Good writing requires having something to say

Here’s a nice essay, not too long, by someone who just completed a career as a writing teacher and can now speak freely about the program he taught. Some passages that caught my eye:

  • “The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it.”

  • “Without exception, my best students were the ones who read the hardest books I could assign and asked for more.”

  • “For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults.”

  • “After eight years of teaching at the graduate level, I grew increasingly intolerant of writing designed to make the writer look smart, clever, or edgy. I know this work when I see it; I’ve written a fair amount of it myself. But writing that’s motivated by the desire to give the reader a pleasurable experience really is best. I told a few students over the years that their only job was to keep me entertained, and the ones who got it started to enjoy themselves, and the work got better.”

  • “We’ve been trained to turn to our phones to inform our followers of our somewhat witty observations. I think the instant validation of our apps is an enemy to producing the kind of writing that takes years to complete. That’s why I advise anyone serious about writing books to spend at least a few years keeping it secret. If you’re able to continue writing while embracing the assumption that no one will ever read your work, it will reward you in ways you never imagined.”

Seeing things as they really are

I’ve mentioned the grain of the universe, learning to work with the grain of the universe, not kicking against the goads, an approach to life that I think of as “I can work with this.” A prerequisite to living such a life, of course, is an ability to discern the way things are, as opposed to the way we’d like them to be. That ability is a skill which needs to be developed. It can also be thwarted by bad habits and self-centered impulses, so those also need to be brought under control.

How do we learn to see things as they really are? There is no set program, no spiritual diet, no list of disciplines which when faithfully followed will get you into the proper state of mind. You have to track down your misalignments one by one, think deeply about their nature and their reason for being there, and then search for a remedy. It’s difficult and tedious, and progress can be irregular, especially in the beginning. But one gets better at the job, and the work becomes easier.

The best guides are not those who tell you how things are, but help you see it for yourself. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish them—just ask the Emperor with No Clothes. The critical test is a simple one, simply asking: am I seeing this myself, or am I just taking someone’s word for it. For example, do you know from direct experience that life is best when lived for others, or do you only accept it as an abstract principle which must be true because you hear it so often from the pulpit?

Here are some wise words from Dallas Willard on the subject, from Living in Christ’s Presence.

You know Jesus’ effect on people was different from that of the scribes and Pharisees. That was because he spoke as one having authority, and people noticed that. The scribes and the Pharisees had to go look up their footnotes or find out which rabbi said this about what. The people listening to it understood that those people didn’t know what they were talking about. The scribes and the Pharisees pull authority out of their connections and laid it on them, but Jesus talked about real life.

The amazing thing about Jesus— and I hope you might look carefully at the logic of his words— was how he was able to refer to reality and cause people to understand it in a different way. Usually it was in a way that got past the hardened traditions of those people who thought they were in charge of the religious life. The test of religious life is life, and that’s where Jesus lived it. And that’s why he refers to children and says that if you are going to enter the kingdom of God, you have to come like a little child.

Now, apart from Jesus, the next most presumptuous person in the world is a little child. They just go, you know. The main thing is, when you hear Jesus, do what he says. Don’t build a theory. Just do what he says, and reality will teach you, and that is where authority ultimately lies. So, the test for the secularist and the Christian spokesperson is the reality that they bring people in touch with.

In our recent past the single greatest illustration of this is C. S. Lewis. He never pulls authority on you. He just talks about things, and he helps you see things. Multitudes of people have simply put in practice what he says, and they have found it to be true. That is the ultimate appeal of the spokesperson for Christ.

These are scary words for professional talkers. As this article notes, some things cannot be unseen. Once you’ve seen them, you will continue to see them. Once someone has helped you see the grain of the universe, their job is done and you are no longer in the market for what they have to say. So it was quite to the professional benefit of the scribes and Pharisees that their efforts were focused on “helping” people see things which can’t be seen … because they aren’t there. This is a job that is never done, giving those in the field a high level of job security.

