Don’t judge a fish in a tree

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Last night I rewatched Batman v Superman. The night before I took in Suicide Squad. Contrary to the rest of the world, I actually enjoyed both films. I know how unpopular this is. I’m not sure I care.

No critical viewer of films will say the movies don’t have flaws. No lover of any of the characters will be left without something to gripe about (I, for one, am not as upset as others about Batman’s recent moratorium on his moratorium on taking a life). But what I find to be a lazy critique is some form of the following: Marvel’s universe is just so much better.

It is true that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is out of this world. The storylines are expertly constructed. The actors are all at the top of their respective games. The pieces and parts of the MCU are fit together like an intricate television series. This is some great moving picture action going on, and I think it is a legitimate and fair thing to say that Marvel has topped the field of superhero flicks. Hands down. Game over.

But…

Why can’t we just let DC be what it is? It’s not the best, but – often – neither are you and I. And we still have value, right? We’re still worth investing in, and spending time with, aren’t we?

I think part of our problem as humans is that we are way too concerned with comparison. “If A is not B, then A is worthless.” The problem is: our criteria for comparing is often way, way off. As Einstein is reported to have said:

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

No one is good enough to be 100% wrong

Human beings often make a pretty simple mistake when it comes to smarts: We assume that intelligence is fungible (“mutually interchangeable”). If someone is smart over here, it stands to reason they would be smart over there. Right?

Wrong. 

We know that the scope of intelligence is exceedingly narrow. It has been shown time and time again that, say, success in business does not translate to success running a government agency. It is now a trope that just because someone exceeds in sales, that doesn’t mean they will succeed in sales management. Yet we continue to ignore this evidence, and barrel ahead as always.

Worse, however, I think we make the mistake on the flip side as well. We assume that because someone struggled at one task, they will struggle with them all. If they can’t understand medical issues, there is no way they will be able to disentangle interpersonal issues. Or, more simply, if they are wrong in one part of their argument, then their entire claim is false. 

I think this last one last one is the most egregious. No one is good enough to be 100% wrong, and shame on me if I take joy in exploiting someone’s logical/rhetorical misstep in order to win an argument, make myself feel better, or use it to hide my own failings.

If I’m not careful, I just might rule out a potential teacher because they make the mistake of ordering their beef well-done. That’s indicative of a corrupt human being, isn’t it? I’m not alone in this, am I?

It’s hard to be wrong on the internet

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Yesterday, I finally started editing a big video project for work. It’s an educational series that’ll end up being about 10-12 hours long for which I filmed some scholars talking to a camera as if they were teaching straight to the viewer. The content itself is fabulous, but the the choice to film straight to the camera was made somewhat on a whim. It’s early going still, but it’s presenting some challenges. I’m trying to work out how I’m going to make it a dynamic viewing experience.

In search of inspiration I went to YouTube to find “lecturey” type videos in order to learn what production decisions others made, and stumbled on a series I’d watched a few years ago featuring Harvard professor Michael Sandel leading students through moral philosophy. It’s great. It’s filmed in a big lecture hall, but Sandel is engaging. It’s spectacular.

About 17 minutes in, Sandel issues a “warning” to his students:

To read these books, in this way, is an exercise in self-knowledge. To read them in this way carries certain risks. Risks that are both personal and political…These risks spring from the fact that philosophy teaches us and unsettles us by confronting us with what we already know. There’s an irony. The difficulty of this course consists in the fact that it teaches you what you already know…It works by taking what you already know, and making it strange.

This is the beauty of all advanced education, if you ask me. You take what you know and learn to apply it in wild and varied ways. You learn to make connections. You learn to synthesize. You get it wrong a lot, but you slog through.

I’m jealous of the students in that lecture hall, of that environment. I miss it terribly. I confess to being a person who would choose the life of a perpetual student if I had any say in the matter.

Yesterday, we learned that the University of Chicago has told its incoming Freshman class that their’s would not be a comfortable learning environment:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

I interpret UofC’s statement positively. They are warning students that learning is hard, and that they will be uncomfortable, and that this is precisely the point of education. UofC actually has a Safe Space they actively promote to the LGBTQ students on their campus, but what they’re doing in this statement is different. They’re saying: “You can’t run away from learning just because it’s hard. But don’t worry. We are committed to helping you work through it. There’s no need to be scared. We got you. We’ve been doing this a while.”

When I was in seminary, I was fortunate to be confronted with the truth of White Supremacy in a formal educational way for the first time in my life. I was taught about patriarchal structures for the first time in my life. I was taught about the intersection of race, gender, and class, and let me tell you: It was difficult.

It was difficult because I was scared. I was a young, straight, Midwestern boy who believed himself to be White. I had (or so I thought) everything to lose. But my professors and classmates were on the journey with me. We were all in this together. It was a safe space for learning, even though I wasn’t able to carve out an “intellectual safe space” in which I did not have to engage something new that would help me grow.

It’s been a LONG TIME since I’ve had that kind of environment to learn in. Nowadays, I learn the way most adults do: I YouTube it or search Wikipedia. I’ll buy a book here and there, but I don’t have the places to work through things that I’m unclear on, or to check theories I’m developing. I lament that I really don’t have a place that will help me grow intellectually anymore. Someplace where I can safely be wrong.

