I’ve been following online discussion of the Benedict Option, a hot topic in some circles. Briefly, it is a recognition that Christendom is over, together with a rallying cry to spend less time trying to impose a Christian vision on society by fiat and more on living out the Christian vision in our own lives. There’s much more to it than that, to the point of incoherence, but that’s the angle which interests me. I’m intrigued and occasionally heartened to see such an idea catch the attention of highly distracted people—there must be some power lurking within it—but I’m equally discouraged to watch it devolve into a common type of self-improvement thinking, along the lines of “If only the world could be structured in such-and-such a way … why, it would carry all of us along into becoming the people we ought to be, and with hardly any effort on our part!”

My reaction is usually a frustrated “Yes, those are all great things—so why not just incorporate some of them into your ongoing lives?” And in days gone by I would have just chalked it up to a general inclination to indulge oneself in comforting if-only delusions: “if only the world were different life would be better, and I’d be a better person … but ….” I’ve spent a lot of time fighting that inclination in myself, and especially in the beginning it was an important part of setting out on and sticking to a different path. But as I’ve walked the path, I’ve discovered that it isn’t a particularly heroic thing to do. The steps are fairly clear, fairly easy, possible to take in small and steady increments, and provide immediate, tangible rewards (although sometimes you have to learn to recognize them).

Over forty years as an adult I’ve tested, refined, and internalized a certain outlook, and the rewards are now abundant and lasting. I have no interest at all in systematizing what I know, especially since one big thing I know is that system has the power to turn anything good into something pernicious. And I’m happy to continue exploring my outlook in the company of family and close friends, blessing them as well as myself with its rewards, and hopefully imparting some of my thinking to them along the way, for them to consider. I’ve given up the idea that there might be One Way good for all, at least one I’m capable of conceiving and (even harder) articulating clearly. But I do think I’ve learned things that might be helpful to some people in some circumstances, and I’m always looking for ways to make them available to those who might benefit.

Every time I write about this I take pains with how I express it, to be as clear as possible that I am not talking about obligations but only opportunities. If I go on about how to craft a character that is more humble or patient or considerate or other-focused, it is not because I think it one’s duty or that it will somehow disappoint God if one doesn’t. I’m done with the weirdly comforting call-and-response pattern that Christians and their teachers have fallen into—”You are bad, bad people to have led God down again/Yes, we are bad, bad people to have let God down again.” Anymore I only see these things as available paths to a better, fuller life, and all I care to do is point out that not only can anyone avail themselves, but any level of effort will be rewarded and serve as a spur to further effort.

It’s not that these things aren’t recognized and discussed—quite the opposite—but for me at least the discussion almost always fails a critical test: “But … how?” It’s not hard to find teachers who correctly identify the need of the hour, shortcomings which are especially pertinent in our modern setting. And though they may be vaguer about it, they can usually cast a reasonably accurate vision for how things would be better if we addressed and corrected those shortcomings. But … how? This is where I find almost nothing but platitudes which can’t be acted upon. It is all well and good to tell me about patience, and my lack of it, and even how much better life would be for me and my acquaintances if I developed more of it. But … how?

I want to focus on the “how”—not telling you or anyone else how to proceed, but simply chronicling how I have proceeded in certain important areas, presenting myself not as a model but only an example, a concrete instance of specific efforts made by one person and their results for him. The point being only that it is possible to proceed—at the least, someone once gave it a try, and had some success. The specific efforts which worked for me may not work for you. But figuring out what to do—and then doing it—is an approach that I think is almost universally applicable, and I’m looking for ways to better encourage others to pursue it.

So, why do current treatments of this problem fall so short when it comes to the “But … how?” test? For me they tend to fall into one of two categories: either they focus on something which is achievable by normal people but will not lead to direct tangible results (e.g. read your Bible, pray every day), or on something which would provide direct tangible results if it were achievable, but achieving the goal is emphasized over taking steps toward the goal (be patient, be humble, be considerate, prefer others to yourself). Even the writer I’ve found most helpful on this score, Dallas Willard, falls short in this second way—although I don’t blame him, because he was only one man and the work he was able to accomplish in this area far outweighs this shortcoming. And I’ve managed to close the gap Willard leaves under my own power, working with stray bits and pieces he left in his wake and using his outlook to evaluate and fine-tune ideas I’ve found elsewhere.

