Paul Ford on losing weight … and gaining it back

I like Paul Ford’s writing because it is simple and straightforward and quite honest. I don’t follow him in my feeds but I probably should, since I always enjoy his pieces when I stumble across them. He wrote one about the fundamental question of the internet (“Why wasn’t I consulted?”) which I cite often. I haven’t read his 38,000 word opus on code because I already know what code is, but I may at some point.

Ford has just published a short piece on how he lost 100 pounds (down from 400 to 300), kept it off for awhile, then gained it all back. He was deliberate about losing it, carefully counting calories in and calories out, and says he even enjoyed the process. But somehow he lost interest, and the weight returned—and he can’t find a way back to that state of mind which enabled him to lose it.

I sympathize strongly with Ford’s predicament. I have lost large amounts of weight multiple times in my life, only to gain it back again. And each time the weight loss was in a way technically engineered, usually by a diet program (NutriSystem). It worked every time, and once I honestly decided to start I didn’t have a problem sticking with it. But the weight always came back.

Being in the final stages of one more long stretch of weight loss, I’m the last to start crowing that this time will be the charm. But I have noticed some differences this time around, differences which give me hope that I can achieve a healthy weight and maintain it indefinitely.

The most important one is that I seem to have lost interest in food as a source of intense gratification. I still enjoy the food I eat—quite a bit, in fact—but I don’t crave anything, in particular things I’ve excluded from my current menu. My memory isn’t the greatest, but I’m pretty sure that in the past I looked forward to being done with my dieting, so that I could go back to normal eating, or treat myself on occasion, or take a break from denying myself, and so on.

That’s not how I look at things right now. There is no particular treat I am looking forward to. I haven’t looked for excuses to vary my routine. And neither has my routine been rigid—when the summer tomatoes came in, I put bread back on the menu so that I could eat sandwiches heavily laden with them, maybe with cheese or tuna, other things I hadn’t been eating. But even then I figured out how much of that would be reasonable to eat—and that’s what I ate, with much pleasure. The tomatoes are done, so bread will probably fall further into the background, trotted out on those occasional days when I’m too indifferent to the usual fare.

When contemplating my favorite foods, my mantra has been, “It’s good—but it’s not that great.” And not as some form of hypnotic thinking. I summon up memories of the taste—for some reason my taste memory has become vivid—and realize that, as much as I would enjoy one of my Aunt’s tacos, or a steak, or a rich dessert, or a piece of fresh bread thickly spread with butter, I don’t crave it anymore—good, but not that great. Perhaps this is how normal people relate to food, I don’t know.

The other helpful difference is that I am rarely hungry, and when I am I don’t find it unpleasant. I seem to have sorted through the behaviors that I would “mistake” for hunger—a desire to be distracted, usually—and dealt with them for what they are. Which leaves actual hunger itself, and here I was helped by something Leo Babauta wrote, namely that mild hunger is not so bad and definitely won’t kill you. So when I started on my diet I decided to leave out breakfast, not just to save the calories (although that has been quite a help) but so that every day I would be mildly hungry until lunchtime. Which gave me a regular opportunity to contemplate hunger, and how I had dealt with it over the years. What I realized was that I would often eat at the slightest indication of hunger—or even sooner, in order to prevent even the mildest hunger pangs from occurring. Once I realized that, and that mild hunger was barely a distraction, it was easy to give up snacking and settle into a fairly rigid menu. Which, for the record, is almost always a large salad for lunch (lettuce, cucumber, mushrooms, tomatoes, with olive oil and vinegar), an apple and a banana in the afternoon, and something roughly on the order of a baked chicken thigh and rice for dinner, adding up roughly to 1500 calories.

And one thing I learned which was helpful in sticking to the diet was to identify the things I truly did crave and then arrange the menu to accommodate them. For example, the chicken thigh is always skin-on and bone-in. A strict calorie-counter might object to the extra calories, but to me the fat and extra flavor are satisfying in a way that far outweighs them. I seem to have a fat/umami tooth—the apple and banana are more than enough to cover my need for sweetness, but I nearly swoon over the olive oil in the salad dressing, the fat in the chicken skin, the meatiness of the mushrooms and soy sauce I use liberally. As a result I don’t feel deprived at all—those elements make my menu luxurious to me.