Good writing requires courage

Professor X, the author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, is a good writer who was frustrated in his efforts to write professionally and turned to other things. So when his fifteen minutes of fame landed him a book contract, he took the opportunity to write in a writerly fashion, and also to expound on his ideas about writing—fair enough, since he is writing about being a teacher who teaches writing.

I disagree with his general viewpoint about what it takes to write, but only in context. He speaks from the viewpoint of a literary novelist, draws most of his examples from literary novels, and sees the problems of a writer as being just those of the literary novelist. Even while sticking to fiction you’ll get quite a different perspective from Dean Wesley Smith, who very proudly writes pulp fiction. There is some overlap in their advice, but the emphases are quite different—Professor X, for example, would probably emphasize authenticity, while Smith would emphasize telling a gripping story. William Zinsser writes about writing non-fiction, and his perspective is different still.

I think they might all agree with this observation by sportswriter Red Smith, from a 1949 Walter Winchell column:

Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. …”Why, no,” dead-panned Red. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

It’s a famous quote, but usually read as meaning you need to be passionate,, or authentic, or confessional, the sort of thing Professor X would be more likely to say than Smith or Zinsser. But I think they would all agree that the best writing, regardless of genre, reveals something about the writer. And that takes courage, and sometimes feels akin to opening a vein.

I don’t write passionately, or authentically, or confessionally. But I still find writing daunting and draining, just because I always set myself the goal of conveying to the reader only what I think about the subject I’m addressing. And so I suppose there are elements of passion and authenticity and confession up front—elements that need to be shaped and tamed as the words are written. Plus there’s the scary part—if I’ve done my job properly, the reader will then know just what I think.

How did we get into this mess?

I have a weakness for “how did we get into this mess?” stories. How did health care become an oppressive, insanely expensive gauntlet—and In such a short time? How is it that the majority of the world finds itself working for the weekend? How did the world economy end up utterly dependent on a fragile and finite resource? How did we become consumers? How did we decide that selfishness was the best organizing principle for economic exchange? How did we end up viewing efficiency as one of the greatest goods? My secret history page was in large part intended as a record of the best writings I’ve run across that ask and try to answer such questions. (It needs a lot of work, and I’ll try to get to it in the weeks ahead.)

Right now I’m reading In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, by Professor X. It’s one of the many $3.99 (shipping included) books I’ve order from on a whim—there are a lot of used and remaindered books books out there which people will sell you for next to nothing. I remembered reading the 2008 Atlantic Magazine article which gave birth to it, made a when became an entire book, but then forgot about it until I ran across a mention recently. I’m always interested in learning more about the current education mess and its sources, so I thought it would be a good read. It is, although I don’t recommend it over the article for any but those of us who Just Can’t Get Enough on this particular topic. The book is a mess, but a genial one—Professor X turned his 15 minutes of article-spawned fame and turned it into a chance to write and publish a book, so good for him. What he has to say on the topic isn’t book-sized, so it ends up being a jumbled collection of marginally related thoughts he’s obviously wanted to get into print. But he’s a good writer and a good observer, so the book makes for excellent light reading.

The most important thing Professor X has to say about the college education mess comes right at the beginning. Describing the first session of a new class, he writes:

In this simple opening-night meet-and-greet session we come smak against the crux of college life in what I think of as the basement of the ivory tower. College enrollment has expandedl wildly over the last thirty years, and more than ever before includes many students who are unprepared for the rigorous demands of higher education. Many of my students have no business being there, and a great many will not graduate. As they freely admit, they are not in my classes because they want to be. The colleges require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass English 101 (Introduction to College Writing) and English 102 (Introduction to College Literature).

OK, there’s the mess. How did we get into it? He continues:

Some of my students don’t even want to be in college in the first place, but what choice do they have? For a licensed practical nurse to become a registered nurse requires an associate’s degree (awarded after approximately two years in college) in applied science—68 college credits divided equally between nursing and general education. To become a state trooper requires two years of college, and please note that in some states military and/or law enforcement experience does not substitute for the required degree.

