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.


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.

Money Can Buy Happiness

7 05 2014

To begin, happiness is overrated. Our culture thinks otherwise as Pharrell’s number one song “Happy” seems to indicate in these lyrics: “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.” Well… it’s not. It is true that Pascal said “All men seek happiness. This without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.” But Pascal’s use of the word needs qualification, which we will not go into here. Happiness has always been a by-product of other things, which the well known quote from W. Beran Wolfe illustrates well,

If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that had rolled under the radiator, striving for it as the goal itself. He will have become aware that he is happy in the course of living life twenty-four crowded hours of each day.

Interestingly, this seems also true for one’s use of money. The old adage, ‘Money can’t buy happiness’ is contested as untrue by Michael Norton, not because money never leads to happiness but because we spend it wrongly. He finds in his studies that what we buy with our money contributes very little to our sense of happiness, rather, what he found as more important is who we spend it on. As interesting as the study findings are, Norton could have saved a lot of trouble if he just believed Acts 20:35 to be true at face value: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” But even so, his talk is worth watching:

Sex at Penn

28 07 2013

It seems that the female perspective on sex and emotion is changing. Though one article and a study on one campus filled with upper-class, affluent, driven students is not quite representative of the female species of the entire nation, but nevertheless, it does illustrate some shift in perspectives. Kate Taylor, in a NY Times article titled “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too“, describes the variousUpenn opinions of female students and their perspectives on the culture of sex, highlighting among them the surprising shift in the female perspective on the one night stands. An excerpt:

These women said they saw building their résumés, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn. They envisioned their 20s as a period of unencumbered striving, when they might work at a bank in Hong Kong one year, then go to business school, then move to a corporate job in New York. The idea of lugging a relationship through all those transitions was hard for many to imagine. Almost universally, the women said they did not plan to marry until their late 20s or early 30s.

In this context, some women, like A., seized the opportunity to have sex without relationships, preferring “hookup buddies” (regular sexual partners with little emotional commitment) to boyfriends. Others longed for boyfriends and deeper attachment. Some women described a dangerous edge to the hookup culture, of sexual assaults and degrading encounters enabled by drinking and distinguished by a lack of emotional connection.

Within the article, there are surprising portrayals of perspectives, anecdotes and the like. One even as alarming as the following:

In November of Haley’s freshman year, a couple of months after her first tentative “Difmos,” or dance-floor makeouts, she went to a party with a boy from her floor. She had too much to drink, and she remembered telling him that she wanted to go home.

Instead, she said, he took her to his room and had sex with her while she drifted in and out of consciousness. She woke up with her head spinning. The next day, not sure what to think about what had happened, she described the night to her friends as though it were a funny story: I was so drunk, I fell asleep while I was having sex! She played up the moment in the middle of the night when the guy’s roommate poked his head in the room and asked, “Yo, did you score?”

Only later did Haley begin to think of what had happened as rape — a disturbingly common part of many women’s college experience. In a 2007 survey funded by the Justice Department of 6,800 undergraduates at two big public universities, nearly 14 percent of women said they had been victims of at least one completed sexual assault at college; more than half of the victims said they were incapacitated from drugs or alcohol at the time.

The entire article is a worthy read, when keeping in mind the narrow sampling of interviewees. But as much as the perspective on sex seems to be of much interest, something else is at the core of the issue. Sex is only the filler of the void. The article, itself, hints at the void made visible through the oddity of the driven nature of current culture, a culture of striving toward a career for success, independence and glory. More than rules of ‘do’s’ and ‘dont’s’, the concluding question of the article is rather appropriate. As the question turns the focus on what is really important to us: people or pleasure, success or joy, quality or quantity, it asks, “What else do you really have at the end of your life?” or better yet, “What will you have beyond the end of your life?”

The Denial of Death?

20 05 2013

1895Ernest Becker wrote in his Pulitzer Price winning book, The Denial of Death, many profound things about how man copes with the fact of death. In Christian circles, idolatry (making anything else but God one’s ultimate significance) is often seen in illegal or immoral categories, but Becker’s interpretation is insightful, idolatry is a coping mechanism, to intoxicate oneself by indulgence to forget the fact that the moment we are born, we are all dying:

Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget. In the mysterious way in which life is given to us in evolution on this planet, it pushes in the direction of its own expansion. We don’t understand it simply because we don’t know the purpose of creation; we only feel life straining in ourselves and see it thrashing others about as they devour each other. Life seeks to expand in an unknown direction for unknown reasons…..

