Media Influences and Satisfaction

Sometimes the media makes me feel worthless. I was watching an episode of the sitcom New Girl today and the entire focus of the episode seemed to revolve around the idea that money is what makes us worthwhile. Having money means being an adult, and if you aren’t doing something that the world considers worthwhile, then you’re just a child. Of course, to emphasize this point a rich, successful older man is contrasted with two ‘boys’ in their thirties who spend their time partying, drinking, and trying to have sex with twenty year old women. The idea that these boys represent those who haven’t grown up is quite strong, because they haven’t grown up. In the episode they act like children. However, the idea that growing up means being rich isn’t quite right either.

I am currently playing a bit part in the stage version of It’s a Wonderful Life, and much as I hate the movie, I have to admit that it has a good point. Unlike what modern media tells us, and unlike what my generation grew up hearing, life doesn’t have to be special to be worthwhile. The truth is that I appreciate the movie more now than I ever have in the past. It’s still chalk full of horrible theology, but the overarching point of the movie is about satisfaction. George wants to kill himself (tries to kill himself) because he isn’t satisfied with his life. He feels worthless because he hasn’t accomplished any of the things that he set out to accomplish. Instead he got stuck in his hometown, running his father’s business, and his life has been thoroughly small. Honestly, while I don’t think I’d want to run a building and loan, George’s life has always seemed pretty good to me. He has a beautiful wife, loving friends and family, and a fairly stable business. He’s always seemed like a bit of a pussy for wanting to kill himself. At the same time, I’ve been suicidal, and I have no doubt that (if that story were made into a movie) there would be a lot of people out there thinking that I seemed like a pussy. So, I suppose I have no place to judge.

However, all of the theology and complaints about George aside, the movie is really about being satisfied with what you have. George worked hard, cared for others, lived up to his responsibilities to family and community, and through the movie he comes to see how much value that has had in his life. The episode of New Girl did exactly the opposite, and I see this in a lot of modern media. Where It’s a Wonderful Life encouraged us to embrace the lives that we’ve been given and learn to be satisfied where we are and with what we have, a lot of modern media encourages us to want more, to always be looking for what comes next, and to never be satisfied with where we are.

It strikes me that this is an extremely unhealthy message that perfectly fits the attitude of my generation. We grew up easy (financially at least) and were promised that everything we did would be amazing. We weren’t told that we had to be satisfied. We weren’t told that we had to work hard. We weren’t told that we might not get what we want, or that we might not be good enough. Well… a lot of us weren’t anyway. Those of us that were told these things were generally told that no matter how hard we worked we would fail, or that we would never be good enough for anything. In other words, most of us weren’t raised with any in-between space. We weren’t raised to understand that we have to work hard, try our best, and be satisfied with the results.

This isn’t to blame my parents, or parents in general for failing in their duty. Certainly they did fail us, but the culture as a whole failed them. I don’t think this is an issue for which any particular party can bear the blame. We are all at fault, and especially those of my generation because all to often we haven’t done anything. We look around at our friends on facebook, twitter, linked-in, etc and the amazing careers that they post online, and fail to realize that, on-line, most of our careers look equally amazing. Simply put, instead of going out and doing something about our dissatisfaction, we puff ourselves up in an attempt to compete with the images we see. We lie about our lives because we think everyone else is being honest about their’s, and we all remain dissatisfied.

A few day ago my roommate’s girlfriend said something that took me by surprise. She’s young (20 something I think… maybe 19) and works at a local fast food establishment. I was sitting in my favorite recliner (… well, really it’s the only recliner in the apartment that actually works…) grading papers when, on her way out the door she looked at my computer to see what I was doing. In passing she commented, “This is what you do all day? Man, I wish I had your job, that would be awesome!” This girl knows how much I make (or at least I’ve told her), and she is still envious of my job. I’ve said many times here that I love my job, and her comment brought to mind a simple thought: My life isn’t that bad.

There are things that I want, and only a few of them have anything to do with what media pushes on us, but all in all, I have been greatly blessed. I spent a good fifteen minutes today just thanking God for the life that he’s given me, and that isn’t something that I used to do.

So, if you’ve managed to read this far into my ramblings, take a moment and think about your life from someone else’s perspective. It’s probably pretty good.

