Robin Williams in The Birdcage, one of my favorites.
I don’t feel a need to comment at length on the events of last week. Many have already done so, and done it better than I could. But I did want to share two links that, taken together this morning, gave me a bit of hope and perspective.
The investigation began with rail and bus commuters travelling into Chicago. Dozens of them were recruited into one of three conditions – to engage in conversation with a stranger on the train, sit in solitude, or simply behave as they usually would. Afterwards they mailed back a questionnaire in which they answered questions about the experience.
The returned questionnaires showed it was those commuters who were instructed to strike up conversation with a stranger who’d had the most positive experiences (sitting in solitude was the least enjoyable, with behaving as normal scoring in between).
We tend to avoid conversation because we think the other person won’t want to engage—but the research showed that was not the case: “[Study participants] predicted that over 50 per cent of strangers would likely rebuff their attempts to talk – in fact, this didn’t occur for any of the participants who were instructed to chat to stranger in the earlier studies.”
I’m pretty introverted in public spaces. And it’s taken some time to feel OK with that. I’m a mother of three and a pastor—I engage with people a lot; I don’t need to do it everywhere. Still, I sometimes challenge myself to strike up a short conversation with a stranger, and it always feels good to do so.
We are made to connect.
The second link is this video from The Dish, called Suicide Breeds Suicide. Jennifer Michael Hecht, who wrote the book Stay: A History of Suicide and Philosophies Against It, addresses the issue of “copycat behavior” following a suicide. For example, she reports that young people whose parents commit suicide can be three times as likely to attempt suicide as a result.
I don’t like the phrase, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Robin Williams suffered from a life-long illness. His struggle, while it seemed to wax and wane at various times, was as permanent a condition as he could possibly imagine. Still, there are folks out there who believe that the world will be better off without them in it. That’s demonstrably false, according to the research about suicide contagion.
Hecht puts it like this: “If you don’t kill yourself, you are saving someone’s life. …I don’t want to dwell on the guilt of what you do if you harm yourself, I want to dwell on the wonder of how much you meant to people you don’t even know. …The one thing we need to add to that is gratitude, and I don’t mind starting it: I’m grateful. You’re my hero. Thank you for not killing yourself.”
One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers, who had experienced suicidal feelings, responded to the video:
When I was at my lowest ebb, I definitely knew that if I ended my life I would hurt others around me – my family, my friends. But in the two or so years I struggled with those feelings, I can tell you it never once occurred to me that killing myself might lead someone else to end their life. Such a thought would have been abhorrent to me, and I couldn’t help wondering after I watched Hecht’s video whether suicide prevention counsellors make that point to those at risk of harming themselves. I think if they did, some of those people would step back from the brink. It’s one thing to hurt yourself and rationalize that your pain is greater than the pain you’ll cause others through your death; it’s quite another to think you might be compelling some of those who knew you to step into that abyss themselves.
Watch the whole thing here—it’s short:
We are made to connect.
And we are made connected. There’s no avoiding it.
I’m back from Collegeville and a fruitful week of writing. I’ve now got a very (very) rough draft for book two, currently titled Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. It’s a shorter book than Sabbath in the Suburbs, and I’m still planning to publish it via e-book, though a print option will be available. I’ve been in touch with an editor and a friend who does e-book production for a living. This thing will happen.
In The Hour of Our Death (1987), Philippe Ariès argues that an “invisible death model” has dominated twentieth-century American life. In this model,
Death’s medicalization distanced the community from the dying and the deceased. Individualism ruled, nature was conquered, social solidarity waned, and not the afterworld but family ties mattered.Western society surrounded death with so much shame, discomfort, and revulsion that Gorer (1965) even spoke of a pornography of death. Death became concealed in hospitals, nursing homes, and trailer parks. Yet, the death of death remained, a fear corresponding more to people’s social than biological death.
Accompanying this dispossession of the dying person is a “denial of mourning” and the subsequent invention of new funerary rituals in the United States (Philippe Ariès, “The Reversal of Death,” Death in America, ed. Stannard , 136). Excessive displays of emotion both by the person dying and those they leave behind are considered taboo and “embarrassments.” …
What interested my students, however, was the impact of the internet on the “invisible death model.” Have we entered a new era regarding death and loss? They noticed in particular three results of the internet.
And in case you missed it, Katherine Willis Pershey also sent this along–a beautiful expression of solidarity and care for bereaved parents. Their little one spent her entire life in the NICU and they wanted to see her pretty face without the tubes. Members of the Reddit community responded:
I like the middle one, but they are all haunting. And they are all an offering to total strangers, which makes them beautiful.
