Enough

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

Kurt Vonnegut tells a story in his poem, “Joe Heller” (you can find it in various corners of the internet, but it was originally published in the New Yorker, as far as I can tell). You probably know how it goes: Vonnegut and Heller are at a party thrown by some billionaire and Vonnegut asks Heller how he feels about the fact that this guy makes more money in a day than Heller will make in a lifetime. Heller says, well, I have something he’ll never have, and Vonnegut asks what’s that, and Heller responds that he has “knowledge that I’ve got enough” (Vonnegut’s closing line: “Not bad! Rest in peace!”).

It’s a good story, as far as it goes. It is better to have some sense of what might be enough than to have no idea at all. Judging your self-worth by the size of your bank balance is unwise etc. But, the story has always sort of annoyed me. Partly because when I encounter it in the wild the people delivering it do so with a self-satisfied smirk. Take that billionaire! Go home and cry into your sacks of cash in lonely isolation! But, it’s more than the implicit smugness. It just doesn’t quite seem true. At least not to me, with my own hunger for more. I think, for most of us, most of the time, “enough” is preceded by “never” (Never! Never!). Maybe it isn’t a hunger for money that we are trying to satisfy, but there’s always something we’re chasing that we can never quite catch. A human animal is one marked by a “never enoughness.”

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Fall(ing)

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

One of the best illustrated books I discovered when I had children was John Burningham’s Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. The story starts with a man who decides to take trip down a river in his boat. As he floats along he begins to collect passengers. Two children, a rabbit, a cat, a dog etc. Each passenger receives a warning as they board Mr. Gumpy’s (increasingly full) boat, a limit they are told they cannot transgress. The limit is specific to each passenger. So, the children are told they can come for a ride as long as they “don’t squabble”; the rabbit can come as long as it doesn’t “hop about”; the cat, provided it does not chase the rabbit, etc.

You know how this story is going to end, don’t you? Of course you do.

Mr. Gumpy’s boat travels lazily down the river under the summer sun with its crew of children and animals and,

For a little while they all went along happily but then …
The goat kicked
The calf trampled
The chickens flapped
The sheep bleated
The pig mucked about
The dog teased the cat
The cat chased the rabbit
The rabbit hopped
The children squabbled
The boat tipped
And into the water they fell.

When reading this to my children, I would always punctuate the picture of Mr. Gumpy’s fall into the river with a dramatic “SPLAAAAAAAASHHH!” (For the concerned reader: things turn out ok for Mr. Gumpy and crew in the end – they climb out, dry off in the sun on the walk home, and have tea at Mr. Gumpy’s house).

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Hope (I)

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

Hope is sometimes imagined as being fixed on something very far away: a shimmering city on the horizon, a destination at the end of a long road, an X on a treasure map. The object of hope is a terminus, a distant end. But, hope is needed at beginnings too. Hope can be found in a series of stepping stones, in a straight road beneath your feet. You need hope to get out of bed in the morning.

Lead me on a level path say the psalmists (Psalm 27, among others). Give me a road to walk down, show me where I should go, hold my hand along the way. It is a hopeful request. When you are stuck in a swamp, the promise of some unseen city is not much help, you need a handhold, a place to put your next step.

So, hope is about first steps as much as last steps. There is little point in looking to the horizon if you are stuck in the muck, sinking up to your neck. What’s needed is not some future expectation but a trust that the hand that is extended will be strong enough to pull you free; that if you put your foot here, in this spot, the ground will hold, and then there, and then over there, until you have climbed out. Hope is trust that I won’t be left to simply drown, that my life is not simply a great deal of thrashing around without any progress.

There will be a time to consider cities on the far horizon. For now, there is simply a next step, the hint of a path, and nothing more.


Further exploration:

  • Psalm 27
  • Psalm 40
  • Psalm 25
  • Psalm … well, you get the idea, don’t you? (the Psalms are good – I read one every morning).

