Avoid alarmism

Alarmism isn’t just annoying.

Yes, it’s a great marketing ploy—insisting, to others and to yourself, that we live in the worst of times and that whatever evil we’re now facing threatens to topple the entire human race.

But it’s bad for us. There are just some things you shouldn’t do, even in the name of your sincerely held belief. Alarmist rhetoric is one of those things.

When we tell ourselves and those around us that what we’re witnessing is of momentous and drastic consequence, we open the door ever more slightly for momentous and drastic action. We move the Overton Window, so to speak, to allow for changes to our long-held and organic traditions.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

But are we really living in desperate times? Is that for certain? And aren’t desperate measures something we should avoid if at all possible?

Yes to the third question, which means we should be careful before insisting that we are, in fact, living in desperate times.

In one way, this is the definition of maturity—not over-reacting or under-reacting, but keeping everything in perspective (or, at least, trying to).

Alarmism is immature. It’s not helpful. And it’s more than just annoying—it’s an unwarranted threat to traditional values that exist for a reason. Values that protect us from the darker corners of our nature.

Parallels

The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dish-watery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.

-The Chicago Times, reporting on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

The President is no more than a well-meaning baboon. I went to the White House directly after tea, where I found ‘the Original Gorilla,’ about as intelligent as ever. What a specimen to be at the head of our affairs now.

-George McClellan, General-in-chief of the Union Army, writing of Lincoln

Dear President Obama,

We are writing to express our grave concern regarding the mental stability of our President-Elect. Professional standards do not permit us to venture a diagnosis for a public figure whom we have not evaluated personally. Nevertheless, his widely reported symptoms of mental instability — including grandiosity, impulsivity, hypersensitivity to slights or criticism, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality — lead us to question his fitness for the immense responsibilities of the office.

We strongly recommend that, in preparation for assuming these responsibilities, he receive a full medical and neuropsychiatric evaluation by an impartial team of investigators.

-Herman, Gartrell & Mosbacher, MDs.

Grief is unscripted

To grieve doesn’t mean to be depressed. It doesn’t mean to be sad, distraught, or devastated. If it meant one of those things, it would be called one of those things.

To grieve is to experience what happens after someone you love dies. This is different for everyone, and its form depends on circumstance.

Grief is a word, which means it describes something. Somewhere along the line, some creative person decided to label the experience “grief.” The word did not exist ex nihilo, or come into existence on its own power. It is not prescriptiveWhen someone dies, you aren’t supposed to grieve. You do grieve. Grief is whatever you feel or think or see or do after a loved one dies that you know, in your heart, is related to their death.

Grief does not suddenly begin and promptly end, either. Grief surfaces in a small way when we first come to truly understand that someone we love will die one day. This realization happens slowly—over the course of many years, even—but it changes everything. It colors the way we see things and how relate to our loved ones. It manifests as all forms of emotion as we mature. It’s always somewhere in our hearts and minds. It morphs and intensifies around the time of a loved one’s death (especially immediately after) and it runs it course until we ourselves die.

This doesn’t mean we will always be sad after a loved one dies. Grief, remember, is not the same thing as depression or sadness. Usually, after some weeks or months of a loved one’s death, it morphs again. It may not manifest as tears quite as often, or ever again. It may turn into a steady feeling of having lost something, or a subtle feeling of tiredness or mental exhaustion. For others, it may even turn into some form of energy or a powerful source of inspiration.

Grief is different for everyone. No one’s grief is better than another’s.

But no matter how our grief morphs and shapes and manifests in our lives, it stays with us. It is part of us—part of being human—and, in an odd but true way, enriches our understanding of just what’s important in the world.

Let grief happen. Be sad for a time. But also let grief morph. Let it anger you, frustrate you, exhaust you, inspire you. Talk about it with others. Remember the one you’ve lost or are about to lose. Say whatever you want to say.

Grief is unscripted.

Identity politics & retreating political consciousness

Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, writing on the retreat of liberal political consciousness. My emphasis added.

The politics of identity is nothing new, certainly on the American right. What was astonishing during the Reagan Dispensation was the development of a left-wing version of it that became the de facto creed of two generations of liberal politicians, professors, schoolteachers, journalists, movement activists, and officials of the Democratic Party.

This was not a historical accident. For the fascination, and then obsession, with identity did not challenge the fundamental principle of Reaganism. It reinforced that principle: individualism. Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people — African-Americans, women — seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. But by the 1980s it had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities. The main result has been to turn young people back onto themselves, rather than turning them toward the wider world. It has left them unprepared to think about the common good and what must be done practically to secure it — especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.

Every advance of liberal identity consciousness has marked a retreat of liberal political consciousness. Without which no vision of America’s future can be imagined.

Give something a try

I drove my wife and son 232 miles to see the eclipse in totality today.