Believe me, I understand how difficult it is to select an approach which hits the sweet spot, being both within the reach of folks with average skills and drive, and capable of producing the immediate tangible results that will reassure the practitioners that the approach is correct and motivate them to continue on. A few have worked for me over the years. Twenty years ago I was inspired to pray for humility, and was thereafter blessed (?) with ample opportunity to practice humbling myself, as well as to gain a deeper understanding of the role humility plays in a well-functioning community. Unfortunately, the rewards tend to be long in coming, and so exercising humility can feel more like being dutiful towards some abstract conception of Good Personhood than a practice that yields blessings in proportion to invested effort. Exercising patience, compassion, and curbing my tongue have also been good and have yielded more immediate benefits, but the scope is narrow and the benefits tend to be self-centered.

I’m wondering now if kindness might not be an effective concept for focusing character development. This occurred to me after watching the four-hour HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge this week. I wanted to watch it because of good reviews and Frances McDormand, who I like a lot as an actress. It was harrowing to watch, mostly because McDormand is uncompromising in her portrayal of .. uh … a difficult person, let’s say. And I’m sure there are greater depths than I am capable of plumbing—I’m not very good with fiction. But what struck me about the character Olive was that she was completely lacking in kindness, a flaw that ruined her life but also one she seemed barely aware of. Worse, she was married to Henry, an extremely kind man—who often suffered her contempt and anger because of his kindness—although she didn’t understand (until far too late) that it was his kindness that infuriated her.

To me the story was an excellent illustration (through Olive) of the damage that unkindness can inflict, both short- and long-term, on acquaintances and community and family and one’s own self. And (through Henry) of the ability of even small kindnesses well placed to redeem ugly and difficult situations. Kindness can be practiced at many scales, and paying a kindness will quite often yield a reward right away, in personal satisfaction and in the joy of others and in improved circumstances. It’s the sort of practice that can be tested easily, that one can gradually immerse oneself in as trust and understanding grows.

Best, it’s one of the few virtues remaining that is viewed positively by the world at large. Random acts of kindness, and all. While poking around I came across this commencement speech by the writer George Saunders, which hints at how deeply we respond to the idea as humans (emphasis in original):

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, it would be possible to object here: What an inadequate goal! Kindness on its own will hardly get you into heaven. And that’s exactly the objection raised in this response to Saunder’s speech from Jen Pollock Michel in Christianity Today, under the title “The Misguided Theology of Kindness”:

A thousand times and more I have hung myself on the accusation of selfishness, living with the burden of be kind, advice that would subtly seek to obligate me to the whole of humanity and will to find me guilty whenever I cannot appease their demands.

How we progress from “try to be kinder” to “obligate me to the whole of humanity” isn’t clear—some sort of slippery slope, no doubt. But fortunately there was One who resisted this sort of pernicious guilt-tripping:

But never in the New Testament is Jesus hailed as the paragon of unselfishness. As we see throughout the gospels, Jesus did not heal every person. Nor did he grant every request. In fact, our Lord routinely escaped the clamoring crowds to pray, to sleep, and to spend intimate time with his disciples. When an oppressed people cried out for him to become their political deliverer, he resisted their pleas.

Well, this is certainly arguable, but the more important point here is where Michel takes this line of thought as she ends her essay:

This could have been perceived as selfish. Some may have even considered it cruel. But Jesus remained fixed on pleasing his Father. “I have come to do your will, O God,” (Heb. 10:7).

We are better off, not with George Saunders’s advice, but with the wisdom of King Solomon, who, at the end of his life of study, concluded this about living life well: “Fear God and keep his commandments.” Honor your Creator first—and kindness to his creatures will follow.

Michel’s response is an excellent example of a tendency that dismays me, disdaining a modest but perfectly workable practice—try to be kinder—because it is so far inferior to a higher goal—fear God and keep his commandments—even though the higher goal fails the “But … how?” test and turns quickly into pious wishful thinking.

(As for “Honor your Creator first—and kindness to his creatures will follow”, I’d say the most famous counterexample to this was the rich young ruler, who Jesus did not contradict when he claimed to have always feared God and kept His commandments, but instead called him out in a way that indicates he fell a bit short in the kindness department. Meanwhile, I know plenty of people, myself included, whose modest, imperfect, but steadfast practice of kindness has glorified God and led to greater intimacy with Him.)

