Why We Are So Impatient

24 12 2016

“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.”

-Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society (1964)

We live in a world so connected, so fast, and so efficient. We live in a world where I can send encouraging messages halfway around the world to my church college students during their time of exams. We live in a world where we can order our coffee on our phone and it awaits us moments later on the counter of Starbucks, leaving to imagination, the who, when, how of its manufacture. We live in a world where the game of phone stack could be one of the hardest challenges faced. We live in a world where music is seen in increments of bits and the art of the album has been long buried in the past. We live in a world where in some parts of the globe it’s easier to access wifi than clean water. We live in a world where the appearance given to us by our parents are suggestions or the template for the surgical artisans to shape into their modern Mona Lisa’s.

results-1But technology is not the problem. Even Ellul, in the quote above, was not indicting technology, per se, but was speaking of “technique”. He defines it as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” To put concisely, Ellul is saying that “technique” has converted spontaneity and unreflective behavior into behaviors that are only deliberate and rationalized. We’ve become obsessed with results and our prime concern becomes the best way in our life direction. In other words, the technical eclipses the organic, if you will. Perhaps, we see this played out in the sliver of economic life in Goudzwaard’s assessment of capitalism’s obsession with progress.

Setting aside Ellul’s ‘technical’ analysis, all of us sense that this world is in a rush. Time is measured by the second, and waiting for a friend has become obsolete through the invention of the cell phone (or as Koreans endearingly say ‘handphone’). Life is faster and we don’t have to wait. We are impatient because our muscle for patience is unpracticed.

But along with time, there is also space. The technical affects the shape of the world we live in; it even molds the shape we are as humans with personalities, souls, and bodies. Could it be that we are also becoming more impatient because we are so practiced in molding our world rather than being molded by the world? Our desire for independence, autonomy, whatever you want to call it, lends our hearts toward impatience. When we cannot create the world we envision or strive to shape, we grow impatient, sometimes even angry. When encountering people who do not fit into the world that we have created for ourselves, we don’t have the patience to change our world to welcome them in. Rather we are agitated, and further, we ostracize. Our impatience wants to change the other instead.

Then, is it a matter of practicing our moldability muscles? Perhaps, but not entirely. The irony of Ellul’s quote is it is saying that we are controlled, that is, molded by technique. Our problem is not only that our will to change ourselves has atrophied. Ellul is alluding that we are always being molded, ourselves, our world. The question is ‘by what’ or ‘by whom?’

It’s Christmas tomorrow and, whether you are on the East or West of the Greenwich meridian,manger-cross at Christmas you tell the truth. Sorry, couldn’t help it. No, but seriously tell the truth to your loved ones, but in addition, enjoy extravagance. Not utility, not efficiency, nor progress, but sheer lavish extravagance. Waste time with your loved ones, don’t plan, don’t rush, but be among them. Further, be molded by one another’s desires, one another’s wills (within reason of course). Do what you may not prefer for the sake of the other. Mold your desires to another’s. Because at Christmas we remember lavish extravagance. God came to earth to give us eternal life, but he also molded himself, if you will, into a human baby. He molded his will and desires, to allow us to do the same for others.

Are White Lies Harmless?

17 12 2016

by Nick Galifianakis

‘If you were hiding Jews during the second World War, and the Gestapo came to ask whether you were sheltering them, is it morally wrong to tell the Gestapo that you are not, when indeed you are?’ is a question that is often posed to discern whether lies are ever excusable. Perhaps the white lie is a more whimsical example, where a woman from whom you desire affection asks, ‘How do I look?’ in the obvious case that she is having a bad appearance day. Is it ok to lie to make her feel better or is it morally correct to always tell the truth even in ‘frivolous’ situations? These are actually not easy questions, but your answer to them will reflect your ascription to a certain type of morality, lying, and most importantly truth.

