the Philistines are coming!

H sent me this post satirizing a recent article/wedding announcement in the New York Times. H found it amusing because the couple reminded her of the two us. I have to admit there are a few points of comparison. Okay, quite a few: I study theology, read P.G. Wodehouse, watch British tv shows, get in car accidents, cried at my wedding, and bake biscuits. Okay, okay, there are even more, but enough about me.

Perhaps due to these points of solidarity with the newlyweds, I thought the post nasty and mean. And then I read the comments (I know, my mistake).

I’m not sure why so many people are so eager to spew loathing and contempt at other people on the internet. Have we narrowed our emotions down to the narrow spectrum between ironic disdain and outrage? Why does an article about two people living happy and idiosyncratic lives arouse such disdain (and misogyny, and homophobia, and anti-intellectualism, and religious bigotry)?

I couldn’t resist posting a comment on the site:

Pile on, everybody, pile on. Sneering at other people’s naivete is a classic schoolyard pastime, but it doesn’t mean you’re clever. This post (and its comments) are saturated with envy and insecurity disguised as contempt. These two newlyweds sound like relatively thoughtful and kind people. Yes, they are naive and privileged, perhaps even. . .hipster (gasp). Yes, it is unfortunate that someone in the family thought it necessary to idealize their lives in the New York Times. Maybe they are pretentious snobs who disdain us all – I honestly can’t say for sure just by reading an article about them. Or maybe in a couple of years they will look back on this NYT article and laugh – or cringe – at the way they are portrayed. But I don’t see how they deserve contempt, or how public loathing of them makes the world a better place or makes anyone a better person.

Not my best work, but it was getting late and I was reacting out of emotion. So far my comment has been voted down (last time I checked it had a negative 4 rating, while the most popular comments had over 100+). Two or three other commenters have made comments similar to mine and have also been voted down. Another commenter even claims to know the guy and says he’s a “nice guy,” but has no criticism to make of the post or the other comments.

No one likes a scold, especially on a site devoted to facetious commentary for entertainment, but this post and its comments reminded me of some of the reasons I am so pessimistic about our culture.

Let us take a moment to objectively note why this couple are being ridiculed and despised:

Among the reasons the writer despises this couple:

he likes to sing out loud (opera?)
he wears hats, bow-ties, three piece suits, and orange shoelaces in fancy shoes
he studies theology
he has intellectual conversations with friends
she is introverted and he likes that about her
they like Ella Fitzgerald’s music
she wanted to read the Bible at an early age
he likes to make puns
they shop at Trader Joe’s
he listens to cds and reads magazine articles and likes to share them with others
he likes to bake biscuits
he had a minior car accident while they were dating
they watch British tv shows on PBS
they like to read aloud to each other
they like P.G. Wodehous books (highly recommended, by the way)
they like to go on picnics and boat rides
they tried to show restraint in physical intimacy in the early stages of their relationship
he said she was his best friend
he can cook, analyze medieval texts, and dance (and she likes this about him)
he proposed in a candelit chapel
they had a long Roman Catholic wedding with carefully chosen music
he cried at their wedding (particularly during the music)

some things the writer uncharitably attributes to the couple based on inference and stereotypes:

he is obsessed with the Sound of Music and his Von Trapp family heritage
he has too much energy (not sure what this means)
he wears flashy socks to get attention
in fact, everything he does is designed to draw attention to himself
he is rich (okay, probably a good guess)
he is purposefully pretentious
he has a lot of friends who sing in acapella groups (who cares?)
she goes by her middle name because she loves Jane Austen
they are pompous hipster trying to be unique
they tried to convince people they were the cutest couple ever
they tried to include trendy things in the NYT article
he is a bad driver
they watch British shows because the accents make them feel sophisticated
they drink kombucha and sing show tunes together
he is bad at sports (who cares?)
he is not really attracted to her (didn’t really want to kiss her)
he is emotionally unstable
they spent their honeymoon watching Wes Anderson films

(and again, who cares?)

To the above the list, here are some samples of attributes the commenters add:

he is gay and she is his “beard”
his father is ashamed of him
they are deliberately crafting and maintaining personas for public consumption
they are insecure narcissists trying to impress other people
their marriage has not been consummated

and the commenters hope (in some very popular comments):

that the couple gets hit by a car
or develop a meth addiction
or that one of them will murder the other

So, what’s so bad about this reaction?

