The Dead End of Democracy

Trigger Warning: This is an overtly political piece, a piece about America, freedom, and the dead end of democracy. If you’re prone to fits of violence over political issues, feel free to move along.

***

It’s Independence Week, the week we celebrate our nation’s birth. It’s a festive week, a week to wallow in and indulge our freedoms–the freedom to grill meat, launch miniature missiles made in China, and overeat Aunt Maude’s famous apple pie. Freedom–ain’t it grand?

It’s an American tradition, this annual celebration. It’s Democracy’s birthday, an unabashed celebration of our freedoms of speech, assembly, and commercial enterprise. We light the candles on the cake of our free press, free elections, and free government provisions. We open the presents of the free market. Freedom, freedom, freedom–it’s the only thing that unifies us these days.

Yet, with all these freedoms, it seems our version of democracy has taken an ugly turn. It’s become more polarized, more vitriolic, perhaps more violent than ever. Yesterday, our President used his own freedoms to take the spotlight off the great history and tradition of our country; he used his freedoms to turn the spotlight toward himself. (Could anything be more American?) He kicked off this Independence week with a tweet that portrayed him as some sort of hero beating down the free press. It was an indefensible GIF.

Of course, the President is free to tweet this sort of violent propaganda (tweeting isn’t directly proscribed by the Constitution, see). What good is freedom, though, without the constraints of character, wisdom, and civility? How beautiful is the exercise of freedom if it induces some loon with an assault rifle (owned pursuant to his Second Amendment freedoms) to act on the President’s propaganda, to take aim at a reporter or two? When freedom slashes the jugular of common decency and social norms, when it lets civility bleed out on the kitchen floor, when it mocks death, freedom is an ugly thing.

The greatest freedom enjoyed by any citizen in any democracy is the freedom to constrain his own personal freedoms. The freedom to act in ways that serve and protect our neighbors, to restrain our speech for the sake of civil discourse, to govern our behavior to create liberty and justice for all (even the press)–these are the freedoms exercised by true statesmen. When we indulge every freedom, when we elevate personal agendas (or Twitter rants) over the collective good, when we wallow in self-indulgence, we undercut the foundational principles of our country’s democracy; we show ourselves to be anything but statesmen.

It’s Independence week, and I’m thinking about modern America. I’m afraid we’ve reached a dead end in this great experiment in democracy. It’s the dead end born of a freedom our founding father’s never contemplated–the freedom to wallow in our own narcissism. And if you’re prone to think this is an unfounded conclusion, allow me to offer this exhibit into evidence: the Twitter feed of President Donald J. Trump.

***BECOME A PATRON***

Do you like the content here or in my Tiny Letter? Then I’d like to invite you to join my Patreon community. What is Patreon? It’s a way for you, the reader, to become a patron, a person supporting the arts (my art to be precise), and receive behind the scenes content in return. Visit my Patreon page for more information. And, if you enjoy this website and haven’t yet signed up for the bi-monthly Tiny Letter newsletter, feel free to sign up below.

powered by TinyLetter

Want to receive my updates in your inbox? Click here. Also, follow along on Twitter and Facebook.

Collective Failure and a Drunk President

I’ve explored failure this week, the ways our recognition of it and honesty with it can instruct, refine, and guide. It’s a lesson I’ve learned from experience, from years of floundering in a failing faith and drinking away the pain. This season of alcohol dependency was an acute season of failure, and the smell of that failure–the juniper of the gin, the oak in the whiskey–lingers. It reminds me that my doubts were only resolved by walking through the failure and into the healing of true inner sobriety.

Our personal failures provide a unique opportunity, I suppose. Don’t our collective failures provide the same sort of opportunity?

Months ago, our country found itself drunk on self-importance and self-interest, on single-issue politics, on reactionary rage. So many put aside their civil scruples (81% of evangelical Christians, in fact), closed their moral compasses and voted for a new sort of mix-it-up, social media, reality television, kingpin president. Drunk on his promises, they excused his past failures–misogynism, xenophobia, jingoism, a history of racism–failures from which he never learned. And so, as President of the United States (an office deserving of dignity), Donald Trump continues to repeat the brash mistakes of his past. Yesterday, he engaged in the petty slander he’s come to be known for, attacking the appearance of yet another female cable news anchor.

There can be no denying it–President Trump is drunk on vengeance and rage. Vengeance and rage are coming from his Twitter stream, from his ears, from his eyes, from his wherever. These demons have blinded him to his failures, have kept him from the emotional and moral maturity expected of a president. You can mark my word; this will be his undoing.

