Step aside, old man

Here’s a bit of wisdom you don’t hear often enough these days:

Those who are older than 55 should certainly still work as they are able (that includes me!). But we should leave administrative and executive functions aside — that is what aging leads us away from. Instead, the older among us should engage in the work of discernment — of prayer, study, listening, writing, and counsel. That’s what age prepares us for, and leads us towards.

The post it comes from is well worth reading, as is the Francis Bacon essay the writer cites. Reading them reminded me very much of the opening events in one of my favorite movies, The Seven Samurai. The men are arguing about how to deal with the bandits that repeatedly raid their village. Finally one says, “Let’s go ask the Old Man!” They go and talk to him. He gives counsel. They decide to follow it. My anarchist heart is strangely warmed by it all.

Two unorthodox theologians

In keeping with my notion to shift the focus here to pointing at things I’ve found useful, I want to mention two modern-day theologians whose blogs I’ve found to be richly rewarding.

I’ve only lately begun following Richard Beck, though I’m pretty sure I’ve read blog posts of his over the years when others have linked them. I added his blog to my RSS reader after coming across this post on conscience vs. tradition as the source of authority, which I thought knocked it out of the park. Then when Rene Girard died recently I decided from mentions of his work that I should learn more, and discovered Beck’s seven-part series (start here) on Girard’s notion of Jesus as the final scapegoat, which nearly blew the top of my head off—the notion, though the posts are good too. And he is currently posting a 6-part series called A Progressive Vision of the Benedict Option (start here) which pulls no punches when pointing out flaws in conservative approaches to Christian community which are proving fatal.

I’ll be mining Beck’s blog for many months to come, since it is well organized and he has posted every weekday for the past ten years. Here are a few scattered posts I’ve found especially tasty:

My other favorite blogging theologian is Andrew Perriman, who I’ve mentioned before and have followed for more than a year now. Studying Perriman’s narrative-historical method for reading and understanding the Bible has worked a major overhaul on my own approach, and I think for the better—at least, I am now very much at peace with my own understanding of Scripture and able to completley focus on living out that understanding.

Perriman organizes his blog sort of like a wiki, peppering each post with links to other related posts, so the best way to read him is to pick an entry point and start chasing down references. But he does have a list (under “Method” in the menu bar) of posts which make good introductions. My favorite is a recent one, This Changes Everything, since it describes the delightful disorientation one experiences when the method begins to sink in. The other six are as follows, in no particular order—if a post title strikes your fancy, start there.

Vulnerability and Shame

I thought it might be good for a season to post links to things I think are edifying, with minimal commentary on my part. As you might imagine, I have a healthy stash of them.

I have mixed feelings about the phenomenon of TED talks, but among them there are some real gems, clear and blessedly brief introductions to a thinker’s substantial work. Here are two good examples, in which Brené Brown presents two vital truths she learned in her work:

  • Vulnerability is the key to living wholeheartedly
  • Shame is what keeps us from being vulnerable

As with many such secular talks, excellent as they might be on their own they leave the Christian viewer to recognize and fill in important gaps. To my mind neither of the talks explained why these truths should be true—what is it about vulnerability that makes it vital? how do we overcome shame? I have my own answers. Briefly stated:

  • We can’t live for others without being vulnerable
  • Following Rene Girard, Jesus through his death made it possible “to found human community on a nonsacrificial principle: solidarity with the victim.” Put another way, shame was once an essential principle for structuring community, but after Jesus it no longer needs to be.

The year ahead: 2016

What follows is not a list of New Year’s resolutions. I’ve mentioned before that for me the first indication of eventual failure is powering through any reluctance by force of will. I do best when I go deeper, find the things that keep me from wanting to do what I know I should be doing, and treat them as difficulties to be addressed. As my friend Cindy Rollins might say, it’s all about ordo amoris, getting my desires properly ordered.

