Nathan Foster on how we understand relationships

I’ve just started reading the monthly posts by Richard Foster’s son Nathan, and they are generally thought-provoking. This month he raises an interesting point about how we’ve come to view relationships:

It doesn’t help matters that many of us live as victims to unrealistic expectations of just what relationships can be. We primarily learn about social relationships through what we see, hear, and experience. At this particular junction in the existence of humanity, a great deal of our interactions with the “other” is through the medium of entertainment in its various forms: print, film, social media, music, and the onslaught of advertisements that accompany these instruments of socialization.

It is certainly worth examining, at least within ourselves, the effects of the potentially dominant voice teaching us about the human experience. How we interact with others is not always fully grounded in reality. These portrayals of just how marriage, family, parenting, friends, and work ought to be, seldom represent the entire range of what actually occurs. So many are left feeling like outsiders to the perceived tenderness and goodness that others experience. It’s the student who tearfully accounted to me how uninteresting and unfulfilling her life was compared to all of her friends on Facebook. It’s the father of four who doesn’t understand why parenting and marriage remains a constant struggle. It’s the grandparents feeling ignored and a burden to the family they devoted their entire life to. The social learning of our age forges in us an unrealistic view of the world. Our unrealistic expectations only feed our isolation.

The above reminds me of something I heard once from an older friend: “We went to the movies to learn how to kiss.” And these days I think the number of things we learn about life from community is very small, the number from popular entertainment overwhelmingly large.

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Bread bags

During her State of the Union response, Senator Joni Ernst mentioned growing up in circumstances that required her to wear bread bags over her shoes on rainy school days, to protect the only good pair she owned. People made massive fun of her online, and in response to that both Megan McArdle and Peggy Noonan wrote excellent essays. So, thanks, internet!—I guess.

Both essays point out that the people who ridiculed Ernst demonstrated zero awareness of how dramatically affluence has grown in this country in just 50 years. Noonan:

There are a lot of Americans, and most of them seem to be on social media, who do not know some essentials about their country, but this is the way it was in America once, only 40 and 50 years ago: America had less then. Americans had less.

If you were from a family that was barely or not quite getting by, you really had one pair of shoes. If your family was doing OK you had one pair of shoes for school and also a pair of what were called Sunday shoes—black leather or patent leather shoes. If you were really comfortable you had a pair of shoes for school, Sunday shoes, a pair of play shoes and even boots, which where I spent my childhood (Brooklyn, and Massapequa, Long Island) were called galoshes or rubbers. At a certain point everyone had to have sneakers for gym, but if you didn’t have sneakers you could share a pair with a friend, trading them in the hall before class.

If you had just one pair of shoes, which was the case in my family, you had trouble when it rained or snowed. How to deal with it? You used the plastic bags that bread came in. Or you used plastic bags that other items came in. Or you used Saran Wrap if you had it, wrapping your shoes and socks in it. Or you let your shoes and socks get all wet, which we also did.

McArdle:

Consider the “Little House on the Prairie” books, which I’d bet almost every woman in my readership, and many of the men, recalls from their childhoods. I loved those books when I was a kid, which seemed to describe an enchanted world — horses! sleighs! a fire merrily crackling in the fireplace, and children frolicking in the snow all winter, then running barefoot across the prairies! Then I reread them as an adult, as a prelude to my research, and what really strikes you is how incredibly poor these people were. The Ingalls family were in many ways bourgeoisie: educated by the standards of the day, active in community leadership, landowners. And they had nothing.

There’s a scene in one of the books where Laura is excited to get her own tin cup for Christmas, because she previously had to share with her sister. Think about that. No, go into your kitchen and look at your dishes. Then imagine if you had three kids, four plates and three cups, because buying another cup was simply beyond your household budget — because a single cup for your kid to drink out of represented not a few hours of work, but a substantial fraction of your annual earnings, the kind of money you really had to think hard before spending. Then imagine how your five-year-old would feel if they got an orange and a Corelle place setting for Christmas.

There’s a reason old-fashioned kitchens didn’t have cabinets: They didn’t need them. There wasn’t anything to put there.

Both essayists, particularly McArdle, offer remarkable illustrations of how material advantages which are nearly uinversal today were not that long ago available only to the very wealthy, or simply didn’t exist. Both also resist the temptation to tut-tut about our widespread historical ignorance, so perhaps some will read these tales of how things used to be and marvel.

