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Playing God

Pandemic Book Recommendation #15: Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch

I took a day off yesterday and did not post, but if I were to have provided a book recommendation on Easter, it would have been Playing God by Andy Crouch.

One of the reasons I love this book is that Andy has channelled Jayakumar Christian as a model. Jayakumar is a World Vision practitioner in India who works with the lowest castes in some of the most impoverished contexts in Asia. I was exposed to Jayakumar through his published Master’s thesis, God of the Empty-Handed, when I worked for World Vision US Programs. I’ve used his ideas in many courses, especially the International Development and Sustainability class I teach each summer for the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies. God of the Empty-Handed is worthy of its own book recommendation down the road. But Playing God is an excellent introduction to Jayakumar’s ideas of power and powerlessness in the Kingdom of God. Jayakumar digs into how the powerful utilize god-complexes to play god in the lives of the poor by perpetuating their powerlessness through relational structures and systems of captivity. The examples may seem more evident for India’s caste system, but there are potent applications for North America as well. Andy Crouch spent time with Jayakumar, and Playing God was birthed from that inspiration, but written for use in the US and Canada.

Playing God investigates how power, when viewed through a Christian lens, is a gift – this is the volume’s central idea. Crouch is somewhat opposed to the bulk of writing in the social sciences that would define power as always about corruption and coercion (though we can find plenty examples of this, many unfortunately provided by the Christian Church). Power is intended to be about creation and restoration, and forms of power that coerce are diminishments and corruptions of true power. The intended purpose of power is flourishing. Crouch delineates how power corruptions are linked to idolatry and ideology, and he even includes a chapter on privilege. He draws upon Jayakumar’s work to consider solutions to today’s crises caused by god-playing. This is what makes the volume such a good read for the Easter season.

According to the ancient hymn captured in Philippians 2, though himself God, Christ emptied himself of himself to become human, take the nature of a servant, and die on the cross in the act of restoration. This is the great kenosis or self-emptying. Crouch calls us to either find ways of being icons and image-bearers of this kind of self-emptying power purposed toward flourishing, or suffering as idol makers corrupting power toward our own or our tribe’s advantage. And yes, for you lovers of the lectionary, I am aware that Philippians 2 is a Lenten passage. Nonetheless, it has powerful application in the Easter season as we seek to make our attitudes the same as that of Christ Jesus.

Playing God is a timely read in this moment of global pandemic as we think about the kind of world we want to create / recreate when we emerge from social distancing. There is a cacophony to recreate the world as it was before COVID-19; to jump-start the economy along with all of its structures and systems that keep some people in power and others in captivity. We can do better. Power is a gift because it is for flourishing – the flourishing of all people and the creation. “When power is used well, people and the whole cosmos come more alive to what they were meant to be.” (13) Perhaps it is time to abandon our image of GOP Jesus for the version we find in Scriptures such as Philippians 2?

Bearskin

Pandemic Book Recommendation #14: Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin

All of the books I’ve reviewed thus far I read before social distancing. Not this one – I finished Bearskin last night. I loved it, and not just because the setting is in the Appalachia Mountains where I grew up and the Arizona desert where my daughter now resides. This book was an excellent escape for the helplessness I’ve felt in quarantine – it did for me exactly what a novel is supposed to do.

But be warned – this is not a touchy-feely, pick me up kind of story. Visualize a full escape from the monotony of impotently watching your beard grow in your basement. It is a dangerous journey into a brutal and primitive kill-or-be-killed existence. Prepare to embrace the myth of redemptive violence and some toxic masculinity as you explore the most breathtaking landscapes in the USA on a life or death adventure. It is violent, dark and suspenseful. Some of the graphic descriptions will stick with you.

The protagonist, Rice Moore, is a field Biologist who sees the world through a scientific lens. He would be Vern Peters, only if Vern had a previous life as a drug mule. The complexities of Appalachian ecosystems are intricately revealed as Rice circumvents the hollows of western Virginia (NOT to be confused with West Virginia), protecting a nature reserve from bear poachers. But Rice has a past. His last research project was in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, where he made enemies in the Mexican drug cartels. Homicidal narco-assassins are not the kind of guys you want to piss off. In essence, they will follow you to remote hollows, and they won’t care how distracted you are by the mafia funded hillbilly bear poachers already trying to kill you. (Yes – the Mexican drug cartel, the mob, and ex-military hillbillies all converge. Amazing).