John Green is like Colbert to me: someone who’s extremely good at what he does and who brings a joie de vivre to his vocation. I can’t help but root for him.
The church is awash with concern these days about the so-called “nones”: people who are not affiliated with any religion, who may (or may not) consider themselves spiritual but not religious… many of whom are in the millenial generation—aka many of John Green’s fans.
How can we “get” more young people? churchy people ask. Is there a way we can “appeal” to them? The format of the questions reveals their purpose—to find more members so that our churches won’t decline and die.
Guess what? Young people don’t care to be our institutional life insurance.
(Neither do 42 year old mothers of three, actually.)
That said, being interested in young people isn’t necessarily opportunistic. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, and young people are our neighbors. (So are old people, married people, single people, LGBT people, poor people, Muslim people…)
Jesus also calls us to serve, and that’s something that motivates millenials a great deal. (As the saying goes, they love Jesus; they don’t love the church.)
So. In the spirit of connection rather than conversion, friendship rather than membership, partnership rather than fixing, here are some things we can learn from John Green and his tremendous appeal.
He isn’t trying to “reach” young people. Green reportedly hates being called the “teen whisperer,” which is to his credit. His crazy popular vlogbrother videos were not started as some calculated attempt to build his fan base. (Well, not primarily with that purpose, though you can’t argue with success.) Rather, he and his brother Hank started them in order to play with the online video format, which was pretty new back in 2006. They created something winsome and irresistible and the fans thronged to it.
Do we in the church see millenials as a means to an end? What are we doing that is winsome and irresistible?
He takes young people seriously and learns from them.The Fault in Our Stars is filled with wickedly good dialogue, pitch-perfect one-liners and deep wisdom. Some have criticized him for this because “Teenagers don’t really talk like that.” I read somewhere that Green doesn’t try to duplicate the speech patterns of teens. He tries to write the way teens sound to themselves and one another—clever, weird, and wise, assured sometimes and sharply insecure at others. It’s like teen-speak, boiled down to its essence. You have to love and admire and understand young people to pull that off.
Also, the protagonist in The Fault in Our Stars was inspired by an actual teenager with thyroid cancer, Esther Grace Earl, whose experience helped shape the book. Four or five times a month, Green talks on the phone with kids who have cancer, sometimes through Make a Wish, sometimes not. He is also fluent in social media and engages folks on Twitter and Tumblr. And once every few months, he Skypes with teens who are struggling with serious illness.
Is your church present where young people are present, whether online or in person? Are you cultivating actual relationships with them, not so you can bestow your wisdom, but so we can all grow together?
He’s created a tribe. There are traditions and catch phrases and a shared history—not all of which were created by him. (This is important.)
Last year I checked out a John Green book from my local library and when I got it home, out fell a note that had been tucked into its pages: “Hey, nerdfighter! Don’t forget to be awesome!”
DFTBA is very big with this tribe.
And there’s a focus on giving to others. Esther Day is a holiday that Esther Earl asked people to observe on her birthday. According to the New Yorker, “Her idea was that it could become a celebration of non-romantic love—a day when you’d say ‘I love you’ to people who don’t often hear it from you.” And check out the Project for Awesome that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for worthy causes.
How does Christianity help people (of all ages) become a part of something larger than themselves? (Hint: as the Project for Awesome demonstrates, they don’t need us in order to feel this. Still, what is our distinctive gift in the midst of the broader culture?) And are people encouraged to bring their own energy and ideas to the table, or are we the keepers of our traditions and norms?
He’s a learner. Check out his Crash Course videos. In these, he (and Hank) are teachers, but he comes at his topics with the posture of a student. And my kids love his Mental Floss videos in which he tests out various lifehacks:
Do we have all the answers, or are we willing to learn?
He employs humor with substance. From the New Yorker profile: “In a post advising boys on how to charm a girl, John jokingly said, ‘Become a puppy. A kitten would also be acceptable or, possibly, a sneezy panda’—an allusion to a popular clip on YouTube. But he also said, ‘If you can, see girls as, like, people, instead of pathways to kissing and/or salvation.’”
As communities of faith, do we offer meaning and substance… while taking ourselves lightly?
He loves the grand gesture. Again, the New Yorker: “Many authors do pre-publication publicity, but Green did extra credit: he signed the entire first printing—a hundred and fifty thousand copies—which took ten weeks and necessitated physical therapy for his shoulder.”
Which leads to my final question for the church: When’s the last time you undertook an extravagant gesture for the sake of this world God loves?
