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“You have other words? Well, by all means, use them. You’re certainly not doing very well with the ones you have now.”

I’m not entirely sure how much longer this blog is going to be up. It’s a Simpson student blog, and I’m no longer a Simpson student. My time with the school is over, and it’s time for a new chapter in life. So, I think it’s time to start a new series of writings. I’m not entirely certain that I’ll be abandoning this blog yet, but it’s probably going to at least be drastically reduced.
So, if you’re still interested in reading what I have to say, check out just-off-the-map.blogspot.com. It’s where I’ll be sharing my thoughts from now on.

Thanks for listening.

Baleeted! Delteated! …Del Taco?

I hate my writing.

Honestly. I can’t stand it. In the three weeks since my last post, I’ve started and scrapped pages upon pages of updates, trying to combine the words I know into sentences that don’t read like utter garbage. As evidenced by the zero posts since then, I’ve failed spectacularly. I hate every single word I’ve put on paper in the last three weeks.

So what do I do? I have stories I want to tell. I think they’ll be interesting to other people (or, at least, one other person), but I can’t tell them in an interesting way. Especially not when my mind swirls with the dozens of pages I still have to write for school. How am I supposed to find time to write for me, and not my professors? It’s honestly maddening.

So…what do I do?

Sketches of the past, or: this is why we write.

In this box are all the words I know. Most of them you will never need, some you will use constantly, but with them you may ask all the questions which have never been answered and answer all the questions which have never been asked. With them there is no obstacle you cannot overcome. All you must learn to do is use them well and in the right places.

I’ve been struggling with a question these past days. To some, the question may be unimportant, or even irrelevant. For others (me), it may be a question steeped in personal history, far too complex, with far too intricate an answer, to be adequately addressed in a simple blog post (or at least, a blog post of manageable length). It’s a question that means different things to different people—or it may even mean nothing. Everyone has a different answer, and I’ve been trying to find mine.

“Why do you write?”

Of course, it’s silly to think that some people (me) might have only one answer to this question. The biggest questions never have simple answers—and to me, this is one of the biggest questions of all. I’ve had many simple answers to this question over the last decade: I write for a grade; I write to vent frustrations; I write to communicate (with others as well as myself); I write to remember; I write to forget; sometimes, I write simply to write.

I learned to write because I am one of those people who somehow cannot manage the common communications of smiles and gestures, but must use words to get across things that other people would never need to say.

I’ve long found writing to be easier than talking. With writing, I can take time—carefully choose each sentence, each phrase, each word, each letter. If I don’t like what comes out, I can erase it and start over. There’s more assurance that what I say will be what I mean to say (not total assurance, of course, but at least more). I can self-edit, and even ask others to edit for me. Or, if I want, I can make sure that no one will ever read what I write—I can keep it all to myself.

I can communicate—in writing—ideas, people, places, and things that I would never or could never get across in personal conversation. I can barely make decent conversation with people around me. I can write twenty pages on the heroic ideal in Beowulf or my philosophy on higher education with little trouble; ask me how my day went, and I doubt you’ll get more than couple sentences.

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

That’s not to say I find it easy to write about the important things in life. In truth, I don’t think anything is more difficult. I hate nearly everything I write—at least at first. Just writing the four hundred words I have so far (excluding the ones blatantly lifted from other writers) has taken an hour worth of restarts. Even now, I’m not entirely satisfied with it. But there comes a point where a writer (me) has to accept the fact that no writing is ever perfect, but only accepted for what it is.

So why, if I hate all of it, do I keep writing? The answer to that question is one for which I’ve been searching some time now. I don’t know if I’m any nearer to the answer than I was a few hundred words ago, or even a decade ago, before I was even fully cognizant of the question. But I suppose I’ll have to keep searching for the answer the only way I know how—by continuing to write.

I was here, though I am not now.

So what brought all this philosophical and existential angst on, you might ask? Well, that’s another question without a simple, single answer. I can easily point to a number of causes, although I doubt the sudden onslaught is limited to only these:

1. I’m graduating in a month. Nothing brings on the desire to reminisce about and ruminate on the past quite the end of an epic journey such as this one. It’s been nine years since I first set out, young and dumb, to the world of higher education. It’s been a journey full of missteps, restarts, false starts, and non-starts. But I’ve finally reached the end. It’s given me pause and made me think: how exactly did I end up here?