So these aren’t things I’ve resolved to do in 2016, but rather possible outcomes I’ve decided to focus on as I continue the deeper work of ordering my desires. I hope they’ll align to a large extent with the successes (and failures) I report in my next year-end review.

Frank Viola wrote recently that a practice which has helped him stay on track is to pick a single word for the year. In 2015 his word was simplify, and it helped him streamline and declutter his life over the course of the year. That one wouldn’t work for me, of course—one of my life-words is simplify, and has been for many years (humility has been on the list even longer). So I thought about it, looking at where I had been recently and where I was likely to go in 2016, and chose this word: integrate.

For awhile now I’ve had the feeling that the time has come to stop seeking out new answers and turn instead to turning what I’ve learned so far into a coherent whole. Partly this follows from confronting my own mortality—I’ve learned a lot over the years, but what’s the point if I don’t take the time to turn the information into knowledge, and the knowledge into wisdom? And partly it comes from a growing clarity about how to properly assemble the elements. So I think it’s time to quit scavenging pieces to the puzzle and start fitting together the ones I have, reshaping and discarding as necessary, filling in gaps as needed.

I’ll continue my studies, but I don’t expect to add any new topics to the list, and precious few new writers. The topics I plan to explore in more depth are Zen and Christianity (especially presence and mindfulness), disciplines for building Christian character, and non-sacramental approaches to Christian living. (Simplicity undergirds it all, but I know plenty about that already and will no longer explore but only read to fill in gaps.) Writers I’ll focus on: Dallas Willard (of course!), Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Charles Taylor, Alasdair Macintyre, Richard Beck, Andrew Perriman, Rene Girard, Thomas Merton.

The above is for deepening my understanding of what I know, and is reasonably straightforward. How I will set it all down in concrete form is less clear to me. Ultimately it should be written out, as a book or something like one, but that needs to be preceded by an awful lot of organizing, something that could be valuable on its own and therefore worth doing publicly if possible. I already do my initial organization using Microsoft OneNote, great for my own purposes but not so great for publishing. So I am looking into tools for creating a website which would be more polished and navigable for a reader than my OneNote files, but still nowhere near a finished book. I currently think of this as my braindump website.

I plan to focus on writing privately. There’s probably a better term for this, since all I mean is writing things in forms I don’t intend to publish—journal entries, rough drafts, fragments—something I haven’t really done up until now. I’ve enjoyed the discipline that comes with always writing publicly, but it has inhibited me in some ways—I often redact as I write (or even think) so as to spare others, and as a result some thoughts are never worked through. I think it will be good to spend some time working through those things in writing first, and then deciding whether to discard or pursue them.

I’ve decided to work on my handwriting. I’ve toyed with the idea over the years, but only recently have all the pieces come together to make it a live possibility. (There will probably be a post in the near future about the path that led me to this point, the goal being to illustrate how the internet has opened fantastic new possibilities for those of us who are autodidactically inclined.) I’ve been practicing a form of italic script for the past few weeks, moving from pencil to gel pen to round-nib fountain pen, and I plan to incorporate an edged-nib pen for the proper italic look (thick/thin strokes). Following this path can eventually lead to calligraphy, which I may end up exploring at some point, but for now I am focused on establishing a practice of writing things out by hand.

I have multiple reasons for doing this.

  • My current hand is lively but also very sloppy, analogous to a singer with good instincts and scattered giftedness but only basic skills. With work I think my handwriting could approach excellence—not the most vital achievement, but one that would both please me and be useful to me.

  • The aesthetic angle takes me into an area I don’t know much about, but in a much gentler manner than, say, learning to draw (another skill I’d love to have but totally lack). I’ve always enjoyed craftsmanship in my work, and even as I’ve been practicing I’ve looked at it as a matter of crafting something, executing the job well and with quality—which in this case has forced me to contemplate the elements and rules of visual design, something I don’t know much about, especially in a hands-on way.