Creation

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

Creation is the name Christians give to the idea that the universe we live in contains music and not just noise. Or, it is more than that: what we see around us doesn’t just contain music, but is fundamentally musical, deep in its bones. There is a harmony and a beauty to the cosmos, a creativity and an order. It is not simply random. We are ourselves creatures, part of the song. We participate in it, can even echo it at times in derivative ways, plunking out simple tunes on toy xylophones in imitation of the symphony that surrounds us. Tragically, we are partly tone deaf and we struggle to catch the tune. In fact, on our own, we have a tendency towards creating discordant noise rather than joining in with the music.

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3:17 AM

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

A thump in the night and I am awake, staring at the glowing digits of the bedside alarm clock: 3:17AM. I roll over in the quiet but my mind is already vibrating with the dissonance of the coming day. It is unlikely that I am going to be able to navigate back towards sleep. Nothing unusual here, just considering the state of things, the various paths I have walked down that have brought me to this moment, 3:17AM, in the dark.

At different times in my life there have been moments of crisis in these early morning hours: a particular source of suffering elbowing me sharply in the ribs. But, I have been fortunate, with crises few and far between. More common is a mix of the mundane and existential: a concern about whether or not I filtered the duplicate data in that spreadsheet yesterday bumping up against a question of life purpose. How did I end up here, clicking imaginary Excel cells in the middle of the night? At 3:17AM I don’t have the ability to parry the inquiries, my defenses are down, my mind too loud and the world too silent.

The language of digital alarm clocks and Excel spreadsheets may somehow imply that this is a uniquely modern sort of thing. We might like to think so, it would make us feel special: the brave modern, facing the dark, where the ancients huddled under the comforting cloak of ritual and tradition. But, some ancient near eastern poet, thousands of years ago reminds us that there is nothing new in the anxieties of 3:17AM: “in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted … You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled I cannot speak” (Psalm 77). There is some difference here, I admit, the psalmist is considerably more engaged with something, with Someone (that “You”), than I usually am in contemplating the emptiness of the night. But we recognize each other across the years.

There is something deeply human about the dark hour of 3:17AM, that moment of trying to make sense of things (and usually failing). Human beings are the “praying animal,” said the American theologian, Robert Jenson, and this is something of what he meant, I think. We are a creature that wants to understand things as a whole, that wants to make sense of things. To be a praying animal is to wake at 3am and be turned outwards to the night, to ask questions of it that it can never quite answer to our satisfaction.


Further exploration:

Theological Phrasebook: An Introduction

A phrasebook is (according to Merriam Webster) “a book containing idiomatic expressions of a foreign language and their translation.” Basically, it’s a tool that can be used when learning a new language, usually in a way that helps the learner participate in everyday life and communicate in real world situations. The idea with this Theological Phrasebook project is that I want to describe some concepts from Christian theology in a way that provides an introduction to the “conversation” of Christianity. I’m not aiming to be exhaustive. The entries are short and presented with some imaginative verve (I hope those already fluent in Christianity will still find the posts worth reading). All the related posts can be found through the Phrasebook tag.

There are variety of ingredients that have gone into this – an obvious influence is Frederick Buechner’s theological dictionary project, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (and its related volumes). In some ways, the project is my attempt to repay the debt I owe Buechner after encountering his work when I was a teenager. There are plenty of additional influences getting mixed into the conceptual pot (for those familiar with my other writing in a theological vein, yes Bonhoeffer is going to show up more than once), and a number of entries will include a “Further Exploring” note at the end, giving links to other sources.

As a side note, for those who don’t know me: I’m just a layperson (aka “just a guy”). I don’t work in a church or as a professor or anything like that, so there’s not any institutional authority behind what I’m going to be writing here. I have started and stopped this project multiple times, and it has grown more wild and loose each time I return to it. It is a strange, spiky sort of thing, but I can’t seem to leave it alone, and so am going to try and write it through to its end. I hope it might be helpful to someone out there who stumbles across it in the vast hinterlands of the internet.