Truth. In the recent American news, there has been much talk about the role and influence of fake-news and social media in the 2016 presidential election. Though there are many credible sources that say it wasn’t the determining factor in the election. There are numerous articles claiming the serious negative impact fake-news has whether it is determinative or not (NY Times, The Guardian). Perhaps, the post-modern world has really reached its apex and embraced the notion of ‘post-truth’ a word selected by the Oxford Dictionary as the International Word of the Year for 2016. Post-truth is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” But fake-news is not merely about philosophy, truth, or post-truth, it is additionally about our abandonment of morality in the economic sector. NPR’s Planet Money traces down one of the owners of the fake news websites in a recent podcast episode titled, “Finding the Fake-News King“. In the fascinating episode, Jestin, one of the owners of these fake news sites, reported to have made in the range of $10,000 to $30,000 a month. There is clear financial incentive here and in a world where profit trumps morality, it’s no surprise that fake-news is such a rampant phenomenon.

Money. So then is this fake-news phenomenon primarily a financial incentive issue? It’s hard to tell but one partial solution is to financially support credible news sources so that they can be empowered to report what is important rather than what sells. But it’s not merely an issue of money, there is indeed culpability in our post-truth mentality. We have taken truth too lightly in our generation. The 9th commandment of the decalogue seems like a peccadillo compared to its sixth and seventh counterpart (i.e. Don’t kill, Don’t commit adultery). Perhaps, we take it lightly because telling a lie doesn’t seem to harm anyone or if it does, not too much harm. Trump sure seems to believe it. We are all protégés of William James, whether consciously or not, and subscribers to the dominant American philosophy: pragmatism.

Pragmatism. Then, do we deny the enticing motivations of pragmatism and go back to modernist affirmations of right and wrong, that there is truth and there is untruth. That there is no such thing as post-truth. Perhaps. It wouldn’t hurt (haha). But to only think in the spectrum of right and wrong won’t help us properly navigate the moral ambiguities of white lies, or whether it is ok to lie to protect those in imminent danger, and it certainly will not help us see the foundational meaning of truth. What can help us see thus, is a biblical lens of shalom.

Shalom. Truth is not just right and a lie is not just wrong, as the world was created on truth as its foundation. Indulge me for a bit. A human is human. Air is air. Water is water. To mistaken heat and cold will lead to chaos. Honest predication, or truth, allows order, that is, shalom. It’s spacial. Then, there are promises. A word is my bond. Promises are truth connections of the past through the present into the future. We make promises in the present to guarantee a particular truth reality. Something of a temporal thing. And trust. Trust cannot exist with out the truth of promises. And without trust, there cannot be flourishing of relationships of any kind. Shalom, as Nicholas Wolterstorff defines it, “is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature.” It is an affirmation of predication and predictability. Truth guarantees this flourishing. So a lie can be filtered through the lens of shalom. Though it’s not formulaic, it adds nuance. Should you lie to hide people in imminent danger? Yes! Will you be morally culpable for doing so? I’d like to say no.

Fake-news. So then, are we to blame the news for the result of the presidential election? No, but there is a profound shaking of foundations when we continue on with such false reporting for the sake of profit. It is more than getting things wrong, it’s increasing chaos and diminishing flourishing on a cosmic scale. It is no wonder Jesus included truth along with the way and life to predicate who He is.

“The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law”

31 08 2016

acceptance_letterYesterday, over a comforting bowl of roast pork egg noodle soup, my sister and I had an interesting conversation about the recent, potentially discomforting University of Chicago letter to new students (written by John Ellison, the dean of students) about “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” The main thrust of the letter can be seen in this paragraph:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

A debate that has been brewing for some time now as one can see from the overview well laid out by Scott Jaschik in the Inside Higher Ed article, a survey worthy of a read, with accounts of both critics and supporters of the debate. Even my local university publication, The Daily Pennsylvanian, reports and chimes in on the current debate of psychology, free speech, education, and human development. But in continuing this discussion, it is perhaps, helpful to refer back to an earlier accounting of the social phenomenon of ‘trigger warnings.’

