The Centre Cannot Hold, but Perhaps That’s Good?

Yesterday was a “snow day” at the church and school I work at and where my youngest son attends classes. Based on the weather, today could just as easily have been declared one as well, or at least as a “late start” day for the school, but it wasn’t. Because the students don’t physically go to that school anyway. Since March of last year, the school has been pretty close to online only.

So why did they even have a “snow day” at all? Mostly because the school principle isn’t a complete grinch and recognized that the students would appreciate having a snow day despite (or even maybe because of) the weirdness caused by the pandemic. So we’ve kind of split the difference, and declared yesterday a snow day but today a regular school day. And it’s all increasingly obvious how arbitrary such things can be.

Now, there is a lot that is less than ideal about distance-only education for kids. Likewise, there are big challenges for workers and employees in this world of suddenly-tons-of-people-telecommute that we now find ourselves in. But there are also certainly benefits. There are portions of my job that require I spend time in the presence of other people, but there are others that do not, and in fact that are made much more efficient when I am not being interrupted by all the various drop-ins and drive-bys my office would experience under more normal circumstances. (And I write this even as a conversation in the next room over here in my home suddenly provides a wonderfully ironic bit of distraction.)

And with all this going on, I, like many others, have been really thinking a lot about what all this will mean in a “post-COVID-19” world. Because we are going to see some of these changes in how we work stick around even after the events that forced them on everyone subside. One of the biggest reasons telecommuting didn’t become generally widespread is that there is a disadvantage to being one of the few people not actually coming into the office, and so there was built-in resistance even for those who were most inclined to give it a try. Plus, businesses in general were reluctant to allow it for fear of lost control. But with the outbreak of the pandemic, masses were suddenly forced to all switch over together. And a lot of us are finding we like it, even with the new challenges it brings.

And with the now-accelerated tele-work revolution many are finding themselves in, expect to see a domino effect of other changes. The biggest one I’ve seen talked about recently is the decoupling of our careers from where we choose to live. In a telecommuting world, finding a new home town where the Internet access is fast, cheap, and reliable may become more important than a location that has a good job market. Because the job market for many (but certainly not all) industries is going digital, just as many other markets already have.

This means changes for the digital workers, of course. They can choose to live in places that better serve their needs in the areas of friendships, family, recreational activities, culture, lifestyle. climate, etc. It will mean changes for employers, too, possibly seriously reducing overhead costs associated with leasing or owning real estate, among other things. And perhaps most interestingly, it will bring about changes for the physical locations themselves. It seems obvious that real estate prices will shift everywhere, but also consider the social impact: small communities will experience less of a talent drain, in ways that I have to imagine will be mostly positive.

My instinct is to be cautiously excited by these changes. Partly because I am a very change-friendly person by nature, but also because I see a lot of potential good in it. I think a world where many more occupations are decoupled from location than ever before is exciting and possibly much healthier for civilization in the long run.

But. But…I also worry greatly about the loss of intangible value that will come about from a reduction of semi-random social interactions. The Internet has no public spaces. Everything belongs to someone. Every online space is there because some government or corporation is providing it for a specific purpose, and these spaces are designed to be efficient.

There’s value in bumping into a friend when standing in line at Starbucks, but my love affair with ordering ahead on their mobile app and skipping the line is a powerful thing. Chance encounters with strangers while waiting for a bus have deepened my appreciation of humanity. I play a lot more chess against serious opponents now that I can find a game at any minute of any hour of any day from anywhere that has cell phone service, and yet some of my favorite moments playing competitive chess come from conversations with other chess players out in the lobby outside a physical tournament hall.

And I remember how I felt about the first Internet revolution back in the 1990s. I helped build this world. As a cofounder of one of the first web development companies, I was an excited evangelist for how the Internet would free us from the shackles of space and time, allowing people who felt lonely in their ultra-niche interests to go out into the new online world and build communities with the one thousand others on earth who shared their interests and passions. I was extolling everything that is great and convenient about shopping online before e-commerce was really even a thing. And I was right…but I also severely underestimated the powerful dehumanizing elements that would come with this kicking free of the earth from beneath our feet.

