“Living in the Present” is Myopic

We live in a cultural moment wherein “living in the present” is the clarion call for leading a richer, fuller life. While the intention here is often good — living in the present frees us from worry about the future and guilt over the past — we live in the most extreme version of this vision of the good life. This is what Alan Jacobs calls “presentism” in a recent article in The Guardian on “temporal bandwidth.”

Right now, we are only capable of knowing and thinking about what is happening at the present moment. Everything we think, say, or do, must be in response to whatever crisis is happening at the given moment. As I type this, my Twitter timeline is filled with outrage at the Trump administration’s unjust treatment of families that illegally enter the southwest U.S. border. And rightly so! Politicians on the left and right recognize that separating parents from their children, regardless of the legality of their entrance into the country, is nothing less than immoral. This is a major problem that needs to be addressed (and, frankly, has needed to be addressed for a long time), but there will be something else next week, and the week after, and the week after that.

In other words, we no longer just “live in the present” — we are presentists. There is nothing but the present, and anything we say or do, for our words and actions to matter right now, must be related to extinguishing whatever dumpster fire is on people’s minds (ignoring the fact that there are one million other dumpster fires in the background). There is a solution to this problem, but it’s not an easy one. It will make us look uncaring and irrelevant, and will potentially send us to the margins of the public square, if we’re even included in it at all.

We must back away. We must expand our view of humanity, of time, of the world and its history and future. To do so means to read old books and simply sit and think about them, about the world that existed before we did, and the world that will exist after we are gone. It means, perhaps, not responding on Twitter to the latest outrage — not because we do not care, but because we are aware that the truly caring thing may be to continue to cultivate a life that is lived betwixt the past and the future, and that culminates in the present. As Jacobs says,

To read old books is to get an education in possibility for next to nothing. Watching the latest social media war break out, I often recall Grace Kelly’s character in High Noon, a Quaker pacifist, saying: “I don’t care who’s right or who’s wrong. There’s got to be some better way for people to live”… The suspicion that there’s got to be some better way has the welcome effect of suppressing the thoughtless, kneejerk reflexion that is a byproduct of our age.

Rejecting presentism, even if it looks uncaring to the outside world, can be a more nuanced, thoughtful way of caring for those around us, those experiencing oppression, those who are lonely and anxious. It can also help us to rightfully situate our present moment in the ongoing history of the world.

Are We Adults, or Not?

From Cal Newport, on the “digital wellness” movement:

I’m a grown man. If I’m checking my phone every 5 minutes, or playing video games instead of paying attention to my kids, I don’t need an animation of a dying tree to nudge me toward better habits, I need someone I respect to knock the stupid thing out of my hand and say “get your act together.”

Earlier in the post, he calls this whole movement “infantilizing,” and I have to say that I agree. Some things in our lives can’t be taken care of by sheer willpower — I recognize that addiction is a real problem for some people as it relates to sex and pornography, drugs, food, and gambling. But does all this focus on “digital wellness” that Apple and other companies are focusing on really fix the problem we’re talking about? Or does it just treat bad habits and laziness as a kind of addiction that needs to be solved by taking away our power to make decisions for ourselves?

I fear it may be the latter. If we are adults, and we know that our (digital) actions are not conducive to making good work and living good lives and cultivating good character, we ought to have the wherewithal — no, the conviction — to put away those childish things and pursue a better, fuller life.

The Demands of Orthodoxy

One of the tragedies of Western individualism is the creation of a climate in which we think it is not our responsibility to acquiesce or adhere to a system of thought, practice, or belief that causes us discomfort. A system that perpetuates this kind of thinking, however, essentially causes us to “believe” in anything that makes us feel good and at peace while rejecting any system that does not align with our (positive) emotions on any given day. As an example, if I call myself an orthodox Christian, but suddenly become uncomfortable with the Christian sexual ethic associated with orthodoxy, my immediate tendency is to find a way around the ethic itself or to desire to reject the system of belief outright. What does this say, however, about where we find and place authority? Ultimately, if I’m allowed to simply reject a system of thought, have I actually allowed that system of thought to have authority over me? The answer, of course, is no.

This is likely a result of what Charles Taylor refers to as “the immanent frame” — the conception we have of reality that simply doesn’t include transcendence. The immanent frame is stifling for two reasons: 1) humans within a immanent frame (even those who adhere to a belief system that does include transcendence) can no longer automatically affirm a transcendent authority as valid, which leads to 2) the placement of ultimate existential meaning on individual “authenticity.” In other words, the only way to maintain personal meaning and significance within an immanent frame is to stay true to one’s emotions and desires (fickle though they may be).

