Deep Practice

Through random book serendipity, I came across the 2009 book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, and I’ve been reading about “talent hotbeds.” Coyle wanted to know why a certain Russian tennis academy produces a slew of champions, or the Dominican Republic a steady stream of baseball pros, or 1590s Elizabethan England an outpouring of great poets. He discovered that the answer is neither genetic mutations, nor climate, nor—I know this will come as a disappointment—aliens. The answer is practice.

Naturally, we are talking about a certain kind of practice in certain kinds of circumstances. The book is a pleasantly breathless study of what creates motivation, what constitutes great coaching or teaching, and how we learn complex skills most efficiently. If you can put together the right elements, you might just set off a bloom of talent. I found this book intriguing as a teacher, a musician, and an occasionally nagging parent (“Practice your horn!”)—and I’m sure that athletes, too, would find it useful and even inspiring.

What interested me most, though, was the idea of “deep practice” at the heart of the book. Efficient learning, the kind that results in exceptional talent, requires not just any practice, but deep practice. This is a focused, exacting form of skill-building, a kind of fierce meditation in action. Anyone can do it; you just have to learn how and then keep it up.

The reason deep practice is so effective, Coyle explains, is myelin. Myelin is a sheathing that your brain uses to coat and secure a neural pathway when you repeat a skill. The more you repeat something, the more myelin your brain creates and the greater “bandwidth” you develop for that skill. When you practice well, you build myelin quickly, and you retain and improve the skill you’re working on. So don’t practice something wrong! Then you’re just building myelin for the wrong pathway!

As Coyle breaks down deep practice into its constituent parts (yes, of course this has all been studied scientifically!), he describes these steps: 

Pick a target.

Reach for it.

Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach.

Return to step one. (92)

That third step implies that a necessary part of deep practice is making errors, lots of them, but always noting and correcting those errors immediately—that’s what takes enormous patience and concentration. Coyle observes, then, that failure is indispensible to the path forward, but only if responded to with focused attention.

That brings me to another book I’m reading, also through the workings of book serendipity: Richard Rohr’s 2011 Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Rohr is a Franciscan priest and the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. In this book, he draws upon his decades of experience with spiritual direction in various cultures and contexts, as well as his scholarly, cross-cultural study of spiritual development.

He proposes that human spiritual development seems to be divided roughly into two halves. In the first half of life, we are building an identity, learning the rules, being formed by structures. He calls it “creating a container.” The container is important and necessary, and healthy religious institutions help us build it. But in the second half of life, our mature purpose is to experience a deeper transformation—to put into that container the mystery of God. We don’t discard the container; instead, we “transcend and include” it.

However, it is quite common to get stuck in that first stage, so that life remains about the container and we spend our energy protecting and defending the forms rather than the mystery:   

Early-stage religion is largely preparing you for the immense gift of this burning, this inner experience of God, as though creating a proper stable into which the Christ can be born. Unfortunately, most people get so preoccupied with their stable, and whether their stable is better than your stable, or whether their stable is the only ‘one, holy, catholic, apostolic’ stable, that they never get to the birth of God in the soul. (13)

So how might we move from the first stage to the second stage? Failure. “Necessary suffering,” as Rohr terms it. No one is happy about this, but it seems to be the way of things.

No use trying to approach this second-half task as a project, either, trying to engineer your own spiritual advancement. The shift has to happen to you—and it will, says Rohr. You will “fall.” “Spiritually speaking,” Rohr writes, “you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources” (65). That’s when God can get down to the real work of transformation: when the ego you’ve built finally gets out of the way. When you have no choice but to trust.

So it turns out that not only while practicing the clarinet, but also in the deepest spiritual realms, failure is indispensible to the path forward—but only if responded to with focused attention.

As I read Rohr’s book together with The Talent Code, I’m pondering the possible connections. For example, I wonder about this idea of “deep practice.” Could what Coyle has discovered about learning tennis and violin somehow be applied to the faith life? Could it be that as we engage in worship and prayer, community and service, study and rest, we are building a kind of spiritual myelin?