Five hours to get there, and we didn’t see it. Too much cloud cover. It was thrilling to watch the earth darken around us (the eclipse plus cloud cover means it got very dark and rather cool), but it was disappointing to come so far and miss so much of the event.

But I don’t regret going. I knew before we left this morning that we had about a 50/50 chance of missing it. I also knew it was going to be a long day with lots of driving (I hate driving), whether we saw it or not. And that’s super-tough on a one-year old.

I don’t regret going because I realized afterwards that this wasn’t about seeing the eclipse. It was about doing something exciting. And whether we made it exciting was really up to us, and not the clouds. Here we are, thoroughly excited, waiting for the eclipse in the median at a grungy truck stop in St. George, SC.I learned something today, too. I’m reminded of what it means to actually try. To aim for a target, know the odds, and release the arrow with all the gumption and skill as you possess (be it great or small). To go forward confidently, knowing that many who try will fail, and knowing exactly how bad that failure will feel.

Our try “failed,” but in an unexpectedly refreshing sort of way. We know we failed. There was no hiding that fact from ourselves, each other, or the hundreds of people sitting around us, staring up at the overcast sky.

I don’t try things enough. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Everywhere we turn, we’re encouraged to avoid risks, or find the easy way out, or just revert back to what we know so we don’t end up somewhere we really don’t want to be. What can be worse than being stuck somewhere you don’t want to be when so much awaits you back at home, where you’re comfortable? That’s a prevailing attitude these days.

But that attitude is unfortunate. When we don’t try, we don’t learn, we don’t grow. Not trying means not letting the world around us shape our thinking or open doors—doors that often lead to transformative and powerful experiences.

Only a few times in my life have I truly tried something big—gave it my all for a long time, knowing there are very specific odds (often against me) that I can’t avoid. I honestly don’t remember ever winning these sorts of tries in the past. I bet what happened is I failed too many times and just gave up. Chose to quit trying somewhere along the line.

I don’t want that for my son. I want him to try. To work as hard as he can, even when he knows the set-in-stone odds of failure. And I want him to see that his dad tries, too. Because in the end, becoming a better person isn’t just about the goals you set and achieve, but the victories you discover along the road—experiences (like ours today) that draw you closer to each other and to God, and that make you a stronger person.

Fun people try. Exciting people try. Strong people try. Don’t be afraid to try, and to fail.

Trying is a victory in itself.

The internet is wreaking havoc on our perception of reality

From an anonymous redditor, on how the internet magnifies the intensity and frequency of terrorism around the world.

The internet is wreaking havoc on our perception of reality.

Read about what was going on in the 70’s when you had Arab nationalist groups and radical Communist groups and groups like the IRA and UVF. Shit was spiraling out of hand back then. Airplanes were getting hijacked all over. It was absolutely nuts. Watch a movie like Munich or Carlos The Jackel to see how crazy things were. To top everything off, you had the Cold War going on so every country’s intelligence agency was using radical terrorist groups to play off of each other left and right.

These days things seem to have mellowed out. But if you spend enough time on the internet, you’d think at any second you’re going to get clubbed by a neo-Nazi or run over by ISIS or Donald Trump is living under your bed waiting to steal your soul. There’s a reason for that: clicks make money and sensationalism gets you clicks.

 

On #charlottesville at church

Brian K. Miller on #charlottesville at church:

Second, I generally think it’s unhealthy – and perhaps even a bit narcissistic – to demand that an act be universally acknowledged. Things can be universally wrong (murder, racism, etc.) but we can only deal them within our own sphere of influence. When we demand universal action to local issues of injustice terrible things can follow – like when police officers in Dallas were blamed and killed for the shooting of a man in Minnesota. But even if the terrible side-effects can be negated, there are often no discernible positive effects either.

For instance, if someone close to me were killed in a traffic accident, I can’t imagine it would console me to know that people I have never met posted hashtags about the death on Facebook and gathered to talk about it amongst themselves. In fact, I would find it a little morbid. I can’t imagine the narcissism required to desire such attention. What would console me would be the presence and help of friends and family – those who are in a position and place to actually help. There is of course a converse side to this. If my loved one were killed by a drunk-driver in a regime that didn’t penalize drunk-driving then I would definitely find some comfort in a mass political movement recognizing the wrongness of the regime and working to stop drunk-driving. If your church has no problem with racism – and is perhaps even a well integrated community that is a shining example of how to overcome racism – then changing the sermon to preach against racism strikes me as the former example above of people gathering to discuss a death that they have no connection to.

The more appropriate course of action would be to gather as a community outside of church and do things to actually counter racism in your own community, write letters to those affected in Charlottesville, or get on a bus and join counter-protesters. All these things of course require real action because they are focused on the local and specific instance of evil. If evil is an abstraction then it demands nothing of us. We can fight it with abstraction. But if it manifests as some specific thing – incarnate in the world, like anti-christ, if you will – then it can be opposed with specific action.

