Done

The word “done” is becoming more important to me, nearly a guiding principle at this point. I’d like to prune my affairs to the bare minimum, partly to open up room for new things, partly to eliminate inertia, i.e. stopping doing the things I do only because I’ve always done them. I look at more and more things I’m engaged in, trends I’ve followed, practices I’ve continued, and ask myself: am I done with this?

A couple of years back, after a stretch of public discussion about the “nones”—those who claim to be affilated with no religion—Joshua Packard published his research into the “dones”, those who still identify as Christian but have given up on the institutional church. As a topic of discussion it never really caught traction, but that may be because the “dones” have simply moved on and are not compelled to make any noise about it. George Bernard Shaw tells this story:

I was about five at the time, and I was standing at my father’s knee whilst he was shaving. I said to him, ‘Daddy, why do you shave?’ He looked at me in silence, for a full minute, before throwing the razor out of the window, saying, ‘Why the hell do I?’ He never did again.”

I think we may be nearing a tipping point with churches. At the last few I attended there was a growing sense of “why exactly are we doing this again?”, and the standard answers were wearing thin. That may have been solely in my imagination, but I don’t think so. Over the past ten years both white evangelical and white mainline protestants have lost 25% of their numbers, white Roman Catholics 33%. Ten years! How many more yet attend who won’t have a good answer to the question when they get around to asking it?

I’m thinking about this because I finally made it to a meditation retreat this weekend, my first. Leading up to it I was vaguely hoping for an excuse to cancel, but decided to fight that impulse. The Friday evening session was fine, but on the hour-long drive home I was struggling with a feeling, still vague, that I didn’t want to go back. I did, though, and the first segment on Saturday was also fine. But during the silent portion I had a growing feeling: I do not want to be here. So at the first break I packed up my gear and left for home.

Now, there’s a lot that needs unpacking in there, and I need to be very careful as I unpack not to err on the side of self-justification or self-flattery. One of the basic instructions to novice meditators is to be prepared to unexpectedly dredge up powerful emotions, and that staying with them is the path through. There’s a strong possibility that I had encountered exactly such a situation, should have stuck with it, and am rationalizing my decision to leave.

On the other hand (and this is something I don’t see emphasized enough) one important aspiration for those doing this kind of work is to see things clearly and respond appropriately—even if the response looks self-flattering. The fact that you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. And the “easier” choice isn’t automatically the wrong choice.

As I mentioned, all this is tied up with my notion that I am simply done with some things. The first is this: I am done with being talked at while sitting in a group. I didn’t get clear on the wrongness of this (for me) until I finally stopped doing it regularly, but even while in the midst of it I thought that the model of learning was far from ideal (for me), accepting it only as a necessary compromise for teachers dealing with the diverse needs of the group, and doing what I could to redeem the time for myself, being grateful for the bits and pieces I found helpful. I am now done with spending my ever-more-limited time that way, and will spend the rest on my own learning the things I want to learn in ways I find effective.

(I should mention that this decision came in the midst of a pretty good talk. It wasn’t a reaction to the speaker, just the culminating response to a long series of experiences and reflections. Also, as the teacher outlined his plan for the weekend I learned that a lot of the work would be regarding stuff other than silent meditation, the one thing I had come to learn about, which started me asking in earnest: why am I here?)

The second thing I am done with is group activity where the group is some way visionary, by which I mean a set of people who gather in hopes of making concrete some imagined possibility. I won’t go into detail here, but the folks at the retreat were part of a movement which emerged during the late 60s, and although I’m eternally grateful for the work they did bringing mindfulness to the West I can’t help but note that they tend to be stuck in a certain time, place, and political philosophy. Nothing against them personally, but like all movements it has taken on the nature of a club, by which I mean a community which has to take you in as long as you agree to adhere to the rules, spoken and unspoken. The first night the teacher spoke about how to respond mindfully to the especially unsettled period we had entered, code language for Donald Trump’s presidency. I could tell that the group was entirely on that side of the divide, in that certain aging-educated-liberal way, but it didn’t bother me, having no politics of my own I don’t find it difficult to relate to such folks. But when the teacher asked for people to volunteer a word or phrase that described their reaction, and a totally expected collection bubbled up—dismayed, unsettled, apprehensive, scared—I realized that not only did my own word (“uninterested”) not fit in, but that there would be absolutely no exploration of the reactions on one side or the other, or of possibilities not encompassed by the two. At which point I realized: these are not my people, and my being here won’t benefit either me or them.