Perhaps this is what we mean by spiritual formation. Reading these two books together has made me deeply grateful all over again for my own religious upbringing and for a life rich with worship and other faith practices, shared in community. I have built a lot of myelin—or a strong container—and I’m glad! I’m also grateful for the current work in faith formation happening in Reformed denominations. We’re doing the right thing, clearly: trying to work on the habits with focused attention so as to strengthen the right pathways.

But here’s a question: I wonder if we are building into our spiritual practices a way to prepare for second-stage faith. How can we emphasize that the forms and rules—the do’s and don’ts and rights and wrongs—are not for their own sake, but so that we might become friends of God? And, while we talk about sin plenty, how can we take seriously the idea that failures and wounds in life are an inevitable and necessary aspect of deep spiritual transformation? What practices would help us build myelin so that we are prepared, when we find ourselves falling, to “fall upward” and receive “the gift of this burning”?



Pious Petunia Braves the Wedding Season

Today, guest blogger and advice columnist Pious Petunia offers hard-earned wisdom for brides, grooms, friends, and other victims of the summer wedding frenzy.

Dear Miss Petunia: My girlfriend and I have talked about getting married, and I’m ready to propose to her. But I don’t know how to do it! Her friend’s husband proposed by organizing a flash mob which performed a dance number to her favorite song, and then he parachuted in with the ring attached to the collar of an adorable Pomeranian puppy. How am I supposed to compete with that?

PP: Oh dear. I don’t think you can compete with that, nor should you. As much as Miss P enjoys spectacular dance numbers and Pomeranians, she also believes that a marriage proposal is a private moment. It is not a performance you stage for YouTube viewers. All due credit to those proposers who wish to move beyond the old stand-by plan of a restaurant dinner with the ring presented before dessert—but honestly. There’s no need for a marching band.

“Surprise” is simply not a wise policy when it comes to proposals. After all, you want freely given, full-hearted assent. You do not want a flustered “yes” delivered under compulsion because forty relatives and friends are waiting, perhaps panting for breath after their exertions, or because twenty thousand baseball fans are roaring for the ritual smooch on the jumbotron screen.

You have already taken the essential step of discussing marriage seriously with your beloved before making any official, ring-enhanced overtures. Good for you. Now go ahead and give your magic moment a little thought and planning, and do something meaningful to you both. But for goodness’ sake, allow you and your beloved the dignity of rejoicing in this moment privately. If by some chance she has a few lingering worries or doubts, you can discuss them quietly and—one hopes—lay them gently to rest before dealing with excitable friends and relatives.

Once you are both aglow with happiness, if you want to announce the good news to your friends with a musical-fountain/tap-dance number, well then, knock yourselves out.   

Dear Miss Petunia: As a pastor, I do about a dozen weddings per year. You would not believe what even good, church-going people ask for at their wedding ceremonies. How can I find a way to tell them no without driving them away from the church?

PP: Oh, Miss P has been around the block a time or two. I doubt you could shock me with the kinds of requests you receive from families suffering from wedding-induced delusions.

For instance, here are some violations I’ve witnessed at Christian weddings merely in the category of “meditations gone very wrong”:

  • A meditation based on a poem by Khalil Gibran rather than the Scriptures. Gibran is all very well, but ought to be confined to the reception or the rehearsal dinner. If the couple wants something hip for a wedding text, use Song of Songs and allegorize like mad.
  • A five-minute meditation consisting of cute jokes and cliché advice, evidently kept short in order to save room in the twenty-minute “service” for cousin Tiffany to warble Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” with recorded accompaniment.
  • A sermon on the virtues of abstinence, delivered by the bride’s pastor-father, making pointed reference to the sexual experience (i.e., lack thereof) of the bridal couple. More than we need to know, even if, as was suggested, there are teenagers among the guests who need to be “inspired.”

The point is, people have wacky ideas about weddings, and this can easily lead to pastoral malpractice. I do sympathize with your delicate role in this situation. Even faithful families can sometimes regard the pastor as a sort of character actor, hired to play a role according to their script. But please remember that you are the professional here and they are not. It’s your job to safeguard the guests—captive and helpless—against the idiosyncrasies of the dazzled couple and their frazzled families.