I was hooked when I met the one-armed hillbilly mushroom picker in the opening chapter, whose thick drawl portrayed on Audible brought me back home to West Virginia (NOT to be confused with western Virginia). I met this man in real life at the top of a mountain at the end of one of the most secluded hollows in Harrison County when I worked for its Planning Commission in the mid-1990s. He was a World War I veteran (Yes, WWI – The Great War for you Canadians) who had such extreme PTSD that when he returned from the war, he left civilization to herd sheep and live off the land for seventy years. I had to ask him to repeat his words multiple times, but he had a heart of gold and seemed to be almost at one with the landscape around him. He was a spiritual guide for me at the time – and I met him again through the character of the mushroom shaman in the book (though in real-life no tripping was involved).

So, turn off the news and put on your ghillie suit. Spend a week with Vern (er, I mean Rice) trampling through rhododendron and hemlock forests eating what you can kill or forage. Try some natural hallucinogenic mushrooms and dance with the bears you were assigned to protect. Stalk and be stalked. Kill or be killed. Most of all, enjoy being outside again.

In Betweens 2

In Betweens: Reflections from Annapurna.

Chapter 2: Sunrise over Kathmandu. April 17, 2019.

It was pitch black when I gave up trying to sleep and ascended to the roof of my hotel in the Thamel district of Kathmandu. Now the light of the sun is beginning to reveal the unique landscape of this city of 3 1/2 million people, most of whom are in poverty. I’m in the foothills of the Himalayas, the largest mountains on the planet. This was not a trip that I’ve been planning for years. It emerged out of a need and desire to escape the pressures of my job and struggles to find solace at home. As a Vice-President of Student Life and Dean of Students, the wind-up and execution of fall programming is always intense, but this year it was made exceptionally challenging because I picked up new departments in my portfolio: Enrolment and the Registry. I spent the fall working with my new team to write a Strategic Enrolment, Marketing and Management Plan in the hope of meeting some aggressive growth targets while doing my best to serve in my historical capacity as Dean of Students. We finished the plan and had a good student launch, but when I was invited to consider a trip to Nepal, it only took me a day to order my ticket.

The invitation came from Michel, the retired owner of our university’s previous catering company, who was now engaged in a variety of adventure trips in different parts of the world. I didn’t know him well, but from my past interactions, I liked him and knew it could be workable. He invited countless people to join through his networks and travel websites. Despite the heroic effort, I’m the only one who took him up on the offer, and here we are in Nepal after 50 hours of travel through five airports and two different cities in China.

Our guide, Dhan Rai, greeted us at the Kathmandu airport last night by putting lays around our necks and whisking us away to our hotel, the Samsara. Michel’s wife Chris has done a few treks with Dhan in the past, and they have supported a school in our guide’s home village for many years. Dhan seems quiet and reserved, but Michel assures me he is one of the best guides in the country and will take care of our every need. We arrived late but took some time to explore the busy tourist-filled Thamel district, where we found a Classic Rock café that served American style hamburgers and local craft beer. The brew was terrific – the burgers appalling. We went back to the room, and I tried to sleep, but as it was the middle of the day in Canada, I spent most of the night staring at the ceiling. Now here I am on a roof at the top of the world watching my phone take a time-lapse of the sunrise and getting my first look at the Himalayas.

As it gets brighter and more of the city is revealed, the squalor and poverty become more and more evident. The impact of the 2015 Earthquake is everywhere. I see buildings all around me that are either still destroyed or are slowly being reconstructed. A concrete structure is rising again just behind the hotel, and near it is a semi-collapsed temple. Courtyards remain filled with rubble. The earthquake brought pain, loss, and tragedy to this region. But there in the distance, the Himalayas watch over it all in their ancient majesty. Solid, unbroken and mysterious. Mountains envelop the city, surrounding it, nesting this valley in a timeless embrace of strength, power and dignity. I sit in the in-between and ponder, while a woman on a roof across the street starts a wood fire to cook her family’s breakfast.

I am a stranger to this place, and yet I am invited in. I am bidden to step out of the immediate foreground toward the mountains, which are beckoning to me. I sense their invitation to explore ancient secrets and become a small part of their story. In the spirit of John Muir, I feel that the mountains are calling, and I must go.

In February, just two months ago, I participated in a staff and faculty silent retreat at Kingsfold in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains between Calgary and Banff in my home province of Alberta. In our opening service, and while we could still talk, we were asked to select a picture upon which to meditate. There were many prints with a variety of human and natural landscapes. As the exercise was described, I had already begun considering what I wanted in my picture: mountains. Unfortunately, none of the variety of images included a mountainous scene, which was sad to me considering this was a retreat in the Canadian Rockies. The one I chose came close but was an entirely different landscape altogether. I picked up an image of a hilly landform made of sand photographed in an anonymous barren desert. It was beautiful but quite a contrast to the rugged -30C landscape outside my window.