Well, for one thing, when did it become culturally acceptable to indulge ourselves in petty hatreds? I realize that is one way to assert one’s identity in a world that makes one feel small and insignificant, but it’s bad for the soul. I’m troubled by a culture that makes pet peeves a badge of honor, as if only a lofty and intelligent person can afford to have them. The meanest, most ignorant, and most boring person in the world can curate a long list of pet peeves, but it won’t make them less mean, less ignorant, or less boring.

But something beyond mere mean-spiritedness seems to be at work here.

The writer and the commenters on this post take it as a given that these two people are poseurs because of what they like to do, the cultural genres and artifacts they enjoy, the way they like to dress, and the way they talk and think. Though all of these behaviors are harmless, they apparently are just a little bit too eccentric to be tolerated.

When I was growing up (generation x), my classmates and I were encouraged to explore our own interests and be our own people. Individuality and idiosyncrasy were signs of a good mind and an adventurous spirit. Now, in an age of ostensibly ever greater freedom, the social pressure to conform seems to have become more aggressive. If every expression of true individuality is presumed to be a cultivated posture of arrogance and self-aggrandizement, then the pursuit of meaningful and creative self-expression itself has become stigmatized.

What’s going on here? Is it that certain people lacking in imagination (or an inner life) have decided that anyone interested in something they can’t appreciate is an arrogant show-off? It would seem that way. I think we are witnessing the rise of a new philistinism, a boorish anti-intellectualism made more virulent through the collectivizing power of social media.

You used to have to do something egregious to get widely shamed in public. Now baking biscuits will suffice. I have been warned.

Posted in Contemporaneity

Minimalism and Refugees

My wife (H) forwarded me a link to this piece from The Atlantic. It’s worth reading.

The author, Arielle Bernstein, criticizes the minimalist trend as an unconscious expression of economic and cultural privilege. She uses Marie Kondo’s book The Magic Art of Tidying Up to make her point.

H referred me to this opinion piece because of I’ve enjoyed reading Kondo’s books recently. I’ve even started implementing her ideas on a small scale in our home.

The implicit thesis of Bernstein’s critique is unarguable: the nature of our relationships with our possessions is highly dependent upon our context and experiences. From this self-evident principle she derives her conclusion: minimalism is not for everyone, particularly not for the poor or the displaced.

I suspect Kondo would agree, although there is never any occasion in her book to discuss the plight of the poor and displaced. Kondo is, after all, a tidying consultant working in Tokyo for those who can afford to pay her. Her book is unapologetically focused on the nuances of her own particular context and experience. She consistently references Japanese practices and viewpoints, and the English translations of her books offer only brief explanations for non-Japanese readers. She (or her English-speaking editors/translators) must have believed that her books would lose something if their particular cultural origin were obscured. And they were clearly correct, as her entire approach presumes tenets of Japanese religious and aesthetic philosophy.

Furthermore, read in the American context and in English translation, Kondo’s books are quite idiosyncratic (her first book especially). Kondo’s authorial voice is personal, with examples from her own life, even unflattering references to events from her childhood and adolescence. She openly expresses her insecurities, mistakes, and quirks. Although she offers strong and opinionated advice, she is more like a giddy convert than a self-satisifed guru. At least for me, her endearingly unguarded subjectivity sets her book apart from much minimalist literature.

Moreover, this subjective orientation is built into her “tidying” philosophy: “A person’s awareness and perspective on his or her own lifestyle are far more important than any skill at sorting, storing, or whatever. Order is dependent upon on the extremely personal values of what a person wants to live with.” (The Magic Art of Tidying Up)

The crucial task in Kondo’s tidying method is learning to assess what one truly loves and needs. These are the things that “spark joy.” So she is not necessarily advocating minimalism; the virtues she praises are mindfulness and orderliness and self-knowledge.

Bernstein calls this “cold” and “judgmental,” but these seem like attitudes she is reading into Kondo’s books. Kondo is hardly a tidying colonialist bent on tidying up your home whether or not you want it tidied. Her books are not polemics against untidy people; she addresses them to people who already wish to declutter and tidy their homes. She is not “cold” and indifferent to possessions, as Bernstein’s mother seems to think; quite the opposite, in fact. Her animistic worldview ascribes feelings to objects of all kinds. She cautions against tying socks in knots because it makes them feel uncomfortable. She advises her readers to thank possessions before discarding them.

