Small things, repeated

Although I grouse regularly that most of what I read about character is brief and unspecific when it comes to the practice of character development, I also grant that this may be as good as it gets. Perhaps most of the practices are obvious—after all, I’ve figured out a lot of them on my own—and folks only write about the few non-obvious ones. Perhaps the practices are difficult or even impossible to put into words, like the ones that guide us into driving a car well. Or perhaps they are too specific, and can only be stated regarding a particular person in a particular situation. (As a well-known horse trainer once replied when asked how he goes about training a horse, “Which horse?”)

But I grouse because I suspect, at least for some people in some situations, a well-stated bit of wisdom can be of assistance. There are anecdotes and aphorisms I relate over and over again, because for me they encapsulate a bit of wisdom that not only opened my eyes wider but gave me a hand up in tackling a shortcoming I struggled with. So far they live mostly in my mind, but some made it into posts on this blog, and I plan to put more of them down in writing, refining them to a point where they might be a bit of help to someone else.

Here’s a fresh example, though not yet refined. Richard Beck has been sharing anecdotes about the prison Bible study he leads, and this morning he tells of one inmate who regularly performs a small service for the leaders which could also benefit the inmate—and yet the inmate deliberately refrains from taking the benefit. (Please click through to read the anecdote, it’s short and well written.)

This is the sort of practice I want to hear about, not because I expect to find myself in exactly the same situation, but because it shows how an opportunity to build character can be found in a small and mundane act—provided we look, and provided we approach it as such. The same act in the same situation could go wrong in many ways, e.g. it could be used to communicate moral superiority. But done right, it is one small step towards better character. And if that small step becomes the basis of a practice—well, as Seth Godin says, “A small thing, repeated, is not a small thing.”

More notes on character

I’d heard of Temple Grandin but never bothered to check out what she had to say until a friend sent a link to this 2010 TED video. Four million views—wow! As a talk, I didn’t think it was all that good, since it presumes that you know a lot about her already (I guess from the movie made about her).

Her point about not neglecting those who think differently reminded me of something I wrote elsewhere on this blog:

As we raised our kids, and continue to raise them, we kept competitive activities near zero. We also left their gifts mostly alone to flourish as they would, focusing instead on teaching them to compensate for their weaknesses and to be diligent in necessary things that were distasteful or didn’t come naturally.

But as I read the entire post where I found that excerpt, I realized that Grandin is arguing that we need to feed more kids into the meritocracy mill, whereas I think we should avoid the mill altogether, focusing instead on guiding our kids through building a well-rounded character and letting their various gifts take care of themselves.

I’m still reading about Christian character, no surprise. The latest book is N.T. Wright’s After You Believe, titled Virtue Reborn in England, both not very good titles, but the subtitle is accurate: Why Christian Character Matters. As usual I’m disappointed at the lack of specifics–Wright spends all but one chapter making his case for the importance of doing the work, and then ends up in the usual place—read your Bible, pray every day, embrace the liturgy. But Wright is a careful and accessible writer, and he has demonstrated some things for me I was mostly assuming beforehand. (Here’s a talk by Wright on the topic.)

(And yes, Willard’s Renovation of the Heart–which I’m now reading for the fourth or fifth time–is better and far more practical, but since it isn’t more widely used I have to assume there’s something unapproachable about it.)

Another recommendation: two books by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, a professor at Calvin College, about vice and virtue. The first one, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, is on my Kindle but I haven’t read it yet because I couldn’t resist starting with her followup, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice. Which is excellent! It spelled out for me the (good) reasons for my growing uneasiness about public performance, especially in places like church.

It’s short on practical remedies, and even though Glittering Vices mentions remedies in its subtitle I have to wonder if it will fulfill the promise. But reading Wright and DeYoung has softened my impatience a bit regarding the lack of specifics. As Jordan Peterson points out in several places, if you’re serious about tackling the shortcomings in your life it isn’t difficult to come up with specific first steps to take, you just need to sit on your bed and think to yourself, honestly, what things could I do today to make things better? They will present themselves, promptly and insistently.

The drive home

My dad’s funeral and memorial service were held a week ago Friday, and early Saturday morning I left my brother and sister to finish up the job of cleaning out his house (at their urging) and started the three-day drive home. I drove rather than flying because my dad had given my daughter Maggie one of his cars, an old (2001) but well-kept and low-mileage Honda Accord, and it needed to be brought home.

It was a good and uneventful trip. Along the way I stopped by Larry McMurtry’s bookstore, had a nice supper at a hole-in-the-wall Greek cafe in Wichita Falls, saw Jordan Peele’s excellent movie in Tulsa, and slept long and hard for two nights.

