“To This Day… for the bullied and beautiful” flows out of Shane Koyczan; he speaks from experience for everyone who can’t.
In November 2012, Chimamanda Adichie reflected on Chinua Achebe’s literary legacy, his gifts to her as a new writer, and his contributions to Nigeria’s rendering of its complex and traumatic recent history. Our forerunners cast a long shadow and their stories have such power.
Achebe died today in Boston aged 82. Nigeria’s Senate has called Achebe “a fearless man who told the truth as he saw it” and his death “a great loss to Nigeria and Africa.”
“What happens when a generation comes along that doesn’t care about the game you’ve spent so much time buying equipment for, has little invested in the durable nature of the stuff you value? … You could spend your time trying to convince them that they have a responsibility to value the things you value… Convince them the stuff they value is pointless and shallow. That should work.” —Derek Penwell*
Heh. You could tell them they’ll value what you value when they get older, are truly converted, and/or mature. You could explain that their perspective has been skewed… because, y’know… Culture. Secular Education. Relativism. You could tell them that Jesus’s best intention when he wandered around with his disciples was to set up a 501(c)(3) 5-tiered corporation with leadership (s)election via closed-door committee. Yes, that was in the master plan; if only they’d had the system we have today.
Surely the kids will understand all of this when they grow up. Won’t they?
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” — Nelson Mandela
Earlier this month I was looking for updates on Baptist-affiliated Shorter University, which lost 43% of its faculty last year after requiring staff to sign so-called “faith” pledges. The university hired 51 new faculty members for the following school year and framed its statement and employee turnover as part of maintaining an “authentic Christian context.”
Similar reasoning came from the Ohioan administrators who terminated a teacher because he wouldn’t take down a social media post that varied from diocese teachings (I’ve written before about this case). At about the same time, I learned of a similar struggle at Ohio’s Cedarville University. The NYT reported on the forced resignation of Cedarville’s student affairs vice president; by the time of the article, the university president was also stepping down—all apparently because these administrators accommodated a visit from SoulForce’s bridge-building Equality Riders that the denomination disapproved of.
So Shorter’s last few years might be a fairly extreme illustration of a religious school “cleaning house” to maintain its purity, but it’s not exactly unusual.*
Reporting on Shorter’s situation last November, education magazine Inside Higher Ed identified the root issue as a series of questions: “Which tradition is more powerful: articles of faith or academic freedom? Who defines [denominational] values? And what does it really mean to be a Christian college?”
I don’t believe there is a necessary conflict between faith and freedom. I don’t think it impossible for these communities to infuse their relationships and policy making with more thought-for-others and more respect for both conscience and constraints freely chosen. I’d love to support communities in understanding that force sullies compliance, that securing mass compliance with weak policies and via compulsion is actually the worst possible outcome, not the best. It’s the worst outcome because it’s so beguiling: the masses have bowed down, and so our kingdom shall stand forever.
It can be hard for groups to assess their policies’ strength and value, I know. Beyond that there are the impacts of our policies on real people; using a mix of “objective” assessments and impact statements is one way to design the path ahead. I’m sympathetic to the fact that this work is complex, and sometimes thankless. I can understand why administrators might be tempted to sweep it aside.
Yet if faith is about deepening one’s alignment with reality and academic freedom is the ability to research, explore, describe, and comment on that reality without intimidation or retaliation, how can faith and freedom be opposed? What it is about this freedom that makes religious schools more likely to limit it through polarizing confessions like the one required at Shorter or the lifestyle conformity required at Adventist universities? Why do we so often default to using these strictures to shape institutional culture?
A community that didn’t regard its standards as inherently sound would be smart to use pressure and prohibitions to bolster those standards and keep community members in line. Secular states often do this. But relying on this kind of force in a religious context suggests that an option isn’t attractive or persuasive enough on its own terms to inspire free consent or voluntary compliance.
