It Is Well

If there’s a running theme in many of my favorite songs, it’s that the lyrics mean something. They’re elegant, yes, but also significant. There is a special class of songs where the emotional weight to those songs shifted significantly after I learned the backstory or the context in which the songs were written. For example, Cloud Cult’s “Pretty Voice” takes on a new poignancy when you learn that it’s a song about the death of singer Craig Minowa’s two-year old son. The line, “This is the lifelong song we’re all singing: It’s been so long since I’ve heard that pretty voice” now brings tears to my eyes every single time. Learning that “The Mistress Witch from McClure” is about how Sufjan Stevens catching his father in adultery brings to the forefront a melancholy that was slumbering in the background. “It is Well with My Soul” also belongs in this category.

“It is Well with My Soul” was written by a 19th Century American attorney named Horatio Spafford. In 1873, following the death of his only son and his financial ruin due to the Great Chicago Fire, Spafford sent his wife and four daughters to Europe. Horatio stayed behind to tend to some lingering business matters. As it was crossing the Atlantic, their boat, the Ville du Havre, collided with a Scottish clipper called the Loch Earn. The Ville de Havre sank. All four of Spafford’s daughters died. (His wife survived and sent him a telegram reading “Saved alone.”) When Spafford sailed to meet his grieving wife, he passed near to the spot where the Ville de Havre sank and was moved to write the lyrics to the now-famous hymn.

Knowing the tragic background, I can’t help but read those lyrics with a renewed intensity and heartrending awe. It is not easy to be joyful in the midst of death or suffering, and the notion that, whatever our circumstances, we should be content in God is both difficult and beautiful. Knowing the writer himself suffered so acutely makes that notion a little easier to swallow.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet,
though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!

And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.



Rethinking Homes

Starting back in high school, I dabbled in designing homes. I would craft layouts and make rough sketches of how such a house would fit into existing and unusual landscapes. I completely ignored important details like plumbing, storage closets, or common sense. All of these homes were designed to include the luxuries I thought I would want as an adult: a full-sized gym, a recording studio, or an elaborate library spanning three stories that would make the Beast bristle at its ostentatiousness. My first completed schematic offered more than 16,000 square feet of living space but only three bathrooms.

As I grew older – and especially after going to college – my design assumptions changed. Floor space seemed less and less important, and so did amenities. I stopped thinking about a house as a place to exist in comfort and luxury. Rather, the purpose of such a building ought to be about nurturing family and building community.

For the bulk of human existence, we have lived in close-knit tribal communities. There were always friends or family nearby. Personal needs were tied to group needs. But now, Modern Western culture has replaced a tribal-centered existence with an independent one. As with everything, unintended consequences followed. There has been an unprecedented level of disconnect among people. In Gregg Easterbrook’s book “The Progress Paradox,” he wonders why all elements of life seem to be getting better, but people are less happy overall. Louis CK has a famous comedic bit aptly called, “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” Are we less and less happy as we grow more independent? Could those things be related?

I think they are. There is an abundance of evidence that shows that we are happiest when our lives are deeply interconnected with the lives of others. The economist John Helliwell put it like this. “Humans are more than simply social beings, they are so-called ‘pro-social’ beings. In other words, they get happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others.” Gregg Easterbrook agrees. “The human yearning for love and intimacy,” he says, “is part of our evolution – even that, chemically, the brain evolved a need for closeness as part of the stimuli that make it function correctly.” Pursuing independence flies in the face of what our psyches have been hardwired to need. We are in a state where we exist on the psycho-social equivalent of eating food only twice a week.

The single-family home, then, is not an optimal model. A community-based arrangement would be much better suited to maximizing our happiness and well-being. This is the direction I started to take my architectural doodles. I no longer have any drawings of the concept, but imagine something like an apartment/single-family house hybrid. There would be discreet, private living spaces for family units – bedrooms, bathrooms, storage, and additional space to utilize as they see fit. The rest, though, would be community space. A dining room to comfortably seat every member.  Such a living situation would save money and decrease stress. Think about meals: it’s far cheaper – in terms of price per meal – to cook in bulk. Families with small children would have far greater flexibility. You know that old proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”? Wouldn’t it be nice if we had more “villages”?

One could formulate many objections to such an idea. For some, it might seem weird or uncomfortable. Communal living has a counter-cultural connotation. But atypical hardly means wrong, bad, or unhealthy. As we experiment more and more with hypermodernity, we find ourselves reaching back again and again to our historical roots in an attempt to better our lives. (You need think no further than the Paleo diet.) We have left behind customs and structures for reasons we no longer understand. Community is the basic building block of civilization. This is vintage community with a modern twist.