We All Have Those Days

It’s been a rough weekend. Not actually a bad weekend overall, I’ve been very productive and I’ve had a lot of good times. I’ve enjoyed my evenings with friends as well, but it’s also been one long struggle with lust. A struggle that I’ve been losing badly. Admittedly, this hasn’t actually taken up much of my time. The struggle has been off and on, repeated, but off and on, as have the failures. Of course, in the middle of all of this I’ve been thinking a lot about Syria. Why wouldn’t I be thinking about Syria with everything else going on in my life. I mean, obviously Syria’s important, but why the hell is it important to me, personally?

Honestly, I think that I have to side with President Obama on the whole Syria issue. I don’t think that another war is a good idea. Honestly, I think another war is a very, very bad idea. That being say, I believe very strongly that a rule that isn’t enforced isn’t a rule at all. If we as a world actually mean to ban chemical weapons, then those who choose to use chemical weapons must pay a price. At this point the vast majority of the evidence points to the fact that President Assad commanded a chemical strike against rebel targets, and the international community shouldn’t allow this to go unanswered. That being said, we shouldn’t be the only people involved in this. If the international community as a whole isn’t interested in upholding a ban on chemical weapons, then the ban shouldn’t exist. While I do think that a forceful response is necessary in Syria, it has to be a communally forceful response. As a nation we can’t put ourselves in the place of single-handedly upholding international laws.

That being said, I still have no idea why I’m thinking so much about this. I try very hard to avoid politics, mostly because I think it’s a giant cesspool of misery, but apparently I’m not able to avoid it entirely. I have to admit that I also haven’t been spending as much time with God as normal. I’ve been doing my devotions everyday, spending a half hour or hour in prayer, but ever since about halfway through The Practice of the Presence of God I’ve been doing everything I can to spend my days focused on him. This weekend I have definitely not been focused on him.

I’ve been focused on work, on enjoying time with friends, on reading, television, lust, sometimes on fear, but not on God. I should have been focused on God. That is the focus of my life, it’s where I want my heart and mind to live. I fail a lot, a whole lot actually. Failure is probably the single most consistent thing in my life, whether its spiritual, moral, romantic, or otherwise, I fail all the time. I want to do better, to be better, to succeed in pursuing God. I want to be a Godly man, and I want to be a good man. However, I prove to myself daily that I’m not. God’s far from being finished with me. He has so much more to do, and I still want all of it to happen right now! It’s not going to. I know that it’s not going to because these things take time. However, I look around and see people that I admire. People who are better than me in so many ways. I don’t say this insecurely in any way, but I see people who I can’t compare myself to. I compare myself to Christ, and I understand exactly what failure is.

Bovary Moments

I’ve started this post three different times in three different ways. I’ve been trying to think of something to write all day. I was going to write about the meaning of success, the pursuit of excellence, and the importance of being good enough. I was going to write about a book that I’m reading and the moderate depression that it’s thrown me into. And I was going to write (yet again) about how sometimes I still feel like I’m always going to be alone… and sometimes want to be… both of those have something to do with the book I’m reading. The book is Madame Bovary and it’s pretty much making me hate women. The entire book is about a spoiled, selfish, flighty woman who doesn’t know what she wants, doesn’t know what she has, and hurts everyone around here (especially her husband and daughter) because of it.

My body isn’t what it used to be. Well… I shouldn’t actually say that because I’m probably pretty close to the best shape of my life. I think last year was probably the best shape of my life, which is kind of sad. Still, I hiked about eight miles today and by the time I got home both my hips and my knees felt like they were going to give out. I really needed the hike though. It gave me time to think, and enough perspective to realize that, all to often, I am Bovary. I can be a moody bastard, and all too often I’m selfish and don’t think about others in the pursuit of whatever fancy takes me. I truly hope that I’m not as bad as Madame Bovary is in the novel, but I’m certainly no saint.

I tend to be prone to extremes. I was once about two days worth of sharpening away from cutting out my eyes with a sharp, sterilized spoon. I had a roommate at the time that inadvertently talked me out of that (thankfully). I’ve also given actual consideration to making myself a eunuch, and before I converted I made multiple suicide attempts. I liked to walk in front of cars on highways… only God knows how many accidents I caused. Needless to say, this very Bovarylike behavior is not the extent of my similarities with this fictional slattern for whom I am filled with loathing.

