Discussion of the HBO special “Talking Funny” with Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Louis CK. Interesting connections between their process and other creative processes. Plus there’s a link to the special, available in four parts on YouTube.
I first read this as “natural family planning,” for which the jokes write themselves. But this is a Getting Things Done post about how to apply the principles of GTD to one’s home/family life, not just work life. The more I get into GTD the more I realize it is really a process of discernment at its core.
In all our talk about being missional and the church not existing for its own sake, we can get out of whack as we fail to nurture our own spiritual lives. The Benedictine Rule can show us how to find balance and faithfulness between inward journey and outward service.
Sometimes I think I’d like to write a book about the impact of technology on our spiritual lives. We have books about the psychologicaleffects, but no book (that I know of—please correct me, for the sake of my workload) that looks at technology from the spiritual perspective and considers the negative AND the positive in a very deep and significant way.
Earlier today a friend sent a message on Facebook, expressing sympathy over the death of our Fat Kitty. I appreciate her being in touch, and I know she went through the same experience last year, so her message has special resonance. She’s a good friend, not just on FB but in my physical world. At the same time, there were so many kind messages last week that I wasn’t “keeping track” of who had and hadn’t commented. I was cared for in the immediate aftermath of losing our cat, just not by her specifically in that moment.
Same with birthdays—I received dozens of Happy Birthday messages on my birthday. I read each and every one of them and they made me smile. Together they became a significant source of happiness on that day. But I would not have been able to tell you who did and did not wish me a happy birthday.
I think we all kinda get this. Unless I am moved to write something really creative for someone’s birthday—and maybe even then—my greetings just blend into the happy din of well-wishes. And if I blow off the birthday thing altogether, few people would notice my specific absence. But what if everyone blew it off? There’s a sense of social compact there. I’m thinking about herd immunity—the idea that vulnerable folks are protected from infectious diseases by virtue of the vaccinated people around them. Herd immunity depends on people “following the rules” and participating in the system. But there’s a sense in which each person’s small act adds up to something that’s good for the whole.
I see two sides of this. On the one hand, I’m certainly not arguing that Facebook is better than, or a substitute for, physical relationship. (When I say physical I don’t mean sexual—I mean physical in the sense of involving our bodies: ears and voices in conversation, eyes and faces in our reactions, our taste buds in sharing a meal together, our hands as we touch and hug one another.) For birthdays I’m a big fan of greeting cards and try to send them to my nearest and dearest—Facebook is no substitute for that, nor for a phone call, a gift, or time with the person. So the Facebook greetings become problematic when we think that’s somehow sufficient to create really deep bonds of caring.
(There’s also the matter of the freeloaders! These folks never comment on people’s birthdays, yet they get to bask in the love as people express appreciation for their Facebook tribe. )
On the other hand, the birthday greeting I leave on Facebook comes with no ulterior motive, because I don’t get anything out of it. I just get to be one tiny part of the love bomb—not its instigator, nor its leading lady. For the martyrs and the showoffs among us, this is a good practice of humility. It’s not a self-aggrandizing act that announces to the world Look what a good friend I am! (I mean geez, the site reminds you.) It’s just a small act of kindness that, when combined with everyone else’s act of kindness, makes a person happy. And there’s something lovely about that from the perspective of creating community in humble ways.
I’ve been reading some discussion regarding this article by G. Jeffrey McDonald. McDonald laments the way that Lent is frequently observed within American Christianity and says:
We’re remaking [Lent] as a type of spiritual self-help whose effectiveness is measured by how well it entertains us and affirms what we already believe. Since Americans love parties and hate to do without, Christianity is evolving to deliver. The diminution of Lenten practices illustrates the trend and highlights what’s lost when religion becomes a consumer commodity.
I don’t deny elements of truth in what McDonald is saying. In fact the article strikes me as a very satisfying read for us church leaders, what with its hand-wringing, self-righteous tut-tuts and in-crowd high-fives.
It bugs me to tears, actually.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Consumerist Christianity is a big issue. And certainly the church has a prophetic duty to call people to deeper authenticity and radical discipleship. But this article smacks of caricature. McDonald characterizes Lent as a “joke” based on one comment from a friend. And “sumptuous” fish dinners on Fridays? This is the normative American Christian experience?