As I mentioned, my past experience is more than enough to keep me from proclaiming victory. But I do have new hope, because my current diet is not a temporary program but the way I eat now. As I get closer to the end the weight loss has slowed. Although I originally set a rough target in pounds, I recently switched over to thinking about getting rid of excess fat, so the number on the scale no longer quantifies my goal but just tells me I’m still headed in the right direction. So I have stopped (or tried to stop, anyway) worrying about the rate of change in pounds, instead simply exercising patience, knowing that taking in less calories than I burn will eventually get me to where I want to be.

And finally, though even a year on this routine is too early to tell, I think that if someone informed me that I would have to stay at my current level of intake for the rest of my life, I’d be OK with that. Whatever novelty, stimulation, entertainment, or gratification I used to get from food I seem to be getting elsewhere. The role of food in my life hasn’t been reduced to simple fuel—I really do enjoy what food I do eat, and make an effort to insure that what is on my plate is good and wholesome and enjoyable. But it is no longer the jumble of cravings it used to be.

Books to be read

Over the years I’ve fine-tuned my intuition about whether a book will be worth my time. My main source of books-to-be-read is whatever I happen to be reading at the moment (not always a book). If the book’s line of thought intrigues me, primary sources that are mentioned will often be added to my list. That “list” used to be an actual list, which I would use to guide me through different libraries. In these days of cheap ebooks and dying print and cheap shipping and online bookseller databases, the list is a stack of actual books, on my Kindle or purchased used for next to nothing (e.g. $4 with shipping included) from AbeBooks or Better World Books.

The books come in faster than I can get to them, so the stack grows. But I’ve learned not to despair over this, since the stack represents a carefully curated collection of reading, one I know will benefit me greatly whenever I’m inspired to dip into it, and on whatever topic I’m inspired to explore. Back on July 1, 2002 I ordered Joel Salatin’s first four books, based on a referral I can’t even remember now. I didn’t even crack those books until January 2005, and six months later we had moved to our Kentucky farm. And in December 2009 I thought I might write in more depth about simple living, so in preparation I gathered a bunch of books on the topic. That project never happened, but somehow those books survived the Great Purge of my shelves when we left the farm. Just a couple of months ago I idly picked up one of them, Caught in the Act by Toinette Lippe, which not only taught me some important things but sent me off exploring the idea of God’s economy as reflected in writings about the Tao. So you never know.

Lately I’ve been reading heavily, which means plenty of new additions to the stack. I thought it would be a good reminder for me to make a list of what I fully intend to get to over the next few months—there are other unread books sitting around, but they aren’t currently on my radar. And then I thought it might be something worth sharing with the rest of you.

  • Tracy Kidder, Old Friends, Strength in What Remains, Mountains Beyond Mountains. (I had read Kidder’s first three books many years ago, but I recently read his jointly written book Good Prose on Cindy Rollins’s recommendation and now want to read the ones I missed.)

  • Thomas Merton, A Thomas Merton Reader, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, The Way of Chuang Tzu, Mystics and Zen Masters.

  • Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise. A reflection, based on Connolly’s personal experience, on how becoming known as “promising” can actually become an obstacle to fulfilling that promise.

  • P.G. Wodehouse, Wodehouse on Wodehouse, four books of memoir. (I have yet to read any of his fiction!)

  • Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation. A family therapist’s explanation of how relationships work in the family, in the workplace, and in the church. This was recommended by a friend, who also recommended Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. There seem to be no cheap copies of that one, but I discovered this excellent six-part summary of the book which I think may be sufficient for my needs.

  • Ben Yagoda, Memoir: A History. Recently I read Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page: Voice and Style in Writing and admired it thoroughly—it’s the only decent book on the topic I know of.

  • Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, Tools for Conviviality, Medical Nemesis, Gender, The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind. Interest in Charles Taylor let me to Illich’s book The Rivers North of the Future, a series of transcribed interviews where Illich sums up his thinking. That book astonished me, and now I want to know how his thinking developed.

  • Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections. No cheap copies of Tayor’s magnum opus A Secular Age are available, and in any case it may be too much for me to tackle out of the gate. So I’m reading James K.A. Smith’s summary of that book, How (Not) to be Secular. And I’ve also dipped into this collection of Taylor essays (and noticed that I find Taylor to be clearer as a writer than Smith!).

  • Adam Ford, The Art of Mindful Walking. Maggie bought this for me on her trip to Great Britain, and at the right moment (perhaps the next plane ride) I will get to it.

  • Jack Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe. I’m still trying to figure out how the church involved itself in marriage, and whether there’s any hope it might one day uninvolve itself again.

  • Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom, The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. These were recommended by Andrew Perriman, and the first is turning out to be a very good overview of exactly how Christendom developed and why it is falling apart—an excellent accompaniment to Charles Taylor and Ivan Illich. And I’ll read the second because I think the Anabaptists hold a generous portion of wisdom on how to live a Christian life.

  • Dmitry Orlov, Absolutely Positive, Hold Your Applause, Communities that Abide, The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivor’s Toolkit. Back in the day of collapse (i.e. 2008 or so) I discovered Orlov’s blog, thoroughly enjoyed his perspective on America’s slow collapse as compared to the Soviet Union’s quick one, and bought and enjoyed (and kept) his first book, Reinventing Collapse. After dropping off my radar he popped up again, and I found he had put together several inexpensive Kindle books I knew I would enjoy and probably learn some things from.

  • Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel. Mitchell’s collected pieces from the New Yorker.

  • Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Golden Age of Zen.

  • Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. Wow, I can’t believe I haven’t read this yet! I loved his previous book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, and was excited enough about this one to pre-order it. But though showed up on my Kindle in March I have yet to get to it.

  • David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules, Revolutions in Reverse (essays), Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. I love Graeber’s stuff, and he helped make anarchism respectable for me (as did Jacques Ellul and Vernard Eller).

  • Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. I’ve read Rosenbaum’s articles for years and think the world of his writing and thinking. So I thought I’d try one of his books.

  • Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. I’m partway through this and it’s very readable, an examination of the process of Christianity becoming respectable, and what it meant money-wise for both rich people and the church.

  • David Brooks, The Road to Character. Another book which surprises me for still being on the stack. I am deeply interested in matters of character right now, and saw a teaser article by Brooks which I thought was right on the money. The introduction to this book is an expanded version of that article, and even better. But so far I have only read a few pages further.

  • Ted A. Smith, Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics. I’ve read maybe half of this. There are important ideas lurking inside, and it’s well written, but the approach and the academic style of presentation make it difficult reading for me.

The joys and sorrows of neverending discussion

One of the bloggers I follow is Jeff Atwood, because he’s pretty good on all things programming, and lately I’ve been a bit of a programmer. But in this old post he just linked to on Twitter, the programming part is only incidental to the wisdom he offers. I offer it as is (emphasis in original), leaving it as an exercise to the reader to substitute something more relevant for “programming”—perhaps parenting, or discipleship, or just living life properly.

But it is possible to go too far in the other direction, too. It’s much rarer, because it bucks the natural introversion of most software developers, but it does happen. Take me, for example. Sometimes I worry that I spend more time talking about programming than actually programming.

At the point when I spend all my time talking about programming, and very little of my time programming, my worst fear has been realized: I’ve become a pundit. The last thing the world needs is more pundits. Pundits only add ephemeral commentary to the world instead of anything concrete and real. They don’t materially participate in the construction of any lasting artifacts; instead, they passively observe other people’s work and offer a neverending babbling brook of opinions, criticism, and witty turns of phrase. It’s pathetic. […]

It’s helpful to discuss features, but sometimes the value of a feature is inversely proportional to how much it has been discussed. Our job as software developers is to deliver features and solve business problems, not to generate neverending discussion. Ultimately, As Marc Andreessen notes, we will be judged by what we – and our code – have done, not the meta-discussion that went on around it.