Building Christ-Centered Friendships

“To do even the most humbling tasks to the glory of God takes the Almighty God Incarnate working in us.”
– Oswald Chambers

In Christian culture, we put a lot of weight on making our dating relationships “Christ-centered” or “God glorifying” or “holy.” This is good so far as it goes, and I am well aware that modern dating presents some serious danger zones for couples who want to build intimacy while preserving their sexual purity. That being said, most of the advice you’ll find online is restrictive rather than prescriptive: these articles are largely lists telling teens and young adults to avoid physical touch, or to spend less time alone and more time in groups. (I did find one article that suggested watching chick flicks together as a good way to make your relationship Christ-centered. For some reason.)

I also don’t think it goes far enough. Putting Christ front and center in our relationships is not only about maintaining purity. That just puts the cart before the horse. Charles Spurgeon said that love for God is obedience and holiness. But holiness and obedience are not by themselves love for God. (If that’s unclear, think of it this way: maintaining a healthy diet probably means not eating KFC Double Downs, but not eating Double Downs by itself does not necessarily make for a healthy diet.) That is to say, if we fail to make Jesus the focal point of our relationships, then we have fallen short of what our relationships are meant to be even if we maintain sexual purity within them.

Google Snip

It discourages me to see that when we refer to Christ-centered relationships we almost always mean romantic relationships. If we were to make a practice of putting Christ at the center of all of our relationships, then it wouldn’t be so challenging to do so in our romantic relationships. Jesus said in Luke 16, “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.” The food writer Michael Ruhlman has a great anecdote about visiting Chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant Per Se. “Just the other day, Thomas was so proud to show me how they use painter’s tape in the kitchen,” he said. Rather than tearing tape off of the roll in order to label the plastic food containers, every piece of tape is cut with scissors so that every edge is perfectly straight. “Because it’s all one thing to Thomas. You can’t be lax in one area and perfect in another.” Likewise, if you think you are putting Christ front and center in your dating relationships but aren’t doing the same thing in your other relationships, you are kidding yourself. It’s all or nothing.

But what does a Christ-centered friendship look like? If it’s not about obedience to a set of rules, then what is it? I cannot write a comprehensive description, but I think I can offer some guidelines that will help us on our way.

1) In Christ-centered friendships, we constantly and intentionally point the other person to Christ. We can do this explicitly by imitating Christ, and thus being as Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1 (“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”) We can lead each other to praise God in our good times and to lean on God in times of trouble and to remember God when things are typical. In the mewithoutYou song “Messes of Men,” Aaron Weiss sings to God, “If ever You come near, I’ll hold up high a mirror. Lord I could never show you anything as beautiful as You.” In the same way, we cannot show each other any greater beauty or kindness than to point to Jesus.

2) In Christ-centered friendships, we must consistently serve one another. In John 13:34, Jesus tells His disciples, “In the same way I have loved you, you are to continue loving one another.” Whether it’s in encouragement when the other is down, in calling them out when they are slipping up, or sharing a burden in a time of need, there are constant opportunities to express, to share, and to embody love in each other’s lives. Even if we feel helpless or overwhelmed, God is not limited by our constraints. I love the way Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) put it: “When God makes His presence felt through us, we are like the burning bush: Moses never took any heed what sort of bush it was—he only saw the brightness of the Lord.”

3) In Christ-centered friendships, we have to prioritize the other person’s spiritual growth. This is related to the first entry, but different enough to warrant its own. We need to encourage each other to be actively growing in knowledge of God, engaging in acts of worship, and expressing the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). In “Mere Christianity,” CS Lewis wonders, “if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?” We have to be constantly reminded of what we believe. We practice our faith like an athlete exercises. If it’s only sporadic it will soon become sluggish. A short time after that, worthless. Teammates hold each other accountable in this way; Christ-centered friends hold each other accountable in this way.

John Piper said, “If all the universe and everything in it exist by the design of an infinite, personal God, to make his manifold glory known and loved, then to treat any subject without reference to God’s glory is insurrection.” Piper was referring to academic scholarship, but his point extends beyond academia. If we are serious about the supremacy of God, then we must also seek to glorify God through building Christ-centered friendships.

How to Plan a Date

When men plan dates, they often make a few basic mistakes. They plan dates that are traditional dating activities – dinner and a movie, for instance – but are not conducive to conversation or building rapport. Many men seem to believe that if they simply show up and pay for everything they are doing everything right. They overreach, they overspend, and they overcommit. I knew a guy in college, for example, that invited a girl on a date that included: (1) coffee, (2) ice skating, (3) dinner, (4) a Timberwolves game, followed by (5) dessert. That’s an eight-hour commitment for a first date. That sounds exhausting.