Throughout the weekend, I reflected on the picture. I tried to consider it in the context of the concerns of my heart and events in my life. Since this was a staff and faculty retreat, it involved work, so I didn’t concern myself with blurring the boundaries between my private and public life. I rarely do. My role can be an all-consuming position as I’m frequently drawn to the front lines to address student crises and concerns while I try to proactively help lead the university into a good and faithful future.

I hung my chosen picture next to the window of my room in the retreat centre, and I spent quite a bit of time meditating back and forth between the landscapes. The image was easily influenced and impacted by the elements around it. A strong windstorm could transform that landscape in a matter of hours. The particles of sand had not been concretized through the geological process of being forced under the ground, hardened, and lifted back up into the sky. Instead, it was comprised of sand particles eroded from other landscapes and left here to blow around in the wind. Meanwhile, the view outside my window had looked similar for hundreds of thousands of years. Wind and rain do have a slow impact on the landscape, but it would take an extraordinary force of nature to transform the entire scene.

I brought names of many struggling students with me, and I spent time praying for them under the image and in front of my window. As I prayed, a thought emerged connecting these students in crisis to the two landscapes. Too many of my students are like the desert mountain – constructed of sand blown easily by the wind. Anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and fears of all kinds keep their identities from finding solidification. As the external forces of relational crises, academic challenges, parental expectations, a changing climate, and global uncertainties bear upon them, their moorings blow away.

And then the harder reality. I’m right there with my students. Four years in a role supporting these young adults has taken its toll on my body, mind and spirit. I knew it there at the retreat. I spent a day hiking around the property, bundled up for the cold, exploring the landscape and searching for grounding. It helped, but it did not prepare me for the weeks that have followed since – the hardest of my career.

The Nepali sun rises above the horizon, its heat wakening the landscape. I finish the time lapse and review it, enjoying with immense pleasure the final product even though I am watching it on the small screen of my cell phone. A few lights in a black tapestry morph to the purple sky, then blue. I see the brilliant colourful landscape of Kathmandu appear out of the darkness as the clouds move overhead, and the smoke of morning fires rises to the sky. But even in the movie, my eyes are primarily drawn to the mountains behind this vibrant and beautiful city.

White Fragility

Pandemic Book Recommendation #13: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Here is a book recommendation primarily for my white friends, and it is neither a comfortable nor easy read. This is especially true for my more left-leaning progressive white network – those of us who feel comfortable talking about race, have friends from many ethnicities, and generally see ourselves as part of the solution to injustices and disparities in the world. Robin DiAngelo is a white scholar with a Ph.D. in Multicultural Education from the University of Washington and a researcher in the field of Whiteness Studies. She argues that white progressives are the primary voices in America that are keeping the structures of racism in place. Yes – that said progressives, not neo-conservatives. The term she coined for why this is happening is “white fragility.”   

White fragility is the inability of white people to tolerate racial stress – a disbelieving defensiveness that whites exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged. This is particularly the case when whites are implicated in white supremacy. For many whites, it is difficult to talk about racism whatsoever. Many of us would rather see ourselves as colour-blind. When the topic of race emerges, we may become overly sensitive, and in fact, DiAngelo’s research demonstrates that we often do. Her research establishes that we have a tendency toward weaponizing our hurt feelings and becoming defensive when confronted with racial inequality and injustice. “But I’m not a racist. I don’t say the N-word.” The mere suggestion of racism can cause more outrage among white people than the racism itself. “And if nobody is racist,” she asks, “why is racism still America’s biggest problem? What are white people afraid they will lose by listening? What is so threatening about humility on this topic?”

The original essay reflecting on these ideas was released in a paper in 2011. This book emerged after the term went viral, and it remained on the New York Times bestseller list for months. A central point of her argument is that being nice to people of colour is not enough. Whites hold institutional power in the structures of America, and this is arguably the case in Canada as well. In the western colonial context, racism is a system and not just a slur. It is prejudice plus power. The structures in place benefit whites over people of colour, and this can be demonstrated in just about every economic and social measurement.