So draw your line in the sand. If the family gets huffy and threatens to leave the church, calmly remind them of the $1200 fee charged to nonmembers for use of the church facility. Tell them you take VISA.

Dear Miss Petunia: My daughter is getting married and, frankly, my wife and I are worried about the expense. I’ve been hearing about “potluck weddings.” Is this too tacky, or could I suggest it?

PP: Charming of you to imagine that the father of the bride would be allowed to suggest anything, but we’ll let that pass for now. Since potlucks are practically a sacrament in some churches, I wouldn’t rule it out. For a small, modest wedding in the right community, it could be great fun and charmingly old-fashioned. Remember the days when wedding receptions meant punch and cake in the church basement served by a bevy of skilled church ladies? One can be allowed some nostalgia for those days, especially if one is in charge of underwriting a modern wedding.

I suppose the potluck reception could be considered a way of honoring simpler times, a countercultural, hipster-oriented salvo against the consumerist extremes and class aspirations of some weddings. On the other hand, one must examine one’s motivations: are you just being cheap?  

The rule, as always, is what would be most gracious to your guests, and this all depends on the customs of your tribe. If your family is full of eager cooks who live nearby and would rather whip up a lasagna than mail-order from a gift registry, then perhaps this is a way to go. If your guests are flying in from out of town, can’t tell a casserole from a jello salad, and expect a choice of filet mignon or salmon, then perhaps you are engaged in wishful thinking.  

Dear Miss Petunia: I have been a bridesmaid for several friends now, and in every case it was an awful experience for me. My dear friends turned into petulant, bossy, unreasonably demanding divas. I put up with it because I love them, but now I’m getting married and I’m worried. How can I avoid becoming a bridezilla?

PP: Well, my dear, congratulations on your upcoming nuptials as well as on your quest for preventive medicine.

Bridal narcissism is a common malady, highly contagious. The wedding industry tells brides that this is the one day in their lives when they can spend obscene fortunes, get their way on every point, and dress like a princess. This is what six-year-old girls generally long for, so no wonder some women revert to pouting and tantrums in the run-up to the wedding: they are finally indulging impulses they have been forced to repress in the name of civilization since early elementary school.  

Unfortunately, the only antidote to this is a metaphorical slap in the face and a stern word: It’s NOT all about you, honey. Sorry, but no.

A wedding is the uniting of two people (remember the beloved?) and—this is the tougher part—two families. Meanwhile, the guests are present not as extras on the set of the extravaganza you’re directing, nor as judges for your entry in the wedding competition sweepstakes, nor as the suppliers of home goods in exchange for a meal. They are guests; you are the hosts. If you want to get theological about it, they are there to represent the body of Christ that enfolds your marriage, and—I speak from experience here—you need them. So think of their needs and treat them graciously.

Thus, my primary word of advice is this: Remember that this may be your Very Special Day, but for all but your innermost circle, it’s kind of a nuisance. Your guests have to clear their calendar, arrange travel, figure out what to wear, get you a gift, and spend hours acting polite and charming. In short, they are doing you a big favor by going along with your Very Special Day. They sincerely want to wish you well, but at the same time, they would like to be home mowing their lawn or watching the game. Instead they are patiently waiting for their chicken breast, hoping to manage a quick, personal word with you and enjoy some decent cake before 10 p.m.

By the way, Miss P’s hair stylist assures her that mothers-of-the-bride are far worse than brides, for reasons that might be pondered philosophically from shampoo to blow-dry.