And now we live in a world where the loss of local institutions has caused us all to be constantly glued to national politics in a wildly unhealthy way. We live in a world where lunatics and fanatics instantly network among themselves in powerful feedback machines. Heck, even the most sane among us are more and more getting stuck in informational echo chambers that inevitably radicalize us, even if just by small amounts.

Churches are in serious, serious trouble in this regard, and therefore the human race is. Churches, when they are healthy and fulfilling their purpose, provide three things: meaning, purpose, and connection. A church should be a place where a person goes to learn, so that they can better understand themselves, their neighbors, and the universe and what all this might be about. A church should be a place where a person goes to be inspired to rise above selfishness and materialism, and to find ways to contribute to the good of others outside of themselves. And a church should be a place of community: a place where one gathers, not because of language or ethnicity or race or politics or economics or age or any of that, but because of a common view of spiritual purpose and meaning.

But if churches retreat into the online-only mode that we seem to be headed toward, then they will become purely about information. They will continue to preach messages about meaning, but that’s just the information leg of the stool. Online church so far does not seem to be any good at service or community. The action leg and the passion leg are both missing. And this worries me deeply.

And yet, I’m still mostly optimistic about the new future we are building. I just hope we are thoughtful and intentional about it, rather than just letting it happen to us however it unfolds.

For two really thought-provoking perspectives on this decoupling of work from location, I highly recommend this TEDx talk by Justin McElroy, and this article in the Atlantic. Check them out, and let me know what you think.

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Life Gets Complicated

So, my publishing plans at the end of the year didn’t work out so great. Partly because I skidded from the end of a Christmas vacation into the beginning of an unexpected period of quarantine when a member of my household came down with COVID-19.

Don’t worry, they got through it with minimal difficulty, and they successfully isolated within our home to such a degree that no one else was infected. They’ve recovered and we’ve all tested negative, and we’ve waited out our timers and life is now (finally) getting back to normal.

Sort of. Like it was normal before, right?

But that’s not the only reason I fell behind. the weeks leading up to Christmas turned out to be more complicated and stressful as well. It turns out that planning and executing safe and responsible church celebrations of Christmas during a pandemic can be like that.

Anyway, the podcast episode on why resolutions fail never happened (some irony there), and I put a general pause on writing and producing new material apart from the weekly newsletter I do for the church. In fact, I even went three Sundays without preaching–something I haven’t done in my 15+ years in ministry. The only content I produced was the beginning of a long series of short videos titled, Let’s Read: the Gospel of Mark. (By the way, you can check that out here.)

So now I’m trying to get back on the various saddles. I have no idea what to do with the podcast this week. If an idea comes to me in the next 24 hours, that’d be great. Otherwise, I may just let it go one more week. Alternatively, I may just record another chapter of my novel in progress.

I’ve got scripts for more Gospel of Mark videos already queued up, so at the least I’ll shoot a couple more of those this week, but I’m also hoping to produce something for my own channel. (The Mark series is for the Washington New Church channel, which I am the primary contributor.)

And, of course, I need to come up with a sermon for this Sunday…and in fact I’m hoping to map out a plan for the next six months of Sunday sermons by the end of this week.

Church should be about more than just preaching and teaching and information transfer. But the pandemic has made it really hard to act like a community. So, while I’m looking for alternative ways of leading the church in its community uses, I’m also using this opportunity to double down on strengthening those parts of the work that are still very possible. Hopefully when this is all over, we will be able to both benefit from this period and get back to the real work of being a church.

In the meantime, I still need to move all of my studio equipment (camera, lights, tripod, various mics and stands, miscellaneous electronics, etc.) from my home back to my office, and I’m not really looking forward to that. But at least I will have a quieter (and less echo-y) space to record things in again.