The current pandemic is a case in point. Right now, today, more black and brown Americans are dying per capita than white Americans from COVID-19. Similar trends are occurring in Britain. This is being described as a crisis within a crisis, and the causes are relatively clear. Before the crisis, people of colour had a higher chronic disease burden and higher levels of obesity tied to racial health disparities linked to structural racism. Institutional biases exist in how people of colour are treated in care – this has been thoroughly researched and established. Additionally, because there are limited coronavirus tests available, the categories determined to administer a test put people of colour at a disadvantage. Not as many black or brown Americans have travelled abroad, nor do they know people who have. Entire communities lack access to testing. PBS ran a helpful segment on this earlier in the week.

The racially divided statistics of morbidity in this pandemic offer clear evidence that America has what DiAngelo describes as a “white supremacist culture.” And, BOOM – These kinds of statements are what tend to kick whites into our mode of defensiveness, as we picture radical neo-Nazis and want to be sure that everyone understands this is not us. “Now breathe,” she requests of her readers. “I am not saying that you are immoral. If you can remain open as I lay out my argument it should soon begin to make sense.” She asserts that racism is a white problem that was constructed and created by white people, and the ultimate responsibility lies with white people. “For too long we’ve looked at it as if it were someone else’s problem, as if it was created in a vacuum. I want to push against that narrative.”

DiAngelo provides steps for whites to reduce fragility and use racial discomfort as a mechanism to understand structural racism better. The book is eye-opening, especially for those who have not thought about structural racism and white privilege. It is a worthy and very timely lockdown read.

In Betweens 1

In Betweens: Reflections from Annapurna. Chapter 1: Avalanche Field. April 26, 2019.

A waterfall cascades over wet rocks from imperceptible heights above, removing the spring glacial melt from the south side of Patal Hiunchuli mountain. I walk in a cloud, only able to see a few hundred metres all around. Across the valley, similar waterfalls flow from Machhapuchhre, the peak that has guided my way for over a week through the Annapurna region of the Himalaya mountains in Nepal. Their presence only makes them known through sound, though I saw them before the fog ascended. The snow beneath my feet is wet and melting with the spring heat, my boots and gators sinking a few centimetres with every step. Dirt, rocks and debris scattered across the voluminous heap arrived here within the last few months from landscapes up to three vertical kilometres above my head.

Waterfall, Patal Hiunchuli Avalanche Field

I have been rapidly descending from Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) on day nine of my first trek to the Himalayan mountains. A half-hour ago, my path crossed into the melting snow of an avalanche field. I traversed a few of these on the way up yesterday, and I consider how it looks vaguely familiar as I begin to navigate my way across the now indiscernible path. At first, there were signs of previous human travel, but now all footsteps have disappeared. I gave my crampons away to a struggling French couple a few hours ago, so my traction is reduced. But, I’ve walked through enough snow in Canada that I’m not overly concerned about it. What’s the worst that could happen?

I quickly find a large rock just a few metres beyond the trail, and from this solid ground attempt to discern the best way forward through the fog and snow. The waterfall that was ahead of me to my right is now behind me, though I never crossed a stream. I may have already gone over the flow beneath the snow and debris, or it could be carving out a cavity beneath me in this very location. The slope is a relatively steep pitch, and below me, to the left, the sacred Modi Khola river is also rushing under the snow somewhere in the valley beneath. I don’t want to meander too low, or I could inadvertently fall through the melting snow into the river. But above me, the waterfall is draining into and under the snowfield.

I do my best to choose a wise path and decide to ere on the side of caution by going higher toward the waterfall. The snowpack is much taller in the middle, and I cannot see beyond twenty metres ahead of me as I climb. I walk slowly and carefully, taking great care with every step, gradually ascending the hill of ice without falling into the valley to my left by firmly planting my trekking poles with each step. It is slick, and I am regretting the loss of my crampons.

Eventually, I ascend the centre of the avalanche field to find another 200 metres of melting snow in front of me. I don’t recall anything like this on the way up, but perhaps I was simply too tired to notice. Today had been a tough slog from MBC at 3:00 am this morning to above Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), where I watched the sunrise from a rock perched high above the gathering pilgrims in what is called the Annapurna Sanctuary. I’ve trekked over a hundred kilometres in just a few days, which is a lot for a middle-aged chubby West Virginia born Canadian. I find myself to be very tired as I try to press forward.