We are vaguely aware that this is a problem, but if we think about it at all we chalk it up to undesirable results at the edges of a system that largely gets it right. After all, people need to be trained and qualified, and this is the system that has developed to do that, right? But I think Professor X manages to get at the source of the problem, and it’s not where we usually place the blame:

A quick look a the classifieds reveals the large number of jobs that either require or discreetly suggest that the applicant have at least some college under his or her belt. A tabloid newspaper is looking for someone to sell legal advertising. Qualifications: high school diploma or equivalent, some college preferred. A wholesaler needs to hire an accounts receivable clerk. Qualifications include a familiarity with Microsoft Office and the ability to assemble billing statements and send them out on a monthly basis, to call past-due accounts, and to process payments; a two-year college accounting degree is also required. Retail giantess Ann Taylor prefers that her district managers have a bachelor’s degree. Interested in testing water? High school desired, college preferred.

College preferred. What sort of job applicant in the midst of a recession disappoints the supervisor from the start by not satisfying his or her preference?

It gets better:

We are used to getting what we want in the United States, and we have a vague feeling that the world would run more smoothly, more efficiently, more professionally if every worker had some college under his or her belt. But who stops to think of the cost of this worthy aspiration to the taxpayers, and to the weary souls who are being sent back to school, often at great expense, for no real reason. There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and our medical billing techs, our county tax clerks, our child welfare agents, our court officers and sheriffs and federal marshals. We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature. We want that officer to have read King Lear, to understand Glouster’s literal blindness as a signpost towards Lear’s figurative blindness, and to be aware that the Fool and Cordelia, the two great truthtellers, never appear onstage together, and wer probably doubled by one actor. I suppose that would be nice. Perhaps having read Invisible Man or A Raisin in the Sun will render a police officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling. I wonder, will an acquaintance with Steinbeck make the highway patrolman more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, so that he will at least understand the lives of those who simply cannot get it together to get their taillights repaired? Will it benefit the correctional officer to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? The health care worker Arrowsmith? Should the case manager at Child Protective Services read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”?

I love how Professor X’s illustrations plunge into the absurd, because they aren’t exaggerations—he is charged with teaching exactly those things to exactly those people. The source of the absurdity is our vague feeling. And I think the source of that vague feeling is something we’d rather not face up to, namely we think that the world would run more smoothly, more efficiently, more professionally if every worker were just like us, the sort of people who have read those things and benefited (or at least we like to think so) from the broader perspective those writings gave us. Too bad we never counted the social cost of indulging in this fantasy.

Freedom fighter, or fanatic?

I did go ahead and buy a copy of Weird John Brown for my Kindle, and am working through it. It’s not easy reading for me, but mostly because the mode of expression is unfamiliar—who knew that “divine violence” was even a thing? Fortunately Ted Smith’s writing is clear and unpretentious, so I’m able to learn from him.

Conventional thinking about John Brown offers two characterizations of him—freedom fighter or fanatic—and says, ok, now choose. One of the writer’s points is that both choices share an assumption, namely that the state is alone in legitimately wielding violence. Those who call Brown a fanatic think the state was right in its enforcement of slavery, those who call him a freedom fighter think the state was wrong and should behave differently, but both assume that enforcement itself is the proper domain of the state. Once you’ve made your choice, you tend to focus on the differences—champion your view’s strengths, attack the other view’s weaknesses—while neglecting to examine the shared assumptions, something that might yield important insights.

Last night I started watching Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden now available on HBO. It wasn’t a gripping revelation to me, because I’ve followed the affair since it first became public, and I had been generally aware of the technology involved. But the film is pro-Snowden, and as I am vaguely pro-privacy and anti-state I found myself being slowly sucked into cheering for the guy. Until I reminded myself that I don’t need to have any opinion about Snowden or his actions—and not only that, but having an opinion just makes it more difficult for me to see and evaluate issues which the Snowden affair has surfaced. Snowden himself emphasizes this as the film unfolds, wanting to keep himself out of the revelations as long as possible—not for his safety, but to keep buzz about himself and his actions from obscuring his revelations.

