Boredom as discipline (a follow-up)

Last week I wrote a post about Manoush Zomorodi’s book, Bored and Brilliant and the value of letting our minds wander in as undistracted an environment as we can regularly manage. (Again: it’s a great book and you should read it.) Since that post was closing in on two thousand words I thought I had better stop writing and publish it, but I hadn’t actually yet run out of things it prompted me to think about. So, here are some further things I’ve been gnawing on.

This book actually meshes well — strange as this may seem — with something I read last month, Sara Hagerty’s Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World that Loves to be Noticed. Since I read Unseen I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live a “hidden” life, especially in regard to Biblical language around being “hidden in God” or “hidden in Christ”. What does it mean to be hidden in God? How do we cultivate that private, inner life? I’ve been mulling this over with some of my friends (hi, Heather) via email. Hagerty’s whole thing is taking those moments of our days where our instincts are to distract ourselves, or bury our emotions, or vent to friends, and instead use them as prompts to turn toward God in prayer — particularly when we are angry, hurt, etc., but really (ideally) all of the time. It’s like being a tree — we see the trunk and the limbs above the ground, but in reality the great strength of the tree is in the root system, hidden from view. The inner life of relationship with God, hidden from others, is our root system, and it’s what our flourishing depends on.

How does that mesh with what Zomorodi is talking about it? I have no idea if she is religious or not, but that’s beside the point perhaps. What stands out to me in this context is not something from the book, but an anecdote she related in her interview on the Team Human podcast. Zomorodi takes her show on the road to college campuses, and one of the exercises she has students do is to take a piece of paper and write something down on it — just a thought, not necessarily anything weighty. But then their instruction is to tear the piece of paper up and never tell her, or anyone else, what was written on it. And she’s found that students are aghast, they find it really difficult to do, because we are so primed by our natural drive for connection with others and by the techno-social forces driving our world right now, that it seems completely bizarre to have a thought and not immediately share it. Zomorodi is concerned about privacy in the sense that we often think of — stopping websites from tracking our data, etc. — but also in terms of privacy of thought, being not only able but willing to keep things to ourselves, even to take pleasure in that. Is that a skill that is disappearing? It seems to me that maybe it is.

So here’s the intersection of hiddenness and boredom/stillness and the delight of not saying it all: the secret place of prayer. Our days are filled with all these little cracks of time — waiting in line, pausing between activities, settling down before bed, taking a tea break — and we so easily reach for things to fill them: to books, to our phones, to the internet perhaps above all. (Quick, internet! Amuse me!) Zomorodi reminds us that those cracks are where, if we surrender to “doing nothing”, our brains find their most creative space. Hagerty reminds us that those moments are where, if we surrender to “doing nothing”, our hearts find their rest in God. If we never allow ourselves to be bored, to be un-distracted, to be still — we lose not only those chances at productive creativity, but we lose those chances to reorient our souls, to go to the hidden places with the Lord. We lose our roots.

I have been trying to leave myself more cracks in my day… with varying levels of success. It seems to depend a lot on how well I’ve been sleeping, actually. If I’m overtired, all I want is the self-soothing ritual of a blog post (or a dozen) to read or a game of scrabble against the computer. But I am trying — to learn to do this, to discipline my mind, to learn to want to do this more than I want other things.

I feel like this post isn’t quite fully formed — well, my thoughts on this are still not quite fully formed. But I wanted to put it out there anyway, and invite you to mull with me. What does it mean to cultivate a hidden life? To hide yourself in God? What do you do with your cracks?