2. I’ve already been forced to examine the question in point 1 for a Senior Seminar paper. The focus was rather narrow by design; it was a paper detailing the development of my writing process and thoughts on the purpose of education through my college journey. It was enlightening, at least, to go back through the old assignments and reflect on how much my for-school writing has changed, but it left me wanting more. So now I find myself wondering: how would that paper look if I didn’t have to write for a grade? How would it look if I wrote on everything I wanted to write about, rather than my teacher?

3. I’ve begun to remember the past. Events in my recent life, outside of school, have given me occasion to reflect on where (and who) I’ve been in the last decade. (You’ll hear more about them later, I promise.) I’ve dug up old writings, letters and sketches of the past, and remembered all (or at least) some of the places I’ve been, the people I’ve seen, and the things I’ve done.

But the memories are jumbled and hazy. Everything has become somewhat faded. I’ll read a letter or an entry in a journal, and think to myself, What are you talking about? Who are you talking to? What is all this about? My memory is far from perfect. I rarely remember complete stories. I’ll remember bits, oddly specific details (although less of them than I like), and form a quasi-narrative out of them. Memories may change a room’s shape or a person’s face, but we (I) do the best we can with what we have.

And I want to remember more. I want to commit this all to print so that I don’t have to commit it to memory. I want the stories to be there, kept safely away for a rainy day. I want to pull them out and say, remember when? Hopefully some of you will read these next I-don’t-know-how-many entries and find them half as interested as I do. Not everything will be there, of course—that’s the pitfall of memory. Old ones need to be pushed out to make way for new ones. But I’ll do my best.

So for now, the answer to the question, “Why do you write?” may be as simple as this:

I write to get ten years of stories out of my head.

In the case of the church v. the government.

The big news of the day is that California’s 9th circuit court has declared Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage in the state, unconstitutional. Now it’s likely on its way to the US Supreme court. For the discerning believer, it raises all kinds of questions. Should gay marriage be banned in the US? Is it unconstitutional? Is marriage a right that should be extended to all people?

Now, the question I’m not asking is whether homosexuality is a sin. Because that’s not the only element to this debate (in fact, one might argue it shouldn’t be part of the debate at all). The question is, does America have, or should they have, the right to legislate morality?

My thoughts: from a simple, political viewpoint, such a ban is patently unconstitutional. The idea that “marriage should only be between a man and a woman” is a uniquely religious ideal, and the first amendment says that the government shall enact no law respecting an establishment of religion.

But, as a Christian, I recognize that that’s not really the end of the story for us. If we believe that homosexuality is a sin, as many of us do (but again, whether it is or not isn’t the argument I’m trying to make), shouldn’t we make an effort to preach that to the world? Well, I suppose the simple answer to that question is yes. If you, as a church member, don’t believe that homosexuals should marry, than don’t marry them in your church. I wouldn’t presume to tell a fellow believer to act against their beliefs.

But here’s the thing: the courthouse is not the church. God has not chosen to reveal himself through lawmakers and politicians. A thought from Samuel Wells’s book Improvisation: the Drama of Christian Ethics, while not addressing the issue of gay marriage per se, sheds some light on the subject:

“Three temptations have misled the church ever since the time of St. Antony. The first is to see the principal location of theology as the world, or ‘society’ – the political whole. By making the church invisible this approach gives up on God’s primary mode of working in the world. It also opens the church’s heart to further temptations. Christians may begin to confuse the church and the world, trying to make the world the church, or treating it as if it were. If christians do not have a distinctive community, they will seek prominent positions amongst the powerful in the world. They may well regard it as their responsibility, rather than God’s, to make the world come out right, to usher in the kingdom. The will therefore need to form a different set of allies, and find themselves with a different set of enemies. This is the danger of ‘universal’ ethics. And this is before it even starts to coerce those who disagree.”

That’s not to mention that we are commanded above all things to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37,39). I would argue that petitioning to remove a brother or sister’s civil rights is a textbook definition of not loving them (and if you don’t think marriage is a civil right, I would point out to you that heterosexual marriage has never been put to a popular vote).

So instead of trying to coerce people into behaving right through legal action, let’s try to love them instead. If we emulate God through our actions, he will be faithful to act in people’s hearts and inspire them to righteousness.

 

Sorry, but Christianity most certainly is a religion.

There’s a YouTube video making it’s way through my Facebook news feed lately. It’s called “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus“; it features a poem written and performed by Jeff Bethke. The title made me bristle a little bit, but I decided I’d give it a look-see to know what all the fuss was about.

I couldn’t get past the first line.

Bethke asks, “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?” With that, he echoes the sentiment I’ve heard FAR too many of my friends trumpet when they want to stir something up: “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship!” And I just need to say one thing about that; while it’s a nice thought, and I understand where you’re coming from, it’s flat-out not true.