In my extremes I tend to flip back and forth between believing that only the best passes muster, and saying ‘fuck excellence! I just want to be good enough’. I will say that I don’t think we give enough credit to good enough. The vast majority of us never reach good enough in much of what we do, and it’s certainly evident that, in our quest for excellence, we as a nation have abysmally failed to reach good enough in many areas, welfare and education two of the most outstanding.

That being said, as long as the quest for excellence doesn’t end in a failure to be good enough, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Madame Bovary certainly doesn’t seem to seek excellence in anything she does. She isn’t even a very good adulteress, the one thing that she seems moderately passionate about in the novel. All to often we too set down our quest for excellence and settle for less than mediocre standards… of course, I deal daily with students do don’t actually manage to meet those less than mediocre standards… so I might be a bit jaded.

Then again, I have to say that one of the things that I love about my job is seeing a student start off the class with Ds and end it getting Bs and As. This is an excellent feeling. All to often few and far between, but a truly excellent feeling. Nonetheless, I feel like I’m failing the students who don’t improve. Some of them I probably am, but some of them I do my very best to help and they reject it at every possible opportunity. Some people seem to aim for sub-mediocre intentionally.

The thing is, sometimes I wonder if I’m not one of those people. I’m not particularly ambitious, and I don’t have a whole lot of pride left… though that’s something that God’s been systematically drilling out of me for a long time now. I’ve had many people tell me that they see great potential in me, and I have to wonder if I’m failing to live up to it.

Then I look at my friends, who consistently tell me that I’m a pretty amazing guy, a great teacher, a good friend, and that any woman would be lucky to have me. I’m not sure how much of this is simply friends telling me what they think I need to hear, and how much of it is honest, critical assessment. Still, there seems to be something to it.

I’m always hesitant to say anything positive about myself because I’m afraid that I’ll come off as prideful. All to often, I can’t tell the difference between pride and confidence, and I think that these are two of the easiest attitudes to confuse, both in yourself and in others. I haven’t managed to catch my post count up to the number of followers… which is still a mild source of annoyance to me, but I’m dealing with it. It makes me think that people find value in what I say… which I still don’t understand.

Here’s the thing that I’m consistently failing to do. I’ve said it before: In Romans 12 God tells us to see ourselves ‘rightly’. Throughout scripture he tells us to judge ourselves by his measure, which means two things: 1) to understand that I am in every way a sinner, fully deserving of eternity in hell, and 2) that when God looks at me, he not only sees someone of value, but someone who is filled with his son. I’m still struggling with to reconcile these concepts of myself.

I find this task equally as difficult as reconciling within myself both Christ’s extreme desire to see people follow him, and his extreme willingness to drive them away if they didn’t measure up to his rather harsh standards. In both tasks I tend to be able to do one or the other, but I can’t manage both simultaneously. Maybe someday…

push… Push… PUSH!

I slept for eleven hours last night. It was wonderful, and I think very much needed. I tend to push myself fairly hard, and every so often my body just says ‘nope, that’s it, I quit’. Then I get sick and have to spend a few days sleeping and eating a lot. Yesterday, I could tell that I was starting to come down with something, and I still did my best to get all of my work done, but I also tried to take some time to relax and enjoy myself. As Americans we tend to have a habit of forgetting to take care of ourselves. We’re not as bad as some *cough* Japanese *cough*, and we tend to be much harder workers than others *cough* Spanish *cough*.

All in all, I think we’re close to having a good balance. There are some people who work 80, 90, 100 hour weeks and this isn’t a good thing, but then there are some who work 20 hour weeks and think that they spend too much time at work, which is ridiculous. Work is important, it’s part of being a grown-up and taking responsibility, which is also a good thing, but it’s very important to find time to just relax and enjoy yourself as well, and it’s important to know how you enjoy yourself.

There are lots of different ways to play. Some people like to play with action figures, or to play video games. Other people like to play football or soccer. Other people like to just lay around and watch movies, and some people like to go out and start fights. I have to admit that if I can find a good person to fight with, a person who knows how to really enjoy a good, clean fight, then it’s a lot of fun. Those people are fairly rare though.