Our collective failure as people of faith, our inability to see past our own self-interest for the good of our country has led to the sorts of indignities we see coming from the White House. And though we cannot make the President of the United States sober up, though we cannot make him learn from his own mistakes, we can tend to our own sobriety. We can confess the drunkenness that resulted in him becoming the Chief Executive.

Failures are an opportunity to recollect, to refine, to course correct. If this is true–and I think it is–our country has not seen a more opportune time to recollect, refine, and course-correct in my lifetime. Our failure is our drunkenness. It’s time to sober up.

***BECOME A PATRON***

Do you like the content here or in my Tiny Letter? Then I’d like to invite you to join my Patreon community. What is Patreon? It’s a way for you, the reader, to become a patron, a person supporting the arts (my art to be precise), and receive behind the scenes content in return. Visit my Patreon page for more information. And, if you enjoy this website and haven’t yet signed up for the bi-monthly Tiny Letter newsletter, feel free to sign up below.

powered by TinyLetter

 

Photo by Michael Vaden; licensed under Creative Commons via Flickr.

Want to receive my updates in your inbox? Click here. Also, follow along on Twitter and Facebook.

The Disciple of Failure

The photograph header for this series on failure includes an icon I keep in my planner. It’s an icon of Thomas, the doubter of doubters, with his too-long fingers stuck in the side-wound of Christ.

“I won’t believe,” he said, “unless I feel the wounds.”

Faith? Nah. Give me the evidence, man.

Christ gave him that evidence; he appeared in the upper room and invited Failing-Faithed Thomas to touch his sticky wounds. Thomas’ did, and his response was simple and faithful–“My Lord and my God.” It was a moment of fresh faith that sprung from the recognition of his failure, his doubt. The failure of his faith served as a sort of floor, a foundation for the construction of something more sturdy.

Thomas’ failure was recorded in great detail in the Gospel of John and has survived these 2,000 years. (Thomas (or John, rather) showed us his work.) But the restoration that sprung from that failure was recorded, too. What’s more, church history teaches us that Thomas was, perhaps, the first missionary to the East, that he died his own martyr’s death for the faith. Could there be a more successful act of faith than dying a martyr’s death?

I keep the icon of Doubting Thomas in my journal as a reminder of sorts. I take it out from time to time, look at the kneeling, placid-faced man recollecting his faith, and I remember the lesson of his life. Failure is not fatal if you have the courage to see it for what it is–an opportunity for restoration.

***BECOME A PATRON***

Do you like the content here or in my Tiny Letter? Then I’d like to invite you to join my Patreon community. What is Patreon? It’s a way for you, the reader, to become a patron, a person supporting the arts (my art to be precise), and receive behind the scenes content in return. Visit my Patreon page for more information. And, if you enjoy this website and haven’t yet signed up for the bi-monthly Tiny Letter newsletter, feel free to sign up below.

powered by TinyLetter

 

 

 

 

Want to receive my updates in your inbox? Click here. Also, follow along on Twitter and Facebook.

Algebraic Sexism and the Wisdom From Failure

Yesterday I identified the problem:

Modern self-helpism is built upon this little self-aggrandizing untruth:
Failure can be avoided if you apply the right formula, my formula.

We see this self-helpism at work in the world around us, on Twitter, Facebook, the bookstore shelves (even in the Christian Living section of said bookstore). Success sells. Beauty sells. Self-actualization sells. Pristine spirituality sells. Here’s what doesn’t sell quite so well–failure. Isn’t failure a prerequisite to growth, though? And though I’ve spun a few thousand words about the more grandiose failures of my own life in Coming Cleanit’s not just the big failures that shape us, that modify our courses and help us grow. It’s the little ones, too.

In the tenth grade, my honors algebra teacher, Mrs. Cokely, was a stickler for details. During our second semester, she introduced a sort of algebraic equation that required something on the order of 342 steps to complete, and any misstep along the way produced a result on par with absurdity. There was, of course, a simple process by which the answer could be derived with the push of a few buttons on a $100.00 calculator. Mrs. Cokely, though, was intent on teaching us the steps of calculation. She confiscated our calculators, said they were contraband of the highest order and set us down the path of complexity with little more than a pencil and a ream of graph paper.

“You need to work the steps, suffer the failures, understand the why before I return your calculators,” she said. It was failure that produced true understanding, knowledge. This was her deepest belief.

As any good teacher should, Mrs. Cokely did not confine her wisdom to the realm of mathematics. During that same frustrating semester, my friend and cheerleader, Sydney, was delivering a note from the principal. She walked through the door, and brash as I was (unpolished, you might say), I might have whistled to get her attention. That whistle may have been mistaken by Mrs. Cokely for a cat call on account of the fact that it was (in fact) a cat call, and the mathematician with a penchant for rule-enforcement turned fire-engine red. When Sydney left the room, Cokely stood, rigid as a yardstick, silent as one, too, and she pointed to the hall.