———-
EDIT: I did decide to go back and watch that video, so that I could form a more informed opinion, but I still couldn’t get very far. Plus, a point-by-point critique of that video is not really the point I’m trying to make here. However, I will share a couple of thoughts on what Bethke has to say.

1. “Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?” Now, when I heard this, I assumed (safely, I think), that he says “religion” here, but really means “Catholics”. What he conveniently ignores is that Catholic Charities USA gave $2.67 billion in charitable donations in 2005 (the most recent data I could find)…to say nothing of worldwide. So that’s debatable at best.

2. “Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever been divorced…” What? Who the hell says that? The Westboro Baptist Church, maybe. But I think EVERYONE can agree that the fine folks at the WBC are insane, disgusting hypocrites. What they are not, however, is “religion”.

3. “Religion preaches grace, but another thing they practice…” True enough, sort of. Religion (at least, Christianity) does preach grace when it’s being preached right. So why do you hate it? And who is “they”? It’s not religion. Religion is not a “they”. It’s the people preaching religion hypocritically who are the problem, not the religion itself.

Anyway, back to the point…
———-

If I had to answer the question, “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?” I’d answer back, “Then I would say you haven’t read your Bible very carefully.” Jesus says pretty plain and simple in Matthew 5, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus didn’t come to abolish religion, and he certainly didn’t hate it; after all, He (being God) created one back in the days of the Old Testament (and fulfilled it to its full potential in the New). He even told Joshua, “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful”–something we’d be wise to keep in mind.

Of course, even if we ignore the Old Testament, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Jesus was really into the whole following-religion thing. Here’s a short, non-comprehensive list of evidence:

“He went to Nazareth…and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.” (Luke 4:16)
“There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17)
“Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19)
Not to mention lots of instances where Jesus observes Jewish feasts and traditions (Passover, Hanukkah, etc.). Plus, he went ahead and established rules, rituals, and traditions of his own, that his disciples kept close to and had their followers keep as well: baptism, communion, and the like.

Now, when people use the word “religion”, what they usually mean is “religiosity”, or legalism. And those are perfectly legitimate things to protest against. We should strive to be loving, caring, and un-hypocritical in practicing our faith. Following the rules should never supersede loving Jesus and others. But why should it go the other way? Jesus himself said, “If you love me, keep my commands.” You can’t truly follow Christianity without doing both.

And it’s true, of course, that the people Jesus railed against in his day were the most religious people of the time. But he didn’t denounce them because they were religious. he denounced them because they had taken the religion they had been given and turned it into something ugly and hypocritical: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”

All this is to say, Christianity is a religion and a relationship. You can’t hate religion and love Jesus. He loved religion. If you want to be like him, do as he did. Just make sure you do it the right way.

On Simpson’s drinking policy, or: no bourbon, no scotch, no beer.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Simpson’s policy on alcohol. I don’t know if it’s more than usual, but I’m certainly hearing it more. In student senate discussions, on student satisfaction surveys, in leadership meetings…whatever the reason, we can’t seem to get away from the issue right now.

For any of you unfamiliar, Simpson’s policy on alcohol is thus: students are not allowed to drink alcohol while enrolled, period. Regardless of your age, whether you are on or off campus, or anything else, you cannot drink alcohol unless you are on winter or summer break (the times when you are technically not enrolled at school). And I, like so many of my peers, disagree with the rule. But I, unlike most of my peers, don’t think the rule needs to change. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that it should stay the way it is.

Again, this isn’t a rule I fully agree with. Full disclosure: I like to drink, socially and in moderation, when I’m not enrolled. Some of the best times I’ve had with friends back home involve a case of beer and late-night Halo or Battlefield marathons, and holiday dinners usually involve a few glasses of wine. Before coming to Simpson, I went to a local brewery almost every Tuesday for a two-dollar pint. If Simpson’s alcohol policy were to change, I’d probably make a point of visiting Maxwell’s on Market Street to enjoy a bleu cheese burger and pint of Guinness (come to think of it, I’ll probably do that to celebrate graduation this April).

Now, as far as I can tell, most mainstream Christians don’t think that drinking any amount of alcohol is sinful. After all, Jesus turned water into wine at a party (and no, I don’t buy into the “unfermented grape juice” theory), and Paul instructed Timothy to “take a little wine” for his upset stomach. But what they do believe–rightly so, I think–is that the Bible clearly teaches against drunkenness. The question is, how do we stop one from turning into the other? It’s not an easy question at any age, much less for the newly legal.