So, Edward Snowden—traitor or hero? I have no opinion, and it makes no difference in my everyday life. But I’ll be thinking about Snowden as I continue to read Ted Smith’s consideration of John Brown, and wondering if Snowden will end up playing a similar role in our own day and time.

Learning to be kind

I taught Chris and Maggie to drive, and although I was mildly surprised at how much of it came naturally to them (from years spent watching me and Debbie drive, I suppose), I was very surprised at what they didn’t know—how to brake smoothly, for example. Often it took quite a bit of thought on my part to discern the nature of the problem they were having, then figure out a good way to explain how to deal with it.

Sometimes I think being welcomed into the Kingdom these days is like being handed a driver’s license without any training, with an implicit expectation that you’ll be able to figure it out—after all, you’re now a citizen of the Kingdom of Driving, and the requisite skills will eventually manifest themselves. No Dad to diagnose and explain, not even a Driver’s Ed program to sign up for.

Here’s an article which offers a little diagnosis and training in one aspect of gracious living, even though it isn’t presented that way. It describes the research of John Gottman, who has been studying couples for 40 years. With respect to couplehood, he divides people into two categories: masters (still happily together after six years) and disasters (broken up or chronically unhappy in their relationship).

By observing these types of interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples—straight or gay, rich or poor, childless or not—will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

They go on to call this "habit of mind" by its proper name: kindness. And they point out an important truth about kindness.

There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.

And there are some smart observations about kindness that I think Christians generally miss:

When people think about practicing kindness, they often think about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or giving one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity, kindness can also be built into the very backbone of a relationship through the way partners interact with each other on a day-to-day basis. […]

One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there. […] Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy. One of the telltale signs of the disaster couples Gottman studied was their inability to connect over each other’s good news.

I’d like to think the church would naturally lead the way in this sort of teaching: what kindness is, how important it is to living in community, how to go about developing and strengthening an attitude of kindness, helping one another to the sustained hard work. After all, such skills are the keys to successful Kingdom living.

The rocky economics of open source development

This article has a nice headline: “The World’s Email Encryption Software Relies on One Guy, Who is Going Broke.” True believers in the Invisible Hand might take the story as evidence that the open source model can’t work. But I think it illustrates the possibilities (and difficulties) of adhering to this model in a world structured along different lines.

Koch continued to work on GPG in between consulting projects until 1999, when the German government gave him a grant to make GPG compatible with the Microsoft Windows operating system. The money allowed him to hire a programmer to maintain the software while also building the Windows version, which became GPG4Win. This remains the primary free encryption program for Windows machines.

In 2005, Koch won another contract from the German government to support the development of another email encryption method. But in 2010, the funding ran out.

For almost two years, Koch continued to pay his programmer in the hope that he could find more funding. "But nothing came," Koch recalled. So, in August 2012, he had to let the programmer go. By summer 2013, Koch was himself ready to quit.

I’m reminded of a talk I heard by British art-rock musician Robert Fripp, who has pursued a difficult sort of music in ways that have allowed him to make a modest living at it. Yet he continually discourages anyone from trying to go professional unless they are absolutely driven to play music every waking moment, encouraging them instead to pursue music as a “hobby”. In the talk he mentioned that he had trouble making this point with American audiences until he learned that Americans have a different view of “hobby”. In Britain, a hobby can be a pursuit that takes up half one’s life—limited to half, presumably, because the rest has to be spent earning the living that enables the hobby. But it’s the hobby that’s important, the living is just a means to that end.

This kind of productive activity doesn’t make any sense given the current ideal of being paid for what we love to do—even those who aren’t earning a living from their calling are viewed as falling short of the ideal. No other possibilities are considered, e.g. being bi-vocational, or perhaps arranging one’s life so that a living is scraped together without a vocation at all, in order to devote one’s energies to something else. Nothing prevents, say, a Christian teacher from teaching for no compensation while funding his existence through totally unrelated activity. But you rarely see it.