Not only is it not our job in life to generate neverending discussion, I think we need to view neverending discussion as a symptom that something is wrong. Discussions needs to end as soon as they cease being helpful, and if a particular discussion isn’t accompanied by tangible benefits then it isn’t one that should have ever existed.

“I thought we were better than that”

I have a longstanding tradition of not discussing events of the day on this blog. I will be breaking with that tradition for the duration of this post. As partial atonement, I will do my best to keep it brief. All three items involve the response of the church to a current event.

The first is the release of the Planned Parenthood videos. The initial response from the Christian community was gleeful—finally, the world will wake up to what abortion mills are doing!—followed by a baffled and crushing disappointment—where’s the outrage?

I have some hope that the disappointment will inspire us to face the facts. Our instincts tell us that normal, decent human beings should be outraged by these revelations. But the news has moved on, and not much has changed. So what went wrong? Did they not hear? Do they need to hear it again? Do we not live amongst normal, decent human beings? Or are we mistaken in how we understand the situation? (I vote for the last.)

The second is the sudden awareness of mistreatment of blacks at the hands of the police. I am afraid that society at large is far ahead of the church in being brought up short by the constant stream of outrageous revelations. But I do have some hope, precisely because the church has been so feeble and mealy-mouthed in its response. I think as a community we simply don’t know what to say, that our understanding of the situation has failed us, and for once we haven’t yielded (completely, anyway) to the temptation to retreat into some pious claptrap about how the real problem is that we’re all sinners, or whatever. Perhaps in the partial silence we’ll find the strength to do some thinking.

The third event is the hacking of the Ashley Madison website, which revealed that when it comes to sexual purity many Christians, pastors and teachers and laymen, celebrities and little-known, talk a far better game than they live. The response I’ve seen from the community so far is exactly the sort of response the commumity hoped the Planned Parenthood videos would evoke but didn’t—shocked, stunned disbelief. An unbelieving observer who noticed both would have to laugh at the irony. Meanwhile, I take heart from the fact that folks were at least shocked, stunned, and disbelieving. At least the standard which was violated turns out to not be cynically hypocritical—we really did believe our men were better than that.

How could the church have failed so miserably in this third area? I have my own answer, and I think it applies to the first two situations as well. Unfortunately, I don’t think most people will find it very helpful.

It is this: we choose to put our faith in the rules, rather than in what the rules point to. We require righteousness, but don’t train people in righteousness. When those in the community fail to meet the standard, our response is: didn’t you hear me the first time? Here, let me tell you again, slower and louder and in a very stern voice. Surely you didn’t understand me before, and once you do you will naturally do what I tell you is right. Just stop doing what is wrong. That’s all it takes.

We’ve told our men to be pure, and they’ve failed to be pure. We’ve told ourselves that ours must become a colorblind society, and blacks suffer disproportionately at the hands of police. We’ve told ourselves that good people view life as precious, and good people are not outraged by events where life is treated as a commodity and (in)convenience. None of this excuses the behavior of the people involved. But perhaps we should re-examine our faith in the power of our rules and standards.

We thought we could save the world (and ourselves considerable effort) by codifying the Christian worldview and then imposing it on everyone, Christian or not. Instead we found that not only did the unbelieving world reject it, believers began substituting the code for character—rather than exemplifying a way of life as a result of long years of training, they substitute a promise to adhere to the code, without regard to whether they are constitutionally (or situationally) equipped to fulfill that promise.

Based on my own experience, I believe that everyday people can train themselves to meet the Christian standard—eventually, and imperfectly, but with increasing success as a result of their efforts. Unfortunately, these days that almost certainly means self-training, with little or no assistance or guidance available. Teachers are all too pleased to expound the standard, and we’re all too eager to judge one another against it. But there’s precious little available to train you in how to meet that standard.

Ivan Illich

Still immersed in reading, but I’ll poke my head up long enough to mention one particular writer who is new to me, and to offer some links to his work.