Does life not provide enough natural feedback to validate our preferred moral guidelines as the best rules for our groups and their members? Does God’s Spirit require institutional support to guide people into “all truth” and keep them hemmed in once they’re there? We seem to design our institutions as if we can’t trust people to be moral or morality to be reasonable. Why is that?
I was once taught that the end-game of this human experiment was that right-being and right-doing would be intuitive and internally driven. If that’s more than a pipe dream, shouldn’t religious institutions be the most skilled at honoring and nurturing free conscience and persuasion and teaching all of us to do the same? Shouldn’t they be leading freedom, not limiting it?
* At the end of 2012, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools reaffirmed Shorter University’s accreditation. US schools retain the legal room to define their religious and non-religious educational philosophies and craft policies to match them.
Each year I give myself a birthday present. In previous years, my self-gifts have included a bass guitar and amp, an adjustable set of dumbbells, and high quality bed and bathroom linens.
This year, after 8 years of grad school, 4+ years of major life changes, and nearly a year of preparation to move across country, I looked in the mirror and asked myself “What does this body most want?”
This Year’s Present: Physical Conditioning
Over the last two months, my local church has been hosting health screenings and info sessions: blood donations for the Red Cross, heart fitness, and blood pressure tests in the lobby. But it was a BP screening that got my attention with the highest diastolic reading I’ve ever had in my life. I was so shocked that we came home and I retested it. Our home reading was lower than the reading in the church lobby—but still, it was far too high for my comfort. I was unnerved.
Throughout my life, my BP has been obnoxiously low: my British doctor once took a reading and asked me if I were dead. I have always been active in some way, whether as intensely as sport 4-5 days a week (a decade ago) or as moderately as walking most days to and from campus with some light weights at home (last year).
As we age, however, our bodies change and so do our routines. I carry around about 25 more pounds than I did when I first moved to the United States. I no longer play team sports, but I’ve done light resistance training on and off over the last few years, with great results each time. But the bottom line this time: my BP was ridiculous (for me), I hadn’t trained consistently since moving, and what my body most wanted for its birthday was more muscle tone!
21 Days of Cardio
So I made a commitment to myself to do some cardio/aerobic exercise every single day for the following 21 days. I’d planned to increase my activity level this year and love exercise when I’m in the middle of it, but I’d struggled most with getting into it and staying consistent. The recommended standard of 3-4 days per week hadn’t worked for me: I spent too much energy trying to adapt to a shifting daily schedule. So rather than try to remember whether “today is cardio day,” I decided to make every day cardio day.
I kept the entry barriers low: no new clothes, no gym subscription, and only 20 minutes per session. My favorite person has a recumbent bike; I decided to use that. And there were no other rules, though informally I decided that once I started pedaling, I would not stop until my daily time was up. That was doable. So 20 minutes on the bike non-stop every day.
How did I do? See for yourself.
|Day 1||4.51||156||Rolling, Level 6|
|Day 2||5.03||143||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 3||5.00||122||Interval, Level 4|
|Day 4||5.18||130||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 5||5.23||132||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 6||5.02||122||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 7||4.85||115||Interval, Level 4|
|Day 8||5.08||125||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 9||5.20||131||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 10||5.20||131||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 11||5.08||126||Interval, Level 4|
|Day 12||5.32||137||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 13||5.23||132||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 14||5.20||131||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 15||5.10||127||Interval, Level 4|
|Day 16||5.19||130||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 17||5.28||135||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 18||5.22||132||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 19||5.09||126||Interval, Level 4|
|Day 20||5.28||135||Rolling, Level 4|
|Day 21||5.13||128||Rolling, Level 4|
You’ll notice I rode a rolling circuit at Level 6 on my first day (the bike apparently goes up to Level 16, which is insane). I finished my 20 minutes that day, but it was hell! For the rest of the experiment, I stayed at Level 4, and switched from rolling circuits to intervals every fourth day so I didn’t get too comfortable.
And my blood pressure? It dropped 20 points in the first 4 days and was at 113/63 by Day 18. I have more energy through the day, feel more toned, and my thighs are lovely… I’m cool with that. It was my last session today, but I think I’ll be seeing the bike again tomorrow morning for a new round of 21. Happy birthday to me!