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it. They merely act and move reflexively as they are driven by their instincts. If they pause at all, it is only a physical pause; inside they are anonymous, and even their faces have no name. They live in a world without time, pulsating, as it were, in a state of dumb being. This is what has made it so simple to shoot down whole herds of buffalo or elephants. The animals don’t know that death is happening and continue grazing placidly while others drop alongside them. The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that’s something else.

It seems he was picking up on a fact that was given to us even in Ecclesiastes 9:

It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the su, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

D.A. Carson, the NT scholar, said once in a talk that the last taboo in our current culture is the subject of death, that we can openly talk about sexually explicit content without a blink, yet when you mention that someone is dying, everyone begins to squirm and silence feels heavy in the air. This may be because we are creatures of hope, we don’t realize that hope is something that cannot last in things that are seen. Even people who think they place hope in unseen things, many times don’t believe it, they don’t live it. And as Becker observed, we start to indulge ourselves, whether with alcohol or shopping, to forget our finitude. Hope is an interesting thing; it is only as strong as what you place it in, and lasts as long as its object. 

Though Becker’s description was correct, I do not think he gives a proper prescription for the problem of death. He says that we often are in denial of it, yes, but, I think, the solution is not so distant, which is, we deny death. Of course, not of our own accord or power because, again, we all die. But we deny death through one where death could not consume, where death was left impotent, where death was only a marker in time. Hope in such changes death from the end of all things to the beginning of the rest of everything.

Here is a story (from SOULPANCAKE) of a man who died today, of Zach Sobiech, who I want to believe, had this kind of hope. No, more importantly, I want to believe, he placed his hope in someone that is greater. But regardless, we can affirm that he left something respectable, something great behind for the rest of us, who will all sometime, somewhere, somehow face our death.

(seen first on “Upworthy“)

Generational Gap – Part 3: The Clash of Cultures

26 11 2012

One afternoon after class, during a friendly conversation, one of my Caucasian friends mentioned how he did not understand the reason why the Korean people prayed out loud all at the same time (통성기도; Tong-Sung Prayer). It was a legitimate question for him since he was not as familiar with the Korean cultural leanings of holding onto the traditional aspects of life more so than conducting life actions, if you will, for functional purposes. He came from a western culture that emphasizes individual function and could not see the purpose of praying out loud all at once. For a Korean, it is more of a tradition and I assume it emphasizes the unity of the praying body (I also think it is in line with the emotional expression of ‘Han’ (‘한’) which is a difficult emotion to express in any other language or culture). Less apparent than such cultural differences are cultural gaps that lie between two different generations of the same race. It is less apparent but not so dissimilar to the aforementioned example of my friend’s difficulty in understanding the Korean style of prayer. The generational gap that was discussed in the two previous posts (Part 1, Part 2), are not just a result of difference in language. Cultures change through generations, arguably more so for immigrant cultures, and misunderstandings and surprise arise even within the same family members when we fail to acknowledge this change (sometimes the clash arises even with the acknowledgement but that is for the next post).

The typical second generation Asian-American, in their upbringing and education, has been more immersed in the individualized western perspective and culture, while the typical first generation Asian immigrant remain in their original culture even if they have lived in America for over a decade due to their refusal, for whatever reason, to assimilate into American culture (look at any Chinatowns in America). The gap then becomes apparent when we move past the sameness of our skin and analyze the actual cultural forces that have nurtured our worldviews. It would be beneficial to first understand the difference in cultural perspectives. One example that helps us understand this difference lies in the realm of choosing our vocation. The second generation Asian-American, I believe, would largely follow the wider American culture and use the mantra of “follow your passions” or “do what you like/enjoy” in thinking about choosing a vocation. The immigrant generation (note this based on anecdotal evidence) would generally find the ‘follow your passions’ sentiment not as determinative in discovering a vocation. For the older generations, the order is flipped, one chooses a vocation and then can begin to like it (Of course, they are not as naive to say that this always occurs, but this is the perspective out of which they think). Then, can this gap between generations be bridged by a mutual understanding of each others culture (i.e. an increase in knowledge of the other’s culture or perspective)? Yes, but only in part.