I was aware of Ivan Illich, but only vaguely. I knew he had written a book called Deschooling Society, and was often mentioned along with people like John Holt, Raymond Moore, and John Taylor Gatto, all known for training a gimlet eye on the idea of institutional education. And I once had a copy of Tools for Conviviality on my shelf, having a long-standing interest in community and being intrigued by the idea implied in the title, that there were tools conducive to living together—but I never even opened it, and it is long gone. Aside from that, I knew nothing, not even that he was a Christian, much less a Roman Catholic priest.

The impetus for my current bout of reading was the series of three essays by Alan Jacobs mentioned in my previous blog post. I wanted to know more about Charles Taylor’s thinking on the origins of modernity, but a little bit of research suggested that A Secular Age, his masterwork, is a supremely difficult book, not to mention hideously expensive. But I remembered that James K.A. Smith had written a sort of guidebook to A Secular Age, called How (Not) to be Secular, and so I decided to start there. It’s been very helpful. And I wanted to read the two Taylor essays which Jacobs claims are vital, so I bought Taylor’s collection Dilemmas and Connections, and also the book of transcribed Illich conversations to which Taylor contributed the introduction, Rivers North of the Future.

For the record, Taylor is actually a clear and straightforward writer, with a peculiar but maybe necessary habit of neologizing. I say “maybe necessary” because he always gives his inventions detailed definitions and uses them precisely as he fits them together to build his explanations. Whether or not adequate words already existed, his new ones are so distinctive that they serve as a constant reminder to the reader that they denote key concepts. In any case, I actually find Taylor’s writing clearer than Smith’s summarizing—but Smith provides the sketchy overview I need but don’t have time to construct for myself from Taylor’s massive and complex book.

But this is about Illich. I read Taylor’s introduction to Rivers North of the Future, and was surprised to find Taylor saying that in these conversations he had discovered a key concept for structuring his then-ongoing research into the sources of secular thinking—namely, that modernity is not opposed to Christendom but in fact its full flowering, an inevitable perversion of the Gospel. That inspired me to dive into the conversations right away!

The conversations occurred near the end of Illich’s life and were intended as a summary of his thinking, with particular attention paid to a unifying idea that had underpinned his various writings but never been addressed explicitly in them. The Latin expression he uses to capture it is perversio optimi quae est pessima, or “the corruption of the best is the worst.” Shakespeare says it this way in Sonnet 94: “For sweetest things turn sour by their deeds / Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

Others have detected this in the arc from the advent of the Gospel to the early church to Constantine to Christendom to the Reformation to the Enlightenment to modernity to post-modernity. But usually the story is told as things ticking along pretty well until some outside force came along and knocked the project off the track—and if we could only set it back on the track, things would be good again. Illich (and Taylor) locate the source of perversion internally, and much more deeply in the project—at one point Illich despairs that it may actually be inherent, an unavoidable consequence—so deep that it is pointless to think about fixing it.

Illich studied several matters that are dear to me, and I mean studied—his original work focused on the history of the 12th century, where he saw the direction of Christendom change for the worse in several fundamental ways, but he was widely read—and I appreciate that he can back up in detail conclusions I’d reached tentatively and mostly intuitively. Some of his claims:

  • Things went badly wrong when we elected to take the Christian view and codify it, turning it from a spontaneous response to our neighbor into a standard of behavior which could be imposed and enforced (what he calls the “criminalization of sin”).

  • In the name of “development” modernity has tyrannized inhabitants of the pre-modern world by stealing the ability to subsist, substituting needs that can only be satisfied by participating in the system (Illich worked extensively among Mexican peasants).

  • Doctors had no concept of disease until the mid-19th century. Before then their role was to help people get their body back into balance, to facilitate nature’s working, and to help people endure whatever suffering that might entail. Now bodies are no more than collections of mechanisms which doctors are charged with “fixing.”

  • Our current understanding of “tool” is not fundamental but came into existence in the 12th century, and the change in thinking was critical to the development of modernity. Now there is another sea change—tools have been replaced by systems, which include the operator—and this change in thinking will have equally profound effects.

