Tong Fior Blackbelt: The Martial Art of Joyous Conflict

One brief note

I was not happy with this when it was new, and think that something in it still isn’t quite right. However, I still think there is much in it that’s worth reading.

As a child of perhaps ten, I told friends that I was going to make a martial art, made up a name that sounded Asian to me (“Tong Fior”), and got into an argument about it with a classmate (nowhere near physical blows). The preferred term for this in the academy is the highly abrasive term “Orientalism,” although the better tempered anthropologists would regard it as the normal and natural contact when any one culture starts to meet another, and is really the same Orientalism by which the nationalistic Independence Day movie enjoyed tremendous popularity well outside of U.S. political borders. In the one kind of Orientalism, there are people in the West who want to be some romanticized image of the East; in the other there are people in the East who want to be some romanticized image of the West. I have difficulty finding much of any real difference between these instances of “diffusion” as the term is understood in an anthropology department.

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

Obligatory quotation from G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton, in a passage that is politically incorrect enough today, wrote,

I am told that the Japanese method of wrestling consists not suddenly of pressing, but of suddenly giving way. This is one of my many reasons for disliking the Japanese civilization. To use surrender as a weapon is in the very worst spirit of the East. But there is no force so hard to defeat as the force which is easy enough for conquer; the force that always yields and then returns.

But hold that thought for a second, and I speak as a fan of the Land of the Rising Sun for ages. (And not just for that one single Google AdWords ad impression that changed eBay’s AdWords presence forever: “Buy Japanese sushi on eBay! New and Used.“)

Someone said, in response to a Quora question about whether anyone had regretted getting a PhD, and one of few PhD’s to say “yes” said basically that you don’t get a doctorate to get a superhuman high social status and be addressed as “Doctor”; he said “a PhD is just a paper that comes along the way as you are doing something you love.”

The personalities of martial arts

Something very much like that related to what what we now understand as a belt system. A martial artist wouldn’t be awarded a blackbelt (or anything else besides a white belt) on the grounds of a formalized test. When you started, you got a white belt that would be slowly blackened by the practice involved in developing expertise for years and years and years. And I believe that most of the better martial artists today would say that the older approach is still foundational in better practices today; it’s just obscured and harder to discern, and certain entirely justified concessions to societal needs have been made.

I remember being offended when I saw how parts of Aikido in Aiki Ninjutsu work; it brought up memories of very frustrating matters of conversation, where a friend (and I do really mean friend) gave infuriating claims of agreement where he would say “I agree with you that [fill in the blank]”, and the beginning, middle, and end of every such “agreement” was to wrench some belief of my mine out of context, placing himself as someone in a position to understand, interpret and explain my beliefs far better than I could, and use it as a sledgehammer against something else that were just as foundational to those beliefs. During those years, he never claimed agreement except as the presentation of an attack. And that is specifically what I saw in physical form in how to respond to an opponent’s punch. You grabbed your opponent’s arm, and so to speak “corrected” the direction it was moving, and add exaggerated force to what your revision of the punch has become. This was disappointing enough to be offensive after reading the tale of a martial art founded by a legendary, great O Sensei who stood unarmed and kept dodging a master swordsman until the attacking swordsman collapsed from fatigue.

I’d be a little cautious about glibly identifying this as “Aikido,” which etymology means something close to “Way with harmony and energy,” as Aiki Ninjutsu represents a new fusion that draws on several older sources and has modern elements. The fusion may not particularly Western elements, but it has a Creed (with an apparently deliberate uppercase ‘C’ as in “Craptastic”), with the Creed beginning with “I believe in myself. I am confident. I can accomplish my goals,” and when I started to give a thinking Christian’s objections to believing in oneself (see Chesterton’s take below), I saw in verbal form the foundational lesson of “Become the center.” What I never heard was so much as lip service to “harmony between opponents” that is a leitmotif in so many genuine martial arts. The technique associated with “Become the center” forces all else to resolve around oneself, and the teacher seemed a bit “become the center” in that he spoke with decisive authority and I was not allowed to even contribute anything to the conversation beyond accepting decisive authority.

G.K. Chesterton incidentally has something to say about “become the center” or rather just believing in yourself. The sting with which he opens chapter 2 of his book Heretics make the stinging remarks of Sumo wrestling quoted above almost sound like praise:

THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written [the name of the lunatic asylum] “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.

Enough of Chesterton; like The Onion, he has something to offend every palate. (He was beyond being dismissive of the thought of his joining the Orthodox Church.

Some people might be surprised by remarks above; my memberships in 3-4 martial arts lasted for a few months, and while I have had some successes (Kuk Sool Won and the local Shokotan paired me with blackbelts or blackbelt candidates by the end, and one fellow Karate student was getting very infuriated when I responded to him about a quarter second earlier than expected; I moved to meet him as he was moving, not after, without the faintest interval between the two), I found that spirituality was very dry until I repented of it as sin (a mistake I should have made once, if even that). And just to be clear, everyone I’ve heard of in any martial art at all says that you improve after a couple of months, but real mastery takes years and years and years. (I think my case was simply not how things work normally.)

God practices Ju-Jutsu, and we should too, as an act of submission

Perhaps the single greatest illustration of Jiu-Jutsu in the Bible is where a Saul burning with wrath and destruction, trying in overweening pride to annihilate the Church, was stopped cold by the uncreated Light of Heaven, the Light who strikes terror in those not indwelt by It, and provides what may be the only place in the Bible where the Lord quotes a pagan Greek source: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? … It hurts you to kick against the goads.” The action of an Orthodox Christian is not, on the balance, to invade another’s mind and straighten it out. It is not, on the balance, either our place to really defend ourselves. It is to, in the words of a Protestant hymn, “Keep your eyes on Jesus / Look full in his wonderful face / And the things of this world will grow strangely dim / In the light of his glory and grace,” and remember that you too are a sinner and try to be merciful and forgiving as others join you as you continue kicking against the goads.

Furthermore, the more you are in trouble, the more stress you are in, the more conflict or worse, the more more essential that you grow beyond any abilities you know in deiform love to forgive, to have mercy, to pray, to turn the other cheek. The Sermon on the Mount is not an ornament for the beings of some mythical world more perfect than Star Trash. It is a battleplan for those of us who live in a world of conflict and violence.

The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount.

De-mythologizing done right

Bultmann is a foundational character in the academy, enough so to have provoked C.S. Lewis to write The Elephant and the Fern-Seed. Bultmann came up with a new way of moving beyond mythological trappings found in the Bible and theology. Or at least that is how his progressive circles understood their stance; I’m not completely sure how an Orthodox might best respond, whether “You have a valid enough point, but why does it loom so suffocatingly large to you?” or, “Um, you ARE aware that your fresh and new discovery is a recycled version of a topic that an Orthodox Christian worked out with power, well over a millennium earlier than you, and by a canonized saint at that, and the saint did a profoundly better job than you?”, or extending an invitation for the distinguished scholar to simply become a catechumen!

However, I would like to take up Bultmann’s point, or rather that of the canonized saint of over a thousand years before (Pseudo-Dionysius), or rather God’s point. A standard illustration is, as we repeatedly read in Exodus, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This claim should not be taken literally; I’ve yet to read even someone very wrong read the text as meaning that God stiffened Pharaoh’s cardiac muscle (heart) the same way an arm or leg or back muscle stiffens with a cramp. But it goes deeper. The claim that God changed Pharoah at all is too crude. Pharaoh hardened his own heart with Satan’s help. God (and the image of Jiujutsu must eventually be dropped as well) exercised Jiujutsu and let Pharaoh reach destruction by the only way that Hell can ever be reached: by his own steam.

I now remember once feeling particularly squeamish about a mailing list conversation where one Orthodox sympathizer clarified, in perfect sincerity, that where Genesis 1 repeats, “And God said,” that was such a human way of speaking that it meant that God spoke, in her words, “with lips and a tongue” as one would expect of mortal man. And I made no effort to assume command of the situation and straighten out her mind for a couple of reasons. First of all, even if her assertion was analytically wrong enough to fill me with squeamishness, unless she is troubling others (in which case someone well above my pay grade should be laying down the law), it is not my place to use my book-learning to take away the little that is held by someone who is not even a member of the Orthodox Church. But that is just for practice. The beam in my eye has to with believing I need to have my way, that I should be in power or in control, or anything else. She might have thought it helpful to give Pharaoh an intake appointment at a cardiologist’s. I do much worse.

How?

Perhaps one way of putting that is this: we are inclined to believe that God violated the free will of Satan and Judas, because they killed the Son of Man and He came back to life triumphant. But a slightly closer image is that he was on higher ground, he let their free will be as sordid as they chose, and in a way beyond Jiujutsu the God who is beyond motion met them fully and attentively, with a heart full of love, and the evil that cannot grasp love tried to give its strongest and most venomous strike, they struck where the everywhere-present God is not and the full force of their blow slammed into a brick wall and their sting was inflicted only on themselves.

But be careful:

One subtle note to those who find alluring the image of Satan slamming his horns full force into an adamant wall next to which diamond is as as a crumbling dust: if you find the image attractive, beware of adopting Satan’s ever-seductive, ever-destructive pride.

One joke good or bad that I heard many, many times as a child ran:

There were two morons working in a hot pit enduring the heat while their boss sat in a cool air-conditioned building outside of the pit on the ground above, not doing much of anything.

One day the morons got to talking and said, “How come we do all the work and our boss gets to sit in an air conditioned building? So the first moron got up from the pit and asked, “How come we work in a hot messy pit all day, and you’re in this office getting nearly all the money?”

The boss said, “Because I’m smarter than you.”

The moron asked, “Why?”

The boss walked over to a thick tree and held his hand in front of the trunk. “Hit my hand as hard as you can!”

The moron swung his best, and the boss deftly pulled his hand away, leaving the moron to slam the full force of his punch into the rugged trunk of the tree.

After he had stopped crying, the first moron climbed back into the pit.

The second moron said, “What did you find out?”

The first moron said, “I’m smarter than you.”

The second moron said, “Why?”

The first moron put his hand in front of his face and said, “Hit my hand as hard as you can!”

There are two, and no more than two, essential options to us. One is to join hands in the Church and dance with the Lord not only of men but of angels and eagles, cultures and corporate worlds, a vast universe held in the heart of a God so small as to be without parts, and join in the unfolding mystery of the Lord of the Dance in whom alone the Divine Providence unfurls. The other option is to help Satan rearrange your face. There is no inconsistent option which lets you remain impenitent in pride and yet remain impossibly free from Satan’s clutches. And more could be said than that: as Fr. Thomas Hopko famously crystallized, Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted until your last breath.

This is also the point expressed in what may be the most piercingly beautiful of St. Nicolas’ Prayers by the Lake in which, as I would offer images Hope is praised, the Hope Who is eternal, the Hope which glimmers in young children who race out of bed on Christmas morning in all the pageantry of the Great Dance and can’t wait to open the first present but hasn’t the faintest idea of what the first present may be. But there also hopes, with an ‘s’ as in “Shit“, hopes that have certainly plagued me enough hopes really that God will obey the plan that you have worked out to him, and set expections that God is to jump to your plan, and in the event of any problems, he should contact you immediately for further orders or instructions. It is, on reflection, an act of mercy that God sometimes says, “No” to people who give the most meticulously drafted orders, and perhaps work with people who order him around for decades to teach them, just a little, how to live a life that is dancing the Great Dance.

Gandhi and satyagraha

Having tried to underscore the absolute necessity of humility, I would like to move on to the next order of business and compare myself to Gandhi.

Gandhi was a Hindu, in one of three world religions that took its genesis in India. It is my considered judgment that Gandhi’s achievements could have been made solely within resources directly provided by his native Hinduism. However, that sounds like an outsider’s guess to anyone who understands this figure in history; however rich Hinduism may be, Gandhi through whatever reason chose to draw on outside sources.

The most shame I have ever felt about being a Christian was when a pastor in church explained that Gandhi wanted with his whole heart to become a Christian, and when he sought out a Christian evangelist, the racist evangelist rejected him for the color of his skin alone. That experience soured Gandhi enough that he was never again open to being a Christian, but please look at this closely.

I would draw out four decisive influences on Gandhi:

  1. Gandhi’s native Hinduism about which I will now only say that it is deep as an ocean.
  2. The “purer than the pure” Jainism from which he took profound inspiration without also membership (we proverbially say that someone “wouldn’t hurt a fly”, while to this day Jain monastics sweep the ground in front of them with peacock feathers to avoid accidentally stepping on a bug, as Jainism is also a world religion that came from India.
  3. Christianity: this was the religion of the British colonists, and Gandhi spoke and acted warmly towards his sharpest critics. Gandhi also said things that would astonish people for a speaker who wasn’t Christian: “Jesus, a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.” He elsewhere states that his three heroes are Jesus, Daniel, and Socrates, all of whom saw their lives as nothing next to the salvation of their souls. And finally:
  4. Western-style political activism: (Well, I suppose we all have to be wrong about something.)

I do not know how to explain Gandhi’s towering stature in actively trying to adopt the strengths of Christianity and activism. True, he was soured by personally rejected by a Christian evangelist who was beyond moronic, but what I would ordinarily expect is for Gandhi to grind an axe against the English and Christians for the rest of his life, with an anger transparently visible to everyone else besides him, all the way icily insisting, “I am not angry!” As it was, he kept reaching out in love to English and other people who met him with total hatred, and by what is called “satyagraha” purchased the freedom of the one nation in history that achieved its from colonial domination by nonviolence rather than war, and remains the one nation in the world that I am aware of where rah-rah nationalism express itself by the study of nonviolence rather than by celebrating victory through warriors’ killing of others. And this is in a religion where the crowning jewel, the Sermon on the Mount, is a tale of epic heroism where God appears in human semblance and encourages and exhorts a prince who is so devoid of laziness that perhaps he doesn’t even sleep, to rise up in full power and annihilate all those marked for destruction. And Gandhi does nothing to downplay the text; he instead contributed yet one more commentary to the vast collection (and the Hindu preference, at least today, seems to be never give this crowning jewel without opening it up by commentary). And now we are in a position to drill down slightly.

Gandhi said very emphatically, “Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.” And I would take this as entirely without sloppiness or guile. However, I would like to delve into a word he used. For the purpose of this section, I will treat Gandhi’s use of “nonviolence” and “satyagraha” as two sides of the same coin, or even closer. The term “satyagraha” is not taken from Hindi (which is, along with English, India’s modern national language), but from the classical Sanskrit, classical in India as Latin and Greek are European classical languages. My best understanding both as a historian and also as an author is that Gandhi went on a word hunt, searching to find the perfect word to crystallize the consuming quest, as Madeleine l’Engle found a word “kythe”, a Scottish word if I remember correctly, that originally meant something like “to truly come to be”, and became the central term in her classic A Wind in the Door. Madeleine l’Engle did not use the word as anyone before her did, and Gandhi seized on a word that had previously not been a term about violence or its absence, a term that meant something like “steadfastly holding on to the Truth no matter what.

And there is no either-or between Gandhi’s embarking on a quest that ended with a deep term from classical Sanskrit, and his full and direct assertion that truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. The key to this is found in Christ’s words: “Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.” A study of Gandhi’s use of the term “satyagraha” is a study of bringing forth out of a treasure things new and old which are one on the same.

I freely enough compare myself to Gandhi as an author. I do not feel the need to compare myself to Gandhi on forgiveness or anything else truly important besides that we are both made in the image of God, and both sinners.

What is pain? What is yielding?

Here I will not discuss what the image of God is at length, nor dissect that the highest command is to love God with one’s whole being and the second which is like it is to love your neighbor as yourself. However, I will say that the God who defines health is the model for healthily function and life, and Jujutsu is not just how God acts, it’s how we act if we’re doing right. It means that even in the most intense conflict or combat one is looking up for light. The U.S. in World War II referred to the Japanese Jiujutsu as “chop-socky”, and for all their following the universal wartime rules of due diligence in demonizing the enemy, the most patriotic U.S. foot soldiers learned very, very quickly that their Western boxing completely fell to pieces when it ran into “chop-socky.”

It is said by at least some martial artists and athletes that “Pain is weakness exiting the body.” It should equally be said by Orthodox Christians not only that repentance is sin exiting the soul, but that repentance is misery exiting the soul, if there is any difference at all: repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret. And the struggle with anger that is called forgiveness, when we reach victory, is also misery exiting the soul.

Jiu-jutsu is a word meaning “yielding”, and comparisons with Jiu-jutsu should not be pushed too far, as may be admitted. It is one image among others and one not present in Scripture. But there is a distinction in Asian martial arts (and perhaps Capoiera, for instance), between “-jutsu” and “-do” that is well understood. “Jutsu” means a technique or skill, like woodworking, and “do” means a philosophical or spiritual path. The Western tradition (apart from when Asian martial arts came to be a substantial influence) is entirely “-jutsu”. This is true with a couple of bumps, as Jiu-jutsu is of an ancient provenance, the art of Samurai who had not even their weapons, while Judo may be seen as a modern attempt to simplify and cleanse Jiu-Jutsu into a simpler art that would be effective self-defense while eliminating locks and other destructive features. And all of the martial arts have their own personalities and characteristics, some better than others, but none yet let the stillness of Orthodox hesychasm or silence eclipse the meditation that is structural to internal martial arts.

Dojos

So when am I going to start opening dojos? The answer I am hoping for is, “Never.” The one possible exception I see is that if the Church is really, really scraping the bottom of the barrel and makes me a bishop in some vague sense, or even worse a real bishop charged with fully competent administration, love, and care of a diocese, instead of the nominal formality, the “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” concession of being honored on paper as the more-than-a-bishop of some long-lost city without a second living representative. If I bear the heavy cross and heavy crown of thorns of a real bishop, then I would have the right to start opening dojos, except that wouldn’t be the right way of thinking of it at all: most people would call it “the responsibility to continue opening parishes.”

Color

I winced when I heard Exodus International was closing its doors… until I found out why, and it was a concern that I held since I first heard of it, no matter how much I respected its mission. Exodus International was trying alone to shoulder a responsibility that belonged to the entire ecosystem of the Church. And one question I had already been asking before I saw the Gay Nineties taking over was why on earth that class of sin was its own world, a separate detached from the rainbow fragments forgiven by Christ at Sinners Anonymous, or as it is more often called, the Church. The reason for the coming of the Son of God was to destroy the Devil’s work, and then to keep on pushing for bonus points well past when people can go Heaven: but for starters, let us to say to take each broken fragment of a fractured rainbow, whether pride or envy or the occult or drunkenness or any shard of lust whether gay or straight, and take these broken fragments and restore them to the to the pure, whole, white, bright, radiant, scintillating Light beyond beauty of the uncreated Son.

The Void

The martial arts classic A Book of Five Rings, in a brevity comparable to the Sermon on the Mount, covers five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and the void. The chapter about the void is by far the most terse: all else is summarized and transcended.

I have come to nearly the end of writing what I wanted to write, and I have covered almost everything on topic to cover except one thing: the original, central point that motivated the construction of the work. It would not be strange to call the topic “satyagraha:” I do not complain that others may do so, but I would rather look at hagiography.

The canonized saints trample on the rules of nature again, and again, and again. Saints walk on water; one monk, the only one on a monastic coast worthy to retrieve an icon miraculously floating on water, when he absolutely had to do so, crawled on top of the surface of the water on all fours like a dog, because in his great humility he considered himself utterly unworthy to stand up normally and walk on top of the water like Christ did. Saints pass through fire unharmed, although not every time. Many saints have been burned to death as martyrs, but it seems to happen that when the fire went out the martyrs looked as if they were merely sleeping, with a smile on their faces, and without a thread of their clothes or a hair on their heads singed or the faintest scent of smoke. In the lives, it seems that the only way that persecutors can get certain saints to die and stay dead is to behead them (hello, ISIS?), and even then, the saints occasionally pick up their heads, walk over to their preferred resting place, and there set down their severed heads and only then give their consent to really die.

Furthermore the God who works in the heart of hearts to giants among the saints is also works in the hearts of the faithful. Monastic giants trample on scorpions with bare feet; many more faithful trample on pride. Majestic saints open the eyes of the blind; and men reject lust and find their sight truly opened. St. Paul the Apostle raised the dead more than once, and innumerable more among the faithful, across many centuries, have fed the hungry; and furthermore, in a point that many, many officially canonized saints have driven home across the centuries, feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead. The term “saint” referred originally to every member of the Church without exception, and one and the same God works in every stripe of saint to ultimately transcend the chasm between what is created, and what is uncreated. The wall between God and we who are merely created is there so that we may rise above it.

And in all this, the inner struggle of the Philokalia is vibrant in its nature. Its watchfulness or inner “nipsis” acts in moral and ascetical character like an author searching from just the perfect word, ever attentive, never hurrying, never impatient, always expecting. It is like the great Noah, who followed God’s command to build a huge boat in the middle of the desert, and was then the sole survivor from a deluge. It is like a diligent martial artist, who lives by the words, “The more you bleed in the dojo, the less you will bleed in the street.” It claims no exemption from suffering, nor entitlement to wishes fulfilled: if the Measure by whom all saints are measured was the great King who only wore a crown once, and then only a crown of twisted thorns, then we are advised to properly take up our crosses in this earthly vale while we can still repent, because once our life has gone, the opportunity to repent will vanish forevermore.  But sometimes there is an an inner struggle of building a boat in the desert, and trusting the Lord of the Dance to know that he knows what is the right order and that if your next step is to leap before you look and only find out why after you have leapt. For those of us who are children at least, God shows us the reason why just after we have leapt because he knows that out of our weakness we will not exercise faith if he presents us with the reason beforehand, and identically knows that out of our weakness we will not maintain faith if too great a delay comes between the obedience and reward: in all things he meets our weakness that we might meet his strength. And all of this has every connection to how we can be entangled in our world’s conflicts, get hurt again and again, and meet a joy that is beyond any of the conflicts and hurts.

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Destroying Asian Philosophy talks about “ego-reading”; reading to push through a text, or as the problem appears among hiking, rushing to get to a point as forcefully and as quickly as possible. He points out that paradoxically those who rush to just get something done tend to not arrive at the intended destination at all. People who make progress in one activity or the other are, although I do not recall if they are stated in these terms, are people who have something in mind other than forcing their way to an external goal. Had the book been written later, it might have used the term “auto-telic”, which describes an activity that is its own goal. Where martial arts like Aikido are called “goalless” by practitioners, it would be more literal, at some loss of striking contrast, to use a presently preferred term of auto-telic and say that an Aikidoko is not worrying about if he as a student will reach black belt, or on a much lower scale how interminably long it will take to master what should be a simple technique, or whether there will be enough progress in managing anger or weight, or anything else. A proper practitioner of Aikido’s attention is fixed on Aikido itself, rather than paralysis by analysis over whether Aikido can be successfully used as a bridge to something external. You practice Aikido in order to practice Aikido.

The Philokalia offers something that seems much less but ends by being much more. The basic framing of work is different, and quite at odds with today’s conception of interesting work. The usual physical craft of self-supporting monks in the ancient world was basket weaving, cynically understood by some in academia today as a legal fiction to let high-value football players keep the alumni without needing to perform proper academic work. The most common craft of self-supporting monasteries today is crafting incense, which at least supplies something elevated to Orthodox parishes. But this way of thinking misses the point for both the ancient and the modern arrangement, which I personally only understood when watching my brother’s Mythbusters show and hear Adam gush at how “meditative” the repeated monotonous physical action of weaving a braided kangaroo leather bullwhip was. The chief merit of basket weaving and incense making alike is that they are repetitive motions that occupy the hands, and it is not clear to me that it is particularly helpful to think of incense as a high-status thing. The ancient and modern monasticism alike the preferred obedience is something that engages the hands while the heart pursues purity. That is the center of gravity. And in modern monasteries, there may be some non-meditative work that needs to be done, but the general pattern is to have most monks heavily engaged in meditative labors for the benefit of the monks themselves in a setting where people do not distinguish sacred from secular or work from prayer. The work is there to help prayer reach perfection. And really, cleaning toilets is more often mentioned as the standard example of honorable obediences than making incense.

But the same center of gravity applies outside of the monastery; it can just be frustratingly more difficult. One monk commented to a cleaning lady that she had a more fortunate position, and I as a programmer and knowledge worker had a less fortunate position, because it is entirely possible to be engaged in prayer while scrubbing tables, but significantly harder to be absorbed in prayer while your mind is chasing bugs in a computer program. And no, this was not a matter of the monk being gracious to someone with lower status and knowing that I would not be hurt or offended by the suggestion. It was unvarnished candor.

What is necessary for people is the same in or outside of the monastery; it’s just that with all the modern inconveniences and interesting and entertaining work the near-identical needs are not met to the same degree. Monks say to each other, “Have a good struggle,” and struggle is expected and normal; people who approach monasteries to loaf around or have some romanticized image be their life may succeed, but not without considerable growth. And to the point of struggle, it is the norm and it is necessary for salvation in or out of Heaven. Those scientifically minded know that when physicists have examined how different the physical constants could and support life as we know it, the invariable conclusion is that life as we know it could not be possible unless the universe were tuned, not to put too fine a point on it, but with mind-boggling precision as if there were a God creating a universe universe that was incredibly fine-tuned, just to support life. And with a similar question among those who have any idea of the dimensions of the earth and the incomparable dimensions of the universe, “Why is the universe so vast, and the earth smaller than a grain of sand when held next to its grandeur? How much legroom does the human race need?” the answer is, “A universe’s worth: no less!” And if we ask, “How much legroom does the Church require for salvation, that the saved may have eternal joy and shine with the uncreated Light in Heaven?” the answer is to me my least favorite part of this book and one that brings me to tears. The answer is, “Hell,” or possibly more strongly and chillingly, “Every single soul from among the innumerable multitude of those who will be eternally damned to Hell!

One pastor tried to say this without a laugh, and failed, that he was one place in the American South during a heat wave, and just before elevator doors closed, a jogger stepped in, sweating bullets, and said, “It’s hotter than Hell out there!” The pastor said, slowly, “No. It isn’t,” and creeped out everyone else in the elevator. But the damned exist, there is always at least possibility of salvation, God does ever better than they observe, and the damned do one thing that is essential. They provide other people with conflicts that can be part of a saving struggle. And when the Crack of Doom comes those who treat you abusively you will partly answer for your sins in your place. This is first a cause to feel relieved, then giddy, then at least for a moment when the full implications begin to unfold, pure terror. Christ died for your sins, and so did Judas, Arius, Marx, Jung, and Hitler.

But God has ordained things, and monastic and non-monastic alike need struggle, which often takes the form of conflicts, of things that we don’t think belong in our lives but God knows they do. And joy does not consist in being exempt from struggle. It consists of growing in struggle. It consists of having a good struggle. And if you earnestly engage your struggle you may experience the power in the final crescendo of Fr. Thomas’s crystallization:

Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.
Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

In all these things and more, the Sermon on the Mount as it unfolds including the Philokalia, like as the Mishnah and Talmud, acts as a stone from Heaven of inexhaustible wealth:

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

These things slip through our fingers. They are simple, simpler than breathing, and we in our weakened state need some great systematic theology with slippery concepts we can pin down to grasp. So God meets in our weakness and gives the Philokalia to meticulously assess every detail of internal struggle and the eight demons that became the seven deadly sins in the West. “Do not store up treasures on earth” is a simple commandment; it does not only tell us we do not need Rolls-Royces to experience true blessedness, nor do we need our health (saints have lived to great spiritual heights amidst great illness, and not just because they were extraordinarily good), nor do we need our thoughts, or plans for our future in days or minutes, or an identity such as we try to have in the West, or “My Opinions”. We are to chase instead of the treasures that we can eat from today and forever, and come to that place where every drop of blood we bleed in the dojo eclipses a galaxy of diamond in its worth on the streets of Heaven.

Cooldown: The Alchemist

The Alchemist, like many favorite picks on Oprah, is the sort of thing that makes me nostalgic for when my brother still had a beautiful tropical bird as a pet, and moreover makes me positively yearn for the days the house still had a birdcage that still needed lining. None the less, there is a vignette that I would like to draw out.

The teacher-figure in the course is the towering alchemical figure of Melchizedek, who is immortal, can turn lead into gold, can already turn himself into wind, and presumably has numerous and extraordinary other cosmic powers not explored in the text, and teaches the student-figure after making a sweeping dismissal of all the other traditions in all the world’s other religions, and even a Western scholar whose heart was in the wrong place along with alchemy being dismissed for rhetorical weight.

The student figure never becomes immortal, never gains abilities to change metals personally, has no idea how to turn himself into wind (at least to start off with; the quest where he learns to make this self-transformation is core to the book’s plot), and ends up after a long heroic journey to and back finds out that there had been an enormous quantity of gold lying buried under his back yard right where he started.

But a major point is this: both Master and student are equally alchemists, or at very least at the end. The student does not have all the master’s cosmic powers, and even after he has turned himself to wind it is debatable whether he has any cosmic powers, but the question of whether they have identical arsenals of cosmic powers matters no more than whether their eyes are of the same color. Both are equally alchemists; the student follows his teacher in delving deeper into a pride that destroys all capacity for any joy, and an occult mindset that destroys the sanity of all those who practice it in the real world. They are both alchemists, master and pupil, and both participate fully in the tradition, on their own paths. That the teacher’s path includes having the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, and the student does not, and the teacher can transmute lead to gold and the student cannot, is neither here nor there. Teacher and student both follow their personal paths within alchemy. Perhaps it would have been fundamentally humbler for the student to keep on asking that the teacher give him a sole drop of the Elixir of Life and induct him into turning lead to gold.

(By the way, did I mention that there is a way to obtain gold that is purer than 24 karats, such as alchemists did not reach high enough to quest for?)

With all of the above efforts to rip The Alchemist to shreds, and others I’ve held my tongue on, I still wish to make one point clear: The book’s way of looking at difference is less than you think. The further you reach the Kingdom of Heaven, the less it matters that you have precious little money or gold. In fact wealth properly understood is a liability and a handicap more than really being much of any asset that puts you in a better position. Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher and apologist who helped me along the way to Orthodoxy, found one great spiritual advantage to money: it doesn’t make you happy. If you are perennially struggling financially, and you see Break My Window around you on the street when your beater breaks down frequently, it’s awfully, awfully hard to avoid thinking that so many things would be better if you had a good bit of money. If, on the other hand, you have a top-notch chauffeur for a Rolls-Royce, and you’re still miserable, a great deal of the sting has been taken away from the temptation that just having more money is all you need. You can still be greedy and covet things, but it becomes a far weaker temptation to think that your spiritual emptiness actually comes from the fact that you are not in a position to have Michelangelo’s David in your garden and the Mona Lisa in your living room.

The martial artist I respect most was asked in class how many times he had had to use his martial arts skills. And he slowly, gently, humbly said, that he had really been fortunate and hadn’t needed to use his his martial art, even though there were a couple of awfully close calls [during years and years of study].

And I submit that his answer, as stated, is wrong, or at least his wording was deceptive and misleading.

He was at the time a third-degree blackbelt. I don’t know what he is now. For non-martial artists, as far as sparring goes, a first-degree blackbelt is a third-degree blackbelt’s chewtoy. He is past the point where people are said to be able to kill a tiger with their bare hands. I am all but certain that in every one of those close calls, he could have killed the other person immediately. His teacher, at a martial arts show, stood holding two beautiful, ornamental-looking fans, looking quaint, and picturesque, and exotic, and then the teacher was simultanously attacked by five blackbelts with swords, and an instant later the teacher stood holding two beautiful, ornamental-looking fans, looking quaint, and picturesque, and exotic, and all around him were five blackbelts, on the ground, crying.

The martial artist I most respect said, humbly, gently, modestly, that even in the close calls, he had said, “You’re the tough guy,” and backed down, or run away, or almost anything possible (whatever it took), coming out the loser in every social confrontation, and he went on to say, “Most people who think they want to fight don’t really want to fight.” And I submit that the proof of his profound mastery of his art was this: he has passed through minefield after minefield after minefield such as I almost certainly could not, without stepping on a mine even once. The point is not that he happened to be carrying a first aid kit in case he did step on a mine. The point is not that he was carrying a very, very good first aid kit in case he did step on a mine. The proof of his mastery is that, as of my last knowledge, he had never needed to open his first aid kit, not even once. And indeed martial artists often defuse a potential fight before most outsiders would recognize there was anything going out of the ordinary going on.

Incidentally, though there was no question of my ever wanting to give a physical attack when I was in his class, I was quite the jackass and quite the belligerent student, and he only ever answered me with humility and gentleness. In the end, his gentleness conquered me.

What about what I have somewhat whimsically called “Tong Fior”? In my own opinion, my credentials make for an pretty impressive parody of martial arts, unless you want to go through the ha, ha, only serious route. I’ve lifted weights (and lifted weight machines, and broken weight machines by applying too much force), climbed with devotion, in riflery went from no rank to Sharpshooter, Bar VIII in one week, punched at bags, dipped a finger in a few martial arts, made my own approximation of ninjutsu stealth (and unintendedly got a stunned “Whaaaaa?” when these skills came out in campers’ response to games in nature with me as their camp counselor, asking, “Did you go to some special Daniel Boone school [to be able to move so silently and be sensitive to sounds that were apparently around 0 dB]?”), and am gifted to the degree that professionals say “You’re smarter than most geniuses” or “The average Harvard Ph.D. has never met someone as talented as you” (the gifts are not magic powers but for some purposes they might as well be), and other things which should be preferably viewed as ornamental at best. One question outsiders ask of martial artists is how well they’d do in a real fight; the question comes perhaps with hope at a training that would make the asker all but invincible, the basic response to that question is “HTTP Error 404: Missing Page”: if you’re not already the one and only Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s “sword-saint”, no martial art can change that at all. I would show respect for Kuk Sool Won by saying that one second degree black belt said, “I would give myself one chance in two. But the more chances you give yourself, the less you have.” I’ve had experienced the martial arts practicality, as one martial artist’s parody ad said, “Get beat up by people twice your age and half your size!” There is one point where I expect victory would come, and that is if the Spirit of the Lord comes on me. Orthodox priests should not employ physical violence, and in the profound story of Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, people are flabbergasted when the weakened and aged monk Fr. Arseny steps where a fight has broken out and strikes a forceful blow. Possibly if the Spirit of the Lord falls on me, I might blast through a 9th kyu, or possibly for that matter a 9th dan. In all other cases it is not my concern.

The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount, and the struggles I now wrestle with are not flesh and blood, though they have brought me through mortal danger more than once. Kuk Sool Won in every school but one says, “We need more practice!” The Kuk Sa Bo Nim (Grandmaster)’s headquarters school says, “You need more practice!” I’ll go with “We need more practice!”, please, or better “I need more practice!”, or if I can bring it even closer to my true needs, “Lord, give me more time to repent.”

(And a true monk leaves us both in the dust. Though extraordinarily many married Orthodox perfectly well without any of the structure by which God condescends to meet monks.)