A few years ago, Relevant Magazine published an interesting article that I’m reminded of when addressing this issue. The author brings up an oft-neglected point in discussing Christian drinkers vs. teetotalers:

I get the feeling that many of those who vehemently defend their rights to be Christian drinkers do so because, well, they’re nervous about being Christian drinkers…Same goes for the teetotalers, who argue and quote verses because they’re afraid to face the ease with which they pass judgment on their drinking brethren. Both sides make good points, and both sides are wrong. Why? Because either way the focus is on rules. It’s all legalism. Does the Bible say don’t drink? Not exactly, so I can drink. Does the Bible say don’t drink? Not exactly, so I better not drink.

(For the record, I’ve heard the reasoning for Simpson’s alcohol policy from some of the administrators, and I don’t mean to categorize them as “teetotalers”. I don’t think they are, and don’t believe that’s how they justify their policies in any way. I’m just following the Relevant author’s argument for the time being, largely to make a point about the drinkers.)

To those who would see Simpson change their stance: why is so important for you to be allowed to drink? Because the Bible says you can? Well, the Bible also says this: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive.”

It is, as I said, incredibly hard to learn how to drink (or really, do anything) in moderation without letting it become a problem. One of the most prevalent arguments I hear against Simpson’s policy is, “Simpson should treat us like responsible adults, and let us make our own decisions.” In theory, I would agree with this argument. But there’s one problem; a lot of us probably wouldn’t be responsible adults if given the opportunity. Again, from Relevant: “The truth is, none of us are very good at identifying and following our conscience.” With rules in place allowing us to enjoy an off-campus beer, we’d be absolved of the responsibility of making our own decisions on our views toward alcohol, and that, more than anything, would lead to problems.

(And as far as on-campus drinking, I’ll only say that I fully support Simpson being a completely dry campus, no matter what–and I think most students would agree with me on that. So we’ll ignore that part of the issue.)

There are other issues that come up with this discussion: the social and emotional effect a change in policy would have on students who aren’t even legally allowed to drink (and don’t try to tell me there wouldn’t be one); the extra effort that would have go into policing such a policy; the can of worms that is the problem drinking some students might fall into given the opportunity and how the school would have to deal with it. But before this gets too wordy, I’ll just say one thing to my fellow students:

deal with it. Worst case scenario, you’re not allowed to drink whenever you want for two or three years of your life. In the meantime, use that brain space to worry about things that really matter. Maybe you want to drink, maybe you don’t. But for now, it’s not an important issue, or even an issue at all (since you’re not allowed anyway). You’ve been given an opportunity to focus on better things: education, relationships, theology…the list goes on. Instead of focusing on what the rules say, try to figure out what your conscience says, and you’ll have a better idea of what to do in a couple of years. Lord knows it’ll be a lot easier to figure out if your brain isn’t addled by that beer the school said you could drink.

-

Albums of the day:
Reverend Horton Heat: We Three Kings
Clem Snide: Journey
Maylene and the Sons of Disaster: II

Do TOMS really help?, or: has it really GOT to be the shoes?

True altruism is more than the capacity to pity; it is the capacity to sympathize. Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern that prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern that demands the giving of one’s soul…our missionary efforts fail when they are based on pity, rather than true compassion. Instead of seeking to do something with the African and Asian peoples, we have too often sought only to do something for them. An expression of pity devoid of genuine sympathy leads to a new form of paternalism that no self-respecting person can accept. Dollars possess the potential for helping wounded children of God on life’s Jericho Road, but unless those dollars are distributed by compassionate fingers they will enrich neither the giver nor the receiver.
-
Martin Luther King Jr.

Let me get this out there right off the bat: I will NEVER buy or wear a pair of TOMS shoes. If you’re ever thinking about buying me a pair for Christmas or some other such special occasion, don’t. Thanks.

Now, I don’t have only bad things to say about TOMS. I think Blake (the company’s founder) and the rest of the company have the best intentions. But good intentions are not enough. We need good aid, not just good intention. And TOMS, I think, are bad aid.

You might ask how I could possibly be opposed to aid work or any kind of charity. After all, TOMS is out there on the front lines DOING something, rather than just sitting back and lamenting the current state of the world without taking action. And that’s true, I grant you. They are not doing nothing, and for that I commend them. But what they’re doing, I contend, isn’t really helping; in fact, it may be hurting in more ways than one.