Talent (or, how ambitious is this blog post?)

We focus on a very specific kind of talent in this book—namely, talent with a creative spark … In referring to the creative spark, we mean people who generate new ideas, start new institutions, develop new methods for executing on known products, lead intellectual or charitable movements, or inspire others by their very presence, leadership, and charisma, regardless of the context. Those are all people who have the gift of improving the world by reimagining the future as a different and better place.

Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World – Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross

As someone who has sat on both sides of the interview table (or Zoom window, as the case might be) in recent months I found Talent by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross (CG) to be an optimistic and engaging exploration on the topic of talent search and evaluation. It’s a book that prompts generative questions more than delivering easily digestible answers, but that’s no surprise when the topic is how to identify and evaluate hidden sources of transformative talent (it is by definition a project that resists formulaic approaches).

When faced with the question of how to best find high end talent, one might expect that an economist (Cowen) and a Silicon Valley investor (Gross) would focus on quantitative metrics, measurability, and structure – a focus on the “science” side of the “art and science” of talent search. Instead, CG suggest that those on the lookout for sparks of hidden talent need to push past the easily measurable (an IQ score, rating the response to a set of standard questions) towards the more complicated and messy realities of the human person. Finding transformative talent is about finding particular people rather than evaluating particular test scores. It’s more art than science, “… a creative skill, akin to music or art appreciation.”

A more structured approach may establish a floor for lower level roles, a minimum bar to be cleared, but when looking for (unexpected, undiscovered, hidden) candidates who can raise the ceiling of an organization/endeavor, low-level bar clearing exercises don’t provide the information a talent evaluator is seeking (and on the downside may actually trip up candidates with unconventional backgrounds). The whole point of looking for an exceptional candidate is to identify the exceptions to standard “perfectly fine” or even “very good” candidates. In turn, a key skill for talent evaluators is evaluating not just a particular set of candidates but also the context they are selecting them for. What is the game you want this person to play (and win)? Is perfectly fine actually going to be perfectly fine for that data analyst role you’re trying to fill?

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Get Back

The repetition, the repetition is a killer. When watching Get Back in fits and starts over the past month, that’s what I kept thinking. A take, another take, and yet another take. Some tea and toast and tedium. The viewer gets to see the vibrancy of rock-and-roll pulverized under the weight of needing to get this chord progression just right, or adjusting that vocal line, or pointing those microphones in a different direction. You can see it wearing on everyone. Even Paul, who is really the engine keeping things moving in the weeks covered by the film, periodically drifts into a glassy dead-eyed stare.

How much of being an artist is just a willingness to keep going: to repeat and repeat and repeat?

Following up on my last post extolling hard work and dedication to artistic craft with a month of silence here on the blog I wish I could say that I started a first draft of a novel offline, or like a really excellent cycle of sonnets or something. But, alas. The days have been full – the “deluge of life” as I describe it – and there has been very little time to spend writing. Very little time, and yet I found time to watch the eight hour Get Back documentary off and on over the past month, usually in 15-20 minute chunks or so. I’m not even that much of a Beatles fan (the best thing I read on it by someone who actually knows about the Beatles was this Ian Leslie post).

Repetition is a foundational element in all sorts of endeavors – especially creative ones. Or rather, the importance of repetition is more easily identifiable in creative, performative endeavors. The office worker has to find the courage to open up the email inbox day after day, but whether the routine is leading anywhere, whether it is driving any sort of improvement or is headed any particular direction, is usually unclear. A final artistic product, the finished song at the end of all the practice, seems to place all the repetition into context, to make it worthwhile. Musicians seem to be especially at risk when it comes to the grind of repetition. The performative aspect of the art form basically enshrines it- come up with a hit song (or hit song formula) and you’ll be playing it forever if everything goes well. And the Beatles, with their unusual ability to reinvent their sound over and over again, seemed especially allergic to getting stuck on repeat.