So, all in all, I’m actually a fan of the ‘American’ work ethic (not that every American has this ethic). Work hard when its time to work, and relax well when its time to relax. However, our priorities are way off base. We seem to have taken the motto ‘If something’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing right’ far too seriously. I was raised with the idea that if I can’t be that absolute best at something, then there’s no point in even trying. The goal was not ‘do your best’ but ‘be the best’, and as I drill into all of my students, but especially my martial arts students, ‘there will always be someone better than you’.

I think that a better motto for us to live by is ‘if something’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing badly’. I tend to want to do the things that I’m really good at. I’m good at fighting, I’m good at teaching, I’m good at deep conversation, and I thoroughly enjoy all of these things. I seek them out because I enjoy them. However, the things that I’m bad at… making money, paying bills, math, romantic relationships, small talk, bananagrams, etc I often find myself avoiding. I find excuses for not doing things that are absolutely worth doing, because I’m not very good at them. That’s a dumb thing to do.

If something is actually worth doing, then it’s worth doing it badly. I spent the other night with a group of friends (… all girls actually) just hanging out and playing games. We played volleyball, frisbee, bananagrams… all things that I’m pretty bad at. There was no deep conversation (this group actively avoids that), and obviously there was no fighting. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening because I just let myself suck. I didn’t try to win, I just tried to have fun, and I did. So, the moral for today: stop trying to be the best at everything! Do your best, absolutely, but don’t be afraid to lose a game, get a B (or a D), or just fail at something that’s worth doing. If it’s worth doing, then it doesn’t matter if you succeed. It’s not about succeeding, it’s about doing.

4th of July

Happy 4th of July… late… I actually wrote this on the 4th. May the Lavicius, monkey god of wealth and avarice, bless you!… … Yeah, I’m not really big on holidays, and I can’t say that I’m extremely patriotic either. This country has a ton of problems that we don’t want or just can’t address, and the thing is, I completely understand why, and why there isn’t much that I can do about it. John the Baptist was referred to as a ‘voice crying out in the wilderness’ and sometimes I have to admit that I feel the same way… not that I compare to John the Baptist, but this feeling I understand. I see the problems, and I see ways that we could fix them, or at least steps towards fixing them, but no one listens to me.

Today, I was having a conversation with one of my students concerning matters of justice and how the justice system should work. Honestly, I generally agree with the position my student was taking. However, she wasn’t really thinking through her position. She couldn’t provide solid arguments to support her positions, and she had nothing in the way of evidence. So I took the other side of the issue. My student made the comment that she felt like she was in a debate, and I pointed out that she was.

Talking over opinions is all well and good, but if we can’t support those opinions with well-reasoned arguments and provide at least some sources to back up our claims, then all we’re really doing is talking over our beliefs without actually showing any ability to defend those beliefs. All too often reasoned argument is limited to academic forums, and it shouldn’t be. We need to be able to make and support strong arguments in our daily lives.

If we can’t do this with basic things, then can we really be surprised that the public forum is filled with random, uninformed, undefended opinions, or that we seem to be utterly insecure as a nation? This is the question I keep coming back to. We do so much to build up confidence and self-esteem without actually driving people to do anything to earn these things. Confidence is important, sure. But if a person is confident in something that they have no actual ability to achieve, then is their confidence actually worth anything?

To give an extreme example, how many people have jumped off of buildings high on something and absolutely confident that they could fly? Confidence that is achieved through action is worth something. Confidence that is achieved through overcoming difficulties, through hard work, through invested time, all worthwhile. However, confidence that is illusory is just damaging. I have so many students who can’t write well, but are completely confident in their own excellence. This is one of the most difficult things that I have to deal with. Now, I’m no slouch at writing, and I’m fairly confident in my abilities, but I’m also no Stephen King or Alvin Plantinga.

If we were a little less confident, and a little more willing to pursue things that are difficult, then maybe we’d have a stronger confidence in who and what we are.

I’m trying! I swear I’m trying!

In Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back Yoda told us to “Do or do not. There is no try.” It’s a statement that resonates with me, as I think it probably does with a lot of us, but it’s also a statement that isn’t entirely true. Luke’s claim to be trying in the movie generally falls on deaf ears because he doesn’t really seem to be trying all that hard, and thus he is continually failing.

