Small things, repeated

Although I grouse regularly that most of what I read about character is brief and unspecific when it comes to the practice of character development, I also grant that this may be as good as it gets. Perhaps most of the practices are obvious—after all, I’ve figured out a lot of them on my own—and folks only write about the few non-obvious ones. Perhaps the practices are difficult or even impossible to put into words, like the ones that guide us into driving a car well. Or perhaps they are too specific, and can only be stated regarding a particular person in a particular situation. (As a well-known horse trainer once replied when asked how he goes about training a horse, “Which horse?”)

But I grouse because I suspect, at least for some people in some situations, a well-stated bit of wisdom can be of assistance. There are anecdotes and aphorisms I relate over and over again, because for me they encapsulate a bit of wisdom that not only opened my eyes wider but gave me a hand up in tackling a shortcoming I struggled with. So far they live mostly in my mind, but some made it into posts on this blog, and I plan to put more of them down in writing, refining them to a point where they might be a bit of help to someone else.

Here’s a fresh example, though not yet refined. Richard Beck has been sharing anecdotes about the prison Bible study he leads, and this morning he tells of one inmate who regularly performs a small service for the leaders which could also benefit the inmate—and yet the inmate deliberately refrains from taking the benefit. (Please click through to read the anecdote, it’s short and well written.)

This is the sort of practice I want to hear about, not because I expect to find myself in exactly the same situation, but because it shows how an opportunity to build character can be found in a small and mundane act—provided we look, and provided we approach it as such. The same act in the same situation could go wrong in many ways, e.g. it could be used to communicate moral superiority. But done right, it is one small step towards better character. And if that small step becomes the basis of a practice—well, as Seth Godin says, “A small thing, repeated, is not a small thing.”

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More notes on character

I’d heard of Temple Grandin but never bothered to check out what she had to say until a friend sent a link to this 2010 TED video. Four million views—wow! As a talk, I didn’t think it was all that good, since it presumes that you know a lot about her already (I guess from the movie made about her).

Her point about not neglecting those who think differently reminded me of something I wrote elsewhere on this blog:

As we raised our kids, and continue to raise them, we kept competitive activities near zero. We also left their gifts mostly alone to flourish as they would, focusing instead on teaching them to compensate for their weaknesses and to be diligent in necessary things that were distasteful or didn’t come naturally.

But as I read the entire post where I found that excerpt, I realized that Grandin is arguing that we need to feed more kids into the meritocracy mill, whereas I think we should avoid the mill altogether, focusing instead on guiding our kids through building a well-rounded character and letting their various gifts take care of themselves.

I’m still reading about Christian character, no surprise. The latest book is N.T. Wright’s After You Believe, titled Virtue Reborn in England, both not very good titles, but the subtitle is accurate: Why Christian Character Matters. As usual I’m disappointed at the lack of specifics–Wright spends all but one chapter making his case for the importance of doing the work, and then ends up in the usual place—read your Bible, pray every day, embrace the liturgy. But Wright is a careful and accessible writer, and he has demonstrated some things for me I was mostly assuming beforehand. (Here’s a talk by Wright on the topic.)

(And yes, Willard’s Renovation of the Heart–which I’m now reading for the fourth or fifth time–is better and far more practical, but since it isn’t more widely used I have to assume there’s something unapproachable about it.)

Another recommendation: two books by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, a professor at Calvin College, about vice and virtue. The first one, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, is on my Kindle but I haven’t read it yet because I couldn’t resist starting with her followup, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice. Which is excellent! It spelled out for me the (good) reasons for my growing uneasiness about public performance, especially in places like church.

It’s short on practical remedies, and even though Glittering Vices mentions remedies in its subtitle I have to wonder if it will fulfill the promise. But reading Wright and DeYoung has softened my impatience a bit regarding the lack of specifics. As Jordan Peterson points out in several places, if you’re serious about tackling the shortcomings in your life it isn’t difficult to come up with specific first steps to take, you just need to sit on your bed and think to yourself, honestly, what things could I do today to make things better? They will present themselves, promptly and insistently.

The drive home

My dad’s funeral and memorial service were held a week ago Friday, and early Saturday morning I left my brother and sister to finish up the job of cleaning out his house (at their urging) and started the three-day drive home. I drove rather than flying because my dad had given my daughter Maggie one of his cars, an old (2001) but well-kept and low-mileage Honda Accord, and it needed to be brought home.

It was a good and uneventful trip. Along the way I stopped by Larry McMurtry’s bookstore, had a nice supper at a hole-in-the-wall Greek cafe in Wichita Falls, saw Jordan Peele’s excellent movie in Tulsa, and slept long and hard for two nights.