How about you? Have you run any short-term experiments with your own lifestyle? Did you finish the testing period? And did you keep the change afterwards?
Edit: The original post’s total miles and calories calculation did not include Day 11. This post has been updated to reflect the correct totals.
A fun comic on science news and public science from Jorge Chan’s PHD:
The “cycle” shows how science is converted from empirical research into institutional PR and from there, to wire service content, blog conspiracies, lurid cable news and local news, until its last stage as family folklore. Of course, this isn’t a complete cycle unless those same scientists are inspired to launch new research based on what relatives tell them!
But Chan’s comment is a great expansion of Bruno Latour’s inscription concept. In Laboratory Life, an early entry in the sociology of science, Latour and Woolgar described how scientists converted observed data into scientific fact through the acts of recording, writing, and presenting their experiments. Researchers use their in-lab inscriptions to prepare peer-accessible scientific papers; the public presentation and validation of science is, of course, the last stage in the scientific method that makes it “science” and not mere experimental play.
Chan’s comic goes beyond the peer-review stage to show how scientific findings are disseminated outside research institutions. It also highlights how several phases of public engagement change the quality of information available, and how much influence science writers have on non-technical readers through academic PR-marketing communications, science blogs and magazines, and cable and local news media that distribute science much more informally.
Science writing has explicit cultural power that not all genres of writing do. From public health scares to grocery food choices, non-technical descriptions of science have incredible influence on public life: what non-technical citizens eat, how advertisers promote food and lifestyle options, which medical and non-pharmaceuitcal interventions doctors promote, what kinds of laws and regulations legislators advance, and how other public health awareness initiatives evolve.
Content note: Suicide
Three years ago, a friend whose brother had recently attempted suicide shared this thought:
We can heal [our relatives and friends] by healing our relationship to suicide and other sensitive topics. Our dialog within and among ourselves is transforming the world around us, one heartbeat at a time with courage to face topics like this, openness to those in need, addressing areas in our lives before we are in crisis…
What does your self care look like? What emergency plans do you have in place? Who can you call upon in desperate times? What resources can you draw upon? What actions walk you away from the cliff edge?
I still resonate with these thoughts and questions about self-care during and after desperation, and “addressing areas in our lives before we are in crisis.” That “before” is like the prevention and mitigation part of an emergency plan. So many of us go through and struggle to survive emergencies before we start building our ability to absorb shocks and adapt in a healthy way.
I grew up with two young men, one at church and one from school, who committed suicide before they were 21 years old. Over the last few years, the US news media has cycled through stories about children and teens who become so desperate that they feel the only way to redeem their life is to end it. Certain demographics are particularly vulnerable to suicide, and I’ve heard many more stories of attempts and deaths since getting involved with social justice communities.
But you don’t have to be a deep backstory for severe depression to enter your life. Anyone who comes to feel deeply isolated, oppressed, abandoned, and option-less might seek relief or release. Beyond life circumstances, drug use and a range of psychoses can also artificially narrow people’s awareness of what’s possible, how likely it is that they or their circumstances will improve, or the networks of support that could walk with them.
I’m glad that my friend’s family chose to ask questions about suicide, self-care, and how they could support their brother and son; they could have hidden in embarrassment or withdrawn in fear, but chose instead to stay open to him and to supporting him. Any family that’s able to do this is remarkable and a solid treasure in the lives of their relatives.
There are three pragmatic activities that have helped me and others pass through the kinds of experiences that can precipitate youth and young adults’ suicide attempts. They aren’t the extent of self-care and don’t resolve deep traumas, but they have helped us.
Observe the ESS Rule: Eat, Sleep, and Shower
For most of my time in the United States, self-care hasn’t been optional. In my first town, I lived far from blood relatives and also lived alone, so if I didn’t cook or buy food, there’d be no dinner. I took care of my basic physical needs because if I didn’t, there was no one else in the house to do it for me and if I’d crashed there would’ve been no safety net.
