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.”



The Man Who Invented Orange Juice

The man often credited with being the father or modern advertising was a Texan named Albert Lasker. Lasker worked for the Chicago firm Lord & Thomas since turning 18, first as an office boy and later as a salesman. When he turned 32, he purchased the company. Lasker was one of the first ad men to use copy to persuade people to purchase a product rather than simply describing what it did. Lasker was one of the men who inspired the creation of Don Draper. (In the first episode of the series, Draper tells Lucky Strike to describe their cigarettes as “toasted.” In reality, this was Lasker’s idea. Lasker also sold cigarettes to women by marketing them as weight-loss aids.) Among his other sins, he is even credited with the creation of the soap opera.


In 1907, the California Fruit Growers Exchange (CFGE) was producing a surplus of oranges. Americans at the time didn’t know much about citrus fruit. Demand was low. Few, if any, orange producers were able to turn a profit. They hired Lasker in the hopes of convincing more Americans to buy oranges. His solution was simple albeit, at the time, revolutionary. To sell more oranges, Albert Lasker created orange juice.

I have been thinking lately about the various ways we market ourselves. When we apply for jobs. When we meet new people. In dating. When angling for promotions or power or any number of other things. Sometimes we can’t make a sale because we don’t believe in our product; sometimes we can’t make a sale because we don’t know how to communicate its value. But sometimes we are sitting on the raw materials for a product that doesn’t yet exist but people soon won’t be able to live without. Lobster used to be fed to prisoners because ordinary well-to-do folk refused to eat them. That’s the lesson of Albert Lasker. Sometimes what we perceive as valueless could, with a little creativity and the right pitch, be a source of great wealth.

Random Dance Parties and the Pursuit of Happiness

“Opportunity dances with those already on the dance floor.”
— H. Jackson Brown Jr.

I wasn’t planning on posting a blog this morning. But at six a.m., I read this Atlantic piece about how it’s not purchasing things that makes us happy, but rather shopping for them. I thought it made a few compelling arguments and it’s worth the read. I don’t have strong opinions on “diminishing utility” — talk to my accountant friends — but I can see the case.
But it got me thinking about what makes me happy, and why this year has been so much happier for me than years past. One big component of that is community, having the sense that I belong amongst a group of people who care about me. Another is having a sense of purpose (though perhaps not vocationally), knowing that I can make a contribution to other people’s lives that is valued and sometimes even cherished. And let us never underestimate the power of an Oreo McFlurry.
If I’m really honest, though, I think the biggest component relates to that Atlantic article. I am finding more and more things to anticipate. I looked at my calendar for the coming weeks, and I have so many things coming up that I am enthusiastically looking forward to. Beer tonight with one of the men from my church. A scalp massage (and complimentary hair cut) from my stylist tomorrow. A dinner party on Saturday. Beer, Sex, & Theology on Sunday. Meeting Thomas Keller next week. And all that’s just the start of it. Even that introvert voice in my head is screaming, “Let’s do this!”
And then I get to my bus stop. I was early because I’m working longer hours this week, so I saw a woman I’ve never seen before. She’s a young professional, probably edging into her late twenties. She was wearing a winter coat. In any other context I would assume she’s shy and a little mousy. But today, at that bus stop, with her headphones in, she was dancing to her tunes as though she were in the middle of a crowded club, waving at cars driving by, a consistent little smile on her face.

This wasn't her.

This wasn’t her.

So maybe anticipation isn’t the whole story, either. Maybe happiness lies in being able to make your own dance parties at a moment’s notice.

Why I love my church

headed east out of st. paul,
we stopped for water.
rested in the cemetery,
watched the mississippi.
running out of food stamps,
found a bag along the footpath
off highway 61 filled with
what looked like marijuana.
(don’t worry mom, we left it there)
— mewithoutYou

When I was twelve, I walked five miles through the July heat to buy a copy of Nirvana’s “In Utero.” I had saved up some lawn-mowing money by fasting from Big League Chew and was utterly determined to come home with a copy of that album. That’s a long walk for a tween (am I using that word right?), and so you can hopefully understand how upset I got when I got home and it was promptly taken away from me. Apparently, my mom took issue with the tune “Rape Me”.
I bet many of my Christian friends can relate to the experience of having to abstain from secular culture. Maybe for some of you this extended to, through, or even beyond college. And I suppose I can sympathize with the motivation behind this decision, it is one I disagree with. And not just because I never got my copy of “In Utero” back.

Tomorrow, my church will be hosting one of its semi-regular “Film & Theology” nights. We’ll be watching Groundhog Day. (If y’all can make it, you should come.) These events were why I first started going to Hope Community Church. It was the first time a church — and specifically, Tim Johnson, the worship pastor — had acknowledged that the right response to culture isn’t to ignore it, and it isn’t to look for alternatives to it. The right response to secular culture is to use it to point to Christ.

This was the Apostle Paul’s approach. In Acts 17, attempting to reason with the Epicureans and Stoics, Paul makes reference to the Greek poet Aratus. “It is not by accident that Paul can quote from classical Greek poetry,” says Stewart Custer. Similarly, the value of secular culture comes not in itself but in our ability to use it to bridge to the Gospel, to help unbelievers find common ground for understanding the message. Again, Hope was the first church I ever saw embrace this philosophy.
I guess it never hurts to showcase Bill Murray. But that’s another post entirely.