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.
I’m working slowly and steadily on a new book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. The scope of the book is still taking shape, but I’m currently ruminating on everything from selfie culture (it’s not as terrible as you think) to cultivating a sense of mystery at a time when everything can be Googled.
One of the joys of working on a new project is having people send pertinent articles and books my way. My friend Barbara has been one of the most faithful sharers of information with me. I can’t count the number of tidbits she’s sent my way over the past year or so. But she’s been sharing them not through emailed links, or texts, or even phone calls saying, “Be sure to catch the article in the Wall Street Journal about how historians are having a hard time doing their work in the age of email.”
She’s been sending me clippings. Actual, cut-from-the newspaper clippings.
Every week or two I’ll get a letter in the mail with Barbara’s efficient script on the envelope, and a folded-up geometric wonder of newsprint or glossy magazine paper inside, often paper-clipped to a short note containing a personal update.
Clipping, note, envelope, stamp, address.
I love it.
Regular readers of this blog know that I am a power user of Evernote. I scan much of the kids’ artwork to cut down on clutter. My iPhone is my personal assistant and more. But there’s something so fantastic about holding these physical pieces of paper in my hands. I feel cared for. Barbara’s clippings, now a good-sized pile, are a tangible reminder that this project matters to someone. An emailed link, while greatly appreciated, doesn’t convey that nearly as much.
Let me spoil the ending of my book for you. I will likely land somewhere in the vicinity of “Our digital/technological culture is neither good nor bad in itself. What we need is thoughtfulness about when, where, and how much,” and hopefully offer some wisdom and tips in that discernment.
But somewhere in there, I’ll be singing the praises of clippings.
Image is from one of Barbara’s clippings, referencing Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: “people are more likely to be moved by information that challenges their prejudices if they’re prevented from responding to it straightaway and it has time to sink in, to steep. Is there enough such time these days?”
Lent begins tomorrow, and among other things, I’m experiencing the season by taking a break from blogging. But only sort of. These next several weeks I’ll be highlighting posts from the archives, sharing quotes and links that mean something to me, and maybe even posting a photo or two.
There are a number of reasons for this, one being that I’m trying to make headway on my next book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. I need to create some space and time for those words to come. So I’ll be resting in the words of others…
In this space, anyway. I’ll be writing short weekly reflections on my email list, which you can sign up for here.
I’ve written before about how judgy people can get about Lent practices that strike them as too much about self-improvement and not enough about devotion to God. I’m not interested in diagnosing whether giving up blog writing is a “good enough” discipline. It’s what I’m doing, that’s all. I feel called to it.
How about you? Will you be taking on a practice this Lent?
Turn to the person next to you and tell them one thing that brings you delight. It can’t be work-related (though I hope you are delighted by your work!), and ideally, it isn’t something that requires costly equipment or an exotic locale. This is something you can potentially do without much effort or expense.
After folks have shared with their neighbors, I suggest that their delightful activity might be a place where they’re already practicing Sabbath without calling it that.. and/or it’s an entry point to think about incorporating Sabbath into their lives. Sabbath, as Isaiah reminds us in the Old Testament, is to be kept as a delight, not a chore. The creation story in Genesis has this relentless refrain: it’s good, it’s good, it’s good. This world is good. Our bodies are good, and made for pleasure. In my own tradition, the Westminster Statement of Faith says our primary purpose is to glorify and enjoy God.
That doesn’t mean that every enjoyable activity brings us closer to the Holy, I suppose. And sometimes in my retreats and discussions, people look at me skeptically when I talk about the delight stuff. Shouldn’t we be doing “holy” things on that day? Isn’t Sabbath about prayer and Bible reading and all those religious practices? Can we really do whatever we want?
What about watching football on TV?
I’m never quite sure how to answer. For one thing, I’m not the Sabbath police.
For another thing, while I do find prayer and Bible study to be meaningful and important activities for Christians, and lovely things to do on Sabbath, I’m more of a Barbara Brown Taylor Christian, which means I do not see a big division between sacred and secular activities.
But does that mean anything can be a Sabbath activity?
[If you're not familiar with her work, the best introduction is her crazy-viral TED talk. By the way, she wants to be my big sister, doesn't she? Of course she does. She can do this, because there aren't thousands of other recovering perfectionists AND aspiring writers also clamoring to be her kid sister. No siree. Cough.]
Anyway, Brené Brown helps me answer the “football on Sabbath” question when she talks about numbing. She writes:
I believe we all numb our feelings. We may not do it compulsively or chronically, which is addiction, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t numb our sense of vulnerability. And numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating because it doesn’t just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We can’t selectively numb emotion.
There aren’t any checklists or norms to help you identify shadow comforts or other destructive numbing behavior. This requires self-examination and reflection… Are my choices comforting and nourishing my spirit, or are they temporary reprieves from vulnerability and difficult emotions that ultimately diminish my spirit?
For me, sitting down to a wonderful meal is nourishment and pleasure. Eating while I’m standing, be it in front of the refrigerator or inside the pantry, is always a red flag.Sitting down to watch one of my favorite shows on television is pleasure. Flipping through channels for an hour is numbing.
This is the key to Sabbath as well. Really, it comes down to intention. I can imagine times when watching football feels immersive and enlivening. Can such an activity also feed us spiritually? Don’t know; I don’t have the spectator sports gene myself. But I can see how getting caught up in a thrilling contest, in which athletes are performing to the best of their abilities and using their “fearfully and wonderfully made” bodies to their utmost, would be grounding and inspiring… and maybe even bring us closer to God. But I can imagine other times in which watching sports on TV feels mindless, when we watch out of habit or boredom, when we’re not really there.
What makes Facebook a challenge is that, unlike a football game, there’s no end to it. We can start out enjoying the relationships we cultivate there, but when we spend too much time scrolling through people, we start to numb out. I’m a big fan of technology, and as FB friends know, I’m a chatty FBer. I’ve also thought a lot about how to use it in a way that’s good for me. So I’ve put all kinds of boundaries around it, whether it’s using lists or only signing on a couple of times a day (and not at all on most weekends).
What do you think about this numbing stuff? Have you read Daring Greatly?
Sabbath in the Suburbs was released exactly one year ago!
Yeah… that was a party horn.
What a fun, harrowing, joyful, tense, and fascinating experience it is to write and publish a book. I’m so thankful for the folks at Chalice Press and The Young Clergy Women Project for believing in the book and supporting it.
I’m especially grateful for the cast of thousands—that’s you guys—who have supported me by reading the book… and for those who have reviewed it on Amazon (one of you as recently as this weekend), told friends about it, and shared it with book groups and Sunday School classes.
Speaking of groups…
In honor of this milestone, I’m giving away a Sabbath Book Group Study Pack to two lucky winners. This includes five signed copies of the book, a printed copy of the Sabbath Supplementals discussion materials, and hi-def versions of the five Sabbath videos on flash drive. I’ll also throw in a couple of fun extras to help your group have a great time together.
(But wait, some of you may say. I’m not connected to a church or group! That’s cool. In fact, many of the book’s fans are non-religious or otherwise unaffiliated. If you win, I’ll send you the five books for you to give to friends or distribute as you wish. And you’ll still get the fun mystery extras.)