Here are a few ideas for avoiding the currently most prevalent bridezilla symptoms:

  • Avoid Pinterest obsession. Miss P has heard about young women who have been pinning wedding ideas to Pinterest for years, long before there was any POI (person of interest) in their lives who might serve as an excuse to wear a white, beaded dress. These young women have accumulated hundreds of clever ideas for everything from table centerpieces to bridal headpieces, all of them crafty and labor intensive. When the day finally comes to plan an actual wedding, no one else’s stake in the occasion matters, because who can compete with the bride’s years of research and expertise with tulle?
  • Avoid labor-intensive crafts. It seems that brides experience an excess of nervous energy in the weeks before the big day, resulting in hare-brained ideas that require hundreds of hours of intricate labor (See Pinterest, above). When the bride inevitably collapses in nervous exhaustion three days before the wedding, this leaves various set-upon family members and attendants to finish the project at hand: hand-tied bows on wedding programs, table favors of tiny jars of jam made from hand-picked strawberries, hundreds of foil stars dangling from the dance floor ceiling, etc. No one cares about these things. They are neurotic coping mechanisms. Just let them go.
  • Avoid guest “down time.” Please do not leave your guests stranded for hours between ceremony and reception while you take pictures on a quaint bridge across town. Do not give them a “things to do” sheet with map, send them back to their hotel, or—worst of all—send them to the reception hall with an open bar and no appetizers. Arrange the day so that your guests can move briskly from ceremony to reception, feed them a nice meal with due promptness, and then send them back home to mow their lawns or watch the game. If you and the wedding party and some close friends want to party all day and night, by all means go ahead, but do so after giving Aunt June and cousin Phil the opportunity for a graceful exit. 

Finally: Say no to as many ridiculous frills and overly eager wedding-related vendors as you can bear. Simple can be beautiful, and a joyful spirit is far more important than coordinated table accents. However, if you hire live musicians—and of course you should—pay them well and thank them heartily.




We’re Watching You

I’m sure you’ve heard the news about the primary results in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District, in which Tea Party upstart Dave Brat beat Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. You may even have heard that Brat is a Hope College alum. However, in case you missed the particular response to this curious bit of American political culture on Esquire magazine’s The Politics Blog, written by Charles P. Pierce, I need to share it with you so we can all enjoy a good laugh.

Pierce’s analysis is unsurprisingly critical of Brat and the Tea Party, mostly because of the Tea Party’s apparent disdain for any sort of functioning government. But in attempting to explain why Brat is such a nutcase (I’m paraphrasing Pierce here), Pierce attempts to sum up Brat’s religious background. Here’s what Pierce says:  

Brat seems a very bad combination of serious religious quester and devout Randian economist, a combination that would have had Ms. Rand herself reaching for the opium pipe. He got his undergraduate degree at Hope College in Michigan, which is run by the Reformed Church in the United States, a conservative evangelical wing of the United Church Of Christ. He then got a Masters in Divinity at Princeton, which is a very conservative seminary and now, according to his website, Dave attends St. Mary's Catholic Church with his wife Laura and their two children: Jonathan, 15 and Sophia, 11. So either he's a Douthatian convert, god help us, or his faith is all over the lot, which may account for his rather startling announcement last night that he won because God was speaking through the voters of the Seventh Congressional District of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

I don’t know where to start here with the requisite laughing and crying. All right, let’s start with laughing. How can you get the facts so very, very wrong, Mr. Pierce? Hope College is run by what, which is a wing of what?? And Princeton Sem is very conservative—what? Hoo boy.

Fortunately, after some initial confusion in the comments (read them—they’re interesting), some people, including another Hope alum, gently corrected these howlers. One person remarked, quite fairly: “understanding American Protestantism and its history: NOT easy.” Granted. But come on! All you need to do, Esquire, is send an intern to the Hope College website to get the affiliation right. Then click around a bit on Princeton Sem’s website and you can easily do better than “very conservative.” We don’t expect you to fathom the subtleties of our multitudinous Reformed American denominations, but give us fifteen minutes’ research, for crying out loud. Sheesh.

Now for some crying. I’m not interested in musing on Virginia politics, or on Dave Brat or Eric Cantor specifically. But I do share Pierce’s dismay, and that of many other commentators, at the astonishing intellectual inconsistency of some of these Tea Party folk. Many of the other entries in the comments section on Pierce’s piece rightly question how anyone who is a Christian can claim to be willingly influenced (as Brat says he is) by Ayn Rand. (In Brat’s case, he also claims Karl Barth, John Calvin, and Reinhold Niebuhr as influences. Really? Because if you were…then how can…??) I would like to see an historically informed analysis, perhaps by one of The Twelve’s own Bratts (Jim and Jessica get first dibs on this topic, for obvious reasons), on how Ayn Rand and Jesus can sit side by side in so many American political hearts. I just don’t get it. At all.