What the essays don’t address—no surprise, since I rarely see this addressed by contemporary writers, even ones I admire—is whether the change is a blessing, a curse, some mixture of the two, or simply indifferent. I have my own opinions, sketchy and incomplete—but I always find that pondering this is profitable to me in many ways, and so I’m surprised that more writers don’t struggle with the matter in print. Perhaps this is settled wisdom for nearly everyone, but perhaps there is an element of not looking too deeply into the matter for fear of one might discover, and then have to deal with.

All the talk about shoes made me think about my own relationship with shoes, which is mostly indifferent. For awhile I owned a few pairs at a time, never anything fancy, believing that there was some shoe-health-related reason to give each pair a day off. I changed my mind about that, and for awhile had two pair, one everyday and one for church. Then I adopted a 24/7 view of worship, and gave up on the idea of dressing up for church—so, one pair. And that pair has lasted me for about ten years now—not because they were great shoes, but because I don’t care much about their condition. About two years ago I discovered that the top had separated from the sole of one shoe in one spot along the inside. I discovered this because my foot was getting wet in that spot. But I then discovered that, by being careful where I walked, this wasn’t much of a problem. A few months back my dad noticed the pitiful condition of my shoes, and gave me a nice pair that he had bought but didn’t like. So now I have two pair. I wear the nice ones when I come to visit my dad in El Paso, and also to church on Sunday in Frankfort. The rest of the time I continue to wear the pitiful pair.

Please don’t take the above as some sort of humblebrag. It’s not that I take pride in being frugal about shoes, or indifferent to fashion or appearance. I just don’t care about shoes. And the fact that you can get 10+ years out of a pair of $80 shoes—as long as you don’t care what they look like—has saved me a lot of money over the years, money I could use for other things or simply not have to earn in the first place. So I can appreciate at some level the idea that owning more than one pair of shoes might be a source of pleasure but isn’t necessarily an unmixed blessing.

In his book on self-deception, Gregg Ten Elshof recounts his history of car ownership:

I’ve driven old cars for most of my adult life. Two of my favorites have been handed down to me by grandmothers who could no longer drive. The first was a gray 1980 Chevy Citation, complete with sport louvers on the back window. I sold that one for five hundred dollars when a cream-colored 1982 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera came my way from another aging grandmother. My neighbors drive nice cars.

But I wouldn’t have traded with them for the world. Just think of the advantages! I never worried about my cars being stolen , dinged, or scratched. In fact, I took great pleasure every time I let the cart bump ever so lightly against the side panel of my car as I approached to unload my groceries. I parked without fear in the tightest of spaces and never locked the doors. I could change lanes with hardly a glance, knowing that the driver next to me had more to lose. I never had to wash my cars — it wouldn’t have made much of an improvement if I did. And I saved money on gas, not so much because the cars got good mileage, but because, when carpooling, nobody ever wanted me to drive . And then there’s the all-important appearance of being untouched by the materialistic rat race that drives people to own nicer and nicer cars. I looked positively desert-fathers saintly driving around in my beaters. Yes, I loved those cars.

My world crashed in on me when my parents offered me a ridiculously good deal on their mint-condition 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee with four-wheel drive, leather interior, and seats that adjust electronically. I was, at first, sad to say goodbye to my Oldsmobile. Honestly, I was. But it would have been the height of financial irresponsibility to turn down the Jeep, so I condescended to my parents’ generous offer. Of course , after a year of driving the Jeep, I am now fully alive to the self-deluded re-ordering of values that made possible my preference for those old cars. So it goes in ressentiment. We adjust our preferences and values to accommodate whatever is realistic for us.

I believe the writer when he says that the experience of suddenly owning a new car opened his eyes to ways in which he had deluded himself into preferring older ones. Still—all the advantages he lists are real advantages! We always bought new vehicles, nothing fancy but still new, until 2004 when Jerry came along and we needed an eighth seat. We stumbled across a 1995 Chevy Suburban that had them. I remember being mildly proud of myself for finally having put off the burden of vehicle depreciation onto someone else. And for eight years that truck served us well.