Bernstein seems to want to argue that her own nostalgia and guilt — and the urge to hoard born of her family’s past experience of deprivation — somehow invalidate or put to shame Kondo’s approach to tidying. She does not want to give up the college textbooks she never remembered to return. Kondo’s response can be found in her first book: “If you can say without a doubt, ‘I really like this!’ no matter what anyone else says, and if you like yourself for having it, then ignore what other people think.” It would seem Bernstein’s nemesis is not Kondo, but herself.

In the end, Bernstein’s entire critique seems a bit disingenuous. One can hardly fault Kondo for failing to contextualize her message to the refugee crisis or to the plight of the poor. And I cannot find any meaningful relationship between fashionable minimalism and the plight of immigrants, unless Bernstein is implying that minimalism is just the flip-side of consumerism? That would be an interesting argument, but Bernstein does not make it.

She does raise the issue of social class and economic insecurity by pointing out that de-cluttering is an act of privilege. Clearly, it is a privilege to have the clutter, and it is a privilege to be able to get rid of it without fear (confident you can always acquire more later).

And it is fair to say that many minimalists fail to recognize or acknowledge their privilege. A telling instance from minimalist literature: one author recommends eliminating the need for most cooking supplies and extra dishes and dining furniture by adopting the practice of going out to eat with friends rather than entertaining at home. She seems unaware that dining out is a rare luxury for many people.

Yet minimalism is not necessarily oblivious to issues of class. In fact, some minimalists may choose the path out of a sense of solidarity with the poor or a sense of ecological responsibility. Such a lifestyle may still be a privileged choice simply because it is a choice, and almost any choice can be an act of privilege in a world where so many lack meaningful control over their own circumstances. I don’t see how this absolves the privileged of the responsibility to make good choices, though.

Considering minimalism in the light of poverty does raise a very interesting question, however, one that I am not qualified to answer but can’t help pondering. I wonder whether most people in the United States have access to enough stuff that even the poor might benefit from exposure to the minimalist message? The excess of “stuff” in our society may mean that everyone but the poorest of the poor are able to acquire more “stuff” than they really need (though maybe not all of the right stuff that they really need). The image of working class families standing in queues early on Black Friday comes to mind.

Perhaps the looming question is whether we should rethink our notion of poverty; perhaps it is more than a lack of “stuff.” I can’t speak from personal experience on this issue, so perhaps I should not speak at all. But it would seem that poverty in the United States is more often a lack of basic resources and choices than a lack of stuff. A person can own a great deal and still be very poor, and perhaps some possessions can even exacerbate poverty with hidden emotional, economic, or relational tolls (I am thinking of TVs and smartphones and game consoles). The most devastating deprivations the majority of the American poor experience are the lack of adequate shelter, health care, education, safety, healthy food, social capital, community, leisure, space, privacy, quiet, and self-respect. Isn’t it the lack of these things, and not the lack of “stuff,” that makes one a refugee?

P.S. I have no intention of downplaying the plight of refugees. No one can deny this tragedy. Nor can we ignore the fundamental importance of basic human needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. Anything that fulfills a human need for food, clothing, and shelter is not “stuff” because its value is intrinsic. Those who lack these things are more than poor; they are destitute.
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Posted in Contemporaneity

I believe. . .

Once you decide the most important thing is to be understood, you’re committed to a lifetime of explaining yourself. If your goal is to be admired, you’re likely to harvest fearful insincerity. But if you admit that the one essential thing is to be loved unconditionally, you will find such love when you need it most.

Posted in Contemporaneity

Smart Phones Revisited

Someone pointed out to me that my last post (on smart phones) might be hurtful to the smart phone users in my life. If you are one of these folks, please know that I’m not thinking of you in particular. I wasn’t trying to score points off a particular person; I just happen to think that smart phones are easily (and often) misused.

This response raises a larger issue for me, though. I want to go on the record saying that this blog serves as a way of floating ideas. I am not a prophet hurling oracular wisdom from on high. Some of what I write may be fanciful or tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes I write something just because I think someone should say it – maybe someone (not everyone, I presume) needs to hear it.

In this case, I knew some might see my post as histrionic – but a quick search told me that relatively few people are making this point online, and I doubt that is because it’s too histrionic.