#Charlottesville? We love it.

We just love when stuff like Charlottesville happens. We eat it up. We scroll down day after day waiting for stuff like this to happen. Drooling over events – horrific, but infrequent – that validate the narrative we want so, so bad to be true.

The saddest part about this, though, isn’t how much we love and reward those who break things and beat people up. It’s that our narratives would often have us wishing more of this stuff would happen. We refuse to believe these incidents are isolated (they are) because otherwise it’s just not as fun, just not as exciting. We insist that, yes, this does mean “we” have a serious problem. It does mean there are people out there who are plotting evil and want us dead. It does mean we need to freak out.

No, we don’t post to Facebook about the beautiful day we had – the sermon at church, the new word our child learned, the unfamiliar bird that landed on our window sill. But we absolutely will post about just how evil these protestors are, and just how evil are those who don’t denounce them, and just how worried we ought to be about all this stuff.

Mostly we do it because we’re bored. But also we do it because we want to be right. Because we aren’t very invested in the day-to-day realities around us, and so seek some kind of “purpose” in the news, even when we can’t think of a single person we know who’d ever participate in anything like what happened at Charlottesville.

Inevitably someone will find something incorrect with what I’ve said here. Something they disagree with. No, they’ll say, I just don’t understand. No, they’ll say, there are people who are truly suffering from inequality.

But fact is, I do understand. I’ve seen much worse than what happened at Charlottesville. Frankly, you have too, if only you will look as long and as hard at the faces of your friends and neighbors as you do the CNN newsfeed.

And my good friend understands. He lived for three years with people in Malawi who don’t have water to drink. There, mothers see their children die as often as we see our power go out.

No one marches for them. No one’s outraged about that. But Charlottesville? We love it. #charlottesville

I’m no better than anyone else. I hardly ever think about those kids in Malawi, sick and on their way to dying soon. But this isn’t about me. It’s something much bigger than me, and I hope you can see that.

Try to see the good in people. Don’t reward evildoers. And definitely don’t stir up anxiety and fear on purpose.

Some people have a hard enough time getting through the day, yet alone hearing about how they really do need to worry about racists coming to kill them, too.

I’m not “white,” but I don’t care. Never have. I don’t fear anyone at Charlottesville. Would gladly have been there this weekend, to tell people to go home and shut up.

But if there’s anything here I do fear, it’s the slow decay of our ability to look other people in the eyes and love them. To knock on our neighbor’s door to say hello. To find some purpose, any purpose, outside of events like this – little anecdotes that “validate” the previous little narratives that give us just enough purpose to feel ok about ourselves (even if not most of the time) and to not have to check up on the old lady next door every so often (because, I mean, we’re busy raising awareness online about terrible stuff, right?).

Get a life. I mean that almost literally. Go do something else. Don’t bring Charlottesville to your friends and neighbors, most of whom have other, more pressing stuff to worry about. Don’t be complicit in forcing these sentiments onto everyone you know. It doesn’t help. It serves no higher purpose.

We’re just bored. We need to find other ways to use our free time. We need to take what’s going on in our own families, our own minds, our own bodies, as seriously as we take what that guy on TV keeps saying.

“What can YOU do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.” -Mother Theresa

Hart on Christ’s Rabble

The below from David Bentley Hart, published last September in Commonweal.

Throughout the history of the church, Christians have keenly desired to believe that the New Testament affirms the kind of people we are, rather than—as is actually the case—the kind of people we are not, and really would not want to be. The first, perhaps most crucial thing to understand about the earliest generations of Christians is that they were a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent. They were rabble. They lightly cast off all their prior loyalties and attachments: religion, empire, nation, tribe, even family. In fact, far from teaching “family values,” Christ was remarkably dismissive of the family. And decent civic order, like social respectability, was apparently of no importance to him. Not only did he not promise his followers worldly success (even success in making things better for others); he told them to hope for a Kingdom not of this world, and promised them that in this world they would win only rejection, persecution, tribulation, and failure. Yet he instructed them also to take no thought for the morrow.

This was the pattern of life the early Christians believed had been given them by Christ. As I say, I doubt we would think highly of their kind if we met them today. Fortunately for us, those who have tried to be like them have always been few. Clement of Alexandria may have been making an honest attempt to accommodate the gospel to the realities of a Christian empire, but it was those other Egyptians, the Desert Fathers, who took the Gospel at its word. But how many of us can live like that? Who can imitate that obstinacy and perversity? To live as the New Testament requires, we should have to become strangers and sojourners on the earth, to have here no enduring city, to belong to a Kingdom truly not of this world.