This further leads to the lack of a stable “selfhood.” We cannot help but define ourselves by the systems of which we are a part. But if we define ourselves by systems, and our trust in those systems as ultimately authoritative wanes the moment our subjective desires and emotions change, we can’t ultimately trust that we have any kind of purpose or that our lives carry significance in a meaningful way. Orthodox Christianity (and other religious systems like it) demand our allegiance, despite the rejection of transcendence within culture. In exchange, it offers both a stable self and significance.

A Perfectionist in All the Wrong Ways

If good creative work is produced by limitations, and I want to actually make good work, two questions must be answered:

  1. What kind of work is worth making?
  2. What kind of limitations should I place on myself?

Neither of these questions have an obvious answer. Re: #1, I only really know my interests — those things which draw me, make me feel alive, like I’m discovering something about life that I didn’t know was there before. Maybe I should start there (and maybe I already have), and hope that what I create is worth something valuable in the end.

On #2, the answer still isn’t obvious, but perhaps we can break those limitations down to discover possibilities. There are negative limitations — the things that I need to subtract in order to focus. This can include things like leaving Facebook, refusing to watch Netflix for a set amount of time, and so on. And then there are positive limitations — things that I need to add to my life, my daily routine, that will allow me to produce better work by repetition. I’m already doing this in one realm; Elaine and I are currently doing an X-Effect challenge (for 49 days, instead of Austin Kleon’s 30) for exercise. I have run every single day for the last five weeks, and plan to do so at least until I hit day 49 (although the plan is to build a habit strong enough to just continue running with no end in mind.

Theoretically, this ought to also apply to other areas of my life, however. I want to do good, theological and philosophical thinking and writing, but I often face lethargy and laziness by the end of the night when the kids are down. I want to be a writer, but the same applies. The reality, however, is that if I want to be that kind of person, I need to be that kind of person. Regardless of emotional states or motivation, if I want to look back on my life and be satisfied with the kind of person I became, the only choice is to do those things which I know will satisfy me.

Another reason I avoid this is that I don’t want to confront the fact that I’m a perfectionist in all the wrong ways. I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t want to attempt something until I fully understand it, backwards and forwards, inside and out. This is great when I’m working on a car and don’t want to destroy a $15,000 asset. Not so great when I want to just be something and taking the first step will cost me literally nothing but my pride. It does me no good to not write when I’m worried about what others will think — not writing just means that I’m not writing.

So what should my limitations be? Perhaps simply doing the things I know I want to be doing, every day, no matter what.

Limitations and Stealing Like an Artist

I am no artist, but I want to create things, to be inspired, to be a little obsessed, to make connections that no one else sees. I get obsessed about things now — especially music —  but not the same as I did before the advent of social media.

So, in the spirit of leaving Facebook and limiting my social media access soon, Austin Kleon‘s Steal Like an Artist has some great points to make in service of becoming a little more creative, and a little less concerned about the daily limitations I face against pursuing the things I want to do and the person I want to be. Some major points in his book (with some subpoints) that I found helpful:

  1. “Write the book you want to read.”
    • This immediately struck me, because I find it difficult to not write without an audience in mind (and trust me, I know I don’t even have an audience). But I can’t help myself. A larger quote from that section of the book: “If all your favorite makers got together and collaborated, what would they make with you leading the crew? Go make that stuff. The manifesto is this: Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want o run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use — do the work you want to see done.”
  2.  “Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)”
    • I’m constantly frustrated that I don’t get the opportunity to make my living doing something I absolutely love. But maybe that’s not the point: “The trick is to find a day job that pays decently, doesn’t make you want to vomit, and leaves you with enough energy to make things in your spare time.” And this leads to the next point…
  3. “Creativity is subtraction.”
    • The point here is not having infinite resources and time and availability. The truth is, perhaps, that the best kinds of work come from constraints (Richard Beck just posted about this recently on writing books). Austin Kleon writes: “In this age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s really important. Nothing is more paralyzing that the idea of limitless possibilities. The idea that you can do anything is absolutely terrifying.”

The Pain of Leaving Facebook (And Why I’m Doing It Anyway)

Leaving any social media platform comes with its own set of baggage. As much of an idealist as I am about privacy and relationships and the ability of humans to participate in civil discourse and thoughtful conversation together, I can’t help but feel the pain of fully deleting an account on a platform like Facebook (which I’ll be doing shortly). And Facebook – along with the rest of its smaller counterparts and competition – knows this. My history on the service stretches back to 2007, almost exactly 11 years ago to the day. There are photos there of my last year of high school, all of college, my wedding, the day our two daughters were born, and all the moments in between. There are conversations, moments in time that I thought were valuable to recount, history that I will necessarily lose when I delete my account, no matter how much I try to archive all the content I have housed there.