(This article is dedicated to the great warrior-martyr St. Mercurius, who destroyed the impious emperor Julian the Apostate from beyond the grave.)

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A Comparison Between the Mere Monk and the Highest Bishop

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

I believe that if some of the best bishops were asked, “How would you like to step down from all of your honors, and all of your power, and hand the reins over to an excellent successor, and become only the lowest rank of monk at an obscure monastery in the middle of nowhere with no authority over any soul’s salvation but your own—would you take it?” their response might be, “Um, uh… what’s the catch?

(I deeply respect my heirarch and after a bit of thought, I removed certain remarks because I really think he would rather endure baseless slander than others making a public display of his virtues.)

If I may comment briefly on virginity and marriage: in a culture where you try to rip your opponent’s position to shreds instead of aiming for fair balance in a critique, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity is meant to rip marriage to shreds. I don’t mean that, and I would say something that I don’t think needed to be said, or at least not needed to be said, as much: true marriage should be seen as having something of the hallowed respect associated with monasticism. A marriage in its fullest traditional sense, is becoming (or already is) something that should be called exotic if people didn’t look down their noses at it. As far as true marriage relates to monasticism, the externals are almost antithetical but the goal is the same: self-transcendence. The person who said, “Men love women. Women love children. Children love pets. Life isn’t fair,” is on to something. Getting into marriage properly requires stepping beyond an egotism of yourself; raising children, if you are so blessed, requires stepping beyond an egotism of two. And Biblically and patristically, childlessness was seen as a curse; the priestly father to whom one child was given in old age, the Mother of God herself, bore derision even in his high office because people viewed childlessness as a curse enough to be a sign of having earned divine judgment and wrath. And at a day and age where marriage is being torn from limb to limb, it might befit us to make particular efforts to honor marriage alongside monasticism.

There is one advantage to monasticism; actually, there are several, but one eclipses the others, and that is mentioned when St. Paul recognizes that not everyone can be celibate like him, marriage being a legitimate and honorable option. But he mentions a significant advantage to celibacy: the married person must have divided attention between serving family and the Lord, where a celibate person (today this usually belongs in monasticism) is able to give God an undivided attention, enjoying the blessed estate of a Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet as a disciple taking in the one thing that is truly necessary, and not as a Martha who is busily encumbered with many other things. And while St. Paul knows that not everybody can walk the celibate path, he does at least wish that people could offer God an undivided attention. And I have yet to hear Orthodox challenge that any genuine marriage includes a condition of divided attention.

If we leave off talking about bishops just briefly, let’s take a brief look at the abbot next to a simple monk under him (“simple monk” is a technical term meaning a monk who has not additionally been elevated to any minor or major degree of sacramental priesthood). The simple monk has lost some things, but he has in full the benefit St. Paul wants celibates to have: everything around him is ordered to give him the best opportunity to work on salvation. Meanwhile, any abbot who is doing an abbot’s job is denied this luxury. Some abbots have been tempted to step down from their honored position because of how difficult they’ve found caring for themselves spiritually as any monk should, and additionally care for the many needs of a monastery and the other monks. An abbot may not focus on his own salvation alone; he must divide his attention to deal with disciples and various secular material needs a monastery must address. An abbot is a monk who must bear a monk’s full cross; in addition, while an abbot has no sexual license, he must also bear the additional cross of a father who is dividing his attention in dealing with those under his care. He may be celibate, but he effectively forgoes the chief benefit St. Paul ascribes to living a celibate life.

To be a heirarch brings things another level higher. Right now I don’t want to compare the mere monk with a bishop, but rather compare an abbot with a bishop. The abbot acts as a monk in ways that include the full life participation in the services and environment in a monastery. It may be true that the abbot is more finely clad than other monks, but abbot and simple monk alike are involved in the same supportive environment, and what abbot and simple monk share is greater than their difference. By comparison, unless the bishop is one of few bishops serving in a monastery, the bishop may be excused for perhaps feeling like a fish out of water. It may be desired that a bishop have extensive monastic character formation, but a bishop is compelled to live in the world, and to travel all over the place in ways and do some things that other monastics rightly flee. Now the heirarch does have the nicest robes of all, and has privileges that no one else has, but it is too easy to see a bishop’s crownlike mitre in the majesty of Liturgy and fail to sense the ponderous, heavy crown of thorns invisibly present on a bishop’s head all the time. Every Christian must bear his cross, but you are very ignorant about the cross a bishop bears if you think that being a bishop is all about wearing the vestments of the Roman emperor, being called “Your Grace” or “Your Eminence,” and sitting on a throne at the center of everything.

Now it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear a bishop’s robes; for that matter it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear an acolyte’s robe or never wear liturgical vestments at all. But I know someone who is really bright, and has been told, “You are the most brilliant person I know!” The first time around it was really intoxicating; by the fifth or sixth time he felt more like someone receiving uninteresting old news, and it was more a matter of disciplined social skills than spontaneous delight to keep trying to keep giving a graceful and fitting response to an extraordinary compliment. Perhaps the first time a new heirarch is addressed as “Your Grace,” “Your Emimence,” or “Vladyka,” it feels intoxicatingly heady. However, I don’t believe the effect lasts much more than a week, if even that. There is reason to address heirarchs respectfully and appropriately, but it is really much less a benefit to the bishop than it is a benefit to us, and this is for the same reason children who respect adults are better off than children who don’t respect adults. Children who respect adults benefit much more from adults’ care, and faithful who respect clergy (including respect for heirarchs) benefit much more from pastoral care.

As I wrote in A Pet Owner’s Rules, God is like a pet Owner who has two rules, and only two rules. The first rule, and the more important one, is “I am your Owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have given you,” and the second is really more a clarification than anything else: “Don’t drink out of the toilet.” The first comparison is to drunkenness. A recovering alcoholic will tell you that being drunk all the time is not a delight; it is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. “Strange as it may sound, you have to be basically sober even to enjoy getting drunk:” drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet. But you don’t need to literally drink to be drinking out of the toilet.

There is something like a confused drinking out of the toilet in ambition, and in my own experience, ambition is not only sinful, but it is a recipe to not enjoy things. Being an abbot may be more prestigious than being a simple monk and being a bishop may be more prestigious than being an abbot but looking at things that way is penny wise and pound foolish.

Ambition reflects a fundamental confusion that sees external honors but not the cross tied to such honors. I hope to write this without making married Orthodox let go of one whit of their blessed estate, but the best position to be in is a simple monastic, end of discussion. It is a better position to be a simple monastic than to be an abbot, and it is a better position to be an abbot than a heirarch. Now the Church needs clergy, including abbots and heirarchs, and it is right to specifically pray for them as the Liturgy and daily prayer books have it. Making a monk into a priest or abbot, or bishop, represents a sacrifice. Now all of us are called to be a sacrifice at some level, and God’s grace rests on people who are clergy for good reasons. An abbot who worthily bears both the cross of the celibate and the cross of the married in this all-too-transient world may shine with a double crown for ever and ever. But the lot we should seek for is not that of Martha cumbered about with much serving; it is of Mary embracing the one thing needful.

The best approach is to apply full force to seeking everything that is better, and then have God persistently tell us if we are to step in what might be called “the contemplative life perfected in action.”

The Patriarch’s throne, mantle, crown, title, and so on are truly great and glorious.

But they pale in comparison to the hidden Heavenly honors given to a simple monk, an eternal glory that can be present in power here and now.

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Dastardly Duo Considered Harmful: 𝑂𝑢𝑟 𝑇ℎ𝑜𝑢𝑔ℎ𝑡𝑠 𝐷𝑒𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑚𝑖𝑛𝑒 𝑂𝑢𝑟 𝐿𝑖𝑣𝑒𝑠 and 𝑊𝑜𝑢𝑛𝑑𝑒𝑑 𝑏𝑦 𝐿𝑜𝑣𝑒

Cover for The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts

A couple of years ago, perhaps, I heard that the pairing of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and Wounded By Love: The Life and Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios were blasting through the ranks, and the last endorsement I heard for Wounded by Love was earlier the month this article was posted.

Both are associated with precious Elders, and neither is appropriate for most Orthodox to read. Let me explain some of why:

Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives:
It’s an occult book!

I’m not really sure how to explain this. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives is simply the most occultic book I have read from any canonical author. It never advocates any kind of cursing, but with the terrain it covers, it describes just how someone could kill another in a motorcycle accident by a thought, or three examples of how a subconscious curse of envy could shatter another person’s beautiful objet d’art.

The book and its message are extremely subtle, but that is not a good thing. The snake, we read in Genesis, was extremely subtle. Speaking as the author of The Sign of the Grail, I have read Arthurian legends at length, and Merlin is asked to exercise “subtlety,” with meaning including but not limited to magic powers, but only one version I’ve read (T.H. White’s The Once and Future King) gives any sense of how one might go about achieving the kinds of effects you covet from the never-neverland of the Arthurian literary tradition that flourished in the Middle Ages and remains a name people have heard of.

This book offers an occult dimension that I have failed to see in reading half of the collected works of the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. One work whose title I forget discusses sorcerors as charlatan illusionists and then gives the equivalent of how explaining how a modern magic trick works. But even then, I have no Orthodox work which so sensitizes the reader to how one may lay a potent curse.

If we look for parallels Western Christianity, I recall a fantasy-novel-loving friend who read mainstream fantasy at length, but put down a Charles Williams novel because of how much more occultic it was than anything in the fantasy literature she was drawn to. (Charles Williams was a member of the Inklings but tried hard to be a Christian without decisively severing ties to the occult and Rosicrucianism.) I’ve read three of Charles Williams’ novels (that’s about three too many on my part). Those three novels show the closest parallel I am aware of to the subtle and occultic character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.

This is not to say that the book is 100% false. Precious few of even the worst books are 100% false, and cultivating inner calm in chaotic circumstances with eyes fixed on God and the Light is a very valuable lesson, but there are better and less occult Orthodox treatments of the matter.

One example of a cleaner source for peaceful thoughts is Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims, of which #52 is, “Focus exclusively on God and light, not on sin and darkness.” A slightly longer form is available in an Ancient Faith Radio podcast on Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims:

“Focus exclusively on God and light. Never focus on darkness, temptation, and sin. That’s classic teaching. Fill yourself with good things. Don’t be mesmerized by dark things. Don’t meditate on evil things. Meditate on good things, and God will take care of the rest.”

Wounded by “Wounded by Love:”
Monastic TMI!

There is such a thing as Too Much Information (TMI). Perhaps the most common way of violating a listener’s boundaries with TMI is to provide excessively visceral details, and Wounded by Love does not vividly describe carnal temptations or the like, even though we may assume that someone who grew up as an incredibly strong and rugged mountain man presumably faced certain temptations common to men with a decent amount of testosterone.

But that is not the only form of TMI. There is a rather strong rule, violated especially at the end of this title, that monastics do not share their esoteric experiences with laity, period, and even in the book the elders advise the future monastic elder not to speak of at least some spiritual experiences and charisms strictly to them: the demons might hear. But he, or rather the sisters whom he oversaw, placed things in public sight that should never have been leaked outside monastic circles. As I wrote to my spiritual father:

The latter divulges esoteric monastic experiences in ability including an Abbot traveling spiritually without having left his monastery physically for decades, and a kind of limited omniscience where the protagonist could see through anything (late in life and physically blind, he did perhaps chastely the work of a water witch, although it might be better to suggest that the latter is demonic parody of a legitimate aspect of charism).

Christ told people to do their good works in secret, and this applies much more forcefully to monastic spiritual experiences. Monastics normally view the parading of their intimate experience before the public eye to be a great misfortune, and I believe the rule is much more intended for the benefit of laity than for monastics themselves. It is a rule of mystagogy that you do not mock people with realities they are not ready to cope with, and one minor application is the advice that if you know the truth, and you know that another person will reject the truth if told, you do not tell the other person that truth. It’s better for the other person before Christ’s Judgment Throne not to have rejected the truth, and it is better for you not to have pushed the other person into that position. And that is really just the least, most diluted shade of mystagogy as it can and should in Orthodoxy. Molesting the reader with monastic TMI is simply not needed.

Beware of all fashions

Peter Kreeft, one amiably writing Roman apologist, discussed at some point differences between ancient and modern concepts of authorship. The modern concept, especially if we forget the hard work of editors who try to make authors look better in print, tends to say, “If it has your name on it, you are responsible for 100% of its content,” where the ancient conception can admit many hands and classic books are more the work of a school of people sharing the same sympathies than one individual. What is interesting is the remark that follows: Kreeft does not state that the ancient fashion is better, or for that the matter that the modern fashion is better, but advises us to beware of all fashions.

The spiritually questionable character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives and Wounded by Love is not really a feature of Orthodoxy; it is a feature of fashion. It applies to the two books that were fashionable five years ago, and it applies to the one or more ebooks that will be fashionable five years in the future. Fashions really exist in Orthodoxy as much as NPR, and they are no more helpful. But this is not any reason to throw up our hands in despair.

One thing I explained to a newly illumined Orthodox about reading recommendations, as another person explained to me when I was myself newly illumined, is that I should have a relationship with a priest who could provide helpful books to read. If you are a bookworm, part of your spiritual father or parish priest’s job description is to recommend good books. And indeed a priest who knows you personally and hears your needs in your confessions may be the best person in the world to give you something better than you could know to ask for. (Now it is entirely possible for a parish priest to recommend an obvious dud, but that is much less serious of a problem than any problem that is seductive in character.) However much parish priests may be wrong about the helpfulness of the occasional dud, they are usually familiar with many books and human spiritual needs, and they are significantly more often right than the rumor mill is.

A dark memorial, and a warning sign

I would suggest that these two books by Orthodox elders be remembered.

There are many strands within Judaism, but 6,000,000 is the first number a Jewish child hears, and the sense is not just, “This happened in the past,” but “This could happen again.” And recent events do nothing to prove this to be groundless paranoia or confusion between what is past and what is future. Dietrich Bonhoeffer watched one professor he admired after another rally behind the swastika. (On a much lesser scale, I’ve watched one theology professor after another sign a petition, older than a certain rainbow-colored Supreme Court judicial legislation, demanding that organizations extend any benefit extended to married couples to same-sex couples even if their religious tradition and conscience simply reject such vindication of others’ inimical demands.) In my mind the question is not why so many theology professors Bonhoeffer admired stood behind the Nazi flag; it is why that one person, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, bucked an overwhelming consensus. Something similar is akin to my puzzlement, not about how innumerable Protestant efforts to reconstruct the ancient Church went awry, but how the one such effort I know well, the Evangelical Orthodox Church which entered canonical Orthodoxy and provided one of my dear past parish priests, got it right.

The Orthodox Church remembers the bloodshed of its members across the centuries, many of whom are commemorated in the saints’ lives, but the Eastern Orthodox Church’s “This could happen again” is not about bloodshed. “This could happen again” is about heresies. One Subdeacon, a little bit lightly, said, “Arius gets it worse in the Liturgy than Judas,” and founders of subsequent heresies such as Nestorius are said to be “taught by Arius.” Arius was not the first heretic by any means, and St. Irenaeus’s long and dull Against Heresies predates Arius by over a century. However, there is reason to call Arius the father of heretics. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed after some vein of Presbyterianism ordained someone who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, and Protestants I know from mailing lists have, without even needing to know post-Biblical Orthodox texts, that Arianism is not just one heresy among others; it is the one heresy that keeps on popping up, possibly comparably to gnosticism. And if the Jewish population is sharply aware that genocide has happened in the past and could happen again, this is not odd; what is odd to me historically is not that a genocide was started, but that a genocide was stopped. But the Orthodox consciousness is not as much of bloodshed, but of heresy and heterodoxy.

And all in this lie two little books that have swept Orthodoxy as a fad, both written by monastic elders. Perhaps they are not front and center as far as problems go. But they show much less about healthy Orthodoxy than healthy fads, and there is a warning about whatever next flourishes in the rumor mill.

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Theory of Alien Minds: A UX Copernican Shift

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

There was one moment of brilliance, I was told, when a North American missionary visiting in Latin America was asked if clothing and sheets lasted longer in her first-world home. The question was not surprising and it reflected cross-cultural understanding: bedsheets and clothing in the U.S. can last for quite some time, while bedsheets and clothing in the host country wear out quickly, perhaps in a few weeks, and it is nickle-and-dime drain on none-too-deep pockets to keep replacing them. The question, perceptive enough, was a question about privilege and easy living.

The missionary’s response was astute. She thought for a minute, and then said that yes, sheets in her home area lasted much longer than several weeks if properly cared for… and continued to explain, in addition, what people wore when they were all bundled up for bitter cold. Winter clothing normally goes well beyond what is needed for modesty, and gloves, hats, and scarves (or, today, ninja masks) exist because on the very worst days every square inch of exposed skin will be brutally assaulted. The conversation ended with a slight degree of pity from people who only wore clothes for modesty realized that yes, as they had heard, bedsheets and normal clothing lasted much longer than several weeks, but there were some other price tags to pay. The missionary’s communication was in all sympathetic, human, and graceful.

Something similar may be said of the degree of IQ where you learn firsthand that being making other people envious is not a good thing, and where it happens more than once that you need to involve authorities or send a C&D letter for harassment to stop, and where others’ insecurities leave you socially skating on thin ice surprisingly often. Nonetheless, what may be the most interesting social lesson may have every relevance to “UX,” or User eXperience, and it has to do with what is called “theory of other minds. The normal conditions for developing “theory of other minds” can run into difficulties, but there is something very valuable that can happen.

Theory of other minds,
Split into “theory of like minds”, and:
“theory of alien minds”:
A Copernican shift

One classic developmental step in communication is developing a “theory of other minds”, meaning that you relate to people as also having minds, rather than as some sort of thing that emits what may be inexplicable behaviors instead of acting out of human motives and beliefs.

Part of how the normal “theory of minds” develops is that children tend to give adults gifts they would like to receive themselves, such as colorful toys rather than books. At a greater stage of maturity, people can go from giving gifts they would themselves like to receive, to giving gifts they would not want as much themselves, but another person would. However, in normal development this is an advanced lesson. For most people, the baseline is assuming that most people think like them most of the time.

For outliers in some dimensions, this simple picture does not work. People start with the same simple assumption: that you can relate to people as basically thinking like you. But if you’re different enough, you’ll break your shins with this approach. Perhaps outliers communicate markedly better if they know one person who starts on the same page, but communication is harder.

The crucial distinction I would draw is between theory of like minds and theory of alien minds. Both theory of like minds and theory of alien minds relate to others as having minds. But theory of like minds is based on the assumption that other people think as you do. Theory of alien minds also really and truly relates to others as having minds, but it is based on a realization that you are not the center of the universe, others often do not think like you, and you need to build bridges.

“Theory of like minds” says, “Other people have minds that are basically just like mine.”

“Theory of alien minds” takes a step back, saying, “Other people have minds, and they have minds whether or not they’re basically just like mine.

This Copernican shift has every relevance to “Let’s not forget the user” disciplines in UX.

So what does a “theory of alien minds” really look like?

Let me provide several examples, before getting into what it has to do with UX:

Hayward has worked long and hard to communicate well.

Many people might guess that the features of his [giftedness] would bring benefits…

…but few guess how much.

The same kind of thing goes with excellent communication. When a friend came from out of town to live in a local apartment, quite a few friends gathered to help unload the moving van.

Hayward, asked for an assignment, expecting to be asked to carry something. Instead, for reasons that are still not clear, she handed him a leash and asked him to look after a dog she has introduced as not at all comfortable around men. And the dog very quickly moved as far away as his leash would allow. But Hayward worked his magic… and half an hour later, he was petting the dog’s head in his lap, and when he stood up, the dog bounded over to meet the other men in the group.

In another setting, Hayward was waiting for labwork at a convenient care center, when a mother came in, with a four-year-old daughter in tow. The girl was crying bitterly, with a face showing that she was in more pain than she knew how to cope with, and an ugly bulging purple bloodblister under her thumbnail. Hayward understood very well what was going on; his own experience as a child who smashed a thumbnail badly enough to get a bloodblister underneath, was the most pain he had experienced yet in his life.

When the convenient care staff threw the mother a wad of paper to fill out before treatment (as opposed, for instance, to first just administering anaethesia and only after that detain the mother with paperwork), she left the child crying alone in a chair. Hayward walked over, wanting to engage the girl in conversation in the hopes of lessening her pain. He crouched down to be at eye level, and began to slowly, gently, and calmly speak to the child.

Some time later, Hayward realized two things.

First of all, his attempt to get the girl to talk were a near-total failure. He had started by asking her favorite color, and she was able to answer that question. But essentially every other age-appropriate prompt was met with silence: “Q: What kind of instrument does a dog play?”—”A: A trom-bone.” (But maybe her pain was too great to allow regular conversation.)

Second of all, she had stopped crying. Completely. And her face no longer showed pain. He had, partly by his nonverbal communication, entirely absorbed her attention, and she was unaware of pain that had her bawling her eyes out some minutes before. Hayward realized this with a start, and tried to keep up the conversation such as it was, regardless of whether he had anything to say. A rather startled Hayward did his best not to break the illusion, and did so smoothly enough that she seemed not to notice.

Some time later, Hayward was called for his blood draw. He returned to find the mother comforting her daughter, as she had not done before. The little girl was crying again, but it was a comforted crying, a world of difference from when she was alone with really quite vile pain. The mother seemed awestruck, and kept saying, “You have a very gentle way about you.”

Another time, Hayward was asked to substitute-teach a class for parents of English as a Second Language students. He was provided an interpreter who spoke Spanish and English, and the class met all objectives…

And Hayward didn’t really use the interpreter. He adapted to language and culture to bring an enjoyable class for everyone.

When studying abroad, Hayward was quite pleasantly surprised (and very much surprised) when a Ghanain housemate said Hayward had challenged some assumptions, saying Hayward was “like a white American, and like a black African, closer than an African brother…” and from that point on he enjoyed insider status among Ghanian friends. He has perhaps never received a greater compliment.

Hayward thinks at a fundamentally different level, and he needs to build bridges. But the good news is that he has been working on bridge-buildling for years and built bridges that span great differences. Being in a situation where has to orient himself and bridge a chasm doesn’t really slow him down that much.

In addition, these “super powers” can have every relevance to business work. No employer particularly cares if he can read ancient and medieval languages: but one employer cared that he could easily read bureaucratic documentation that was incomprehensible to everyone else.

No employer really cares that at the age of 13 Hayward crafted crafted a four-dimensional maze, worked on visualizing a 4-cube passing through 3-space, and looked at a data visualization in his calculus book and (re)invented iterated integration…

But some employers care a great deal that he can take a visualization project, start work along the lines suggested by Tufte’s corpus of written work, and start to take steps beyond Tufte.

No employer really seems to care that he has studied at the Sorbonne, UIUC, and Cambridge (England) in three very different fields: but co-workers have been puzzled enough that he so effortlessly shifts his communication and cultural behavior to have a colleague and immigrant ask him why he relates to Little Russia’s culture so well.

But some employers appreciate his efforts to listen and understand corporate culture. In serving like a consultant for a travel subsidiary, Hayward’s contacts within the organization that picked up he was trying to understand their language on their terms, and the Director of Sales and Marketing half-jokingly asked, “Do you want to be a travel agent?” Hayward perhaps would not be an obvious fit for personality factors, but she picked up a crystal-clear metamessage: “I want to understand what you are saying, and I want to understand it on your terms.”

Furthermore, while no employer has yet to care about Hayward’s interest in writing, one employer cared a great deal that he took a high-value document concerning disaster recovery and business continuity, valuable enough that it would be significant for the employer to file with e.g. their bank, and took it from being precise but awkward and puzzling to read, to being precise, accessible, simple, and clear.

What does this communication across barriers have to do with UX?

Everything.

I’ve had postgraduate training in anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, philosophy, and psychology, and I consider “theory of other minds” communication to be out-and-out the central skill in UX. Perhaps the most structural of these disciplines is anthropology, and a training in anthropology is a training in understanding across differences.

Once anthropologists found difference by crossing the Pacific and finding aboriginal people untainted by modern technology. Now anthropologists find difference by crossing the street. But the theory of alien minds is almost unchanged.

Jakob Nielsen has been beating for essentially forever the drum of “You are not a user”. Perhaps his most persistent beating of his drum is:

One of usability’s most hard-earned lessons is that ‘you are not the user.’ If you work on a development project, you’re atypical by definition. Design to optimize the experience for outsiders, not insiders.

What this means, in competency, is “Communicate out of a theory of alien minds.” Or, if you prefer, a theory of “outsiders”, but don’t assume that deep down inside “outsiders” are really just like “insiders.” Exercise a theory of alien minds.

What Nielsen is telling people not to do is coast on a “theory of like minds,” and assume that if a user interface is intuitive and makes sense to the people who built it, it will just as much make sense to the audience it was built for. It won’t. You have to think a bit differently to build technology, and that means you need a theory of alien minds. Assuming that you are the center of the universe, even if it’s unintentional, is a recipe for failed UX. We all want better than that.

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A Disruptive Take on (Un)-Branding

An opening “Heads up!”

This article is intended to do something that is usually best avoided, at least in the context of an article.

Some students of culture describe semiotic frames that define a society’s possibles et pensables: they shape what is seen as possible and what is even thinkable within a society. And it is usually preferable to handle communication so that you aren’t asking people to overhaul their mental frameworks: if you can think far enough outside the box that you find possibles et pensables the sort of thing that can be easily brought into question, that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do, but it is usually best kept under wraps, and usually best kept in a back pocket.

This piece is designed to delve into deeper work and not be as quickly digested as other fare. It’s harder to process than an article intended to persuade you between two options that we both already understand well enough. I tried to think about how to make my point while dodging working on what is seen as possible and what is even thinkable, and I don’t see how to eliminate that work from my point. I want to revise what is seen as possible and what is thinkable about branding today.

Where did branding come from anyway?

To the best of my knowledge, and to only present the beginning and end of a story, branding was once what happened when cattle owners would use a hot iron symbol to brand an identifying mark on cattle they owned, to be able to claim whose cattle they were if there were any question. There is a fairly close equivalent to this in the modern business world, but the equivalent isn’t really “how a company communicates itself and its offering to the outside world.” It’s really much more the unsexy practice of attaching metal tags to valuable company equipment that say, “This is property of XYZ corporation, serial number 12345.” And while there may be good reasons for engaging in this part of due diligence, it is hardly that interesting or deep.

Not so with real branding in today’s business world, not by any stretch. As I have prepared and thought about the question, I’m not sure I can think of an equally significant concept that I have met. To pick two examples from my own field in information technology, Agile development and open source software may be significant concepts, but I do not see the same niches and layers. There is some theory about open source software as such, and people may complain that a company that releases software under an open source license but “drops patches [external contributions] on the floor” isn’t really walking the walk, but in my experience the theory that most open source software developers are interested are the computer science and software engineering issues concerning their tools and pet projects, and you simply don’t have subspecialized high value consultants on the theory and ideology of open source. But branding is in fact a very big concept, and you do have high-value consultants actively engaged for their expertise in some specialization or subspecialization somewhere under the “branding” umbrella.

And with this significance comes something else, maybe something less attractive: however useful or prominent it may be, it is far from a worldwide universal, and I am not aware of any Great Teachers who have thought in terms of branding. Not only that, but Socrates might very well have lived to a ripe old age, instead of being condemned to death, if he had lived a brand that would have been socially acceptable to the citizens of his city. (The entire story of his gadfly’s teaching and life is an example of how to avoid branding yourself if you want to succeed and live.) Discussion of branding may be anachronous if applied to Socrates, but the principle justifies such an intrusion.

Two seismic shifts, one after another

In the popular Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that a shift had taken place in wisdom literature: that is, what people have written about how to succeed as a person; one definition offered for such wisdom is, “skill for living.” Whenever the text was written, the author had apparently read a great deal of wisdom literature over time and made a cardinally important distinction between a character ethic and a personality ethic. Up until about World War II, the basic framing assumption in wisdom literature in the U.S. is that success is success arising from character. One needs to be diligent, and humble, and merciful to others, and so on. In short, we need virtuous living to get ahead. These virtues may include practices: Ben Franklin’s “A penny saved is a penny earned” is an exhortation to the virtue of thrift. But success is acquired through growing as a person, by growing in virtue.

The subsequent sub-par personality ethic was much more superficial; it offered tips and tricks to get ahead, while avoiding anything calling for real internal transformation. And while there are definitely mere practices that we could do better (I could smile more), most of my problems aren’t on the level of personality, but where I need to do more inner work. The shift Covey documents is a seismic shift, and it is difficult to overstate its significance. Something like the character ethic and the personality ethic exist at least to some extent side-by-side in information technology: there are people who have been educated in computer science and software engineering, and who maintain a lifelong curiosity towards those areas as well as working their way through fads and individual tools, and there are educational programs that just teach buzzwords and individual tools with only incidental coverage of deeper issues in theory. A manager who has dealt with both kinds of programmers will know the difference well.

I would posit, or rather point out, that there has been a second shift after a shift from a character ethic to a personality ethic: a shift from a personality ethic to a (personal) brand ethic. There are books I’ve read that offer an induction into a brand ethic in ways that someone who’s not already an insider will understand: but I don’t remember anything I’ve read treating as a live question whether we need a brand ethic or a personality ethic, or whether we need a brand ethic or a character ethic. Personality has a place: it has a place because a personal brand on Twitter that incorporates some amount of what feels like personality is a stronger brand than one that is one-dimensional. The place for personality is neither more nor less than what the brand ethic calls for. And that’s odd.

But you, CJS Hayward, have a brand!

In one sense, at least some people will say that I have a brand, and one that I have consciously contributed to. This blog’s background, for instance, is one touch out of many things that provide a sense of brand. Old-fashioned, exaggeratedly recognizable links could be called another.  None the less, I meet the concept of a personal brand with some degree of puzzlement. I’ve written dialogues before, but I’m drawing a blank at how to flesh out a dialogue with pretty much any of the world’s great teachers about marketing-style branding as a paradigm for how to relate to others. I do not find branding in the Sermon on the Mount, I have difficulty envisioning what Sun Tzu or other sages would say, and for that matter I do not think that Muhammad would have understood the concept, and if he had understood it, would find it to be extremely offensive: much as democracy’s foundational attitude that you have a say in things is profoundly un-Islamic (when George Bush was pushing to endow Iraq with democracy, my comment to friends was, “I wish that Bush would herald a goal that would be less offensive to Muslims, like a hambone in every pot.”).

It is possible for brands to be layered. It is possible for brands to have depth. It is possible for brands to present a tip of an iceberg with lots of room to dig. However, I would pick as a particularly bad piece on personal branding a book chapter which advised the reader to pick three positive adjectives on the list, and simply decide, “These will be my brand.” And this isn’t just one book. When a company has announced that XYZ represent its values, it gives the impression of something arbitrarily chosen and tacked on, something plastic, something that would really make Michael Polanyi squirm.

Our close contemporary Michael Polanyi (Wikipedia), to pick one of the achievements he is best known for, argued essentially that knowledge is not something separate from people. When people are initiated into a tradition of expert practice, there is knowledge tacitly held by those who are already insiders in the culture of expert practics, and this knowledge is tacitly transmitted to people who are being trained to become insiders, without ever being held or passing consciously to those in either role. He comments that swimming coaches and swimmers alike breathe differently from non-swimmers in that they expand their lungs to hold more air when they breathe in, and they keep more air in their lungs when they breathe out, using their lungs this way for added buoyancy. Other explanations may be available in this case, but, the broader picture is one that uses tacit knowledge, or to take the deliberately chosen title of his magnum opus, Personal Knowledge, and recognize that we have many layers beyond the surface. And I’m trying to imagine Polanyi reading a text telling him to pick three adjectives that should identify him as his personal brand. I see him squirming, much like the Far Side cartoon entitled, “Baryshnikov’s ultimate nightmare” that shows a square dance caller saying, “Swing your partner ’round and ’round, now promenade left and don’t fall down…

However, the concern I raise, which may or may not be terribly distinct from Polanyi, isn’t just that a personal brand is shallow, or at least has been shallow in every book I’ve read telling me I need a personal brand. It’s also designed as artificial and plastic, not real and alive. It may have an alive motif, like the handmade-looking lettering and art in cookie-cutter Starbucks locations. But it is what Neal Stevenson described in In the Beginning was the Command Line, in describing a mediated and vicarious experience waiting in line for a ride at Disneyland:

The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the  gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll amid stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient  structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar. The rust is painted on, of course, and protected from real rust by a  plastic clear-coat, but you can’t tell unless you get down on your knees.

And on this point I’d like to mention a point from The Cost of Discipleship. I don’t know now whether I’d agree with the suggestion Bonhoeffer makes, but he highlights that the Sermon on the Mount says both Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven, and also that we are to conceal our good deeds: But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. Asking how these two incongruous commands fit together, Bonhoeffer says that we should do good deeds but hide them from ourselves, that we should reach a state of doing goodness that we do it without being aware of it. Now whether that should exactly be believed in reference to the Gospel, I don’t know. But something like that is true of some secular skill. I remember a conversation with a Unix professional who said that in a job interview he had claimed to be a Unix wizard because that was required in that social situation, but it would have been “an outright lie” for him to make that claim among his peers. I assure you he was very competent. But his competency had reached a level where (among other things) he knew how little he knew and how much more there was to know, and like almost any good Unix wizard, he found calling himself a Unix wizard to feel like an outright lie. When I was asked in high school as the school’s student Unix system administrator, I hesitated, and I was both surprised and delighted when a friend said “Yes” for me; I would have been making an outright lie (in my mind) to make that claim. Nor is this a specific local feature of Unix wizardry. That is just an example close to my experience, and it seems that nobody considers themselves what in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine terms would be called Morlocks. There is a kind of “reverse hypocrisy” here. A Morlock, to expert practitioners, is someone else at a higher level of skill. (Linus Torvalds has voiced confusion about why others consider him technical.)

The general rule is that the most confident in their performance are usually the most-overconfident, and the most competent are actually less confident; unlike the over-confident, they are guided by a sharply tuned inner self-criticism, the same self-criticism that in any competent practice of classical music means that musicians hear their performance mistakes more quickly than even the most discerning audience members. What is going on here is the same thing as was told to me as a child, which I’ll leave in politically incorrect terms:

An Indian and a white man were standing on a beach, and the white man drew a small circle and said, “This is what the Indian knows.” Then he drew a larger circle around it and said, “This is what the white man knows.” Then the Indian drew a huge circle encompassing both other circles and said, “This is what neither the Indian nor the white man knows.”

And this quality, of seeing a huge encompassing circle of things that none of us know, is foundational to being a genuine expert almost anywhere. Hence a high school biology text compares the discipline of biology to trying to discern the characters, plot, and themes of a long and intricately complex movie, when all you have is half a dozen stills in varying conditions. Hence one biology teacher I remember fondly saying very emphatically that we don’t know what’s going on: all that biologists know now is only a tiny slice of the truth.