Reading Round-Up: July 2018

One of the things about July being a long month (and feeling like a longer one, since we had some travel and suchlike in it) is that I can barely remember what I read just a few weeks ago. Oh well, that’s why I write things down! Here’s the list for last month:

  1. Come Rain or Come Shine (Jan Karon)
  2. To Be Where You Are (Jan Karon)
  3. Pilgrimmage: The Book of the People (Zenna Henderson)
  4. The House on the Strand (Daphne duMaurier)
  5. Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It (Jennifer Fulweiler)
  6. Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley (Antonio García Martínez)
  7. Kindest Regards: Collected Poems (Ted Kooser)
  8. Beartown (Fredrik Backman)
  9. Us Against You (Fredrik Backman)
  10. Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World That Loves to be Noticed (Sara Hagerty)
  11. The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  12. Farenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
  13. And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer (Fredrik Backman)
  14. The Art of Stillness (Pico Iyer)
  15. The Deal of a Lifetime (Fredrik Backman)

Two of those have their own posts up: Chaos Monkeys and Unseen.

Unlike June, July was pretty heavy on the fiction — I seem to get into waves that way. So let’s tackle the nonfiction first:

Something Other Than God is Jennifer Fulweiler’s first book, which I read second (I wrote up her second book, which I read first, here). This is the testimony of her conversion from a rationalist atheism to Roman Catholicism, a lovely and moving story. I found One Beautiful Dream a little more engaging — perhaps because it was dealing with a lot of the sort of questions I’ve been asking myself lately — but this was an enjoyable read.

I started reading Kindest Regards in June, and then put it down to read other things because I wasn’t enjoying it very much. But then when I picked it up again, I enjoyed it greatly — which just goes to show that sometimes it isn’t the book, it’s just the timing or your mindset. What I love about Ted Kooser’s poetry is how tight his imagery is: not a single word is wasted.

The only other nonfiction I read this month, besides the two that got their own posts, was Pico Iyer‘s The Art of Stillness. He has a TED Talk of the same name if you want the Cliff’s Notes version (though The Art of Stillness is so slim a volume that hardly seems necessary). Pico Iyer thinks that we should all slow down and practice stillness, in meditation or sabbath-keeping or various other forms, and he’s doubtless right. But the book didn’t really grab me and I can barely recall anything in it. Sorry, Pico.

On to the fiction: last month began with the final two installments of Jan Karon’s sprawling Mitford series. Come Rain or Come Shine is about the wedding of Dooley Kavanagh, Father Tim’s adopted son (well, the wedding and the preparation thereof). In To Be Where You Are, Father Tim is wrestling with his sense of purpose after retiring from the parish he pastored for many years. Like the others, they are sweet books; although they often deal with heavy themes, Karon handles them in a gentle and good-hearted manner. A+ comfort reading.

Zenna Henderson‘s Pilgrimmage: The Book of the People was a blast from the past for me; I read the copy that resides at my parents’ house which I probably hadn’t touched since high school or so. This is one of her books concerning “The People”, a group of extraterrestrials stranded on earth after the break-up of their home planet. The People look human, but they have powers — telekenesis, some telepathy, things like that — and a lot of her themes concern the tension between blending in and staying true to your self/heritage/home. They’re very thoughtful books.

Also in the fantasy realm, I loved Daphne duMaurier’s The House on the Strand. I hadn’t picked it up previously, despite owning it for ages, because the cover of my copy makes it look very blah. I know, I know, don’t judge a book by its yadda yadda whatever. But it’s actually tremendously exciting, with drug-induced time travel and family unravellings and all sorts of delicious medieval drama. I’ll read this one again.

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict is fourth in Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society series, which I have been reading all out of order. That doesn’t matter a whit in this case, as it’s a prequel, about the childhood about the aforementioned mysterious (Mr./Nicholas) Benedict. Orphans! Mysteries! Adventures! And also some salient questions about the kind of people we choose to be, and how we make those choices. It’s good stuff.

Farenheit 451 was also a re-read for me, although it’s been so long since I read it (circa age fifteen) that I didn’t remember anything about it except that I hadn’t liked it very much. It definitely reads very differently in my thirties than it did in my teens! I was struck by Bradbury’s prescience in predicting not the precise political and technological details of our age, but its spirit: where we are quickly forgetting how to think in a pervading ethos of soundbites and entertainment over all. We don’t need to install parlour-sized TVs for this, of course; we carry our distractions around in our pockets.

