Tag Archive for: human

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.

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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?

 

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June 14: The Day the Politicians Were Shot

The alt-right or vitriolic left.
The anger filling the spaces between.
“I’d like to punch him in the face,”
might be the most extreme iteration.
“You should be ashamed,”
might be the most docile.
Every thread of outrage pulled
with itching fingers leaves us
naked as cavemen and just as refined.
Look around.
Is anything any wonder?

“Once you see [anger and contempt] for what they are, the constant stream of human disasters that history and life bring before us can also be seen for what they are: the natural outcome of human choice, of people choosing to be angry and contemptuous. … We have to remember this when we read what Jesus and other biblical writers say about anger. To cut the root of anger is to wither the tree of human evil.” ~Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our  Hidden Life in God

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Sacraments Within Sacraments Within Sacraments

On occasion, the boys and I head out into God’s first sacrament, the place he first made his grace known to men and women–nature. Our favorite among The First Sacramental places is Steel Creek, a short stretch of the Buffalo River with the best little swimming hole in all of America. (This is not hyperbolic.) After a day in the water, we walked upstream and were treated to witness a sacrament within The First Sacrament. We happened upon them just as the preacher invoked the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just as he named them husband and wife under the banner of the Trinity. And if this sacrament within The First Sacrament were not enough, after the first kiss, the bride and groom made their way into the river. No, it wasn’t a formal baptism, but it turned into a baptism nonetheless.

 

The world is a sacramental place, a place where God’s grace is made known to us through the elements, through vows, through the things that otherwise seem ordinary. Sacraments unfold within sacraments within sacraments, and in that unfolding, somehow, the world is preserved.

Thanks be to God.

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Killing John’s Ego (A Vocational Question)

Today, I’m continuing my series on vocation. For the previous posts, follow this link.

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This week, I’ve been wrestling with vocational irrelevance, with the freedom it could bring if it didn’t hurt my ego so much. As I’ve spilled no small amount of ink on the topic, I’ve been considering whether there might be some secret in the scriptures, some word on vocational irrelevance and the death of ego.  A person of the scriptures as I am (or would like to be), it seems appropriate to mine whatever insight I might from those pages. There’s gold in them-there hills, I’ve been told.

In the quieter spaces of the week, I took inventory of the people of the text, ordinary folks who laid aside their ego for a “cause greater than oneself” or to “surrender to a person other than oneself….” (A phrase we learned from Victor Frankl in yesterday’s piece.) I considered the vocation of mother Mary, how she laid aside her public reputation and endured a certain scandal in order to become a homemaker for the son of God. I considered Matthew the tax collector, who left behind the security and relevance of his businessman status to follow Jesus, who recorded Jesus’s warnings on practicing good works for the purpose of being seen, or relevant. I considered these examples and others, and then I considered the very cousin of Jesus, John the Baptizer.

Could you call John’s desert preaching a vocation? I’m not sure, and perhaps desert preaching isn’t a vocation or career as we’d recognize it today (ahem), but it was the thing he did, the thing for which he was known. And in his years of desert preaching, he was quite popular, a known quotient, a relevant fella. In that desert, he told the crowds–rich and poor alike–he pointing to the one who was to come. He was preparing the platform for another. But were those just super-holy-sounding platitudes? Were they nothing more than marketable words?

John 3 records the execution of the baptizer’s ego. There, in the desert where John practiced his vocation, his followers came to him, told him Jesus had set up shop upstream and was also baptizing the people. “Look,” they said, “everyone is going to that other prophet, to the competition.” In his slippery slide from Man-Of-The-Hour to complete irrelevance, John responded:

“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I have said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ … Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

~John 3:27-30 (ESV)

With that, the ministry of John ended, and it ended in complete joy. In a matter of months, John lost his head and made his way to the eternal shore.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to draw any conclusions from John the Baptist’s story. After all, how many of us are called to wear animal skin, eat honey-covered insects, and proclaim a prophetic word in the desert? (Though I concede there may be a few, they are likely not reading this piece.) But consider those things that might ring familiar. Consider his disciples, how they wanted their teacher to be The Big Deal In The Desert. Consider John’s response, how he told them that relevance was not the ends of his ministry; his vocational aspiration was to serve the person greater than himself, and in the end, he put his neck on the line to prove how serious he was.

So, as I end this series on vocation and our need for relevance, validation, and visibility (at least for now), know this: it’s okay to languish in irrelevance so long as you’re doing your best to serve the greater cause or surrender to the person greater than yourself. It’s okay to become less, to put the ego to death, so long as you’re elevating the divine. It’s okay to strive less, be seen less, be less known. Less relevant doesn’t make you less successful; in fact, from the eternal perspective, it might be the badge of your salvation.

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As I work through this short series on vocation, please feel free to invite others along.  I know I’m not alone in my questions on this topic, and I’d love to hear how you and your people are processing your own vocational questions.

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