So what does this all mean for branding? It means a couple of things, and perhaps it may be good to have three positive adjectives you seek to represent. But one thing it means is that people are often not aware of their good (and bad) properties, or at least not all of them. This might be true morally, but it is also true in terms of professional competence. I remember going to a presentation on getting a government job and the “stupid questionnaire” (the presenter’s preferred term) where you were asked to rate yourself from 1 up to 5 on different areas of competency. Now coming from a business background where I had been asked to rate myself 1 to 10 in competency and advised the higher self-rating I gave, the harder test questions would be asked of me, thought of rating myself mostly 3’s with a couple of 4’s on the ones I was strongest, the presenter made crystal-clear that that was not going to work. The only acceptable answer was a 5, or maybe you could get away with one or possibly two self-ratings of 4. And that’s not selecting for competency. It is selecting for overconfidence, and for gaming the system. For someone who is genuinely competent, and is not aware of how and why to game the system here, giving a sincere and well-thought-out self-evaluation is a recipe for elimination even if that employee’s past five supervisors would mark the person as a clear 5 across the board.

The title I’ve been mulling over, The Twitter Job Search Guide, is part of the cohort of books where branding is bedrock. It also suggests that Twitter competencies expand outside of Twitter, so that a cover letter is composed of a few tweets and a resume is composed of a few more tweets. Now that’s an idea I’d be cautious about dismissing; communicating value concisely is a valuable skill, and in some sense Twitter might be seen as a Toastmasters of written communication. Toastmasters’ Competent Communicator course trains people with five to seven minute speeches addressing core competencies in speaking (plus a couple of other details), and the thought is not exactly that participants will only need to give speeches of that length, but rather to lay a foundation that is explicitly intended to be adaptable to longer or shorter speeches. And Twitter is not always 140 characters of nothing; there are profound contributions made, and it is a valuable skill, and one quite often present among the most competent gifted, to make a significant point clearly and concisely. For a business world that just wants the time, not the whole process of a watch being built, it may be good discipline and skill to be able to write a six tweet cover letter and twelve tweet resume. But I am concerned when this all falls under the aegis of branding. And in The Twitter Job Search Guide, the tweets for a cover letter and resume all fall under the heading of communicating a brand. Though there is (for instance) discussion of what constitutes a good ratio between professional and personal tweets, I’ve read two thirds of the text and I haven’t yet seen advice to tweet or communicate something that does not fall under the aegis of your personal brand. The beginning, middle, and end of what you are advised to communicate is brand. There is no other way to relate to others, it seems, and this is a plastic form of life.

Now before going further, there is one point I would like to clarify about boundaries (a topic that I believe is ill-framed, but that is not my interest here). One professor, addressing graduate students who were or probably would be teaching assistants, talked about “being the same on the outside and on the inside.” She went on very directly to state that this did not mean “letting it all hang out”; that was precisely what it was not. Normal social interactions embody both what is anthropologically called “positive politeness” and “negative politeness”, and on this point I would recall another professor talking about appropriate communication in crossing cultures. He gave some examples of positive politeness, things like saying “Hello!” to a friend (the sort of examples of politeness that jump to mind). Then he said that when strangers approach each other and look down at the sidewalk when they’re a few meters apart, that’s politeness. It is a refusal to wantonly intrude; it says, “You have not invited me in and I will not presume where I am not invited and I do not belong.” And that is politeness. He mentioned, to drive the point a little bit further, that he had one good friend he visited, and though he did not do so at this visit, he would have thought nothing of opening his friend’s refrigerator and helping himself to anything inside. The principle of negative politeness is that you do not do things without invitation; one may surmise that some point along the way the professor’s friend gave one or several invitations to rummage through the fridge without asking specific permission, and I would be almost certain that the professor had not asked permission to arbitrarily rummage his friend’s fridge; he had presumably been given that permission as the friendship developed. And outside of a few exceptions like this, it is a significant violation of negative politeness to rummage through someone’s fridge without asking.

Socially appropriate relations, or boundaries, or negative politeness, or whatever you want to call it, applies; that can and should mediate our interactions, and brands that have any sense to them will stay within these boundaries. However, while I believe we need the mediation of negative (and positive) politeness, there is something plastic about the mediation of brands. It’s good not to give TMI, but a personal brand is neither the only nor the best way to communicate within positive and negative politeness that respects boundaries.

I’m not sure this addresses all of branding; I’d expect that someone who knew branding well could point to currents within branding that survive this critique. I’ve picked examples that struck me as silly; I haven’t discussed the silliness I see about corporations picking three identifying values, and in much more mainstream and professional venues than a book in a career center offering a list of positive adjectives and an invitation to pick three as defining your personal brand. But for what I’d like to see instead, I don’t have a big program to offer, just appropriate social interaction: social interaction that is appropriate to degree of relationships and the roles of the participants. Others have written The Clue Train Manifesto; I have not examined that manifesto in depth but its opening words about a human voice suggest I’m not the only person, nor the first person, concerned with human communication.

My personal unbrand

I wanted to give a bit on my personal brand, or rather unbrand, or, if you prefer, ersatz brand. You’re welcome to say, if you like, that it is in fact just a personal brand, only a personal brand that embodies at least one classic and cardinal mistake. Or at least two mistakes, apart from the easily digested simplicity of an effective brand, the bulk of my effort is growing in terms of both who I am as a person, and how I can achieve deeper competence. Some attention is given to appearance, but a brand works primarily on image management. Skills one acquires, for instance, are there because of their usefulness to a branded image. But let’s return to the other basic attribute in what makes sense in a brand.

One of the parameters that is desired in a brand is doing one thing well, simplicity. There may be contours to the brand’s landscape, but if you are a jack of all trades you are assumed to be a master of none. One part of a brand’s job description, personal or otherwise, is to present a simple core, perhaps one core feature that offers a value proposition with one core benefit. Or, perhaps, there are a few pieces working together, but if you can’t write it on the back of a business card, you have failed. And in fact this is not restricted to branding. Good to Great talks about good companies that became great companies having and/or discovering a core “hedgehog concept” that they keep returning to, and while such a general title on business has to assume marketing and with it branding as part of the picture, I do not recall the emphatic “hedgehog concept” discussion portraying it as a particular issue for marketing and branding. In Good to Great, the “hedgehog concept” defines a one-trick pony that fundamentally outperforms Renaissance man opponents.

In my own case, what I offer is a profoundly gifted portfolio of interconnected skills. Want to know what reading Latin and Greek has to do with the business world? At a competitive local exchange carrier, we were working with an upstream provider who did business with us because they were required to by law, even though they didn’t want to, because they saw us as cream-skimmers. Nobody else in my group could make sense of their opaque, bureaucratic communication. I could, and there wasn’t much of a hiccup when my boss, with my consent, added communication with that provider to my responsibilities. I don’t know if any of my bosses have cared that I enjoy writing, but several have cared that I could create and edit clear and high-value documents. I don’t know whether any of my bosses have particularly cared that I’ve received rankings as high as 7th in the nation in math contests, but they do care when I apply that to solo programming that hits the ball out of the park. In the positions I’m focusing on now in User Experience, I don’t really expect my prospective bosses to care that I have postgraduate coursework in essentially all major User Experience disciplines: anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology, with a distinctive work addressing something at the core of User Experience competency. However, once I am hired and running usability tests, I expect they’ll care how much that background lets me draw out of a test.

And, to dig a bit deeper, the achievements I value are not because of intelligence, but communication. I’ve calmly spoken to a bawling four-year-old with an extremely painful blood blister under her thumbnail, until she she had stopped completely. I’ve been asked why I know how to relate to Ukrainians. I’ve been told, “You are like a white American and like a black African, and closer than an African brother.” I’ve communicated across large gaps with remarkable success.

And, to give one last detail, I’ve had many projects and there is a common thread running through virtually all the ones I’ve liked most: I’ve reduced user pain, or made something a joy to work with. To pick one example from when I had just started a new job, I was given a four-word spec before my boss left for his vacation: “Get [name of employee] off overtime.” The employee was a revenue assurance auditor who was trying to keep on top of a provider who was slipping us inappropriate charges, a responsibility that had him on heavy overtime in a company which normally stuck with a 40 hour workweek. And I winced when I saw what he was doing. I respected him and his actions as a team player, but he was cutting a steak with a screwdriver because that was the only game in town, and I wanted to give a razor-sharp knife, designed for him personally. When he said he was perfectly willing to do drudge work, my unspoken response was, “I appreciate and respect that you’re willing to do drudge work. I still want to get it off your plate.” And I drew on Edward Tufte’s principles and made a carefully chosen greyscale (instead of numbers) system that cut his involvement down to 40 hours a week, then further down so only part of his time was spent keeping on top of this responsibilities, and he was in a position to engage other responsibilities that were out of the question earlier. At a certain point into the process, I told him, “The only reason I ever want you to do us the old tools is because you want to,” and he very quickly answered, “I don’t want to!” In other words, the new tool completely superseded prior methods, which is a rarity. I don’t remember exactly how far along we were when my boss returned from vacation, but the employee told me he was raving to my boss, and in that whole position my boss never really showed much inclination to micro-manage me. (He described me as “nearly self-managing.”)

These and other things could be a basis for a number of personal brands that I could treat as my working contract with the professional world. However, it is my preference not to have my dealings mediated by a constructed personal brand. I’d like to give my friends and employers alike the real “me”, and while I will act differently with friends, family, church, and an employer, I don’t want people dealing with an artificially infused personal brand. I want them to deal with me. And while one friend explained that a fellow graduate student in psychology who dealt in measuring psychological traits answered a questionnaire for a job application, she understood exactly how the test worked, answered like the personality profile that the company wanted, and just made sure to act like the profile they wanted while she was at work. I don’t want to judge, but I find something very sad about the story. And it has everything to do with working with a personal brand.

This is not as crystalline as a normal brand. That’s intended.

Back to a character ethic…

Incarnation and Deification

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The Word became flesh

Especially when we are preparing for the Feast of the Nativity, when the Word became flesh, we would do well to meditate on why the Word became flesh:

The Son of God became a Man that men might become the sons of God. The divine became human so that the human might become divine. God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that men and the sons of men might become gods and the sons of God:

The Word became flesh that flesh might become Word.

The chief end of mankind

The Westminster Catechism famously opens:

Question: What is the chief end of mankind?

Answer: The chief end of mankind is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

It is often (and rightly) pointed out that these are the same thing: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever are the exact same thing. The chief end of mankind is to contemplate God. And one thread of this is woven into St. John’s prologue: “The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” The disciples saw the uncreated Light of the Holy Transfiguration, and contemplated it.

But St. John the Theologian does not truncate contemplation. This follows, “But to as many as received him, he gave the authority to become the sons of God.” And contemplation and theosis/deification/divinization, becoming sons of God, are not two competing answers to the question, “What is the chief end of mankind?” Far from it: they are expressions of the same truth. Contemplating the uncreated Light, and being transformed to be one of the sons of God, are two connected aspects of the same goal. They come together, and we might well quote for contemplation of God words also spoken of the Eucharist: “Behold what you believe. Become what you behold.” For contemplation and theosis are of the same essence. They are of the same essence almost as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are of the same essence.

Now it may need to be pointed out that God, and God alone, can be divine by nature. If theosis is open to us, there is no question of our becoming also divine by nature. That is impossible. God’s great work is to make us become by grace what he is by nature, and the infinite gulf between Uncreated and created can never be erased. But it can be transcended by a God who transcends not only Creation but transcends transcendence itself. And when his grace is at work, our spiritual sins and wounds remain, and we remain created, but that is no longer the point. It is no longer the issue. God transcends the chasm that we may by grace share in the divine nature and become by grace what he is by nature.

The great Incarnation was not something that was complete at the Nativity of Christ (or the Annunciation). Christ became incarnate in his own person that he might be incarnate in our persons as well. Word became flesh that flesh become Word. And Incarnation reaches its proper stature when it unfolds into our divinized life, when the Feast of the Nativity unfurls and Christ is born in us. The Annunciation of the Theotokos and the Nativity of Christ are still going on today!

It is a profound error to think of eternal life as something that begins after death. Eternal life is now; the door is open. The same uncreated Light by which Christ was transfigured, so saints have been transfigured, and this is why icons give halos to saints. Paradise is wherever the saints are; and not only canonized saints but in some measure the faithful who are called saints in Scripture.

In theosis, in divinization, in deification, we do not usurp God’s place; rather, Christ’s headship over us receives its proper place. That means not only that he is our Lord and Master, though he most certainly is, nor “merely” that we owe our very existence to him. Rather, to say that Christ is our head is the same thing as saying that we are Christ’s body. As is the Head, so is the body. As is the Christ, so is the Christian. Christ’s own blood flows in our veins. The royal, divine lifeblood courses through our veins. Everything in our lives is to be brought under Christ’s headship, and by the same token our lives are to be made divine.

There is no hair’s breadth of separation between being a follower of Jesus and being another Christ. If you follow Jesus, you are a vessel of his Incarnation, and the Incarnation of Christ is no faroff historical remembrance: it is what you work on today.

The messy circumstances of our lives

“All this is very well,” perhaps you may say, “but my life is not so perfect. We do not live in a perfect world.”

But these are not words from, or merely for, golden ages. When Christ came, no wonder people were looking for a military Messiah who would free the holy land from Roman domination. That was a natural enough thing to want! (And even today, people want someone to save our economy and political situation.) Christ came, as God does, catching people by surprise. People who were living under Third World economic conditions wanted a political savior. Christ came offering something else: saving people from their sins.

Perhaps not much has changed. Not everybody likes our world’s political and economic situation. We seek a savior: a political savior, an economic savior. And Christ comes to us to save us from our sins.

This salvation is a salvation which we overlook and the salvation that we need. Some people pass on the quotation, “We want God to change our circumstances. God wants something else: to use our circumstances to change us,” and the saying is worth repeating. We want God to change our circumstances. God wants something else: to use our circumstances to change us.

These messy circumstances, these bad economic conditions, not to mention politics, are what we think need to be cleared away for God to be at work with us. God has a word for us that is alike difficult and liberating: he wants to work with us in these circumstances. Even if economics and politics turn worse, he may want to deal with us, and deify us, precisely in the conditions lie furthest from his power.

Christ God the Savior doesn’t just deify us who were made in the image of God. He wants to place everything in our lives under his headship: every sin, every suffering, every tear, death itself. He wants to commandeer every evil, as he has Shanghaied the works of the Devil down from the ages. He is a hard man who gathers where he has never harvested, and he harvests not only righteousness and good works, but sin, evil, and death no less if we will but allow him. All of this is under his headship, and all of this he transforms to be deified. And he does not share our illusions about when he can really get to work.

We imagine well enough that only if something changes, only if we get a job, only if someone else changes can our lives move forward. God works to our good before that happens. Our engagement with God happens first, if there is any change to follow, and when we do discover the Kingdom of God which we keep on overlooking in our search for deliverance, everything changes. We may get what we want. We may not get what we want. But we do not need what we want. Even if we get what we want, we are placed far beyond it. We discover treasure hidden in a field and everything changes. And it is sometimes in the hardest trials that God shows the greatest grace and joy. It is like in the poem “Footprints.” When we see only one set of footprints, it was then that Christ carried us: and when we see only one set of footprints, it was then that he was most active in our deification.

Deification is the chief end of man; we were made to become by grace what Christ is by nature, and this is the chief end, not for some other people in some golden age, but here and now, in our political and economic condition. The benevolent, severe, and merciful God who provided for us in decades before is the same benevolent, severe, and merciful God who not only wills to provide for us now, but to work our deification. And he wills this, not sometime when we obtain what we want sometime in the future, but here and now. The same God who commandeers our sin and works such a wonder in us that it is no longer the issue that we injured ourselves, works with our suffering world in such a way that it is no longer the issue if we live in a time of global economic collapse. The same God who has deified men in every age wills our glory today.

The Feast of the Nativity

The Feast of the Nativity (Christmas) has been called “Pascha in winter,” and in a very real sense it is. But there is a difference. Pascha was open triumph; Christ the Firstborn of the Dead forever triumphed over death, and the day is coming when Christ will return borne on rank on rank of angel and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess him. But the Nativity was not open triumph; an angel chorus appeared, and only a few knees bowed. It was if anything an invasion in the dead of winter.

But the Feast of the Annunciation, the Feast of the Nativity, and the Feast of Theophany are the same thing, really: they are feasts of the Incarnation, and the Incarnation is forever frustrated in its purpose unless it unfurls in us. We are to be brought under Christ’s headship. We are to be deified. We are made for theosis. We are to contemplate God. We are to be vessels of the Incarnation of Christ, and this is for here and for now, not for when we reach some other circumstances.

Preparation for the Feast of the Nativity includes important external observances intended to concretely foster a realization: Each and every one of us has a problem with sin. You need, and I need, to come to a point of wondering if God can work with such a sinner. But when we come to God and confess our sins, he answers not only with mercy, but grace: repenting from sin is greater work than raising the dead. We awaken when we come to realize we are standing in a sewer, and when we least expect God to work with us, then in particular our deification is alive. Repenting is greater work than raising the dead, for we ourselves rise from the death of sin into the eternal life that has already begun on earth. And when we wonder, not why God has not placed us in some nicer circumstances, but why God has not placed us in much rougher circumstances, that God is at work and Heaven opens.

Repent! Awaken, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light! Arise from your sins to contemplation, to seeing the uncreated Light, to deification, to theosis, to divinization, to transfiguration, to incarnation! Awaken from sin and be illumined by the uncreated Light! Awaken and be a vessel of Christ’s Incarnation!

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Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

Legend has it that a sage was going to leave his locale, and a guard asked for a guide to live by. And so the sage left the Dao De Jing and disappeared, seemingly without further trace.

On this point I do not care if the legend is history: speaking as one with interest in the humanities, it does no violence to the text to read the Dao De Jing in this light, and speaking as a one interested in history I know that I am at some remove from a position where I could offer informed opinion whether the legend should be seen as historical.

My intent, though, and my point in reading it, is to offer a survival guide for the profoundly gifted, and one that speaks to adults as well as perhaps children.

On this point, at least, I am taking a break from tradition. The originator of the concept of IQ was Darwin’s envious cousin Galton, who wanted some of the fame Darwin had, and wrote a book, Hereditary Genius, which dealt with individuals up to a point, but only to see how good candidates they were for his eugenics platform. In response to that, Leta Hollingsworth was teaching a class that used IQ tests to measure levels of deficiency; and decided also for what it was worth to include an unaffected test subject. Much to the astonishment of any reader who understands statistics, that one person was profoundly gifted, past the “one in a million” mark. She went on to write the thickly descriptive Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet: Origin and Development.

Hollingsworth, and her modification to Galton’s eugenics program, have been decisive in effect. For one example that could be called “so close, and yet so far”, she studied gifted children because “adult genius is mobile”, and if interventions are to be useful, they will be of most help in childhood. And she set the programme for gifted education, and for the fact to this day, about half a century after her passing, formal study of giftedness is first and foremost the study of gifted children and only incidentally of gifted adults.

This may be a point on which she should be challenged. One basic point of human psychology which applies in giftedness as much as anywhere else is that “like attracts like.” Children who are gifted and are at a mental age of older children or adults can often find like companionship. Adults who are gifted may have the Internet, and with it gifted organizations, mailing lists, etc., but my response to Hollingsworth is, “Adult genius is mobile? To go where? To some colony or Utopian village which requires IQ above 170?” A gifted child, including profoundly gifted up to a point, stands good chances of social contacts (not via the Internet) who are of similar mental age enough to give a certain comfort. Now profoundly gifted can organize online, in a kind of New Social Movement, meet and have contact with other profoundly gifted, which may or may not be an historical novelty (the foundation of Universities itself was what may be seen as a New Social Movement of profoundly gifted movement in centuries past: Renaissance men), but however helpful it may be to attend to the peculiar needs of gifted children, gifted adults have needs, too.

And so I wanted to give a survival guide, of sorts, with the Dao De Jing taken very loosely as a model. I am not so silent as to leave a scant 81 poems, nor is this intended to directly help Everyman. People who are not profoundly gifted may be free enough to read it, but it is directed towards a few who may need it the most.

The Pearl of Great Price, and a word on anger

There is a C.S. Lewis quote, if I may persist in the Evangelical fashion of incessantly quoting an ecumenism and architect and apologist for ecumenism as we know the heresy today. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man about nascent science that emerged in a Renaissance environment practically saturated with the occult:

It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it might be true to say that it was born at an unhealthy neighborhood and at an inauspicious hour.

For my first stop after a preamble, I would mention a text connected with a figure I have great trepidation about: Fr. Seraphim (Rose). Whatever might be right or wrong about the deceased monk, the movement that unites in his name is a pest, and he alone has left me wanting to write a title like The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts (consistent one-star reviews saying, “BEWARE,” alleging logical fallacies etc.). Fr. Seraphim and his followers are usually classed as conservative, and I suppose they may be willing to assume the position of law and order in taking charge of Orthodox liberals’ spiritual condition: I may consider myself conservative and consider ecumenism to probably be the ecclesiological heresy of our day, but Fr. Seraphim’s crowd certainly commandeered a positon of law and order in straightening out my own spiritual condition in ways my priest wouldn’t dare.

But in a sense of “Do as I do and not as I say,” there is a profound nugget of wisdom in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Thoughts and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitnovnica. It is subtle, and some would say occult, in its treatment of barely consciously made curses having extraordinary effect, even if the point is that we should not curse even in the subtlest way.

The essential point is not uniquely Orthodox, but I would put it this way. Between the point where a thought really isn’t active in our minds at all, and when it is genuinely and clearly present with mental images, there is a subtle point of consent that most of us are barely aware of, an opportunity to put out a smouldering candle to be delivered from needing to extinguish a full-fledged fire. This is present in how a psychologist tells addicts that “You have more power than you think.” My recollection of discussions of the book, which I haven’t read and may be portraying incorrectly, is that Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning hinged on the discovery of this freedom in a concentration camp. The nexus is tied to the satyagraha championed by Gandhi and held as precious in India today: one of the bigger compliments I have been given is that it is rare to find this kind of understanding of satyagraha outside of India. There are many contestants for the most politically incorrect verse or passage in the Bible; one that is emphasized in Orthodoxy, especially in Lent, is, “…Blessed is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” The patriotic reading is that this refers to barely conscious thoughtlings which we can crush against Christ the Rock, ideally as soon as we can. The longer we let them grow, the more Hell-borne trouble will infest us.

That much is the big picture for this title. The microcosm Elder Thaddeus offers and fleshes out most is in anger; Elder Thaddeus may be faithfully following a tradition where the most deadly of sins is not lust, as the Victorians are rightly or wrongly charged with thinking, or pride such as some Protestants today may think, but anger. And that may seem an un-sexy choice of opponent for the elder to attack, but his choice may make perfect sense. And here a Law of Attraction comes into play. Perhaps we will not by placing our hands on a steering wheel of our SUV and saying “Thank you” (while imagining a much nicer one) thereby manipulate God into giving us more luxury. If there is some kind of Law of Attraction, it is simply not about acquiring luxuries. What is it about, you ask?

Like thoughts attract like thoughts. Thoughts of love, or courage, or gratitude attract further thoughts of love, or courage, or gratitude, and action with them. Thoughts of lust and anger attract more forceful thoughts of lust and anger, and action with them. And more to the point, thoughts of peace attract harmonious relations with others, and “warring thoughts”, thoughts of anger, bring Hellish conflict. On this point I count one of several anecdotes:

4.5. If in each family there were just one person who served God zealously, what harmony there would be in the world! I often remember the story of Sister J. She used to come and talk to me often while I was still at the Tumane Monastery. Once she came, together with an organized group of pilgrims, and complained, saying, “I can’t bear this any longer! People are so unkind to each other!” She went on to say that she was going to look for another job. I advised her against it, as there were few jobs and a high level of unemployment. I told her to stop the war she was fighting with her colleagues. “But I’m not fighting with anyone!” she said. I explained that, although she was not fighting physically, she was waging war with her colleagues in her thoughts by being dissatisfied with her position. She argued that it was beyond anyone’s endurance. “Of course it is,” I told her, “but you can’t do it yourself. You need God’s help. No one knows whether you are praying or not while you are at work. So, when they start offending you, do not return their offenses either with words or with negative thoughts. Try not to offend them even in your thoughts; pray to God that He may send them an angel of peace. Also ask that He not forget you. You will not be able to do this immediately, but if you always pray like that, you will see how things will change over time and how the people will change as well. In fact, you are going to change, too.” At that time I did not know whether she was going to heed my advice.

This happened in the Tumane Monastery in 1980. In 1981 I was sent to the Vitovnica Monastery. I was standing underneath the quince tree when I noticed a group of pilgrims that had arrived. She was in the group and she came up to me to receive a blessing. And this is what she said to me, “Oh, Father, I had no idea that people were so good!” I asked her whether she was referring to her colleagues at work and she said she was. “They have changed so much, Father, it’s unbelievable! No one offends me anymore, and I can see the change in myself, as well.” I asked her whether she was at peace with everyone, and she answered that there was one person with whom she could not make peace for a long time. Then, as she read the Gospels, she came to the part where the Lord commands us to love our enemies. Then she said to herself, “You are going to love this person whether you want to or not, because this is what the Lord commands us to do.” And now, you see, they are best friends!

This is at best one percent of theology and moral philosophy, and I am quoting it in an instrumental manner, which is to say falsely, or something like that. But in terms of immediate impact, it is front and center of what I have been trying to learn. You will have plenty of opportunities to forgive. Or at least I have. But there is something immensely powerful about the gentleness of spirit dealt with here. In another piece, I wrote a highly redundant piece, The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount. The title at least is worth considering, and is explained in the work. For this whole first point, I would say that the entire arena of morality (or at least that’s how things are cut up: in Orthodoxy, there is ascesis or spiritual discipline, and the field of morality, especially with outcroppings like social morality, does not arise on the same terms) is as important as it can be, but there are crimes that will get you executed in some places, and there are crimes that will get you dead before you get to the police station. For you, this is a crime that will get you dead before you reach the station.

One friend said of his parenting to a parishioner, “I tell my kids that they can say anything they want as long as they don’t use the F-word.” And continued, after a brief pause, “No, ‘Fair,'” and then said (this was a few years ago and may or may not be current) “File [U.S. Income tax forms] and don’t pay, and unless you owe $10000, it’s not worth the IRS’s time to come after you. Don’t file, and the IRS drops the hammer on you.” And there is something here that is not fair. Part of this point is that “A soft answer turns away wrath;” part of this point is meeting anger with meekness. But there is something unfair in that if other people offend here, they may not face particularly bad consequences. If you offend, you may receive a law and order response, or the hammer, or whatever you would like to call it.

Elder Thaddeus makes this question decisive and central, and I’m not sure it deserves that status; I have trouble pulling what he says from what I have seen in the Bible and the Fathers. Some of my attempts to turn the other cheek have met with further ill treatment. However that may be, I have deliberately placed this point as first after introductory comment.

One added remark before moving on to the closely related point of humility: there was a psychology experiment where people were shown brief video clips of doctors, without sound, and asked simply whether the doctor was “nice.” That simple question predicted, at 70% accuracy, whether the doctor would end up getting sued. The point sketched able may be your best shot at being taken to be “nice.”

Humility and pride

I have said earlier that sin, all sin, is like a pet ignoring a water bowl and drinking out of the toilet. Pride chokes off ability to respect others, and ability to enjoy others. But trying to be humble, perhaps under guidance, isn’t just good for what will happen in the next world. It is good for what happens in this world. And this hinges on something unfair again. Pride, arrogance, boastfulness–these benefit precisely no one, and people are rarely drawn to pride. However, pride is even more of a survival liability to the gifted. It offends others more than you have to, and it endangers you more than you have to…

…and it is also a form of stupidity, one you acquire even if natural intelligence does not demand it. Hubris has been described as “blinding arrogance,” and it is the behavior of pride to decide what you want to believe and ignore conflicting evidence that could save you were you to be humble enough to listen.

The proper place of humility is in a montage of interdependent virtues; I have called one to the forefront because of its survival value. You may be able to buy a little space by posturing and flattery, but this is false coin and doesn’t deliver much real weight.

Back in Greece, a member was one school was asked if he was “sophos” or wise, and answered that he was “philosophia” or one who “loved,” partly meaning “sought,” wisdom. The response was humble, or at least trying to act humble. “Philosophy” has meant different things over different times, and there is rich culture shock in people finding Eastern monasticism a much purer philosophy than the sort of thing taught in a philosophy department today. However, practitioners have retained a modest term for over two millennia. And it is perhaps an attitude even more appropriate with reference to humility would be to disclaim being humble, but if asked state that one is seeking humility.

Humility is a profound virtue, it has a great deal to do with the well-ordering of our soul, and there are two ways the profoundly gifted particularly need it. First, it is a sharper survival value and our failings hurt worse in the short term. Second, our gifts (meaning everyone’s gifts, really) are given to humble us. The Philokalia talks about how you can only take credit for actions you.    performed before you were born. Meaning, put vividly, that none of us, not even if we arrive at such purity and growth that we can work miracles, should be taking any credit for ourselves. (God might do so at the Last Judgment, but here now it is not permitted or helpful to us.) How much more, then, if we cannot take credit for even the most heroic of our acts, should we be stuck up for our giftedness, which we did nothing to create or acquire, and indeed could do nothing to create or acquire?

Furthermore, humility has been described as a kind of spiritual honesty. It has been called less of a matter of thinking less of oneself, and more a matter of thinking of oneself less. I was told in response to one confession, “The only true intelligence is humility,” and the honest character of humility really gives something that a sky high IQ plus pride does not. There may be cardinally important differences, and they really matter, and it is not normally helpful to relate to most other people as if they were directly as smart as you, but humility is still even more of a necessity to the profoundly gifted.

In Christian Koans, I wrote:

Someone said to a master, “What about the people who have never heard of Christ? Are they all automatically damned to Hell? Tell me; I have heard that you have studied this question.”

The master said, “What you need to be saved is for you to believe in Christ, and you have heard of him.”

Other people may lack humility and get along fine. We need humility in a much more pointed fashion now, even though our eternal needs are the same.

Blaise Pascal said that there were two types of people in this world: sinners who believe they are saints, and saints who believe they are sinners. The pre-communion prayers speak of “…sinners, of whom I am chief,” and there is more.

There is a valuable lesson to be taken from the U.S. of years past, and possibly also the present: “No one in America is rich.” No one says, or at least said, “I have these luxuries; I am rich.” “Rich” is a word we use to describe someone else with a more rarified level of wealth and possession, perhaps with something we covet: whether a more prestigious brand of car, or a nicer house, or a better position in the stock market. Perhaps under present economic conditions some Americans are starting to wise up that a house you own, with a mortgage, an income, and a working car are nothing to sneeze at. But there is still much of the earlier attitude, and precious few Americans are “rich”; “rich” refers to wealthier people whose wealth and property one covets. The wealth and property one already has is, or at least was, taken for granted.

I propose that the above attitude can be lifted to a higher plane. None of us are humble; we seek the priceless treasure of humility, but we don’t, or shouldn’t, see the humility we have. Instead we see humble people around us, or humility in the saints’ lives, but no matter how much we have it should be nothing in our eyes, and we have an insatiable search for more.

The above version of the Law of Attraction, and humility, are two points taken from an encyclopedia’s worth; I have wondered if I have shortchanged humility by giving it too few words. But let’s move on.

Communication under the “Theory of Alien Minds”

In Profoundly Gifted Magazine Interviews Charles Wallace Murry of A Wind in the Door, I discuss what might be called a “theory of alien minds” which reaches beyond the psychological “theory of other minds:”

Profoundly Gifted: Then what is it? What should I make of it?

Charles Wallace: If I may shanghai an opportunity to follow the words, “If there is an elephant in the room, introduce him…”?

Profoundly Gifted: Yes?

Charles Wallace: Asperger’s Syndrome.

Profoundly Gifted: It’s kind of like profound giftedness, no?

Charles Wallace: Let me quietly count to ten… Ok…

I read David Pollock’s Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, and I said, “That’s me!” Then I read Edward Hallowell’s Driven to Distraction and it made sense. Then I read, on a medical practitioner’s advice, Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, and my response was some more polite form of “Dude… pass me a toke of whatever it is that you’re smoking!

The root problem, which I will get to in a minute, is that when people who are happy to have an Asperger’s diagnosis and happy to offer half the people they know an Asperger’s diagnosis, there are superficial similarities between profound giftedness and Asperger’s traits, things that a competent diagnostician should see far past.

Early in the title, Attwood says that when he diagnoses someone with Asperger’s, he says, “Congratulations! You have Asperger’s!” But then it goes downhill. Atwood argues that the obvious social impairments one would associate with Asperger’s are guilty as charged; Asperger’s people don’t know (without counseling and / or training) how to hold an appopriate social conversation. However, the strengths one would associate with Asperger’s are all but eviscerated. Asperger’s children may have a monologue that sounds like a competent adult discussing the matter, but this “knowledge” is a hollow shell, without much of anything of the deeper competency one would associate with an adult capable of such monologue. The common stereotype of Asperger’s patients portrays a slightly odd combination of strengths and weaknesses; Attwood’s book is less generous and really only ascribes real weaknesses.

The standard symptoms of Asperger’s have a perhaps 50% overlap with standard symptoms of profound giftedness; while it is certainly possible to be a member of both demographics, the profoundly gifted characteristics resemble Asperger’s characters for quite unrelated reasons. The similarity may be compared to the common cold, on the one hand, in which there is an immune response to a harmful invador, and environmental allergies on the other hand, in which there is a harmful response to something otherwise harmless. Or for those who prefer an example from Charles Baudelaire, there is an image of two females, one an infant too young to have teeth or hair, and the other a woman too old to have teeth or hair. (The coincidence of features is close to being due to diametrically opposed reasons.)

Profoundly Gifted: Is the question “Asperger’s or profound giftedness?” the sort of question you’d rather un-ask than answer?

Charles Wallace: It is indeed. Or at least I’m drawing a blank to see what a three-cornered discussion of normalcy, Asperger’s, and profound giftedness has to add to the older discussion of normalcy and profound giftedness. If we can overcome our chronological snobbishness says that only now could we say something worthwhile about XYZ and giftedness, Leta Hollingsworth decided as a counterbalance to a study of mental retardation a study of some who turned out to have an IQ of somewhere around 180 or higher. She wrote an insightful and descriptive, Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet, much more insightful than the treatment of profoundly gifted scoring “Termites.”

Furthermore, and here I am less concerned with the relationship between profound giftedness and Asperger’s than improperly read research, there is a consistent finding that IQ-normal, autism-normal children do markedly better at what are unfortunately lumped together as “theory of other minds.”