I think the jury is still out on whether the open source model can continue to thrive. The only other place it has been adopted in truth rather than just in appearance is education—not only by explicitly educational projects like Khan Academy and MIT Open CourseWare, but also the endless stream of instructional videos on YouTube and the various expert communities fostered by StackExchange. But there are plenty of hucksters and opportunists operating in this sphere, and who knows if they will manage to co-opt these efforts.

Although twenty years ago I would have enthusiastically championed the open source model as a different and better organizing principle, an older chastened me now just looks at it and ponders. There have been plenty of models proposed in years past for changing human behavior in new and better ways. All of them have turned out to be major disappointments. Meanwhile, here is a far more modest point of view—namely, that it’s a bad idea to treat intellectual content as property—which is not only shocking to the modern mind, but has actually opened up space in the economic sphere for people to behave in different and better ways—and, behold, some of them actually embrace the opportunity.

Love, Internet Style

This is a pretty good talk by Clay Shirky from 2007, about the power of the internet to enable and even promote community action which is spurred by something other than the desire to make money. He calls the alternative motive “love”. I think that’s way too simple and optimistic—there are lots of other motives, some of them dark ones, and many of them about profiting in some currency other than cash money. But I also think Shirky is right that the internet has enabled a level of community collaboration previously unseen, and that remarkable things have resulted.

In the 90s this discussion was mostly restricted to computer programmers, and mostly about open source projects. Non-programming users of the internet were strictly passive consumers. Back then I would have agreed wholeheartedly with Shirky’s point. Amazing collaborations were happening in the software world, and the results of a lot of hard, sophisticated were being made freely available.

Then other segments of the online world went from producing to consuming and collaborating, and the results are at best mixed—important questions should be asked about why these other folks collaborate and who ends up profiting from their work. This expanded conception of the internet was created by people who not only saw an opportunity to make money from the activity of people they didn’t employ, but lured them into participating with a promise that they too would end up profiting. Looking at the entire picture, it’s reasonable to ask how anyone could have been so naive as to think that the internet would promote altruism.

And yet, there is still the shining example of open source software. A cynic would have predicted that the movement would have withered on the vine after the initial flush of idealism. Instead it has flourished, creating not only an astonishing range of quality computer software but establishing a community ethic that stands apart from commercial activity. Many participants wear two hats, one in the open source community and one in the for-profit community—but they really are distinct hats.

I don’t think Shirky is right to call the fundamental motive “love”. But it isn’t money, or even currency of some other kind. Instead, it is something akin to the Golden Rule.

Wait, is that love?

Reading a review of Weird John Brown, by Ted Smith

Just to be clear, I am the reader, the book under review is Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics, the book was written by Ted Smith, the review was written by William Cavanaugh, and I was alerted to the review because Alan Jacobs pinned an excerpt to his Pinboard, which I follow.

Much of the review itself turns out to be beyond my ability to understand on a casual reading, but I grasped enough of it to consider re-reading the review, reading other reviews of it–the LA Review of Books is using it for a review series—and maybe even the book itself, if I decide I can understand it, since it addresses a topic that has occupied me in recent years, namely a proper Christian stance towards government.

I’ve peppered the preceding text with links in case you’re intrigued enough to start down one or more trails yourself. Meanwhile, I’ll offer some notes on what makes me think reading this book might be good for me.

Jacobs excerpted the second and third paragraphs of Cavanaugh’s review, and the first sentence of the excerpt caught my attention:

Smith picks up and extends Charles Taylor’s criticism of “code fetishism,” the idea that all human action must be made law-like, susceptible to obligatory conformity with an ideal.

I suppose I could just stop at this point, and ponder that idea for the rest of the day! More than twenty years ago I read T.S. Eliot’s long poem Choruses from “The Rock”, and ever since have plagued readers with the poet’s observation that men “constantly try to escape / from the darkness outside and within / by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”

Looking at the review itself, Cavanaugh opens with a brief anecdote:

A bishop recently said that 90% of the homilies he has ever heard can be boiled down to two words: “Try harder.”