About three years ago, I realized that my taking care of stuff like tasty food, proper sleep, and the odd extra like nice-smelling shower salts had more benefits than keeping me in a steady routine or making my interactions with others more comfortable for everyone. The Eat-Sleep-Shower process also helped me to feel more present and “in my body” rather than distancing or in observer mode. Because these practices helped to keep me present, I was more tied to Earth and my life here and I didn’t feel like I needed to avoid or escape the life I had.
Although I’ve never felt suicidal, I have noticed that when basics like adequate sleep get rushed off my daily, it becomes progressively easier for me to float through life or dissociate from my relationships. Friends who have experienced severe depression tell me that Eat-Sleep-Shower practices help to ground them too, even though they also require effort upfront.
Beyond the Basics, Nourish Yourself
So let’s say you’re just starting to feel squeezed. Or perhaps squeezing is well underway and you’re in its tight grip. What if you could pick one thing per week beyond the basics that nourished you? Just one thing?
I’m feeling extra nourished today because I was able to eat lunch at home with my favorite person. Our meal included a spinach-baby kale salad with bell peppers and cucumbers; giant olives; fresh French bread smeared with artichoke bruschetta and soft garlic cheese; and a slice of lemon pound cake from a coffee shop that doesn’t pay me to advertise it here.
Sometimes a tasty meal is all it takes; sometimes your company is the special factor. Nourishment might be a visit to a favorite site outdoors. Could be a sensory or physical activity like coloring a drawing or pruning plants. Maybe a ritual practice such as meditation or prayer. Perhaps some exercise, a walk, or a bike ride. Anything that fits for you, and that reliably centers you and reconnects you with yourself.
Doing just one of these things per week creates a hinge that steadies me as I move to and fro, something recurring that I can count on whatever my stress or sadness level might be. If I’ve been out of balance for a while, I make nourishment once-per-week my minimum standard and work up to nourishing myself at least one each day. For example, for years during grad school, I made a scented foot bath every Friday evening. This ritual fit for me because I’m sabbatarian and the weekly Sabbath disrupted my usual schedule anyway. When I missed my foot bath because I was traveling or over-committed and I didn’t add other nourishing practices back into my week, I felt less steady and this always influenced how adaptive I was when change or challenges came to me.
Review Your Connection Network
The quality of my connections also influenced how well I adapted. Some years ago, I moved away for an internship. I had a great time away, but when I returned home, my local connection network had changed and so had I. I felt so different and so disconnected from my wider circle, and I suffered for it. I hadn’t realized how much my experiences had changed me or how much of a process re-entry would be, and I didn’t have coping strategies ready to go.
After flailing for a little while, I decided to work on rebuilding my face-to-face network. Reaching out to new people did take a lot of effort on my part and I know that I was fortunate enough to have that effort to spare. As much as I loved quiet time at home, I also needed people to connect with, to call or Skype with; to come and sit with me; to not only ask how I was doing but also care enough about my responses to support me in analysis and creative solutions; to call me out to eat, join them at the latest Marvel movie, or in a walk at the park. Human connection may be the hardest life-brick for people in transition or crisis to lay down, but it’s also what allows for our greatest healing.
When I needed support, I researched new groups and reached out to folks who could be available and open to me. (By contrast, I’d reached out to some people in my internship town as well, and didn’t hear back from several of them. Social relationships in this culture can be so tenuous that merely being responsive to a call, comment, or note is one way to have an out-sized positive impact on the people around you. This is especially true for organizations whose mission is to provide helping services or social support!)
As the individual in need and reaching out to others, I had to trust, if only for an hour at a time, that the new people I was opening up to could and would show up with and for me. They did. Our assumptions about relationships matter a great deal, and how much we feel free to trust is dependent on the energy we have. Whatever your energy baseline might be because of depression or illness or personality, steady self-care is a way to ensure that you can live at least at or above that baseline. It’s tough to make the leap out into a new circle if you’re worn out just by standing up.