Since then we experienced two important changes—reduced financial circumstances, and a son that took interest in auto mechanics. And as a result we went on to select our cars based mostly on our needs. We continue to drive the Honda Odyssey we bought new in 1998 and now has 350.000+ miles on it. After leaving the farm, we replaced the gas-guzzling Suburban we no longer needed with a 1995 Honda Accord station wagon, mileage unknown, for $2000. Maggie bought a 2000 VW Beetle for $2000. And Matthew bought a 1998 Honda Civic for $2200. All have needed work from time to time, but continue to serve us well. I’m mildly nervous on a cross-country trip in the van, but only because a breakdown would be inconvenient—and we don’t travel cross-country much anymore, and the one time we did recently the van performed like a champ.

Again, no humblebrag. We’ve learned to not care much about cars, and that attitude has saved us both money and headaches over the years.

I could go on, and probably will in future posts, but those two examples are sufficient to raise the question: does nice stuff constitute an actual improvement in one’s life? We sometimes behave as if anyone who lived more than 50 years ago must have been insane, in that their circumstances were a (relative) living hell, and yet they appear to have enjoyed life just about as much if not more. I’m not arguing that life was better back then, and we should somehow strive to turn back the clock. But I do think that a deeper understanding of the differences between then and now can benefit us, even free us to some extent.

Some aphorist (reportedly Sophie Tucker) once said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better!” Well, we no longer need to take her word for it! Most of us have had direct experience with great wealth, at least in historical terms. If we would now spend some time understanding what life would be like without that wealth, perhaps even tasting the lack of it here and there, we can answer the question ourselves.

And maybe it’s trite to point this out, but I’ll end with it anyway: Jesus disagreed with Sophie Tucker.

And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished …

Me, too!

Mortality

I turned 60 last March, and since then something important has changed in my thinking. Until then I spent much of my seeking out for new information, new knowledge, new explanations of how things are, and why. But suddenly all that stopped. Not that I had finally found The Answer—quite the opposite. But at 60 it occurred to me that there aren’t all that many years left to me, and all the work I’ve done won’t be worth much if I don’t manage to piece it all together into something coherent. So lately I’ve restricted myself to pondering what I’ve learned, the ideas that I’ve rejected and the ones that resonate, looking for threads, hoping for structure.

For a long time I’ve strived to develop a sense of my own mortality. Jesus tells us not to fear death, and though I take Him at His word I’m quite aware that my affection for this earthly life can easily overpower a truth that I know but haven’t yet fully experienced—or, maybe better, don’t understand that I’ve experienced. So I’ve worked hard to put my life and its duration in proper perspective, and to keep it there. Only so much can be accomplished in the time allotted to us.  We overestimate what we can accomplish in a year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in twenty. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

In the early years, those aphorisms were reminders of the need to build solid foundations, to expect a long haul, to understand my strengths and limitations thoroughly in order to choose my goals carefully and commit myself to them fully. Now they tell me something else—the time for new projects has passed, because there is not enough time left to complete them. Now it is time to review the work done, lessons learned, things accomplished and things not, paths walked successfully or unsuccessfully or simply abandoned.

If this change in approach were simply a decision based on circumstances—oops, fifteen years or so left, time to start wrapping things up!—I wouldn’t be writing about it now. One thing I’ve become very tired of over the years is people selling me Good Ideas that they themselves haven’t tested in practice. One of my favorite journalists, Mickey Kaus, talks about news stories that are Too Good to Check—the event described is so delicious that it gets disseminated by folks who avoid investigating whether it’s actually true, for fear of being disappointed. Much of what passes for Christian teaching falls under this heading. I’m talking about marriage tips from young marrieds, parenting advice from new parents, discipleship advice from folks who don’t appear all that disciplined, schooling techniques promoted by those who have barely taught, courtship advice from parents who have yet to see their children marry, intentional communities, back to the land, diets … I treasure my list, a depressingly short one, of books by folks who took a long journey sketched out by some Big Idea or other, then wrote honestly about their successes and failures (so many failures!) along the way. So, no, if my decision to switch over to summing things up were based only on impulse, I’d wait until I’d actually done a fair amount of it before inflicting it on you.

But my reading (and re-reading) experience over the past few years has changed in a way that gives me confidence that summing up is the right thing for me to do at this point, enough so that I’m tentatively willing to do it publicly. Between ages 35 and 55 I encountered several thinkers who taught me important truths that I hadn’t yet experienced, and as a result set out to experience in my life. In 1990 I read Neil Postman, and actually turned off the television—imperfectly and incompletely, but from that point TV no longer played an important role in my family’s life. In 1991 I read C.S. Lewis, and shortly thereafter became a Christian. In 1999 (August, according to my Amazon order history) I read Jacques Ellul, and changed my approach to living a faithful life. In 2005 I read Joel Salatin, and a few months later moved to a farm. In 2006 I read one chapter in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and purged myself of goodly amounts of unhealthy attitude towards other Christians. In all these encounters, my reaction was “I’ve never heard this before, this sounds great, I’m going to try it out!” (I only mention thinkers whose ideas proved to be vaild—there have been several others whose thinking I embraced, only to find out in practice that it was flawed or flat-out wrong—those experiences were blessings as well, indirectly, but charity prevents me from naming the thinkers involved.)