I see this a lot in my students. There are some students who are obviously trying hard, who listen to what I say and then put it into practice, and they see their grades improve substantially. Then there are those few students who are obviously and admittedly not trying. I always just love when I get an email or a phone call from a student to tell me that I need to grade easier because the class/assignment is stupid and pointless but they still need an A. However, in between these two extremes are those students who keep saying, ‘I’m trying, I’m trying!’ but show no actual improvement. When I’ve told a student a dozen times to keep their papers objective, and they still use the first person, it doesn’t seem like the student is really trying all that hard.

However, that doesn’t mean that the student isn’t trying. It just means that they are failing. I know this feeling very well. There are some things that come very easily to me, and I have a hard time understanding why other people struggle with them. Then there are some things, seemingly simple things, that are incredibly difficult for me, and no matter how much I try, I keep failing. Money is one of those things. No matter how hard I try to save money, or keep a budget, or pay off debt, life always seems to throw extra expenses at me just when I seem to be doing well, and the whole thing comes crashing down. Money isn’t the only area, but it’s one of them.

Sometimes I look at myself, at my flaws (which tend to be very evident to me), and I’m tempted to blame God, to tell him that he made me wrong and needs to fix me. This is of course ridiculous. God did not make me wrong, he made me exactly the way he wants me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way… well, most of the time. However, there are still these seemingly massive areas of failure in my life at which I try and try and fail.

Sometimes I want to say that accepting myself means ignoring those areas. Obviously since I’m not good at them they don’t matter, right? I can just ignore these areas of life and call myself a complete person. Not so much. Just because I’m not good at something doesn’t mean that it’s not important, or that I don’t need to do it. It just means that I’m probably not going to do it well, and that’s alright.

Here’s the thing we miss. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. The fact that I’m not good at something doesn’t mean that thing is worthless, or that it’s pointless, or that I can ignore it. It means that I can learn to be satisfied with doing it badly. I don’t need to be the best at everything I do, hell I don’t even need to be good at everything I do, and I never will be. I do need to do my best at everything I do, and realize that my best might not live up to someone else’s expectations.

The drive to succeed is not inherently a bad thing. However, it can lead us to a lot of bad places, and it’s something that we need to handle with care, both for our own well-being and for the well-being of others.

Confucius Failed

Sometimes I just want to fuck. I hope that you’ll forgive the use of a word that I know is offensive to some. However, saying that sometimes I just want to have sex does not aptly convey the sheer, brutal intensity of the urge that I’m addressing. There are certainly times that I see a woman and desire her. However, at these times it’s generally fairly easy for me to look somewhere else, or walk away. This kind of temptation I generally deal with fairly well. However, there are other times that I just want to fuck something. It doesn’t really matter what: man, woman, old, young, animal… seriously, at these times a 12 year old girl and an 80 year old man are equally attractive to me. At these times I find the neighbor’s dog or my friend’s hula lamp attractive. These are times when my only choice is to run to God in humility and utter, complete desperation, because there is nothing I can do when this urge hits me.

This urge is also generally combined with an overwhelming sense of failure, especially when I fail to run to God and instead wind up searching the internet trying to find something that is marginally close to porn without actually making me feel like I’m watching porn. Needless to say, this isn’t a good place to be. I’m not going to lie, I struggle with porn from time to time. I don’t like porn, I don’t think it’s acceptable, or that it should be acceptable, but I do struggle with it from time to time. So… overwhelming sense of complete, abject failure. Again, when I’m in this place I find that I have to go to God. If I don’t then I generally find myself curled up on my bed in the fetal position as the sledgehammer of depression bludgeons my soul.

Being that feeling like an abject failure is fairly common in today’s world (see my post on striving here) it’s not difficult to understand why it’s a problem for me. However, there are a few things that I try to remember when I’m feeling like a complete and utter failure: Confucius, Socrates, John Huss, Vincent Van Gogh, H.P. Lovecraft.

Each of these men was a complete and utter failure in life. Confucius wanted to be a high level politician, a close adviser to a powerful king. However, he never managed more than low-level government jobs before finally giving up and returning home to be a humble teacher. A few hundred years later, though, his ideas became the foundation of the governmental system that ran China for over two thousand years.