A much better interpretation of Attwood’s data might come from splitting the theory of other minds into a separate theory of like minds, and also a theory of alien minds. A theory of like minds works with one’s homeys or peeps; hence someone IQ-normal and autism-normal surrounded by IQ-normal and autism-normal classmates will coast on a theory of like minds. But, except in how it may be refined by practice, a theory of like minds that comes virtually free to everyone isn’t in particular reserved to a majority of people (not) affected by XYZ condition. With some true exceptions like Tay-Sachs, everybody gets along with their peeps. Gifted and profoundly gifted click with their fellows; Asperger’s people click with their fellows; To pick a few many demographics, various geek subcultures, codependents, addicts, and various strains of queer should click just as well. Everybody gets a theory of like minds virtually free; the breadth of usefulness depends on how rarely or commonly one encounters like minds, and this heavily loads the dice for Attwood’s approach.

The comparison Attwood makes in interaction with autism-normal people loads the dice in a way that is totally unfair. The comparison is autism-normals’ theory of like minds to Asperger’s theory of alien minds; he never, ever tests autism-normals on their ability to relate to alien minds, nor does he ever test Asperger’s patients on their ability to relate to like minds. And while being unsure about how far this applies to IQ-normal Asperger’s patients, Asperger’s patients often make herculean and lifelong efforts to develop “theory of alien minds” aptitude, and the result is not just that they connect, perhaps clumsily, with people of the same age and socioeconomic status; they make very close connections across age, race, and gender, and for that matter animals who may start off by being afraid of them. The theory of alien minds is finely honed, even if it is not a valid substitute for a theory of like minds, and once it is honed, this theory of alien minds reaches much, much further than autism-normals resting on a theory of like minds.

In conversation, I’ve found people somewhat repulsed by the title of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The title sounds gimmicky, or worse Machiavellian. It sounds like a way to manipulate and use people. However, it has (some would argue) a legitimate place, and some of us who have read the title prefer to deal with others who are following its lead. I’ll refrain from simply condensing the title; rather, I will take its summary key points and address how they relate to us who are profoundly gifted, with some adaptation in the process. This partial expansion is not intended to replace or supplant original text, but stand in its proper position after one has taken an hour or two to read Carnegie. I also after some thought am not covering all his chapters; there is a limit to what I have to say here that is useful.

  1. Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. This one also makes Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims, and there is a general principle in Orthodoxy that we should be strict with ourselves and lenient with others. I would suggest further: Don’t cause culture shock, at least if you can avoid it or unless you are willing to deal with the consequences. You see options that others can’t. That’s a blessing, but one thing that plays out is that people in a culture will make sense of what they see in terms of the options the culture defines as possible or even thinkable. Furthermore, there is negative attribution at play. “Negative attribution” is a phenomenon where actions that are not understood are assumed to have dishonorable, shady motives. It takes some doing for you to come to understand what makes culture shock, but if nothing else be aware of it, and be aware that causing culture shock comes with a social price tag.
  2. Give honest and sincere appreciation. Orthodox may take issue with this in some part; some regard frequent compliments as spiritual poison, either dodging them or calling them Devil’s talk. Which, perhaps, they can be, and perhaps “guilty as charged.” But there is another shoe to drop. Compliments may be spiritually toxic and feed spiritual disease, but we are called to infinite respect. It is decreed in at least one monastic rule that guests “are to be received as Christ himself;” the chilling end of Matthew 25 clarifies that whatever we do for the very least beggar we have done for Christ himself. There is perhaps no need, really, to give a diet of compliments, but the respect or disrespect we show to our neighbor is, come Judgment Day, respect or disrespect we have shown the King returning in glory.
  3. Arouse in the other person an eager want. What precedes this statement in Carnegie’s chapter here is more than is really summarized; subsumed under “Arouse in the other person an eager want” is seeing things from the other’s perspective and speaking in terms of what the other person would find attractive. This, for profoundly gifted, is squarely a matter of “theory of alien minds” competence, and I will not speak further here than give one generically geek example. It has to do with when someone, having had a frustrating experience with technology, calls in the geek and the geek sees what principle or whatever it is that the user failed to understand, uses the moment to try to explain the principle the user needs, and meets with forceful existence. Geeks don’t like this situation; some of them in great frustration have asked, “Don’t they have any curiosity?” To this I would say, “You don’t seem to be showing much curiosity about people. ‘At the end of their rope’ is not the usual example of a teachable moment, at very least not with computer difficulties.” As far as spiritual growth goes, amazing things are sometimes learned at the end of one’s rope: one chapel speaker said, “God’s address is at the end of your rope.” However, it is simply not helpful to give a technology lesson to someone who is exasperated and stressed out. Similar technology lessons might make complete sense another day, when the other person is relaxed and in a good mood. However, there really is something to be said about taking an active interest in other people, and trying to get inside the other person’s head, and communicate in terms they will find attractive, not just what comes most naturally to you.
  4. Become genuinely interested in other people. One friend identified herself as “a psychologian,” and it was fascinating to me to watch her turn her whole attention to a younger woman and see how she worked. We think today of psychology today as the discipline that understands people, but it was historically an alternative to the understanding of people provided by religion. There is another embodied sense in literature, and there are ways a literature major may understand a person better than a psychology major. But in any case, knowing people should be at least one of your chosen areas of expertise. You owe it to yourself, and others!
  5. Smile. And if you’re one of those people like me who is not very animated by nature, it might not hurt to go to improv classes. (At least a conceptual understanding of method acting might also help.)
  6. Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language. Carnegie does not discuss standard memory techniques such as are discussed in Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory; there is some debate how useful such techniques are, and they may or may not help. However, it is helpful by some means to learn. And this principle is a token of respect for a whole person. If a business says “You’re a name to us, not a number” (as the puzzled secretary at a sprinkler company read an advertisement), that is a claim of respect for the whole person. And if non-semantic information is not your main area of strength, this does not change the relational necessity of learning and using other people’s names. (Perhaps you might memorize the etymology that gives the name?)
  7. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves. One expert negotiator was asked, “If I could shadow you for a day, and observe what you do, what in a sentence would I learn?” He said, “I don’t need a sentence. I just need two words: Listen better.” Listening, and a listening attitude, are bedrock to communication, persuasion, negotiation. The more important your message is, the more important it is for learning.
  8. Talk in terms of the other person’s interests. Make it a spiritual practice of being with other people, perhaps without even discussing their interests. There is a time and a place for persuasion, but even those who deprecate idle talk assume something far greater. Meet people where they are.
  9. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. Part of mystagogy is simple: if a person is wrong, and you know that person will not hear correction, you do not correct that person. On Judgment Day, it is better for the other person not to be guilty of hearing the truth and rejecting it, and it is also better for you not to have put the other person in that position. More broadly, argument and persuasion have a place, but the chief means of persuasion is one that a politically incorrect passage from the New Testament advises for the wife of an unbelieving husband. What we say is drowned out by how we live, and in the great scheme of things persuasion by Western logical argument is drowned out by the silent witness of our lives.

Why I am not a disciple of a staretz (or at least, not yet)

A staretz, or spiritual father in the monastic tradition, is one feature of Orthodoxy that is expected of monastics and open to non-monastics. I have heard varying opinions about whether laity should have a staretz. One bishop, perhaps associated with scandal, said that most of us living in the world should not rightly need a staretz, and that one should get the blessing of one’s priest and perhaps bishop before embarking on that unusual choice, even warning it might be out of pride / prelest that such decisions often spring from. Others have suggested that having a bond with a staretz is normal, and that one is limping spiritually to be Orthodox but not participate in that powerfully strengthening relationship.

I am not interested in advancing either of these positions, or criticizing either, beyond saying that I know Orthodox faithful who have their heads on straight and are not disciples of a staretz, and I know Orthodox faithful who regard a relationship with a staretz as a basic essential and also seem to have their heads on straight. There is a slight logistical detail about geographic location that is not of interest here, but what is to the point is the primary reason I do not now have a staretz.

A leading example of due diligence in Orthodoxy is the investigation that a prospective disciple is urged to make before entering obedience to a staretz. There is something of a monastic “Marry in haste; repent at leisure” phenomenon here, in that a prospective disciple is commanded to investigate the staretz, but once obedience has been entered, it is inviolable.

What I have found as a profoundly gifted individual is that a lot of authority figures have issues with the profoundly gifted. I’d like to give one or two examples, but they come from bosses, from professors, from clergy, from medical providers, from family, and it can take ten years for a repeated “No” to take effect.

One example from work

Let me take one example from work. I am deliberately mentioning work (not a first choice for jobseekers) rather than the offenses of someone who is close to me now.

I was brought on board to create a micro site that would supersede previous ways of tracking information about XYZ. I worked hard, and two days into a three week contract (we had already lost one week to administrative / paperwork issues that were not my boss’s fault or my own), I presented my first deliverable, a roughly 50-60% complete solution with an obvious trajectory to fill in the gaps. And let me preface what follows by saying that there are at least three ways in which I don’t believe my boss understood I was doing well because I was operating on a greased track:

  1. The contract was for either Python or Java development, and I used Python with Django, “the web framework for perfectionists with deadlines.” Each of the two languages has its own sweet spot where it vastly outperforms the other, and this specific contract fell squarely in Python and Django’s sweet spot.
  2. Second, I had just finished the publishing process for an IT title where the main software I developed to showcase my tools could serve as an example for what I had. Doing a project the second time through, as long as you avoid what is called “second-system effect”, is almost always faster. A lot faster, in most cases.
  3. In terms of personal working style, I had nearly optimally conditions for how I work best. I am not interested in commenting on what Agile variant or whatever provides the best working conditions overall, but I had a task, clearly defined and well understood in this case, and autonomy to do my best work. There was not much more for me to ask for.

So I came in on a greased track, politely and respectfully submitted my work, initially with pleasure of assurance that I had turned in something good, until my boss started making some very ominous remarks.

I plucked up my courage and asked directly, “How should it be different?”

I was assured that it would be explained in an upcoming meeting with him and one other employee.

In that meeting, I was told that my boss’s boss had asked how things were going with the project. My boss lied to save my skin, or so he said, telling him that we were only in “early planning stages”, with “nothing to show,” and my boss said that his boss was “LIVID“, emoting in a way that suggested he used “livid” because he couldn’t think of a stronger word to convey anger. I was also told, “Your only two friends within the company are in this room,” and that I should be terrifed of anyone else seeing my abysmal work. What the meeting left completely unaddressed was my question of, “Well, how should it be different?” Nothing in the meeting addressed my questions of “If you don’t like it now, how should I change it?” My boss walked out of the meeting looking very, very impressed with himself; he seemed proud for having cleverly defended himself from an attack.

Incidentally, I had run-in with my boss’s boss a day or so before; he asked how things were going, and I showed him pretty much what I showed my boss. He looked slightly bored at a reporting informational answer to what he apparently meant as a purely social question. (Note: this is not a hallmark of a particularly good liar.) I do not think he would have emoted that calmly if he were concealing rage towards me; and I also do not think that if he were in a rage he would let me continue to be employed there.

That was the biggest obnoxious thing that went on; it wasn’t the only one. The runner-up is that as part of his effort to make himself equal to me–and it has been my universal experience that when people try to make themselves my equal, things never go well–is that on one point in particular he spoke in riddles, refusing to give direct answers to my direct questions about what he wanted in the way of change even though he knew exactly what he wanted and he could have stated it clearly. He kept on forbidding me to copy the user interface to some internal-use system, and I thought, “Well enough: I’ll leave that system alone. I’ll refrain from even looking.” This was apparently not good enough; he kept on forbidding. After some point I realized that he wanted me to copy a key user interface feature exhibited by that other system, and when I did the work to copy that feature, the upshot was that I finally got it!

(As an aside, alongside people trying in sometimes nasty ways to make themselves equal to you, they will also sometimes show kindness, after a sort, by acting in a heirarchical relationship above you. Hence you may have people eager to advise you, or teach you, or start to provide unsolicited psychological services and feel very hurt if you politely decline–possibly talking to you for a solid hour without any request on your part–just whatever possible kindness will situate them above you. Now this is reason not to be arrogant as that is the one part of the problem you can most prevent, but even if you show a true and flawless humility, people can get intimidated.)

Another encounter at work

To muddy the waters a bit, this was a position where I requested accommodation for disability, and my boss tried a couple of times to push past the accommodation until I put my foot down. This can’t have improved my standing with him.

There was one major stint of my work that was handed in, and my boss accused me of doing a “fix one, break two,” after getting a bunch of people to find as many bugs as possible. This was an extremely serious allegation of incompetence, and I did not say anything immediately because I wasn’t sure how to respond and it isn’t something I am used to hearing. Then I got the big list of flaws in my work, and it was in fact not a list of flaws in my work. Every single one, without exception, was either a request to handle an ambiguity differently, often to the detriment of the product, or else it was a request for a feature enhancement that was not mentioned on the specifications I was working from. I told him this, and said that it is normal in the workflow for requests to be added, but I asked him not to frame requests for new features as evidence of my incompetence.

My boss never again made a specific allegation as to what was wrong with my code. After some time passed, he said in generic terms that my code was poor quality, and after a bit longer said it was not improved, and fired me.

I didn’t have any talent!

I could read music before I could read English, and as a little boy even… I love to play piano, but at a certain point my parents shut off my lessons and discouraged me when I continued to practice.

What my piano teacher told my mother, years later, was that she felt the need to distance herself from certain friends including my mother and me as connected to her. I might gently suggest another possibility. What she told my mother when discontinuing my lessons wasn’t that I should continue with another teacher. She instead shut down my lessons by telling my mother that I didn’t have any talent.

As one friend who was a piano teacher said, you don’t say that. It might possibly be true, but you don’t say that of your least talented student.

What exactly does “He doesn’t have any talent,” mean?

In this context, among other things, it meant that when I attended a Ken Medema session that was for Wheaton College Conservatory students (but open to others), I was the person who accepted an invitation and found myself placed to give a public performance. So I did, and people found it astonishing: one friend listened to it on tape and said, “That was you? It was beautiful.” That was my first time touching a keyboard in ten years.

My piano teacher couldn’t have known that. What she did know was that I was confused by the standard way of teaching relative pitch. I could do it, but I didn’t see the point, and the reason I didn’t see the point was that I had perfect pitch. And she knew I had perfect pitch.

I might comment that having authority figures trying to rebel against me didn’t begin when I had adult mental function and crude social skills. I’ve had authority figures rebel against me even as a young boy.

An example of a time bomb that blew up

There is also a time bomb aspect to these nasty (non-)surprises. I recall one mailing list where I had a conversation with one contributor, and joined the list for a time. At first the leader of the list said of 1054 and All That, “It tortures my funny bone,” which later changed to, “When you write satire, I grimace and bear it.” The woman who introduced me to the group asked me early on why I was guarded, and said, “We’re among friends.”

Things seemed to be on a sustained even keel for a while, but after a certain point the head of the mailing list increasingly opposed me, publicly attacking what I said and me as a person, which he tried to explain to me was introducing me to friendly candour, and even communicated that he was taking emotional risk and my place and obligation was to to validate and endorse the “friendly candor” he was so boldly poured forth.

I progressively withdrew from the conversation, first from stating opinion, then back from core Orthodoxy, until finally I was trying to make one and just one point. One of the members of the group was having a stressful, and really entirely needless, crisis of conscience: it was during the Nativity fast, and she had an obligation to attend a Christmas party, and she thought there were no exceptions or leniency to the rule of fasting. And at that point I was not interested in scoring points or being right as such; I was acting on a pastoral concern (if laity are allowed to act on pastoral concern) to tell her that there was a legitimate and time-honored exception here: she should go to the festival and enjoy what was offered her with a genuinely clean conscience. And the mailing list leader opposed me here as much as anywhere else: “I reply with three words: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.”

After a side conversation, I made a long post quoting ancient and modern sources in Orthodoxy, and explained that every source in Orthodoxy I had seen apart from the mailing list leader’s response said, in the words of my parish priest sometime back, “Hospitality trumps fasting.”

He locked me from posting on the list.

And there are several other instances like that that I can mention.

The pattern as a whole: and, more specifically why I am not attached to a staretz

The whole incident just mentioned–another was arguably betrayal by an Orthodox priest I looked up to–fed into a moment of “I have no mouth and I must scream,” that appeared in crystallized form in The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab, which I encourage you to take the time to read, perhaps now. A psychologist might talk about how a professor may have a need to believe “I’m an A and you’re all B’s,” the point being that non-threatening B’s get the A’s and unsettling A’s get B’s or worse. But the insight is hardly a new insight. Someone who knows the Bible well may note a decisive turning point after Paul heard people singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David has slain his tens of thousands.” He asked why he was only credited with thousands, if David was given tens of thousands, and that is pretty much the point where David began to be in serious danger from Saul. For that matter, even fairy tales contain a similar point. Snow White was pretty safe as long as the Queen still heard the answer she wanted when she asked, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” When the answer became “Snow White,” the Queen, like King Saul, sought noting short of murder.

And on this point this is why I have not sought a staretz. It is beyond a doubt to me that there are many startsy much too mature and humble to actually rebel against their disciples, but what I do hold in extreme doubt is my ability to distinguish them. Sometimes people show their colors immediately; it has also happened that harassment only began years later. I am not saying that I will never place myself under a staretz’s authority, let alone wish to criticize the institution as a whole. I am not interested in convincing people that they shouldn’t be disciples of a starter, or that they should. However, words like “Marry in haste, repent at leisure” and a history of time bombs leave me chary of placing myself under a bond of absolute obedience.

Saying “No” and enforcing that boundary

The standard psychological advice on this point is to give compliments, and show kindness so that anything unpleasant is sandwiched by things that are much more pleasant. And in terms of general social rules, it is good sense for people in general that if you have to say something unpleasant it is best to sandwich it with something more pleasant. For that matter, How to Win Friends and Influence People has much to say about gracefully dealing criticism, and while I am not a psychologist, I can imagine that a piece of routinely given advice to bookworms who find social situations challenging might be, “Read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Dale Carnegie wrote the book!” None the less, I submit that this boilerplate advice does not apply in the case of profound giftedness, or at least does not scale appropriately. Advice about giving a graceful apology when you have stepped on someone’s toes is inadequate to the situation if you can only wear cleats.

More broadly, I would compare driving on wintry roads after a heavy snowfall in Illinois versus Georgia. In Illinois, a snowfall of several inches is relatively routine. It may never be as safe to drive on snow-packed roads as roads without water, snow, or ice, but if you are exaggerating defensive driving a bit, drive a good bit more slowly, and allow yourself ample stopping room, you stand a significant chance of reaching a goal without an accident. However, in the case that is rarer than a blue moon that Georgia gets an equally heavy snowfall, the rules outlined above leave you significantly more vulnerable, because while in Illinois you are sharing the road largely with drivers who have some sense of what defensive driving on snow looks like, while the situation is far removed from anything they have well-formed habits for. The general psychological advice, cut from the same cloth as How to Win Friends and Influence People, is defensive driving in Illinois snow on roads shared with Illinois drivers. For the profoundly gifted it is taking Illinois defensive driving on snowy roads and trying to make it work in Georgia. (And I’m not trying to take a dig at Georgia; a Georgian is welcome to respond “Georgians don’t know how to drive deep snow and Illinoisans don’t know how to brace for a hurricane, and that’s a bigger deal.”)

But let me mention two situations where I shut down harassment.

One was a gay rights activist and now Roman priest who was essentially a self-appointed guardian of my orthodoxy. For quite a long time, when I posted a new written work, he would post a reply that inevitably did three things: it delivered pain, took me quite a few notches down socially, and lifted him even more notches above me, establishing him squarely as my superior.

After one dressing-down that was particularly offensive, I tried multiple ways to reason with him, and nothing worked: the last email he responded to was one in which I requested “no further unsolicited criticisms on any topic.” He responded, “Ok, I won’t send any more unsolicited criticisms, but I will take emails from you as solicitations for response,” followed by a dose of even more criticism. I then sent a letter, Cc’ed to our email provider, saying, “It seems I have no way of asking you to stop criticizing me so you will respect my wishes. Therefore I tell you that the next unsolicited criticism I receive will be forwarded to the system administrators with a request for disciplinary action.” I haven’t heard from him since.

In another case, someone who I trusted as a friend decided on his own authority that I had Asperger’s and he was going to treat me for it. When I repeatedly failed to opt-in to his diagnosis and treatment, he apparently decided that was not allowed to say no, and that was that. I asked him to stop half dozen or a dozen times, and was answered only by his telling me I was “sending mixed messages”, and his continuing to administer amateur psychotherapy. I sent one “CEASE AND DESIST” letter, Cc’ed to abuse@gmail.com. That killed that conversation as thoroughly as I desired.

It is my experience that when people are responding in their own special way to profound giftedness, your saying “No” is treated as something awfully spongy. It’s almost as if they believe, “If he says ‘No’ when I want him to say ‘Yes,’ that qualifies as a real, genuine ‘Yes.'” However, they know that they are wrong, and a Cc to an authority asking that something stop can something do something that a dozen privately sent “No”s will ever effect. If you are a member of an organization, know and be ready to apply grievance procedures.

And one other point, to be clear: Human Resources won’t always get it. In the job with the meeting where I was told, “Your only two friends in the company are in this room,” I contacted HR about possible harassment. HR’s only available response was to interpret my words about harassment (or hazing, or whatever you want to call it) was to interpret me as complaining that as a consultant I did not have job security, which they answered by explaining to me (as to a child) that as someone on a consulting gig my lack of job security was part of the game. I tried and failed to convey any of the points I was concerned about. And in general I’ve had trouble getting HR to see problems.

So there is a caveat. However, if I am being harassed, I have found the best mileage by saying “No,” perhaps privately at first, but if the private “No” is being pushed past, a “No” that is Cc’ed to an authority can bring remarkable clarity. I’m also not shy about sending a “CEASE AND DESIST” letter, also Cc’ed to an authority.

“So, You’ve Hired a Genius”

Another hacker wrote the original hacker FAQ, and after asking and obtaining permission, I expanded it into So, You’ve Hired a Hacker (Revised and Expanded). The premeir wordsmith in the profoundly gifted community approached me about co-authoring a similar work, So, You’ve Hired a Genius, that would take aim at stereotypes facing profoundly gifted in the workplace.

My response was to reluctantly muddy the waters. (And let me briefly add that I was excited about the topic, and just as excited about the honor of co-authoring the work he did.) The way I muddied the waters was essentially to say, “What you are calling stereotypes are not stereotypes, at least as far as mechanism. They have effects similar to stereotypes, but trying to dismantle them as stereotypes won’t work.”

For one example, he mentioned a “fallacy of dilution,” essentially a stereotype that says that if profoundly gifted are jacks of all trades, they must be masters of none with quite a diluted kind of knowing, because you can’t have knowledge that is both broad and deep. And what I said is that within their frame of reference (and most people have never met the profoundly gifted range), there are limits to what a person can do. You can be a generalist or a specialist, but you can’t have specialist-level proficiency in a broad stretch of disciplines. And so we don’t have a case of two related classes of people with the profoundly gifted miscategorized as “Jack of all trades, therefore master of none” when “comprehensive knowledge in multiple areas” is thinkable. The truth is simply something that doesn’t exist given most people’s horizons, and people, perhaps, make sense as best they can. This may produce the same effects as a stereotype, but people are not stereotypically filing the profoundly gifted into the wrong pigeonhole when the right pigeonhole is in their reach. They are responding to something outside their frame of reference, and trying to make sense given what is conceptually available.

Furthermore, I now have a second reason for being glad the title was not written, or at least that I wasn’t involved if someone else wrote it. On one level, the book’s approach was to contradict certain stereotypes that seem to keep cropping up. On another, slightly deeper level, the approach was almost certainly to adjust people’s possibles et pensables, what is possible and what is even thinkable, and if you enter that game you have already lost. This rule does not apply to people who are sufficiently gifted or other sundry exceptions, but if you are approaching regular people’s possibles et pensables as the sort of thing you negotiate and change at will, you have already lost.

“What would someone average do?” I remember visiting with some Mensans–this is significant–and offering magnetic business cards. And one of them raised the question of whether they would harm credit cards or other cards that had a magnetic stripe. The question was one that I had to considered, but one that I did not need to consider, apart from the fact that a stack of a few of them had not damaged any of my cards with a magnetic stripe, and, as I was to learn later, it really takes some doing to wreck a magnetic stripe. But the question had not occurred to me on “What would someone average do?” grounds. The magnetic backings were explicitly sold as backings for business cards. If they were to destroy any common wallet contents, they would be dropped by stores and possibly there would be class-action lawsuits. The average person was apparently safe to buy and use the cards as advertised without easily wrecking magnetic stripes: therefore, as a rule of thumb, someone “smarter than the average bear” was probably safe as well. I wouldn’t take this argument to its logical conclusion; The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is written on the premise that what an average person would do can have some very heavy price tags: in a word, millions of smokers CAN be wrong. However, even with that caveat, I would pose that “What would an average person do?” is a very important reference point, and possibly a default one should avoid deviating from if there is a reason. I believe that I personally need to know how to talk more like an average person, even if I manage talk about the weather and small talk a whole lot better than I did before.

And in negotiation it always helps to understand the other side. Of things you could wish, there are some things a particular person can conceive of and would consent to, some things a particular person can conceive of and would consent to, and some things a particular person would not conceive in the first place. I remember some time, over a decade ago, wanting to start a consultancy business of creating custom home pages for people. I believed, and continue to believe, that creating such pages would have been both doable and useful, and my Mom at least was very grateful when I made a personal-use homepage for her, or to be more specific, was grateful after I had created it and she began using it. (And I don’ think she was JUST being polite, or motherly, in her appreciation.) However, the feedback I got on a high-IQ mailing list about my business idea was, “I don’t think most people would understand what you were offering.” Perhaps some people would “get it” once they’d played around with it a bit, but to people who were not yet customers, I was a bit like what you get when you cross the godfather with a lawyer: someone who makes you an offer you can’t understand. This may be a huge competitive advantage: you may see good options that are invisible to any competition. However, it helps a great deal if you understand that there are thing you see that are invisible to others, and that explanation and negotiation do not, or at least do not always, change most people’s horizons of what is possible and what is even thinkable. Effective negotiation here does not mean changing someone else’s worldview; it means change from within from things that are already on their list of possibles et pensables.

One acquaintance I had said that when faced with a problem, he would ask, “What would a smart person do?” and try and reason from there. It is my suggestion that essentially in social areas, the question of “What would an average person do?” is fecund. It provides a basic anchor for social and other conduct, and if you don’t know how an average person talks in terms of length of speech, complexity, and whether they are speaking to inform or to communicate, you have a reasonable yardstick. This doesn’t mean that you limit your life to a tiny box, but it does mean that you should be communicating appropriately (including notcommunicating appropriately) with most others. Are you teaching? Give serious consideration to taking homework questions from the main area of the textbook’s problems, rather than look for an appropriate challenge as you understand “appropriate challenge.”

When I was in grad school, I taught “Finite Math”, which was a general education course. I was trying to create a mathematical paradise that would expose people to the poetic beauty of mathematics. I did other things that I’d heard of that sounded cool, like letting people choose weightings for their grades. I got reamed in end-of-course student reviews (one student said, “Now it’s payback time!” when I passed out reviews sheets), and this was entirely appropropriate.

In my attempt to create a mathematical paradise, I was trying to teach people a different way of thought. I would loosely describe my model as too close to a mathematical Zen master, or an ersatz mathematical Zen master, trying to break the mind of mindless symbol manipulation. I completely failed to consider, for instance, that mastering some form(s) of mindless symbol manipulation could be a basis to award a high grade. What I considered conveying the beauty of mathematics was sectarian, only appropriate to some students, and not proper for the diversity in a general education class for non-majors. (I’m undecided about how appropriate it would have been for people in a class where students opted-in to more mathematics than they had to take; possibly it could have been well-done in a weed-out class. However, I was not teaching anything meant to weed students out.)

If I could send a message back in time to myself as I was a young man preparing a class, I would have urged reading, Please Understand Me!, which deals with some of the basic diversities among people, and Please Understand Me! II, which applies something of a multiple intelligence theory (though if you want multiple intelligence theory done well, I’d look for Howard Gardner and keep in mind that there may be some good stuff, but the topic is a kook magnet). The benefit of these books is, besides what they document directly, the fact that they sensitize a perceptive reader to how humans can vary, and the fact that diversity does not begin with race. It begins well before race!

Simplicity beyond complexity

There is something that has always bothered me about the suggestion that if you are really a expert, if you are really at the top of your game, then you can explain the problem you are working on in a nutshell that average Joes can understand. That may be true, but I can see it only as indirectly true, by accident. Specialists with a doctorate in what have you have jumped through hoops and paid metaphorical blood, sweat, and tears to reach their understanding. And they are supposed to explain what they took a decade to learn so that the onus is on them to produce a statement that will make the average listener understand immediately? The proposition was for a long time repulsive to me, seeming to be anti-intelletual, or driven by envy, or both!

However, there is a way that it is true, but it’s not really through a measure of expertise, unless we are talking about a measure of expertise that only the profoundly gifted achieve. And that is because at least some of the profoundly gifted reach the simplicity on the other side of complexity–as you may have hear the saying, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Characteristic of this, to take an example with Richard Feynman, is from the Challenger disaster hearings. The question had been raised of whether O-rings became brittle in the cold, and people argued and discussed, discussed and argued, with no real progress either way. Then Feynman took a piece of O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and went, snap! And the debate stopped cold.

There was also the story of a retiree’s publication where one senior wrote a letter saying that she calculated that she had heard ____ many thousands of sermons, but oddly enough she couldn’t remember any sermon she had heard, and she knew that pastors put a lot of time into sermons, and she wondered if the effort might be better spent elsewhere. That set off considerable debate; people argued and wrote letters one way and then another, until one gentleman wrote,

I met my wife ____ years ago and we have been happily married for ____ years. During this time, I estimate that my wife has prepared for me ____ thousand meals. I cannot remember any of the recipes she followed, but I am on the whole healthy and not any fatter than when I met her. I judge that it was worth her time to cook those meals.

The discussion was over. Period.

At a former parish, I, a layman, was allowed to preach a couple of homilies. I don’t think I understood the honor I was being given; in another jurisdiction, Deacons, who have entered major holy orders, do not preach.

The priest and subdeacons both spoke with me at some length. They didn’t warn of any consequence for anything, and they didn’t seem to doubt that I would deliver a homily that was correct and probably full of good points. They trusted me only to speak from Orthodoxy. However, the one point that they underscored at length was simplicity, and told me to address my homily to three parishioners who were the least bookworm-like members of the parish.

There are basically two thing that priest gave me:

  1. The honor and pleasure of delivering homilies.
  2. The ability to crystallize something simple out of something rich and complex.

And this last bit puts me at an open vista for new learning. I have learned to communicate well in complexity; now I am working on also being able to communicate simply.

This post, the one you are reading, may be seen as a professional bad example; I am communicating like someone who isn’t trying or succeeding at communicating simply. In other words, I do not have even the pretension here of modeling the communication style you should be using. But learning to extract a crystalline core to something conceptually large is something we can do, and something we need to do.

For a “before and after”, I would submit The Horn of Joy: A Meditation on Eternity and Time, Kairos and Chronos and the homily Two Decisive Moments. There are other homilies I believe communicate well; A Pet Owner’s Rules is an example, but it was not intended to simplify anything longer or more complex. The Horn of Joy is a leisured meditation, a complex river with eddies and swirls, and I wanted to miniaturize it, but I saw no faithful way to miniaturize the whole, and after the fact I am glad I didn’t pull off a synopsis of the whole thing. So I instead took a nugget, a kairos decisive moment, and delivered a homily without using the Greek word, just speaking of “two decisive moments.” And the homily, incidentally, was intended to challenge possibles et pensables. I point this out because the rules I am giving should be seen as guidelines from experience more than exceptions. I believe that in this case it also worked because there was really nothing more trying to claim attention. I remember commenting on Karl Rahner’s grundkurs title that he was describing the familiar as something alien, and I do that too (witness Game Review: Meatspace), but when I do that, that is pretty much all that is going on. If I’m making that heavy cognitive demand, I will try to lighten other parts of the load. And in Rahner the mystery of figuring out what could be said much more directly, in a much more familiar way, is only one layer of what makes his texts difficult to read. (I studied at a school that was mostly in Rahner’s camp, and while professors rejected my claim that Rahner’s rhetoric was confusing, we were none the less encouraged to deploy Rahner’s theology to people who would be scared off from reading Rahner in his own intricate words.)

There is one final caveat I wish to mention on this point. The poem Doxology was written out of love of its subject matter and of its language. It does not have even the pretension of being written with any attempt at simplicity. For that matter, it does not have even the pretension of being written in English as the language is spoken today: it is written in Elizabethan English. And, at least as far as the impression goes, it has had substantially more Facebook reshares than all of my other works put together. Simplicity is a guideline, and it may be a survival necessity, but it is not a straightjacket. There is a time and place to pull out beautiful words and give the undiluted force of your thought.

When you should lie

One time, on LinkedIn, someone posted, “Just give me the time, don’t build me a friggin’ watch,” and asked why engineers went on and on. I regret the answer I gave because it was honest and truthful as an engineer would understand those merits. What it was not was short. The answer I thought of a bit later was, “If you want a marketing executive’s answer, ask a marketing executive. If you want an engineer’s answer, ask an engineer. Why are you asking an engineer for a marketing executive’s answer?” And that may have been a better response, but it was a really good way of saying something I no longer hold true.

One friend spent some time in Nigeria, and one cultural note in conversation came when Uncle Monday asked her how her cold was, and she said it was getting worse. He said, “You don’t say that,” and explained that the expect response was, “It’s getting better,” even if it isn’t, and if you give a different response like “It’s getting worse,” socially you are asking for that person’s help. She commented that that experience helped her make peace with the American “How are you?”–“I’m fine!” even if things are not fine. As someone said, “‘How are you?’ is a greeting, not a question. The other person does not want to hear about your indigestion.” This is a general rule with exceptions; some that I am aware of are when you are close to the other person, when the person asking is devout, when the person asking is gifted, and when the person asking is on the spectrum. Any of those three, and perhaps others, may want to hear “I’m having a really rough day,” should that be the case. However, the usual social role in the U.S., with its unwritten boundaries, is that you normally give a positive and upbeat answer to the question, “How are you?”

I am job hunting now, and one area I have done poorly, is to give a two-sentence answer unless someone interviewing you asks for more–and you want to be asked for more. For most questions that come up, I feel like lying to give much of any two-sentence answer, and I want more than 140 characters. However, the correct answer, made in an attempt to be honest and appropriate, is a simple two sentence response that would be a lie to tell your colleagues. You may enjoy some discretion as to how you lie; you do not have discretion as to whether you lie.

Certain things like this may seem like a social game before they become candid. But the words “Fake it until it’s real” may apply here. Living properly in a culture may seem a social game before it becomes a living stream; and there are exceptions. There was one time at UIUC where a friend said he was writing a story set in a Biblical milieu, and asked if I had guidance to make it better. I asked him if he knew what culture shock was, and when he said “No,” I stepped uncomfortably close to his face (he started backing away very quickly), and I said, “That’s culture shock! It’s being surprised and caught off guard in a way you didn’t know you can be caught off guard.” He thanked me, and went on to write his story.