The third thing I am done with being in groups where I am not among the oldest. That may sound weird, but it has to do with detecting clubbishness and fleeing from it. As the retreat got underway I spent a lot of time wondering at the fact that, while not the youngest in the room, only a handful were younger and maybe 80% were older. And I realized that the group, and the larger movement it represents, likely has an average age that is rising at least one year per year. I noticed the same thing while attending Lions Club meetings with my dad—he had joined when everyone was young, everyone was now old, the only ones who ever joined were just as old. He said it was the same with all the service clubs, Rotary and Kiwanis and such. And I noticed the same thing at bluegrass festivals, audiences are aging with no young people coming in to take their place. And, of course, church.

Why do I want to be among the oldest? Just because I think it’s the only thing I have to offer at this point. My peer group isn’t especially interested in hearing what I have to say, but even if they were there wouldn’t be much point in saying it since we are all approaching the end of our journeys and shouldn’t be taking on new endeavors. Younger people may not be interested either, and I’m not saying they should be—but unless they’re listening I’m only flattering myself by talking, and should just save my breath.

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5 thoughts on “Done

  1. I’m younger than you but I’m with you on the reduction of moving parts in my life. (A lot of this has to do with living with my father and having to manage the moving parts in his life. It’s just too much. I don’t want a magazine subscription that makes me pay, collect the mail, and then recycle the magazine. I don’t care how good a magazine it is.) I had edited television out of my life, but he’s a devotee, and having to care about its cost, the manner of its provision, and its contents has meant a real reduction in my quality of life.

    You raise a huge topic here. I’ll leave out the political question as I don’t really understand being uninterested in politics. However, on the community issue: my issue is that I need to be able to worship in a group. I learned to do this as a child and it’s important to me to be able to continue. This is something that motivates me to continue supporting a synagogue with both presence and funds. Yes, I can daven alone. It is nowhere near as satisfying, even though community life is often aggravating. I think certain types of Christianity are probably easier to navigate in this way as you don’t need a community to navigate your ritual life. My question would be is if there weren’t some way to have minimalist institutions. It’s totally clear to me that Christians don’t need these colossal infrastructures, but there may be something that they need from community life.

    re: being the oldest — I’m exactly the opposite, probably because I’ve spent so much time teaching. There are certain questions that 18-24 year olds have to answer. I find them interesting, and they take on a role in any instruction I do, but I am bored with them myself. I understand fully that there are certain matters that twenty and even thirty year olds need to resolve, but I am increasingly less interested in helping with that outside of a professional capacity. (I am also less convinced that I can be helpful to them than I was a decade ago.) I am grateful that the younger crowd also keeps me a bit younger than many of my contemporaries but increasingly I want to be asking the questions people my age are asking.

  2. I am increasingly less convinced that anyone is interested in what I have to say. I flatter myself that it is probably the modern era of short attention spans and electronic devices, but it is probably because I am a poor communicator or that I am saying things which seem boring to others. I have stopped blogging. I have stopped twittering. I am again on a church council after taking a decade to recover from what happened the last time I was on one, but I am less likely to lead initiatives or rock the boat. Internally I am generally optimistic, but my plans and goals have been scaled back significantly.

  3. John,

    Good to hear from you after so long!

    I am increasingly less convinced that anyone is interested in what I have to say. I flatter myself that it is probably the modern era of short attention spans and electronic devices, but it is probably because I am a poor communicator or that I am saying things which seem boring to others.