Here’s another thing to cry about. “Media elites” like Charlie Pierce—whom I appreciate, by the way, on the radio quiz show Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me—can get away with assuming that any religious politician they deem nutty or ignorant is so because of his or her religion. I would like to protest that Dave Brat’s … uh… let’s call it “worldview confusion” must have happened despite his Hope College and Princeton Seminary sojourns, not because of them. As one commenter suggested, Brat “seems to be a religious ‘free agent’”—or perhaps I might call him and others like him “spinoffs” from our Reformed institutions. I’d like to protest that Mr. Brat does not represent Reformed thinking or subculture. But I know better than to insist on that. The fact is, Reformed subculture is hardly monolithic, and there are plenty of Reformed people who would eagerly dissociate themselves from Brat, and plenty of others who would gladly vote for him.

So with that in mind, we can allow Pierce a little slack for his confusion about American Protestants. As I thought about all this further, though, I realized something about people who work in national media. They have no idea who we are, we people who call ourselves Reformed, but we are watching them. We consume the products of national media, but the creators of these media products (with the tiniest few exceptions) are not reading the Heidelberg or the CRCNA website or The Twelve or—Lord have mercy—The Acts of Synod. We are watching them, but they are not watching us.

This puts us in an interesting position, doesn’t it? One of the things I’ve always appreciated about being Reformed is the default skepticism that can come with being a tiny minority, especially one with a lingering immigrant sensibility. I was taught to “engage culture” but I was also taught to “discern,” which means regarding the principles, practices, and idols of the majority culture—anything really—with arms crossed and an attitude of “Well, we’ll see.” Often this results in countercultural critique and resistance. “Individualism is an unalloyed good,” says the popular culture. “Excuse me, but you belong to the body of Christ,” says Reformed theology. “Follow your dreams,” says the popular culture. “Excuse me, but you should be seeking God’s will,” says Reformed piety. Always the testing—against Scripture, the catechism, practices of worship and prayer, theological principles. And when things get really confusing, we used to trust no one but Reformed scholars to sort through the question and (at long last) issue a report. Or several reports. Close-minded? Sometimes.

But have we now traded default skepticism and isolationism for promiscuous gullibility? It’s difficult enough not to be taken in by “worldliness,” as our grandparents warned. We know to discern the spirits when encountering ideas or practices from clearly non-Christian sources. (Or do we? How is Ayn Rand slipping through the cracks for some people then?) But it’s even more difficult not to be taken in by people who claim to be speaking for Christian principles but in fact understand Christianity only in the vaguest of terms or not at all, or who seem to be rather confused, or who have capitulated to prejudice, greed, selfishness, or other more subtle powers, all while claiming the moral high ground. This is the same problem raised recently in Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell’s recent post on moral and political reasoning related to Obamacare, and in Branson Parler’s guest post (and the interesting responses to it) on bloggers and other Christian influencers who lack training and accountability and as a result wind up promoting (and profiting from) what can only be called heresy.

Another of the commenters, after correcting Pierce’s mistakes about the affiliations of Hope and Princeton, wrote: “With such outrageous errors of fact on these counts, why should I give credence to anything else written here?" Exactly. Even professional media is full of error, bluster, foolishness, ignorance, and inconsistency. This includes the sources that some look to as reliable guidance for their Christian walk—and their voting. I long for a little of that old grumpy, stubborn Reformed skepticism. I would like to see Reformed people get their skeptical dander back up, demanding more consistent and rigorous theological analysis of ideas and practices that claim our approval in the name of Christian brand loyalty: “test everything, hold fast to what is good.” A tall order, but isn't that what we do?