These days, though, I am much more likely to read (or re-read) something good and react with “Yes, that resonates with my own experience.” That is, I am largely on the other side of the chasm now—the ideas I respond to, positively or negatively, are ideas I’ve lived out in some way. The clearest (and oddest) example comes from a writer who maybe should be on the above list—but maybe not—namely, Dallas Willard. I first encountered Willard in the mid-90s while studying Richard Foster, a good writer and thinker but one who never quite entered my personal pantheon. Willard wasn’t yet popular, and it was hard to find his two books, Spirit of the Disciplines and In Search of Guidance—the latter only available as a horribly expensive Wipf & Stock reprint. I read them, and found them both exciting and puzzling. Willard spoke of ways to experience God that were far outside my own experience at that time, attractive ideas—yet there were also hints here and there that he couldn’t be trusted. When Willard published The Divine Conspiracy, I read it closely, got very excited about much of what he claimed, encountered several shibboleths (e.g. favorable mentions of Charles Finney) that led me to mistrust it all, and set it aside. A year later I went through the exact same experience a second time—close study, excitement, suspicion, dismissal. I moved on.

A few months ago I ran across a mention of Willard’s Spirit of The Disciplines, recommended as a book the writer had found highly profitable. I hadn’t thought of Willard at all for 10-12 years, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how to properly form a Christian character, and so I made a note to go back and look through the book, since spiritual disciplines are surely a useful tool for that.

Soon after I ran across a very short ebook—a conference paper, really—by Willard called Getting Love RIght (only $1 in the Kindle Store). I bought it, started reading, and every few sentences had to stop and exclaim (silently) “That’s exactly right!”  It was an odd feeling. Until not too long ago, when I got excited about something I was reading it was because the ideas were new, having the ring of (possible) truth but things I hadn’t yet experienced. Now the ideas I was reading rang true to my own experience.

I proceeded to read through Willard’s writings—in reverse chronological order, an interesting path—and had that aforementioned feeling over and over again. I had somehow made it to the other side of the chasm, and could confirm seeing the guideposts that Willard said I would see. I can’t say how much of my guidance for the journey came directly from Willard—if it did, it had to be due to ideas that were deeply internalized as I first read him, I certainly didn’t reflect consciously on what he taught me. And given how much of Willard’s wisdom proved out in practice, I sort of wish I had adopted him as a hero/mentor back then—but then again, maybe not, Maybe it was important to encounter those truths as a practical response to actual life experience.

In any case, I continue to reread Willard, not to learn new things but to help pull together what I know into some simpler, more coherent form. I have been dipping back into other writers whose work has impressed me, hoping to benefit in the same way. And I’ve been much more cautious in picking new works to read, trying to restrict myself to material that will either fill in the obvious remaining gaps in areas where I know something, or perhaps deepen that knowledge. But no new ideas, please—time is now too short for that.

A few thoughts on walking

It’s 10:45am, and I just returned from a two-mile walk, the third in three days. As I was just about done I recalled Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity secret, which can be summed up as “Don’t break the chain.” That is, when it comes to sticking to a project, it can be a great motivator simply to extend an unbroken chain of successes, no matter how small those successes are.

Living a disciplined life has been much on my mind lately—where I’ve succeeded, where I’ve failed, the disciplines that are worth adding, what it takes to add one, how and why a discipline can contribute to building one’s character. I’ve dredged up some old, partly dormant knowledge, and learned a few new things. I’ve been trying to distill what I know (or think I know) into something coherent, and to test it out as well.

I’m lazy by nature, and so my habits tend to be sedentary. Fortunately this hasn’t resulted in major health problems, and I can handle moderate exercise when the occasion arises—last fall I accompanied my oldest three, one at a time, on a 4-hour walking tour of Carlsbad Caverns, and didn’t suffer any ill effects. But I generally don’t go looking for opportunities to be active, and I’ve suffered in various ways as a result, shying away from work that needs doing (this was a major problem when we lived on the farm) and ranging from fat to very fat.

