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.

“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.

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.

The Art of Projection

10 08 2015

The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus (5th century BC) is known to have once said, “No man ever steps in to the same river twice, for it’s notprojector the same river and he’s not the same man.” Around it, he constructed a philosophy that claimed that everything was in flux, that everything was changing and change was the only constant. As erroneous as his framework was, Heraclitus is enlightening when we think of human natures propensity to project. Because even the same person cannot experience the same thing in the same manner twice (time does not say constant), it begs to ask, “How can one person understand the experiences of another person?” The best that one can do, perhaps, is to project our own experience on the details of the other person’s life as we try to understand them and their life.

And so, it seem that one of the hardest things in life, perhaps THE hardest thing, is to fully understand another person. On the flip-side, because it’s so unquenchable, perhaps our greatest longing in life is to be understand fully by another outside ourselves. Intimacy demands increasing understanding, and a best a human can do is to understand through our own experiences. The best a human can do is to project as little of our own experiences onto the other and try to understand afresh.

I want to hypothesize that the great reason for the boom of social media is loneliness. The world has grown more connected in search for the unquenchable, the search to be fully understood, to no avail. And so the world, we, continue to grow thirsty and thirsty. In our thirst, we are quick to want to be understood rather than to understand. We are quick to project rather than to listen. That is why my world was shaken by St Augustine’s three words (four in English), “Audi partem alteram (Hear the other side).” Can this be the cure for the loneliness in the world? For us to listen to each other first and strive to understand? Can we be fully understood by the powers of our ear? No, we can’t, at least not on our own. Not because Heraclitus was correct, but because humans can be fully understood just not by any other human. The cure for loneliness does not come at the ears of humanity but at the words of deity. And no, this is not a queue for pluralism here, postmodernism died long time ago. It is a hint that the solution to our world’s problems with intimacy lies with an incredibly majestic and ultimately personal God, and there is only one God such as this.

MERS, Fear, and Selfish Faith

17 06 2015


One Hundred Sixty-Two.

Six Thousand Five Hundred Eight.

Numbers and more numbers. It’s been around a month since the discovery of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus in Korea and the numbers keep climbing. The numbers keep coming. The numbers keep our fears in their place.

south-korea-mers-virusThis concerning situation with the spread of the deadly virus has reminded us of thoughts that were buried by the ordinary routine of our lives. First, that death is real, unpredictable, and most prominently uncontrollable. Couple years back, I wrote a post on Ernest Becker’s Pulizer Prize winning book The Denial of Death. We are reminded again how Becker was right in how humanity uses everything and anything to drown out the unchangeable truth of inevitable death. Death is the ultimate problem of humanity, and yet so many live on without a hint of desire to seek out the solution. Second, fear is ok. Fear of the virus, fear of infection, fear of isolation, fear of death. Often, we jest and laugh to minimize or guise our fears. We want to look strong. Fear is a sign of weakness and weakness is oh-so-unacceptable. But perhaps, fear is not that bad. Panic is bad. But fear? A healthy dose of fear helps survival. When a wild hungry tiger comes charging toward you to make you its next menu for dinner, fear will drive you to find an escape, drive you to seek survival when charging straight on against opposition is not wise for survival. Fear can be wise. Hmmm… I think the author of Proverbs said something to that effect. Third, faith can be selfish. A week ago in the church elevator, an elder (a leader of a Presbyterian church) pulls out a mask often suggested for MERS prevention from his pocket and proclaims his faith or perhaps his humor, “I want to put this on, but I’m scared that people will think I don’t have enough faith!” My mind dashed initially towards how wrong his theology of faith was, but the more my mind ran, it saw how selfish such faith was. If strong faith means not wearing a preventative mask at the expense of contaminating other people, it is no worthy faith at all. A selfless weak faith will suffice, one that may be timid but has in sight the well-being of the other. One that says, “I don’t know how I look in this thing, maybe I will look foolish, perhaps even risk looking faithless but if it will help stop the spreading.” Fourth, family is important and they are not with you always. Speak kind words. Spend time with them. Fifth, humans think they have more control than they actually have. It is evident in light of the first point and this MERS outbreak, we have none. Control is an illusion.

Last. My thoughts go to the twenty-one. The twenty-one who had families. The twenty-one who spent their last days in quarantined isolation. The twenty-one who were not just a number to produce in us fear, but lives who had stories. Prayers to them. Prayers to their families. And a word from the late Professor Al Groves who wrote this while struggling with terminal cancer: “I am in distress. But that is not the final word in my prayer. I live on the other side of the cross and the resurrection, that toward which Nehemiah looked from a distance. For me the final word is not distress, but hope in the One who has raised me from the dead and changed me into a new creature in Christ.”

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:

Sacred or Secular?

28 10 2013

I’ve always balked at the idea of posing the question, “How’s your spiritual life?” I know there is a time and place to ask it, but in the larger scheme of life, it seems not a helpful inquisition for the cause of Christianity. Such strong hesitation, some may say is from my cynicism (or jadedness even), but in this particular case, they would be wrong. It is a result from a strong desire to oppose the detriment that have been seen when people, Christian or non-Christian, create a division between the sacred and secular in their lives. Brian J Walsh and J Richard Middleton seem to agree,

We are called to serve the Lord and acknowledge his kingship in the whole range of our cultural activities. There are no sacred/secular compartments here. Our service to God is not something we do alongside our ordinary human life. The Bible knows no such dichotomy. In the biblical world view all of life, in all of its dimensions, is constituted as religion. From our economic choices to our recreation, from our prayer life to the way in which we bathe our babies, in every cultural action and deed, we live only in response to the cosmic, creation law of God. This is God’s universe throughout. And we are called to be responsible respondents to his overarching Torah.

This false dichotomy is also perpetuated when pastors over-emphasize serving the church, particularly, over and against serving people in general. Regardless of intention, it instills in people a hierarchical worth in service, that being on the praise team or helping out at a church run event is more valuable than picking up the trash in your neighborhood or a service done outside the walls of the church building. Yes, there is the other side of the coin where only the few serve the many in church functions, and in the desire to motivate the lackadaisical, there is a pitting over against categories that should exist together. I suspect, such encouragement is largely due to fear. Fear that one cannot fill the necessary role within the church for minimal function. This is a realistic fear and a worthy need to chase. But if I have learned one thing, it is that fear (and pride) is never a good motivator, and of course, the sacred/secular dichotomy that results is never healthy, even if it seems innocuous at first.