  • The parable of the good samaritan encapsulates the Gospel, i.e. the new thing that Jesus made possible. Before Jesus your neighbors were chosen for you, by locale or ethnicity. Jesus freed us to choose our neighbors, to choose them in the moment, and to encounter Him in the other.

  • Churches, schools, hospitals, political systems, and other such institutions should be viewed as rituals, the purpose and effect of which is to make people believe in the necessity and goodness of what the ritual is supposed to achieve.

Well, there’s a lot more—my copy of the book is heavily highlighted. Still, I’m not sure I can recommend the book as a starting place. If you’re not initially sympathetic to Illich’s view on a particular matter, justification for the view has to be found elsewhere in his work. Since I’d long ago come around to his general way of thinking, I found the reflection Illich does here both helpful and delightful. But someone who is skeptical of a particular claim will need to go to the source of it.

Fortunately, much of Illich’s writing is available for free online. Look here for some core pieces, including his books Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality. And this site has collected together various occasional pieces by Illich.

Looking for a different way to write, ctd.

You’ll be much better served by reading this series of three posts by Alan Jacobs than my reflections on them, so in case you have to choose I’ll link them up front:

Jacobs examines the modern addiction to a certain sort of “philosophical hubris, to the idea that arguments can be produced that will defeat the opposition once and for all.” And its corollary, that disagreement must be destroyed rather than tolerated. He contrasts this to Bernard Williams’ claim that disagreement is not only tolerable but valuable:

The context here is, broadly speaking, ethics—how people should live—and Williams thinks that ethical questions are immensely complex, so that disagreement about them is “merely to be expected.” Indeed, any attempt to shut down disagreement on such matters will be an impoverishment of thought, and perhaps of life itself.

I am definitely on the side of Willams (and Jacobs). The only things I know about life that are useful and satisfying arose in some way from a dissent from conventional wisdom, whether the dissenter was (occasionally) me or (usually) someone else, and whether I ended up rejecting the conventional wisdom or, due to a deeper examination of it, embracing it. Jacobs again:

The ancient idea of the philosopher as gadfly arises from the awareness that a person can serve society not only by being correct but also, and in a distinct way, simply by being different—by challenging conventional wisdom and received beliefs.

I remember very clearly the moment I woke up to this truth. It was during the five-year stretch when some friends and I met monthly to discuss readings selected by the Great Books Foundation. That month’s reading was Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. I’d never read Freud before, and knew little about his thinking beyond what the average person assumes he knows. But this short book addressed a cultural topic I knew something about, and as I read through it a second time I realized: I not only don’t agree with this, but I have substantial objections to his claims which I can back up.

Now, the point is not that I was actually in a position to refute Freud, but only that for the first time I felt I could profitably engage a thinker of Freud’s stature. I learned that day to carefully consider a position I was inclined to disagree with, identify the strengths and weaknesses of the presentation, challenge it at some points with my own thinking, and walk away edified but unpersuaded.

Since then I’ve treasured and even sought out opportunities to amiably disagree with folks who’ve given their own positions enough thought to present them intelligently. The potential for doing this on the internet is staggering—butif it was ever a possibility it seems to not be one now. As Jacobs points out in his second post:

Occasionally Americans debate the correctness of beliefs and practices — political, moral, social. But not very often. Most Americans, or so one would judge from social media anyway, are Bulverists: they already know who is right and who isn’t, so all they need to debate is why the people who get things wrong — so, so wrong — do so.

Jacobs goes on to observe that lately we have moved on from wallowing unreflectively in our received beliefs to demanding justice be exacted on those who believe differently, what he calls “disciplinary bulverism.” The examples he gives are all too familiar, so I’ll leave you to read that post without further commenting on it.

Not only can I not relate to this attitude, I can’t even find a suitable pathway into the fray. Several times in my life I have tentatively embraced a way of life—not with wholehearted before-the-fact acceptance, but in the spirit of exploration. There are some things you can’t evaluate properly by observing them from a distance, you need to be up close. On the other hand, plunging in runs the risk of blinding you to what is weak or just plain wrong about the approach. When you are fully invested, it is tempting to rationalize those away for the sake of protecting your investment.