This kind of “you’re doing it wrong” carping is not productive. All of this reminds me of the discussion we had on this blog back in December about singing Christmas carols in the church during (gasp!) the season of Advent. I argued back then that maybe, just maybe, some people feel drawn to the music of Christmas during December not because they are worshiping the gods of Best Buy and Wal*Mart, but because they desperately need to immerse themselves in a message of Joy Right Now, to soak it up, because the world is a pretty dark place. Can we treat people like grownups and say that perhaps they have a good sense of what their hearts and spirits need without us telling them?
Why don’t we spend our time helping people connect their Lenten practices, whatever they might be, to the presence of the living God, rather than diagnosing those practices as inadequate? I know a woman who committed to run each day during Lent. I guess I can chide her for disrespecting Lent as a season for “spiritual self-help”… or I can help her make the connection between that practice and stewardship of the body, which Paul calls the temple of God. Heck, daily physical exercise sounds like a struggle to beat the sin of sloth, which last I checked was one of the seven deadlies! What could be more Lenten than that?
(BTW, this is part of the tension within the Sabbath stuff. Lots of people take time off for R&R and don’t call it Sabbath. Good for them. So my job isn’t to say “Well unless it’s got the Sabbath imprimatur, it’s only second best.” Instead, maybe I help them see ways that their practice of rest and play doesn’t just recharge the batteries, but connects them to a deep wellspring of joy and grace that [I believe] is a gift of the Holy.)
I appreciate these twoposts on the Christian Century blog, both of which bring some much-needed nuance to the topic. I found the latter especially on point:
Is “true deprivation” really the point of fasting, or is true fasting measured by the extent to which it turns us toward God? Deprivation for deprivation’s sake could easily become competitive or self-aggrandizing. Biblical writers frequently make the point that God isn’t interested in displays of piety but in justice and love.
I was recently sent a copy of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. I think I’m supposed to disclose that fact, although his book has been on my wish list for some time now. I’m glad the book found its way to me. Christian spirituality is a crowded field and this one is well worth picking up.
The title gives you a good sense as to where he’s going. Wilson-Hartgrove takes on the grass-is-greener mentality that so many of us have—the tendency toward upward mobility (or just mobility). He critiques the idea of a spiritual journey, which is such a central metaphor in the Christian faith, and wonders whether we’ve taken this metaphor too much to heart:
The trouble for most of us isn’t so much that we cannot afford stability as it is that we don’t value it. We idealize and aspire to a life on the move, spending what resources we have on acquiring skills that make us more marketable (that is, more mobile*). We want to “move up in the world,” which almost always means closer to a highway, an airport, or a shopping mall. I cannot deny that this is why I left the rural farming community where I grew up. But neither can I ignore the fact that this is what has been unraveling the neighborhood where I now live since the late 1960s.
(*Regarding this point, I wonder how technology will change this. Could we not soon reach the point, as people gain more and more skills and value to a company or industry, that they are given the freedom to work from home and/or telecommute, thereby allowing them to stay rooted to a particular community?)
Wilson-Hartgrove tackles biblical texts, the desert fathers and mothers, and monastic tradition and blends it all together with some deft cultural analysis. I loved his discussion of the man called “Legion” whom Jesus heals—and then tells to stay put. Fascinating take on that text.
Each chapter ends with a section called “front porch” in which Wilson-Hartgrove tells a story or vignette from his own life of rootedness in a particular community, a community with its own unique quirks, needs and stories. These beautifully written segments were my favorite part of the book.
The book seems providentially timed. There are so many people who simply can’t move right now, even if they’d like to. Their home is underwater and/or they are limited by jobs or lack thereof. Wilson-Hartgrove helps us see these geographical constraints as an unexpected gift.
This business of stability is something that my husband and I have struggled with. The story of how we came to live in our particular house is not all that interesting, but the upshot is that we made a very quick decision by necessity. I had never even set foot in our house until after we already put a contract on it. We like a lot of things about our house and our neighborhood, but also feel out of step with our community’s values in certain ways. We’d like to live closer to the city, though we’re fortunate to be very convenient to a Metro stop where we are. On the other hand, it feels like a grasp towards simplicity just to decide to stay… to give up trying to manage and optimize the situation and just be content where we are.
I also think about this stability business in terms of my vocation. I’m in a group of clergy that meets yearly, and many of us have accepted new calls since we started meeting. We even experienced the uncomfortable situation of having two people in our group apply for the same position. After that experience, we met with a member of another clergy group that’s been meeting for more than 25 years. Since his group has experienced similar situations, he gave us some advice for navigating the “competition thing” and assured us that it will happen again.
