Saturday, March 31, 2007

Overcoming our comfort zones

In the late '60's the Information Age which continues to explode today had already begun, and Alvin Toeffler wrote Future Shock prognosticating what might happen to us as we became increasingly drenched and bombarded with information of all kinds from all media: our beliefs would be fragmented and fractured, our puny human brains couldn't handle it all, we wouldn't be able to recognize what to embrace from what to reject, to separate the important from the unimportant. We would generally be overwhelmed and shocked by the future we created.

Nearly a half-century has elapsed since that vision, and it seems to me Toeffler was right. We can't handle all the information we are exposed to each day--at least not in the way we used to. Our emails alone number in the hundreds for many, and we've all learned to speedread and scan most of our reading, toss out the spam and the mailbox crammed with ads and junk mail, speedflip through the hundreds of channels the tv tries to wedge into our heads, and so forth. Our mode of discriminating what to keep from what to toss, what to focus on from what to ignore, has become faster and faster, and less and less considered, mulled over, than ever before. We realize we still ought to think critically, but every pressure is instead to think automatically and efficiently in our high-speed sort of the information flood. We are riding the crest of the information tidal wave on a very short board, and trying to keep our balance however we may.

So how do we cope with the dilemma of too much information and too little time to consider it critically, assuming none of us wants to fall prey to the ostrich response and simply ignore the problem? The answer varies, often by generation and circumstance. The tendency of many seniors like me may be to turn to the past for our familiar ideas and cling tenaciously to our outmoded but comfortable ways. Our comfort zones become our Capuccin monastaries, our protected enclaves of the spirit, where the confusing, fast-paced world outside our needs won't bother our tranquility. The cost, of course, is that we sacrifice living in it, growing, and experiencing more than we had.

Surprisingly, the tendency of young adults is somewhat similar in insulating the psyche from the perils to the mind and spirit which the information flood threatens. I've noticed as a college teacher, that students are blissfully unaware of most current events, prefer not to worry about the world very much, to not make commitments which are far-reaching and to instead be very flexible to change, to not hold onto much of anything very long if it becomes inconvenient. They will sign up for yearbook or newspaper staffs, dramatic productions and other activities, then think nothing of simply not showing up before the first edition. I've seen cast quit at the dress rehearsal--just not interested anymore. This establishes a comfort zone that protects itself against consequences by evading the need to accept responsibility.

The entertainments of the young are typically to accept the sensational and spectacular and loud over anything of substance or subtlety or depth, to settle for the Wikipedia summary of an idea, to avoid complexity or extended study of almost anything, and to ride that wave forward in such a way that leaves all problems and troublesome issues behind, including conscience, mistakes, morality, social responsibility--troublesome issues all that are best left unconsidered.

I asked a colleague, reading the morning paper in our coffee lounge, if he read the paper and followed current events when he was in college. No, not at all, he answered. Did I? No, I realized, I didn't care about the world beyond my family and the campus till much later--except for the big headline events like President Kennedy's assassination that had everyone shouting on the streets. But not issues. Not trends. Not opinions or ideas. If it wasn't required in a course and I didn't have to be tested on it or write a paper about it, I didn't want to know it. My head was being rewired by my professors and friends enough, then.

So when, I wondered, do we begin to care about what's happening in the world at large, if not by college? Perhaps it changes when we get out on our own, into our jobs and careers, and begin to navigate our own lives. For the first time, probably, what to do next isn't always clear, and we realize we have to make decisions that will have consequences for quite a while, and we gradually realize that what's been happening "out there" in the big, scary world has importance for us to know in order to make those decisions intelligently and from an informed perspective.

From then on, we are forced to expand our comfort zones. Reality demands it. And we begin to voluntarily change some of the ideas we used to cling to for the sake of seeing things as clearly as we can. Today's vast communications explosion has made ignoring inconvenient new truths and living in a bubble of comfortable ideas much more difficult than before the information age began, but the fact of it has created an imperative, I think, to accept that things are not so fixed and knowable in many cases, that life is change and flux, that there is seldom certainties that we should try to cling to at all costs for the sake of validating our preferred beliefs, if new evidence suggests we should adapt and change. If we accept that imperative, perhaps, accept change and do not fear its challenge, we will probably be more comfortable in the long run.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Post Number 101: Dedicated to My Three Sons

I notice I've published a hundred posts here, so this one's for and about generations. You have probably heard that we've discovered a living first cousin of mine on my dad's side, my dad's nephew, his brother Jesse's youngest son, Robert. He lives with his wife, Nancy, in Wisconsin, and we hope to drop in and meet him this summer on our trip north. And he has researched and written a wonderful history of the paternal side of the family, and sent us a copy. I hope to get another for each of you to hang onto for that time when people start to wonder where they came from--no, not that way, the geneology way--if they live long enough.

In Cousin Bob's book he talks a lot about your great-grandfather, John Yoder Kauffman, who lived with him in Ann Arbor, Michigan till his passing at age 89 in 1935. Reading about what this man did is astonishing. Son of an Amish-Mennonite minister, he raised his family in a log cabin near Bellefontaine, Ohio on their farm. They had five sons and two daughters from 1880 to 1893. The older children were born in that log cabin, but the younger ones were born in a three-story big farmhouse he built nearby with his own hands.

Together they worked hard and farmed the land. John Yoder and Ida Christine managed to put every one of their children through college. Then they fanned out, some to missionary work and preaching, some to teaching and education, some to engineering, medicine, forestry and other fields. Some, however, stayed and helped with the farm.

