It may not matter whether we call it a committee or a team, a treatise or a manifesto, an experiment or an iteration. These are all labels, and as labels we only exercise some of the control over what they mean to the people who interact with them. What matters far more is the part of ourselves we put into the thing behind the label. The care and attention we give we give whatever we’re working on outstrips the name we give it exponentially.
The truly troubling thing about an enabler is that, should they suddenly see the light and reverse course, committing themselves instead to curbing the behavior they’ve previously encouraged, it’s too late. It’s a hard pivot to make, enabler to enforcer.
Another way to put it: if you choose to befriend a bully, prepare yourself for the day she fixes you in her cross hairs. Think now what you’ll do on that day, and don’t count on any of the bully’s other victims, the ones you let get pummeled, to help you.
It’s important to say no to things. It’s probably equally important to allow things to say no to us. Inviting limitations on our freedom may be the freest thing we can do.
A marriage is an invitation for another person to limit your freedom. So is parenthhood. A job limits what you can say and do, where you can go and when. So does a mortgage, or even a pet. International agreements don’t work if the participating countries lack the political will to permit other countries to curb their behavior.
The pursuit of unrestrained freedom is a prison, and one that everybody else pays for.
You’re going to lose. It’s clear as day. It’s not fair, and the other side is trampling rules and precedents (not to mention their own stated beliefs), degrading the enterprise for everyone involved, and for years to come. But it’s working for them. Stomp and protest against it, but you’re still going to lose.
So much comes clear about us when we lose. Are we vengeful? Do we grunt out threats of comeuppance? Are we victims, who nurse bitterness and resentment that grow into aggressive cynicism? Are we quitters? Do we just tune it all out–the disappointment is too much to bear?
These aren’t the only options.
It helps to visualize the future in which we’ve already lost and to imagine the work we can do and the colleagues we can conscript under those conditions. More than the outcome, this vision of the future we didn’t want imagines the people we can become–the skills we can learn, the converts we can make, the networks we can build. This is a positive thinking that depends less on short term heroes and miracles and more on long term character and community building.
I came in after Laura, Meredith, and our niece were already seated, after I’d parked the car. A white-haired man in a chef’s coat was fidgeting over the reservations book at the entrance, and, without looking up, he addressed me, “Mr. Clayton?” Meredith had made the reservation; I didn’t correct him. “There are three beautiful ladies waiting for you.”
I don’t love that. My niece is in college and my daughter is in junior high.
Moments after I’ve joined them, the man asks if I would like a cocktail or a glass of wine. I pause to observe the tonic water, soda, and still water the others are drinking and then decline a drink. His shoulders stoop and he exhales an exasperated sigh. And right then I know who he is. He is Angry Chef.
Angry Chef is the persona of Francesco, the hot-tempered Venetian who ran the kitchen of the only restaurant I ever worked in, an aspiring fine dining outfit in Riverside, California that closed about a year after I quit. Angry Chef was serially disappointed in his diners’ failure to enjoy his cooking and his restaurant the way he thought they should, and he vented that frustration at the small wait staff. He might roll his eyes at you for entering an order that replaced the shrimp in a Spaghetti Pascatore with chicken, or breathlessly ask you to account for why, after years of training and experience, he should be expected to prepare for a lunchtime patron a plate of steamed broccoli covered in Bolognese sauce. His customers were beneath him, and he was miserable. He got fired two days before Christmas for screaming an expletive at another waiter and I in plain view of the dining room.
Angry Chef was a nightmare of a colleague. I felt sorry for him.
Restaurants operate on a cliff’s edge, and I suspect that one of the things that keeps chefs and owners going is true conviction about the power in their product and their craft. They want people to experience the transcendence of a decadent meal. They are driven by an artist’s zeal for perfection, a zeal that can’t account for a picky 10 year-old or gluten allergy or the dry party at table 43.
I give Angry Chef a wide berth. I can feel his disappointment with me, though I know it’s not really about me. It’s about the death-by-a-million-papercuts grating of commerce upon craft and the gulf that separates the business he’s trying to run under these conditions from the vision he started with. Someday I’ll return by myself, and then I will order a glass of Cote du Rhône to go with the Duck a l’Orange, then finish it all off with sorbet and espresso. And then I’ll pat Angry Chef on the back as I leave.