The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law” was the title of the article by Jeannie Suk Gersen in the New Yorker (Dec 2014) concerning the rising concern for words that trigger memories of traumatic experiences. Most likely not the earliest but one of the earlier articles considering the issue at hand. Suk Gersen describes the legitimate ‘phenomenon’ of a “second rape” that victims experienced in the courtroom reported as devastating in a 1991 book by Lee Madigan and Nancy Gamble. In September of the following year, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt of The Atlantic published an article titled, “The Coddling of the American Mind” taking the thrust that trigger warnings and safe spaces are doing more than ruining the higher eduction of America, such ‘coddling’ hurts the mental health of the next generation, the article’s point perhaps encapsulated in the two questions that it rhetorically asks:

What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?

And here’s another article for good measure assessing Ellison’s letter and trying to explain the use and mis-use of the terms “trigger warning” and “safe spaces” in the entire discussion. But as much as the details of the meaning of words, the policies and the how’s of education, and sensitivity to trauma and emotion are all important, I think David Brooks contributes a fresh perspective in the discussion.

Perhaps it is our loss of purpose, or a life mission, that has inconspicuously contributed to the emotional volatility and lack of mental grit in the younger generation. Of course, this is, again, not to deny the reality of people having experienced trauma, but it is very much true that the mental grit of the younger generation is, to put it mildly, different. David Brooks asks veteran college teachers and administrators, in an Op-ed column titled “Making Mental Toughness“, how students have changed over time, and the answer he quotes is this,”Today’s students are more accomplished than past generations, but they are also more emotionally fragile.” But the insightful point that he ends on is the point that much of this is due to people’s lack of life goals, goals beyond personal comfort and success, goals that are, quite frankly, bigger than oneself.

John R. Lewis may not have been intrinsically tough, but he was tough in the name of civil rights. Mother Teresa may not have been intrinsically steadfast, but she was steadfast in the name of God. The people around us may not be remorselessly gritty, but they can be that when it comes to protecting their loved ones, when it comes to some dream for their future self.

People are much stronger than they think they are when in pursuit of their telos, their purpose for living. As Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

In short, emotional fragility is not only caused by overprotective parenting. It’s also caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos. It’s caused by the culture of modern psychology, which sometimes tries to talk about psychological traits in isolation from moral purposes. It’s caused by the ethos of the modern university, which in the name of “critical thinking” encourages students to be detached and corrosively skeptical. It’s caused by the status code of modern meritocracy, which encourages people to pursue success symbols that they don’t actually desire.

We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.

If I may end with a bit of semi-introspection, Brooks’ insight is very instructive for myself as one in the position of educator and guide for younger folk. My tendency is to take out the whip (metaphorically) and try to create some grit through some old school suffering and discipline. But as tempting and easy as that may be, Brooks is convincing me to create a ‘telos’ for the younger folk, to offer a goal that is worthy of ‘throwing ourselves with abandon.’ A goal that is more than the prestigious college, secure well-paying job, the loving family, and the house in the suburbs (Perhaps the church has been dropping the ball by preaching morality without mission). For the strengthening of the modern mind, it may very well be that what this young generation needs is to find a purpose, a purpose not created from within but one that comes from without.

Plan B

13 08 2016

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

“Dreams” by Langston Hughes

The elderly often catch my eye. In a restaurant, on the street, in the subway. My mind inevitably wanders to a particular question: “What are their dreams?” It has been a destination of my mental meanderings as of late because at an age past the quarter-life, dreams seem to be a commodity of the past.

But dreams are not meant to live in the past. For a dream to flourish it must live in the future, and only when it flourishes in the future does it have a chance to enter into the present. A dream in the past only exists six-feet under, or at the most, six centimeters under our height.

Can a buried dream be revived? In this life, some, only some. As Niggle had to wait until the afterlife for his leaf to bloom into a magnificent tree, most must wait until the newness of life. But different dreams can be had. New dreams can be created into our futures for us to chase for us to strive. But how?

The West seems to tell us to somehow fan the flame of our dormant individual passions and create these new dreams ex nihilo. It seemed easy with youth. Hormones helped. But such individual fiats are next to impossible. New dreams are kindled, especially later in life, with friends, in relationship. The onset of life’s drudgery is often blamed on the death of individual dreams, but perhaps dreams are not the difficult thing to be had, perhaps, it is hard to meet those who will dream with you. To meet friends, companions, who help dream your dreams, who make them bigger, who refine them for good.