So I’m looking at kindness as a possible rallying concept, a practice that requires minimal initial commitment but has the power to draw the practitioner deeper, one that might even serve as a gateway drug for those whose faith is minimal or even nonexistent. More as it develops.

Options, options everywhere

Occasionally I’ve run across an item that seems to express an idea perfectly—yet the idea is buried so deep that I can’t quite pin it down. More than thirty years ago, in the back pages of Texas Monthly magazine, I saw a small ad (for an outlet mall, of all places) which pictured a fashion model striding down a runway, with the caption “Be the Star of Your Own Movie”.

I hadn’t thought much at that point about culture or history or modernity, but even then I knew that it resonated because it embodied a sort of narcissism that was not only in full flower at that point (this being a few years past Tom Wolfe’s Me Decade), but was also something new on the scene. As prideful as I could be at times, I had never really envisioned my unfolding life as a movie about me. And I was certain that my folks would be baffled by such thinking.

Although I had a label for it, I still wondered: Why now? Why everywhere, all at once? Was it really a cultural shift, and if so what caused/enabled it? During the time since then the trend seems only to have broadened and deepened, manifesting itself everywhere, even having its way with folks my parents’ age. And although those questions haven’t exactly driven my own studies, I’ve always had them in the back of my mind as I’ve learned more about where we are and how we got here. At this point I have a much clearer understanding of the sources and trajectories involved, but have yet to put the puzzle together.

This week I ran across some key pieces. I’m re-reading a book by Thomas de Zengontita, called Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and How You Live in it. It’s pretty good—I first picked it up on Thursday afternoon and am already halfway through my second reading. Here is the very first paragraph.

Ask yourself this: did members of the Greatest Generation spend a lot of time talking about where they were and what they did and how they felt when they first heard the news from Pearl Harbor? People certainly remembered the moment, and a few anecdotes got passed around—but did a whole folk genre spontaneously emerge? Did everyone feel compelled to craft a little narrative, starring me, an oft-repeated and inevitably embellished story-for-the-ages reporting on my personal experience of the Event? Or did they just assume that Pearl Harbor and its consequences were what mattered, and talk about that.

This captures something I’ve seen over and over, and wondered at. Increasingly over the years I’ve been watching people, or listening to them talk, or reading something they wrote, and a frustrated thought forms and builds in me: why should anyone care what you think about that? Note that I only react this way when there is no obvious reason to value the other person’s thoughts on the topic, due to having studied it or having been directly involved with the event or even just because they are generally wise or experienced. When I found myself reacting like this sporadically, I chalked it up to having run across someone who was unusually lacking in self-awareness. Then it began happening more often, and I suspected it was a generational thing. Now it happens to me all the time, and I have to acknowledge that I’m the one who was left behind when the zeitgeist shifted, and whether on balance it’s good or bad I need to avoid the trap of “Why, back in my day …” and instead figure out how to respond to this new thinking with integrity and grace.

Looking back through my old blog posts, I see I’ve addressed one aspect of this, the idea of newsjacking, where one injects oneself into a trending story, in hopes of riding its coattails. Quoting myself here:

I think it points to a basic but unnamed impulse that has flourished along with the internet. For a long time I’ve noticed it primarily in comment threads on blogs, where people often don’t interact with the content of a post but simply use it as a springboard to talk about themselves. When I called the technique anything at all, I would call it (somewhat meanly) “That reminds me of … ME!” It is not the same as hijacking a thread, which involves redirecting the entire discussion somewhere the original post didn’t go. It is smaller and self-contained, a way of injecting oneself into a discussion without actually needing to address the topic at hand. Or, to be mean again, a natural result when the commenter finds their own experiences and opinions more worthy of comment than those of the blogger.

I go on to cite Paul Ford, who claims that this impulse, properly recognized, is key to understanding how people behave on the internet. Ford says:

“Why wasn’t I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web. It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

My only quibble with this statement is the “humans have a fundamental need” part. Have folks always felt that their opinion counted, no matter the topic, simply because it was their opinion? The fact that my frustration has increased, eventually to peg the needle, suggests otherwise. The Pearl Harbor anecdote above suggests otherwise. And lots of my reading over the years suggests otherwise, but I won’t try to make the case here, only ask that you entertain the possibility.