Small Things

Since he moved there in November I have visited my dad in the rest home every week, usually on Sunday afternoons. As my mom and I sit there with him, or wheel him down the hallway to the dining room, we notice the staff going about their tasks. The youngest staff are teenagers whose job is to slip in and out of rooms, refilling the residents’ plastic water cups at regular intervals. The older teens, their hair smushed unfortunately in hairnets, set the tables in the dining rooms and hoist trays out of the industrial-size fridge or cart them up and down elevators. Then there are the men and women in their twenties who are Certified Nursing Assistants, working this job as a step toward something else. They do the hands-on work, helping residents with “transfers” from bed to chair or with “ADLs” (activities of daily living) like dressing and washing. Where my dad lives, many of the staff are middle-aged women with various levels of certification who have worked there for twenty years or more. They may have gotten the job originally to help put their kids through Christian schools, but they stayed on because they enjoy the work.

What impresses me most about these people is their kindness. Regular Midwestern niceness is not enough in a nursing home; you need something stronger, tougher, more enduring—kindness. The residents are so weak and vulnerable. The man in the bed next to dad’s is rarely even conscious. He sleeps, a frail, skeletal figure, lingering in a twilight between this world and the next. The staff show kindness in dressing and undressing him every day, bringing him out to the hall for a change of scene, pulling his blankets over him when they place him back in bed. My dad is much more with-it, but he weighs two hundred pounds. Strong male aids maneuver him onto the toilet. Strong female aids heft him from his chair to the wheelchair with the help of a sturdy strap around his middle. They use kind words; they gently untwist his waistband and pull down his sweater in that brief moment when he’s standing on his weak legs, so that he’s comfortable when he sits back down. These people do simple tasks repeatedly, and I suppose they sometimes feel bored or exasperated or annoyed like anyone else in the workplace, but they have made mercy and kindness their profession. I am grateful for them.

I encounter other people’s kindnesses every day, but I realize I live in a relatively unchallenging cultural context. Midwesterners—generally speaking, caveat as you like—are kind people. After all, we get through winters together. We enjoy wide lawns and country roads and space between us, so we don’t need to get quite so annoyed at one another. We allow each other to go first at intersections. When I walk my dog, drivers pulled up to a stop sign motion me to cross. We snowblow each other’s sidewalks in the winter. We hold doors open, regardless of age, gender, or color of skin.

It’s easy to dismiss these simple civic acts as “niceness” or “being polite,” roll our eyes cynically and point out that no one gets credit for being “nice” in a context of abundance and security. I disagree. The alternatives—rudeness, disregard, unkindness—are readily available options any time, anywhere. They are fervently modeled, in fact, in our public discourse, our “news” shows, comments sections on the internet sites, entertainments full of violence and vulgarity. And in the crueler terrain of poverty and distress where unjust systems play out in real streets and neighborhoods. The person asking for money at the busy intersection holds a sign that reads “Seeking human kindness.” I believe him. So are we all.

We need kindness. It is a stay against the forces that drive toward dystopia. There is absolutely no kindness left in the world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and that is the horror of it. In the recent movie Noah, we are invited to imagine an ancient world in which all kindness has run dry. In each of these stories, the protagonists strike back at darkness with the only tools they have left: simple acts of kindness.

Kindness may seem a weak virtue, hardly suited for battling the forces of darkness. For that battle, it’s true, one needs bigger artillery as well: courage, peacemaking, sacrifice, love, justice built into the architecture of larger systems. I do notice, however, that kindness is one of the fruits of the Spirit. It seems to be on God’s list. The Greek word, chrestotes, has connotations of moral goodness, an internal disposition expressed in outward benevolence and gentleness. Several other places in the New Testament use the word chrestotes to describe the nature of God. God is kind. Perhaps this is why Jesus considered our small acts important: the mercies shown to the “least of these” in Matthew 25, the “cup of cold water” given in his name in Matthew 10. If kindness is about small things, then God cares about small things. Love is patient and kind.

In English, kindness is etymologically related to “kin.” Kindness requires empathy, a sense that we are connected to others. It requires that we recall our own times of vulnerability and powerlessness. Can we practice kindness if we have never been in pain ourselves? Or if we refuse to remember that pain?