At the crest, I continue one step after another, and I soon notice to my right what appears to be a crevasse just above me. As this is not a glacier but a seasonal avalanche field, I am cognizant that as the hill of snow is melting, it is cracking, and it could easily fall in chunks to the river below. Gravity and the heat of spring will likely defeat this temporary formation in several weeks – if not today. I don’t want to be here for the more dramatic moments of this devolution. There is no snow on the cliffs above me, so I am not concerned about getting washed away in an avalanche, but perhaps I should be as the snowfall from the glacier of the 6441-metre mountain is also melting. But now my more significant concern lies to my left as falling into the valley sounds just as deadly and likely more painful. I’ve been walking solo for over an hour and have not seen anyone coming or going for most of that time. If I fall, I’m on my own. Perhaps I should have packed an ice axe as well?

As I continue, I pound my poles into the ground in front of me to ensure the snow is solid enough to hold. For twenty metres this works just fine, but then I hit a point where one pole sinks and I expose new mini crevasses in front of me. They are less than a metre deep, but it is not worth the risk to try to cross, so I double back and go a little lower on the hill, nearly slipping quite a few times. I make it past the crevasses, but again substantial melt is evident both above and below me, and cracks appear to be getting more significant as I get closer to the other side. The stream formed by the waterfall could be anywhere beneath me. In the summer, there is probably a clear path with a bridge crossing the creek, but predicting where that might lie is impossible. I’m 20 metres higher than either side of this tributary’s steep valley, and it is likely quite deep. The bridge may or may not exist under 50 metres of snow.

Crevasse in Avalanche Field above the Modi Khola

I take another step, and my probing pole breaks through. I listen as the snow that had been on the surface cascades down into a dark abyss at least a metre or two deep. I cannot go forward, so I backtrack again and try going even lower, continuing to test the path as I travel at a turtle’s pace. I lose track of time, unsure of how long I’ve been on the avalanche field. Step by step, I move up and down the slope more than I move laterally, but I make progress and find myself nearing the solid ground.

I can see where the path continues along a rising stone staircase, which is also mostly covered by avalanche debris and snow. It appears to me like a stairway to heaven, capable of carrying me away from my increasingly dangerous situation. But then I see the full extent of my predicament. As I continue to descend toward the edge, I note a gap at the end of the slope. Fifteen metres in front of the staircase, the avalanche field has collapsed, and there is no way to proceed without falling off a snow cliff of hidden depth. I could approach it to see if it is navigable, but likely it is undercut, and I would discover its height the hard way. The cliff spans up toward the waterfall behind me, but lower near the river, it appears to end. So, I sluggishly begin moving down the slope toward the river, imagining in my mind how it is likely rushing underneath the snow.

With only a few metres left, I begin to hear rushing water ahead and above to my right, and in a few more careful steps, I see the edge of a melt hole with a circumference of at least a metre. I’m only a few steps from it when I realize what it is, and I hold my camera out and take a picture to get a sense of its depth. When I look at my screen, my heart begins to race. It is at least 15 metres straight down to the cold, dark bottom. Another crevasse is to my left below me nearer to the river. I don’t see a way forward. But I am so close that backtracking is as unappetizing as proceeding.

I’m baffled that I have not seen anyone else since I started this crossing, and just as I am thinking this, two backpackers come from the other side down the stairs. They look across the avalanche field, see me stuck only 20 metres from them, assess their situation, and immediately turn around without saying a word.

I’m mystified that they might give up their trek to the base camps so easily. But then I realize they are not giving up. They are turning around to take a different route. The avalanche fields we crossed the day before were further downstream below the tea houses in Deurali. When I walked with my guide yesterday, he led us around this one, and suddenly the fog of my fatigue dissipates, and I remember seeing it from far above on the other side of the valley. I look across the river and up the mountain to see various coloured backpacks crossing either way on the winter trail that was created to avoid this very dilemma. I should have stuck with my guide today, I think to myself, as the full reality of my peril sets in with gravity. I’m stuck in between the melting crevasses behind me and the cliffs and melt holes before me.

My current predicament is illustrative of how I have been feeling in my life before this trek – lost and alone in the betwixt and betweens of my professional and personal journey. This trek to the Himalayas has been a kind of accidental pilgrimage, but one that has birthed insights to help find paths out of the challenges beleaguering me. Hopefully, the lessons I’ve learned will get me to the other side of this avalanche field, as well as into a more peaceful and present way of being back home.