So, what changed? de Zengontita says it is the triumph of media, or more specifically, representational flattery—we no longer experience the world directly, but instead as representations served up for our delectation, as if we were of central importance. To give his reader a feel for the difference, he offers this thought experiment:

Say your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere—the middle of Saskatchewan, say. You have no radio, no cell phone, nothing to read, no gear to fiddle with. You just have to wait. Pretty soon you notice how everything around you just happens to be there. And it just happens to be there in this very precise but unfamiliar way. You are so not used to this. Every tuft of weed, the scattered pebbles, the lapsing fence, the cracks in the asphalt, the buzz of insects in the field, the flow of cloud against the sky, everything is very specifically exactly the way it is—and none of it is for you. Nothing here was designed to affect you. It isn’t arranged so you can experience it, you didn’t plan to experience it, there isn’t any screen, there isn’t any display, there isn’t any entrance, no brochure, nothing special to look at, no dramatic scenery or wildlife, no tour guide, no campsites, no benches, no paths, no viewing platforms with natural-historical information posted under slanted Plexiglas lectern things—whatever is there is just there, and so are you. And your options are limited. You begin to get a sense of your real place in the great scheme of things.

Very small.

Some people find this profoundly comforting. Wittgenstein, for example.

So that’s a baseline for comparison. What it teaches us is this: in a mediated world, the opposite of real isn’t phony or illusional or fictional—it’s optional. Idiomatically, we recognize this when we say “The reality is …,” meaning something that has to be dealt with, something that isn’t an option. We are most free of mediation, we are most real, when we are at the disposal of accident and necessity. That’s when we are not being addressed. That’s when we go without the flattery intrinsic to representation.

The key new notion in this meditation is options. In fact, a few pages later de Zengontita states that he is bringing just two new notions to the table, representational flattery and the role of proliferating options in buffering us from reality. The rest of the book devotes itself to illustrating how those two notions manifest their effects in different areas of life—helicopter parenting, prolonged adolescence, celebrity, politics, the busyness of modern life, our uneasy relationship with nature, and so on.

A third notion—which isn’t presented as succinctly as the first two, maybe because he doesn’t see it as original—is that we are all performers now. Just as the world is represented to us via the media, we must represent ourselves to the world in a fashion unknown to our grandparents. Rather than simply growing into the role a community provides for us/imposes on us, we now need to sort through the myriad options available in order to construct a self, a process that is often agonizing, not just due to the pain of learning but also the constant risk of “buyer’s remorse”—what if I choose badly?

It’s this third notion that resonates most strongly with me, and I wish vaguely that de Zengontita had a clearer statement to make about it—but then again I admire his determination to simply explore the landscape without offering prescriptions, to do his best to make the reader feel aspects of the water we all swim in and leave it at that. So I’ll do my best to absorb his thinking, then make my own applications. (You can get a taste of his thinking in this four-minute video clip, where he claims that the “ability” of his grandfather to be naturally authentic is now lost to us, lost in a way that can’t be recovered, and we need to find a different path to authenticity.)

This part interests me because of my recent focus on character formation. Regardless of its historical sources, de Zengontita claims that it qualifies as a recent shift because the breezes of the past have lately become a hurricane we must now deal with. It is no good to yearn for the earlier times when character was a gift the community bestowed on us, even more foolish to try to restore such an environment. And as he points out, many of the options have their good points, at least individually considered. So (this is my prescription, not his) perhaps we would be better off learning how to choose wisely among the options.

In becoming a musical performer I learned that technique is often confused with phoniness—people think that “true” musicians somehow just let the music come out. But, as becomes obvious after just a little thought, a lot of mechanical groundwork needs to be laid before a musician can reliably, effectively produce the notes which express the music behind them.

And even if you get that, it’s easy to confuse the groundwork with the music. Vladimir Horowitz once said that he never worried about being challenged by the endless stream of technically more proficient whiz kids who came after him, because they would practice, practice, practice—and when they got on stage they would practice some more. Similarly, when I was learning to sing, it took much time and effort for me to hear what I was doing well enough to develop the technical skills I needed to produce the sound I wanted—and then more time and effort to get my mind off the technical production of the sound, to trust in my skills enough to use them for some other purpose than simply using them. Was I somehow a phony singer for not having been born so able, but instead setting out at age 50 to learn how to be one?