    Well, I doubt that. I think that as a society we have simply lost the notion that there is something valuable to learn from the example of others. I’m in the tiny minority that believes otherwise, and maybe you are too, and it’s frustrating to have valuable things to say when the spirit of the age is against listening.

    But bowing to that reality can itself be liberating. The less time I spend trying to communicate what wisdom I’ve assembled, the more I have left over to spend continuing to learn from others.

    I have stopped blogging. I have stopped twittering. I am again on a church council after taking a decade to recover from what happened the last time I was on one, but I am less likely to lead initiatives or rock the boat. Internally I am generally optimistic, but my plans and goals have been scaled back significantly.

    I left off blogging for about six months, then picked it up again a couple of weeks ago. I like writing, but it seems that the real value in blogging lies in the effort to refine your words and thoughts so that others can understand them. But if no one is listening, I may be better off taking a different approach to the writing. I’ve thought about simply writing down what I know for my kids, who actually do read what I write and listen to what I say. Passing what I know along to them may be more than enough!

  4. I had edited television out of my life, but he’s a devotee, and having to care about its cost, the manner of its provision, and its contents has meant a real reduction in my quality of life.

    Servetus,

    I sympathize! During the three years of extended visits to my dad the television was constantly going, playing the “news” or “documentaries” or reality cable stuff. Once I came home for good I pared down my RSS feed to nearly nothing and cleared out my bookmarks. I thought I was keeping it at arm’s length before, but not really, I was more or less current on the news. But not now … and it feels good! Perhaps it’s just selfishness on my part, but I’m confident that political events will unfold while paying zero regard to my opinion, or lack of one—and so I now save myself the trouble and energy needed to craft one.

    My question would be is if there weren’t some way to have minimalist institutions. It’s totally clear to me that Christians don’t need these colossal infrastructures, but there may be something that they need from community life.

    If such a thing existed—say, a group that gathered for morning and evening prayer and nothing else, no sermons, no teachings, no special music—I would be there regardless of what I was getting out of it. I do believe that it is good for Christians to gather in community, and for 25 years I supported the effort. But finally I had to admit that these gatherings inevitably morph into something else, something not good, I think because a captive audience is present.

    I am grateful that the younger crowd also keeps me a bit younger than many of my contemporaries but increasingly I want to be asking the questions people my age are asking.

    I guess the difference for me is that for the longest time I was deliberately among the youngest, because I was actively seeking out wisdom from those who had gone before me. That doesn’t work for me anymore—not because I’ve run out of older, wiser people, but because I’m consciously not taking on any new ventures at this point—my work here is nearly done, so to speak, and all I have left to do is share the benefit of my earlier experiences.

    Which is why I’m wary when I find myself in a group of people as old or older than me who are looking for new ways to change the world. I think: You—we—had our chance, and did whatever we did with that chance. It’s time now to step aside, hand the reins to folks young enough to start a life project and see it through, while being helpful in any way we can—which for most of us should be putting our resources and wisdom at their disposal.

  5. I think Quakers do reasonably well on that score (not perfectly — they also have institutions), but I find that at least in their worship life, they are good at excluding superfluity. (That said: I find Quaker worship hard to take. My thoughts wander too much.) But I know what you mean about how the gathering leads to something different than its ostensible reason for existing in the first place. I also think that this is something that’s changing due to historical factors, i.e., a century ago there might only be a church and a school in a community, or maybe an additional club, and they all needed multiple functions or at least could take them up without such big problems. Today there are many churches, many schools, and many clubs, all competing with each other. And then the whole business world has very much entered the whole “search for meaning” enterprise, too. My cousin’s wife is a real estate agent and she really subscribes to this whole philosophy about how selling real estate lends meaning to her life and tries to teach it to other people. It seems like ever institution has an answer to your problems at the moment, and they’re very occupied in trying to reduce it one thing. (Not unlike the fifteenth century in that regard; we’re really due for a Reformation.)

    I guess I don’t end up in situations with older adults who want to change the world very much. I just appreciate the discussions that allow me to address the problems I’m having now, which are less about identity and more about coping and (as you note) realizing that I’m more than half done at this point.

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