In the hall, she backed me against the lockers with her bony pointer. “Do you know what sexual harassment is?” she asked. I hemmed and hawed some unsatisfactory non-answer. Mrs. Cokely laid down the law. “Sentences, Seth. You will write, ‘I will not sexually harass the cheerleaders,’ 300 times, or I will fail you.”

She’d identified my lack of character, my failure, and if I didn’t accept the punishment for that failure, she’d fail me again. Failure unrecognized leads to more failure. This is the lesson Mrs. Cokely hoped to teach me. The lesson stuck.

This is the truth about failure: it shows us the areas of our shortcomings, teaches where we’ve miscalculated or overstepped. It’s the recognition of that failure, whether in the miscalculation of algebraic equation or the acting out of macho sexism, that teaches us to refine our process, to correct our course. It’s the showing of our work, the outing of our own embarrassing histories of failure that gives us the credibility to share the wisdom of our personal growth in a more refrined way.

Words approximating wisdom but built on the flim-flam of feel good self-helpism are worthless. Wisdom gleaned from failure after failure after failure–there’s the gold. So, I’m making this request to the formula-peddling self-helpers (Christian and otherwise): Don’t just sell me your answers; show me your work.

***BECOME A PATRON***

Do you like the content here or in my Tiny Letter? Then I’d like to invite you to join my Patreon community. What is Patreon? It’s a way for you, the reader, to become a patron, a person supporting the arts (my art to be precise), and receive behind the scenes content in return. Visit my Patreon page for more information. And, if you enjoy this website and haven’t yet signed up for the bi-monthly Tiny Letter newsletter, feel free to sign up below.

powered by TinyLetter

 

Want to receive my updates in your inbox? Click here. Also, follow along on Twitter and Facebook.

The Truth About Failure

We live in an era of bite-sized wisdom, of perpetual self-help, of too many mini-gurus. Yesterday, I cruised Twitter for less than thirty seconds, and in that thirty seconds, I found all the answers to life’s pressing problems. Allow me to recap.

Mini-Guru No. 1 shared how I might maximize my profit by working less and living more.

Mini-Guru No. 2 offered a pinnable platitude (a cliche, really) about who-knows-what-? by stringing together an embarrassing number of pseudo-Christian words that were meant to inspire my faith.

Mini-Guru No. 3 instructed me on the “6 Ways to Avoid Delayed Adulthood,” an article that was strong on motivation and short on substance.

This is the way of so much of our media these days–strong on motivation and short on substance.

(Let’s drop the pretense. I’m just calling it like I see it. Straight, no chaser.)

It’s a motivator’s market these days, and the market is always open. People have questions. These gurus have answers (or so they claim). Answers are marketable things.  But is it really as simple as the internet motivators say? Can I maximize profit without work? Can faith be inspired without substance? And how can any ill be cured in Six Simple Steps (Patent Pending)? The question governing all of these questions was asked by my internet acquaintance Myles Werntz:

This brings me to the problem, a problem I’ll unpack a little more this week.

THE PROBLEM
Modern self-helpism is built upon this little self-aggrandizing untruth:
Failure can be avoided if you apply the right formula, my formula.

Hope as you might, following cliche after cliche will not help you avoid the pain of failure. Personal. Professional. Moral. Spiritual. Failure will happen. This isn’t a truth that sells well in the market, but that doesn’t make it less true. So, this week I hope to convince you to bypass so much of the guru-spun motivational gobbledygook of the day and to take an honest inventory of your failures.  I hope to convince you that this inventory of failures is where true growth starts. Personal. Professional. Moral. Spiritual.

Where should we start, though? How about here: today, scroll through Twitter, Facebook, your favorite lifestyle magazine, and identify the mini-gurus, the people who’d give you easy answers to very complicated issues. What substance are they offering? Any?

 

***BECOME A PATRON***

Do you like the content here or in my Tiny Letter? Then I’d like to invite you to join my Patreon community. What is Patreon? It’s a way for you, the reader, to become a patron, a person supporting the arts (my art to be precise), and receive behind the scenes content in return. Visit my Patreon page for more information. And, if you enjoy this website and haven’t yet signed up for the bi-monthly Tiny Letter newsletter, feel free to sign up below.

powered by TinyLetter

 

Want to receive my updates in your inbox? Click here. Also, follow along on Twitter and Facebook.