And while we’re discussing phoniness and performance, allow me to hearken back to an old post on the subject, when Chris and I were exploring the concept of stage presence:

At one of our earliest performances, an open mic program on stage at Natural Tunnel State Park, a fellow stopped by who had some experience performing, and asked to do a few songs. He also asked me and another fellow, a guitar player, to accompany him. When the guitar began playing a break, the new guy watched him with a big smile, nodded his head in time, then turned to me with the same big smile as if to say, “Isn’t that great?” To me, sitting next to him, it felt weird and artificial, easy to mistake for insincerity. But it wasn’t insincere at all; the guy was in fact enjoying the break, and saying to me “Isn’t that great?” It was just that in order to communicate that from the stage to a bunch of people thirty feet away, he had to do some things I wasn’t used to doing or seeing up close.

The life lesson I learned from that exploration: it isn’t enough to, say, appreciate someone else’s effort—you must communicate your appreciation accurately. The same with admiration, or disappointment, or anger, or pleasure, or the rest. The writers I respect the least are the ones who blame their readers for misunderstanding them. Similarly with well-intended folks who fail to act on those intentions. Similarly with folks who think it is sufficient to feel a certain way towards others, leaving them the job of divining those feelings.

So, must we resign ourselves to a life of feeling phony, of deliberately performing for others in order to actually convey what we intend to convey? Well, yes and no. I think we (in the WEIRD world, anyway) no longer inhabit a context which naturally shapes us into an authentic character, and there’s no going back. Our character is something we need to assemble, and our best hope is to learn how to do that properly, to acquire the knowledge and skills and disciplines that will equip us to the task of transforming ourselves into proper human beings.

That’s the yes part. The no part is this: once we’ve thoroughly learned what we need to know, once we’ve practiced it all over and over—at that point we actually become the human we set out to construct, with characteristics which were carefully chosen and nurtured but are now second nature to us. At which point we can stop thinking about the performance, and simply perform. We can stop thinking about how to love, and simply love.

For awhile now my life verse has been 1 Thess 4:11: “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you,” But I’m toying with the idea of changing it to Matthew 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” I suspect that in these dark days the greatest gift we can give someone is to help them to understand that a godly life is a live option—not only with our lips, but in our lives. I suspect that more folks might give it a try if they see others successful in their efforts.

The insufficiency of self-awareness

This caught my eye:

But my favorite thing about “BoJack Horseman” is how badly BoJack wants to think of himself as—and even, if he’s desperate enough, wants to be—a good person. Just tell me I’m good is the constant undertow of his motivation. He doesn’t want to be cool or happy. He wants to be a good person, in spite of all the genuinely awful things he’s done. He’s ashamed of himself, sure. But he tries to disguise his failures as successes, as cocktail-party anecdotes and, if necessary, as lessons learned.

He has this exchange with Diane, which runs exactly parallel to the character vs. actions bit from “Mistress America” (BoJack knows the zeitgeist!):

BoJack: But do you think I’m a good person, deep down?

Diane: …I don’t know if I believe in ‘deep down.’

“BoJack” is a pretty scathing portrayal of the insufficiency of self-awareness. BoJack knows what his problems are and states them frequently and with often-hilarious bluntness, and it doesn’t help. As a different family entertainment once taught us, knowing is half the battle—but it turns out not to be the half where the battle is won.

I’ve watched both seasons of BoJack Horseman (and enjoyed them immensely), but you don’t need to in order to understand the point. Simply acknowledging your weaknesses doesn’t justify them, much less put you on the path to correcting them.

Has this always been a thing, or is it something recent? I’ve sat through countless sermons which fit into a standard call-and-response pattern—”You guys don’t pray/read your Bible/volunteer/give enough”, “True, true, we don’t pray/read our Bibles/volunteer/give enough”. And the transaction is then complete. Never have I heard one which starts, “So, after last week’s exhortations are you praying/reading your Bibles/volunteering/giving more?”, and I have to imagine it’s because the answer is obvious—and, in fact, to ask the question is to misunderstand the true purpose of the exchange.

As the writer says, “knowing is half the battle—but it turns out not to be the half where the battle is won.” To complete the thought: doing is the half where the battle is won (or lost). Doubling down on self-awareness is just a way of putting off engagement.