I heard that old line again, this time from a friend.
“It’s like they say: do something you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life.”
Hogwash, I say.
It’s been almost a year since I left the practice of law. For eleven months, I’ve been doing the thing I love most–writing, editing, mapping books for some fine folks–and I can say this with great clarity: every day of the work I love is a war of attrition.
The work of creation is unrelenting. It looks something like this:
Make the phone calls.
Write, write, write.
Break for lunch, maybe grab an apple and handful of carrots, something scarfable at the desk.
Make more pone calls.
Follow more leads.
Edit, edit, edit.
There is a Skype meeting, another spent hour.
Keeping up is a chore.
I love what I do, feel like the luckiest guy in the career counseling office, and still, I’m grinding gears and burning it at both ends.
I think of my friend Jason, one of the finest attorneys I know. (And as far as integrity goes, he’s a bit unicorn among lawyers.) Every day is a war of attrition for him, too. He makes phone calls, follows his own leads. He drafts and drafts and drafts. He strategizes for some of the state’s brightest minds and business leaders. He is accomplished. His job gives him the things he wants: security, relevance, and import. He does what he loves and is rewarded, but every day is a grind. It’s work.
I consider Rob, a by-God saint who works to break cycles of human trafficking. Could there be more fulfilling work? And yet, his list of work obligations reads like a laundry list of horrors. His work is his passion. In a sense, he loves what he does. There’s no denying it though–Rob works.
Last night, as I watched Jason Isbell tear the roof from Cain’s Ballroom, I considered his touring schedule. He puts in the long hours on the bus, crashes in hotel bed after hotel bed. There are soundcheck in towns where everyone knows his name but nobody knows his momma. There’s no doubt he’s doing what he loves, but isn’t he working harder than anyone I know? Isn’t he a glorified long-haul trucker with a guitar.
That job you wish you had, the grass-is-greener career, it’s not your ticket to a workless life. So before you make that jump, know this: there’s still heavy baggage, the grind, the frustrations of working that thing you love. Work is still work. And that brings us to the career truth of truths (take notes so you don’t forget): find something you love, yes, but if you do, know you’ll work every day for the rest of your life.
I took a month-long break to enjoy the end of summer, then came back yesterday with my first Tiny Letter installment in a month. Though I don’t generally repost the content in full here, today I am. We’re at a crossroads, a point of decision. This piece represents an invitation, especially to my white friends. Come along?
On the White Racists
It’s been a few days since the powder keg blew at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. The images made the internet rounds late Friday night, images of White Racists (some say “Nationalists,” but proper nouns have their purpose), unhooded but holding tiki torches. They gathered in Emancipation Park around a statue of Robert E. Lee, and they chanted slogans like, “Blood and soil!” and “One people, one nation, end immigration!”
They were ivory skinned. They were lamplit. They were up to no good. They were fueled by demonic lusts.
Saturday, the violence erupted, and by now, you’ve no doubt seen the footage. A Dodge Charger driven by a neo-Nazi mowed down counter protestors as if they were only blades of grass. A black man was beaten by another group of White Racists in a parking garage. You may have seen; you may have seen; you may have seen. The images were unrelenting.
All this violence came because some caucasians with a demonic ideology and a social media platform decided to reassert their power. Make no mistake, they wanted one thing: Make America White Again. They wanted to reassert their manifest destiny, to regain control of a country that was never theirs in the first place. These small men sought to justify, maybe even revere the land grab from the Native Americans, the years of slavery, of Jim Crow, of mass incarceration, of redlining.
The presidential response was anything but presidential. After a series of milk-toast tweets ignoring the racial component of Charlottesville and the passage of two days, President Trump spoke to the press and read a well-crafted statement in which he finally condemned racism. Then, yesterday afternoon, President Trump addressed reporters the way he so often does—with the grandstanding bluster of a bully. Answering the questions of the news media he’s deemed fake with gesticulating hands and a sour expression, he refused to speak clearly about race violence. He blamed the violence on both sides. He equivocated, said not all the people marching with the White Racists were bad people. And then, in the coup de gras of statements, he justified the protests, giving this slippery slope argument:
“[T]hose people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
It’s troubling, really, how he’s playing The Great Bait and Switch, muddling the questions with something less than junior-high logic. I suppose this is the art of the deal. But what’s more troubling is how many of my friends, both online and in my local context, say the same things.
“We shouldn’t erase history,” they say.
“Removing statues won’t change a thing,” they say.
“Where does it stop?” they say.
These are the wrong questions when it comes to rooting out the sin of racism. Particularly, with respect to the question of removing icons of racisms and slavery, “Where do we stop?” is a small-minded query. The right question is this: “Where do we start?”
Where Do We Start?
Today, I’d like to offer a few starting places for folks like me, by which I mean those of us who are white people of faith.
Start by opening your ears to the voices of your African American neighbors who’ve been warning us for years about the systemic racism in the world around us. They’ve told us to root it out, to eradicate it. They’ve warned us, said if we don’t, that racism will form and foment and become something more overt. To my brothers and sisters of color, let me be clear: You were right.
Start by confessing your own complicity. For example: it’s taken me too long to speak out against the monument to the Confederate soldiers in my own community, to call for its removal.
Start by opening your imagination to the meaning of the First Commandment, “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” For example: let’s be clear and say that we’ve worshipped too long at the altar of the god of racist supremacy and power for too long. And even if we haven’t worshipped at those altars, haven’t we turned a blind eye to that worship? Let’s tear down the icons, the statues. Let’s grind them to dust in our gristmills.
Start with true repentance. For example: let’s sit in the dust of those crumbled icons, those lamentable statues, maybe don a little sackcloth while we’re out it. Let’s mourn the ways the demonic religion of racism runs so thick in our family blood, the ways its DNA shows itself in the demonstrations in places like Charlottesville.
Start with peaceful but firm action. For example: let’s call the President to repentance. Let’s teach him how to say the easy thing: “tear down the high places, the altars where we’ve too long worshipped evil.” And if he won’t, let’s call him to accountability.
If you are practitioner of faith–particularly a person like me, white–it’s time to consider your response. You can sit quietly, yes. You can justify and equivocate if you’d like. You can unsubscribe from my newsletter, too; you can avoid confrontation. These will be the easy options. There is another option, though, one which incarnates the way of Jesus.
Be baptized with the tears of your repentance.
And rising from that baptism, act as God’s living sacrament, the embodiment of grace for the sake of your neighbor. Act as his agent.
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.
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.
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 Clean, it’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.
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.
(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?