Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A reflection on marital conflict

To state it with an artless but useful clarity, I want to draw an analogy between marriage and the church. Last fall, Katie and I turned up at a pre-engagement-to-newlyweds class at our church. The ideas of John Gottman – an acclaimed marital therapist (pictured here in his hat) – provided most of the fodder that constituted our experience. One of his findings received a laugh that reflected both shock and a resonance with those who had stared its truth in the eye: In unhappy marriages, 70 percent of conflicts go unresolved, while in happy marriages 70 percent of conflicts go unresolved. That’s right. Marriages good and bad have exactly the same number of unresolved conflicts. The difference is two fold. First, good marriages achieve a coveted five – to – one ratio of good interaction to bad. The second item that makes for good marriages is effectively handled conflict. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and the cold shoulder are the hallmarks of poorly handled conflict, while calm(er), non-defensive, validating and effortful conflict characterizes the model conflict. The latter is doubtless idyllic, but instructive nonetheless and Katie and myself have been helped loads by some simple instruction on how to fight better.
The only thing, it seems, that has more unresolved conflict than a married couple, is the Church. Richard Hays wrote that what made the Sermon on the Mount seem like an ideal that could not be reached – rather than an ethical instruction for daily life – is that the Church has been so massively faithless to it. And I would add, especially with internal conflict. The primary observation that I want to offer here is that I don’t think the Church will ever agree on everything - not politics, not homosexuality, not home schooling, not alcohol, and definitely not the merits of short-term missions – but we still need to love each other.
Now this type of sentiment gets tossed around quite a bit, but the reality is that the acerbic ways of handling conflict inhabit much of my life when it comes to Christians with whom I disagree. For example, when I scope some Obama-hating on Facebook, I think ‘Oh, this person must be an asshole.’ Similarly, the (Christian) Obama-hating on FB often reflects a notional ‘If you voted for Obama, you must be unthinkable stupid.’ This type of thinking about the other party typifies the ‘contempt’ category, but it is the cold shoulder that really tears the sheets off of our love of broken conflict. When was the last time I sat down with someone I truly disagreed with and looked them in the eye? Bad conflict is the norm in the Church, and I’m a part of it.
Finally, having lived in an intentional community focused around shared meals for almost four years, I have come to a new understanding as to why the Christian religion is centered around a meal. The special shared moment over a meal endears us to one another. It is human. It is Divine. A meal-style Eucharist affords us the opportunity to eat with those with whom we disagree, which gives us a shot at having a five-to-one ratio inside the walls of our church.
Have you been in a church in conflict? Do you have a story of some conflict handled well? Did you change your entire life after reading this post?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I procrastinate.

This is a post about why I am taking on this thirty-day project. I’ve thought about various ways to frame the ‘why’. Questions such as, ‘Given the dubious nature of the internet as a medium for human expression mentioned in my first post, why blog? What are its benefits?’ Or, ‘Why blog now?’ certainly serve as possible ways of getting at the ‘why’. The fact that I recently finished my Mdiv, my reading has dropped off and I don’t want my brain to atrophy also provides impetus. But I think I am in the midst of a true donnybrook that bears witness to the reason I signed up for this. I procrastinate. The battle to sit down, and actually start writing is the reason that I am doing this. I want to learn how to win it.
Its April 5th, and I have only made two postings. This mere fact deserves an LOL of the hardiest order. It is hilarious that I didn’t even make it three days. Go ahead, have a good chuckle. It’s really the only way to stare such a painful reality in the face. It was after having a good laugh at my own expense that I saw so clearly, with such precision, exactly what the hardest part of writing is, and always will be. The hardest part of writing is getting started.


My plan for a thirty day blogfest was conceived when I asked my friend and professor Dr. Ralph C. Watkins (charmingly featured above on the cover of his first book) for a few writing tips. His response offered quite a challenge: write everyday. People who write everyday, he informed me, write on average 75 more usable pages per year than people who write the same number of hours in bigger blocks. So I challenged myself to write everyday for a month, and choose April, nestled so neatly as it was between March and May. Unfortunately, Ralph gave me this tip almost 23 months ago. It took me a while to get started. But in the intervening months I have kept my ears open for other reasons that writing everyday is better than so-called binge writing.

First, and perhaps most interesting, is that when we work on something everyday, our brains think about it more, even when we stop. It turns out that your brain keeps many, if not most, of its functions secret from you, and even when you stop thinking about something, your brain kicks it around in your subconscious for a while. Thus people wake up with a solution to a problem they had the previous day, or awake in the darkest part of night with a key insight about something in their lives. When you write everyday, you give your brain more time to dismantle and assemble the constituent parts of your chosen topic.

Second, it helps you develop your own voice. What does it sound like when I write? I have no idea. I know what I want it to sound like, which is like Jonathan Safran Foer. But see, the trick is, I’m not Jonathan Safran Foer.