On the surface, TOMS has hold of a great idea. You’re going to buy shoes anyway, so why not buy the right shoes, shoes that will help you be charitable with something you do anyway? It’s an easy way to help out your brother in need, and it gets you a pair of snazzy slip-ons in the process! But I, like Aidwatch blogger Vivek Nemana, am “unconvinced that easy aid could ever be good aid.” He writes, “Instead of taking a fundamental problem that people face–say, unsafe conditions for children–and thinking of what they need to help solve it, this model takes a solution–shoes–and staples it to some problem that people have. And by attempting to view the whole spectrum of issues through this single-dimensional proto-solution, it’s easy to forget about all the unintended consequences.”

Unintended consequences is right. TOMS provides shoes because, as they say, they help protect children from things like soil-born illnesses. A nice thought, but here’s the thing: feet are tough. We’ve survived for who knows how long without shoes. Our feet are designed to take it. In fact, The American College of Foot and Ankle Orthopedics and Medicine (what a mouthful!) says shoes might actually be bad for you. Yep, the people selling you those idiotic-looking toe-glove shoes have it right: “The influence of modern lifestyle, including the use of footwear, appears to have some significant negative effect on foot function, potentially resulting in an increase in pathological changes.” Those African kids you’re putting shoes on have lived barefoot their entire lives. What happens when, after a year of wearing shoes, the callouses they’ve developed on their feet are gone? Unless TOMS is standing buy to immediately re-shoe them (and I doubt they can keep track of all the kids they send shoes to perfectly), they might actually be in more danger of soil-borne illnesses than they were before. Not that kids aren’t contracting them now–I’m sure some of them are–but more will probably get them if they ever go back to being shoeless.

Beyond that, though, the existence of soil-based disease is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself (much like the shoelessness, but I’ll get to that later). Living with disease is, unfortunately, a way of life for many people living in undeveloped and underdeveloped countries. It’s in their water, their food, it’s everywhere. Covering a kid’s feet is, at best, a band-aid solution to the very real problem of disease. These countries need change from the ground up. They don’t need protection from disease as much as they need the disease to not be there. Clean up the soil and you won’t have to protect their feet from it.

Which leads to the point about shoelessness. The problem facing people in third world countries is NOT that they don’t have shoes. In a manner of speaking, it’s that they can’t buy shoes. They don’t have jobs, and they don’t have money. But on an even more basic level, they don’t have sanitation, clean water to drink or food to eat, and they don’t have access to medical care. In many cases, they may not even have a roof over their heads. Will a pair of shoes really solve any of these problems?

Well, according to TOMS, they will. In their giving report, they quote a Dr. Fwasa Singogo: “Shoes simply mean everything to a Zambian child. I am called doctor today because of the shoes my father bought, which motivated me to keep going to school and to work hard. Shoes were and are still a luxury in this country…” Now, it is true that while we in America generally speak of poverty in terms of owning (or rather, not owning) material possessions: a house, a car, a big TV, etc., while in third world countries it is more thought of in terms of dignity and the feeling of powerlessness that comes from a lack of wealth. But the key phrase in that quote is “the shoes my father bought“, not “the shoes that a wealthy white person gave to me”. He was given an opportunity, not pity: a hand up, not a handout, if you’ll forgive the cliché. If you want to give an African child real dignity, give him a chance to buy his own shoes; don’t just throw a pair of shoes at him and assume he’ll end up being a doctor. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert write in When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, “Avoid paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves. Memorize this, recite it under your breath all day long, and wear it like a garland around your neck.” Ask yourself: what’s a greater source of pride? A pair of shoes, or a job that helps you buy those shoes?

(Moreover, why should we only trust TOMS to inform us of the all the good TOMS does? Not that I think they’re being intentionally deceptive; it’s just that I don’t think we can trust anyone to be truly objective about the “good” they themselves are doing. Look at it this way: when you buy a new car, do you take the car dealership at its word when they tell you you’ve got the best car on the market? God, I hope not. I hope you open up, for example, Consumer Reports and see what outside, objective, third-party researchers have to say on the subject. Why should it be any different with the shoes you buy, or the charities you give to?)

The biggest problem, though, might not even be that of disease or paternalism. Now, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to assess the economic effects of giving shoes to needy people in the third world; this is, after all, a young charity, and tangible effects may take years to show themselves. But the donation of used clothes from thrift stores and other such charitable organizations that’s been going on for years is, I think, analogous enough to draw a good comparison. Garth Frazer researched the effects of used-clothing donations on third-world economies for the Economic Journal, and found that “Used-clothing imports…have a negative impact on apparel production in Africa, explaining roughly 40% of the decline in production and 50% of the decline in employment over the period 1981–2000.” Read that again: fifty percent of the people who became unemployed over those twenty years became so because of charitable donations. When someone is provided with free shoes, the motivation to produce disappears. When the motivation disappears, production disappears. When production disappears, jobs disappear. And when jobs disappear, the money disappears–along with the resources to provide all the things people really need: food, water, sanitation, medicine, etc.