  • Many of my trusted sources when it comes to writing suggest writing things out by hand, as a way of slowing down and of making the process more tangible. Some even emphasize the value of copywork, where one writes out passages from a source one wants to model, slowly and deliberately, taking the time to ponder the construction of the passage, noticing choices the writer made, feeling the words actually flow off the end of one’s pen.

  • I like the meditative aspect of it. As I’ve practiced I’ve often played ambient music in the background, and spent an hour where my mind is neither occupied with work nor chasing after distractions, but simply focused on a simple, optional task. Other folks do this by pursuing hobbies, but those usually don’t work for me—either I get frustrated with the ultimate pointlessness, or lose the benefit by getting obsessed with hobby-related trivia to the point where it resembles work. There’s a bit of such danger even in handwriting (just look at what fountain pen enthusiasts discuss!), but the basic tools seem to be satisfying me as I’ve begun to establish this habit.

So I expect that a major change in my routine this year will involve writing things out by hand—copywork, journal entries, and (I hope) first drafts of longer pieces. And I’m looking forward to the change.

I will continue to improve my health, but in gentle ways, focusing mostly on eating well (especially as I transition from losing to maintaining weight) and gaining good posture (there’s much left in the Gokhale method for me to work on). I’m mostly satisfied with my current level of physical activity—I think my routine is basically healthy. I’m now non-sedentary enough that I’m not as lazy as I used to be, no longer reluctant to exert myself when the situation calls for it, e.g. walking up the stairs to fetch something, weeding the garden, settling for a parking spot on the periphery of the lot and walking in.

But I do want to reintroduce walking to my routine, this time in a way that is more likely to stick. Lori had some excellent suggestions in her comment on my previous post, and all of them zero in on the difficulty I need to deal with—I must want to walk. Part of my failure last year was due to inadequate motivations—burn a few more calories, take some time off from working, get some fresh air—but I was never actually interested in the activity. All those other motivations are good things, but not enough make me want to do it. I need to find one or more very good reasons to walk, possibly from Lori’s list, and then pursue them.

I’ll plant a garden again. I’ve known people, mostly from earlier generations, who couldn’t imagine not planting a garden—it’s just what you do. Given my starting place and the years left to me, I doubt I’ll ever achieve that attitude. But I do hope to make our garden a routine thing, something that supplies our table well without being a burden. We have garlic in the ground now, and next year we’ll expand a bit beyond tomatoes, though I’m not sure yet into what, only knowing it still won’t be too ambitious.

I will play board games regularly with the younger kids. This is a weird one for me. Mostly, I hate board games. I don’t enjoy the competition, or the strategizing, or whiling away my time on an unproductive activity. But I noticed this year that our younger kids, now ranging from 8 to 13, love to play them together. And I also noticed that it was surfacing some of their weaknesses with interacting socially, controlling anger or bossiness or frustration or pride, and so on. It occurred to me that the skills needed to overcome those weaknesses are things learned by example and taught by modeling, so it would be good for me to be right there with them in the games, guiding their behavior by example and gentle suggestion.

Fortunately I discovered what is sometimes called the eurogame style of board game, and found that I liked it much better than the ones I already knew—which is to say they are tolerable, even a bit fun for me. For Christmas I gave the family copies of Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, and they were big hits. And when those get a bit too familiar, there are other good prospects—I have my eye on Ticket to Ride. I’ve played both games with the kids over the past few days, and the experience was much like I thought it would be. I think that doing it regularly will be just the venue for working with them on their social skills.

There are also a couple of work-related items on my list, new areas I plan to venture into, but there’s no particular benefit in spelling them out here. The items listed above are not objectives set in concrete. I’m sure when I do my year-end review I will have succeeded with some, failed with others, and also pursued possibilities which aren’t on the list. The list is merely what I’m able to imagine at the moment about the year to come. I thought it would be interesting and perhaps even helpful to share how I go about contemplating such a thing, as well as introducing a bit of accountability by saying it all out loud.