Socrates and John Huss both died in disgrace, executed because of their beliefs. Yet the philosophies of Socrates have inspired thinkers for the last 2000 years, and the theology of John Huss served as the foundation for various movements during the Reformation.

Vincent Van Gogh was an utter failure during his life. His art was ridiculed and he was considered a ridiculous, worthless buffoon. Eventually he committed suicide. However, today Van Gogh is considered one of histories greatest artists.

H.P. Lovecraft was an author around the turn of the 20th century. While he was an excellent author he was generally unsuccessful and had a very unhappy life. He was underpaid for his stories, he had a short, failed marriage, and he eventually died of a very long and painful illness. However, his writing (which amounted to a few dozen short stories, a novella, and a short novel) inspired an entire sub-genre of fiction (Cthulian fiction), and influenced the entirety of Science Fiction and Horror writing.

There are plenty of other examples, but these are my favorites. Men who were utter and complete failures in life, but still managed to change the world. These men give me hope for my own life, and they give me hope for my own failures.

Cowardice and Conviction

Have I mentioned that I’m a coward? I choose to be honest about my life, beliefs, and failures and choose to do so through an anonymous blog, and yet even here I find myself beginning to worry about what kind of reputation I’m starting to build.

Will people who read this blog think well of me? Will they judge me for my flaws? Will they respect me for my positions? Do I come across as intelligent and learned? Is it clear that I think deeply about important things? Even though I’m completely anonymous here, I still worry about these questions and a thousand others. Even anonymously I have to convince myself to be honest! What if I accidentally offend someone? What if something I write is taken the wrong way?

Still, I started this blog so that I could journal about my thoughts, desires, fears, and… well, I had a fourth when I began this sentence. I wanted to be honest with myself, and that is often the most difficult person to be honest with. I have this view of myself as an intelligent, scholarly, kind, caring, selfless person (and I can say for sure that the last adjective at least is completely false) who seeks after Christ and always puts other before himself. I want to see myself as good and lovable (I think we all do really), or I want to see myself as a worthless, miserable bastard who’s completely selfish and doesn’t give a wit what anyone thinks of me.

Of course, neither of these images is true. I am fairly intelligent (though probably not as smart as I like to think), and I do try to be kind, caring, and selfless. I’m a pretty good sport, and I’m fairly hard to offend, but I’m also a selfish, needy, know-it-all. And, as I mentioned at the beginning, I’m a coward. I’m too much of a coward to generally even admit to myself that I’m a coward.

I fail to focus on Christ every single day. Sometimes I start off well, but inevitably my focus falls away from Christ. I get obsessed very easily, and it tends to be pretty hard for me to get my focus back where it belongs. Ultimately, truth is, I fail repeatedly in every possible way and I am desperately in need of God’s work in my life to make me… even someone worth knowing.

The thing is, I think that all of us (if we’re really honest) will say this about ourselves. Much as we like to convince ourselves that we’re good people, ultimately we’re not. We’re wicked people who are lucky to have anyone in our lives. We’re wicked people who are lucky to have a God who loves us enough to put up with us, and ultimately it’s that love that we’re trying to live up to!

This is what I was trying to say yesterday, I think. My focus should be on God because it is God who is the source of my every good and my every joy. Whenever my focus trends away from him, I find myself listless and unsatisfied, endlessly rushing headlong after whatever job or woman or thing I think will make me worth something. But there is no job (not even teaching at Harvard or Oxford), and there is no woman (not even this lady I like) that can make me worth something. Why? Because they have exactly the same problems that I do! They fail… repeatedly!

Remember the story of Peter when Christ came traipsing across the sea of Galilee. As long as Peter kept his focus on Christ, kept his trust in Christ, he waltzed across the waves. However, as soon as Peter let his focus drift away, and tried to make his own way, the waves overwhelmed him and he dropped headlong (… well, probably footlong if we’re going to be literal) into the water.

There are always going to be plenty of problems waiting to drag us down into the deep. Whether they be bills or promotions or demotions or rejections… it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is to keep your eyes on Christ, and let him bring you everything that he knows you need.