And listened to a lot of Jordan Peterson. I first encountered Peterson last November when a friend sent me a link to a lecture on virtue, a topic that interests me a lot. Since then the both of us have investigated Peterson’s work, exchange links to the best of it, and discussed it at length.

Peterson is in vogue right now due to taking a stand against his university’s efforts to enforce a certain type of political correctness, something that is only indirectly connected to his main work. And he is using his notoriety as a vehicle for getting his work in front of a much larger audience. We’ll see whether that turns out to be a devil’s bargain. But his work stands on its own, and is well documented through videos of lectures and a book he published in 1999, Maps of Meaning (available as a free PDF).

Shortly before my trip I discovered this page devoted to gathering audio-only versions of Peterson’s talks, so I downloaded most of the audios listed and spent perhaps 20 hours listening through the ones on his work. There’s no easy route into his work, but if you have 75 minutes to spare I recommend this recent talk given at the Ottawa Public Library, which includes some autobiography, a brief overview of his biggest ideas, some practical suggestions on how to apply them, and a few allusions to his recent troubles. What struck me the most in this talk is that Peterson has clearly devoted his life to the pursuit of an important idea (or cluster of ideas, really)—as he says, fifteen years laying the groundwork for his book Maps of Meaning, followed by fifteen years of figuring out how to speak to people clearly and concisely about the ideas it puts forth. Much different than the recent trend toward casting about for an idea that might catch on, then spending a year putting together a book that will hopefully launch a career.

Peterson has devoted himself to figuring out how to be a person in the world, assuming that patterns found in our oldest and most long-lived stories (e.g. Egyptian mythology, the Bible) can guide us in that quest. That route may not appeal to everyone, but I think he handles the material well. Maybe that’s because he comes to conclusions that are consistent with my own. In any case, here are some claims he makes that I think are correct and important. (These are off the top of my head, I haven’t yet made an effort to be systematic or thorough.)

  • The real world is chaotic
  • Order is something our minds impose on chaos (or, perhaps, extract from the chaos) in order to navigate it
  • Learning/growth takes place at the border between order and chaos, the place at which our understanding of reality begins to fail us
  • Too much order is boring, too much chaos is overwhelming, but there is a sweet spot where we can manage to steadily bring order out of chaos, i.e. revise our understanding to encompass more of reality—this is the place where life is lived meaningfully
  • Revising our understanding is painful and scary, and many choose instead to ignore mismatches between their understanding and reality
  • Detecting such mismatches is a matter of paying attention
  • Devoting oneself to detecting such mismatches and rectifying them is a devotion to developing the virtues/building character
  • One shouldn’t try to straighten out the world before getting one’s own affairs in order—and ordering one’s own affairs can all by itself contribute greatly to order in the world

All this fits in well with my own conviction that to seek God’s kingdom is to learn to live one’s life in ever greater harmony with God’s economy. In fact, Peterson cites “Seek ye first the kingdom of God …” as wisdom that supports his claims.

One thing that surprises me a bit in studying Peterson is that he doesn’t seem to have ventured very far into Buddhist thought, even though some of his key ideas (especially that life is suffering) are also key for the Buddhists and have been taken further by them. Regarding suffering, Peterson nods to the Buddhists but stops at the Stoic position that suffering is just a fundamental aspect of life and should be dealt with by overwhelming it, becoming so engaged in the living of life that the suffering is secondary. Buddhists go further, saying that suffering is the result of one’s attachments or cravings, and that those can be overcome, with suffering eliminated as a result.

Well, perhaps my own thinking has led me to misread Peterson. But it’s been a stimulating misreading!

Home again

I’ve been home for five days now, after three months away. Those three months were spent in El Paso with my dad as he suddenly declined and eventually died. I plan to write in detail about the entire experience, initially just for myself, but I hope that some of what I write will be suitable to publish here.

Some of the regular practices I’d developed fell apart during that stretch, but I think just temporarily. I walked when I could. I blogged a bit. I didn’t actively work on posture but I consciously tried to maintain what I’ve accomplished so far. I didn’t meditate, but what I gained from eight months of faithful meditation served me well through a challenging time.

And now I’m home for the forseeable future, and slowly re-establishing my routine. I just got off the cushion, though only for ten minutes rather than the thirty I had built up to before. The weather is nice enough to make a morning walk tomorrow sound quite pleasant. And here I am blogging again! There’s plenty to write about, even aside from my experience with my dad, so expect a return to regular posts in the days to come.

“An epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments”

This article is long, but extremely good. It matches up with both my overall dim view of modern medical care—I haven’t seen a doctor in fifteen years, and hope to extend that stretch greatly—and my recent brushes with the system on behalf of someone else.