True enough! I’ve heard these called “bad dog” sermons. M. Craig Barnes writes in his book The Pastor as Minor Poet:

It is striking how much of contemporary preaching reduces to this: ‘You bad, bad dogs! Look at what you did.’ And those in the pews respectfully cower and look like guilty golden retrievers who know they have disappointed the master once again.

Barnes also wrote about this in a recent Christian Century article, but because I don’t have access to that I’ll need to rely on a retelling of his point from another sermon:

[Barnes] writes that he has gotten used to seeing service dogs, or guide dogs, in the seminary chapel. He says he thinks they are the only ones in the chapel who seem to want the sermon to go long, because it gives them a chance to rest. Most of the time these dogs are working pretty hard – they get plenty of affection from their owners, of course, but no one else is supposed to pet them or otherwise distract them from their job. They can’t chase squirrels or play with other dogs or go to sleep when they feel like it; their owners’ safety depends on their being “good dogs” all the time.

Barnes is reminded of these hard-working, well-trained dogs when he thinks about the people who come to church on Sunday. They are conscientious, hard-working and faithful, and they come expecting to be told to keep working, to be obedient and well-trained. The world is broken, they hear from the preacher, and Jesus is expecting us to fix it. If we don’t throw ourselves into that task, we are not being obedient. Whatever good deeds we are currently doing, they are clearly not enough. In other words, we are not “good dogs,” we are “bad dogs,” and we need to be hectored into doing better.

I’d qualify the above characterizations in one way. I think most sermons are actually not all that hectoring or accusing. I think that modern preaching has discovered a technique which achieves the same effect without requiring the preacher to hector or accuse—instead, the preacher simply spells out the amazing quality of life available to each and every convert, leaving an unstated question hanging: why aren’t you this way? The standard is preached, and it’s easy enough for the hearer to see that he just doesn’t measure up.

Contrast that idea about how to employ God’s standards with this one from Cavanaugh’s review [boldface added]:

Opening law to a theological dimension that does not demand earthly conformity invites contemplation and delight. Theology is written in the indicative, not the imperative. Christian theology aspires to delight in what God has done, what the Messiah has already fulfilled, and to rejoice in the presence of God despite the failure of the present to measure up to God’s standard. It invites a free response, and does not command that we “try harder” to align the present with the ideal. Smith beckons us to move beyond the despair hidden behind the notion that “God has no hands but yours.”

“The despair hidden behind …”—exactly! If Smith offers an understanding which would help us to replace this with an ability “to rejoice in the presence of God despite the failure of the present to measure up to God’s standard”, I want to know more.

I’ll spare you most of the rest of the review, which I found difficult to puzzle out because it covers territory unfamiliar to me. But I found enough value on a first reading to want to go back and read it more closely, and maybe even read Smith’s book as well. So I’ll just end with some especially tasty passages. [boldface added]

As Smith brilliantly argues, when we deny any higher purpose to the state, the state is just that order that happens to have prevailed, “the congealed spoils of past violence.” […]

Smith sides with Benjamin, who argues against Schmitt that “the problem of Catholicism” is its identification of divine power with a worldly power. Schmitt argues in Roman Catholicism and Political Form that the Incarnation ensures the Church’s “absolute realization of authority,” which becomes a crucial source of legitimation for the state. Benjamin, in contrast, claims that “in this world nothing constant and no organization can be based on divine power, let alone domination as its supreme principle.” […]

I don’t at all think this is a fatal problem for Smith’s book. I did, however, find myself wishing, if not for a little less Benjamin, then at least for a little more Jesus, who makes only cameo appearances in the text. The book is heavy on appeals to Benjamin, Adorno, Agamben, et al., but fairly light on appeals to theology and Scripture. He discusses typology, but rather than turning to Paul and the patristic writers, for whom typology was second nature, Smith turns to Geuss and Adorno. […]

Smith, with Benjamin, seems so wary of identifying any earthly organization with the Body of Christ that there is no ecclesiology in the book. If there were, it would perhaps help Smith flesh out his insight that “We should not seek to eliminate exceptions to the rule, then, but to cultivate forms of life that can engage in reasoned discourse about exceptions.” […]

It is, of course, unfair to complain about the book that an author did not write. All of the above should be taken as merely a few suggestions for the further theological development of Smith’s argument. I must end on a note of admiration for Smith’s book. It is simply the best thing I have read this year, and it is the one book that I am now insisting that my colleagues read.