That is, as best I can recall, the first and only time in my life where I believe it was right to invade another person’s personal space. For the rest of the situations I’ve met, there are rules (perhaps varying from culture to culture) about what it means to be at a particular distance, what is too close, and what is too distant. This kind of rule should usually be observed as much as possible, even if it feels like an artificial shell for a time, and trying to negotiate (in this instance) proxemics is an attempt to negotiate what is possible and what is thinkable.

“People don’t understand me!”

Mosts people have a desire to be understood, and I recall in particular one person who was disappointed when people would hear that he was a professor and ask, “What do you teach?” when he really considered himself to be so much more than a teaching machine. There were several responses; one highly upvoted answer said, “In many languages, ‘Professor’ means ‘Teacher’“, and said, supposing for the sake of argument that he was a fellow mathematician, that people would have a better understanding of mathematics if they read some of Theoni Pappas’s titles explaining mathematics for non-mathematicians remarkably well, but in the end it was better to have social conversations without homework or footnotes. Most professions are a bit different from how public stereotypes would have it; it’s not just (as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance points out) that a mechanic’s job description is not in the first instance, “Disassemble a car partway, replace a broken part, and reassemble everything you took out;” that may be the easiest part of a job, and a mechanic’s basic challenge lies in figuring out mentally, or sleuthing, what sort of root cause would be behind the problems and behavior observed. Meanwhile, my expectation is that if one were to shadow a police officer or detective for a day, the experience would be anticlimactic given how those jobs are portrayed on television. Besides the sheer amount of paperwork that sworn officers are responsible for, the figure I’ve heard is that outside the firing range officers draw their gun on the job once every four years, if even that much. (My offhand suspicion is that most professions look different from the inside than from the outside.)

But the professor who felt belittled by the question of what he taught stands as a sign of something to beware of. Seeking to be understood, trying to have an identity in the modern sense, seem very natural, but we are better to wean ourselves off of them. And that excludes next-level silliness, like deciding which three qualities on a list make up your personal brand. There may in the end be something like personal brand, but it is built on a tacit and internal basis.

Pulling from the Zeitgeist

When I was at Cambridge, I was interested in studying the holy kiss, on which point I was ridiculed even by my advisor for an earlier thesis. I wasn’t the first person to study it; a literature search found prior discussion easily enough, but Cambridge did not take the question seriously, nor did they find any sense in my desire for a doctrinal, as opposed to historical and cultural, study.

But five or ten years later, I was surprised by people coming to me with treatment of the topic. They asked if I knew something not covered in The Eighth Sacrament, which was a homily distilled from mounds of data. But my point, which had been ridiculed earlier, became a standard item of interest in five or ten years, and not so far as I can tell through my advocacy. I also took flak (but that might be expected from critiquing what one editor called a “hornet’s nest”) for, after sone truly nasty experiences with Fr. Seraphim’s crowd, writing The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts. My suspicion is that in a few years people will say, “Whoa, something’s not right here,” and that my text may be called helpful, but I will be a bit player in the new consensus. The phenomenon played out in one mailing list and, right or wrong, intelligent design.

In mathematics at least, mathematicians are urged to have a sense of urgency in communicating results. It is a well-known phenomenon historically that a mathematical problem will remain open and unsolved for quite some time, and then simultaneously and independently be discovered by several people. And mathematics may have the least Zeitgeist of any academic discipline. There may be an increasingly tight standard of mathematical rigor, and mathematics may move from specialization to hyper-specialization, but mathematicians do not, like teenagers, say, “The fundamental theorem of calculus is ssoooooo last millennium!” In other disciplines you may (as one Nobel prize laureate said) get to be part of the establishment by blowing up part of the establishment, but with quasi-exceptions like Abel, you do not establish your credentials by dismantling something that was previously proven. And if in mathematics, where I discern no credible causes for a powerful Zeitgeist, the Zeitgeist is powerful enough that a competent mathematician will work to get credit for a solution to an unknown problem quickly, that makes Zeitgeist considerations important, even if some of us regard the Zeitgeist as rather silly, or worse, most of the time.

But it seems to be a profoundly gifted trait to pull things out of the Zeitgeist several years before it goes mainstream. I’m not sure of too many other examples than above, although when I mention Orthodoxy, Contraception, and Spin Doctoring: A Look at an Influentual but Disturbing Article to fellow Orthodox who disbelieve that Orthodoxy allows contraception, the response I’ve gotten is, “I read that some time back and I found it helpful.”

A cue from usability (UX)

Jakob Nielsen is one of the founding lights in usability, and one drum he kept beating was, “You are not a user.” He forcefully makes the point that whether a user interface makes sense to the programmer simply doesn’t matter. Maybe it matters if even the programmer can’t understand it, but knowing that user interface behavior makes sense to its creator gives essentially no useful information about whether the offering is yet fit for public consumption. This attitude is close to “theory of alien minds” proficiency.

In customer service, there is a saying, “The customer is always right,” and in psychology there is a saying, “The rat is always right,” but they mean two separate things. The customer service meaning is that the customer is king and customer service people should bend over backwards to please customers who are being jerks. The meaning in psychology is that no matter how much puzzlement and consternation a lab rat’s behavior may provoke in a researcher, a given lab rat under given experimental conditions always shows the correct behavior for a given lab rat under given experimental conditions, and if your theory can’t cope with that, it’s time to adjust your theory.

I have never heard this in UX literature, but there is good reason to say, “The user is always right.” If a user spends twenty minutes searching  and fails to identify a large graphic for a link, the user is right. The basic standard of accountability, another drum Nielsen beats, is frequent discount usability testing.

I’m not aware of an established way to do usability testing, but close attention to social signals comes to mind, and if I had the money to spare, I would invest in some of Paul Eckman’s tools for picking up on hair trigger emotional reaction.

Interlude

Q: What did the person who had an IQ of 137 say to the person who had an IQ of 189?

A: “I’ll have the burger and fries, please.”

For a rough map of the gifted range, Hollingsworth suggested a range of “socially optimal intelligence,” from which most leaders and successful people come, and it is misunderstanding the point somewhat to point out how rare it is to be above that range. I have seen the bottom of the range estimated at 120 and the top at 145, 150, or 155, and it is essentially a range where you have an advantage, but don’t really have to pay for it.

Above that range people seem to have what might as well be magic powers, but there is a price tag. Children above an IQ of 170 tend to feel that they don’t fit in anywhere; at the top of the gifted range people can develop enough of a theory of alien minds that they in fact do fit in pretty much of anywhere.

When I have taught and failed, it has usually been because I humbly though of others as my intellectual equals, and made demands that were entirely inappropriate. Part of this was asking students to call me by my first when they would have been more comfortable with “Mr. Hayward.” I failed to respect an intellectual and social distance, and shortchanged students in the process.

The gifted range is broader than the normal range, and to be really offensive, the number of points’ difference between the average profoundly gifted and the average gifted is pretty much the number of points’ difference between the average gifted and the average mentally retarded. I say this not to contribute to pride, but to contribute to an understanding of needing to build a bridge that the other party will not build alone.

Being a Renaissance man

I have heard the term “Renaissance man” used, and meant as a compliment, but did not see it as especially strong or specific. I was called a Renaissance man, I thought, because I had some accomplishment in the sciences and some accomplishment in the humanities: I appreciated the compliment but did not take it too seriously.

Then I read the Wikipedia entry; I quote paragraphs following an opening that refers to gifted people with some kind of skill:

“Renaissance man” was first recorded in written English in the early 20th century. It is now used to refer to great thinkers living before, during, or after the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance man, a man of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination”.

Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th through to the 17th century and that began in Italy in the late Middle Ages and later spread to the rest of Europe. These polymaths had a rounded approach to education that reflected the ideals of the humanists of the time. A gentleman or courtier of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry, and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal. The idea of a universal education was essential to achieving polymath ability, hence the word university was used to describe a seat of learning. At this time universities did not specialize in specific areas but rather trained students in a broad array of science, philosophy, and theology. This universal education gave them a grounding from which they could continue into apprenticeship toward becoming a Master of a specific field.

  • “Speak several languages:” check. This is with varying degrees of proficiency, but I’ve lost count how many. My LinkedIn profile lists a dozen.
  • “Play a musical instrument:” years out of practice, but check.
  • “Write poetry:” check.
  • “And so on:” check. (See the skills list at skills.cjsh.name; besides theology, philosophy, and the sciences, there’s a lot that’s not listed here.)

But my response to seeing that I cover every skill fitting the original definition of “Renaissance man” was not, “Wow, I’m pretty cool;” it was much closer to saying that I stand in the company of heretics. Leonardo da Vinci stands as a man of toxic fascination (I was told in high school that when he was asked why he kept so many young boys as apprentices, he said, “They aren’t very good, but aah, the eyelashes!”; I don’t know if that’s true). What can probably be said is that Leonaro da Vinci does little to edify his admirers, even if the gain skill. A booklet like The Empty Self: Gnostic Foundation of Modern Identity is written by a former head of the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, and while he acknowledges that his messianic fantasy was less serious than those of his more disturbed patients, he was very clear that his admiration of da Vinci was unprofitable. He talked about medieval statues of people who had their chest open and inside their heart was Christ enthroned, and his own vision of sorts where he saw da Vinci’s chest opened and enthroned inside was… Leonardo da Vinci. This is a vision of Hell.

So I do place myself in the company of the original Renaissance men, but from an Orthodox perspective this is like placing myself in the company of Arius, Sabellius, and Nestorius, architects of heresy. I have climbed a ladder that is leaning against the wrong building.

I don’t believe I should turn my back on this; in fact, I believe I am doing the right thing to use my finely tuned language-learning aptitude to yet another language (Russian). But I do believe my position calls for a little bit of humility.

I am intentionally posting this on the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, commemorating the controversy in which the Church weighed Renaissance humanism in the balance and found it, in some sense, lacking. Renaissance humanism sought elevation in mastery of many secular skills; the Orthodox Church’s sought a divine humanism in a Christ who is our entire reference for what it means to be God and our entire reference for what it means to be human. In more recent times an Orthodox theologian said that it is a real and true accomplishment that with loads of science, engineering, and an enormous budget, we can send people to the moon. However, it is a greater matter that the Orthodox Church has known for ages how, on a small loaf of bread per week, to lift a person up to God. And really there is something charming about a Renaissance collection of secular skills: but it is nothing next to the true treasures offered by the Church.

A bed of pain

Lastly, or at least in the course of winding down, it may be mentioned that the profoundly gifted experience, at least for a signficant number, is rough. A number I remember reading and tried but failed to trace down for a paper was that profoundly gifted had a 27% psychiatric hospitalization rate, which is higher than practically any meaningful demographic besides “people who have undergone psychiatric hospitalization.” It is higher, for instance, than either unipolar or bipolar depression. A study of Termites identified as profoundly gifted said they found no evidence to support the popular belief that profoundly gifted have a rough life, and also mentioned in passing that one of the twenty-nine subjects committed suicide. But this did not moderate their earlier position (compare 1 in 10,000 general public incidence at the time), when perhaps the small profoundly gifted sample size limits the effectiveness of statistics, the res ipsa loquitur facts should have come across as a “WTF?” in fifteen feet high blinking neon letters.

Complicating the matter is that one’s best chances are to psychotherapy and psychiatrically prescribed medicines, but not only is the field of mental health a minefield, but the field of mental help is a minefield, and rational risk management is impossible. You can ask about the potential consequences and side effects all you want, but you won’t be told of any serious consequences (and an antidepressant or a tranquilizer can have drastically more severe side effects than an antibiotic or pain medicine). Electro-convulsive therapy is described as maybe causing you to forget which drawer you put your socks in, where patients of electro-convulsive therapy have said in some wording I forget that the memory loss is onerous: the treatment is the right treatment for severe depression that nothing else budges, but the memory loss is obnoxious. In dealing with psychiatrists and psychotherapists, remember that a good practitioner will mention a role that involves a heavy dose of narcissism, and for most people you meet you will be the smartest person the person you are dealing with has ever met. With most psychiatrists and therapists, the question is not whether you are more than a sigma above your healthcare provider (as a rule, people work best together when they are within a sigma, give or take). The question is really more whether you and the second-brightest person that provider has ever met are within a sigma of each other. We are genuinely talking about The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab territory in a heavy dose here. And that puts intimidation on steroids.

I would heed warning signs and look elsewhere early on, rather than wait for things to get better, if your provider shows incompetence, including behavior motivated by being (or becoming) threatened by what you represent. Psychotherapy and psychiatry may be close to being the only game in town, or otherwise indispensable for many profoundly gifted, but my own opinion is that the land is a minefield and the first provider you find is probably not part of the minority that will treat you in a competent manner.

The longest journey

My relationship with my ex-fiancée was painful. I’m tempted to write a long list of things she did wrong and expect you to join my pity party, but I will resist that temptation. What I will say is that of my own list of numerous failings, almost everything was related to my trying to reason things out and not engaging things on any level other than the rational. And my contribution to the trouble was worse than the points where I tried to reason something out and was wrong; there is something fundamentally false about being in a romantic relationship and not handling the other with your heart. Some have said, “Handle yourself with your head and other with your heart,” but really we should handle ourselves with our hearts, too.

One priest I know insists, “The longest journey we will take is the journey from our mind to our heart.” Now he has a good deal of knowledge: he became a pain management physician to learn the art and science of relieving pain and suffering, and once practicing he realized he knew how to treat pain (by a prescription for a strong enough pain reliever, perhaps), but he did not consider himself prepared to really address suffering, and that point led him into the priesthood. And if you ever meet him, you will most likely find that he deals with you out of his heart.

Learned man that he may be, his homilies are simple.

Socrates and God the Spiritual Father

One of my works, God the Spiritual Father, is one of the works that I consider the most helpful today, and especially today, as having reference to hard times. It is, incidentally, the one work most pulled together as a collection of quotes (as “plagiarism” is respected and endorsed in many past and present cultures; the intent is not to claim credit for something original, a concept which may not exist among plagiarists, but to honor pat excellence, setting it as a jewel in a bezel). Now I follow Western, if not precisely academic, conventions to mark quotations.            and attribute them to the authors and works I lean on, and I don’t expect to be accused of plagiarism, even if some people find the heavy level of quotation unusual. But the spirit is close to ancient plagiarism that sought to include jewels from prior excellence.

The core point I drive, above divine purpose for suffering, is to drop another shoe. Voltaire gives a devastating critique of the popular-before-Lisbonne-earthquake optimism saying that we live in the best of all possible worlds. And we do not; that much is beyond serious dispute unless one delves into the kind of philosophical exploration that can, for instance, doubt that there is an external world. Even Christian Science acknowledges, if not exactly that there is evil in the world, that our perceptions have a problem. But saying that we live in the best of all worlds doesn’t really have a following in the West today.

However, there is another shoe to drop: while we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that makes a world of difference. It’s even better.

Some Orthodox are chary of adopting the non-canonical Anselm of Canterbury’s arguments, of which I will write a deliberate tangent in a minute, but such existed among the Fathers before Anselm. Perhaps Anselm’s best-known argument is that God, if such exits, is greater than anything else than can be thought. Now if we compare a God who is greater than anything else that can exist, for such a God to exist in thought and in reality is greater than for such a God to be greater than anything else that can exist but exists only as a thought in people’s minds. Therefore God must exist in reality; anything less would be a contradiction.

This argument (I’ll omit discussion of Gaunilo’s “In Defense of the Fool” which keeps getting reincarnated by atheists trying to give a fresh, new objection to Anselm, and also Anselm’s response) has been called the most controversial argument in the history of philosophy, and most people on hearing it feel like they’ve been slipped something even if they usually can’t put their finger on why. I would suggest, perhaps in an ersatz repetition of Kant, that two levels are conflated, like the rhetorical practice of writing an ambiguity where people can’t dispute one reading of the ambiguity, but it ends up being taken as support of another ambiguity. I cite Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business in a fallacy I don’t know how to name (documenting at least one such fallacy was my diploma thesis in theology),

 A third example of the influence of media on our epistemological can be drawn from the trial of the great Socrates. At the opening of Socrates’s defense, addressing a jury of five hundred, he apologizes for not having a well-prepared speech. He tells his Athenian brothers that he will falter, begs that they not interrupt him on that account, asks that they regard him as they would a stranger from another city, and promises that he will tell them the truth, without adornment or eloquence. Beginning this way was, of course, characteristic of Socrates, but it was not characteristic of the age in which he lived. For, as Socrates knew full well, his Athenian brothers didn’t regard the principles of rhetoric and the expression of truth to be independent of each other. People like ourselves find great appeal in Socrates plea because we are accustomed to thinking of rhetoric as an ornament of speech–most often pretentious, superficial and unnecessary. But to the people who invented it, the Sophistsof fifth-century B.C. Greece and their heirs, rhetoric was not merely an opportunity for dramatic performance but a near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, and therefore of communication truth.

I was not only a key element in the education of Athenians (far more important hand philosophy) but a preeminent art form. To the Greeks, rhetoric was a form of spoken writing. Though it always implied oral performance, its power to reveal the truth resided in the written word’s power to display arguments in orderly progression. Although Plato himself disputed this conception of truth (as we might guess from Socrates’ plea), his contemopraries believed that rhetoric was the proper means through which “right opinion” was to be discovered and articulated. To disdian rhetorical rules, to speak one’s thoughts in a random manner, without proper emphasis or appropriate passion, was considered demeaning to the audience’s intelligence and suggestive of falsehood. Thus, we can assume that many of the 280 jurors who cast a guilty ballot against Socrates did so because his manner was not consistent with truthful matter, as they understood the connection.

Postman’s book was formative to me and I still agree with much, but here he misses the boat. If I wished to reincarnate Postman’s error, I could say that the philosopher was not only found guilty, but on trial in the first place, because Socrates lived, acted, spoke, and taught in a way that caused culture shock and could not but draw negative attribution. The threshold for capital punishment (if it is allowed) varies somewhat between cultures, but usually you don’t end up a defendant on trial for a capital crime in your culture unless you have some enemies. Socrates was a teacher who influenced youth in a presumably distinctive way; if he was on trial for “corrupting the youth,” I regard it as charitable to read the allegation, right or wrong, as entirely sincere. And on those grounds his defense may be seen as a last unwelcome surprise to Athenians. It might perhaps have hurt him (or things may have been beyond that point), but it did not cause Socrates to lose skyhigh approval because he walked in to his trial with little approval in the first place. Postman presents things in such way that it appears that Socrates’s defense was a major contributor to his 280 guilty votes. I’m not so sure about that.

But I would pause to address a question that some might raise. If Socrates had heeded what I imply may be a wiser, or at least a more survivable course, would he have been as interesting or important? Would he really have been Socrates? And I don’t know; I am very wary about saying that Socrates could, with slightly better social skills, made every accomplishment the Socrates of history and philosophy made and not really ruffled Athenian feathers. However, I would recall a linguistics professor’s answer to a question from a missionary-in-training: “Do I have to do all the homework?” The professor restrained her first impulse, thought for a moment, and said, “No, you don’t have to. But be prepared to take the consequences.” And on those grounds, causing things like culture shock are usually a liability. Sometimes they’re necessarily tied to something good. However, I don’t thonk I would enjoy the company of someone profoundly gifted who caused culture shock out of simply never making serious efforts to learn to communicate effectively with others. Choose your battles.

And back to Anselm after a tangent that should perhaps be the conclusion.

We do, in fact, live not in the best of all possible worlds, but a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that really does make all the difference.

Commencement

This piece has rambled; someone very charitable might say it has rambled in a manner worthy of Socrates. However, I wish to end this work the way an academic program is ended: with a ceremony deliberately named, “Commencement.” The choice of term says in essence, “This is not where your endeavor ends. This is where it truly begins.”

This work is a piece of wisdom literature,  standing in a tradition of excellent and mediocre works about how to live well. Several books of the Old Testament fall under its rubric, and a great many books like Seven Habits of Highly Effective People also qualify as wisdom literature, and as best I recall the introduction talked about a relatively recent historical shift in wisdom literature from a “character ethic” to a “personality ethic”, the latter of which would presumably include picking three adjectives from a list and deciding they make up your personal brand.

This piece is narrow and specialized in its audience, but the whole stream of wisdom literature is a good place to pan for gold. And wisdom literature that make no effort to focus on giftedness can be richly valuable. The repeated references to How to Win Friends and Influence People above are references to it as wisdom literature.

Go forth!

Read more of Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide on Amazon!

So, You’ve Hired a Hacker (Revised and Expanded)

There is a wonderful variety among humans. Ethnicity and culture provide one of the most important dimensions—but there can be profound differences between two people who look the same. If neither appreciates the differences, and thinks, “He’s just like me—only not doing a very good job of it,” there will be conflicts that can be prevented. If they understand their differences, both can profit. This document is written so that you can understand your hacker and enjoy a more productive working relationship.

Managers and hackers both vary, but there are some things that come up again and again. That’s why this document exists. I am concerned with a particular kind of clash that most hackers have with many managers—a conflict that is more easily resolved if both parties understand each other.

What are some of the common differences between managers and hackers? There are several, but let me list five important ones:

Managers Hackers
Tends to be very concerned with morality, and wants to connect with society and contribute. Rises to positions of responsibility, not only in business, but in church and volunteer organizations. Lives by responsibility and duty. Intent on cultivating knowledge and skill. Rises to tremendous levels of competency with technology and other things. High level of discipline used to continually refine abilities.
Thinks concretely. Good at small talk, and at the logistical details needed to run a business. Thinks abstractly. Good at deep discussions, and thinking about the hard concepts needed to work with technology.
Measures own contribution to society by the extent to which he adds to rules and sees that people live by following rules. Tends to equate rules with morality or the good of society. Far more aware of the limitations of rules. Does not equate rules with morality or the good of society. Very likely to notice rules that are hurting your company—yes, they do exist, and they’re more common than you think.
Closely resembles about 40% of the population; most people have dealt with many similar people before, and can easily understand managers. Thinks in an uncommon way found in perhaps 5% of the population; will encounter many people who have never known well anyone who is similar. Can’t count on other people understanding him.
Is such a dominant force in human society that he can easily forget that others might be different. Works well with people because of how much he holds in common with so many others. Needs to work at understanding people like hackers. May have intense powers of concentration. Prizes an offbeat and clever sense of humor. At times, painfully aware of inconsistencies that are invisible to the people who are acting hypocritically. Marches to the beat of a different drummer, and needs to work at understanding people like managers.

Managers and hackers complement each other. If they work at it, they can enjoy a long and fruitful working relationship.

Questions and Answers:

Section 1: Basic Understanding

1.1: Won’t my hacker break into my computer and steal my trade secrets?

Point of clarification. There are two communities of people that call themselves ‘hackers’.

One of these groups is the one you’ve heard about—those who take pride in breaking into other people’s computers. That is all the media understands ‘hacker’ to mean, but there is another community, an older and much more interesting one, that is insulted by being mistaken for the first community. They are as insulted as an automotive engineer would be if the media said ‘automotive engineer’ when they meant ‘car thief’, and the engineer learned through bitter experience that, whenever he told people he was an automotive engineer, people thought he was only a car thief.

Your hacker is an automotive engineer, not a car thief. He is a hacker because he loves computers, and loves to do impressive things with them. He doesn’t want to steal your trade secrets, and it would be good manners of you not to confuse “automotive engineer” hackers with “car thief” hackers—whom he refers to as ‘crackers’, or the extremely pejorative ‘script kiddies’.

1.2: Was it a good idea to hire a hacker?

It depends on the job. A hacker can be dramatically more effective than a non-hacker at a job, or dramatically less effective. Jobs where hackers are particularly good are:

  • Systems administration
  • Programming
  • Design
  • Web-related development

Jobs where hackers are particularly bad are:

  • Data entry
  • “Computer operator”, where the “computer operator” has to use software (especially Microsoft software) that he can’t improve.

More generally, a job that requires fast and unexpected changes, significant skill, talent, and is not very repetitive will be one a hacker will excel at. Repetitive, simple jobs are a waste of a good hacker, and will make your hacker bored and frustrated. No one works well bored and frustrated.

The good news is, if you get a hacker on something he particularly likes, you will frequently see performance on the order of five to ten times what a “normal” worker would produce. This is not consistent, and you shouldn’t expect to see it all the time, but it will happen. This is most visible on particularly difficult tasks.

1.3 Wait, you just said “ten times”, didn’t you? You’re not serious, right?

Yes, I am serious; a hacker on a roll may be able to produce, in a period of a few months, something that a small development group (say, 7-8 people) would have a hard time getting together over a year. He also may not. Your mileage will vary.

IBM used to report that certain programmers might be as much as 100 times as productive as other workers, or more. This kind of thing happens.

1.4 How should I manage my hacker?

The same way you herd cats. It can be quite confusing; they’re not like most other workers. Don’t worry! Your hacker is likely to be willing to suggest answers to problems, if asked. Hackers are known for coming together and producing impressive software without any business people to tell them what to do. That’s how Perl was produced. And Linux. And quite a few other things, great and small. Most hackers are nearly self-managing.

1.5 I don’t understand this at all. This is confusing. Is there a book on this?

There are several books that explain important pieces of the puzzle, and some of them are listed in a reading list below. If you read from the list and ask your hacker to help you connect the dots, you’ve got a good chance at understanding your hacker much better.

Section 2: Social issues

2.1: My hacker doesn’t fit in well with our corporate society. She seems to do her work well, but she’s not really making many friends.

This is common. Your hacker may not have found any people around who get along with hackers. You may wish to consider offering her a position telecommuting, or flexible hours (read: night shift), which may actually improve her productivity. Or, even better, hire another one.

2.2: My hacker seems to dress funny. Is there any way to impress upon him the importance of corporate appearance?

Well… let’s look at your view of clothing first, so that you’ll have a better chance at understanding how your hacker sees things differently.

You believe in showing respect for the company and those you work with. To you, much of that respect revolves around little details. These details are to you much of the substance of respect—such as that classy suit you wear to the office. So when a hacker wears jeans and a t-shirt to work, he must be showing disrespect, right?

Not really. Those jeans—kneeholes and all—are what he wears to see his best friend, whom he respects deeply. If your hacker happens to be a Christian, he may wear jeans and a T-shirt to church on Easter. I sometimes do, and when I dress up for church, it is more to avoid distracting other churchgoers than any need of fancy clothes in order to worship God. Hackers look past appearances, and it seems strange to them that you think they need uncomfortable clothes to work well: if it’s what’s inside the clothing that matters, why not wear something comfortable and be able to concentrate better?

If your hacker isn’t dressing up, how can he still respect your company? He works hard, solves problems, and probably thinks about ways to help your company be more productive—even when he’s at home. If he wants to wear comfortable clothing at work, it’s not disrespect; he just understands what IBM, Microsoft, and Ford all recognize: employees are most productive when they choose what to wear—not their company. If you ask your hacker respectfully, he’ll probably wear clothing without any holes, and might even dress up for a few special occasions.

Your suit is a professional asset. It helps other people see your professionalism. Your hacker’s t-shirt is also a professional asset. It’s part of a culture that judges a person by what’s inside his clothing, and he works better when comfortable. He doesn’t try to get you to dress like him; why don’t you extend the same courtesy to him?

2.3: My hacker won’t call me by my title, and doesn’t seem to respect me at all.

Your hacker doesn’t respect your title. Hackers don’t believe that management is “above” engineering; they believe that management is doing one job, and engineering is doing another. They may well frequently talk as if management is beneath them, but this is really quite fair; your question implies that you talk as if engineering is beneath you. Treat your hacker as an equal, and she will probably treat you as an equal—quite a compliment!

2.4: My hacker constantly insults the work of my other workers.

Take your hacker aside, and ask for details of what’s wrong with the existing work. It may be that there’s something wrong with it. Don’t let the fact that it runs most of the time fool you; your hacker is probably bothered by the fact that it crashes at all. As your customers will be—consider your hacker to be an early warning system. He may be able to suggest improvements which could dramatically improve performance, reliability, or other features. It’s worth looking into.

You may be able to convince your hacker to be more polite, but if there appear to be major differences, it’s quite possible that one or more of your existing staff are incompetent by his standards. Note that hackers, of course, have different standards of competence than many other people. (Read “different” as “much higher”.) Is this necessarily appropriate? All people have weaknesses. It would perhaps be nicer if hackers were more charitable to people who can’t match their talent, but you’re lucky to have someone on staff who’s competent enough for this to be a problem.

Section 3: Productivity

3.1: My hacker plays video games on company time.

Abraham Lincoln said, “If I had ten hours to chop down an oak tree, I’d spend the first eight sharpening my axe.”

Some jobs are done best by getting your hands dirty immediately: if you hire a kid to rake your leaves, you probably want him to start raking as soon as he arrives. But if you contacted a building contractor to make a new office building in the morning, and he was pouring concrete by the end of the day, you would not be impressed—at least not in a good way. Something is very wrong: there are all sorts of things that need to happen first. If your contractor begins work by pouring concrete, you will end up paying for some very expensive mistakes that could have been completely avoided by simple preparation.

Your hacker is probably honest, too honest to start off by writing poor-quality code “so my manager will think I’m working.” He’d rather be productive and spend two weeks preparing rather than two years fixing needless mistakes.

Perhaps it would be easier if hacker ways of preparation coincided with what you do when working—writing memos or something like that. But there is an elusive productive zone, and your hacker is doing whatever he can to gain that productivity. I often write best after taking meandering walks—and, if you have difficulty believing that walks are a way to produce something good, I’d encourage you to read A Dream of Light—which, walks and all, took me very little time to write. I averaged over ten times the normal speed of a professional writer. Your hacker who plays games on company time is using the same areas of his mind as I did. Your hacker is sharpening his axe, and it’s a good idea for him to do so.

Hackers, writers, and painters all need some amount of time to spend “percolating”—doing something else to let their subconscious work on a problem. Your hacker is probably stuck on something difficult. Don’t worry about it.

3.2: But it’s been two weeks since I saw anything!

Your hacker is working, alone probably, on a big project, and just started, right? She’s probably trying to figure it all out in advance. Ask her how it’s going; if she starts a lot of sentences, but interrupts them all with “no, wait…” or “drat, that won’t work”, it’s going well.

3.3: Isn’t this damaging to productivity?

No. Your hacker needs to recreate and think about things in many ways. He will be more productive with this recreation than without it. Your hacker enjoys working; don’t worry about things getting done reasonably well and quickly.

3.4: My hacker is constantly doing things unrelated to her job responsibilities.

Do they need to be done? Very few hackers can resist solving a problem when they can solve it, and no one else is solving it. For that matter, is your hacker getting her job done? If so, consider these other things a freebie or perk (for you). Although it may not be conventional, it’s probably helping out quite a bit.

3.5: My hacker is writing a book, reading USENET news, playing video games, talking with friends on the phone, and building sculptures out of paper clips. On company time!

He sounds happy. The chances are he’s in one of three states:

  • Basic job responsibilities are periodic (phone support, documentation, et al.) and there’s a lull in incoming work. Don’t worry about it!
  • Your hacker is stuck on a difficult problem.
  • Your hacker is bored silly and is trying to find amusement. Perhaps you should find him more challenging work?

Any of these factors may be involved. All of them may be involved. In general, if the work is challenging, and is getting done, don’t worry too much about the process. You might ask for your corporation to be given credit in the book.

3.6: But my other workers are offended by my hacker’s success, and it hurts their productivity.

Do you really need to have workers around who would rather be the person getting something done, than have it done already? Ego has very little place in the workplace. If they can’t do it well, assign them to something they can do.

Section 4: Stimulus and response

4.1: My hacker did something good, and I want to reward him.

Good! Here are some of the things most hackers would like to receive in exchange for their work:

  • Understanding.
  • Understanding.
  • Understanding.
  • Respect.
  • Admiration.
  • Compliments.
  • Discounts on expensive toys.
  • Money.

The order is approximate, but the most important one is the most difficult. If you can give that to your hacker, in his eyes you will be a cut above most other bosses—and he just might work for you longer.

Try to remember this good thing your hacker just did the next time you discover he just spent a day playing x-trek. Rather than complaining about getting work done, write it off as “a perk” that was granted (informally) as a bonus for a job well done. Don’t worry; hackers get bored quickly when they aren’t doing their work.

4.2: My hacker did something bad, and I want to punish him.

Don’t. 30 years of psychological research has shown that punishment has no desirable long-term effects. Your hacker is not a lab rat. (Even if he were a lab rat, punishment wouldn’t work; at least, not if he were one of the sorts of lab rats the psych research was done on.) If you don’t like something your hacker is doing, express your concerns. Explain what it is that bothers you about the behavior.

Be prepared for an argument; your hacker is a rational entity, and presumably had reasons. Don’t jump on him too quickly; they may turn out to be good reasons.

Don’t be afraid to apologize if you’re wrong. Your hacker will never think less of you if you admit to a mistake. He might be disappointed if you’ve made a mistake and can’t admit it, but he will never look down on you for admitting you were wrong. If your hacker admits to being wrong, don’t demand an additional apology; so far as the hacker is concerned, admitting to being wrong probably is an apology.

4.3: I don’t get it. I offered my hacker a significant promotion, and she turned it down and acted offended.

A promotion frequently involves spending more time listening to people describing what they’re doing, and less time playing with computers. Your hacker is enjoying her work; if you want to offer a reward, consider an improvement in title, a possible raise, and some compliments. Make sure your hacker knows you are pleased with her accomplishments—that’s what she’s there for.

4.4: My company policy won’t let me give my hacker any more raises until he’s in management.

In the Bible, Paul describes roles in the Christian church, and then compares these community members to parts of the human body (I Corinthians 12:14-26, NIV):

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

This is a deep insight into human community. It’s not just about religion. Executives, managers, programmers, salespeople, secretaries, and other employees all contribute something fundamental to a company. Janitors? Those people are important? Well, if janitors aren’t important, firethem, and streamline your business. The halls may be a bit stinky with all that rotting trash, and two of the secretaries may sneeze every time someone walks by and kicks up dust. Your insurance covers emergency treatment and rabies shots when a rat creeps out of a mound of garbage and bites you, right? Your star saleswoman couldn’t close a key sale because she was in the hospital with food poisoning after… wait a minute. Maybe those janitors we all look down on deserve a second look. Maybe they contribute more to the physical well-being of other employees than almost anyone else you have on staff. Maybe they’re important after all.

Eye, hand, stomach, and sturdy back muscles all contribute something. Sometimes the observation—”My group adds something unique and vital, something that no other department gives.”—to a conclusion that is not justified: “My group’s contribution to the company is better and more important than anyone else.”