(What might be worse, though, is the sort of guy who doesn’t really plan anything at all. Why ask someone on a date if you can’t be bothered to plan one?)

Back when my buddy Wilmo was dating his future wife Jessica, he and I had a conversation about this. We realized that the men who like to plan and be in control need to resist that urge. We realized that one of the most important components of date planning is eliminating the obstacles that help people connect with one another. A drawn out, epic — albeit thoughtful — date might be adding obstacles of pressure, stress, and apprehension. Rather than trying to plan comprehensively, they should plan for modularity. This is when we stumbled upon a concept that’s both so basic and so useful that I incorporate it into almost every social outing that I plan, romantic or not. We called it a circuit.

Here’s how a circuit works. Unlike the above example, where you explain the entirety of the date in advance, you simply pitch a “focal activity.” A focal activity is the primary selling point of the night. If you want to go to a concert, that’s your focal activity. If you want to go ice skating, that’s your focal activity. It can even be something as simple as getting ice cream. From there, identify at least two supplemental activities that are 1) organically related to the focal activity in some way and 2) within walking distance. For example, let’s say you invite your date to go ice skating. Plan to extend the date to the nearest coffee shop, but don’t announce that intention. If you finish an hour or so of skating and want to continue the date, suggest you warm up with some coffee or hot chocolate. After that, it would make sense to go somewhere casual and get a bite to eat. (It’s best to be, well, smooth about that. It’s a suggestion, not a rigid proclamation of “Now let us do the next thing I want to do.”)


There are many advantages to this approach. If you are not having a good time – or there’s no real rapport or connection – you can finish up with the focal activity and end the date with full diplomacy. If you’ve already planned an additional activity, it’s awkward and impolite to cancel those plans when you are already out on the date. Secondly, a circuit gives the date an element of spontaneity and projects both adaptability and resourcefulness. On top of all of that, it allows you to spend as much (or as little) time together as you both feel like spending. I had one such date last thirteen hours: it started with coffee, moved to a playground, extended to guitar shopping at Willie’s, transitioned to Pad Thai (we ordered the pad thai), and included at least three more activities after that.

The circuit concept is adaptable to virtually any type of date you might plan. It helps eliminate some common dating pitfalls is both naturally spontaneous and allows you to hedge your bets. Think of it like adding salt to a stew: you can always add more, but you cannot take out what you’ve already put in. Or think of it through this lens. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” A date like the one my college friend planned eliminates options, whereas circuits enable them.

Heuristics and Bad Decisions

A perverse and often baffling fact about crime is that people are known to voluntarily confess to crimes they did not commit. I am not referring to coerced confessions – those times when a suspect is subjected to beatings or tricky interrogation techniques and admit guilt under duress. I have in mind the times when a person steps forward on his or her own volition to take the credit for a crime they had no part of. When Elizabeth Short was murdered in 1947, in what became infamously known as The Black Dahlia case, more than sixty people offered confessions. No fewer than 59 of those confessions were false. Likewise, a man named John Mark Karr was being held on child pornography charges when he claimed he murdered JonBenet Ramsey. His confession was rejected after it was found that his DNA did not match what was found on the scene and it was established that he was in another state at the time of JonBenet’s death.

It is a natural corollary that the higher profile the crime the more likely it is a false confession will be offered. In an effort to quickly weed out the false confessions and save themselves unnecessary legwork, the police will sometimes provide the press with false information. For example, if a sixty-year old stock broker is found dead in his den, strangled with a red scarf, the police might tell the press he was found in his kitchen, bludgeoned by a cast-iron skillet. Any person that comes into the police station and tells of how they killed this man with a cast-iron skillet is referred to a psychiatrist and promptly shown the door.

(It is at least theoretically possible that a guilty person could identify the false details of a case and then confess using those false details in order to lure the police into eliminating him as a suspect. When I first learned about this, I thought it would make a clever twist ending in a “Whodunnit?” murder mystery if it turned out the murderer was somebody who had come forward at the start of the film but gave a false false confession. To the best of my knowledge no one has ever tried that gambit in real life.)

Whether they realize it or not, the police are relying on a psychological shortcut known as a heuristic. Daniel Kahneman defines a heuristic as “a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect answers to difficult questions.” Put another way, a heuristic is a rule-of-thumb strategy that enables us to make quick decisions or judgments by substituting a complex question with a simpler one. For example, when someone asks you, “How happy are you with your life these days?” you might substitute that question with, “What is my mood right now?” In the case of the false confession example above, the police are substituting the imprecise question, “Could this person be guilty?” with “Does this person know unpublished details about this crime?”