So that’s the update. Nothing fancy or thought-provoking or important. But for the curious, that’s where I am at the moment. Talk to you next time!

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Grooves, Ruts, Water, Ice, and Tracks of Various Kinds

Billy Joel has a song that unfortunately has really spoken to me at various times: “Running on Ice”.

As fast as I can climb
A new disaster every time I turn around
As soon as I get one fire put out
There’s another building burning down

That sense of running as hard as you can just to keep from falling down, not actually getting anywhere…it’s very real. That’s not where I am right now, thankfully. But I’ve been there.

Ages ago I saw an old black and white one-panel cartoon (maybe from the New Yorker?), in which a person says to someone sitting next to them, “I’m not sure if I’m in a groove or just stuck in a rut.” I went looking for it today, just to discover (unsurprisingly) that this groove/rut dichotomy has been cartooned (and later memed) to death by pretty much everyone who can draw at one point or another. Which I guess is fitting.

I’m not stuck in a rut, myself, as far as I can tell. But I don’t really feel like I’m “in a groove”, either. I’m definitely not experiencing a lot of “flow state” these days, but then, I’ve only ever really been able to achieve flow in highly competitive environments, like chess tournaments, hockey games, and certain online games. Well, and when practicing tai chi and other forms of meditation, I suppose, but that flow feels different.

From the outside, though, I imagine I might look like someone either in a groove or a rut. I have a ton of routine in my life these days. All of it very deliberately crafted. My brother Pearse got really into the science and practice of habit formation awhile ago, and then got me hooked. James Clear’s Atomic Habits is my current go-to book on the subject; I highly recommend you read it if you haven’t already. So I have routines. I have a daily routine, a weekly routine, and mini-routines that kick in when I am working on specific kinds of long-term tasks. And I’m pretty consistent about them.

I have also been diagnosed with ADHD-I (which probably has a different designation, now–they keep changing them), which means my brain has a powerful tendency to try to smash routines in order to feed its need for novelty. My whole process, these days, of habit formation, routine development, and self-discipline (which is NOT the same as “will power”–it’s MUCH more useful), is a combination of a war and a compromise–an angry sort of dance, if you will–with my own neurochemistry. And it gets me through and helps me accomplish quite a lot.

But sometimes, when I have been sustaining my intentional routines for a long time, I get this sick, breathless feeling in my chest. It’s like I’m treading water, but can feel the energy that it takes to do so slowly dying, and my need to breathe increases even as I can sense the water rising higher and threatening to cut off my access to the air above, which makes me tread faster and burn energy faster and get more out of breath…

Well, maybe that’s more dramatic than it needs to be. But there’s an impending sense of something, and it feels like waiting for a house of cards to come down. Interestingly enough, being on Ritalin for an extended period of time gives me a similar sensation. I don’t take anything for ADHD these days, but back when I did, I could sometimes get into these–grooves? ruts? routines? rushes?–in which I kept getting stuff done, getting stuff done, and on the outside it just looked like a fairly even-paced efficiency, but on the inside it felt like an engine slowly over-revving.

So it’s interesting to get a similar feeling without drugs, just from my personal behavioral disciplines. It’s like, I’m “on track”, but maybe those tracks are roller coaster tracks and I’m getting a little tired of the whooshing. This is still too dramatic, though. I don’t feel panic, or fear, or exhaustion, even. But I do feel a quiet sort of alarm going off that really wants to break the routines and habits, just to get a break. I wonder (I really have no idea) whether this is a false alarm, or if it’s something I should actually attend to in some way.

I do know this: I don’t really have a lot more room in my life for additional stuff. Partly this is because it’s December and I’m a pastor, and my professional life gets really full for me every Christmas season. Partly, it’s because life under COVID has taken away from me my psychological reserve tank just as it has for so many others. I’m handling the stuff I need to handle quite well, but if you try to balance one more plate on top of the stack I’m carrying, it might all come crashing down.