This conclusion also affects how companies allocate money: the people who set salaries believe they’re the most important employees. Because it’s management who sets the salaries, the belief:

A manager is a more important employee than a non-manager

creates a policy like

Every manager must be paid more than any non-manager

or

No matter how much an employee does for the company, there’s an artificial limit on how much you can reward him unless he gives up his work, which he is good at, and becomes a manager instead.

If that’s what you believe—a prejudice that would shock any true leader—then I don’t think I can help you much. I would simply encourage you to finish the job. Send a memo out to all employees saying:

We believe that every manager makes a more important contribution to this company than any non-manager. If you’re not a manager, you’re only a second-class citizen with our company. If you don’t like this, you can leave.

And be ready for an exodus. Your hackers won’t be the only ones to decide you’re too stupid to work with. They’ll just be the first.

Does that sound unattractive? You do have a better alternative. Your hacker can quite possibly earn $200/hour or more, if he wants—his talents are worth it. If your company policy imposes a salary ceiling on non-managers, your company policy is broken. Fix your company policy, find a loophole (say, a consultant given a contracted permament consulting position with benefits), or else get ready to have one of your most productive employees leave because your company policy is broken and you couldn’t work around it.

I can’t believe the hacker on my staff is worth as much as we’re paying.

Ask the other in the staff what the hacker does, and what they think of it. The chances are that your hacker is spending a few hours a week answering arcane questions that would otherwise require an expensive external consultant. Your hacker may be fulfilling another job’s worth of responsibilities in his spare time around the office. Very few hackers aren’t worth what they’re getting paid; they enjoy accomplishing difficult tasks, and improving worker efficiency.

Section 5: What does that mean?

5.1: My hacker doesn’t speak English. At least, I don’t think so.

Your hacker is a techie, and knows a number of powerful concepts that most English-speakers don’t know. He also knows words for those concepts. Guess what? The concepts are unusual concepts, and the words are unusual words. He doesn’t use standard words for many things because there aren’t any standard words to explain the cool things he does.

Your best bet is to pick up a copy of TNHD (The New Hacker’s Dictionary). It can be found at http://catb.org/jargon or from a good bookstore. If you have trouble understanding that reference, ask your hacker if she has a copy, or would be willing to explain her terms. Most hackers are willing to explain terms. Be ready for condescension; it’s not intended as an insult, but if you don’t know the words, she probably has to talk down to you at first to explain them. If you’re bothered by this, think about explaining to a non-professional how to keep a project on task—if you can’t use any words longer than five letters. That’s what your hacker is doing when she tries to explain technical concepts in non-technical words. Please understand if she sounds a little condescending.

It’s a reasonably difficult set of words; there are a lot of them, and their usage is much more precise than it sounds. Hackers love word games.

It is also possible that English is not your hacker’s native language, and that it’s not yours either. Feel free to substitute a more appropriate language.

5.2: I can’t get an estimate out of my hacker.

This is easier to understand with an analogy. Imagine two situations:

In the first situation, you drive for work on the same roads, at the same time, as you have for the past five years, and listened to the traffic report in the shower.

In the second situation, you are out in the middle of nowhere, travelling to see a distant relative, and you realize that you’ve forgotten to buy a hostess gift for the people you’re driving to visit. You stop by a gas station to ask where you can find a gift shop which would sell a dolphin statuette. The attendant says, “Take the road you’re on, and turn off onto the second side street you see. Keep on going until you hit the second stop sign after John’s general store. It’s in the third town you’ll see.”

Now, in both cases, think about answering the question, “How long will it take?”

In the first case, you probably know the answer: “Twenty-six minutes, twenty-two if I hit the lights right.” In the second case—well, given that you don’t know how long the route is, what the speed limits are, or how you will find the sign once you reach the right town, the best answer is, “I don’t know.”

When you ask a hacker how long a task will take and he says, “I don’t know,” he isn’t being difficult. Fixing a broken network, when you don’t know why it’s down, is much more like the second situation than the first. You don’t need to throw a pity party for your hacker because he has to work in unfamiliar territory and doesn’t even know how long a task will take. He doesn’t look at it that way; he likes the challenge. But it does mean that he accepts tasks before he knows exactly how he’ll do them, and he is responsible enough to say “I don’t know,” and not tell you something he’s simply made up. Your hacker is a driver who thrives on finding his way in unfamiliar territory, with washed-out bridges and incomplete directions among the surprises. You might be glad you have someone who likes that kind of assignment.

Your hacker hasn’t figured out how hard the problem is yet. Unlike most workers, hackers will try very hard to refuse to give an estimate until they know for sure that they understand the problem. This may include solving it.

No good engineer goes beyond 95% certainty. Most hackers are good engineers. If you say that you will not try to hold him to the estimate (and mean it!) you are much more likely to get an approximate estimate. The estimate may sound very high or very low; it may be very high or very low. Still, it’s an estimate, and you get what you ask for.

5.3: My hacker makes obscure, meaningless jokes.

Another one that’s a little hard to explain.

Imagine that you are visited by a brilliant wayfarer. He strives to understand those around, silently tolerates a great many things that seem strange to him, and brings with him cultural treasures unlike anything your culture has to offer. One day, he tries to share some of them with you. Should you be bothered?

That’s what’s happening when your hacker tells you obscure technical jokes. He could be trying to make you feel stupid, but let’s be charitable. Your hacker is uncommonly intelligent—he might be a member of Mensa. Intelligent people think a little bit differently, and a genius may seem like someone from another world. Your hacker probably understands you better than you understand him—and when he shares jokes with you, he’s giving you a chance to see something special. If you feel brave, you might even ask him to explain some of them.

But don’t be bothered when he tells you jokes that take a while to explain. Some of them are quite interesting.

5.4: My hacker counts from zero.

So does the computer. You can hide it, but computers count from zero. Most hackers do by habit, also.

Section 6: Is there anything else I should know?

6.1: I’ve found this document to be tremendously helpful. Is there anything I can do to say thank-you?

Wonderful of you to ask, and you certainly can. There are two authors who’ve contributed to this document, an original and a revision author. Both would appreciate cash donations (e-mail the original/revision authors for details). The revision author would be very happy to receive a link to his home page: CJS Hayward (Browse around and see what he has to offer!)

You might also consider buying a couple of books through the links on these pages; you get cool books, and the authors get pocket change. 🙂 The books listed in the original version will give money to the original author, while the books added in the revision will give money to the revision author.

If you’d like to give something to one of the authors, but don’t know which, why not flip a coin?

6.2: Are there any books that will help me understand my hacker?

Excellent question. Yes, there are. The following list is suggested:

  • Please Understand Me or Please Understand Me II

    What I said above about common manager/hacker differences was drawn from Please Understand Me as well as experience. Most hackers are intuitive thinking types, while managers who are confused by hackers tend to be sensate judging types. If you’re in a hurry, buy Please Understand Me and read the descriptions for sensate judging and intuitive thinking types. You may find them tremendously helpful in understanding hackers. I’ve found them tremendously helpful in understanding managers.

    Please Understand Me came out in the 1970s and describes what people are like. Please Understand Me II came out in the 1990s and describes both what people are like and what they can do. (It’s about twice as long.) I prefer Please Understand Me.

  • The New Hacker’s Dictionary

    Read the introduction and appendices; they’re worth their weight in gold. Then read a definition a day—you’ll learn a lot. This book is probably the #1 hacker classic, and provides an invaluable asset into understanding hacker thought. Don’t worry if parts of it are hard to understand—you’ll still learn something, and your hacker can probably explain the harder parts.

  • Stranger in a Strange Land or Firestorm 2034

    Stranger in a Strange Land is a classic novel about a person who is raised by Martians and is brought to earth, a Martian mind in the body of a young man. There are not any hackers in this story, but if you can understand the protagonist in this story, you may find it much easier to understand and appreciate your hacker. Think of it as driving an automatic after you’ve learned to drive a stick.

    Firestorm 2034 is a story about a medieval genius brought to the 21st century. He is traumatized by his first contacts with computers, but grows to be fascinated, and learns to program. The reader is with him as he understands technology and makes a discovery in artificial intelligence. This book was written to convey insight into certain kinds of people. If you read it, you should find it easier to understand your hacker—and perhaps grasp technology a little better, to boot! It is my second novel.

    Ok, why is an unknown author putting his book next to a Heinlein classic? A few reasons:

    • It draws heavily on Heinlein’s work.
    • It’s less than a third as long as Stranger. To a busy leader, that counts for a lot.
    • It’s written by someone who understands technology, and who weaves technology deeply into the story.
    • Readers like it. One actually said he liked it better than Stranger.
    • There’s less stuff that’s likely to offend you.
    • I have been published in more than one respected journal. The editor of the high-IQ journal Ubiquity saw my work, and asked to feature me in their fall/winter 2001 issue—with a biography, a few writings, a painting, and a four dimensional maze. I’m not completely unknown as an author.

    But it’s your call which novel to read—and I won’t question your judgment if you choose Stranger.

  • Guiding the Gifted Child

    This award-winning title is a very practical book because it conveys understanding. It does a good enough job of it to be useful to several different kinds of people. It will help you understand the sort of people who become hackers.

    This also is the only book on this list specifically intended to help people guide hacker-like people.

  • The Cathedral and the Bazaar

    Perhaps this has happened already. Or perhaps it will happen any day.

    You try to reason with your hacker, and say, “Windows was made by the heavily funded efforts of a major corporation. Linux was made by some programmers on their spare time, and you can get it for free. Is Linux really as good as Windows?”

    Your hacker rolls his eyes, appears to be counting to ten, gives you a very dirty look, and slowly says, “Is the upcoming band performance next door—live, in concert—really as good as this scratched-up CD?”

    Your hacker believes that open source software is normally better than Microsoft, and has very good reason to do so. This book explains why—and it may help you to get better software for less money, and put your business in a more competitive position. As far as hacker culture goes, it only illuminates a small part, but it does so very well.

Unfortunately, none of these books was specifically written to explain hacker culture to non-hackers. Fortunately, your hacker can help you connect the dots and put things together. Just ask him!

6.3: Has this FAQ been published?

The original version, in some form, has been bought by IBM DeveloperWorks, which funded part of the work. You could read their version (nicely edited) by following this link (non-functional as of 12/31/01; I’ve contacted IBM requesting a current URL and am waiting to hear back). IBM has also bought another article, the Manager FAQ, a guide to managers for hackers who are frustrated and confused by corporate life. The original author is justifiably happy with his work.

I am working towards publishing the revised and expanded version.

What’s the copyright status on this? Can I make copies and share it with a friend who’s confused by his hacker?

You may distribute as many copies of this document as you want. The original FAQ has the following notice:

This document is copyright 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999 Peter Seebach. Unaltered distribution is permitted.

When I let the original author know I was interested in a revision, and asked what the copyright status was, he said it was covered by the Artistic License. All changes in this revision are also covered by the Artistic License, all added material copyright 2001 by CJS Hayward. Distribute freely.

What’s the author’s e-mail, and what’s the official distribution site?

The original is officially distributed at http://www.plethora.net/~seebs/faqs/hacker.html by seebs@plethora.net, and the revision is at CJSHayward.com/hacker/ by jshayward@pobox.com.

Are there any people the revision author would like to thank?

Yes. CJS Hayward would very much like to thank the original author, Peter Seebach, for writing an excellent FAQ and for giving him permission to modify it.

Any disclaimers?

DISCLAIMER: Both authors are hackers. Bias is inevitable.

Revision 1.0—Last modified June 9, 2001

How to Survive Hard Times

Cover for How to Survive Hard Times

Want to survive?

I learned some pretty big things during the Y2k scare, and some of them have every relevance to how to survive an economic depression.

When year 2000 was approaching, I was part of the doomsday camp. I believed, wrongly, that technology would fail and everything around me would start to fall apart. But did a lot of digging and I think I learned something about what makes people survive really rough situations–and how to survive an economic depression. The economy is in deep trouble, and what I found out then has every relevance now that we are worried about how to survive an economic depression.

When Y2k was approaching, I found a lot of materials on physicalpreparation for such an event, but very little on psychological preparation. The most that I can remember reading about that was that when I said on a newsgroup that a Y2k doomsday would be psychologically as well as physically difficult, someone said that I was right and suggested that Y2k preparations include stocking up on board games and condoms.

That answer seemed, to put it politely, not up to snuff. As far as mental preparation goes, that was the equivalent of saying, “If bad things happen on January 1 2000, be prepared for great physical danger. Alwaysremember to look both ways before you cross the street!”

After failing to find something more informative on newsgroups, I went to the library, to look for more information on psychological survival in difficult situations. I did a lot of digging, reading whatever seemed like it might shed light, but finding very little of an answer anywhere that I looked. Even a book on psychology and the military said almost nothing about how either soldiers or civilians stood up psychologically to disaster, or what enables a survivor to overcome an incredibly difficult situation.

It was only after a lot of digging that I realized the answer was almost staring me in the face. What makes a survivor is not exactly psychological. It is spiritual. There was something spiritual about, for instance, people who had survived incredibly hostile situations as hostages and prisoners. It is not exactly that they had some special talent, or drew on some special mind trick or had developed what we would imagine as spiritual powers. It was something almost pedestrian.

It had something to do with religious devotion. Faith has something to do with how to survive an economic depression.

I imagine I may raise some eyebrows by suggesting faith has something to do with how to survive a disaster. But faith was how many people survived the Great Depression. Perhaps a great many survivors survived despite their useless faith, or maybe it was a crutch, but if it seems obvious to you that faith could have nothing to do with how people survived the Great Depression, then I would ask you to entertain a possibility you might not have considered. Maybe they know something we have forgotten.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Much of the Bible comes from disastrous times. In the Bible’s book ofHabakkuk, there is a prophet who sees great evil about him. He cries out to the Lord, and the Lord gives an answer that leaves the prophet stunned: the Lord will punish the wickedness of Israel by having an army of terrorists conquer their land. This was a disaster that might be worse than economic collapse. The prophet asks the Lord a question: how can a righteous God look on such wickedness? And the Lord responds without really answering the prophet’s question: the Lord responds without giving the prophet what he wants. But tucked away in the Lord’s response are some very significant words: “…the righteous shall live by faith.”

Those words were taken up in the New Testament and became a rallying-cry against rigid legalism. But they are more than a response to people who turn religion into a bunch of rules; they speak also in situations where legalism is simply not the issue. The prophet cried out to the Lord about rampant violence. The issue was not really legalism at all. And this is when the words were first spoken: “The righteous shall live by faith.” These words were given in terrifying times.

“The righteous shall live by faith” is a non-answer, and a quite deliberate non-answer. The prophet asked how such a pure God could allow such wickedness to exist, and God does not give the answer he is looking for. The Lord doesn’t really answer the prophet’s question at all. It’s almost like:

Someone said to a master, “What about the people who have never heard of Christ? Are they all automatically damned to Hell? Tell me; I have heard that you have studied this question.”

The master said, “What you need to be saved is for you to believe in Christ, and you have heard of him.”

The Lord doesn’t tell the prophet what he wants. He gives him something much better; these brief words say, “I AM WHO I AM, and I will do what I will do, and you may not look past the protecting veil that enshrouds me. But in the disastrous times you face, know this: the righteous shall live by faith.”

God doesn’t just refuse to tell the prophet what he wants. He gives Habakkuk something fundamentally richer and deeper. He tells the prophet what he needs. What God tells Habakkuk, “The righteous shall live by faith,” is a luminous thread appearing throughout Scripture, woven into the fabric of Proverbs and woven through and through in the Sermon on the Mount. This luminous, radiant thread declares that God is sovereign, in hard times as well as good, and that his divine providence is with his faithful no less. Even if we are in a depression, God can watch out for us.(Perhape especially if we are in a depression. The surprising report from many survivors is that God’s help is much more obvious in hard times than when things are easy.) Just witness this luminous thread in the Sermon on the Mount:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall wear. Is there not more to life than food, and more to the body than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by worrying can add one hour to his span of life? (You might as well try to worry yourself into being a foot and a half taller!) And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither work nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as gloriously as one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?

Therefore do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For people without faith seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be given to you as well.

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own things to worry about. Each day has enough worries of its own.

The righteous shall live by faith, and the Sermon on the Mount has a great deal to say about exactly how the righteous shall live by faith. The radiant thread unfolds, unfurls, beams, “Money is unworthy of your trust: put your trust in God. Live in the security of faith. Have the true security of faith in God who provides, not the ersatz providence of what you can arrange for yourself. Do not spend your life building a sandcastle for your home and trying to keep it from collapsing. I offer you a way to build a solid house, built on the rock.”

And this is not just a statement about how we should not worry about the future when we have it easy. The Sermon on the Mount closes with words that are entirely relevant to surviving the storms of life when we wonder how to survive an economic depression:

Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and its collapse was great.

These are not words about nothing more than how to relax and enjoy life when it is easy. These are words about how to prepare for hard times, and how to survive in a disaster. In other words, they are words about how to survive an economic depression.

In hard times as well as good, the righteous shall live by faith. Indeed, the words “the righteous shall live by faith” originally come from times with an industrial-strength disaster on the horizon!

The Apostle Paul: Portrait of a survivor!

Who can survive stress like an industrial-strength disaster? The Bible paints a picture of one person who survived a lot of really rough times, and not only survived, but genuinely thrived.

When I was in college, part of the general “foundations of wellness” class was taking the “Holmes Stress Point Scale,” which assigns points for stressful events to add up to a rough estimate of how stressful your life is. You get a certain number of points for each stressful experience you’ve been through, and they add up to your total score for how stressful the past year of your life is. The events include:

  • Jail term…
  • Death of a close friend…
  • Outstanding personal achievement…
  • Vacation…
  • Christmas…
  • Minor violation of the law…

The higher a score from stressful events, the more stressful your life is. The scale’s explanation is: If your score is 300 or more, you are at a very high stress level and probably run a major risk of illness in the next year. If your score is 200 to 299, your stress and illness risk are moderate, and if your score is between 150 to 200, your stress and risk are mild.

My teacher mentioned that one student had computed such a score for a year in the life of the Apostle Paul, who went through a number of events that should score major points for stress:

  • Jailed…
  • Attacked by a frenzied mob…
  • Shipwrecked in the mother of all storms…
  • Clandestine escape from a city when people were trying to kill him…
  • Physically assaulted by soldiers…
  • Survived an assassination attempt…

The student calculated a staggering 675 points for one year in the life of St. Paul!

But the odd thing is that if you read the Book of Acts, St. Paul does not really come across as someone we should pity. We read that some of his colleagues were harassed, beaten, and afterwards were rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame for the sake of their Lord. When I read the accounts of these events, I walk away with a sense, not that these suffering heroes are poor and pitiable, but that they are giants and they utterly dwarf me. There is something greater in the Apostle, far greater, than a whopping 675 points worth of externally stressful events.

It is the same thing, really, as with people who survived a long time being hostages for terrorists. They had dug deep and built their house on the rock, and when stormwinds battered their house, it survived and stood firm. It is the same thing for the bedrock of how people survived the Great Depression. And if we may be battered by hard economic times, we would like our houses to stand firm as well.

Suffering and sonship

It may be that what we fear that in a potential disaster is that we will lose what is good for us. We may fear getting sidetracked when none of our dreams seem to come true. We may fear that God cannot really provide our good if our recession becomes a depression or even an economic collapse–that the Sermon on the Mount is presumably about how to live in easy times but wouldn’t be quite so helpful when we’re in a depression. But there is something we are missing. Some of the things that we fear may have a surprisingly positive place in a well-lived life. There is something we are missing in all this.

Suffering has a place in the divine discipleship—the divine sonship—that the Sermon on the Mount is all about. “The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God,” as C.S. Lewis echoed the ancient wisdom, a wisdom that plays out in discipleship. Discipleship, service to God in difficulties, providence, and ascetical or spiritual practices all come together: God provides for us and disciples us in hard times as well as good. Sometimes he provides more plainly when we have nothing than when we have everything. In the Philokalia, we hear the words of St. Makarios as he explains the place of suffering in discipleship:

He who wants to be an imitator of Christ, so that he too may be called a son of God, born of the Spirit, must above all bear courageously and patiently the afflictions he encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses, slander and vilification from men, or attacks from the unseen spirits. God in His providence allows souls to be tested by various afflictions of this kind, so that it may be revealed which of them truly loves Him. All the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs from the beginning of time traversed none other than this narrow road of trial and affliction, and it was by doing this that they fulfilled God’s will. ‘My son,’ says Scripture, ‘if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for trial, set your heart straight, and patiently endure’ (Ecclus. 2 : 1-2). And elsewhere it is said: ‘Accept everything that comes as good, knowing that nothing occurs without God willing it.’ Thus the soul that wishes to do God’s will must strive above all to acquire patient endurance and hope. For one of the tricks of the devil is to make us listless at times of affliction, so that we give up our hope in the Lord. God never allows a soul that hopes in Him to be so oppressed by trials that it is put to utter confusion. As St Paul writes: ‘God is to be trusted not to let us be tried beyond our strength, but with the trial He will provide a way out, so that we are able to bear it (I Cor. 10 : 13). The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to. Men know what burden may be placed on a mule, what on a donkey, and what on a camel, and load each beast accordingly; and the potter knows how long he must leave pots in the fire, so that they are not cracked by staying in it too long or rendered useless by being taken out of it before they are properly fired. If human understanding extends this far, must not God be much more aware, infinitely more aware, of the degree of trial it is right to impose on each soul, so that it becomes tried and true, fit for the kingdom of heaven?

Hemp, unless it is well beaten, cannot be worked into fine yarn, while the more it is beaten and carded the finer and more serviceable it becomes. And a freshly moulded pot that has not been fired is of no use to man. And a child not yet proficient in worldly skills cannot build, plant, sow seed or perform any other worldly task. In a similar manner it often happens through the Lord’s goodness that souls, on account of their childlike innocence, participate in divine grace and are filled with the sweetness and repose of the Spirit; but because they have not yet been tested, and have not been tried by the various afflictions of the evil spirits, they are still immature and not yet fit for the kingdom of heaven. As the apostle says: ‘If you have not been disciplined you are bastards and not sons’ (Heb. 12 : 8). Thus trials and afflictions are laid upon a man in the way that is best for him, so as to make his soul stronger and more mature; and if the soul endures them to the end with hope in the Lord it cannot fail to attain the promised reward of the Spirit and deliverance from the evil passions.

The story is told of a woman who was told the Lord would be with her, and afterwards found herself an incredibly painful situation. When she cried out to the Lord and asked how this could be, the Lord answered: “I never said it would be easy. I said I’d be with you.” God’s way, it seems, is not to make things easy for us, but to strengthen us for greatness in what are often hard situations, and sometimes disasters. He gives us mountains to climb and the strength for climbing.

And we can climb mountains even if we are in an economic depression. Perhaps especially if we are in an economic recession. God’s providence does not spare us from our suffering. Not even if we’re really good Christians—especially not if we’re really good Christians! If you read the saints’ lives (see the links on the natural cycle clock), you will see that even with all the wondrous providence God provides for the saints, the saints in fact suffer much more than the rest of us; they know sufferings worse than most of us have ever been through.

There are saints whose prayers healed others—but who were for themselves never healed of their own major illnesses. If this sounds ironic, remember that Christ also was told, “Physician, heal thyself.” Christ is pre-eminent as one who saved others but could not save himself, and “He saved others, but he cannot save himself” is one way of defining God’s kingdom. Part of how people survived the Great Depression was that they carried the spirit of God’s kingdom and worked to save others, and not just themselves. Communities of people survived the Great Depression because, even if no one could save “Me! Me! Me!”, perhaps each one could help save others.

God’s providence does not spare us from our suffering, but he works with us in our suffering, often to do things with us that could never happen if we had things our way. It may be precisely on the mountain, in the act of climbing, that God gives us the strength to climb!

Sometimes God works with us despite our best efforts to fix things so we can have things our way. Wise people rightly tells us, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” and “You can’t always get what you want.” And perhaps if we did get what we wanted, we wouldn’t get what God wanted for us. Some of us may try to fix our problems and pray to God to take them away—when his plan is to use our problems to build us up. St. Makarios above quotes Hebrews, and in fact Hebrews is one of the clearest books of the Bible that God works with us in suffering—in fact, that Christ himself was perfected by suffering (source):

But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.

Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchiz’edek.

…But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.

Our view of suffering is often that if we are suffering, then we cannot be where we should be. It often seems we can only be where we should be when we are out of a difficult situation). It seems that we are sidetracked, and will only stop being sidetracked when we have things our way. But that is absolutely false. God worked with Christ in suffering. God worked with the saints in suffering. God worked with us in suffering. And that means that we can be in suffering and in pain, with our godly plans failing, and we are still just where God wants us: we may not see it, but sometimes our earthly failure is a heavenly victory. If God allows us to be in an economic collapse, he may be doing things with us, good things, that we might never happen if we had the comfort we seem to need. The last words above, about suffering and failure, lead directly into the famous “faith hall of fame” in Hebrews 11.

What may be happening in our sufferings is that God is building us into greater people than if we succeed in getting what we want. Including if we are in an economic depression. This is a basic lesson of people growing up: many young people have big dreams for themselves, but grow by middle age into living for others, growing into something that could never happen if all their youthful dreams came true. And suffering has a place in this—and a greater and deeper value. The Son of God was made perfect through suffering. Innocent suffering is sharing in the suffering of Christ: Christ’s suffering is made perfect in his people. St. Paul, the survivor who went through terrible suffering, wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” (Col 1.24 RSV)

Suffering is not getting off-track, nor does it force us out of God’s plans, so that we only get into God’s providence as soon as things are the way we would like. What some of us fear in suffering is that if we are in difficult circumstances, then that must mean we are spiritual failures as well as failing on earth. If we are faithful and still fail in our plans, this does not mean that either God’s plans or providence have failed. Often he is working at us when we are suffering and we are so far afield from anything that makes sense to us.

Everything we meet is either a blessing from God, or a trial that God allows for our strengthening. You may say that there is something evil in your trials, and you would be entirely right: there is something evil, and perhaps demonic, in our trials and afflictions. Perhaps you may say that there seems to be something almost demonic about an economic collapse, and you would still be right. But, as C.S. Lewis observes, all of us do the will of God. We may do the will of God as Satan and Judas did, asinstruments, or we may do the will of God as Peter and John did, as sons. But all of us do the will of God, and ultimately Satan and may be no more than a hammer in God’s hand. And even if God allows rough trials, he allows them for our strengthening. St. Makarios is very clear: “The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to.” Evil is on a leash. Let us be faithful. Every move the Devil plays is one move closer to his loss and God’s victory, and ours if we are faithful.

I am not saying that the future holds much suffering. You or I may have a lot of suffering, or actually not that much. I am, however, saying that however much suffering God allows, he can still work with us. He can still work with us in an economic depression. (And that is even without going into how a great many people have been in situations they dreaded, and found life to still be beautiful.) As St. Paul, a survivor, closed Romans 8:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Building a house on the rock—it’s not all about you!

Ascesis refers to disciplined spiritual practice. It’s a part of building a house on the rock. In the Orthodox tradition, these include sacraments, church attendance and daily liturgical prayers, reading and listening to Scripture, working to keep the Jesus prayer in your heart (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), growing into the liturgical seasons and internal and external fasting, hospitality, service, thanksgiving, repentance, giving to others who ask your help, cutting back on selfish pleasures, including icons in your prayer, solitude, community, and other practices. All of these can offer different help in growing to spiritual maturity.

But there comes a crucial caveat. None of these, if they are working correctly, are all about us. However essential they are to building a house on the rock, they are infinitely more than tools for how to survive an economic depression. They are tools to living in communion with God and being transformed by his grace. These disciplines, used rightly, can clear away obstacles to our growing in discipleship under God, but if they are used wrongly, they can be extremely harmful.

Using ascetical practices wrongly, as ends in themselves, has the same problem as Eeyore in The House at Pooh Corner:

[Piglet picked some violets, decided to give them to Eeyore, and went to visit him.]

“Oh, Eeyore,” began Piglet a little nervously, because Eeyore was busy.

“To-morrow,” said Eeyore. “Or the next day.” Piglet came a little closer to see what it was. Eeyore had three sticks on the ground, and was looking at them. Two of the sticks were touching at one end, but not at the other, and the third stick was laid across them. Piglet thought that perhaps it was a Trap of some kind.

“Oh, Eeyore,” he began again, “I just—”

“Is that little Piglet?” said Eeyore, still looking hard at his sticks.

“Yes, Eeyore, and I—”

“Do you know what this is?”

“No,” said Piglet.

“It’s an A.”

“Oh,” said Piglet.

“Not O—A,” said Eeyore severely. “Can’t you hear, or do you think you have more education than Christopher Robin?”

“Yes,” said Piglet. “No,” said Piglet very quickly, and he came closer still.

“Christopher Robin said it was an A, and an A it is—until somebody treads on it,” Eeyore added sternly.

Piglet jumped backwards hurriedly, and smelt at his violets.

“Do you know what A means, little Piglet?”

“No, Eeyore, I don’t.”

“It means Learning, it means Education, it means all the things that you and Pooh haven’t got. That’s what A means.”

“Oh,” said Piglet again. “I mean, does it?” he explained quickly.

“I’m telling you. People come and go in this Forest, and they say, ‘It’s only Eeyore, so it doesn’t count.’ They walk to and fro saying ‘Ha ha!’ But do they know anything about A? They don’t. It’s just three sticks to them. But to the Educated—mark this, little Piglet—to the Educated, not meaning Poohs and Piglets, it’s a great and glorious A. Not,” he added, “just something that anybody can come and breathe on.”

Piglet stepped back nervously, and looked round for help.

“Here’s Rabbit,” he said gladly. “Hallo, Rabbit.”

Rabbit came up importantly, nodded to Piglet, and said, “Ah, Eeyore,” in the voice of one who would be saying “Good-bye” in about two more minutes.

“There’s just one thing I wanted to ask you, Eeyore. What happens to Christopher Robin in the mornings nowadays?”

“What’s this that I’m looking at?” said Eeyore, still looking at it.

“Three sticks,” said Rabbit promptly.

“You see?” said Eeyore to Piglet. He turned to Rabbit. “I will now answer your question,” he said solemnly.

“Thank you,” said Rabbit.

“What does Christopher Robin do in the mornings? He learns. He becones Educated. He instigorates—I think that is the word he mentioned, but I may be referring to something else—he instigorates Knowledge. In my small way, I also, if I have the word right, am—am doing what he does. That, doe instance is?”

“An A,” said Rabbit, “but not a very good one. Well, I must get back and tell the others.”

Eeyore looked at his sticks and then he looked at Piglet.

“What did Rabbit say it was?” he asked.

“An A,” said Piglet.

“Did you tell him?”

“No, Eeyore, I didn’t. I expect he just knew.”

“He knew? You mean this A thing is a thing Rabbit knew?”

“Yes, Eeyore. He’s very clever, Rabbit is.”

“Clever!” said Eeyore scornfully, putting a foot heavily on his three sticks. “Education!” said Eeyore bitterly, jumping on his six sticks. “What is Learning?” asked Eeyore as he kicked his twelve sticks into the air. “A thing Rabbit knows! Ha!”

We need to avoid being Eeyores with our spiritual discipline, or our spirituality, or our faith, or our religion. Letters serve a greater purpose, and so do ascetical practices: we should not, like Eeyore, stare at an A and tell ourselves that it is our Education and Learning, or Prayers and Church Attendance as the case may be.

The point of ascetical practices is to be steps of the Great Dance: living the life that God shares, and becoming one of the sons of God. It’s not merely a set of survival skills that work in an economic recession or depression, or even an economic collapse, even if “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own worries. Each day has enough trouble of its own,” is quite practical advice. The point is to seek first the kingdom of a God who knows our survival needs: as God told Habakkuk before a disaster, “The righteous shall live by faith.” The luminous thread beams brightly because it is more than just a white thread. It shines, and it shines with the light of Heaven, a light of divine love that illumines Creation.

What Eeyore doesn’t get about the luminous thread is that it is the light of Heaven shining on earth.

Better than an endowment

Some years before I became Orthodox, I was at a class where someone was commenting on Proverbs, and its texts that say, in essence, “Put your trust in God, not money.” (“Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death,” Prov 11:4 RSV.) One point he made that particularly surprised me was, “Endowments aren’t so great.”

He asked a question: if we want to be independently wealthy, who do we want the “independently” to mean we are independent from? The answer he gave: “Independent from God.” If we want to be independently wealthy, we may want something more than mere luxuries. The basic fantasy of life as we imagine ourselves being independently wealthy, is a life that is in control and unlike the actual messiness of our real lives with so many things that are simply beyond our control. And his suggestion, based on real life as well as Proverbs, is that it is actually not good for us to have an endowment that we can trust.

One kind of person counselors work with is the person who cannot be happy without being in control of everyone around them. The basic problem is that a person who needs to be in control is a tragically shrunken person, and part of what a counselor will try to give a person is an opportunity to step into a larger world. If you believe, “I can’t be happy unless I’m in control of everyone I’m involved with,” that will set you up for a lot of unhappiness.

This is not just because it is really hard to control everyone else. A few people who want to control others really do manage to control others around them, but they are really as unhappy as others who want the same thing but don’t manage the control over others they always want to establish. As Chesterton observed, there may be some desires which are not achievable, but there are some desires which are not desirable.

If you want the world to be small enough that there is nothing outside your control, you want to live in a small and terribly shrunken world. If you let go of that kind of control, you may find that you have let yourself into a much bigger world than if you were the biggest thing around, and in the process you become bigger yourself. Instead of being a tin god ruling a world as cramped as a cubicle, you become servant in God’s vast mansions. And being one of many of these servants is a much better position to be in than dominating as a tin god.

And there is more to this larger world, the larger world of serving in God’s great mansions. The words, “The righteous shall live by faith” were given, in full force, when a brutal invasion was coming. Those words may not originally have been about how to survive an economic depression. They were originally more about how to survive something worse: your country being taken over by terrorists!

The words, “The righteous shall live by faith,” and the Sermon on the Mount, apply to some pretty rough situations, including an economic recession, economic depression, or economic collapse. Christ’s words about not worrying do not apply just to privileged people who have nothing seriously worth worrying about; many of the people who first heard theSermon on the Mount were on the bottom of the totem pole and would see less material comfort than the kind of person most Americans would imagine as a homeless person.

The model prayer Christ would give is not a prayer for something nicer for people stuck on a nasty diet of burgers and KFC; the one physical request is for bread—by American standards, quite a dull thing to eat day in and day out, and possibly poorer nutritional fare than fast food—and it is in thiscontext that Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, beckons us to store up treasure in Heaven, and invites us to a spiritual feast that unfurls in hard times as well as when everything meets our expectations. He invites us to the spiritual feast, the larger world, that is at the heart of spirituality and religion and is unlocked by faith. The Sermon on the Mount neither assumes nor needs a high standard of living to have real treasure.