Good advice on discipline from Leo Babauta

My recent re-reading of Dallas Willard clarified something important for me about character development: to successfully shape our characters, we need to go deeper into causes and motivations than is customarily taught. But the good news is that it is within the reach of normal people to do this, and in fact isn’t all that difficult. (As I’ve said before, I may have learned this from Willard in the first place, but if so it wasn’t a conscious thing.)

For a couple of years now I’ve followed Leo Babauta’s blog Zen Habits, and he seems to get this truth—that successful habit formation is not simply a matter of behavioral conditioning (though there are elements of that), but requires thought, and at the right level. Here’s a just-published piece I think is particularly good, on how to wrestle distraction to the ground. (If you have the time, I suggest you read it first in its entirety. Babauta is not only a very good writer, his style is consonant with his message, and I will do some damage to the whole as I pull the essay apart and look at the pieces.)

Digital distractions have also pulled me from reading and meditation in the last week. I think they plague all of us to varying extents. […] This is a guide for my fellow addicts. Those of you who have as much trouble as I do fighting off the temptations and distractions, this is for you. From one addict to another.

Babauta mentions two techniques to use that are fundamental to habit formation. The first is paying attention:

One of the insidious things about the distraction habit is that we often don’t even realize it’s happening. It sneaks up on us, like old age, and before we know it we’re addicted and powerless.

But actually we’re not powerless. The power we have is our awareness, and you can develop it right now. Pay attention to what sites you visit, how often you’re looking at your phone, how long you’re spending in front of a screen all day.

What I did when I wanted to develop an awareness of my smoking urges was carry around a pencil and small scrap of paper, and put a tally mark on it each time I had the urge to smoke. I could still smoke, but I’d have to put a tally mark first.

This built my awareness muscle, and it allowed me to insert a small space between the urge and my subsequent action. Into that space, however small, I could eventually make a choice. That was where the power came in.

This may sound mystical, but it is not. How can we make a choice without first being aware that the choice is available? We are powerless to change as long as we remain ignorant (often deliberately so) of the choices available to us that can lead to a change. But if we develop an awareness of the choices, we now have something to work with. We are still far from guaranteed success—perhaps none of the choices that occur to us are within our abilities, or perhaps we are less motivated to pursue a remedy than we like to imagine. But at least there are new possibilities on the table, and though still potential they are at least real.

My latest effort to lose weight and keep it off started with a one-two punch from Willard and Babauta. Rereading Willard last fall had given me a much-needed dose of clarity about character formation, spurring me on to review my own history in that area and to think seriously about what else could be done. Not much later I read this post on Zen Habits about discipline, which mentions hunger:

  1. Sit with a little hunger. We tend to panic when we get hungry, and run for the nearest junk food. What I’ve learned is that you can be hungry and it’s not the end of the world. We don’t always need to be stuff and satisfied with crazy delicious food. Instead, practice this: don’t eat if you’re not hungry. When you get hungry, sit there for a moment and turn to the hunger, and see how it really feels. It’s not so bad. This practice isn’t to make you starve yourself (not great), but to show you that a little discomfort won’t ruin your life, and that you can make conscious choices about when and how much to eat.

This was exactly what I needed to hear, especially the “it’s not so bad” part. I had long been in the habit of not allowing myself to be hungry. At best I would try to ameliorate the worst effects of that attitude by avoiding really bad foods. But Babauta’s suggestion was enough to not only be hungry for a little while but to contemplate the experience—and surprise, it wasn’t the end of the world!

I should note that I’ve never really had a problem staying on a diet. Starting one, yes, but not staying on one I’ve started. I’ve done it seven or eight times before, each one lasting many months, each one resulting in major weight loss, each one strictly observed. But the diet is not the point, of course. Nor is weighing a certain amount. The point (to me) is to achieve a life in proper balance, and my weight issues are just one visible symptom of many, many interacting factors in need of fine-tuning in my life, some of them connected to my weight only at a very deep level.