Origin of Politics

5 06 2016

Thursday seemed to be the last final piece of the Trump ship, making possible a unified sail towards the White House. Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking elected Republican, after weeks of waiting, hesitation, or whatever it was, endorsed Donald Drumpf’s nomination for the presidential race. The last few paragraphs of the coverage in the NY Times article is somewhat telling:

Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said the Republican Party is now “the party of Trump.”

“Speaker Ryan’s abject surrender makes it official,” he said in an email. “The GOP is Trump’s party now.”

“Surrender”. Given the description finds its origin from the keyboard of the opposition, it cannot claim it to be an unbiased critique. But ‘bias’ doesn’t always negate truth, and here perhaps, the word surrender is telling of the nature of what the political system has become.

When modern people think of politics, the initial descriptions that come to mind are ‘corruption’, ‘power’, ‘policies’, and the like. Ryan’s ‘surrender’ seems fitting in such a climate of politics, where power is the overarching drive. Ryan to his credit seemed to be one more for principles rather than power. The Trump ship is more Machiavellian than The Prince, and it’s slogan of power can only be contended by it’s fragile desire for popularity.

Thus, ‘surrender’ is appropriate.

The irony, for one who knows a little of the classics and the origin of politics, is that power was not supposed to be centerstage of any well politically functioning society. Politics was a word representing polis or the city. It was about the city and the good of the city. Aristotle hints at what happens when power finds itself in the spotlight:

When states are democratically governed according to the law, there are no demagogues, and the best citizens are securely in the saddle; but where the laws are not sovereign, there you find demagogues. The people becomes a  monarch, one person composed of many, for the many are sovereign, not as individuals but as an aggregate…such a people, in its role as a monarch, not being controlled by law, aims at sole power and becomes like a master, giving honour to those who curry its favour.

Us moderns like to think ourselves advanced, but in the current realms of politics, I daresay, we have devolved from even the standards of the ancient Greeks. Politics will never be void of power, but politics will never be helpful if power is an object to attain rather than dispensed for the good of the city. And though I am pointing a finger at Ryan for choosing power over principles, perhaps I will stop. Because I still want to a have hope. And hope rarely thrives in the bed of blame shifting, it thrives among the responsible. And so, I stop with the blaming and move to do more optimistic pointing. Without negating the importance of the federal government, I want to spotlight the importance of the polis, the city. And Mayor Kasim Reed can do a much better job than I at that, so to conclude, here he is: “How Are Mayors Better Poised to ‘Get Things Done’?

Drumpf, the Mob, Truth, and Belonging

16 03 2016


David Brooks wrote in yesterdays opinion pages an interesting piece on the shift of American culture from one of guilt to shame. Quoting much from Andy Crouch’s Christianity today article, he explains that rather than drawing lines between right or wrong, morality is pictured through the realms of inclusion and exclusion. Brooks interprets Crouch:

Crouch starts with the distinction the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularized, between a guilt culture and a shame culture. In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

And with the decline (or death) of modernity and the rise of post-modernity, subjective relativism is still lingering in our midst. The lines are not between what is true and untrue, it is between what you think and what I (or we) think. And the difference between the You-I, inclusion-exclusion line creates new markings for morality, but with a caveat. The line is always susceptible to change. Because rather than an unshifting standard of morality, the rules of in and out are determined (and perhaps shifted) by those in power. Again Brooks on Crouch:

….there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.

This is not to say that a guilt culture is better than a shame culture (and Brooks distinguishes the shame culture of the current discussion from historic Asian shame cultures), nor is it a push to return to the old. But what is worthy of taking note is that many of us do not know how to navigate these new territorial lines of shame. Perhaps semi-related is The Atlantic article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt on trigger warnings and how over-sensitivity, tolerance, a lack of standards, and whatever else has stunted not only our education system but the American ability to discuss, civilly argue, and learn. The art of listening has long left us and all we know how to say in place of it is, “I’m offended.”