And listened to a lot of Jordan Peterson. I first encountered Peterson last November when a friend sent me a link to a lecture on virtue, a topic that interests me a lot. Since then the both of us have investigated Peterson’s work, exchange links to the best of it, and discussed it at length.

Peterson is in vogue right now due to taking a stand against his university’s efforts to enforce a certain type of political correctness, something that is only indirectly connected to his main work. And he is using his notoriety as a vehicle for getting his work in front of a much larger audience. We’ll see whether that turns out to be a devil’s bargain. But his work stands on its own, and is well documented through videos of lectures and a book he published in 1999, Maps of Meaning (available as a free PDF).

Shortly before my trip I discovered this page devoted to gathering audio-only versions of Peterson’s talks, so I downloaded most of the audios listed and spent perhaps 20 hours listening through the ones on his work. There’s no easy route into his work, but if you have 75 minutes to spare I recommend this recent talk given at the Ottawa Public Library, which includes some autobiography, a brief overview of his biggest ideas, some practical suggestions on how to apply them, and a few allusions to his recent troubles. What struck me the most in this talk is that Peterson has clearly devoted his life to the pursuit of an important idea (or cluster of ideas, really)—as he says, fifteen years laying the groundwork for his book Maps of Meaning, followed by fifteen years of figuring out how to speak to people clearly and concisely about the ideas it puts forth. Much different than the recent trend toward casting about for an idea that might catch on, then spending a year putting together a book that will hopefully launch a career.

Peterson has devoted himself to figuring out how to be a person in the world, assuming that patterns found in our oldest and most long-lived stories (e.g. Egyptian mythology, the Bible) can guide us in that quest. That route may not appeal to everyone, but I think he handles the material well. Maybe that’s because he comes to conclusions that are consistent with my own. In any case, here are some claims he makes that I think are correct and important. (These are off the top of my head, I haven’t yet made an effort to be systematic or thorough.)

  • The real world is chaotic
  • Order is something our minds impose on chaos (or, perhaps, extract from the chaos) in order to navigate it
  • Learning/growth takes place at the border between order and chaos, the place at which our understanding of reality begins to fail us
  • Too much order is boring, too much chaos is overwhelming, but there is a sweet spot where we can manage to steadily bring order out of chaos, i.e. revise our understanding to encompass more of reality—this is the place where life is lived meaningfully
  • Revising our understanding is painful and scary, and many choose instead to ignore mismatches between their understanding and reality
  • Detecting such mismatches is a matter of paying attention
  • Devoting oneself to detecting such mismatches and rectifying them is a devotion to developing the virtues/building character
  • One shouldn’t try to straighten out the world before getting one’s own affairs in order—and ordering one’s own affairs can all by itself contribute greatly to order in the world

All this fits in well with my own conviction that to seek God’s kingdom is to learn to live one’s life in ever greater harmony with God’s economy. In fact, Peterson cites “Seek ye first the kingdom of God …” as wisdom that supports his claims.

One thing that surprises me a bit in studying Peterson is that he doesn’t seem to have ventured very far into Buddhist thought, even though some of his key ideas (especially that life is suffering) are also key for the Buddhists and have been taken further by them. Regarding suffering, Peterson nods to the Buddhists but stops at the Stoic position that suffering is just a fundamental aspect of life and should be dealt with by overwhelming it, becoming so engaged in the living of life that the suffering is secondary. Buddhists go further, saying that suffering is the result of one’s attachments or cravings, and that those can be overcome, with suffering eliminated as a result.

Well, perhaps my own thinking has led me to misread Peterson. But it’s been a stimulating misreading!

Home again

I’ve been home for five days now, after three months away. Those three months were spent in El Paso with my dad as he suddenly declined and eventually died. I plan to write in detail about the entire experience, initially just for myself, but I hope that some of what I write will be suitable to publish here.

Some of the regular practices I’d developed fell apart during that stretch, but I think just temporarily. I walked when I could. I blogged a bit. I didn’t actively work on posture but I consciously tried to maintain what I’ve accomplished so far. I didn’t meditate, but what I gained from eight months of faithful meditation served me well through a challenging time.

And now I’m home for the forseeable future, and slowly re-establishing my routine. I just got off the cushion, though only for ten minutes rather than the thirty I had built up to before. The weather is nice enough to make a morning walk tomorrow sound quite pleasant. And here I am blogging again! There’s plenty to write about, even aside from my experience with my dad, so expect a return to regular posts in the days to come.