I am honestly concerned that we live in a culture at once obsessed with choice and spiritually incapacitated by it. We are so obsessed with which smart phone we should buy that we skip the bigger question – whether we should buy any smart phone at all. The same could be said about many other kinds of technology, from cars to air conditioners to juicing machines. Meanwhile, those suspicious of technology are patronizingly dismissed as regressive and rigid, as if techno-skepticism were a form of anti-intellectualism or religious fanaticism.

But I am not afraid of new ideas. What I’m afraid of are new addictions, new obligations, new overwhelming choices that offer me the illusion of freedom at the expense of spiritual well-being.

Personal experience has taught me that I am not as capable of managing my time, energy, and money as well as I would like to think I am. If I buy a bag of Oreos, I will eat too many at once. If I own a smart phone, I will fiddle hours away with the thing. And don’t think the makers of Oreos and smart phone data plans aren’t aware of this — they’re counting on it! They know the more decisions we have to make, the harder it becomes to make good decisions; they know the more self-control we have to exercise, the more likely we will eventually give-in. What they offer us is the illusion of choice, trusting our human nature to lead us back to the same bad choices again and again.

More choices and less decision-making capacity? Professor Barry Schwartz conclusively demonstrates this counter-intuitive situation in his book The Paradox of Choice.

Perhaps May Sarton was concerned about this back in the 1970s when she was writing Journal of a Solitude: “It is an age where more and more human beings are caught up in lives where fewer and fewer inward decisions can be made, where fewer real choices exist.”

She must have meant that fewer truly meaningful options were being recognized as viable. It is an immense irony that in a time when consumer choices are increasing exponentially so many people (and I am one of these folks) feel incapable of making inward decisions of real consequence. We are so addled by trivial possibilities that we cannot clearly see a path towards genuine transformation.

So if the idea that your smart phone is acting as your pacifier insults you, allow me to reassure you that my post is less about smart phones in particular than it is about our larger cultural situation. Our minds and spirits are as cluttered as our homes, and spring cleaning hasn’t seemed to solve the problem this year.

Posted in Contemporaneity

Stop sucking on your smart phone and look me in the eye

Please forgive me for what I am about to write. If you detect any self-righteousness, any fear or self-aggrandizement, please pardon me; but read on with a clear mind and an open heart, because I really believe this:

Smart phones are adult pacifiers, designed to palliate our loneliness and the fear of loneliness. The little plastic object provides no true sustenance, no matter how long one sucks at it for an elusive taste of intimacy and belonging. But the motion itself soothes; the little surrogate nipple is always waiting, warm and available in the pocket, purse, or hand.

Sixty years ago, Raymond Chandler had already pegged the smart phone’s distant ancestor, the rotary telephone:

“There is something compulsive about a telephone. The gadget-ridden man of our age loves it, loathes it, and is afraid of it. But he always treats it with respect, even when he is drunk. The telephone is a fetish.” (The Long Goodbye)

Well, the smart phone is more than a fetish, now; it is an essential coping device for this time and place. Without it we might have to be alone with our thoughts once in a while. We might have to acknowledge our confusion and awkwardness, our regrets and our fears – if only to ourselves, if only once in a while.

Fortunately, no matter how inadequate this society makes your poor soul feel – and who doesn’t have moments these days when they feel less savory than a fleck of dried vomit on a rat’s mouth? – no matter, you are certainly adequate enough to suck upon your smart phone until the nasty thoughts go away.

But the nasty thoughts never really go away. When successfully ignored, they go underneath and corrode the roots of our well-being.

Mindfulness, according to Ch’an (Zen), is to be grounded (or centered) in one’s physical body and in the present moment.

The opposite of mindfulness is to lose oneself in the dispersion of discursive thoughts, one app after the other, from email to facebook to the tumblr with the grumpy cat to spotify and over to pinterest and then to yelp and then to flixter and sync it all up with google plus before you upload the photos into picasa and then check facebook again then act like you don’t care about twitter as you scroll down to see if anyone has retweeted that funny thing you said about grumpy cat.

Boredom and sadness and even self-hatred are not the true enemies of our well-being.

Every moment passed in dispersion is a moment un-lived, a dead moment.

Any tool of dispersion is a tool of our destruction.

Posted in Contemporaneity

Why I might be an Episcopalian

While meditating tonight I found myself thinking (oops) about how for the last decade or so I have been drawn at times to both Quakerism and Catholicism. Then I realized (oops) that is why I have felt so at home as an Anglican. The Anglicans have always claimed to practice a via media, and I guess I am truly experiencing the tradition in that way now.