1984

Pandemic Book Recommendation #12: 1984 by George Orwell

I was not a disciplined student in High School, particularly in English Literature. Every time a new book was assigned, I would journey to the Meadowbrook Mall and snag the Cliff Notes from Walden Books (this was long before the days of Spark Notes). I’d follow the same pattern each time: memorize the characters, setting and general plot from the Cliff Notes and then talk to the girls in my class who actually read the book to get the spirit of the text for the essay. I could spend 1/20th of the time it would take to read the thing and still get a solid B+. It worked – and there are some books for which I still don’t regret this approach. I’ll likely never find the grit to make it through Anna Karenina – that assignment virtually destroyed what could have been a great love of reading. Perhaps I would like it now, but just hearing the title still brings back a form of adolescent literary PTSD. But now I do love reading, and those classics were assigned for a reason. For the last couple of decades, I’ve been picking up many of those old high school books I now wish I would have read in my youth. The timeliest of these for our present circumstances is 1984, written by George Orwell and published in 1949. I finally read it for real last summer and have thought about the book numerous times during this pandemic.

Just a few weeks ago George Conway (spouse of Kellyanne Conway, who is in Trump’s Administration) blasted Fox News for their about-face on the Coronavirus using an Orwellian Newspeak quote: “He accepted everything. The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.” Trump’s takeover of the coronavirus news conference yesterday had a similar spirit. We may already live in an age of Newspeak.

But perhaps the most interesting parallel between the world of the dystopian novel and our current reality involves surveillance. In the universe of the novel, there is no privacy. Telescreens in homes and hidden microphones in the wilderness ensure the thought police can see everything and enforce obedience to Big Brother. Yuval Harari recently penned an article titled “The World After Coronavirus” that unpacks the extraordinary ways surveillance has been advanced in the attempt to quell the virus (Youtube summary HERE). The surveillance already existing in our world today makes the technology in 1984 look pathetic. After the virus, will we live in a world of totalitarian surveillance and nationalist isolation, not that unlike the novel?

If you’re looking for something to read during the pandemic, it would be hard to find a more reasonable classic than 1984. You could try to slog your way through a Tolstoy novel – perhaps the 1,400+ pages of War and Peace? But why bother when 1984 is only 328 pages, and Orwell’s doublespeak will make you think differently about both war and peace: In Oceania, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

Mindset

Pandemic Book Recommendation #11: Mindset by Carol S. Dweck

Yesterday I recommended the book Grit and shared my definition of fortitude: grit plus a growth mindset. Today’s book recommendation is essentially part 2. Like Grit, Mindset is a popular recast of a lifetime of scholarship from Carol S. Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford.  

Her premise is quite simple and not very earth-shattering when taken at surface level. For those who are “fixed,” it is transformative. People with a fixed mindset believe that abilities are just that. They are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset, who believe that skills can be developed. “I’m not smart enough,” or “I’m not good enough,” becomes the mantra of the fixed. This attitude can be found in just about any aspect of life from athletics to academics to parenting. Dweck argues that it is possible for people to decide they can accomplish that which seemed impossible – if they change their attitude.  Through determination and hard work, students can develop a love of learning and succeed, parents can figure out how to homeschool, and people who are in quarantine can, indeed, stay put.

The combined power of grit and a growth mindset can provide the fortitude necessary to persevere through this pandemic. We can remind ourselves that we can and will get through this, and we can find new ways every day to grow in the process.

What opportunities does this time of pandemic offer you to develop a growth mindset, and how can grit help you pursue them?

Pandemic Book Recommendation #10: Grit

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

When I was VP Student Life / Dean of Students at The King’s University, I was constantly looking for resources to help students persevere. This book was one of my go-to volumes. It’s in the self-help genre, so it may be a little painful for some academics. However, Angela Duckworth is an academic herself – she currently serves as the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Grit is a popularized and somewhat watered-down version of her research, so some of you will prefer her more robust academic publications

When my old team and I were trying to come up with the theme for 2019-20 we settled on “Fortitude,” partially because it was our university’s 40th anniversary.  (Get it – “Forty-Tude”?). I defined fortitude as grit plus a growth mindset, and I used Duckworth’s concept of grit as half of this formula (I’ll hit the other one tomorrow using the book Mindset.) Who was to know how important fortitude would become for all of us in this bizarre year?    

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, grit in the context of behavior is defined as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.” Duckworth, based on her studies, tweaked this definition to mean “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” She and her team observed that individuals high in grit were able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods despite experiences with failure and adversity. They concluded that grit is a better predictor of success than intellectual talent (IQ), based on a number of substantial studies. She explores this question: talent and intelligence/ IQ being equal, why do some individuals accomplish more than others?