Last, and best of all, writing everyday will help you learn how to get started. Writing and procrastination have a long friendship. I once read that low self-esteem contributes directly to procrastination. Thus, the longstanding friendship between writing and procrastination seems natural enough, as good writing requires a bit of self-loathing. But it’s time for writing to sleep with procrastination’s ambiguous but yet unclaimed love interest, and end that friendship. Writing everyday forces you to face the challenge of starting to write, and to get good at overcoming it.


Do you procrastinate, or have trouble getting started? Why? The low-self esteem tag rests quietly on my toe; every time I start something, someone deep within me is convinced it is going to suck. I started blogging everyday so I can get good at telling that guy to shut it.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wrap your self in a blanket, get a fifth of Jack, and sweat it out...

I’m sick. Really sick. And every time I’m the kind of sick where moving from the couch isn’t an option, I have the same thought, reflected so well in this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon: I have something they can’t diagnose, don’t have a cure for. And then I have these grandiose thoughts – sick in a different way – about the press my new illness would receive, and how they would have to name this illness after me, and publish all the wisdom I share from my deathbed. Wisdom that reflects my feigned disdain for pity, about how these are the cards life dealt me, and its my job to play the hand, win or lose.

Then I have to consider the made for TV movie, starring Casey Affleck, who would never do a made for TV movie, that is until he met me and was so moved by my courage and personal request that he would go on to list that role as his second greatest achievement, behind somehow achieving a standing as ‘less white’ than his brother, thought they share the exact same genetic material.

But beyond the shame I find in both these grandiose thoughts and the way I simply revel in the pity people send my way, I have learned a lot about the human body.

Fevers serve a two fold immunity-boosting role. First, the higher body temperature increases blood flow, thus aiding white blood cells in their task. And second, raising the body temperature a few degrees kills of many types of bacteria and viruses. I’ve actually adopted a pro-fever stance because of this, even though prolonged or especially high fevers can damage your internal organs.

My favorite part, however, is the role of the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the body’s thermostat. When the hypothalamus hears word that the body is sick, the hypothalamus sends out a memo – ‘Hey everybody, we are actually very cold’ – even though the body is its normal 98.6 (tricky hypothalamus!). The body reacts to this memo with chills, the body’s natural way of increasing its own temperature. And that my friends, is why you freeze your ass off when you’re sick.

When your fever breaks, the body sweats like crazy to cool its self off. It may also sweat like crazy if you try my old buddy Jeff Jenkins' time-tested illness remedy: wrap yourself in a blanket, get a fifth of Jack, and sweat it out. I'm trying Airborn first.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The trouble with blogs...

Though I was barely able to get to the end of the article, Nicholas Carr's nifty insight about the effect of the internet on the shape and nature of human thought is stuck in my brain like a splinter. He argues that with every easy click and skim we do online, our brain forfeits a bit of its ability to read in the deep and interpretive way necessary for meaningful interaction with written text. Longer printed text forced our brains to concentrate longer, and pay careful attention to the nuances of every character and the turns of every argument. The info bombing that our brain suffers with every jaunt online slowly trains our brain to acknowledge large amounts of information at once, rather than think deeply about one subject. In other words, it reshapes our thought from a plumb line - narrow and deep - to a pancake - short and flat.

The bitter and dangerous upshot of this? The internet’s assault on our attention span not only effects the way we absorb information, it also reshapes the types of thoughts humans create - from narrow and deep to broad and flat. Sciences of various kinds are only dawning on the research to support this – Carr offers some - but the most profound evidence Carr provides is anecdotal. Nietzsche - whom my brain cannot concentrate on even a little bit; even if he had a blog, I wouldn’t be able to read it – was forced by blindness towards the end of his life to use a typewriter (an evil tool, no doubt). His close friend commented that, after the switch, his writing had changed subtly, but fundamentally. The Ubermensch himself replied, "our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts".

This post is really about the nature of blogs, but blogs fit into the larger thought-trend driven by the internet. Blogs seem to both contribute to the lessening of our concentration, as well as reflect it. They contribute in the sense that any webpage does: they flood your mind with input, such as the ads to the right. They reflect the trend towards quick skimming that takes less concentration in perhaps obvious ways: they are short (like Chris Sturgeon). Problogger suggests that blogs should be about 250 words (I’m long), and that the average blog reader spends only 96 seconds on each post (usually longer than I last).

The worrisome aspect of this dynamic is what it portends for Christians, a people for whom interpretation booms in importance. There are times when the Bible breaks my heart, wets my eyes, and changes who I am, but daily, committed or lengthy reading certainly isn’t part of my life. But the job of interpreting things goes beyond the Bible for Christians: we also must interpret culture. What are the good and bad ideas in the world, media, politics, forming us? Finally, we have to interpret our selves. When am I doing good things for bad reasons?

Maybe critical thinking is always at risk. Or maybe this is just a bit of histrionics. Blogs and their internet buddies can be good too. Quick and easy can be strengths. They are free and available to anyone with a computer. And most importantly, they’re totally unfiltered. These are fundamental aspects of our first amendment rights.
What do you think about blogs? The internet as a thought medium? Maybe I’m full of shit; you should point that out. (wiener jokes are in parentheses. Its unfiltered right?)