The most recent example for us was farming. We farmed for seven years without becoming farmers. And that was intentional—the time was spent looking for a way to embrace the life fully, to find a balance between the need for income, the needs of children growing into adulthood, and the need to live with integrity. There are many possible ways to strike the balance—we know several who have done it, no two alike—but we weren’t able to piece one together out of the hand we’ve been dealt, our history and inclinations and skills and beliefs. So it ended up being a good and valuable experience that we also needed to walk away from.

Similarly with writing. I’ve written for 25 years now, in letters and emails and newsgroup exchanges and blog posts and blog comments. And I still don’t consider myself a writer—or, more accurately, I haven’t committed myself to a particular approach to writing. I continue to write things down because to me it is an integral part of self-examination, something I have long been committed to. But making that writing public has always been experimental, and each experiment has left me mostly disappointed. I try approaches that others use to achieve their own goals, approaches that have at least some potential for helping me realize mine. I am mostly frustrated by the results.

But I’m also OK with it. Inability to make progress towards a goal is also an opportunity to re-evaluate the goal itself. I’ve been unable to engage others in fruitful discussion—but is that so vital? Where I see others so engaged, the discussion itself is rarely fruitful. And although a clash of viewpoints can sometimes be enlightening, if done in good faith and with mutual respect, the truth is that I am far more edified when someone has the courage to give a full-orbed account of their own thinking, without an eye to defending it or using it to club opponents into submission.

So I’m thinking now of focusing more on getting my thinking recorded and less on shaping it into a consumable bit of writing ready to be floated out into the stream. I’ve created a wiki, using the platform that runs Wikipedia, and am proceeding to fill it up with my own notes. The content of this blog (at least the stuff worth keeping) will eventually be recreated there, expanded and annotated and with links to related material. If that continues to look promising, I will make it public. Meanwhile, this blog will continue to exist in its current form, both as a historical record and a place where I can post new bits and pieces created for the wiki as seems appropriate.

Jacobs’s third post in the series, Code Fetishists and Normolaters, presents a good example of why I need to find another vehicle for my writing/thinking. It highlights some intriguing ideas from the philosopher Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age—intriguing enough to get me to order two of the books mentioned in the post, plus James K.A. Smith’s introduction to Taylor’s thinking, and to read several of the articles mentioned—as well as articles mentioned in those articles! In the past I would have written a longer post about this particular post, quoting excerpts and adding my own observations, perhaps going off on a tangent or two, but all as a fairly immediate reaction to what Jacobs wrote. Now I think it would be better to use the post as an opportunity for extended study, creating a written piece which I can revisit and expand and rearrange as I follow the trains of thought that the original blog post inspired. We’ll see if that works!

Meanwhile, Taylor’s intriguing idea is that for perhaps 800 years now we’ve endured a tension between “code fetishists” and antinomians, between those who believe “the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code” (a code which can then be enforced), and those who reject any imposition of such a code. Jacobs writes:

I think the key lesson to be drawn from Taylor’s account is that code fetishism produces antinomianism: antinomians are people who get frustrated by the code fetishists’ relentless policing and disciplining of disagreement—which the fetishists do because they are trying to build a more just society and think that codification and enforcement of rules is the only way to do it—and believe that a simply rejection of rules is the only way to resist. That is, both sides agree that morality is a matter of rules; but one side thinks that since rules require elaboration and enforcement, and other people are the ones elaborating and enforcing them, they would prefer what they see as the only alternative, a rule-rejecting, morally minimal commitment to freedom.

And then he raises this possibility:

But what if this is a false dichotomy? What if the code fetishists and antinomians are both wrong, and wrong for the same reason: because they have unwittingly accepted the false idea that “the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code”? What if rule-following doesn’t produce justice, and the antinomians have an inadequate conception of freedom?

I think this is right, and I agree with many (but not all) of the reasons that Jacobs gives for thinking this. And it fits with my growing understanding of God’s economy, of goodness as the ordering principle of creation, a principle that is best embraced but is not imposed. But I’m in no position right now to present my own thinking, since it will surely be informed and shaped by what Jacobs has inspired me to read. So again, I need a way of planting a stake, identifying a piece of ground that needs to be revisited and elaborated in due time.

Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature

This essay is long but worth a read. The first half cuts through all the pious nonsense one hears about why this is bad, as exemplified in the opening paragraphs:

Go to just about any English department at any university, gather round the coffee pot, and listen to what one of my colleagues calls the Great Kvetch. It is perfectly summarized by the opening sentence of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s recent book: “We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance.” She is not speaking of looming environmental disaster or the proliferation of nuclear weapons. You see, those are threats we can discern. The danger Nussbaum is highlighting “goes largely unnoticed, like a cancer; a crisis that is likely to be, in the long run, far more damaging to the future of democratic self-government.”

When a writer invokes the insidious progress of a cancer, you know she hopes to forestall the objection that there is little visible evidence to support her argument. What is this cancer threatening democracy and the world? Declining enrollments in literature courses. Her book is titled Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

Following this the writer looks at several actual reasons that students avoid literature, giving them their due. The short version is this: students see no benefits to reading literature that can’t be obtained in other, easier ways, and the professors who moan about it don’t bother to make those benefits available.

What makes this essay worthwhile is the second half, where the writer very clearly spells out the benefits:

Many disciplines can teach that we ought to empathize with others. But these disciplines do not involve actual practice in empathy. Great literature does, and in that respect its study remains unique among university-taught subjects. […]

It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to be someone else. The great realist novelists, from Jane Austen on, developed a technique for letting readers eavesdrop on the very process of a character’s thoughts and feelings as they are experienced. Readers watch heroes and heroines in the never-ending process of justifying themselves, deceiving themselves, arguing with themselves. That is something you cannot watch in real life, where we see others only from the outside and have to infer inner states from their behavior. But we live with Anna Karenina from within for hundreds of pages, and so we get the feel of what it is to be her. And we also learn what it is like to be each of the people with whom she interacts. In a quarrel, we experience from within what each person is perceiving and thinking. How misunderstandings or unintentional insults happen becomes clear. This is a form of novelistic wisdom taught by nothing else quite so well.


We all live in a prison house of self. We naturally see the world from our own perspective and see our own point of view as obvious and, if we are not careful, as the only possible one. I have never heard anyone say: “Yes, you only see things from my point of view. Why don’t you consider your own for a change?” The more our culture presumes its own perspective, the more our academic disciplines presume their own rectitude, and the more professors restrict students to their own way of looking at things, the less students will be able to escape from habitual, self-centered, self-reinforcing judgments. We grow wiser, and we understand ourselves better, if we can put ourselves in the position of those who think differently. […]

We live in a world in which we more and more frequently encounter other cultures. That is part of what globalization means. And yet we are often baffled by them. Americans have the habit of assuming that everyone, deep down, wants to be just like us. It simply isn’t so, and I assure you that others assume that deep down we want to be just like them. When Russians listen to our leaders express their views about what people really want and how nations ought to behave, they think our leaders must be lying, because no one could actually think that way. They are as deeply convinced of the obvious correctness of their perceptions as we are of ours, and so they cannot imagine that others can sincerely perceive things differently.

But great literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel. The greater the premium on understanding other cultures in their own terms, the more the study of literature matters.

And, most important to me:

Students will acquire the skill to inhabit the author’s world. Her perspective becomes one with which they are intimate, and which, when their own way of thinking leads them to a dead end, they can temporarily adopt to see if it might help. Novelistic empathy gives them a diversity of ways of thinking and feeling. They can escape from the prison house of self.

I think this last is true of any bit of writing, fiction or nonfiction. When we read, we see things through another’s eyes. I’ve understood for a long time how vital it is to continually broaden my perspective, to extend my empathy, and I’ve also become ever more aware of how much the pursuit has blessed me. Reading has played a central role in that, since writings are the single best source of relevant information. But until reading this essay I hadn’t thought much about the writer’s role in this, the eyes he or she offers the reader. I’ve benefited from them, but unawares. Thanks, authors!