I don’t doubt that, but as I looked around the room, I saw a great many folks who are embodying stability, whether by choice or not. One person is geographically limited because he is gay and very few presbyteries will receive him into membership. Another person has told me that she expects to spend the rest of her life in the small southern city where she lives, thanks to her spouse’s job and a large extended family there. Speaking for myself, it would take a burning bush to move me from the Washington DC area. I’m not sure how many of us are willing to pack it all up and move wherever the biggest and best job is—maybe there won’t be as much of the “competition thing” as we fear. Whether that’s the wisdom of stability or not, I can’t say. There’s probably some Gen-X stuff in there about working to live, as opposed to living to work—quality of life matters a lot to folks in my generation.
As you can see, I enjoyed the book and it also sparked some very specific thinking about my own life and values.
By the way, if you’re interested in this sort of book, the Englewood Review of Books is a great source for reviews, commentary and excerpts. Check them out in print or online.
I recently finished reading two books dealing with the effects of the Internet on our lives: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (the book-length offshoot of the infamous article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) and Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers. Both are well worth reading and complement each other nicely. Though there is some overlap (from Seneca to Marshall McLuhan) they really delve into different aspects of this topic.
Carr’s book is scientific in scope. He cites a dizzying number of studies to show how our brains are being affected by ever-increasing Internet use, and the data ain’t pretty. Take multitasking. At best, it is a misnomer—we don’t truly do two things at once, we switch rapidly between them, with a loss of focus and mental efficiency each time we make the switch. At worst, it is a destructive practice because it impedes our ability to think deeply and focus in a sustained way. (It was during this section of the book, as I considered the 24-hour news cycle and our easily distracted, instant-gratification culture, that I began to fret that we as a nation are becoming ungovernable.)
The most personally convicting sections of the book were his discussions of memory. The kind of reading we do online is having a negative impact on our ability to retain information. I’ve noticed this myself; I have occasionally tried to summarize an article to Robert—that I had just read—only to find that I couldn’t really remember it well. Part of this is that we’re going too fast. But Carr argues that the nature of the computer screen invites a more superficial reading. (In one study, one group of folks read an item on the computer; the other group read the exact same thing on paper. The former group scored worse on a basic comprehension test.)
I am struggling with these ideas. When I was a corporate trainer, our philosophy was not to teach adults every jot and tittle of content, but to hit the major points and then teach them the resources: where to go to find the information they needed. Of course we would do experiential learning things where appropriate, but we didn’t spend a lot of time drilling content into people’s heads. I stand by that as an approach to adult learning.
Now, the Internet has taken this mindset even farther—there’s a shift from storing things in our own brains’ memory banks to storing them on computers. This is the core of Evernote’s business—store your tidbits online, not in your brain. (Their tagline is “remember everything,” which is odd, because with Evernote, the whole point is not having to remember stuff. Their old tagline, as I recall, had something to do with letting Evernote “be your brain.” Could we already be seeing a backlash against the idea of outsourcing our mental processes, thanks to books like The Shallows? Perhaps.)
Carr also spends a lot of time on artificial intelligence, which I didn’t find particularly compelling. I think his point is that the rise of interest in artificial intelligence has led us to rely too heavily on the metaphor of the brain as a computer, and our brains are way more complex than that. Carr also has very little in the way of “now what?” He admits that he struggles with all the same stuff he writes about, but also reports that during the writing of the book he unplugged from the Internet and found his thinking slowing and deepening again over time. I don’t have a good sense of how plastic the brain truly is. Can the losses be regained? I’m not sure anyone fully knows that.
Powers’s focus was more up my alley. His focus is philosophical and historical as he examines other periods in history in which a technological leap required us to think creatively and intentionally about our interaction with the new technology. For this reason, the book is fundamentally optimistic. Did you know that new technologies have often led to cries that the world is coming to an end? And yet we are still here. I find this comforting.
Powers also seeks to provide real-life, concrete practices that can help mitigate the havoc that extended Internet use can wreak on our lives. None of these practices were particularly surprising, which is good in a way—the answers are really quite simple. I liked the fact that an Internet Sabbath was a big part of his solution—as y’all know, I’m a fan.
Carr in The Shallows wants to shake us awake to the tremendous shifts that are occurring in our brains, perhaps so we will be more intentional about the use of technology. Powers in Hamlet’s Blackberry is equally concerned about how the Internet is shaping us, but is ultimately much more reassuring.