It may seem bizarre and unsettling, but we rely on heuristics in our day-to-day decision making as well as in how we formulate our attitudes. We rely on heuristics when we date, substituting questions like, “Are we compatible? Does he have good character?” with the question, “Am I attracted to him?” Similarly, when determining what our views ought to be about things such as gun control, we replace questions like, “What is the overall, long-term trend in gun crime?” with “When was the last time I heard about a school shooting?” We make hiring decisions by swapping out the question, “Will this person perform well in this career field, and is she qualified to work her?” with the question, “Did she shake my hand firmly when we met?

We rely on heuristics because our rational mind is lazy. Like detectives, we only have so much time, energy, and resources and we can’t chase down every possible lead. Answering a simple question reduces cognitive demand, but it bulldozes over many important factors and virtually all nuance. Asking, “Am I attracted to him?” ignores the fact that attractive men have less happy marriages and are more likely to cheat on their spouses. Likewise, if you are quick to recall a recent school shooting, you will likely overestimate the number of overall gun deaths and be less receptive of the research that shows gun crime has been dropping precipitously. On the other hand, if you cannot quickly recall a major gun crime, you run the risk of underestimating how severe the problem remains.

Heuristics are useful tools but they are prone to errors and they promote biases. It’s not a process we can actively turn off, but we can acknowledge that we are using them and that they influence our judgment. Kahneman suggests we constantly remind ourselves of this fact. Interviewers could remind themselves, he says, that “the question we face is whether this candidate can succeed. The question we seem to answer is whether she interviews well. Let’s not substitute.” We might findd ourselves ruling out a job applicant, a prospective spouse, or even a potential murderer based on these impressions. It would be healthy to stay openminded about some of these possibilities even after we’ve overlooked them. Kahneman reminds us, “you often have answers to questions that you do not completely understand, relying on evidence that you can neither explain nor defend.” Perhaps it would be helpful to our decision making to replace the word “no,” with “pending further investigation.”



The Language of Rape Culture

In “The Evolution of God,” author Robert Wright notes that ancient, primitive peoples had no word for religion or the religious experience. “If you asked hunter-gatherers what their religion is, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. The kinds of beliefs and rituals we label ‘religious’ are so tightly interwoven into their everyday thought and action that they don’t have a word for them.” That is, it’s not as though “religious” thought and action were not part of their day-to-day existence; rather, their religious practices were inseparable from that existence. Wright goes on to note that Ancient Hebrew, the language of the vast majority of the Old Testament, likewise had no word for religion. Asking a pre-exile Semite if he was religious would be something like asking a 19th Century farmer if his produce was organic.

It’s easy to take a glance at history and snicker at their simplemindedness. But the fact is, we have similar forms of blindness all around us. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt spent a considerable amount of time studying the question, “What makes people vote Republican?” Haidt rejected Freudian-era thinking about conservatism stemming from strict parenting and personal insecurities. “Now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives,” Haidt said, “we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death.”

Michael Shermer, the famous skeptic, cries foul. Behind Haidt’s question, Shermer notes, is the assumption that “because Democrats are so indisputably right and Republicans so unquestionably wrong, conservatism must be a mental disease.” This kind of an assumption is a poor place to begin a scientific inquiry. Shermer continues, “The liberal bias in academia is so entrenched that it becomes the political water through which the liberal fish swim – they don’t even notice it.” (It should be noted that Shermer is a self-described libertarian who voted third-party in the 2000 election and for John Kerry in 2004.) When a certain point of view is so “tightly interwoven” into your “everyday thought and action,” it’s not surprising that the assumptions of that point of view go completely unchallenged.

Shermer points to a study done by NYU psychologist John Jost that alleged that conservatives suffer from “uncertainty avoidance,” “need for order, structure, closure,” and “dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity,” all of which leads to “resistance to change” and “endorsement of inequality.” Says Shermer, “It is not the data of these scientists I am challenging so much as it is the characterizations on which the data were collected. We could just as easily characterize Democrats and liberals as suffering from a host of equally malevolent mental states…. Once you set up the adjectives …it’s easy to collect the data that support them.” For example, although the psychologist Drew Westen claims in “The Political Brain” that liberals are “generous to a fault” while conservatives are stingy or “heartless,” though in reality (at least, according to Shermer), conservatives are “much more generous than liberals, giving 30 percent more money (even when controlled for income), donating more blood, and logging more volunteer hours.”