Or maybe not. Human beings are remarkably bad at estimating their own breaking points. Just ask a Navy Seal. Or anyone who has trained to overcome those built in stops we all have, to discover that their actual capacity for hardship is far greater than they first thought.

Anyway, I’m okay. But in my self-reflections, I do wonder if I’m building up new normals that I can eventually relax into, or if I’m smoking my pistons a bit and need to either find another gear or ease off the gas a tiny bit.

I’m not sure if these ramblings will be of use to you. Maybe you identify with this feeling I’m describing, and if so, then know that you’re not alone. Or maybe this is all very foreign; in that case, isn’t it interesting how different people can be?

Next week maybe I’ll talk about my actual system of habit formation, routine building, and self-discipline. I swear it works with no bad side effects! 😉

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Objective Truth vs Personal Truth

Does objective truth exist? Does it matter?

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Welcome to Yet Another Reboot

On and off over the past couple of decades, I have had various blogs and websites that I posted semi-regularly to. Some were fairly political, others more technical in nature, and some were just random nonsense. Why? Essentially, I am a communicator. Whether we’re talking about my professional careers (of which I have had several) or my personal hobbies, communicating ideas has always been a central part of what I do.

Well, of course, everyone “communicates” in their jobs, their hobbies, their personal relationships. Human beings are quite chatty, after all, as a species. But what I’m saying here is that I not only do a lot of writing and speaking, but I do a lot of thinking about writing and speaking. I actively enjoy thinking about writing and speaking. I am most happy when I am creating something, and the kinds of things I most enjoy creating all involve words. Whether I’m telling a story or explaining an idea or exploring a theory or telling a joke, I can’t stop thinking about the how of it all. I’m a structure nerd when it comes to this sort of thing, for instance.

Anyway, that still doesn’t make me particularly special. However, I’ve been doing a lot of self-evaluation and self-observation over my lifetime, and I’ve recently been really working on honing in on whatever appears to be the essence of what I do when I am doing something well. And, well, “communication” seems to cover that category rather nicely.

So here I am once again writing a blog. Why this format? And on what topic? And for whom? Slow down, I’ll get there.

First of all, my main creative and communicative output is in other areas right now. I’ve been doing a lot of public speaking and also YouTubing (I guess that’s a verb now), and those two areas will continue to be my main professional focus for now. But I’m working on developing my overall communication skills through the building up of new habits. So I’ve decided to experiment with the discipline of a weekly blog post. Those of you that already subscribe to the weekly email I send out (typically on Fridays) about happenings at the Washington New Church may say, “But you already do that!” Well, yes, I do. But those emails have a very specific agenda, despite the fact that they sometimes drift dangerously close to mad ramblings at times. This new weekly blog post plan is something else entirely.

Instead of having a focused agenda (like letting people know what’s going on at the church I am pastor of), my Monday blog posts will be a lot looser. They could be about anything, really. If it’s on my mind, and I can generate some words on the subject, it’ll show up here.

Which isn’t a very good way to build an audience. So I guess the answer to that third question (who is this for?) is…well, no one. But if you’ve stumbled across this, then you’re more than welcome to come along for the ride. I can’t promise it’ll be enlightening. Heck, I can’t really promise it’ll be anything at all, other than weekly.

So if you’re in the market for a blog/column/whatever that has no target audience, no particular subject matter, and no agenda other than to be reliably weekly, then you have come to the right place! And as a bonus, since I have no agenda besides consistent output, you can have a big influence on what kind of out I’ll be putting. (Puting? Put-ing? Hm…) Just drop a comment here and let me know what you think I should write about, and the odds are good that I’ll be desperate enough for ideas each Monday that I’ll just write about whatever you want. Until the suggestions start to outnumber the Mondays, of course.

To conclude, here’s a nice picture, because blog posts are more visually interesting when they have pictures in them:

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