Now, I don’t want to be overcritical of Blake Mycoskie, TOMS, or the people buying the shoes. The desire to do good is admirable, and should absolutely be applauded. Blake, TOMS, heck, all of us comparatively wealthy Americans have been given a powerful platform form which to do real good. Problem is, we don’t seem to be doing it right. Let’s find a solution to a problem, not treat the symptoms. If you want to help, send 50 bucks to a nonprofit provided to providing sanitation in developing countries instead of buying a shiny new pair of TOMS. Clean water will go a lot farther than a pair of shoes, and last much longer than the year that the average pair of shoes will get you. Or maybe you could send money to an organization that will train and equip teachers–people who will provide children in other countries with real opportunities.

Or, if you still want to be charitable with your shoes, why not check out a company like soleRebels? Headquarted in Ethiopia, they provide jobs for the locals making handcrafted shoes. They’re the country’s only Fair-Trade certified organization (a claim easily verified via the World Fair Trade organization website), and are creating real opportunities.

Don’t look at yourself as a “donor”, or the people in need as “recipients”. Look at both of you as partners.

Land of the free, home of the self-satisfied.

When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

- Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Friday was Veterans’ Day.

Now, I am in awe of our country’s past, present, and future armed servicemen and women. They perform incredibly brave and unfortunately necessary deeds that I could never hope to be brave enough to do. I have nothing but the utmost respect for them and think they deserve our respect and admiration. And–like most people, I think–I pray to live to see the day when their services are no longer needed. But Veterans’ Day makes me uncomfortable. Specifically, I am uncomfortable when I find myself sitting in church or chapel and I hear someone pray something along the lines of, “Thank you, God, that we live in a country where we are free to worship you publicly”, “Thank you for the freedoms we enjoy in America”, et cetera.

Should we, as Christians, thank God for America being so great? I would say no for a few reasons:
1. America isn’t actually that great. Now, you could make an argument that America is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) country in the world…but that would have to depend on your definition of greatness. Even so, being one of the greatest does not necessarily make one great–relatively great, maybe, but not objectively great. America has some substantial room for improvement. Our economy is broken, along with our healthcare system; the political sphere rewards mediocrity and extreme partisanship (don’t believe me? Watch five minutes of any of the recent Republican debates. And no, democrats aren’t much better); we send our soldiers off to fight in unjust wars (I’m looking at you, War on Terror) with little regard to the humanity of our so-called “enemies”; the list goes on. Not to mention something it seems many of us forget in this day and age: God is not American.
But more importantly…
2. Why should we thank God for having it easy? Bishop Philips Brooks said, “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be the miracle.” How about instead of praising God that we don’t suffer the way other Christians do, we pray for those Christians in their suffering? How about we try to do something to alleviate the problems the rest of the world is facing rather than patting ourselves on the collective back for being so open-minded and tolerant over here in our little corner of the world?

All in all, I must admit that I don’t much care for Veterans’ Day in practice. Our veterans are heroes, no doubt. I just wish we did a better job of honoring them instead of us.

OWS is mad as hell…but should they keep taking it?

This caption makes me so mad I could scream.

I’ll be real with you for a second: I would really like to throttle all of you out there who would paint the protesters involved in the Occupy movement as entitled, self-absorbed, over-privileged, under-motivated slackers who don’t understand how good they really have it in America. But obviously, I can’t do that. So in lieu of physically assaulting you, I hope you’ll accept a bit of verbal haranguing.

I get it: America is and probably always will be among the very richest nations in the world. There are people out there  in other countries surviving on pennies a day while we hold our cardboard signs, standing in the streets, angry at the so-called Man for depriving us of the piece of the American dream we feel entitled to. That doesn’t sit well with you. I understand.

But where in the world do you get off telling these people that their struggles don’t matter? That, in light of a “greater” injustice, we should just sit back and be thankful that we have mortgages to be upside-down on, hospitals that slap us with outrageous medical bills (and employers who won’t provide us with the insurance to pay them), or a college degree that’s becoming increasingly useless as this country’s jobs disappear, not to mention tens of thousands of student loan debt? Where do you get the nerve?