Even the neuroscientist (and, again, noted skeptic) Sam Harris couldn’t resist calling out some of the biased assumptions behind these forms of questions. “In a recent study of moral reasoning,” Harris writes, “subjects were asked to judge whether it was morally correct to sacrifice the life of one person to save one hundred, while being given subtle clues as to the races of the people involved. Conservatives proved less biased by race than liberals and, therefore, more even-handed.” According to the study, liberals would sacrifice one white person in order to save 100 non-whites but not, as Harris notes, the other way around. Conservatives tended to respond the same way for both scenarios: they would sacrifice one life for 100, irrespective of race. “Observations of this sort are useful in revealing the biasing effect of ideology—even the ideology of fairness.”

All of that is a tedious and self-indulgent preamble to a greater and unrelated point.

One afternoon a little more than a year ago, I was walking east on Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. A pedal pub was approaching, filled entirely with women (it appeared to be a bachelorette party). One of them took note of me and catcalled. Amused and ego-inflated, I posted the story to Facebook, noting, “I don’t know what you ladies are complaining about. That was awesome!” I got a lot of feedback from that comment, and that feedback and the subsequent conversations on the topics of unwanted attention and rape culture slowly opened my eyes to the fact that there are real and prevalent elements of sexism and subjugation in our culture.

Creating a word for practices and rituals – religion – allowed people to separate it from the mundane elements of existence. Likewise, acknowledging bias in academia allows us to apprehend a better understanding of our world and, more specifically, our motivations to act in certain ways. Amelia Shroyer, when writing about rape and rape culture, entreats us to similarly think of word choices and vocabulary as a way to revolutionize our understanding of this topic. “Language is a small step, but a profound one,” she writes. “Be an ally to rape survivors. Expand your vocabulary.” Shroyer had rape jokes and flippant exaggeration in mind when she was writing, but my point stands: when we can meaningfully describe our unconscious behaviors – and the effects those actions have on society at large – we enable ourselves to become more conscientious about them.

I found myself reading through Straight White Boys Texting yesterday and patting myself on the back for never being so egregious or overt. “I will never again be embarrassed by a text I’ve sent,” I thought to myself …and repeated aloud to the people around me. But in my self-congratulation, I overlooked that fact that subtle forms of sexism are often more insidious than the obvious ones. There is, after all, a small grain of merit in the fact that the men behind those text messages are treating women the way they wished women would treat them (albeit in one of the more twisted, terrible ways one could embrace that ethic).

I don’t make unwanted sexual advances towards women – either in person or on through any form of electronic communication. But that is only praiseworthy if my attitude towards women is elevated above my actions. If I avoid that behavior out of fear of reprisal, all along nursing a sense of sexual entitlement, then I am not only a creep but a coward on top of it. That is nothing to take pride in.

The burden of becoming aware of rape culture is to be as honest with myself as I can muster. What attitudes and biases can I purge from my life? How am I being an active burden to the women in my life? It’s lucky for fish that they aren’t aware of the water through which they swim. Humans have the wonderful privilege to influence our environment and the terrifying burden to make that environment better for the people around us. Fortunately, as Shroyer reminded us, we can begin with language. I hope we find the right words to help us on our way.

Rape Culture

Honest Discussions and Debating Politics

I like discussion. It’s been with me my whole life: the unrelenting political arguments at every family holiday were as much a family staple as rice pudding or Cool Whip. I found it also in high school, in Mr. Reynolds’ chess club, where we would dissect arguments about creation and evolution and the existence of God. And I don’t think it’s sheer happenstance that my favorite Bible professor at Northwestern was Ronn Johnson, the guy my classmates called a heretic in hushed voices. It was rare that I would agree with him, but I always had to know my stuff or he would tear through my arguments as though they were wrapping paper.

It’s not just the competitive element of debate I find stimulating. Of course, it’s a wonderful, euphoric sensation to feel the duet of argument and articulation harmonize with each other and sway your opponent. That experience is so rare, however, I’m wondering if I’ve had it more than three or four times, or if I’ve ever experienced it at all. At the same time, the anticipation of the rebuttal, awaiting my turn to speak with swelling impatience, words thick and heavy on my waiting tongue, is an uncommon joy of excitement and suspense. But the thought, “My mind could change…” might be what I enjoy most of all. There is apprehension in acknowledging that I could go from believing one thing to its opposite in a matter of moments.

But discussion is rare. Hobby Lobby served as a fine reminder of that. For every twenty people I talked to about the Hobby Lobby decision, I had maybe one honest discussion.

“It’s the worst SCOTUS decision ever!” I heard multiple people say.