The invitation to dance the Great Dance is open to us now as ever. All of us are invited to the Great Feast. Even if we’ve snubbed words like, “Money doesn’t make you happy,” and, “The Best Things in Life are Free,” not only do those truths remain open to us, but the Divine Providence is no less open. If our external circumstances remove all the luxuries that serve us, we may discover that not only is it better to give than receive, but it is also better to serve and be served. We might take a tip from how people survived the Great Depression. If we are unemployed, we might serve others and find something that technologies and luxuries can’t give, and if our 401(k) plan becomes a 404(k) and vanishes, we might lean on God’s providence and discover that God’s providence gives us more than money could.

There’s a sign that was seen around my hometown that says, “Money may not do everything, but it sure keeps the kids in touch!” And I wonder if that is precisely what we gain if we do not know what will meet our needs in the future: our material needs can “keep the kids in touch” for God. Especially in an economy in shambles. And if that happens, we have something no money could buy: keeping in touch with God in a way that is ultimately a Heavenly transformation.

The prodigal son: “I wish you were dead!”

The parable of the prodigal son begins (source):

There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them.

Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the husks that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself he said, `How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But the father said to his servants, `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

Today, one of the ways parents might give money to children is letting them “borrow against their inheritance:” they wouldn’t have to pay the money back, but they lose that much of their inheritance when their parents die. And this is considered a fairly normal arrangement.

This isn’t what is going on here. The younger son’s request telegraphs something loud and clear: “I wish you were dead!”

We see a first glimpse of God’s love—a love to the point of madness. Out of all responses the father could have to this affront, he gave every last penny he was asked for. The love to the point of madness may be easier to see later on, but it is already present in the gift by which he answers the ludicrously inappropriate request.

The son goes off to live life the way he wants to. And living life the way he wants to hits rock bottom. The big party he imagined he’d make for himself turns into famine and dire straits that leave him coveting the unappepetizing husks that he is feeding to unclean, vile swine. He thought things would be better if he were calling the shots, not his father.

He thought things would be better if he were calling the shots. Just like some of us here. We don’t want to have to wait under the authority of a Father who calls the shots. We want money and control, with things lined up here and now. What is it we are telling God if we ask him to give us money and control on our terms? Something a bit like, “I wish you were dead.”

The younger son has discovered that life with his father out of the picture is not so glorious and wonderful. And he realizes the extent of his fall. So he resolves to go back and beg, not even for forgiveness, but possibly his father might even contain his wounded resentment enough to let him work for pay and be able to buy bread. (Who knows? Maybe a long shot, but what real alternative did he have?)

What was the father doing in all of this?

When husbands have gone off to war, there have been wives who have stood by the path of the doorway, looking for some hope that their husbands may return, looking and waiting, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year… never giving up! And the father in our story was doing exactly that.

The father was looking, waiting, and saw his son far off, and completely cast off his upper-class dignity to run and embrace him. Love to the point of madness! He didn’t even wait for an apology before embracing him and kissing him!

And when the son made a full confession, hoping maybe to toil for his father’s scraps, the father pulls out all the stops: the best robe, a ring for his finger, and the best food possible for a royal feast. This is love to the point of madness!

But the story continues on to a more sobering note (source):

Now his older son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in.

His father came out and pleaded with him, but he answered his father, `Look, I have served you for all of these years, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a goat kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed for him the fatted calf!’

And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”

We have an Eeyore here.

This story has been called the parable of the two prodigals, meaning that not only did the one son tragically fall, but the other, elder son also tragically falls from the glory his father would have wished for him. At the beginning, the younger son wished that his father was dead. At the end, did the older son wish his father was dead?

The older son is a tragic spiritual Eeyore.

His statement could have come from a very different angle. For all of the years the older son was in his father’s service, he toiled, and he may not have had rich party food—only solid, nourishing, ordinary food day by day. For all these many years, he worked hard in the context of the father training him, and drawing him into mature manhood. In the meantime, his brother has been ripping up his own soul, losing even what he thought he had at the mercy of merciless people with no one else who cared for his well-being. The brother who all but told his father, “I wish you were dead,” was in every sense save the literal, himself dead.

If it is painful to lose one’s parents, it is another level of pain to lose one’s child, and the father had seen one of his sons—not to mention the older son’s only brother—die a living death. Now he was back, and in every sense including the literal, alive. Was killing the fatted calf even enough of a celebration?

The older son didn’t get it. How well did his service to his father work? Not very well; it went badly enough that instead of sharing in his father’s joy at a lost son who “was dead, and is alive again,” acts bitterly affronted and indicts his father searingly. Which is to say, the son’s hard work didn’twork, any more than Eeyore’s laborious staring at his three sticks achieved the true heart of “Learning” and “Education.”

The point, though, is not really the tragedy of the older son. The point is that God welcomes people who turn to him, and welcomes them with open arms. It is only one step to turn to God, even if you think you are ten thousand steps away. But when are we ready?

It is easy enough to wait for life to really begin. When? Maybe when the present illness is gone, or when we get that promotion, or maybe just when we get a job in the first place, or when someone we deal with will become not quite so difficult a person, or when we have something paid off, or when Washington gets its act together. When something big or small changes, then maybe we will be in God’s blessing. St. Herman of Alaska met some people who were waiting for their lives to really begin (source):

Father Herman gave them all one general question: “Gentlemen, what do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?” Various answers were offered… Some desired wealth, others glory, some a beautiful wife, and still others a beautiful ship he would captain; and so forth in the same vein. “Is it not true,” Father Herman said to them concerning this, “that all your various wishes can bring us to one conclusion – that each of you desires that which in his own understanding he considers the best, and which is most worthy of his love?” They all answered, “Yes, that is so!” He then continued, “Would you not say, ‘Is not that which is best, above all, and surpassing all, and that which by preference is most worthy of love, the Very Lord, our Jesus Christ, who created us, adorned us with such ideals, gave life to all, sustains everything, nurtures and loves all, who is Himself Love and most beautiful of all men?’ Should we not then love God above everything, desire Him more than anything, and search him out?”

All said, “Why, yes! That’s self-evident!” Then the Elder asked, “But do you love God?” They all answered, “Certainly, we love God. How can we not love God?” “And I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, I cannot say that I love Him completely,” Father Herman protested to them. He then began to demonstrate to them the way in which we should love God. “If we love someone,” he said, “we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject. Is that the way you gentlemen love God? Do you turn to Him often? Do you always remember Him? Do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?” They had to admit that they did not! “For our own good, and for our own fortune,” continued the Elder, “let us at least promise ourselves that from this very minute we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His Holy Will!”

The time for God is not at some indefinite point in the future when things will fit our hopes better. The time to work with God, in a sense the only time we should be concerned with, is now. Not later, now.

More precious than gold

When I was a child, I remembered a story about a fearsome dragon who told a knight that if the knight would tickle the dragon’s throat with a sword, he would have a great treasure. The knight rode up on his horse and approached the dragon, already afraid, and asked if the treasure was as good as a good horse and a good suit of armor. It was more, the dragon said. The knight asked if the treasure was as good as a silver suit of armor, and shield and sword to match. It was, the dragon assured him. The knight then asked if the treasure was better than gold. The dragon answered that it was more precious than rooms full of gold. So the terrified knight trembled and tickled the dragon’s throat with his sword, and asked what the treasure was. And the dragon turned and ripped the knight’s sword out of his hand, breathing out a tremendous deluge of fire and smoke and roared, “Your life!” And the terrified knight, having lost his sword, fled as best he could, and grasped a treasure far more precious than rooms and rooms full of gold.

Hard times may still let us know what is truly important, and what is truly treasure.

Even if we are in an economic depression, we have a treasure worth more than rooms and rooms full of gold: our lives.

For the righteous who walk by faith, hard times may even turn out to be good times.

St. John Chrysostom once wrote to people who think they are somebody if they conspicuously ride on a horse and have an armed servant clear the way before them, and told them that they were missing something and have all the wrong priorities. These words seem like they have nothing to do with how to survive in an economic depression—but on a very deep level, they have everything to do with how to survive in an economic depression where we may lose any number of things that seem so essential. St. John Chrysostom wrote (source):

And I know that I am disgusting my hearers. But what can I do? I have set my mind on this and will not stop saying these things, whether or not anything comes of it. For what is the point of having someone clear the way before you in the marketplace? Are you walking among wild beasts so that you need to drive away those who meet you? Do not be afraid of the people who approach you and walk near you; none of them bite. But why do you consider it an insult to walk alongside other people? What craziness is this, what ludicrous folly, when you don’t mind having a horse follow close behind you, but if it is a person, you think you are disgraced unless the person is driven a hundred miles away. And why do you have servants to carry horse ____, using the free as slaves, or rather yourself living more dishonorably than any slave? For truly, anyone who bears so much pride is more repulsive than any slave.

Therefore people who have enslaved themselves to this vile habit will never come within sight of true liberty. No, if you must drive away and clear away anything, do not let it be those who come near you, but your own pride. Do not do this by your servant, but by yourself, not by this material weapon, but by the spiritual one. Since now your servant drives away those who walk alongside you, but you yourself are driven from your rightful place by your own self-will, more disgracefully than any servant can drive your neighbor. But if, descending from your horse, you will drive away pride by humility, you will sit higher and place yourself in greater honor, without needing any servant to do this for you. I mean that when you have become modest and walk on the ground, you will be seated on the horse-drawn carriage of humility which carries you up to the very heavens, the carriage with winged steeds: but if falling from the horse-drawn carriage of heaven, you pass into that of arrogance, you will be in no better state than crippled beggars who are carried along the ground—no, much more wretched and pathetic than they are: since they are carried because of their bodies’ weakness, but you because of the disease of your own arrogance.

Some of us also need the carriage of humility, even if we are not even in a position to make everybody get out of our way. And some of us might benefit from the loving interdependence that was how people survived the Great Depression.

In tough times—and in tougher times—we may lose things we have set our hearts on, but it may be that however much we resist, God will give us something better. What if I lose my car, for instance? How could I get something better? But it is entirely possible that I could get something better than my present car. I might get something better than my own Rolls Royce, even better than my own private jet. I might get more inter-dependence, where I do not get around by what I do by my car. I may still be able to go places, but now by the love of my friends and family.

In that case, if I get some groceries, or a ride to church, I am not getting it as something run by me, me, me; I am riding on community and love. And the love of another who cares about me is a much bigger thing than economic self-sufficiency. It’s the same thing as food tasting better if it is prepared with love for hospitality—then it isn’t just food. You are, in a very real sense, eating a friend’s love, and that is a richer and deeper kind of sustenance—and a richer, deeper, and fuller goodness!

Who knows? I might ride even higher than this if my car is taken from me. Perhaps I might respond to the humiliation of losing my car by starting to let Christ chauffer me to Heaven in the flying Rolls-Royce of humility. Maybe I might even start being grateful, and be carried by the car of gratitude, and look for ways that I might launch into the heavens on the immense celestial starship of service to others.

And it is the starship of service to others—of saving others even though I cannot save myself—that shines with celestial glory. “It is more blessed to give than to receive”—the Sermon on the Mount again. Perhaps I might stop thinking about my own survival and instead think about how I can save others even though I cannot save myself. Some people did not just survive the Great Depression; they learned that life is beautiful. They stopped being tin gods trying to rule over a shrunken world and became servants of God and each other in the vast mansions of a glorious God. In the Great Depression, they did not have gold, but they grasped a treasure vaster than rooms and rooms full of gold. For some, the Great Depression was a wakeup call to what is truly important in life.

And that is true wealth.

Why are some of us not living this way already? Repentance is terrifying. In the tale of the prodigal son, the son who had devoured his father’s property was in far from his father’s house, and had real work to get back. He had to travel in a much rougher sense than taking a plane, train, or bus, and faced much nastier dangers than “Dinner in New York, breakfast in London, luggage in Sydney.”

Our word “travel” comes from the French travailler, referring to work, and not exactly easy work: with slightly different spelling, the same word appears in English as “travail,” meaning a mother’s struggle in childbirth. Travel was hard, gruelling, and dangerous labor, and not for the faint of heart. And the prodigal son undertook travel with far less of the strength—not to mention absolutely none of the wealth—by which he had gotten there. The feat would have been comparable to running a marathon, or at least a marathon where your path might well go through the turf of thugs lying in wait and quite willing to kill anyone who would travail into their ambush.

And yet this is exactly what the prodigal son did. His brother may have done the ascetical work of prayers and fasting; but the younger son undertook something much tougher: repentance which is, in a spiritual sense, what the younger son did to return home.

Repentance has been called unconditional surrender. It has been called other things as well, and it terrifies: it is a decision to return home and beg for mercy when you have no grounds to expect to be treated like anything but the vilest of the scum of the earth. Perhaps the Father’s love to the point of madness may respond otherwise when we have repented. Perhaps we when we surrender conditionally and expect to be razed to the ground, we find ourselves walking away triumphant victors whose refusal to surrender was holding on to defeat for dear life, terrified to let go of our defeat because we think it helps us. Perhaps we have nothing, really, to lose but our misery. But that isn’t our concern when we need to repent.

But if we can repent—for all of us have much to repent of—and step into the Sermon on the Mount and begin to live by faith, then the Father’s love will answer, and give us something better than whatever we grasp for in our forgetfulness that a provident God already knows our needs just as well in an economic depression as any other time. In an economic depression as much as any other time, the Father’s love can meet these needs much better than we will if we control our inheritance ourselves.

In hard times in the past the Lord’s arm and providence have shown more plainly than they sometimes do here. Do you want to know how to survive an economic depression? The answer is very simple. It’s not a matter of what you arrange. It’s a matter of what God provides. When there is no natural hope of God’s saints being taken care of, it may be a supernatural provideence that we don’t see as often when we have easy times.

In hard times as well as easy, the luminous thread woven throughout Scripture, appearing in one place in the words, “the just shall live by faith,” and another place in a Sermon on the Mount that says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you”—this luminous thread is at the heart of faith, spirituality, and religion—and this luminous thread is more. It is a participation in the life of a God of love to the point of madness.

The luminous thread is spun by a God of love to the point of madness.

It may be in hard times that we fear that in hard times we will lose what is good for us.

But it may be that hard times, whether a recession, depression, or economic collapse, serve as a divinely given clue-by-four when we discover that the Father’s love to the point of madness knows, and will give, what is much better for us. And on that point, I would like to quote a praise song about what is truly more precious than gold: the words go:

Lord, you are more precious than silver.
Lord, you are more costly than gold.
Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares to you.

In one variant, these words answer:

And the Father said:
“Child, you are more precious than silver.
Child, you are more costly than gold.
Child, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares to you.”

These are the words of divine love to the point of madness, of a God who loves saints and sinners alike, of a God who rejoices more over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous who do not need to repent. And this is a God who loves us in hard times as well as good, a God of providence who seeks our highest good whenever we turn to him.

God be merciful to us. (Amen!)

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The Horn of Joy: A Meditation on Eternity and Time, Kairos and Chronos

Surgeon General’s Warning

It has happened occasionally that something I’ve written as a lone voice has a few years later become the mainstream. Such was my academic interest in the holy kiss, one tiny snippet of which is in The Eighth Sacrament and which is a theme in The Sign of the Grail. When I proposed study, my own advisor subjected me to social ridicule until I persisted and he said, “I don’t know. It seems not to be researched.” Five years later, it entered the Zeitgeist and I had people asking if I knew more than The Eighth Sacrament (a work which was in fact intended to be a tiny crystallization of a vast body of research about the only act the Bible calls holy).

The opening paragraph to this work states, “Alchemy is a more jarring image.” No, it isn’t, or at least not any more; alchemy has been coming out of the closet for years, and aside from bestsellers, I worked once at the American Medical Association, an organization founded to shut down homeopathic occult medicine in favor of medicine that would today be seen as mostly scientific, and in the place of artwork there was a large handmade quilt by the cafeteria explaining numerous alchemical symbols. Touchstone Magazine is kind of “C.S. Lewis meets Eastern Orthodoxy,” there was an article explaining that Harry Potter is not occult sin; it’s just clean alchemical imagery that is perfectly innocuous, included just the same as other English greats, including C.S. Lewis.

Usually when I find I’ve served as a forerunner heralding the future Zeitgeist, I don’t get too puffed up. It’s more like an occasion for self-examination where I try to understand how I got things so wrong.

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As I write, I am in a couch in a large parlor looking out on an atrium with over a dozen marble pillars, onto another parlor on the other side. I have spent the day wandering around a college campus and enjoying the exploration. I’ve gotten little of the homework done that I meant to do (reading and writing about a theologian), and spent most of my energies trying to dodge the sense that the best way to explain what I want to explain about time is to begin with a classical form of alchemy. (The other alternative to lead into the discussion would be to start talking about Augustine, but that could more easily create a false familiarity. Alchemy is a more jarring image.)

Alchemy is one of those subjects most people learn about by rumor, which means in that case that almost everything we “know” about it is false. Trying to understand it through today’s ideas of science, magic, and proto-science is like trying to understand nonfiction reference materials, like an encyclopedia, through the categories of fiction and poetry, or conversely trying to understand fictional and poetic works through (the non-fiction parts of) the Dewey Decimal system.

It is much more accurate to say that alchemy is a particular religious tradition, perhaps a flawed religious tradition, which was meant to transform its practitioners and embrace matter in the process. It may be rejected as heresy, but it is impossible to really understand heresy until you understand that heresy is impressively similar to orthodox Christianity, confusingly similar, and ‘heresy’ does not mean “the absolute opposite of what Christians believe.” (Heresy is far more seductive than that.) Perhaps you may have heard the rumor that alchemists sought to turn lead into gold. The verdict on this historical urban legend, as with many urban legends, is, “Yes, but…”

Alchemy sought a way to turn lead into gold, but it has absolutely nothing to offer the greedy person who wants money to indulge his greed. Alchemy is scarcely more about turning lead into gold than astronomy is about telescopes. A telescope is a tool an astronomer uses to observe his real quarry, the stars as best they can be observed, and the alchemist, who sought to make matter into spirit and spirit into matter was trying to establish a spiritual bond with the matter so that the metals were incorporated into the person being performed. An Orthodox Christian might say the alchemist was seeking to be transfigured, even if that was a spiritually toxic way of seeking transfiguration or transformation—which is to say that the alchemist sought a profound and spiritual good. The alchemist sought gold that was above 24 karat purity, which is absurd if you think in today’s material terms about a karat gold that was chemically up to 100% (24k) pure… but what we call a “chemist” today is the successor to what alchemists called “charcoal blowers”, and chemistry today is a more sophisticated form of what the “charcoal blowers” were doing, not the alchemists. But the desire for purer-than-24k-gold becomes a much clearer and more intelligible desire when you understand that gold was not seen by the alchemists as simply a “container” for economic value, but the most noble substance in the material world. (And a “material” world that is not just “material” as Americans today would understand it.) If you look at Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about “Store up treasures in Heaven,” and “Do not store up treasures on earth,” the alchemists’ desire to transmute metals and eventually produce gold is much more of a treasure in Heaven than merely a treasure on earth. (Think about why it is better to have a heart of gold and no merely physical gold than have all the merely physical gold in the world and a heart of ice with it.)

Newton, introduced to me as one of the greatest physicists, spent more time on alchemy than on the science he is remembered for today. He was also, among other things, an incredibly abrasive person and proof that while alchemy promises spiritual transformation it at least sometimes fails miserably, and there are a lot of other scathing things one could say about alchemy that I will refrain from saying. But I would like to suggest one way we could learn something from the alchemists:

When I wanted to explain the term “charcoal blower” by giving a good analogy for it, I searched and searched and couldn’t find the same kind of pejorative term today. I don’t mean that I couldn’t find another epithet that was equally abrasive; we have insults just as insulting. But I couldn’t find another term that was pejorative for the same reason. The closest parallels I found (and they were reasonably close parallels) to what lie behind the name of “charcoal blower” would be how a serious artist would see a colleague who produced mercenary propaganda for the highest bidder, or how a clergyman who chose the ministry to love God and serve his neighbor would view people who entered the clergy for prestige and power over others. (It may be a sign of a problem on our side that while we can understand why people might be offended in these cases, we do not (as the alchemists did) have a term that embodies that reprobation. The alchemists called proto-chemists “charcoal blowers” because the alchemists had a pulse.)

To an alchemist, a “charcoal blower” was someone merely interested in what we would today call the science of chemistry and its applications—and someone who completely failed to pursue spiritual purification. Calling someone a “charcoal blower” is akin to calling someone an “irreligious, power hungry minister.” Whether they were right in this estimation or not, alchemists would not have recognized chemistry as a more mature development of alchemy. They would have seen today’s chemistry as a completely unspiritual parody of their endeavor: perhaps a meticulous and sophisticated unspiritual parody, but a parody none the less.

This provides a glimpse of a thing, or a kind of thing, that can be very difficult to see today. “Alchemy is a crude, superstitious predecessor to real chemistry” or “Chemistry is alchemy that’s gotten its act together” is what people often assume when the only categories they have are shaped by our age’s massive scientific influence.

Science is a big enough force that young earth Creationists deny Darwinian evolution by assuming that Genesis 1 is answering the same kind of questions that evolution is concerned with, namely “What were the material details of how life came to be?”What was the mechanism that caused those details to happen?” That is to say, young earth Creationism still assumes that if Genesis 1 is true, that could only mean that it is doing the same job as evolution while providing different answers. It is very difficult for many people to see that Genesis 1-2 might address questions that evolution never raises: neo-Darwinian evolution is silent or ambivalent about all questions of meaning (if it does not answer “There is no meaning and that is not a question mature scientists should ask.”). It is a serious problem if young earth proponents can read Genesis 1 and be insensitive to how the texts speak to questions of “What significance/meaning/purpose/goal does each creation and the whole Creation live and breathe?” This may be a simplification, but we live in enough of a scientific age that many people who oppose the juggernaut (in this case, neo-Darwinian evolution) still resort to disturbingly scientific frameworks and can show a pathological dependence of scientific ways of looking at the world, even when there is no conscious attempt to be scientific. Perhaps evolutionists may accuse young earth Creationists of not being scientific enough, but I would suggest that the deepest problem is that they are too scientific: they may not meet the yardstick in non-Creationist biology departments, but they try to play the game of science hard enough that whatever critique you may offer of their success in gaining science’s sight, nobody notices how perfectly they gain science’s blind spots—even when they are blind spots that make more sense to find in a neo-Darwinist but are extremely strange in a religiously motivated movement.

This is symptomatic of today’s Zeitgeist, and it affects our understanding of time.

Time is something that I don’t think can be unraveled without being able to question the assumed science-like categories and framework that define what is thinkable when we have no pretensions of thinking scientifically, along lines like what I have said of alchemy. I’m not really interested in calling chemists “charcoal blowers”: the Pythagoreans would probably censure me in similar vein after finding I ranked such-and-such in a major math competition, did my first master’s in applied math, and to their horror studied a mathematics that was completely secularized and had absolutely nothing of the “sacred science”spiritual discipline” character of their geometry left.

I may not want to call scientists “charcoal blowers”, but I do want to say and explore things that cannot be said unless we appreciate something else. That something else… If you say that alchemy disintegrated to become chemistry, that something else disintegrated in alchemy with its secrets and something else purportedly better than what was in the open. Alchemy has a host of problems that need to be peeled back; they may be different problems than those of our scientific age, and it may make a helpful illustration before the peeling back further and cutting deeper that is my real goal, but it is a problematic illustration.

I once would have said that classical (Newtonian) physics was simply a mathematical formalization of our common sense. My idea of this began when I was taking a class that dealt with modern physics (after covering Einstein’s theory of relativity). I grappled with something that many budding physicists grapple with: compared to classical physics, the theory of relativity and modern physics are remarkably counter-intuitive. One wag said, “God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was Newton. The Devil howled, ‘Let darkness return!’ And there was Einstein [and then modern physics], and the status quo was restored.” Modern physics may describe our world’s behavior more accurately, but it takes the strangest route to get to its result: not only is light both a particle and a wave, but everything, from a sound wave to you, is both a particle and a wave; nothing is exactly at any one place (we’re all spread throughout the whole universe but particularly densely concentrated in some places more than others); it can depend on your frame of reference whether two things happen simultaneously; Newton’s mathematically simple, coherent, lovely grid for all of space no longer exists, even if you don’t consider space having all sorts of curvatures that aren’t that hard to describe mathematically but are impossible to directly visualize. (And that was before superstring theory came into vogue; it seems that whatever doesn’t kill physics makes it stranger.)

I would make one perhaps subtle, but important, change to what I said earlier, that classical Newtonian physics is a mathematical expression of common sense: I had things backwards and the Western common sense I grew up with is a non-mathematical paraphrase of classical physics.

One thing Einstein dismantled was a single absolute grid for space and a single timeline that everything fit on. That was something Newton (and perhaps others—see the chapter “The Remarkable Masculine Birth of Time” in Science as Salvation, Mary Midgley) worked hard to establish. What people are not fond of saying today is that “It’s all relative” is something people might like to be backed by Einstein’s theory, but relativity is no more relativism than ‘lightning’ is ‘lightning bug’. In that sense the theory of relativity makes a far smaller difference than you might expect… Einstein if anything fine-tuned Newton’s timeline and grid and left behind something practically indistinguishable. But let’s look at Newton’s timeline and not look at almost equivalent replacements later physics has fine-tuned. All of space fits on a single absolute grid and all of time is to be understood in terms of its place on a timeline. This is physics shaping the rest of its culture. It’s also something many cultures do not share. I do not mean that the laws of physics only apply where people believe in them; setting aside miracles, a stove works as Newtonian physics says it should whether you worship Newton, defy him and disbelieve him whenever you can, or simply have never thought of physics in connection with your stove. I don’t mean that kind of “subjective reality”. That’s not what I’m saying. But the experience of space as “what fits on a grid”, so that a grid you cannot touch is a deeper reality than the things you see and touch every day, and the experience of time as “what fits on a timeline” is something that can be weaker or often nonexistent in other cultures. It’s not an essential to how humans automatically experience the world.

There is a medieval icon of two saints from different centuries meeting; this is not a strange thing to portray in a medieval context because much as space was not “what fills out a grid” but spaces (plural) which were more or less their own worlds, enclosed as our rooms are, time was not defined as “what clocks measure” even if people just began to use clocks.

Quick—what are the time and date? I would expect you to know the year immediately (or maybe misremember because the year has just changed), and quite possibly have a watch that keeps track of seconds.

Quick—what latitude and longitude you are at? If you didn’t or don’t know the Chicago area and read in a human interest news story that someone took an afternoon stroll from Homewood to Schaumburg, IL, would those two names make the statement seem strange?

What if you continued reading and found out that Homewood is at 41°34’46″N and 87°39’57″W and Schaumburg is at 42°01’39″N and 88°05’32W? Setting aside the quite significant fact that most of us don’t tell latitude and longitude when we see a place name, what would that say?

If you do the calculations, you see that saying someone walked from Homewood to Schaumburg and back in an afternoon is like a newspaper saying that the President was born in 671. Schaumburg and Homewood are both Chicago suburbs, but in almost opposite directions, and to the best of my knowledge no distance runner could run from Homewood to Schaumburg to Homewood in an afternoon—even in good traffic the drive would chew up more than a little bit of an afternoon.

Do you see the difference between how we approach and experience our position on the time-grid on the one-hand, and our latitudinal and longitudinal position on the other? Setting aside various questions about calendars, I would suggest that the way most of us neither know nor care what latitude and longitude we’re at, can give a glimpse into how a great many people neither know nor cared not only what a watch says but what century they’re in. (Quick—does your country include the “turn of the century” for degrees latitude or longitude?)

There are other things to say; I want to get into chronos or kairos, and some of the meaning of “You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.” (One facet, besides the wordplay, is that time is an image of not only eternity but the Eternal One.) There are several images of time, or names of time, that I wish to explore; none of them is perfect, but all of them say something. But first let me give the question I am trying to answer.

The Question

Before I say more about time in the sense of giving names to it, I would like to explain the question I am trying to answer, because it is perhaps idiosyncratically my own question, and one that may not be entirely obvious.

There is a book on college admissions essays that listed cliché student essays that almost immediately make an admissions reader’s eyes glaze over. Among these was The Travel Experience, which went something like this:

In my trip to ________, I discovered a different way of life that challenged many of my assumptions. It even challenged assumptions I didn’t know I had! Yet I discovered that their way of life is also valid and also human.

Note that this boiled down essay is ambiguous, not only about what region or what country, but for that matter what continent the writer has been to. And thus, however deep and interesting the experience itself may have been, the writeup is cliché and uninteresting.

This, in my opinion, is because the experience is deep in a way that is difficult to convey. If something funny happened yesterday on the way to the store, it is perfectly straightforward to explain what happened, but a deep cross-cultural counter is the sort of thing people grasp at words to convey. It’s like the deepest gratitude that doesn’t know how to express itself except by repeating the cliché, “Words cannot express my gratitude to you.”

I’m from the U.S. and have lived in Malaysia, France, and England (in that order). I was only in Malaysia for a couple of months, but I was baptized there, and I have fond memories of my time there—I understand why a lot of Westerners come to Malaysia and want to spend the rest of their lives there.

One thing I changed there was how quickly I walked. Before then, I walked at a swift clip. But walking that way comes across somewhere between strange and bothersome, and I had to learn to walk slowly—and that was the beginning of my encounter with time in Malaysia. In the cliché above, I learned that some things that were to me not just presuppositions but “just the way things were” were in fact not “just the way things were” but cultural assumptions and a cultural way of experiencing time, which could be experienced very differently.

Some of this is an “ex-pat” experience of time in Malaysia rather than a native Malaysian experience of Malaysian time (there are important differences between the two), but the best concise way I can describe it is that there are people in the U.S. who try and want to escape the “tyranny of the clock,” and the tyranny of the clock is frequently criticized in some circles, but in Malaysia there is much less tyranny of the clock—I was tempted to say the tyranny of the clock didn’t exist at all. People walk more slowly because walking is not something you rush through just to get it done, even if it’s important that you arrive where you’re walking to.

Every place I’ve lived I’ve taken something away. The biggest personal change I took from Malaysia had to do with time. That experience gave me something I personally would not have gained from hearing and even agreeing with complaints about the tyranny of the clock. The first domino started to topple in Malaysia, and the chain continued after I returned to the U.S.

What I tried to do on the outside was move more slowly and rebel against the clock, and on the inside to experience, or cultivate, a different time more slowly. (I was trying to be less time-bound, but interacted with time in ways I didn’t do before Malaysia.) I still tried (and still try) to meet people on time, but where I had freedom, the clock was as absent as I could make it. And it was essentially an internal experience, in a sort of classically postmodern fashion. I wore a watch, but changed its meaning. Augustine regarded there being something evil about our existence being rationed out to us, God having his whole existence in one “eternal moment”; I equated time with the tyranny of the clock and “what a clock measures”, and called timelessness a virtue. If we set aside the inconsistency between trying to “escape” time as not basically good and digging more and more deeply into time, you have something that was growing in me, with nuance, over the years since I’ve been in Malaysia.

That sets much of the stage for why I began to write this. In one sense, this is an answer to “What can time be besides what the tyranny of the clock says it is?” In another sense it is recognizing that I took something good from Malaysia, but didn’t quite hit the nail on the head: I regarded time as basically evil, something to neutralize and minimize even as I was in it, which I now repent of. That is an incorrect way of trying to articulate something good. I would like to both correct and build upon my earlier living-of-time, beginning with what might be called the flesh of the Incarnation.

The Flesh of the Incarnation

One time several friends and I were together, and one of them, who is quite strong but is silver-haired, talked about how he couldn’t put a finger on it, but he saw a sadness in the fact that the closest place for him to be buried that would satisfy certain Orthodox concerns was a couple of states over. I said that there were Nobel prizes for literature and economics, but there would never be a Nobel prize for scamming seniors out of their retirement. In that sense the Nobel prize is not just an honor for the negligible handful of physicists who receive that accolade, but every physicist. Perhaps there are a great many more honorable professions than there are Nobel prizes, but the Nobel prize doesn’t vacuously say that physics is a good thing but specifically recognizes one physicist at a time, and by implication honors those who share in the same labor.

I said that “God does not make any generic people,” and I clarified that in the Incarnation, Jesus was not a sort of “generic person” (“I went to the general store and they wouldn’t sell me anything specific!”) who sort of generically blessed the earth and in some generic fashion sympathized with those of us specific people who live in time. God has never made a specific person, and when Christ became incarnate, he became a specific man in a specific place at a specific time. As much as we are all specific people who live in a specific place at a specific time, he became a specific person who lived in a specific place at a specific time, and by doing that he honored every place and time.

“The flesh of the Incarnation,” in Orthodox understanding, is not and cannot be limited to what an atheist trying to be rigorous would consider the body of Christ. The Incarnation is a shock wave ever reaching out in different directions. One direction is that the Son of God became a Man that men might become the Sons of God. Another direction is that Christ the Savior of man or the Church can never be separated from Christ the Savior of the whole cosmos, and for people who are concerned with ecology, Christ’s shockwave cannot but say something profound from the Creation which we must care for. Sacraments and icons are part of this Transfigured matter, and the Transfiguration is a glimpse of what God is working not only for his human faithful but the entire universe he created to share in his glory.

To me at least, “the flesh of the Incarnation” is why, while the Catholic Church is willing to experiment with different philosophies and culture, because they are not part of the theological core, the Orthodox Church has preserved a far greater core of the patristic philosophy and culture. It is as if the Catholic Church, getting too much Augustine (or even worse, DesCartes), said “Spirit and matter are different things; so are theology and philosophy. We must keep the spirit of theology, but matter is separate and can be replaced.” An Orthodox reply might be “Spirit and matter are connected at the most intimate level; so are theology, philosophy and culture. We must keep the spirit of theology without separating it from the philosophy and culture which have been the flesh of the Incarnation from the Church’s origin.”

If Jesus was not a “generic person”, and I am not supposed to be a “generic person”, then the place in time he made for you is to be transfigured as the flesh of the Incarnation. What I mean by “the flesh of the Incarnation” is that Christ became Incarnate at a specific time and place, and by so doing he honored not only your flesh and mine—he is as much a son of Adam as you and me—but every time and place.

There is a major Orthodox exegesis which looks at the Gospels and says that when Pilate presented Christ to the crowd and said, “Idou ton anthropon.” (“Behold the man”, Jn 19.5), he was prophesying like Caiphas and (perhaps without knowing it) completing the Genesis story; when Christ on the cross said, “It is finished,” he announced that the work of Creation which was begun in Genesis had come to its conclusion—not, perhaps, the end of history, but the beginning of the fulness which Creation always needed but is only found at the cross. There are theologians today which answer the question “When did God create the earth?” by giving the date of the crucifixion: not that nothing existed before then, but then it was made complete. 25 March 28 AD is, in commercial terms, not the beginning of when prototypes began to be assembled and plans began to be made towards a product release, but the date that the finished product is released and thereafter available to the public. The Cross is the axis of the world, so that the Incarnation is not simply the central event in history but the defining event, not only in the time and place that we falsely consider remote which Jesus lived in, but your time and mine.