What I learned from Willard was that even though the symptoms can help lead you to the deeper causes, it is necessary to study and deal with those causes directly, at whatever level they exist, and let the symptoms take care of themselves. In this case, I needed not to worry about losing weight, and to worry instead about becoming a person who eats properly. Time will tell whether I’ve managed to do this successfully, but I’m convinced of the route I need to take.

Back to the addict’s guide: the second technique Babauta mentions is examining causes. As an example he describes his own study of why he had fallen into distraction while taking on some new skills (cycling, programming). The first cause he identifies is fear, specifically fear of not performing adequately.

After hours of following temptations online (learning all about cycling and programming, for example), I stopped and asked myself, “What’s this all about?”

It was about fear — the fear that I didn’t know what I was doing and was going to screw it all up. I now know that it doesn’t matter if I screw it up. My value as a person isn’t tied to my successes or failures. So I closed all the tabs, and decided to focus on one program, and one bike ride. I’ll learn as I do.

A shortcoming I’ve struggled with, and one I see all around me in others, is an inability to get off dead center. Sometimes it’s because we’re baffled about how to do it, and sometimes it’s because we like dead center way more than we like to admit. One good way to stay on dead center is to invest so much significance in the move that the bar ends up set impossibly high. I had a minor encounter with this when I was thinking about walking for exercise—making into too much of an event was keeping me from getting started—and the solution, of course, was to just take the first walk.

Another thought that has helped me keep proper perspective on changes that are larger—how hard would it be to change my mind again? For example, if you’re thinking about going from not tithing to tithing (or the reverse!), realizing that the decision doesn’t need to be forever or even long-lived can make it easier to give it a try.

My distractions are also often about fantasies — I really hope that I’ll be a great programmer or start doing century bike rides or Ironman triathlons. Realistically, I don’t have time to do any of that. So I have to let the fantasies go, because they almost never come true. Unless you’re willing to devote your entire life to one of them for a year or two.

This perspective comes easier as you grow older—I’ve mentioned that having turned 60 last year was sobering on this score, as I realized I simply didn’t have the time anymore to tackle something new. And I know now there are several things I shouldn’t have attempted not only because it wasn’t likely I could achieve them, but the time spent crowded out things more achievable and more valuable.

Distractions, of course, are often about the fear of missing out. We can’t possibly take part in every cool thing that everyone else is doing, but we also don’t want to miss out on any of it. So we look online for what’s going on, what other people are doing and saying, what’s hot. None of that actually matters. What matters is being content, doing things that make people’s lives better, learning, being compassionate, helping. So let’s let go of what we’re missing out on, and focus on the difference we want to make in the world.

I’d go a bit further and say that because we are afraid of missing out, we are especially susceptible to things that make us feel involved while costing us very little. It costs very little to have a strong opinion on, say, the danger that homosexual marriage poses to the church, and only a bit more to have a sufficiently  “informed” opinion that we can do online battle with others regarding the matter. The delusion that it somehow makes a difference to hold a strong opinion on that issue and a thousand others only soaks up our time and distracts us from doing the few modest but challenging things in our sphere which might actually make a difference.

Jacques Ellul wrote that mediaeval man had a very limited sphere of influence, but within that sphere could actually accomplish concrete things. Perhaps a villager was limited to contact with 150 or so other souls, but it was close contact and lasted a lifetime, both prerequisite to actual lasting influence.

Babauta wins my heart (yet again) by ending his piece with ten specific suggestions of steps the reader can take to get off dead center here, immediately followed by “Of course, there are other things you can do” and giving three broader examples. To me this underlines that he is not telling you what to think about distraction, or how to think about distraction. At most he is simply asking you to think about it, and offering a bit of guidance in case you need it to get started. The ten suggestions are really intended to spur you to create your own list, after having thought through the matter for yourself. And to me that’s the best kind of teaching.