When we are hurting, weak, vulnerable, that’s when we need kindness most, and when unkindness hurts the most. On those days, when people are nasty, pitiless, aggressive, indifferent, cruel, we remember the sting forever. But that vulnerable moment holds all it receives, so that we also remember the gentle word, the thoughtful act, the precious gift of one person saying to another: I see you, and I even see your pain.  

I remember a doctor’s office receptionist I encountered two summers ago when my mother and father were both ill at once, and I was trying to navigate for the first time the bewildering world of elder care. She had taken our check-out papers before on previous visits, and I had not been especially impressed with her warmth, but on this particular day, she looked at me and apparently read the fear and bewilderment on my face. She paused, looked me in the eye, and said, “You’re doing a great job for your mom and dad.” She knew what I needed to hear, and she chose to be kind.

Probably we all do and say unkind things, thoughtlessly, never knowing the sting we have caused. But I want to be more and more a person who remembers—just in time, maybe—that we are kin, that we all need kindness, and that if I say or do a kind thing, I contribute another tiny stay against the darkness.    

Small things with great love, recommended Mother Teresa. I can only muster a little love, but maybe the love part doesn’t come from me. Maybe the great love comes from a God who, in divine kindness, values the small things.


Advice Season

My fellow academics sometimes complain about having to attend commencement ceremonies every spring, but I don’t mind sitting through them. I appreciate the opportunity to feel melancholy and ponder the passage of time, and I enjoy watching the graduates and their parents quaff a brew of nostalgia and joy—all quaffing remaining merely metaphorical on my campus, of course. Also, I look quite jaunty in my regalia.

One does have to endure the commencement address, however. This piece of theater registers on the bore-o-meter somewhere above the plangent phrases of “Pomp and Circumstance,” which qualifies as the most boring element of the ceremony, and somewhere below the tossing of the caps, which is easily the most exciting. I’ve heard some good speeches over the years, though naturally I can’t remember anything about them. This is because the commencement address is a tough gig, almost as difficult as a wedding sermon. In both cases, everyone’s mind is on other, more urgent matters, and whatever you say, no matter how substantial, evaporates within moments like a bubbly froth.

Or it would, if it weren’t for the internet. Thanks to the web, commencement speeches are now recorded and posted, so that they might be enjoyed, mocked, considered, and compared. We can study and anatomize the genre in its natural habitat, noting, for example, that commencement speakers almost universally include two main elements in their talk: jokes and advice.

The jokes I understand, but why advice? Good advice should be carefully tailored to the individual and situation in question, yet we have somehow made it conventional for an invited stranger to dispense advice to hundreds of young people, whose brains are biochemically resistant to wisdom. Naturally, in this situation, speakers resort to the ritual dispensing of fluff.

After exploring a few commencement-address-aggregator websites (yup, that’s a thing), I can neatly summarize about ninety-five percent of the advice dispensed to graduates. In fact, anyone could probably come up with this list without doing any research:

Do what you love. Have big dreams and follow them. Live life to the fullest (or, carpe diem, or, live in the moment). Believe in yourself. Take risks. Work hard.

With all the jokes boiled off, that is your graduation advice reduction sauce, your essence of cultural platitude. Sickly sweet, isn’t it? It makes me want to devise a hard-core Calvinist retort: “Believe in yourself? Are you kidding? You’re a five-foot worm! Believe in Almighty God and bow down in obedience!” No doubt this would dampen the day’s high spirits. On the other hand, embedded in gratitude and praise and served up much more gently, that’s the pith of most Calvin College commencement addresses, and I am glad for it.

I guess what I find annoying about ordinary (i.e., non-Calvinist) graduation advice is that it’s so vague and general and far too easy. The speaker lays down these wise-sounding words and then waltzes off, carefree, to the banquet luncheon. He or she doesn’t have to do the hard work of discerning what you love or making sacrifices for your dream or paying the cost for whatever risks you take that don’t pan out.