We can bridge it more fully if we begin to understand that this difference has a moral foundation and justification. Behind the affinity of western cultures for individualism and eastern cultures for social identity are underlining moral justifications, if you will. When the son in the initial dialogue (from part 1) was touting individual passion as the primary reason for pursuing Broadway acting, he was ascribing to it a value. In essence, he was saying fulfilling his passion was the most important criterion to fulfill when it comes to the topic of career. On the other hand, the father saw most value in the image that higher education presents to society and to him that was all important. The cultural gap is difficult to bridge because of these basic underlying preconceived notions of value (i.e. morals). But even with the acknowledgment of underlying value (and I must add for the Christian reader, neither Western individualism nor Eastern traditionalism is necessarily biblical), it may not be enough to bridge the generational gap. It may bring us closer, but there is one question that remains keeping the gap unbridged: ‘Whose notion of value is correct?’

The answering of that question to be continued….

Generational Gap – Part 2: The Linguistic Leap

9 11 2012

Obama will be president for the next four years, and as the politicians hopefully strive to bridge the partisan gap, we continue with bridging the generation gap (Part 1 here). Well, what is the generation gap? Is it a linguistic divide? Or is it a cultural divide? In the summer of 2003 when I was interning at a physical therapist’s office, I had been motivated to follow my heart and passions after reading Wild At Heart by John Eldredge (which I don’t recommend). Then I mustered up the courage to write a letter to my parents explaining my intentions to put aside physical therapy as a career and follow my dream of trying out for soccer teams and striving to become a professional soccer player. My father responded in one of our conversations with a startling question, “What good will you do for other people as a soccer player?”

I paused…. and the best answer I could come up with was, “I’ll give joy to people who watch me play.” My statement was true, if I were to be a soccer player, spectators would be entertained, whether they cheer or jeer, nevertheless entertained. But my father was unconvinced and rightly so, because my answer was not my primary motivating reason but rather a statement to justify my actions. But even in my false justification, I was still frustrated. I was frustrated that my father was not understanding me and my desires. Was it because of a gap in language? It couldn’t have been. My dad was perfectly able, maybe not 100% fluent, in English. The words I used, he understood their meaning, and vice versa, the definitions of the words he used, I understood. Some say the generation gap can be bridged through the gaining of linguistic skills. If one generation makes the effort to learn the primary language of the other, then this would increase quantity and quality of communication. There is validity in such a claim, as I have friends who would highly benefit in their relationships with their parents if they were fluent in the Korean or Chinese language.

But in attempting to narrow this language gap, one must be mindful that the gap is not merely narrowed by the filling of letters, words and sentences. Language at the core is a tool of meaning. It’s function is to convey and receive meaning, and thus, can be distinguished in that way. One can say “Shoot!” and intend to convey the meaning of ‘Darn! I messed up!’ but if that person says the word while situated in a football pitch, then the received meaning could be ‘Kick the ball!’ But not only is the situational context important for the transference of meaning, so also is the cultural context.

‘Lost in translation’ is a common phrase because it is highly likely at times to have words change meaning when they enter into a different cultural context. But what is interesting that David Hollenbach, a Jesuit ethicist, points out to us, in The Common Good & Christian Ethics, is that language is inextricably tied to the common good of the community and our individualistic expression is actually not very individualistic at all. He says using the work of Charles Taylor:

Every act of speaking, of course, communicates a specific message with a particular meaning. Cultures do not speak; people do. And when people speak, they do not communicate whole languages but specific meanings. But actually communicating any meaning at all would be impossible unless both the speaker and the hearer already shared knowledge of a common language…

The social good of the language and the individual good of speaking are internally connected. They are aspects or dimensions of each other. What is common and what is individual are both required in any successful communication. The common and the individual mutually interpenetrate and mutually determine each other. This suggests, more generally, how the common good and the good of an individual person can be mutually determining in a similar way.

Hollenbach reminds us that to write, read, speak, listen is not an individual endeavor. Embedded in the structure of language is the sense of ‘for another’. So then, for those who are not willing to learn the language of our parents’ generation, before the question “Why is it so hard to communicate with them?” is asked, one must inquire of oneself “Do I not care enough about my parents that I have no willingness to learn their language? To convey and receive meaning for them?” Many times the frank answer will be, “Yeah, I don’t care enough.” And this further enlightens us to the ethos of our generational culture and how different it is from previous generations. The difference in cultures between generations goes far deeper than the difference in languages, thus leaving us with another aspect of the generational gap: the cultural clash.

But that… to be continued in the next post.