Really? Worse than Dred Scott, the case that ruled that no person of African ancestry could be considered a citizen of the United States? Worse than Plessy v. Ferguson, which established “separate but equal” as acceptable legal precedent? Worse than Korematsu v. United States, which ruled that it was legal for our government to intern Japanese-American citizens during World War II?

David Hume famously said that “Reason is slave to the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them.” The psychologist Jonathan Haidt was referring to Hume when he defined “the first rule of moral psychology”: “feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete.” It  is our nature to make snap judgments and then construct post hoc arguments that support them.

Think of it this way. Say a family owns a dog as a pet. One day, the dog wanders into the street, gets hit by a car, and dies. The family then butchers the dog and eats it for dinner. Is this wrong? Why? Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? Why? That’s what Haidt asked hundreds of people as he was scanning their brains. He found that his subjects had a simple emotional reaction – disgust – and then constructed moral reasoning around that emotion. That is, we don’t have impeccable, rigorous logical support to think we shouldn’t eat our family pet or copulate with a dead chicken. We have an instantaneous gut reaction that we try to justify with paltry arguments.

So when you find yourself embroiled in conversation over a divisive issue and you ask yourself, “Why won’t they listen to reason?” you are asking the wrong question. They – and you, and I, and especially you and I – aren’t actually being rational to begin with. We are being emotional: our hearts race, our nostrils flare, our skin gets hot. Some people hide that emotion better than others, but it’s there. Remember that when you call someone a fascist or racist or an asshole when they “disagree” with your point of view. You are getting frustrated with somebody because they had a different emotional reaction than you did. Why would you have expected otherwise?

When I discuss emotion-heavy political issues, I try to reduce the logic to something emotionally neutral in order to see if I’m still convinced by it. For example, yesterday I read a piece by Jessica Valenti where she called out some of the claims of women’s rights advocates for watering down their arguments. While acknowledging that there are valid health reasons for women to use birth control, she goes on to say “It’s awfully depressing … we can’t just come out and say that most women use birth control for sex.” Fair point. She also said that “Conservatives won’t acknowledge their deep-seated fear of non-reproductive sex.”

I consider myself conservative* and I don’t think I have a deep-seated fear of non-reproductive sex. I fully support people’s right to have sex. I believe that the best way to avoid an unplanned pregnancy (or contracting an STD) is to abstain. But my personal sexual choices – the behaviors I believe to constitute healthy sexuality and sexual expression – are mine, they are held for personal reasons, I don’t have much of a desire to force anyone else to submit to them. I believe I should advocate for them on an interpersonal level, not necessarily a broad social level. That being said, one essential component of the conservative point of view is that you cannot completely divorce an act from its consequences.

Compare that thought process to how we think about eating and dieting. I believe that everyone should have the right to eat whatever they want. I also firmly believe that some diets are healthier than others. For me to say that a whole-food, nutrient-dense diet is more beneficial than, say, a Cheetos-and-Mellow-Yellow diet, I don’t say that out of a deep-seated fear of carbohydrates. The solution to me isn’t to ban junk food; it’s to keep junk food legal while promoting a healthier lifestyle on the interpersonal level. I agree with Ron Swanson when he says, “The whole point of this country is if you want to eat garbage, balloon up to 600 pounds and die of a heart attack at 43, you can! You are free to do so.” But the fewer people that embrace that lifestyle, the better off we all are.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we are all hypocrites, and that none of us are the rational, justice-seeking saints we pretend to be. Like I said before, I like discussion. And I especially value the rare person who makes the effort to understand the viewpoints of the people he or she engages, not for the sake of finding a weakness in their arguments, but to understand what they believe and why they believe it. Hemingway entreated us to listen completely when people talk. I agree. Listen completely, even if you disagree – especially if you disagree. Listen completely, not with heavy tongues but with open ears.


*I should say, I believe that conservative philosophies undergird my reasoning on political issues. I rarely find myself coming to the same conclusions as mainstream Republicans. For example, I voted to support gay marriage. I am pro-life, but I am also a realist, so I think the best way to limit abortions is to limit unwanted pregnancies. Thus, I think wide and cheap access to contraceptives is one of the best ways to prevent abortions.

To Embrace our Amazing Privilege

W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most important civil-rights activists of the first half of the 20th century. He is best known as one of the co-founders of the NAACP. He was also the first black person to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, a feat he accomplished in 1895. Du Bois’ ethos emphasized the value of hard work. In addition to his activism, he was a professor of economics and history at Atlanta University as well as a poet, playwright, and a novelist. He deeply admired Stalin, describing him as “simple, calm, and courageous.” Du Bois was bald, slight of build, and sported an impressive, expansive mustache for much of his adult life.