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This is Let It Be! You are the first people on earth to hear this song!

There is a great scene in the 2019 movie Yesterday when Jack plays “Let It Be” for his parents (the poster tagline for the movie tells you more or less what you need to know: “Everyone in the world has forgotten the Beatles. Everyone except Jack.”):

Yesterday was one of my favorite movies from the past few years even though I’m not a huge Beatles fan. I found myself repeatedly bursting into laughter, but probably laughed longest and loudest at this scene. It is just so painfully recognizable (although I, like many, would love to possess even a single ounce of Himesh Patel’s charisma). Anyone who has ever made anything creative and put it out there knows exactly this sort of feeling – a collision between earnest, heartfelt passion (“This is like watching Da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa right in front of your bloody eyes!”) and the general boredom and indifference of an early audience.

I was thinking of this scene again after the economist Tyler Cowen shared Cass Sunstein’s paper on the Beatles’ path to becoming “The Beatles” (i.e. successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams). In the paper Sunstein suggests Yesterday puts forward the hypothesis that “the Beatles were surpassingly great, and their sheer greatness was, and is, a guarantee of spectacular popularity, wherever and however their music emerged.” Sunstein goes on to explore recent social science research on cultural success and failure, including the importance of informational cascade and network effects, and also points out some of the straightforward good luck the Beatles ultimately enjoyed. While recognizing the importance of these different effects, Sunstein concludes the paper (“with fear and trembling”) by suggesting that while these contextual factors were important, ultimately the quality of the Beatles’ songs meant that they would have found a way to be successful.

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Advent Vespers

I crack open the blinds in the kitchen. It is still dark outside, streetlamps glowing like spaceship landing lights in the fog of a December morning. I shamble around trying to secure a cup of coffee. I plug in the lights on the Christmas tree and sit down at the kitchen table, bleary eyed, restless. The house is quiet, the rest of my family still asleep upstairs. I cautiously take a sip of my still too hot coffee. This is me at home in the world, as much as I ever am. It is Advent, the season of waiting and watching, and so I sit and wait.

Advent is a way of finding my place in the world. It situates me in a story – one of a returning king, of hopeful expectation. It’s a season that’s both linear and cyclical, a spiral through the timeline of my life since childhood, coming around each year with its rituals and repetitions as I grow older, my hair starting to go gray at the temples, the frown lines on my forehead deepening. I will, as I do every year, give disappointing gifts (I am a terrible gift giver), I will eat too many gingerbread chocolate cookies, and a blood toxicology test will reveal an unhealthy volume of mandarin oranges in my diet. I will look back over the year and try and figure out where exactly I am in my story so far.

There are many ways of finding one’s place in the world. Here is Helen Macdonald, in her lovely essay, “Vesper Flights” (found in her essay collection here – one of my favorite books of the year):

Often, during stressful times when I was small – while changing schools, when bullied, or after my parents had argued – I’d lie in bed before I fell asleep and count in my head all the different layers between me and the centre of the Earth: crust, upper mantle, lower mantle, outer core, inner core. Then I’d think upwards in expanding rings of thinning air: troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, exosphere. A few miles beneath me was molten rock, a few miles above limitless dust and vacancy, and there I’d lie with the warm blanket of the troposphere over me and a red cotton duvet cover too, and the smell of tonight’s dinner lingering upstairs, and downstairs the sound of my mother busy at her typewriter. This evening ritual wasn’t a test of how much I could keep in my mind at once, or of how far I could send my imagination. It had something of the power of incantation, but it did not seem a compulsion, and it was not a prayer. No matter how tightly the day’s bad things had gripped me, there was so much up there above me, so much below, so many places and states that were implacable, unreachable, entirely uninterested in human affairs. Listing them one by one built imaginative sanctuary between walls of unknowing knowns.

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