Happy Friday, everyone. What do you have planned this weekend? May you find a little space for things that are bubbly and fun, nourishing and vital. We will be celebrating the 90th birthday of Robert’s grandmother. Joy!
My colleague late at night, a year or two older, was Bill Lyon, who covered Champaign High School sports and became a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. … Bill and I would labor deep into the night on Fridays, composing our portraits of the [football] games. I was a subscriber to the Great Lead Theory, which teaches that a story must have an opening paragraph so powerful as to leave few readers still standing. … Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: ‘One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?’ These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.
More at the link, including excerpts from his memoir and his TED talk.
H/t to my friend LeAnn Hodges. I didn’t see the Louisville/Duke game, but yikes. Yet horrific events can bring out the best in people:
[Ware's teammate] Hancock thought back to last summer, when he suffered a gruesome shoulder injury in a pickup game. He remembered how others were aghast. He remembered how former Louisville guard Andre McGee was the only one to rush to his side, to rush him to the hospital. He remembered how much that had meant.
So as Ware lay there in the first half of the Cardinals’ NCAA tournament victory over Duke on Sunday, scared and alone and stunned, Hancock ran to him. He held Ware’s hand and told him they would get through this together. He told Ware he would say a prayer for him.
Ware didn’t respond at first, because he was in shock. Hancock took a deep breath, closed his eyes, clenched Ware’s hand and started the prayer.
…You can’t fault the other players for their initial reaction to such a macabre moment. But you can praise Hancock, and you should.
I especially like the responses from Karen Armstrong and Alain de Botton (not too surprisingly—he’s a Blue Room mainstay). Here’s de Botton:
For centuries in the west, there was a figure in society who fulfilled a function that is likely to sound very odd to secular ears. The priest didn’t fulfil any material need; he was there to take care of that part of you called, rather unusually, “the soul”, by which we would understand the seat of our emotions and of our deep self.
Where have our soul-related needs gone? What are we doing with the material we used to go to a priest for? The deep self has naturally not given up its complexities and vulnerabilities simply because some scientific inaccuracies have been found in the tales of the five loaves and two fishes.
The loaves and fishes story is a tale that resonates beyond matters of science, but I take his point.
Young children—even toddlers—are spending more and more time with digital technology. What will it mean for their development?
Long but excellent rumination on parents’ ambivalence about their kids’ use of technology:
By their pinched reactions [to questions about how much screen time their kids have], these parents illuminated for me the neurosis of our age: as technology becomes ubiquitous in our lives, American parents are becoming more, not less, wary of what it might be doing to their children. Technological competence and sophistication have not, for parents, translated into comfort and ease. They have merely created yet another sphere that parents feel they have to navigate in exactly the right way. On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them. Parents end up treating tablets like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help him win some nifty robotics competition—but only if they are used just so. Otherwise, their child could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can’t make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend.
And on the other end of the spectrum of childhood… college students:
“I occasionally see students using their phones during yoga or pilates, which makes me a bit sad,” Determann said. “If you can’t be unplugged for 45 or 60 minutes, that’s a bit concerning, in my opinion. I know that this has just become the way we, as a society operate, but the world will go on without you checking your notifications.”
A critique against drones from a Christian perspective:
Our use of drones is only defensible on “Just War Theory” grounds, if we are able to demonstrate an immediate threat to this country that is specific and specifically premeditated with a specific objective. Unfortunately, the current administration, with its complex entanglements of secrecy and formal denials, has not been able to explain or demonstrate an immediate threat.
Our use of drones are out of “proportion” because it uses the most advanced technology in the world to assassinate people who can basically only throw the equivalent of sticks and stones back at you. Moreover, it gives these people no chance to surrender. It is like capital punishment without an arrest, a charge, a trial, or a right of appeal.
Our use of drones is not humane, because it totally objectifies the enemy by making them into a picture on a screen. There is not the faintest possibility, in the conduct of drone warfare by means of remote control, that you can regard the enemy as a fellow human citizen of the planet.
Longish article about a new book, Give and Take, and its author, professor Adam Grant who, and I say this in a nice way, sounds like a freak. You might describe him as… radically generous with his time—he answers every email request for help, he spends hours mentoring students, etc. But all of this giving comes back to him in very interesting, even powerful, ways. “The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”
“Give and Take” incorporates scores of studies and personal case histories that suggest the benefits of an attitude of extreme giving at work. Many of the examples — the selfless C.E.O.’s, the consultants who mentor ceaselessly — are inspiring and humbling, even if they are a bit intimidating in their natural expansiveness. These generous professionals look at the world the way Grant does: an in-box filled with requests is not a task to be dispensed with perfunctorily (or worse, avoided); it’s an opportunity to help people, and therefore it’s an opportunity to feel good about yourself and your work. “I never get much done when I frame the 300 e-mails as ‘answering e-mails,’ ” Grant told me. “I have to look at it as, How is this task going to benefit the recipient?” Where other people see hassle, he sees bargains, a little work for a lot of gain, including his own.