To break down what I mean I’ll indulge in some gross oversimplification, and will probably offend both my Roman Catholic and my Quaker friends. Here goes.

Quakerism, it seems to me, is the purest expression of Protestantism. The Quakers stripped Christian doctrine and ritual down to about as bare as you can get it and still have Christianity. Now, some other sects have done similar things, and some forms of Quakerism have pulled a lot more doctrine and ritual back into the meeting house, but I think the tradition as a whole stands as a reasonable marker for radical Protestantism.

Roman Catholicism, I argue, is one of the purest (if purest is the right word) expressions of traditionalism. I suppose Eastern Orthodoxy might have a greater claim to this distinction, but Catholicism is the Western expression of old guard Christianity. As a person of Western European descent, if I was still worshipping in the “Church” of my most ancient Christian ancestors I would be Roman Catholic.

Now, what am I really getting at with these stereotypes? These two traditions represent some key tensions I’ve found within myself as I’ve tried to appropriate Christianity as an adult. To me, Quakerism seems to embody a Christianity that emphasizes simplicity and freedom, while Roman Catholicism embodies a Christianity that emphasizes aesthetics and tradition. These are attributes I value very much which often seem (in practice) to be mutually exclusive.

What I appreciate about Anglicanism (and, I’ll be honest, I really mean Episcopalianism) is that it quite consciously and purposefully makes room for both ritual and religious freedom. I have not fully embraced Quakerism because a part of me loves ritual and tradition. I have not fully embraced Catholicism because it smacks of rigid authoritarianism. I have friends whom I deeply respect who converted as adults to Catholicism, and equally respected friends (no pun intended) who became Quakers. It has often seemed to me that, if I was an intellectual purist, I should have chosen one or the other by now. Yet I am most loyal not to my thoughts but to my intuitions, and so far my intuition has told against both of these paths as my path.

So now, on the verge of middle-age, I am toying with embracing a tradition (Episcopalianism) not because it does anything particularly well, but because it does several contradictory things astonishingly adequately. And I’m okay with that.

* I know that there are expressions of both Quakerism and Catholicism that emphasize the values that I’ve categorized as belonging to the other, but the idiosyncratic ‘mavericky’ folks in any tradition are inevitably the ones who always suffer when people start generalizing. (And the fact that some of these folks would never admit to being idiosyncratic or ‘mavericky’ doesn’t mean anything at all. They often have to claim that they are squarely in the center of their tradition just to survive.) Truthfully, I’ve never been either Quaker or Catholic, never regularly participated in a congregation of either tradition. Basically, despite a Christian seminary degree, I’m pretty ill-qualified to have an opinion about either of these great Christian traditions. The reason I bring them up at all is that they both have functioned as place-markers for me – symbolic representatives of certain combinations of attributes that both attract and repel me. And, after all, this blog is really more a form of therapy than communication. Apologies to my misguided readership.

Posted in Contemporaneity | 2 Comments

The Christian Myth (Story)

Look, I do know our Story. Or at least I thought I did. Yet my reading of the Church Fathers over the last couple of years had led me to a clearer and more simplistic understanding of the story of God and man. God created man out of love, we rebelled and ate of the forbidden fruit and so to keep us from the Tree of Eternal Life we were cast East of Eden into a broken world in which death had the final victory. The gate to Paradise was barred to us. God sent us the Patriarchs and the Prophets to guide us back but we would not listen and death still had dominion. So in the fullness of time and in love for mankind he decided to take a human body. The Blessed Virgin by saying yes to God’s will reversed the denial of Eve and opened the door for the Christ to take flesh. With this flesh he took to the cross the sorrow and failings, the joys and hopes of all humanity and died. With his body as the key to the doors of the land of the dead he entered in and tricked death. Death thought he had received a man whom he could consume but instead found God whom he could not and was instead consumed. Our adoption through Baptism into Christ’s body means that we can follow him out through the broken doors of the land of the dead and back into Paradise which is once again open to us. Roughly, this is the myth of Christianity (I mean myth in terms of the kind of symbolic narrative language used and not as a term signifying untruth). It is the story of a great Priest-King who, like the Pacific Northwest stories of Raven, tricks death and restores life to a fallen world.

–The Venerable M. Edward Simonton OGS

full post here.

Posted in Contemporaneity