So why do such a thing? Many reasons come to mind, which I’ll get to shortly. The challenge with taking a step like this, however, runs the risk of my sounding awfully self-righteous, as if I know better than the masses how one ought to manage social relationships and personal memory. So before I embark on giving my reasons, let me say this: this decision is purely about myself. If my reasons for leaving Facebook (and, perhaps, other services that I’m having a slightly more difficult time letting go) sound good to you, great! Consider leaving. If you disagree with me, great! Perhaps the benefits outweigh the negatives for you; I hope it continues to do so. In any case, here are a few reasons I think Facebook is worth leaving:

  1. Our social lives have changed drastically since the introduction of social media, and I don’t think it’s for the better. Isn’t it strange that many of our conversations now start with “Hey, I saw your post on Facebook about your trip [or your new baby, or your new job, etc.]!” Worse yet, I think there are events that we don’t recount with one another because we assume people already know about them because we posted that information on social media. What have we lost here? Discovery, the “natural” flow of conversation when talking to close friends, wondering how people are doing and have a person-to-person interaction. On the other side of this, because we give and get updates about our lives on social media, when we physically interact with a friend or family member, we assume we know their current life-happenings. This stunts social interaction further, preventing depth and intimacy.
  2. I have proven to myself, time and time again, that I lack self-control when I have access to social media. I have a vision in my head of the kind of person that I want to be. A writer, a thinker, a caring, loving father and husband. I want to be a coffee roaster, I want to be an insatiable reader. I want to research deeply, become obsessed with a topic and delve as far into it as is possible. The reality is, I am barely any of those things, if at all. I cannot fully blame this on social media – this is largely a self-discipline issue. Nevertheless, my access to a service like Facebook, with its never-ending feed of things that are going on in my family and friends’ lives, is a black hole for my attention. I may be able to resist it for months at a time by deactivating my account or simply by virtue of losing interest in the service. But at some point, I always, always come back to the service, and slowly lose my ability to focus on that which I find most important. I don’t want to look back on my life in ten, or twenty, or thirty years, and regret that I spent time looking at a screen, hoping to catch glimpses of what others’ lives were like instead of doing my very best to live the life I want to live.
  3. Civil discourse, persuasive debate, and thoughtful dialogue simply cannot happen consistently on Facebook, and yet we continue to try to shoehorn Facebook into a service that provides a space for those things. A lot of people smarter than me have already made this point, many times over. Suffice it to say that I think Facebook and services like it lend themselves to the dehumanization of individuals too easily. We get angry or upset or worked up about something going on in the public sphere, and we write a post about it on Facebook. Soon enough, people are piling on with their own opinions, either in agreement or disagreement, and because Facebook’s algorithms are bent toward outrage, that’s the post everyone sees that day. This may not be so bad if our participation in these conversations were thoughtful and caring. But because of the nature of digital space, we have no social, physical context within which we can make judgments about the intent of dialogue. Further, we too easily write scathing, mean-spirited responses that we would never say in person. Why? Because a picture with a name attached to it does not register socially the same way that a physical human body in front of our eyes does. I believe in civil discourse and the necessity of thoughtful conversation, and in its necessity for the future of our local and global communities; Facebook stands in direct opposition to that ideal.
  4. (This is my nerdy point, so skip it if you want to.) I believe in an open internet, and Facebook and services like it are working directly against such an understanding of the internet. I was introduced to the idea of the “open internet” recently, although I experienced the internet as “open” in my earliest days of internet access. What do I mean when I say “open internet”? I mean I want an internet that isn’t wholly controlled and owned by any single service. I mean I want people to be able to speak from their own “digital turf,” while interacting with other people on theirs. As of right now, everything that I have uploaded to Facebook, including images, text posts, videos, and blog posts (through their “Notes” feature) is owned by Facebook. I have no way of knowing what they’ll do with my information once I delete my profile. What I do know is that there are parts of my life that I think should be mine but that, once the profile is deleted, I will lose access to those things, for good. As of right now, this website (cdbaca.org) won’t do what Facebook did, but I hope that it will continue to grow into a space I find personally meaningful, and I will own and control all of that content on my own. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram function like “walled gardens,” where users’ access is controlled and defined by the service they are using – that’s not the future internet I want to see.

Too often, people leave services like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram out of anger or cynicism or apathy. I don’t want to be that person. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and despite the losses I’ll face when deleting my profile for good, my bigger concern about the continued use of the service is how we can best become good, thoughtful, rational human beings. Facebook may offer a shadow version of those things, but I doubt whether it can ever reach that ideal. I’ll do my best to find it elsewhere.