Some of the takeaways of her research could be helpful during this time of pandemic. First, hope is beneficial in becoming gritty. Hope may be hard to come by these days, but it is worth imagining a positive outcome, no matter how distant it feels. If we can see a shimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, we can keep moving forward. Part of this involves finding or rediscovering purpose. How are we making meaning and believing what we do makes a difference to ourselves and those for whom we care?  Is our time in quarantine an opportunity to discover or rediscover our passion? Setting meaningful goals and following through on them can help us make the most of the opportunities that present themselves during these unprecedented times.

Duckworth describes her volume through a deliciously caffeinated lens. She is “taking you out for a coffee and telling you what I know.”  If you love coffee and aren’t getting out much these days (and who is?), why not give this one a try?

The bright morning star and the fruit tree: metaphors for hope in these troubled times

Pandemic Book Recommendation #9, Part 3: Hope

Part 2: Ideology

Part 1 Idolatry

Every day during this pandemic, I find it more difficult to see hope, especially when it comes to COVID-19’s spread across America. My oldest daughter is in Phoenix, and my family, including my parents, are spread across West Virginia and Kentucky. The slow daily crawl watching the case numbers climb is like a dawdling spiritual poison from a drug that takes weeks to finish its work.  Nonetheless, hope is always available if we are willing to seek it out. I’m trying. Bob Gouzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen and David Van Heemst remind us that hope is real because, “at its core, it is not a human creation. It attaches itself directly to the faith that God is deeply engaged in all of human history.” (172)

The conclusion of their book contains themes and metaphors of hope that apply to the tragic realities of pandemic. Some of their tropes are extraordinary and have consumed a few classes worth of past discussions in my courses. There is no space here for unpacking the circle and the cross (175), the periscope (181), the minesweeper (184), or the rope-ladder (187). Here I will only stick to two that seem most pertinent.

The Morning Star

There are beautiful signs of hope in the form of front-line health care workers sacrificing their own lives and safety to serve others – but even these stories exist in the context of tragedy. My Facebook feed is awash in the language of fear, blame and shock. When will this end? Where is God?

The authors of Hope in Troubled Times remind us that “Christian hope is a hope of contrast: it revives in the middle of the night, just when darkness seems to overpower us.” (176) They use the Biblical image of the morning star, which appears at the bleakest hours of the night, as a demonstration of the defeat of darkness. When the star appears, the morning is behind it. In the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples, he proclaimed, “I am… the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22:16)

The book of Esther in the Bible does not contain a mention of God. Yet, Esther’s name means “morning star.” She lived when the elimination of Israel appeared as fate. God seemed absent – but was there all along. “Miracles did not save Israel, at least not miracles as we understand them. But as a God who works hiddenly, God linked his saving acts to the act of Esther, who in obedience put her own life in jeopardy… When Esther is seen in the darkness of exile, that is the sign of daybreak. Where God in his hiddenness can be delineated, there is sign that the defeat of the night has come.” (177) Our front line health care workers are the Esthers of our day – the bright morning stars revealing the light that, though dim now, is soon to awaken the morning.

The Fruit Tree

I have suggested through the lens of this book that we are living in an age in which progress and material prosperity is the reigning ideology, perhaps to the point where economic growth has become an idol. This tragic pandemic can act as a catalyst for us to search our hearts about how we want to live in the coming post-COVID-19 world. The authors provide the fruit tree as a helpful metaphor in this regard.

“No fruit tree is inclined to grow infinitely in height. If it did so, it would have to jettison all of its inefficient cells. It would have to put greater pressure on the soil and forgo the production of fruit entirely. Instead, at a certain point a fruit tree exercises built-in wisdom to redirect its growth energies away from expansion in height and toward the production of fruit. It reaches a saturation point and recognizes it as such. This allows the tree to create room to build up reserves and then to redirect its growth energies toward the production of fruit.” (191)

Like fruit trees, our economies – at the scales of the household and the nation – were not intended to grow infinitely forever. Like trees, we arrive at saturation points in which we have a choice to re-orient our energies toward the production of fruit rather than infinite growth. The authors suggest we “take one decisive, perhaps painful, but also realistic step back from the economic goal that hypnotizes us.” On the other side of this pandemic, we can choose to develop a pre-care economy as opposed to a post-care economy. This would place care needs first rather than last on a list of priorities. We could turn away from simplistic material expansion and toward sustainable economies that build community, meet the needs of the poor, and invest in the preservation of culture and the environment. Perhaps one of our problems is that “we have failed to imagine that the world can operate in any other way.” (192)

Hope in Troubled Times, Part 2: Ideology

My son Brendan and I are reading the book Collapse together while we are social distancing. (Look for a recommendation on this one down the road). His favourite chapter thus far has been about Easter Island, where the population used all the resources at their disposal in a tribal race to honour their ancestors through what Brendan calls Yum-Yum heads. Author Jared Diamond queries what the person who cut down the last tree might have been thinking. Likely they were so entrenched in the ideology of the time they were not cognizant of the consequences: starvation and the loss of 90% of the population. 