Although I don’t blame commencement speakers for dispensing the fluff they are contractually obliged to dispense, I have been thinking about advice I have heard and actually heeded over the years, and under what circumstances advice gets delivered so that it sticks. I don’t mean the kind of deep wisdom which gives meaning and order to our lives, on the level of “Seek the Lord while the Lord may be found” or “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Nothing that grand. I mean the sort of practical advice that helps navigate tricky situations or work out a decision. 

So here’s a modest gallery of advice I have found useful, a greatest hits for your enjoyment, complete with attributions. Feel free to add your own. (Note: Not recommended for inclusion in commencement addresses.)

If people like you, they will find ways to give you money. (John Brosky)
I worked for Brosky years ago as a freelance writer. He had many colorful things to say, but this one stuck with me most. He meant that making a good impression and making connections leads to opportunities, and I have found this to be true with professional associates, grant foundations, and relatives. 

Never be a waitress. (My mother)
One of my mom’s better ones, at least for me. I know many people make good money in the “food service industry,” but it’s a tough, thankless world, and I’m happy to stay on the dining table side of things and avoid the kitchen.

If you’re going to err, err on the side of kindness. (Mary Ann Walters)
Mary Ann, a retired colleague, didn’t come up with this one; I’ve heard different versions of it elsewhere. But I have thought of her words often when I am trying to figure out how to handle a challenging student or how to treat people whose moral choices I do not know how to measure. I like Mary Ann’s version of this idea because it seems to accept the inevitability that either way, you will err. So give up on being sure you’re right.  

Never assume the bathroom stall is empty. (Learned the hard way)
Be careful what you say aloud in a public restroom. You can learn this from movies or from the amusement on the face of the groom when he emerges from the stall after you’ve just given your son a clever rundown of the important people at the wedding, placing the groom dead last. (This happened to my husband, not me—I was not in the men’s room, I promise.)

Resistance is futile. (The Borg)
I think the cyborg enemies of the Enterprise crew meant this more as a policy statement than as advice, but Ron and I applied this mantra often when our children were tiny and prone to temper tantrums. It reminded us to hold strong and weather the storm without emotion, gently maintaining our own policy: You will comply.

Do your research. (Aunt Janelle)
My sister-in-law, one of the wisest people I know and a savvy life-hacker, offered this as her primary word of advice to my daughter on her thirteenth birthday. It was a women-only occasion and the rest of us were riffing on “you’re a woman now, so…” but I think Janelle’s advice was the most useful overall, regardless of gender. Navigating the modern world requires loads of research for everything from college admission to mortgage rates to which running shoes to buy. It doesn’t hurt to research that cute boy’s family and church background, either.

You only know what you know when you know it. (Figured out over the long haul)
This one helps with big decisions. It has reminded me—and I have reminded many students over the years—that we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed in decision-making for lack of information about how we will feel or how the world will be in ten or twenty years. Nor is there any point in regretting what we didn’t know years ago. We have to base decisions on what we know in the moment. As it turns out, knowing what we know in the moment is difficult enough.

Now I’ll toss in a couple of useful advice nuggets that I culled from a graduation-speech site but could well have derived from my own experience.

Life is short, but actually might go on for a long time, so you had better become good at something.
This is so much more specific and practical than “follow your dream.” Learning a difficult skill, the kind that one can never master completely, not even in a lifetime, is a satisfaction that keeps one engaged as the years pass.

Fall in love with the process and the results will follow.
True of writing, music, acting, all the arts, scholarly research, any complex skill, as well as relationships. As long as “results” for you doesn’t mean “untold riches.” Also notice that the word “immediate” is not anywhere in sight.

And finally,

Don’t miss an opportunity to go to a funeral. (John Witvliet)
This one reminds us that our presence is appreciated by the grieving family, but it also acknowledges that we need regular reminders of our mortality. A good Christian funeral is a potent antidote to all the tiresome commencement addresses one may have to sit through. Nothing clarifies one’s priorities and commitments like watching an ordinary saint be surrendered to a final rest in God. This is what matters, when all the achievements and dreams and risks and worries are at last stripped away: I am not my own...


Note: My vote for the best commencement address ever: J. K. Rowling’s 2008 address at Harvard. This one is the real deal: substantial, hard-won wisdom presented with elegance and compassion.