All motivated reasoning is not equal. This feels important to note, given the rise of the term to explain how we’re all just seeing what we want to see and easily integrating discomfiting news into our already comfortable paradigms. Make no mistake: reasoning that is motivated by fear of ideological or cultural opponents is bad, dangerous, and never healthy.
But that reasoning would be motivated is not disqualifying of itself. All reasoning is motivated by something, either the as-impartial-as-possible search for truth or partisan loyalty.
Not all motivated reasoning is bad, because some motivations are better than others.
“Factuality is authority.” Colin Gunton, A Brief Theology of Revelation
This sentence appears in the second of its’ author’s seven 1993 Warfield Lectures, and when I read it I immediately connected it to my growing unease with the fact-checking media complex in 2020.
We are living through the ascendancy of motivated reasoning, and though we’re all engaging that vice, some of us are swallowing worse fibs than others. And fact checking isn’t helping.
I’ll wager that part of fact checking’s fecklessness owes to the motivation of the reasoning. A cultivated regard for “the media” as an elite enemy among a massive segment of the population has established the flouting of fact claims by that institutions as an end in itself. And fact checking is a media function. There is a perceived superiority, even arrogance, in the claim to possess the definitive account of where a Presidential candidate was born or of a Senator’s voting record. Who told you it was your job to check facts on our behalf?
Perhaps the checking part of fact checking is the problem. The presumption it implies feeds motivated reasoning against it. And when I share a fact checking article with someone, I’m extending myself as an agent of that presumption in a way that is almost certainly bound to be rejected.
The medium is probably still the message, and I’m starting to think that the message carried by the medium of fact checking might be too condescending to be useful.
A presbytery meeting by Zoom with over 200 participants, many of whom may reasonably be assumed to be the opposite of “digital natives,” and thus to supply the younger and more technologically adept of us with a steady stream of un-muted gaffes and close up confused expressions ranging from the comic to the exasperating, was not how I preferred to spend my afternoon.
Sure enough, within seconds of logging on I encountered what was surely inevitable. “Someone just logged on with the name ‘Meredith’,” a voice announced with a moderatorial tone. “Can you please change your name on the screen so we can properly identify you?” This is one of the most confounding–though simplest–of Zoom exercises for the uninitiated–the proper display of one’s name, and it was among the likeliest candidates to cause disruption at this meeting.
A moment later the request was made again. Clearly “Meredith” wasn’t paying attention, or couldn’t handle the basic instruction. It occurred to me for a moment to interject a personal joke, to the effect that my wife’s name is Meredith and I would be happy to investigate whether she had found a sudden urge to join our presbytery. But no. The jokester makes Zoom worse. That conviction was tested momentarily by a second request for a name change, issued to whoever had now logged on as “Granny’s iPad.”
A third summons to “Meredith,” registered with heightened irritation, and by now I’m texting colleagues snide asides about the bleak interval these opening moments portends. It’s then that I receive a text from a compatriot who knows my wife: “I think you’re Meredith.”
Good one. Here I may harmlessly exercise my joke: “No, I’m Granny’s iPad.”
It’s only after my colleague replies that she’s not kidding that the merciless truth dawns on me. Because it was already out, and not stuffed inside a backpack like my work laptop, I’m using the family computer for this meeting. And who was the last person to log in to Zoom on this computer? Meredith.
I hastily un-mute and chuckle a cool apology to all the hopeless neophytes who, whatever their technological limitations, are not confused about their own names.
Yesterday the 12 year-old spent hours writing a novel, working through the process laid out in this book she picked up with her mom two weekends ago, sketching out a protagonist and her “misbelief,” as well as the defining moments of her story. This writing is not a school assignment, though she’s spoken with her teachers about it, and they will figure out a way to credit her work.
Hours, though. Unprompted and uninterrupted. Committed.
This is the positive side of school at home. It’s just one day, I know, and today may be very different. But we should celebrate the wins where they happen. This is a win.
Yesterday we conducted three youth groups over Zoom. It worked. Succinct debriefs with leaders affirmed the usefulness of short, repeated, one-on-one breakout conversations combined with about 10 minutes of 5-6 person breakouts and some time all together on the same screen. It worked. It can be done.
It feels like there is an opportunity here to reprioritize practice in what we’re doing. Planning for an hour on a screen can lull you into a fixation on content: what story are we hearing? What discussion are we having? But the formation of disciples (of any age) demands the practice of faith’s claims of new life in the midst of death and its promise of hope. Those are not ideas to teach but practices to try on.
That, too, can be done.