There’s something wonderful about seeing the world in this way rather than the calculating tit-for-tat manner we are often trained to employ with one another. But I spent most of the article assuming he must be single, because what family could put up with someone who lives this way? Turns out he has a wife who stays home to take care of the kids. Which hey, more power to them. But it does color things somewhat, eh?
At any rate, I’m interested in the research on this topic. It seems like Grant’s outlook requires you to see time as an abundant resource, which I don’t. As I write in the book, I’m much more comfortable with the idea of holy scarcity. There isn’t enough time for everything we want or need to do. So how do we move as creatively through our days as possible?
Speaking of which… may you shimmy and tango through your weekend and all of its work, play, errands, and maybe, a few surprises. Peace.
Some years ago a Twitter acquaintance went through a terrible crisis. I followed the sad progression of events and grieved the person’s loss even though I had never met anyone involved. On one level, this is a beautiful thing: community that transcends the traditional boundaries. On another level, it left me depleted, and for no good purpose. There was nothing I could “do.” Compassion fatigue is very real, and in the digital age, its effects are compounded by being connected to more people than ever before.
Last week at CREDO we talked about emotional labor. Emotional labor is the work involved in responding appropriately to different emotionally fraught situations. Many professions involve heavy doses of emotional labor—ministry is one of them. We might go from leading a staff meeting, to celebrating a job promotion on the phone with a parishioner, to navigating a conflict with a co-worker, to visiting a dying person in the hospital, to teaching a group of 6th graders at the mid-week children’s program. And that’s before we get home and have another set of emotional issues to respond to among our families and friends. Lots of stops and starts. Lots of switching gears.
It can be tiring.
Emotional labor was fleshed out by Arlie Russell Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart, which looked at flight attendants and the ways they must put on a persona in order to respond to airplane passengers. During the presentation, we received an article by Barbara Brown Taylor for the Christian Century some 14 years ago. From BBT’s article:
Emotional labor must not show, however. If the flight attendant feels tired and irritable, this must be disguised. If a passenger turns hostile, the flight attendance is taught to reconceive that person as a fearful flyer or a little child—anything that will help the attendant overlook the rude behavior and relate sympathetically to the passenger. The point of all these “feeling rules” is to win the customer’s repeat business. …
Hochschild found that most flight attendants cope by learning a form of “deep acting” that helps them produce the desired feelings in themselves. They learn other strategies for repressing negative feelings so that they do no erupt on the job. After awhile, many say they have a hard time recovering their true feelings once their shifts are over. They begin to lose track of when they are acting and when they are not. Eventually they become aware that the hidden cost of managing their emotions is the impoverishment of their emotional lives. They have sold their hearts, and do not know how to buy them back.
What happens at CREDO stays at CREDO—-there’s a confidentiality I won’t breach. Suffice to say there were many lightbulbs during this presentation, and also many tears throughout the week as these good clergyfolk got in touch with some deep wells of emotion, wells they may have thought were capped and done with.
Since returning from CREDO I have been monitoring my own responses and reactions as I go throughout my day, and I had an epiphany in the grocery store. While waiting in a long line I did what many of us do, which is fiddle with my phone. I saw something on Facebook that took my breath away: a picture of a child I care about very much, who is going through leukemia treatment. I saw her hairless head and her bright smile as she beamed at the camera. I saw her beads of courage, ropes and ropes of them around her neck. I read the accompanying message. She is a warrior. But she is a small child. And no child should have to fight in any war, even (and perhaps especially) a war against cancer.
I wanted to cry for her, and I could have cried for her, even in the checkout line. But I did not. I checked myself… but this time, I was aware of checking myself.
Like many people, I have long wondered about (and written about) the impact technology has on our attention spans and our ability to be present in the moment. This is something I struggle with, and strive to put boundaries around (grocery store checkout lines notwithstanding). But I saw another way that our constant access to technology can harm us: sometimes we are not in a place to respond emotionally to the images we see, so those emotions get suppressed. That can hurt us in the long run.
It’s an irony—we praise technology (often rightly) for the ways it connects us, but we become disconnected from ourselves in the process. We have sold our hearts—how do we go about buying them back?