Map Out a Path Away from the Cliff
When you do have that energy to spare, use it to plan for those times when you won’t. What do you need to build your reserves, to nourish yourself, to strengthen your network? Thanks to my valley period, I have people to call, some face-to-face and others scattered across the country and world. I know the activities that nourish me and I have strong reasons for keeping them on rotation in my daily life. I also now know enough to locate other resources, like free local support groups and national call-lines that I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise.*
I could have told you lots of stories in this post. I could have talked about the topic from a spiritual or metaphysical perspective or explored the business-professional-productivity angles. I didn’t talk about health insurance or psychology or ready access to mental health services. I didn’t discuss depression or preconditions and family customs that complicate how different people respond to their valley periods.
But when I was in extremity, none of those things were on my radar. Neither metaphysical models nor spiritual advice of the Just Keep Trucking variety helped me move ahead, and very little trumped survival. Attending to the practical and the personal helped me and many others most. It helped that I was affiliated with a university campus at the time, but none of what kept me standing involved insurance or money. People walked with me through my valley and that is how I made it. Three years later, my friend’s brother is also doing well, and his family remains with him.
What about you? What has self-care looked like in your life? What resources can you draw on when you need support? Do you have an emergency plan?
* The American national suicide prevention phone number is 1-800-273-8255. Every US state has its own line as well. There are international lines in many countries, some of which are tailored to specific groups like abuse survivors, teenagers, and sexual minorities.
“The Way of Openness” is a short documentary on a conversation series featuring a range of Los Angeles ministers including Hollywood Adventist pastor Ryan J. Bell. The conversations allowed these ministers to reflect on and share stories with each other in the aftermath of California’s Proposition 8 initiative. Prop 8 is under review at the Supreme Court this month via the case Hollingsworth v. Perry.
While we often hear institutional statements from churches and denominations about sexuality, we haven’t heard much from the point of view of ministers who had and still have active congregations in LA. I appreciated hearing from people across the spectrum on how damaging the acrimonious environment was, pre- and post-vote, and what the city’s way forward might be.
Dr. Neil Thomas, Founders Metropolitan Community Church, Los Angeles: Most of us go into a conversation wanting to win. And when you come to the dawning that you don’t need to win, that there’s nothing to win… When you and I rub shoulders with each other, we realize that we have so much more in common that we could actually work together on that would change the face of this world.
Fr. Alexei Smith, Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese: And the opportunity for us is to realize that, and work to set aside certain dogmatic differences… and to work together for the common good. Think of what a marvelous effect it would have on the city of Los Angeles alone.
The dialogue and documentary were both sponsored by Los Angeles’ Human Relations Commission and the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.
“You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that [writing] is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” ―James Baldwin
Sometimes James Baldwin just preaches from the dead. Here’s another passage, from Another Country:
People don’t have any mercy. They tear you limb from limb, in the name of love. Then, when you’re dead, when they’ve killed you by what they made you go through, they say you didn’t have any character. They weep big, bitter tears – not for you. For themselves, because they’ve lost their toy.
He saw people, he saw society, and he wrote down what he saw. Powerful.
At TEDxZurich last year, physicist and investment manager James B Glattfelder broke down the links between complexity science and global economics ownership networks. Outlining his research on the interconnections among international financial institutions, he explained that complex systems follow two basic principles:
- Complexity is the result of simple rules of interaction, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
- Every complex system is understood as a network of interactions among nodes and links with a center of dominant nodes and a periphery of less influential notes.
I mentioned some complexity rules in a post on writing a few months ago. This is information that scientists and designers are relying on more and more. The more we know about complex systems and self-organization, the smarter our decisions about and in them can be.
Ideas relating to finance, economics, politics, society, are very often tainted by people’s personal ideologies. I really hope that this complexity perspective allows for some common ground to be found. It would be really great if it has the power to help end the gridlock created by conflicting ideas, which appears to be paralyzing our globalized world. Reality is so complex, we need to move away from dogma. —James B. Glattfelder