A Paradox: Historical Accuracy and Timelessness

I read a cultural commentary on the Bible cover to cover (IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, New Testament), and in one sense I’m glad I read it, but in another sense, I think I would have been better off reading the Bible cover to cover another time. Or, for that matter, creating computer software or pursuing some other interest outside of the Bible and theology.

Years earlier, I said I wished I could read a cultural commentary on the Bible, but reading it drove home a point in a Dorothy Sayers essay. The essay suggested that “period awareness”, our sharp sense of “That was then and this is now” that puts such a sharp break between the past and the present, is a product of the Enlightenment and something a great many periods do not share. When one reads the Canterbury Tales and asks what they thought about cultures, the answer is that though the stories begin in classical times there is no modern sense of “These people lived in another time so I need to try to be historically accurate and keep track of lots of historical context to take them seriously.”

What I have realized, partly in writing my first theology thesis in Biblical studies, was that a lot of cultural commentary is spiritually inert when it is not used as a tool to manipulate or neutralize the Bible for contradicting what’s in vogue today. Even when the sizeable “lobbyist” misuse of cultural context is ignored, there is a big difference between scholarly cultural and historical inquiry and a cultural sermon illustration—and it’s not that less scholarly pastors do a half-baked job of something “real” scholars do much better. Cultural sermon comments are selected from a vast body of knowledge specifically because they illuminate the text and therefore at least can enhance how the text speaks to us. “Serious”, “real” scholarship tends to bury the text’s meaning under a lot of details and result in the same kind of loss of meaning that would happen if someone asked what a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel meant and the answer was to explain try to explain everything about how the novel came to be, including how the author’s food was prepared, how the editing process was managed, and perhaps a few notes on how a Pulitzer Prize novel, after the award is received, is marketed differently from novels that haven’t received that award.

I would like to suggest that in this piece my opening historical illustration did not detail everything a “historical-critical” study would get bogged down in, and showed independence from the historical-critical version of what scholarly accuracy means precisely as it challenged a popular historical misunderstanding of alchemy.

How does this fit together? There are two things. First of all, I disagree with most scholarship’s center of gravity. “Historical-critical” scholarship, in a bad imitation of materially focused science, has a material center of gravity, and almost the whole of its rigor can be described in saying, “Look down as carefully as you can!” There is a painting which shows two philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. You can tell them apart because Plato is pointing up with one finger, and Aristotle is pointing down to material particulars with one finger. The problem with “historical-critical” scholarship in theology—and not only “historical-critical” scholarship—is that it asks Aristotle to do Plato’s work. It asks the details of history to provide theological meaning. (Which is a bit like using a microscope to view a landscape, only worse and having more kinds of problems.)

Dorothy Sayers points out that up until the Enlightenment, people producing Shakespeare plays made no more effort to have the actors dress like people did in Shakespeare’s days than Shakespeare himself felt the need to dress ancient characters in authentic Roman styles of clothing. Shakespeare’s plays were produced because they had something powerful that spoke to people, and people didn’t have this rigid historical dictate that said “If you will produce Shakespeare authentically, that means you go out of your way to acquire costumes nobody wears today.” In the Globe Theatre, people were dressed up like… well, people, whether that meant Rome or the “here and now”. And now theatre companies will be provocative or “creative” and change the setting in a Shakespeare play so that things look like some romanticization of the Wild West, or classy 20’s gangsters, or (yawn) contemporary to us, but if you exclude people who are being a bit provocative, the normal way of putting on Shakespeare is not by having people dress the way people normally dress, but by doing research and putting people in exotic clothing that clearly labels the characters as being From Another Time.

Shakespeare’s plays are produced today because they speak today, in other words because they are timeless. Being timeless doesn’t mean literally being unrelated to any specific historical context (“I went to the general store and they wouldn’t sell me anything specific!”). It means that something appears in a particular context and in that context expresses human-ness richly and fully enough that that human fingerprint speaks beyond the initial context. It means that there is a human bond that can bridge the gap of time as beautifully as two people having a friendship that simultaneously embraces and reaches beyond the differences of culture that exist between their nations. And it reflects a center of gravity that the important thing about Shakespeare is not that his English was hard to understand even hundreds of years ago, nor that people dressed a certain way that is different from any country today, but a human, spiritual center of gravity that not only speaks powerfully in the West centuries later but speaks powerfully outside the West. Shakespeare’s center of gravity is not in this or that detail, but in a human pulse.

Wind and Spirit

Let me look at something that appears to be unrelated.

The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit. The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is every one who is born of the Wind. The Spirit Spirits where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.

I can count on my fingers the number of points where I would gripe about the best English translations (if a euphemistically mistranslated Song of Songs only counts as one gripe). You don’t need to study ancient languages to know the Bible well. But there are occasional points where a language issue cuts something out of the text.

One particularly Orthodox gripe about Western translations is that they use the word “Christ” for the Son of God and “anointed” to have a range of meanings and include kings priests, objects that were considered sacred, and the whole religious community (this latter in both Old and New Testament). This is not because of what is in the original language. People may hear—I heard—that Messiah or Christ means, “Anointed One”, but the English translations I know introduce a sharper distinction than the text supports, and really drains the realization of verses that show another side of the New Testament’s language of us being called to be sons or children of God. I remember the shock I had when I was reading the (Latin) Vulgate and David, refusing to call Saul, called him “christum Domini” (“the Lord’s christ,” but the Latin, like Hebrew and Greek before it, did not distinguish i.e. “Christum” from “christum”.) I John 2:20 in the RSV says, “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know.” That obscures a dimension to the text that legitimately could be replaced by a different part of speech and clarified, “But you have been made christs by the Holy One, and you all know.” (If you don’t like changing a part of speech, you could look at texts like Sometimes you get C.S. Lewis saying “Every Christian is to become a little christ. The whole purpose of being a Christian is simply nothing else. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God.” But something of the knowledge of who we are to be in Christ is crippled when translations split up XPICTOC or its Hebrew equivalent because they are afraid to let people see that not only is Christ the Son of God and the Christian son of God, but one who is in the Christ is a christ.

That is the translators’ fault. In the text cited above (Jn 3.8), from Jesus’ discussion of flesh and Spirit/spirit, the same word in Greek (ΠΝΕΥΜΑ) carries the meaning of “Spirit”, “spirit”, and “wind” in the broader passage. I was tempted to write that ΠΝΕΥΜΑ carries that range of meanings, but that’s a little more deceptive than I’m comfortable with. It would be more accurate to say that neither “spirit” and “wind”, nor “Spirit and spirit”, represented sharply distinguished categories. In a way Jesus is punning but in a way he is making an observation about spirit/wind that does not rest on the distinction.

Let me quote the RSV for the longer passage (Jn 3.1-12):

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode’mus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicode’mus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicode’mus said to him, “How can this be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?

This is a rather big passage to try to unravel, but let me point out one thing. Jesus is dealing with a spiritual leader, and that leader’s question, “How can a man be born when he is old?” is probably not just a failure to recognize that Jesus was speaking figuratively (especially if “figuratively” means what it means today, i.e. “a consolation prize for something that is dismissed as not true, at least not literally”). Besides saying that Nicodemus might not be stupid, I might suggest that his failure to understand underscores that he was being told something that’s difficult to understand.

I’m almost tempted to write ΠNEYMA instead of spirit or Spirit because that forces a distinction that isn’t there at all in the Greek New Testament and often may not belong in good theology. With that noted, I’m going to write Spirit with the understanding that it is often not meant to be read as separated from spirit and often not distinguished.

A group of people misunderstood this and other Spirit/flesh texts to mean that we should live in the part of us that is spirit and the part of it that was flesh, and they made a number of theological errors, and unfortunately some Christians have since treated the Spirit/flesh texts as a “problem” that needs to be “handled” (and, one might infer, not quite something that was put in the Bible because it would help us). This reaction makes it harder to understand some passages that say something valuable.

We are to become all Spirit. This does not, as those Gnostics believed, mean that our bodies are evil, or that any part of God’s Creation is created evil. To become Spirit is to begin to live the life of Heaven here on earth. That doesn’t mean that what is not-God in our lives now is eliminated; it means that our whole lives are to become divine. It means that the whole cosmos has been in need of salvation, and Christ comes as Savior to his whole Creation and his whole Creation is to be drawn into him and made divine. If you buy a gift for a friend, let us say a watch, and delight in giving it, that watch is no longer merely a possession you can horde, not just something a machine spat out. It is part of your friendship with that friend and it has been drawn from the store aisle into that friendship. To use an ancient metaphor, it has been drawn into the body under the head of friendship. (And now it means something a factory could never put into it.) If you have begun to believe that things don’t boil down to a materialist’s bottom line, the watch has become more real. In the same sense, not just our “souls” or “spirits” misunderstood as opposite to our bodies, but all of us and all of our lives are to become Spirit, or in the more usual Orthodox terminology become deified or divinized.

To say that the here and now that God has placed us in is “the flesh of the Incarnation” is not intended as some kind of opposite to Spirit. That fleshis spiritual; it is the whole Creation as it becomes Spirit and as it has become Spirit.

That much is generic; it is legitimate to say about time, because it is legitimate to say about almost anything. I would now like to turn and say something more specific about time.

I don’t like to put things in terms of “synchronicity.” For those of you not familiar with synchronicity, it’s an idea that there is more to causality and time than isolated particles moving along a linear timeline, which is well and good, but this is a body missing its head, the Spirit. It’s kind of a strange way of being spiritual while not being fully connected to Spirit.

“That which is born of flesh is flesh; that which is born of Spirit is Spirit. The Spirit Spirits where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”

To live in the Spirit, and to become Spirit, is for one and the same reason the proper footing for synchronicity, synchronicity done right, and moving beyond “subjective time.” Let me talk about subjective time before talking more about synchronicity.

Subjective time is what some people have observed when people have realized that a watch is a poor indicator of how we experience time. Time flies; it can drag; but whatever watches can do, they don’t tell how fast it seems like time is moving. In other words, subjective time at least is not what a watch measures. Now this is good as an answer to the question “What can we call time besides ‘what a watch measures’?” but doesn’t go far enough. Subjective time is the subjective time of a “me, myself, and I”. It is the time of an atom, that cannot be divided further. And that limits it.

Time in the Spirit is an orchestrated, community dance. Not that the specific person is annihilated, but the specific person is transfigured. And that means that what is merely part of the private inner world of a “me, myself, and I” is in fact something vibrant in a community. Liturgical time, which I will talk about later, is one instrument of this sharing. But it is not the only one. God is the Great Choreographer, and when his Spirit orders the dance, it is everything in synchronicity and everything in subjective time and more. What was eerie, a strange occult thing people try to mine out in Jungian synchronicity becomes a pile of gold out in the open. If Jungian synchronicity is a series of opportunities to shrewdly steal food, the Dance is an invitation to join the banquet table.

Dance, then, wherever you may be, for I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. (Old Shaker hymn)

Immortalists and Transhumanists

I was reading a novel by one of my favorite authors in which some troubled characters constantly waxed eloquent about a movement, the “Immortalists”, which struck me as rather far-fetched, too preposterous a motivation for literature… until I found a group very much like them, the Transhumanist movement, on the web.

The idea of Transhumanism is that we have lived in biological bodies so far, but we are on the cusp of making progress, and “progress” is improving on the human race so that we humans (or transitional humans—”Transhumanism” abbreviates “transitional-human-ism”, and transhumanists consider themselves transhuman) can be replaced by some “posthuman” (this is supposed to be a good thing) creatures of our own devising which are always as high as if they were on crack (or higher), can run and jump like superheroes, and in general represent the fulfillment of a certain class of fantasies. (It’s like disturbing science fiction, only they’re dead serious about replacing the human race with something they consider better.) It’s the only time reading philosophy on the web has moved me to nausea, and that broad nexus of spiritual forces is something I tried to lampoon in Yonder.

Setting that obscure movement aside, it seems a lot like the progress of technology has been to achieve watered-down transhumanist goals while we live in the bodies God gave us. I read an interesting article describing how before electric lights even though there were candles most of society seemed to shut down at sundown. Now people tend to kind of sleep when it’s dark and kind of sleep when it’s light, but we have made ourselves independent of something most humans in history (let alone before history) were tightly attuned to. I can also buy pills to take to subdue pain, or slightly misuse my body and not feel as much of the natural pain. If I don’t care either about my health or breaking laws that are there for our good, there are illicit pills that could make me colossally strong: I’m moderately strong now but I could become stronger than most professional athletes. As a member of my society I have space-conquering tools—a telling name—which mean that I can move around the world and I can email and talk with people without knowing and perhaps without caring if they are next door or a thousand miles away. I can also take other pills when I get much older and defeat the normal limits age puts on lust. There are a lot of limits humans have lived with time out of mind, but we’ve discovered how to push them aside.

I heard of a dialogue where one person said, “I don’t have enough time,” and received the answer, “You have all the time there is.” In many cultures people experience time more as something that surrounds them but they’re not terribly aware of, like the air they breathe, than a sort of scant commodity one cannot have enough of. And that is a clue to something.

However much we’ve figured out mini-transhumanist ways to push back limitations, the limitation of “all the time there is” is one we can’t eliminate. We can fudge a bit with coffee or buy into some time management system, but there is a specific significance to time in our culture that wouldn’t be there in other cultures where people rise at sunrise and go to sleep at sunset. Compared to how much we can neutralize other limitations, the limitation of “all the time there is” is a limitation that resists most neutralization.

That sounds terrible, but I would draw your attention to what Transhumanism is really after. I heard one professor refer to a centuries-old Utopian vision of turning the sea into lemonade (among other things) as “une Utopie des enfants gaspillés” (“a Utopia of spoiled children”). The Transhumanist vision, which has already happened in miniature, is the ability to pursue “bigger better faster more” of what spoiled children want. What it is not is a way to grow into what a mature adult wants.

I’m not saying we should get rid of medicine, or anything like that. Medical knowledge has done some impressive things. But I would pointedly suggest that the kind of things technological advances give us give us much more what spoiled children want than what a mature adult would recognize as an aid to maturity. There are exceptions, and I would not argue any sort of straight Luddite position: I try to moderate my use of technology like I try to moderate a lot of other good things, but I am very glad for the opportunity to live in an age where webpages are possible, and to have gotten in at a good time. But the “all the time there is” limitation is in fact the kind of boundary that helps mature adults grow more mature, and if we are willing to take it there is an occasion for maturity because we can’t take a pill to have all the time we want.

From the Fifth Gospel to Liturgical Time

The Gospel According to Thomas isn’t the Fifth Gospel. (At least, in ancient times when Christians said “the Fifth Gospel” they didn’t mean the Gospel According to Thomas. No comments from the peanut gallery about the Gospel According to Thomas being the Fifth Bird Cage Liner.)

If a couple of people meet, become acquainted, become friends, start dating, become engaged, and get married, when does the marriage begin? In one sense, the wedding is a formal threshold: before then they aren’t married, afterwards they are. But in another sense the engagement becomes part of the marriage, as does the courtship, the friendship, the acquaintance, even the first meeting and possibly things in their lives that they would say prepared them for the meeting. The marriage moves forward from the wedding date but it also reaches backwards and creates something in the past. What may have been an improbable or forgettable first meeting is drawn into the marriage; the same thing is going on as with the watch which becomes not simply matter but part of a friendship.

John Behr has provocatively suggested that the worst thing that has happened to Christianity in the past 2000 years has been the canonization of the New Testament so it is placed as Scripture alongside the Old Testament, and becomes the second and final volume in a series. What he means by that may not be obvious.

The relationship between the Old and New Testament is misunderstood somewhat if the New Testament is simply the final chapter of the Old Testament. It would be better, if still imperfect, to say that the New Testament is Cliff’s Notes on the Old Testament, or the Old Testament was a rich computer game and the New Testament was the strategy guide that we need to unlock it’s secrets. It is no accident that the first people we know of to put the New Testament alongside the Old Testament, and make commentaries on both Testaments, were Gnostics who tried to unlock the New Testament when orthodox Christians let the New Testament unlock the Old.

Quick—which Christ-centered Gospel did Handel use in the Messiah to tell of the Messiah or Christ? The answer is the Fifth Gospel: Isaiah. The passages cited in the Messiah are not a few prophetic exceptions to a non-Christ-related Old Testament; they are part of the Old Testament unlocked, and that same reading is how the earliest Christians read the Old Testament Scriptures.

Now it was Mary Mag’dalene and Jo-an’na and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma’us, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.

But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad.

Then one of them, named Cle’opas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”

And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.

They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”

There’s a lot going on here; I’m not going to address why Mary Magdalene was known as the Apostle to the Apostles, but I would suggest that instead of saying today what a feminist would be tempted to say, that the men were sexist and wouldn’t believe a woman when she bore the glad tidings, there was a veil over their minds, much like Paul describes in II Cor 3. If a woman’s witness did not suffice, Jesus standing with them in person and talking with them still had no effect until the very end. And there is something going on here with a number of resonances in our lives. They couldn’t see Christ in the Scriptures (which were then the Old Testament, because the Gospels and Epistles had never been written), and they couldn’t see Christ appearing before them, even literally. And that is not because they are imperceptive and we are perceptive. The story is a crystallization of how we often meet Christ.

What is the point of all this? The most immediate reason is not to say that the Bible is 80% documents produced by Judaism before Christianity came around and 20% Christian documents, but transformed, transmuted if you will, into 100% Christian documents. When the book of Psalms opens with, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the council of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of cynics,” that refers first and foremost to Christ. I myself have not gotten very far in this way of reading the Scriptures, but I hope to, and I believe it will pay rich dividends.

And there is something going on here that is going on in when a marriage reaches backwards, or a watch becomes part of a friendship. It is connected with what is called “recapitulation”, which I think is an unfortunate technical theological term because the metaphor comes across as in “Ok, let me try and recap what we’ve said so far,” which is a wishy-washy metaphor for something deep. Orthodox talk about deification, and for us to be deified is a specific example of recapitulation in Christ. Recapitulation means “re-heading”, and while in a sense very consistent with how recapitulation works, I’ve somewhat indistinguishably talked about how we can be Recapitulated or Re-headed in Christ, becoming body to his head and connected in the most intimate way, thereby becoming Christ (i.e. Recapitulation with a big ‘R’), and how something can become part of the body of something that can itself be recapitulated in Christ (recapitulation with only a little ‘R’). Perhaps that sentence should be dragged out into the street and shot, but when I talked about the gift of a watch becoming part of a friendship, the head of its reheading is something created, but both the watch and the friendship can be Recapitulated in Christ with the re-heading of the watch to be part of the friendship is itself part of what is Recapitulated in Christ, i.e. which is not merely brought under a head but connected to Christ as its head.

Let’s move on to clearer language and a clearer example—one that has to do with our time. The head of the whole body of time we live is our time in worship, liturgical time. This both that there is a liturgical rhythm of day, week, and year, with different practices that help us connect with the different liturgical rhythms (by the way, the first major piece of advice my spiritual father gave me was to take 5-10 years to step into the liturgical rhythm), but that’s not all. It means that our time in worshsip, which is not just time in a funnily decorated room with our particular club, sets the pace for life. It means that what is crystallized and visible in worship is perhaps hidden but if anything more powerfully manifest in a whole life of worship. It means that not just going to Church but working and playing are themselves worship, and they fulfill worship. It means, and I write this on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, that our worship is hollow and empty when we sing hymns to God on Sunday and then turn away in icy silence when someone asks our help—for it is not that someone we have icily turned away from, but Christ (see Matt 25:31-46). In the discourse at the Last Supper, Christ did not say that all would “know you are my disciples by this, that you have the most beautiful services,” but that all would “know you are my disciples by this, that you love one another.” (Jn 13.35) That is something that happens outside of Church first and foremost. Liturgical time is the basis for time in our lives.

Liturgical time is (or at least should be) the head of time in a life of worship (if “head” is used in the sense of “recapitulation” or “re-heading”), but it is not its own head. The head of time in worship is eternity in Heaven, and that means that just as life is the concrete manifestation of worship, in time but in other matters as well, but liturgical time is not people gathered in a room for an interval but people transported to Heaven in what is not exactly a time machine, or not merely a time machine, but an “eternity machine”. The head of eternity in Heaven is the Eternal One whose glory shines through Heaven on earth.

What does this concretely mean for our experience of time? It means much the same as whether the material world was created good by God or evil by someone lesser. Pains and physical pleasures, to give a superficial example, will be there whether we believe the material world is good or evil. But it makes a difference whether you believe the sweetness of honey is a touch of love from God or a hatefully baited barb from Satan. Now part of really coming alive is being more than pleasure and pain and letting go of pleasures that they may be recapitulated or re-headed and drawn into what is Spirit. But even then, the Christian ascetic who lets go of a good is very different from a Gnostic ascetic who hatefully rejects it as evil. Pleasures and even pains, and joys and sorrows, are fuller depending on their basis.

Augustine has been accused of inadequate conversion—maybe he became Christian, but he continued being too much of a Manichee. I am sympathetic to that view, and it makes good sense of Augustine’s sense that there is something violent to us about being in time, with our being stingily rationed out to us, infinitesimal bit by bit (some have said the present “barely exists” because it is an instantaneous boundary where the future rushes into the past without stopping to rest), while God has its being all at once. I was sympathetic to that view until not long ago; I thought of time as an evil thing we endure to get to the good of eternity—which is the wrong way of putting it.

Time is a moving image of eternity and is recapitulated in Christ. We miss something fundamental if we simply say that it is less than eternity; it participates in the glory. Furthermore, there is a case to be made that we misunderstand eternity if it is “frozen time” to us, if it is an instant in time which is prolonged, or even worse, is deprived of a moving timeline. Whatever eternity is, that can’t be it. That is something fundamentally less than the time in which we grow and learn and breathe. Eternal life, which begins in this world, is God’s own life, greater than created being but something that projects its glory into time. I once asked a friend if the difference between Maximus Confessor and Plato on Ideas was that for Plato there was one Idea that covered a bunch of material shadows (what we would think of as “real”, but the Ideas were more real), and he waved that aside without really contradicting me. He said that the Ideas, or ΛΟΓΟΙ (logoi), were static in Plato but dynamic in Maximus Confessor.Logoi are ideas loved in the heart of God from all eternity, and you and I only exist because we each have a logos in the heart of God which is what we are trying to become. And I don’t know how to reconcile what I know of dynamism with being outside of time, but eternity is not the deprivation of time, but something more time-like than time itself. Time becomes eternal when it is recapitulated in Christ.

Kairos and Chronos

Bishop K.T. Ware began one lecture/tape by saying that at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, there is a line that is very easy to overlook: the deacon tells the bishop or his deputy the priest, “It’s time to get started.” Except that he doesn’t say, “It’s time to get started,” but “It is time for the Lord to act.”

He pointed out both that the liturgy is the Lord’s work, even if both priest and faithful must participate for it to be valid (he said that the pop etymology of liturgy as “lit-urgy”, “the people’s work”, may be bad etymology but it’s good theology). But another point tightly tied to it is the exact Greek word that is translated “time.”

There are two words that are both translated time, but their meanings are very different. Translating them both as time is like translating both genuine concern and hypocritical flattery as “politeness” because you are translating into a language that doesn’t show the distinction. Perhaps the translators are not to be blamed, but there is something important going on in the original text that is flattened out in English. And when the deacon says “It’s time to get started,” it does not mean “My watch says 9:00 and that’s when people expect us to start,” but “This is the decisive moment.” In the Gospels, when Jesus’ own brothers and sisters failed to grasp who he was just as completely as the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he tells them, “My kairos has not yet come, but your kairos is always here.” (Jn 7.6).

Orthodox do not have any kind of monopoly on this distinction, but we do have a distinction between what is called “chronos” and what is called “kairos.” Chronos is ordinary if we take a harsh meaning to the word, instead of “everything is as it should be”. Chronos at its worst is watching the clock while drudgery goes on and on. If chronos is meaningless time, kairos is meaningful time, dancing the Great Dance at a decisive moment. It is putting the case too strongly to say that the West is all about chronos and Eastern Christianity is all about kairos, but I do not believe it is putting the case too strongly to say that East and West place chronos and kairos differently, and kairos is less the air people breathe in the West than it should be.

I don’t think that chronos needs as much explanation in the West; chronos is what a clock measures; the highbrow word for a stopwatch is “chronometer” and not “kairometer”. The distinction between kairos and chronos is somewhat like the distinction between I-Thou and I-It relationship. But let me give “ingredients” to kairos, as if it were something cooked up in a recipe.

  • Chronos.
  • Eternity.
  • Appointed time.
  • Rhythmic circular time with interlocking wheels.
  • Linear unfolding time.
  • Moments when you are absorbed in what you are doing.
  • Decisive moments when something is possible that was impossible a moment before and will be impossible a moment later.
  • Dancing the serendipitous Great Dance.
  • Total presence.

But kairos is not something cooked up in a recipe; chronos may be achievable that way, but kairos is a graced gift of God.

We Might All Be Alcoholics

A recovering alcoholic will tell you that alcoholism is Hell on earth. He would say that it is the worst suffering on earth, or that it is the kind of thing you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

And the point that healing and restoration begins is exquisitely painful. An alcoholic has a massive screen of denial that defeats reasoning. The only semi-effective way to defeat that denial is by a massive dose of even more painful reality that can break down that screen, some of the time. (An intervention.)

If alcoholism is Hell, why don’t alcoholics step out of it? Some people in much less pain find out what they need to do to stop the pain and leave. They take off a pair of shoes that is too tight, or ask for an ambulance to treat their broken arm (and I believe someone who’s been through both experiences would say that alcoholism is a much deeper kind of pain than a broken arm).

Surely alcoholics must have a sense that something is wrong—and that’s what they’re trying to evade. That’s what half an alcoholic’s energy goes into evading, because stopping and saying “I’m an alcoholic.” is the greatest terror an alcoholic can jump into. It may be a greater fear than the fear of death—or it is the fear of the death, a step into where nothing is guaranteed.

And that is where to become Orthodox might as well be recognizing you are an alcoholic. Not, perhaps, that every Orthodox has a problem with alcohol, but we all have a problem, a spiritual disease called sin that is not a crime, but is infinitely worse than mere criminality. And the experience an alcoholic says saying, “My name’s Ashley, and I’m an alcoholic,” for the first time, is foundational to Orthodox religion. “Here is trustworthy saying that deserves acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.”

There is a book, I have been told, among alcoholics called Not-God, because part of dealing with the cancer of alcoholism, as difficult as recognizing a terrible problem with alcohol, is recognizing that you have been trying to be God and not only are you not God, but your playing God has caused almost untold troubles.

Repentance is the most terrifying experience an Orthodox or an alcoholic can experience because when God really confronts you, he doesn’t just say “Give me a little bit.” He says, “Give me everything,” and demands an unconditional surrender that you write a blank check. This is as terrifying as the fear of death—or perhaps it is the fear of death, because everything we are holding dear, and especially the one thing we hold most dear, must be absolutely surrendered to—the Great Physician never tells us what, because then it would not be the surrender we need. We are simply told, “Write a blank check to me. Now.”

How does this square with becoming a little Christ?

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The two paragraphs, as I have broken up Phil 2:1-11 (RSV), are complementary. What the last paragraph says is that the equal Son of God emptied himself and kept on emptying himself further and suffering further until there is nothing left to give. And this is not a sinner, a mere creature, but the spotless and sinless Son of God showing what it means to be divine. It is not in Heaven that Christ shows the full force of divinity, but by emptying himself, willingly, to death on a cross and a descent into the realm of the dead. That is the moment when death itself began to work backwards—and humbling and emptying ourselves before God is the sigil of being exalted and filled with God’s goodness. But the other side of the coin is that if we think we can become divine, or even be human, while not being emptied, we are asking to be above Christ and expecting to have something that is utterly incoherent.

When we recognize that we are not God, then we become christs. When we empty ourselves, and let go of that one thing we are most afraid of giving to God, then we discover, along with the recovering alcoholic, that what we were most afraid to give up was a piece of Hell. We discover, with the alcoholic, that what we were fighting God about, and offering him consolation prizes in place of, was not something God needed, but something we needed to be freed from.

This emptying, this blank check and unconditional surrender, is what makes divinization possible. I was tempted in writing this to say that it is the ultimate kairos, but that’s exaggerating: the ultimate kairos is the Eucharist, but if we refuse this kairos, we befoul what we could experience in the Eucharist. If we are talking about a decisive moment that is not our saying “I want to make myself holier” so much as us hearing God say “You need to listen to me NOW,” then however painful it may be it is a step into kairos and a step further into kairos. And only after the surrender do we discover that what we were fighting against was an opportunity to step one step further into Heaven.

Repentance is appointed time. Repentance is the decisive moment, one we enter into again. Repentance is simultaneously death and transfiguration, the death that is transfiguration and the transfiguration that recapitulates death. Repentance is eternity breaking into time. Repentance is one eternal moment, and the moment we cycle back to, and the steps of climbing into Heaven. Repentance is being pulled out of the mud and painfully scrubbed clean. Repentance is fighting your way into the Great Peace. Repentance is the moment when we step out of unreality and unreal time into reality and the deepest time. Repentance is not the only moment in kairos, but it is among the most powerful and the most deeply transforming, decisive moments that appointed kairos has to offer.

Miscellanea

I do not have time to write, and perhaps you do not have time to read, separate sections about some things I will briefly summarize:

  • Life neither begins at 18 nor ends at 30. Every age is to be part of a kaleidoscope. Contrary to popular opinion in America, not only is it not a sin to grow old, but each age has its own beauty, like the seasons in turn and like the colors in a kaleidoscope. And that is why I do not guiltily talk about having “hit 30” any more than I would guiltily talk about having “hit 18” or “hit 5”, because in the end feeling guilty about approaching a ripe age is as strange as feeling guilty about being born: not that there is anything wrong with being a child in the womb, but the purpose of that special age is not to remain perennially in the womb but to grow in maturity and stature until our life is complete and God, who has numbered the hairs on our heads and without whom not even a sparrow can die, come to the thing we fear in age and discover that this, “death”, is not the end of a Christian’s life but the portal to the fulness of Heaven where we will see in full what we can now merely glimpse.
  • When we reach Heaven or Hell, they will have reached back so completely that our whole lives will have been the beginning of Heaven or the beginning of Hell.
  • People make a dichotomy between linear and cyclical time. The two can be combined in spiral (or maybe helical) time, and the movement of time forwards in growth combined with the liturgical cycles makes a rhythmic but never-repeating helix or spiral. (If that is embedded in what Maximus Confessor said about linear, circular, and spiral motion.)
  • One step away from saying that time is a line is saying that time is a pole on which a living vine grows, making a richer kind of connection than a materialist would see. That is a little bit of why we are contemporaries of Christ.

The Horn of Joy

…Sandy called after [Meg], “And also in 1865 Rudyard Kipling was born, and Verlaine wrote Poèmes saturniens, and John Stuart Mill wrote Auguste Comte and Positivism, and Purdue, Cornell, and the universities of Maine were founded.”

She waved back at him, then paused as he continued, “And Matthew Maddox’s first novel, Once More United, was published.”

She turned back, asking in a carefully controlled voice, “Maddox? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that author.”

“You stuck to math in school.”

“Yeah, Calvin always helped me with my English papers. Did this Matthew Maddox write anything else?”

Sandy flipped through the pages. “Let’s see. Nothing in 1866, 1867. 1868, here we are, The Horn of Joy.”

“Oh, that,” Dennys said. “I remember him now. I had to take a lit course my sophomore year in college, and I took nineteenth-century American literature. We read that, Matthew Maddox’s second and last book, The Horn of Joy. My prof said if he hadn’t died he’d have been right up there with Hawthorne and James. It was a strange book, passionately anti-war, I remember, and it went way back into the past, and there was some weird theory of the future influencing the past—not my kind of book at all.” (Madeleine l’Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet.)

Madeleine l’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet immediately follows my favorite children’s book, A Wind in the Door. I wished I could visit Patagonia, and tried to find a book she mentions in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art as seminal to the Welsh legend in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I also looked for The Horn of Joy and was disappointed, if not necessarily surprised, to learn that this was the one fictional addition to an otherwise historical list.

It would be not only strange but presumptuous to suggest that this piece I am writing is what she was referring to. Perhaps it is presumptuous to use that title, although it may seem less presumptuous if one understands how special and even formative Madeleine l’Engle’s work has been to me. But what does not seem strange to suggest is that this work may affect the meaning of A Swiftly Tilting Planet. That would only be determined by other people’s judgment and is not my call to make, but I don’t think Madeleine l’Engle would be offended if someone said that this enhanced the value of her work, or added another layer to what she said about time. Her own words not only in that work but in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art about how a work can be enhanced by future insights would suggest the possible. It is quite possible that my work is not good enough or not relevant enough to serve as such a key, but the suggestion is not that strange to make.

But let us move on to one closing remark.

Extraordinary and Utterly Ordinary

The Enlightenment has left us with a lot of wreckage, and one of this is great difficulty seeing what causality could be besides “one domino mechanically toppling others.”

Aristotle listed four causes: the material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause. The material and formal cause are interesting to me as something the Enlightenment would not think to include in causality: Aristotle’s Physics portrays the bronze in a statue as a material cause to the statue. If we listen to the hint, this could suggest that causality for Aristotle is something besides just dominoes falling. He does deal with mechanical, domino-like causation when he describes the efficient cause, but I remember being taken with the “final cause”, the goal something is progressing towards, because I thought it was domino causation that had the effect before the cause.

The best response I can give now to what I believed then was, “Um, kind of.” Aristotle’s four causes address a broader and more human kind of causation that looks at questions like why something happened and not just how it was produced. It is in fact an utterly ordinary way of looking at things. It’s not the only serious way of describing causality (my favorite physics teacher said in class, “If Aristotle said it, it was wrong,” and I think he was right about much more than physics), but it’s one kind of richer view. And if you think it’s something exotic, you misunderstand it. It is an utterly ordinary, even commonsense way of looking at why things happen.

And an Aristotle’s-four-causes kind of time is better than an Enlightenment-domino-causation kind of time, for a number of reasons. The best essay about time, which I cannot write, would encompass the better parts of what I have said above while remaining “normal” even when it underscored something extraordinary. Or at least would do better at that than I have.

Orthodoxy is not something absolutely unique; I have said things here which I hope resonate with some sense of home whether or not you are Orthodox. When I moved from being an Evangelical to becoming Orthodox, I did not move from absolute error into absolute truth but from something partial to its full expression. (And there are other clarifications I haven’t made, like how much of this essay is owed to Irenaeus and to John Behr helping Irenaeus come alive.) But let me close.

In Orthodoxy, here and now, there is an ordinary way to do what alchemy aimed at: be transfigured in a transfiguration that embraces the material world—and, as we have seen, time. Time is to be transmuted, or rather transfigured, until it becomes eternity.

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