This fall a number of factors converged, including my interest in discipline, and I finally decided to try losing a significant number of pounds. It’s not the first time—I’ve successfully lost major weight seven or eight times before, “success” meaning that I lost the pounds I intended to lose. Only to gain them back, of course. I began this diet on October 3, and there are some reasons to think that this time I’ll get to where I want to be and stay there. But those reasons can wait for another blog post.

I knew when I began the diet that I should also add in some amount of physical activity. I also knew from reading that physical activity plays a minor role in weight loss. It is much more practical to restrict calories than to burn them off—eliminating, say, 500 calories a day from the menu is a lot easier than adding a daily activity that will burn 500 calories. But adding some physical activity to the mix was an important part of my deeper goal, which was not simply to drop weight but to get healthier, dropping the weight being an important part of that. A daily walk was the ideal increment, for many reasons.

Still, various excuses came to my aid in avoiding getting started. For the first three weeks of the diet I was happy to tell myself that it was enough to get the diet established, plenty of time later for walking. The next three weeks were spent in El Paso—ideal weather for walking!—and yet I continued to procrastinate, the main excuse being that I wanted to find someplace nice to walk. At the very end of my stay I did manage a morning of walking in a terrific nature preserve, hard up against the US/Mexico border, but it was a 30 minute drive from the house, not practical for a daily walk. And for the nine weeks after that I was back in Frankfort, where it was cold enough day by day to let me put off starting.

A week ago I returned to El Paso for another 3-week stay, and walking was on my mind—at least I thought about it every day! And finally events converged: I noticed people walking around the neighborhood, and lowered my standards for a walk to merely being able to spend an hour away from the computer in the fresh air and sunshine; a cold and snowy (!) weekend yielded to a beautifully warm and sunny 3-day stretch, to be followed by a cool and rainy weekend, i.e. pressure take advantage of the nice break in the weather. So Tuesday after lunch I headed out to find a decent circular route. After returning I spent a little time with Google Maps, adjusting the route to be exactly two miles. Wednesday I headed out after lunch again spending about an hour walking in perfect 70 degree sunny weather. Today the forecast called for rain in the afternoon—but rather than using it for an excuse, I took the walk this morning. Tomorrow it is supposed to rain all day, but so as not to break the chain I will probably take unusual measures, perhaps find a mall or big box store to walk around indoors.

All along I’ve been reminded of the outsized power of both procrastination and habit. I actually like walking, enough that I don’t need anything but my thoughts to accompany me. I feel somewhat better physically, as I knew I would. I definitely enjoyed the enforced break—and it’s not like I wouldn’t have frittered away the time in other less healthy ways, probably exploring the internet. And I know that regular walking will add to my good health. All upside, no downside, yet all those things together were not enough on their own to get me started. However, I’m fairly confident that, once started, it won’t be difficult to establish a habit of walking daily, and at that point it will take hardly any deliberate effort at all to continue.

Of course, at this point my walking is a pitiful thing, not nearly what it might be. I don’t mean as exercise—a couple of miles is plenty of activity for now. I mean as an experience. Fortunately, I’m not tempted to take along earbuds and an audio device to distract me—my own thoughts are plenty for that. Unfortunately, my own thoughts are more than up to the task, and as a result I’m not a very observant walker. That’s something I’d like to change. But one thing at a time.

Regular posting will resume today

For reasons I’ll eventually discuss, I’ve decided to try establishing a habit of at-least-daily posting here on this blog. The first post is already written and will be along in a moment. I’m not a fan of announcing this sort of thing (I’m out of here! I’m back!), but since my reasons for resuming are connected to things I’ll be writing about in the near future, I thought it would be OK to mention it.

Primarily I want to use at-least-daily posting as a discipline. I find it helpful to write regularly, and I find it helpful to write for an audience, however small or imaginary. Usually my efforts to write are inhibited by thinking that what I have to say on a topic isn’t momentous enough to publish. So I’d like to set the bar low enough to get the words flowing—just write something today!—but not so far that I start to bloviate.

I’m not totally confident that I can meet the write-at-once-a-day standard, so I will cheat a bit by allowing myself to fill up the WordPress queue, to the point where I can reliably publish at-least-daily. And if that queue begins to grow, I will up the frequency of publishing until some sort of equilibrium is reached.

It’s nice to be back.