Christian ideal is sufficient.

James would say otherwise, perhaps grant that they are OK but that we need more in order to accomplish civilization. I’m with Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” And with Tolstoy: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”