Last, but certainly not least, we come to Fredrik Backman: two novels (Beartown and Us Against You) and two novellas (And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer and The Deal of a Lifetime). Fredrik Backman, Fredrik Backman… Fredrik Backman will break your heart every time. Beartown and Us Against You are hockey novels (although they are so much more than that), set in a depressed town in the heart of the forest in Northern (I assume Northern) Sweden, where the only thing the town has going for it is that its Junior Hockey Team has a chance at the playoffs for the first time in twenty years. But then the team captain rapes the GM’s daughter at a party and everything unravels. I won’t spoil either book for you — but they’re fantastic. You know, in a heartbreaking way.

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer is a poignant and touching story about a grandson and his grandfather, whose brain is giving up before his body — about memory and what happens when we don’t remember anymore. It’s beautiful and sad, and all the more so for me as we have an elderly family member who is now in the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The Deal of a Lifetime is a letter written from a father to his grown son, about the choices he’s made in the past, his triumphs and (mostly) his regrets, as he contemplates one last choice that will change everything. I thought it was the weaker of the two novellas, but I’m still glad to have read it.

And that’s my month in books. I hope yours was enjoyable as well!

Dying to be seen

Do you ever wonder at the way that some books just seem to reach you at exactly the right time? Some time ago — long enough ago that I can’t remember who it was or how it happened — someone recommended that I read Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World that Loves to be Noticed by Sara Hagerty. I added it to my to-check-out list at the library, and there it sat for months. And then I thought I should finally check it out, so it came home with me one day and then sat in my to-read pile for another few weeks as I made my way through the books ahead of it. But when I finally picked it up, I was immediately struck by these words in the foreward:

The internet is one of those things that’s both a blessing and a curse — a blessing, because of the sheer power of its innovation and how it has given access to information and given voice to so many who never had one, but a curse because it’s creating a new humanity, a new way of doing things, rewiring our being.

We are shifting the way we live in order to create better pictures to post and content to create. Many of us no longer go on a hike and then take a picture to remember it. We want to take a picture to post, so we go on a hike to get that picture. It’s driving us. It’s feeding our insatiable desire to be seen. Be affirmed. Be noticed. Be loved. Be liked.

A few years in our home state of Washington, a guy wanted to get a selfie with a moving train in the background. He wasn’t paying attention to the track he was standing on, and another train sped right into him, killing him instantly.

And this isn’t an anomaly. An entire Wikipedia page is devoted to selfie-related injuries and deaths. We are, literally, dying to be seen. (Jefferson and Alyssa Bethke, pp. 11-12) [here is the Wikipedia page]

After all those months on my library list and weeks in the pile, how strange to have picked this book up the very morning I finally deleted my Facebook account. Not that Unseen is fundamentally about social media or selfie-related mishaps — far from it. But that point in the foreward certainly served to draw me in to Hagerty’s beautiful writing about the value of the unseen life, those moments of intimacy with God that root our entire being and nourish the parts of our life that aren’t in the view of others. The longing to be seen, to be noticed, and to be thought valuable that social media exploits isn’t a bad thing in itself; it’s part of what makes us human. But that longing can’t be satisfied — not wholly, not for very long — by other people. Instead, it is a prompt to turn away from chasing the recognition of other humans and toward the only one who knows and loves us perfecty and completely. Hagerty’s call is to surrender to the hidden life, to seek God in the unseen moments of our days and in the deepest vulnerabilities of our souls, and so to cultivate intimate friendship with the Lord who created us in that most secret of places:

Even as we are known, we are nonetheless born into hiding. “God saw us when we could not be seen,” writes Charles Spurgeon, “and he wrote about us when there was nothing of us to write about.” For the nine months we are encased in the womb, unseen even by the eyes of the woman whose body labors to give us life, we grow from the size of a seed to that of a watermelon. Unseen, we grow about 1,600 times larger than thetiny union of cells we started out as. In that secret place, we are incubated. Hand-hidden. Known. Witnessed. Concealed. Within the hiddenness of the womb, God gives us a glimpse of a forever truth, the truth that quickens and multiplies in secret.