In 1914, Du Bois sent his teenage daughter Yolande to the Bedales School, a co-ed British boarding school. Bedales is in the village of Steep in Hampshire. It was designed for 150 students and its early curriculum featured modern languages, science, design, gardening and drama. From its inception it was one of the most expensive boarding schools in England and also one of the most exclusive. Du Bois wrote a letter to Yolande, as fathers do, to offer some encouragement, life advice, and how to deal with people reacting to her race. “You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances,” he said. “People will wonder at your dear brown and the sweet crinkley hair. But that simply is of no importance and will soon be forgotten. Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual, whether it is beautiful, fine or not.”

Beyond the “curious little annoyances,” though, Du Bois wanted to underscore a deeper point. “Above all remember, dear, that you have a great opportunity. You are in one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires. Millions of boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything they possess to be where you are. You are there by no desert or merit of yours, but only by lucky chance.” Yolande was being afforded an incredible privilege; her father wanted her to see that privilege for what it was – an unmerited gift of chance – and to therefore enable her to embrace rather than squander that opportunity.

He continued: “Deserve it, then.”

It would be easy enough to brush off this letter as the hope of a father for his daughter to get the most of her education, and it certainly is that. But the deeper instruction has been resonating with me since I first read that letter, a low hum constantly at the base of my skull. Here we are, in America. We possess unfathomable technology. Every tap and faucet has clean, drinkable water. Food is plentiful and cheap. At my fingertips, as I type this sentence, I have access to the sum of the world’s knowledge. I can learn about anything I want, at any time of the day. When I stand up and walk around, I carry that access in my pocket. What an amazing privilege.

Millions of boys and girls and men and women all over this world – and throughout the expanse of time – would give almost anything they possess to be where I am. And I am here by no merit of mine, but only by lucky chance.

“Deserve it, then.”

Are we living in a way that acknowledges the incredible gifts and advantages we have simply to be here? Or are we living in a way that presumes that the world owes us these rewards simply because we’re alive? Are we cultivating gratitude or entitlement? We can’t tell anyone else what to do, but we can take it upon ourselves to earn this great blessing, to say, “I may not have done anything to earn this, but I am going to live in such a way that this gift is not squandered on me.”

“Deserve it, then.”

At the end of “Saving Private Ryan,” a dying Captain Miller tells James Ryan, “Earn this.” Earn the sacrifice of the five men who died to save yours. Earn their blood and the grief of their families. Ryan doesn’t know how. Fifty years later, he says to Miller’s tombstone, “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.” We may not have anyone who lost their life to preserve ours. But we can live our lives in a state of constant appreciation, a tireless effort to enjoy and embrace our gift of chance. Not as an obligation, as a child guilted into eating her vegetables; rather, as an opportunity only possible through the sacrifice of someone else and the roll of a die.

Du Bois finished his letter by saying, “The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin — the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world. Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bedroom. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul. Above all remember: your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.”


My Romantic View of Friendship

“I literally died of embarrassment”
Did you, really? Cos you’re still talking to me
This is linguistic harassment
Abusing English with hyperbole

– Paul Roche, “Not Literally

On the list of things that bring me both mild annoyance and slight amusement, people abusing hyperbole must be pretty close to the top. (Also on the list: rude people on MetroTransit, college freshmen picking up my packs of gum, college freshmen.) Relying on exaggeration to communicate the magnitude of your feeling is not just lazy and ineffective, it dilutes the English language: what could be a robust, full-bodied Dragon’s Milk Stout of an image becomes a limp, watery Mich Golden. Let’s be clear: you have never loved a potato ole, you don’t hate iPad Minis, and exactly zero BuzzFeed articles have ever cost you – nor have they restored – your faith in humanity. Soon we’ll have to double- and triple-down on our adjectives and adverbs just to differentiate the love we have for our spouses from the “love” we have for Boom Chicka Pop.

It is a personal feeling of mine, but one that I hold closely, that we do this not only with feelings and emotions but also with our use of the word “friend.” It wasn’t the Facebook era that taught us to abuse the term (although, surely, that didn’t help matters). A significant percentage of the people we call friends fall short of the full realization of that label. In “The Four Loves,” CS Lewis distinguished friends from companions: companions are people you spend time with, while friends are those with whom you share a special bond. “Friendship,” he wrote, “arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’”

A shared uniqueness is the start of the matter, but a seed doesn’t become a plant until it sprouts. Real friendship must run deeper than mere commonality. Ralph Waldo Emerson includes intense affection in the formula. In his essay on friendship, he said, “The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.” But even abundant affection doesn’t complete the picture. Marlene Dietrich famously said, “It’s the friends you can call up a 4 a.m. that matter.” Likewise, the ancient Greek poet Euripides said, “Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness.” If you want to know the magnitude of a friendship, answer the question, “How much would I sacrifice for this person’s benefit?” or, conversely, “How much would they sacrifice for mine?”