Preserve Your Love for Reading

Preserve your love for reading at all costs. Nobody ends up in a literature program unless they love to read, and nobody loves to read in the soulless industrial manner I am about to describe. Read stuff that has nothing to do with your program. Take time with the assigned texts you enjoy, and do the bare minimum for the assigned texts you hate. Do not internalize the script that this makes you less of a student; it makes you more of one. You’re here to learn, and learning is most sustainable when fueled by excitement, not obligation.

Catherine Addington, on staying sane through and getting what’s important from graduate work.

Another Day, Another Shooting

What continues to confound me about this continual, ridiculous process through which we constantly seem to be cycling is not that the shootings are happening — I think we’re past the point of being surprised that people, teenagers, whatever, with access to such destructive weapons will use them against other people.

No, rather, what continues to confound me is that Christians are continuing to support a political party funded (at least in part) by an organization that fights for the right to make such weapons in the first place. Such an organization obviously has no actual regard for the dignity and value of human life — its only concerns are power and profits. Christians that continue to hold on to the idolatry that is the American right to bear arms (and all that we are told is supposed to come with it) are blatantly ignoring the writings of the Gospels and Paul. The very Lord we claim to follow clearly modeled and taught some form of radical nonviolence (see both the Sermon on the Mount and every Gospel’s recounting of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection). Further, Paul’s interpretation of the life and work of Christ is clear: it is foolishness, a scandal, nonsense to the “wise” and “powerful” of the world. And yet, Christ our hope, our victor has laid waste to such powers and principalities. How? By doing the very opposite of what we would do — that is, he made himself nothing, less than nothing, “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.”

The “thoughts and prayers” Christians offer in these situations will continue to sound like a clanging gong and a noisy cymbal to those who see that the Lord we proclaim is not really our true Lord. Christians, let go of your attempts to grab hold of your rights and power and feeling of security in this world. It is nothing more than what the God-man we claim to follow did.

Objective Knowledge, Reversed

Kierkegaard’s only valid form of certain, objective knowledge is in the realm of logic (or its extension of mathematics). Theoretically, approximate objective knowledge can be gained in the realm of history and science, but it’s only ever approximate, so it can’t be said to be “certain,” and is always subject to revision. M.G. Piety details SK’s distinct categories of knowledge in her book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralistic Epistemology, and those are the only two realms of objective knowledge she can distinctly identify.

Interestingly, McCombs addresses how this situation has reversed in contemporary culture in The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard:

Although the Hegelian System is now dead and gone [what Kierkegaard spent much of his time lambasting], systematizing is still alive and well. For example, scientific naturalists claim to know that all reality is material reality, or that all reality is to be known, to the extent that it can be known, not in diverse ways but exclusively by the public methods of mathematical and empirical sciences. (70)

This is an inversion of SK’s notion of what counts as truly objective knowledge — math and logic provide objective knowledge according to Kierkegaard, but they are not the limit of what is knowable. This, in my opinion, is a large reason why we experience a large amount of doubt about any religious or ethical truth claims. We have accepted the cultural claim re: immanence — that we can only know what is provable empirically or logically because we cannot empirically or logically prove anything exists outside of the material world.

Something Small Everyday

This, from Austin Kleon, is exactly what I needed to hear today:

It takes time to do anything worthwhile, but thankfully, we don’t need it all in one chunk. So this year, forget about the year as a whole. Forget about months and forget about weeks.

Focus on days.

The day is the only unit of time that I can really get my head around. Seasons change, weeks are completely human-made, but the day has a rhythm. The sun goes up; the sun goes down. I can handle that.

I needed to take some time away from my thesis writing and reading — the end of the school year, along with the normal, daily busy-ness that comes with family and work life, led to the need for a little break. However, I’m finding it eminently difficult to get back into the hard work of reading every night. The inertia of the last few weeks is weighing heavy on my will.

So, what’s the solution? Well, I think it’s a perspective-shift. First, I need to actively understand that getting back into the work won’t feel natural or easy. In looking for the path of least resistance, my brain would much rather rewatch The Office than read a book called The Paradoxical Rationality of Soren Kierkegaard. Second, I need to lower the expectations which I have placed on myself I cannot immediately revert back to three hours of reading per night when I haven’t been doing that recently. Instead, I need to use the tactic of simply “one small thing, every day.” Kleon again:

Figure out what your little daily chunk of work is, and every day, no matter what, make sure it gets done.

Don’t say you don’t have enough time. We’re all busy, but we all get 24 hours a day. People often ask me, “How do you find the time for the work?” And I answer, “I look for it.” You find time the same place you find spare change: in the nooks and crannies.

Let’s get back to it, one step at a time.