These suggestions about the shift in culture is perhaps very illustrative in the current presidential campaign with Donald Trump and his rhetoric. The inclusion and exclusion lines are being drawn, the presidential debates have devolved to shouting matches with no

"Somehow I thought it would be different up here."

“Somehow I thought it would be different up here.”

inkling of civil discussion, and the moral lines seems to be drawn and shifted to the likings of Trump’s daily emotional forecast (i.e. the police with power). But once again, shame culture, the concepts of inclusion and exclusion are not culpable here for the chaos or confusion (and violence), it is our unfamiliarity and misuse of such ideas that have perhaps placed the American political process where it is today.

Is there a solution then? If I could have it my way, I would bring modernity back, but as a realist (or pessimist), it is obvious that’s not going to happen. Perhaps, one possible way forward in the right direction, is to start understanding what exclusion really is, and to understand what real inclusion is without denying exclusion (like post-modernism used to say). A good place to start is, I suggest, Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. Though he presents much to mull (and act) upon, one helpful suggestions he speaks of is the “drama of embrace” divided into four stages. One, ‘open arms’ equivalent to vulnerability. Two, ‘waiting’ speaking of providing time for the other to embrace. Three, ‘closing of the arms’ which is self-explanatory. Last, ‘opening of arms again’ where he means that you have been enriched by the presence of the other. Very practical, but sounds a bit cheesy, but cheese or not, most of us are so unwilling to even begin step one. We are fearful of what others will see in our vulnerability, we are arrogant in our impatience, and perhaps, sadly, it is frighteningly inconceivable to imagine ourselves changed or molded by someone so different from us.

What then shall we do with such fear?

I know of only one place where that answer lies, and it is not of humanity.

Politics of the Lunch Line

9 10 2015

It is often in the simplest things that reflect the profoundest of realities. Well, in this case maybe not profound, but reality… yes. Feeding a hundred and fifty people can oddly reflect the reality of the American political bipartisanship and the related economic issues. So, on a particular day with a particular group of 150 people, dinner was provided. The only thing that was determined for the 150 people was the order in which they were allowed to approach the food. The amount of food that could be taken was not regulated, at least in the beginning, and the distribution commenced. Eventually, several regulations were instituted, “Either the meatball or the chicken, not both!”, “One bread per person!” Then once, the food seemed to be disappearing faster than the line itself, ‘welfare’ allocation was instituted. Some food dishes were ‘saved’ for the end of the line so that the least could have at least some of the goods of society, or just.. dinner. Everyone was fed but not equally at equal amounts, some would say this is the beauty of the free market society and some would say it is the injustice of poor regulation. Hungry stomachs say some weird things. The one in charge realized after the fiasco that there was another way to proceed. Perhaps, unfavorable to the ones ahead in society (or line), this communistic method, if used from the beginning, would have guaranteed a better (Is equal always better??) distribution of food. To have regulators distribute a set amount of food for each person would have guaranteed that everyone got enough, or at the least equal amount of goods.

hipster-lunch-instagram-cartoonThis simple ‘slice’ of life, whether one falls on the republican or democratic side of economic and social issues, is at the least descriptively instructive for us. But two things must be mentioned if we are to learn the fuller picture of this anecdote, that is, scarcity and zero sum. Often in economic discussion, there seems to be a sense that there are limitless supply of goods, there is not, in a physical world contained in time and space, limitation is a reality that we must reckon with, and limitation means scarcity. Second, I have been told that the free market is a zero sum game. Even while acknowledging that I don’t understand that statement one hundred percent, I have to say that it seems incorrect. The free market cannot be a zero sum game because sin is not a zero sum game, and the free market involves sinful desires of people. That’s what supply and demand always incorporates implicitly. Sin is not the same as limitation, though related, to equate those would be a primal error in any discussion, but to the lunch line example, what it does show is that regulation is a helpful necessity but at the same time not a solution. This is so because the problem is not in the quality of distribution but in the desires of people and the blindness of people to the needs of others. “Incurvatus in se” the fourth century Bishop of Hippo used to teach. Our problems lie in our incurable proclivity of turning inward on ourselves, oblivious, if not consciously ignoring, the needs of others. But then, where art thou, solution?