We–and I mean ALL Americans, not just the Occupy protesters–have a right to be angry about what’s happening in this country. We have a right to be mad that the people who caused the housing market to utterly collapse, causing millions of people to get foreclosed on or go underwater in debt, received billions of dollars in compensation while we got told work harder. We have a right to be mad that our hospital bills will probably never be paid off. We have a right to be mad that the degree we went up to our ears in debt to procure can barely get us enough to live on these days, much less pay back all that debt anytime soon. One injustice does not cancel out the other.

In case you still think I’m talking like one of the entitled prigs you see shouting platitudes in protest, allow me to retort your photo-based argument with a photo or two of my own (all these are taken from wearethe99percent.tumblr.com):

Just to make absolutely sure you can read what that paper says: “Working 67 hours a week but can’t afford to buy school supplies for my daughters. I am the 99%.”

Think she’s not working hard enough? Maybe she should have thought twice before having those kids she couldn’t afford to pay for, right? Why isn’t she working enough so she CAN pay for them? I bet she’s a single mom, too. Where’s the husband in all of this? This just goes to show you the decline in values of our society today, doesn’t it? You know, some people in other countries have eight kids they can’t afford to care for! You don’t know how good you have it in this country!

“I’m a 14 year old early college student. My family and I just moved back in with my grandmother. My dad just got laid off and my mom’s a full time student. We’re denied health care, and can’t afford to privately pay for it. We’re all struggling.”

Hey, get a good education, and that’ll get you a good job in the future, right? Your dad probably isn’t working hard enough to find another job, either. And why isn’t your mom working? She is supposed to be providing for her family, not looking out for her own selfish wants! Get a better job, and you’ll be able to afford that healthcare you’re lacking right now!

And my personal favorite (it’s a long one):

“I have a degree; an Associates of Arts. I stopped there, because I’d nearly exhausted the savings my parents had for me. And by 2008, I’d seen just how far a degree would get me: deep in debt. with little chance to every pay it back. A degree has become little more than pricey slips of paper, mocking us from their frames and envelopes. It took me three and half years to get that slip of paper. I’m one of the lucky ones, with no debt.

“But I also have no job. And no dreams, no this is slowly becoming a living nightmare. I had a minimum wage job, in another city, but I couldn’t support myself on $7.94 an hour. We had barely been getting by on two paychecks. Now I’m back in with mu parents, living off their generosity and my own meager savings. I’m applying to every job I can find out here. But so few places are actually hiring, and I am over-educated or under-experienced for nearly all of them. Or both.

“I played by the rules. I got good grades, went to college, and got a degree. I graduated in 2009, to no prospects. Nothing for me. Fast food joints don’t even call me back.

“I feel HOPELESS. I’m already depressed, untreated. I often find myself thinking of suicide, because I see no future for me. At all. The current reality depresses me more than anything else. There is nothing here for me to work towards. Nothing substantial for any of my friends either.

“My best friend is pregnant with their first child. At 7 months pregnant, she lost her job. She has since been rehired, but her insurance won’t pick back up for another 45 days. She’s due in 2 weeks. His family is well off, but they’re not rich. They help, but they can’t support them completely on the medical bills.

“So is that what we’re supposed to do now? Live off our parents? All of our parents are stuck as well. “They’re torn between their own daily expenses and retirement funds, or supporting their grown children. Again. That is not a desicion they should be forced to make.

“We all played by the rules, and we were robbed blind.

“We sat back in blissful ignorance, and let them do this to us.

“We are the 99 percent.

“And we are sick of playing by these Greed-driven rules.”

…I don’t really have anything to add to that.

 

“Whether or not you find your own way, you’re bound to find SOME way!”

What am I doing here?

It’s a question that’s crossed my mind not infrequently in the past year-plus that I’ve been back here at Simpson, and even more so in the past two-plus months.  Now, I don’t mean it in the sense of one who might look at his surroundings and think he has ended up in the wrong place; I know I’m where I should be, and am very happy to be so and know so. I mean as one who is coming to the realization that he doesn’t quite know what his goals are.

I’m not speaking simply in an academic sense, either, although that is certainly part of it. With graduation just around the metaphorical corner, it becomes necessary to begin planning for the next chapter of one’s educational/vocational life story. As of right now, the pages of that particular chapter are, for me, utterly and totally blank, and I haven’t the slightest clue of what is going to fill them–which is, I’ll admit, slightly terrifying.

“Expect everything, I always say, and the unexpected never happens.”