This post is part two in a longer than usual recommendation for the book Hope In Troubled Times by Bob Gouzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen and David Van Heemst. Yesterday I addressed idolatry through the lens of the book and recent opinions that the US should jump-start the economy by Easter. Today I’m looking at how this may reveal one of the dominant ideologies of our day.

In the volume, ideology is defined as “the entire set of conceptions and beliefs subscribed to by a specific group of people.” (32) It can also mean “a deliberate political attempt to systematically regulate or manipulate people’s currently held ideas in order to achieve certain societal ends.” (33) Ideology has three primary components:

  1. Absolutized political or societal end goals.
  2. A redefinition of currently held values, norms and ideas to such an extent that they legitimize in advance the practical pursuit of the predetermined end.
  3. Establishing a standard by which to select the means or instruments necessary for effectively achieving the all-important goal. (33)

The core idea is that within an ideology, the end goal becomes paramount, and anything getting in the way of that goal is ascribed as evil. The authors use the French Revolution, Nazism, and Communism as examples, demonstrating how each was crafted toward a non-negotiable end and had specific people or ideas that were considered evil. In Nazism, for example, the Jews were declared to be evil itself because they opposed the overarching end. (34)  The authors go into considerable detail on the phases of ideological development: conception, actualization, (re)construction, domination, terror, dissolution. (52-55) There is more on ideology than I’m going to describe here, which is why this is a book recommendation. Check it out!

Of interest today is one of the four ideologies that Goudzwaard et al. argue exist in our current era: “The pursuit of more material wealth or prosperity and the opportunity for continued material progress.” (38) To be fair, the authors are not entirely convinced material progress and prosperity are full-fledged ideologies in the same sense as Communism or Nazism. They call for caution. Nonetheless, they cite some interesting trends that point to the existence of an ideology, beginning with socioeconomic paradoxes that border on absurdities.

  1. The poverty paradox: “Despite an unprecedented expansion of wealth, recent years have witnessed unpredicted increases in situations of deepening poverty.” This is the case not only in developing nations but in the world’s richest countries. “If material prosperity expands in a country, then why has poverty not been alleviated in tandem with that expansion?” (87)
  2. The care paradox: “Opportunities for extending care are steadily eroding in increasingly wealthy societies.” We are seeing the realities of this right now in the pandemic. Countries like the US should be the most financially prepared for such a disaster. Clearly, this is not the case. (87)
  3. The time paradox: Prosperity should bring more free time for leisure and the enjoyment of wealth. However, at least before social distancing measures, our pace has accelerated, and the effects of stress and burnout are evident.
  4. The environment paradox: “The application of improved technologies, more economic resources, and a series of international agreements has not been able to turn the tide of environmental destruction.” (88)

The authors root these paradoxes within the tensions between dynamism and production – “the tension between what can progress and what can scarcely progress.” (90) Poverty results because many in society cannot keep up with the pace of change due to structural, educational, or economic factors. Care as an economic activity cannot keep up because the costs and prices of service increase proportionately faster than productive sectors. Society tends to view anything economically stationary as regressive. This means the only real response available to the care sector in this paradigm is to find ways to increase efficiencies, which means less staff and equipment (as continuously seen in the news this very day). Things are worse for the time paradox and environment paradox as these are impediments to increased productivity. These paradoxes cannot be solved by more money, technology or science precisely because they flow out of “the excess of the forces of unlimited development.” (91)

The ideological conclusion: “The spreading scourge of paradoxes in our society is a sign or signal that our society does not allow the negative and even risky consequences of paradoxes to overrule the belief that, above all, else, the current dynamism must be sustained and expanded.” (91) More succinctly, we live within an ideology of endless progress. The means of this progress are the economy, technology and science. The idea that we must keep progressing has become an absolute end that seems irrefutable to many. Progressives arguing for the preservation of the environment or social justice become evil opponents in this ideology. It is not surprising that we are willing to sacrifice 1 to 3% of the population in America if those individuals, who are not economically productive, put the ultimate end of the ideology at risk. The economy simply must grow, and we must become more prosperous. There is no alternative.

Tomorrow I’ll look at how the realization of and repentance from this ideology can lead to hope in these troubled times.