Some favorite quotes:

What the patients in both stories had in common was that neither needed a stent. By dint of an inquiring mind and a smartphone, one escaped with his life intact. [The other died.] The greater concern is: How can a procedure so contraindicated by research be so common?


Even if a drug you take was studied in thousands of people and shown truly to save lives, chances are it won’t do that for you. The good news is, it probably won’t harm you, either. Some of the most widely prescribed medications do little of anything meaningful, good or bad, for most people who take them.


According to Vinay Prasad, an oncologist and one of the authors of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings paper, medicine is quick to adopt practices based on shaky evidence but slow to drop them once they’ve been blown up by solid proof. […] “We have a culture where we reward discovery; we don’t reward replication,” Prasad says, referring to the process of retesting initial scientific findings to make sure they’re valid.


It is, of course, hard to get people in any profession to do the right thing when they’re paid to do the wrong thing. But there’s more to this than market perversion. On a recent snowy St. Louis morning, Brown gave a grand-rounds lecture to about 80 doctors at Barnes Jewish Hospital. Early in the talk, he showed results from medical tests on the executive he treated, the one who avoided a stent. He then presented data from thousands of patients in randomized controlled trials of stents versus noninvasive treatments, and it showed that stents yielded no benefit for stable patients.

He asked the doctors in the room to raise their hands if they would still send a patient with the same diagnostic findings as the executive for a catheterization, which would almost surely lead to a stent. At least half of the hands in the room went up, some of them sheepishly. Brown expressed surprise at the honesty in the room. “Well,” one of the attendees told him, “we know what we do.” But why?


So it’s not hard to understand why Sir James Black won a Nobel Prize largely for his 1960s discovery of beta-blockers, which slow the heart rate and reduce blood pressure. The Nobel committee lauded the discovery as the “greatest breakthrough when it comes to pharmaceuticals against heart illness since the discovery of digitalis 200 years ago.” In 1981, the FDA approved one of the first beta-blockers, atenolol, after it was shown to dramatically lower blood pressure. Atenolol became such a standard treatment that it was used as a reference drug for comparison with other blood-pressure drugs. […]

That odd result prompted a subsequent study, which compared atenolol with sugar pills. It found that atenolol didn’t prevent heart attacks or extend life at all; it just lowered blood pressure. A 2004 analysis of clinical trials—including eight randomized controlled trials comprising more than 24,000 patients—concluded that atenolol did not reduce heart attacks or deaths compared with using no treatment whatsoever; patients on atenolol just had better blood-pressure numbers when they died.


According to interviews with surgeons, many patients they see want, or even demand, to be operated upon and will simply shop around until they find a willing doctor. Christoforetti recalls one patient who traveled a long way to see him but was “absolutely not a candidate for an operation.” Despite the financial incentive to operate, he explained to the patient and her husband that the surgery would not help.

“She left with a smile on her face,” Christoforetti says, “but literally as they’re checking out, we got a ding that someone had rated us [on a website], and it’s her husband. He’s been typing on his phone during the visit, and it’s a one-star rating that I’m this insensitive guy he wouldn’t let operate on his dog. They’d been online, and they firmly believed she needed this one operation and I was the guy to do it.”

So, what do surgeons do? “Most of my colleagues,” Christoforetti says, “will say: ‘Look, save yourself the headache, just do the surgery. None of us are going to be upset with you for doing the surgery. Your bank account’s not going to be upset with you for doing the surgery. Just do the surgery.’”


“Yes, we can move a number, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to better outcomes,” says John Mandrola, a cardiac electrophysiologist in Louisville who advocates for healthy lifestyle changes. It’s tough, he says, “when patients take a pill, see their numbers improve, and think their health is improved.”


The public grossly overestimates how much of our increased life expectancy should be attributed to medical care, and is largely unaware of the critical role played by public health and improved social conditions determinants.

Wise words from Tucker Carlson

I don’t know much about Tucker Carlson except that he is suddenly a hot cable news interviewer, a line of work that doesn’t interest me at all. So I was pleasantly surprised that in this short interview he said three (!) wise things.

One:

The SAT 50 years ago pulled a lot of smart people out of every little town in America and funneled them into a small number of elite institutions, where they married each other, had kids, and moved to an even smaller number of elite neighborhoods. We created the most effective meritocracy ever.

But the problem with the meritocracy is that it leeches all the empathy out of your society … The second you think that all your good fortune is a product of your virtue, you become highly judgmental, lacking empathy, totally without self-awareness, arrogant, stupid—I mean all the stuff that our ruling class is.