I had a fairly good idea of what kind of things to expect from my time here at Simpson. It’s becoming more and more apparent with each passing day, however, that I really had no idea at all. I had a picture of how things would play out for me here, how I would interact with the school and the people in it, and how Simpson would shape me (and, if I may be so bold, how I would help shape it) in my two short years here. Suffice it to say, things have not been going according to plan.

That’s not to say they’ve been going badly. That is not the case at all. Again, I know I’m where I should be, and all the happier for knowing that. But thus far, most of my expectations–if not all of them–for Simpson University, take 2, have gone or appear to be going out the window. Some of my needs and desires are being filled in ways I never expected, and others…well, I wonder if Simpson will be filling them at all.

“The way you see things depends a great deal on where you look at them from.”

Sometimes it’s easy for me to forget about the age gap between me and the majority of Simpson’s student body, even among those in the upper-class levels of their education, i.e. the other seniors. Even though I’ll be graduating from college at the ripe old age of twenty-six, in many ways I still feel like a kid. After all, I am still an undergraduate. Other times (and if I’m honest, probably more often than not), it’s almost impossible for me to forget the age gap.

Because it’s not just an age gap, is it? It is, as a non-Simpson friend of mine, put it, a “life” gap. That’s not to say I think I’ve experienced more in my additional years per se, but that I’ve experienced differently. It’s a simple fact of life that someone who’s attended four straight years of college immediately following high school hasn’t experienced life the same way I have–what with my year-and-a-half of college followed by employment followed by unemployment followed by community college followed by this. It’s been a strange journey indeed.

It’s an isolating feeling sometimes. I haven’t experienced the world the same way as most of my fellow students, and so I know I don’t see the world the same way. I don’t even see myself the same way they might see themselves. What do you do when your very foundations are so radically different from the people around you?

That’s overdramatic. Our foundations aren’t all that different. We’re are all, if I can over-generalize, twenty-something Believers with a capital B, attending a private university in Redding, California; and we presumably know what we’re doing here, and have at least similar educational, vocational, and personal goals. Do we really, though? I can’t help but wonder that sometimes.

“Whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else.”

What am I doing here? I wonder how many of my fellow students know the answer to that question. Of course, I know the answer to that question in at least one sense. I’m here to get an education, a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature, and to equip myself to enter the so-called “real” world next spring (or after that, if graduate school proves to be a worthwhile endeavor). Presumably I’ll end up using that degree to get a job somewhat related to it, although I could end up doing something utterly tangential.

But what am I doing here in a personal sense? Sometimes I fear that I don’t know the answer to that question at all. I had an idea of what I wanted to do here personally coming in last fall, but I wonder how much those ideas will go the way of the best-laid plans of mice and men. I wonder to myself sometimes, what if I’m looking for here at Simpson isn’t what I’m expecting? What if it’s not at Simpson at all?

“There is much worth noticing that often escapes the eye.”

Here’s the truth, though: while I’ve spent nearly nine hundred words talking about college, that’s not really what I’m writing about. Simply put, I’m writing about me, and I’m writing about you, Friend. Even though we’ve known each other a while, in may ways we still don’t know each other. At any given time, I find myself intrigued, fascinated, and scared spitless at the thought of opening up to you. What happens if we don’t like what we see?

We’ve had different experiences. Sometimes I feel like I could teach you something, but at other times, I feel like there’s nothing I could teach you. I wonder how often you think about me, and think about you probably more often than you realize. I care for you a great deal, but don’t always know the best way to show it, and wonder if that caring means anything significant. I wonder if and how our story will end. Will we stay in touch? What will happen six months from now? More than that, what will happen tomorrow?

I want to know more about you. You might not know this, given my propensity for…well, being loud…but I’ve always preferred hearing to being heard. I could talk about myself, sure, but I know all there is to know about me (well, not really, but you understand my point). Now I want to know about you. I like hearing about it all, from the most trivial nothings of your day-to-day life to your thoughts on issues of the utmost importance.

I want to get to know you better, become closer with you, but sometimes wonder if I’m up to the task. I know you must have seen things I can’t even imagine. I thought I had an idea of what I was getting into, but it turns out I didn’t have much, if anything, to give you before, when we first met; are things different now? Will they ever be? I know that I have a lot to give, but wonder how much I can give to you.

We have a lot in common–not everything, of course, but enough that I feel like we could be great friends if we worked at it. I have no idea what will come of it, though–sometimes I’m OK with that, and sometimes it’s terrifying. But I think it would be worth the effort.

“What you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do.”

If you’re reading this, and you think it’s about you, you’re right. And if you don’t, well…you’re right, too.