Acknowledging that a relationship falls short of friendship feels both impolitic and impolite, especially to Midwestern sensibilities. Perhaps it is less a fact of abusing the language with hyperbole and more a matter of our language failing us. What is the name for a person that is more than an acquaintance but less than a friend? Lewis used companion, but that word has more ambiguity than “friend” does.  Comrade feels too communist; buddy, too informal. Maybe “friend” is the best we’ve got. But there is the sort of “friend” we greet with vague awkwardness when we see them in public, and there is the sort that inspires “troops of gentle thoughts” when we think of them. It’d be nice to be able to differentiate between the two without the addition of adverbs.


Pride and Prejudice and Dating

Despite having one of the worst endings in the history of books, Pride & Prejudice remains one of my all-time favorite novels. (I’m not exaggerating my feelings towards that ending: when I first read it in college, I threw my paperback copy across the Robertson Student Center out of my distaste for the “let’s wrap up everything in a tidy little box” epilogue. It hit a wall and startled a table of wee baby freshmen.) Its prose is both lucid and absorbing, and its dialogue is sharp, witty, and immensely entertaining. (Jane Austen herself thought of that as a shortcoming, calling it “too light and bright and sparkling.”) Perhaps the most remarkable factor, though, is how insightful the story is with respect to courtship, and how applicable those insights are to our present dating landscape.

Whether she did it consciously or not, Austen’s “pursuer” male characters are set at archetypal poles. Think of a sphere or a globe. (Or look at the image below.) You have North, South, East, and West. If we think of it this way, Darcy is North and Bingley is South, Wickham is West while Collins is East.

Pride and Prejudice

Darcy and Bingley are at opposite ends of the “romantic” spectrum. Darcy is reserved and analytical: he is concerned with rightness and does not pursue Elizabeth until his emotional attachment overwhelms all of his other objections. On the other hand, Bingley bounds after Jane like a cheetah chasing a gazelle. He is impetuous and bold and relies on other people to point out potential objections.

Wickham and Collins fit on the “pragmatic” spectrum. Collins has no tangible emotional attachment to any of women he pursues. The moment he is turned down, his attention goes instantly to the next potential mate on his list. Furthermore, he isn’t even pursuing marriage out of a desire for companionship, but rather because, as a clergyman, he is expected to have a family. In contrast, Wickham pursues relationships as an attempt to gain access to money. All his attention is on Elizabeth until he finds a woman who has a larger dowry and then he immediately moves on. There is some emotion in his pursuits but it is overruled by practical considerations.

It is clear that Austen endorses romantic pursuit rather than pragmatic pursuit. Darcy and Bingley are the male heroes of the story, whereas Wickham is the villain and Collins is the cringe-inducing comic relief. Even Mr. Bennett, Elizabeth’s father, seems to have married for practical reasons and his marriage is portrayed as uneven and joyless.

All men, even modern men, fit somewhere along this spectrum. Likewise, all women have a type preference. (And although many women say they want a Darcy, they seem to gravitate more to the Southwestern Bingley-Wickham types the most.) If we ignore the character and personality that Austen ascribes to each pole – and view them apart from the moral judgments that Austen wants us to make – it’s easier to break down. Let me elaborate.

One cannot find themselves simultaneously North and South nor East and West. You are constantly a combination of North or South and East or West.

So, men, are you the type to patiently let your attachment grow as you get a sense of your compatibility, or do you pursue first and ask questions later? Women, are you more the sort to be patient as a man examines his feelings, or do you like it more when he is upfront and direct from the get go? Men, are you more likely to filter and sort and go after the “best” woman available to you? Or do you find yourself happy with whomever accepts you? Women, would you feel more comfortable with someone who picked you as “best,” even if it means you could find yourself rejected when something “better” comes along? Or do you prefer the security of knowing that he is content – or even thrilled – to be with you at all?

There is no right answer to any of those questions. If you’ve read the book, it’s difficult to divorce yourself from the feelings you have towards each character. If you can, though, take an honest look and see where you fall on the spectrum. Maybe it will be illuminating for you, maybe not. Either way, it will probably be interesting. And if you haven’t read the book, get on it.