Two:

Intelligence is not a moral category. That’s what I find a lot of people in my life assume. It’s not. God doesn’t care how smart you are, actually.

Three:

Putting smart people in charge of things is fine, but what you really want is wise people.

It’s strange to me that someone who believes those things could achieve fame as a cable host, but they are clear and direct statements that I wholeheartedly agree with.

Know your own mind

Over the years I’ve come to see living as ongoing character work, shaping mine so that my automatic response in any given situation is a righteous and loving one. As Jacques Ellul wrote, “God may act, or He may not act, and when God wishes to act He ought to find instruments which are supple and obedient, ready for his use.” We aren’t born that way, there’s more than a lifetime’s work needed to reach that state, and I don’t know of a more satisfying way to spend my time.

At this late stage I thought my time would be devoted to refinement, steadily applying what wisdom I had already gained. Wisdom is hard to come by and harder to digest, and I figured my time would be better spent living out what I knew rather than looking for more. But I’m pleasantly surprised to have stumbled across one more critical tool, courtesy of Eastern philosophers: knowing one’s own mind.

By knowing one’s own mind I mean recognizing that one’s self is not identical with one’s thoughts, and then going on to observe exactly how one’s thoughts arise and pass away. It’s a practice that all the Eastern meditation traditions emphasize, but it doesn’t seem to yield easily to rational (as opposed to common sense) explanation. I think there’s no substitute for sitting and watching the activity of one’s mind as a means of grasping this truth—or at least for me the practice has led to a gut understanding of it, while rational explanations did not. For me the most helpful approach has been to watch for times where I am getting caught up in a story, then taking a close look at how much the story diverges from the bare facts. It always does, in a way that flatters me or irritates me or worries me. And I’ve gotten better at not getting caught up—at recognizing an oncoming story as it first arises, detatching and watching, letting it fade away as I choose not to feed it.

Before meditating I had learned to confront difficult situations with a large degree of detachment and objectivity, through a combination of practice and teeth-gritting. Early results encouraged me to work at the skills I needed, and the approach became ingrained habit. But it was all purely instinctual—I had little understanding of the forces at work.

My experience with meditation hasn’t really changed the overall approach, but I’ve become much more effective at responding automatically with love, kindness, and clear-headedness, I think because I no longer identify thoughts with the thinker, either my own or those of others, which makes it way easier not to ascribe motives or to spin stories in my head about people that go beyond the bare facts.

The past couple of weeks have been objectively stressful, but I haven’t experienced much stress. I was often short on sleep, forced to negotiate tricky circumstances on behalf of others, dealing with difficult people, confronting an unending series of events that I could easily have found irritating and often infuriating. Before meditating I would have probably done a decent job of navigating those rough waters, but I also would have bottled up a lot of irritation and a bit of fury, which would have slowly ebbed away but still left a cynical residue. This time around I was able to let the irritation and fury go as it arose, watching it arise in me and then pass away with interest, even absorb and defuse some on behalf of others.

It sounds magical and mystical, but is actually mundane. The best concrete example I can give came one morning a few days in, when I needed to be downtown and had arranged to leave early enough so I would miss the worst of the traffic. But one small thing after another came up to delay me. I dealt with each one fairly calmly, and didn’t feel any growing pressure. As I finally managed to step out the front door I was suddenly overwhelmed with feelings—mainly anxiety, some self-pity, some exasperation. But I had enough presence of mind to recognize that those feelings were totally out of proportion to the situation. And so I went back in, sat on a couch, closed my eyes, and let the feelings wash over me without getting caught up in them. They paraded themselves before me, but I just watched, and eventually (five minutes later?) they faded. There was no residue beyond relief that they had left. And reviewing them as I drove downtown, I confirmed that they were baseless—the traffic was hardly worse than it would have been, heavy traffic doesn’t bother me anyway, I didn’t really have a deadline for arriving, everything was proceeding nicely without me. I still don’t know where those feelings came from, but I knew that they weren’t me, that they were a mental and physical response to a long, grueling stretch, and that as long as I didn’t get caught up in them they would pass on.

If these are successes, they are small ones (though I’m still very grateful for them). I still get caught up in stories, and the most I can say so far is that I recognize when it is happening, and can detach myself enough to let them slowly lose their grip on me—very, very slowly. The very next morning I spent the same drive downtown engaged in a long one-sided conversation with someone who had said something to me in passing, cycling between pointing out to myself that this was just the chattering monkey-mind at work, and drifting back into the conversation to score another devastating point against my opponent.

I knew it would pass away, and after thirty minutes it did. But I’m going for five!