But John Yoder wasn't content with just farming after the family was raised. Eventually he sold the farm and started a metal products manufacturing plant in Bellefontaine, making wheels and rims for Detroit carmakers where he moved. Some of the sons helped him till he retired and moved to Ann Arbor with Cousin Bob in his final years. One day in May of 1935 , at age 89, your great-grandfather picked up his golf clubs and walked two miles across the university city to a municipal golf course and played nine holes. On his way back he stopped for ice cream, Bob writes, and by the time he got home he was finally tired. Deep-down tired. He told them that night in bed, "I am very tired. I don't think I will make it through the night." And that night your great-grandfather John Yoder Kauffman died in his sleep.

The things that man did, considering the times that he did those things is, I think, amazing. Reading about my grandfather's enterprising, God-fearing life, progenation of more than twice the number of children your mother and I raised (and we thought we had our hands full with only three!), no special benefit of education or training himself beyond what he learned from his father and from experience, it made me feel like a real slaggard myself, despite my humble achievements. Kind of makes you realize what's maybe possible in one life, doesn't it. And Grandfather Kauffman is just one of many in Cousin Bob's book whose lives, character, and achievements we can be justly proud of.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

O Ye of Little Faith

The discovery of ancient "Holy Family" ossuaries in Jerusalem tombs recently has unleashed the predictable "told 'ya so" from the humanist atheists, and tonight's ABC News had them parading around Washington and calling for the end of all religion and a new age of reason.

The world's religions, they said, have in their fanatic fighting against each other, caused the fracturing of the world, pitting Jews against Muslims, Catholics against Protestants, and Hindu against Buddhist. All human misery would vanish if only men would embrace modern knowledge and science, use their own human reason, and eschew ancient religious "superstitions."

What these rationalists may be forgetting is that such a world as they are promoting was tried, before, and it didn't work very well. It was called the Age of Reason, and ironically came to fullness at the time of the founding of America, at the end of the Eighteenth Century.

The Christian Church was at its lowest ebb of influence since its formation. In France, following the French Revolution, Napoleon, having been elected by plebiscite, seized Notre Dame Cathedral from the Church, threatened clergy with torture and death, and rededicated the famous structure to "the Goddess of Reason." He then forced the Pope to crown him within its walls, which he had ordered redecorated as a Roman temple with round arches rather than the pointed vaults of the Gothic age, Emperor of the French Empire (modeled after ancient Rome). He built the Arc de Triomph atop the Etoile and the Vendome Column on the site that had recently guillotined nearly the entire French aristocracy in the Reign of Terror, forced the citizens of the new Age of Reason to wear Roman togas and refurnish their homes with torchiere lamps and chaise lounges as had the Romans, and enjoy the fruits of liberte, egalite, and fraternite, the same ideals the French had supported in our own revolution a decade or so earlier.

When things didn't work, he reverted to type, invaded most of the rest of Europe, and caused quite a ruckus until stopped, finally, at Waterloo by sea and Moscow by land. So much for the "Age of Reason."

But most Americans today believe, mistakenly, that America was founded by Christians persecuted in Europe and driven to the New World by religious intolerance. The pilgrims of Plymouth and Jamestown colonies came for many reasons, but they weren't necessarily Christians, and some century and a half later, when the signers of the Declaration of Independence met in 1776, after the fullness of the Enlightenment had produced some of the finest thought since the Classical philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had argued by dialectic in the Greek Academy and Lyceum, there was hardly a Christian to be found among them. As were most men of the Enlightenment, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Monroe and others were Deists, not Christians. They placed their faith in reason, not religion. And they had the wisdom to keep religion separate from matters of the state.

Notice I did not say keep religion out of the social order, but separate from matters of government. Freedom of the faith and practice of one's religion was, in fact, guaranteed by the Constitution by these same founding fathers, these Deists. And one must ask why.

I believe that those men of reason, unlike Napoleon, must have recognized that religion is based not upon physical realities but upon the reality of the spiritual that infuses with meaning the physical existence we are so much more aware of, that spirit is the essential force that has inspired man since the dawn of time to struggle, to persevere, to tolerate, to love, to forgive, to endure, to continue forward against a flood of scorn and doubt by others, and ultimately to triumph over a purely evidentiary physical environment. And from religion, if we are extremely fortunate, we might even learn to love others we might otherwise hate. There is nothing in reason to account for that. Love our enemies? Preposterous! Do good to those that seek to harm me? Ridiculous!

The tomb discoveries mean much to those who have no belief in spirit, for it proves to them, logically, that the Resurrection never happened. There are the bones, they say. Jesus lived, married Mary Magdalene, had children, died, and here he is; here, in fact, they all are. They are the same thinkers who dispute the divine creation of the world, the existence of God, the Ark of the Covenant, the Flood of Noah, the raising of Lazurus, the healing of the blind, the parting of the Red Sea and all the miracles of both Testaments, on the basis of only physical laws, historical records, archeological remains and reason. Holy objects can't kill by touch, the Earth has never flooded entirely, the dead can't be raised, the blind made to see, nor the seas to part. It is just not reasonable.

These people completely ignore the reality of spirit, which by definition cannot be apprehended by reason nor proven by science. I happen to be a Christian, but not because I know the historical proofs of the miracles. My faith doesn't hinge on the physical truth of the Resurrection or whether or not Jesus's life according to the gospels was accurately remembered. My faith is based not upon what Jesus did but upon what he preached: love, forgive, and always have faith. Be kind, be giving, be helpful, be patient, be humble, be respectful, be slow to anger and be tolerant, for no one is perfect. Admit your shortcomings and try not to repeat them.

Show me how a world that would reject such things as these in favor of a code of conduct based purely on human reason and natural laws, without any measure of right or wrong, and stripped of any divine authority or purpose for human life beyond survival at any cost could create a better world, and then we'll talk.