The problem is not that we long for significance but that we are shifty or misguided in where we look for it. When we crave most the eyes of others — their opinions and accolades — we break our gaze with the only eyes that will ever truly see us. We forget the beauty of the Creator-eyes turned toward us, the ones that saw the inception of our lives and loved what He saw. (41-2)

Hagerty speaks most eloquently about those times in our live when we feel unseen: caring for elderly parents or young children, working thankless jobs, dealing with chronic illness, enduring a difficult marriage, or watching our peers get married or have children while we wait for something that feels like it’s never going to happen. These difficult seasons in our lives, she writes, are not accidents but invitations to growth:

… our biggest mistake is to call our hiddenness accidental. You’ve probably heard statements like these: “If I could just get out of this transition and into a role where I’m using my gifts…” or, “When the kids get a bit older and I can leave the house more…” or, “When he’s not sick anymore, I’ll reallybe able to give my life away for God’s kingdom,” or [insert yours here]. We forget that it’s in the interruptions, the waiting seasons, the disappointments that we grow best. (69)

What makes her messages so effective is that Sara Hagerty is writing out of her own experience. After a rocky start to their marriage, she and her husband endured twelve years of infertility before they adopted their four older children (she has since given birth to two more). In these unseen, heartbreaking years Hagerty was learning to sink the roots of her soul deep into God’s love. “Our growing root system,” she writes, “reaches and creeps and drinks, deeply, of a greatness that the world can’t measure, a greatness that even some within the Christian community might not recognize or understand. But the long-term greatness of a tree is always found in the depth and health of its roots” (73). This is the greatness that God calls us to: not a life that is great in the eyes of the world (though this may ceratinly happen, for some) but a life that is centred and rooted in intimacy with him.

Now maybe this call to a life of prayer and growth in the hidden places can sound like a lot of navel-gazing, in that we are more accustomed to hearing calls to spring into action: feed the hungry! clothe the poor! write to your representatives! sponsor a child! start a ministry! write a blog post! quick, quick, quick! do, do, do! But sit quietly and contemplate the goodness of God? Doesn’t that seem a little irresponsible in the face of the world’s many needs?

Hagerty assures us that, in fact, the opposite is true. Intimacy with God is not about doing nothing — it’s about being able to hear clearly, to discern what we are being called to as particular people responding to particular issues, rather than the random flailing that trying to respond to the world’s needs on our own terms often feels like:

On any day, I am overwhelmed by the needs of the world, but my greater need is to interrupt this kneejerk cycling between the cries of the world and my response so that I can cultivate friendship with God. It’s there that I learn that it’s the friends of God who truly change the world. It’s there that I have the depth of friendship that informs the way I respond to the world’s needs.

When I let friendship with God become my first priority — talking to Him, hearing from Him, letting His Word shape my thinking — I align myself with an agenda that does, in fact, help meet the needs of others. But instead of being driven by my limited cost-benefit analysis, I get to tap into the wisdom of the greatest king of the earth and heavens. And as I scoot nearer to Him, my senses are awakened. I move from being an efficient and productive worker to a friend who can touch and see and engage with God. I grow to love the things and the people He loves — with my actions, with my time, and with my presence.

Lovers will always outwork workers. (135-6)

I don’t generally make claims like this, but this is a book that I think every Christian would benefit from reading. It’s a beautifully written look at the life that’s found in the hidden places, those secret places where we grow and grow deep. Unseen came to me at precisely the right time, and I am so grateful that it did.