It all kind of crystallized for me a few days ago, listening to Malcolm Gladwell on a podcast. During the episode, Gladwell confessed that he thought the internet as we know it is ridiculous. It is unchecked and undefendable. He thinks the openness of the internet maybe shouldn’t be considered a feature anymore. I’m torn because I’m inclined to agree with him*. The recent horror done to Leslie Jones is Exhibit A for me.

But I want to apply Gladwell’s point to another aspect of internet life: The social web is not built for learning. Everyone has become a “public thinker” with the ability to contribute to the conversation (good), but almost no one has been trained in how to actually have a rhetorical debate (bad). We offer “hot takes” and “quick reads.” We presume a shit ton about what our Facebook “friends” are saying without taking the time to type the words: “I don’t fully understand your point. Could you say more?”

I don’t need to bang this drum. It’s the same thing many folks have lamented. My point is this: I want to learn, and I’d like learning to be easier on the social web. But the ad hoc nature of the platform makes it almost impossible. There are not really any arranged spaces online in which we can explore, suggest, and – most importantly – be wrong. The ability to be wrong is crucial, but the use of the platform doesn’t even think to consider it. In a world full of experts, no one assumes anyone else cares to learn anymore. So all we’re left with is a bunch of people defending positions or responding to attacks.

Or, as Cenk Uyger said on Twitter yesterday:

The whole internet has become Lord of the Flies and everyone is fighting over the conch.

The internet is kind of dumb that way.

 

*And I’m the guy who wrote a book about open source.

Facebook knows me

I did that thing you can do on Facebook and find out what the site believes your political alignment to be. To the surprise of no one, Facebook thinks that I am “Very Liberal.” When I noted that (yes, on Facebook), a friend observed that I’m a pretty open book, while she is seen more as a “Moderate” (She’s not 🙂 ).

Over the years I’ve had more conversations than I can count about how I’m able to have such an honest public persona. The most common question I get asked is: “How do you get away with saying what you really think?”

A lot of people try to convince me that a person who holds a position such as mine* should be neutral about controversial things. Whatever my political leanings (for instance) I should keep them to myself. I disagree. If anything, I want to be as clear as possible about who I am and how I see the world. I want to be able to be who I am. So what bothers me most is that (other than the aforementioned passivity) some folks are more concerned that I not disrupt their preconceived ideas about the world than that I engage as a thoughtful member of the community.

I don’t know if I have a good answer to the question of saying what I really think. I’ve never given a thought to “getting away with” anything. I suppose I’ve always just been who I am in whatever space I’m in. I don’t shy away from offering my opinion, but I also try to treat social media like I used to treat living in a small town. Everybody knows everybody, and you don’t get invited over for ice cream if you’re a jerk.

So here’s my advice: Imagine that truly kind person in your life who happens to see most things differently than you do. When you speak your mind, pretend you’re speaking to them.

 

*I’m professionally religious, directing a regional office of the Presbyterian Church USA.

This is not a post about trigger warnings

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I learned a couple things the other day:

I heard Mike Birbiglia describe, in an interview, how he was having trouble writing the ending of his most recent movie. He couldn’t find the motivation to actually take the time to sit down and pound out the final 10 pages or so of the script. He’d think: “I need to finish this script” but he’d never get it done. Then he realized he had absolutely no problem keeping appointments with other people, so he decided to trick his brain.

He left himself a note on his bedside table that read: “Mike: You have an appointment with yourself to write at the cafe at 8:30am. Don’t be late! Love, Mike.”

He finished the script.

Also, I learned that turkey mothers are very good mothers, but they only care for the chicks in their brood who make a “cheep-cheep” sound. And not only that, but that animal behaviorists did an experiment one time where they managed to trick a turkey mother into caring for a facsimile of it’s natural enemy (the polecat) by having it make the “cheep-cheep” sound. Take away the “cheep-cheep” and mama got protective. Bring it back, and mama got nurturing.

Scott Adams (he of Dilbert fame) has called humans moist robots. We are basically machines who can be programmed to do certain things given the right conditions and triggers*. Mike Birbiglia just needed a note. The mother turkey just needed a sound.

Like you, I can get paralyzed into inaction easily. For me, it’s not entirely about failure, but more about wasting time and energy. Still, the result is the same: I find myself in situations where I don’t want to do what needs done. So I’ve developed my own set of triggers to get me through those moments. Often I trade on my need to make an impact by simply (and literally) saying out loud: “Well, somebody has to be the adult in the room.”

Fun fact about me: Triggers are so strong that, more than twenty years after learning about classical conditioning, I salivate profusely whenever “Pavlov’s Dog” is mentioned.

 

*This is also why we make a big deal about “trigger warnings.” We’re trying to be kind and considerate about a phenomenon that is very powerful. Has it gone too far, as some have suggested? I’m not one to say, but there’s a good reason we’ve started being attentive to it.

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If you’re immune to psychological associations and triggers, you might like my book. Or you may be smart enough to see what I’m trying to do, and not click the link.

I almost quit today

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Five days ago, I published my first legit blog post in well over a year. It felt good, and I thought to myself: I need to keep at this.

Over a decade ago, I was one of thousands and thousands who tried to become a BFD through blogging. I subscribed to ProBlogger, and read everything I could about carving out a niche and creating content. About attracting an audience and pumping them full of bloggity wisdom.

I actually did okay at it a few times. Once, I had an anonymous blog called The Very Left Reverend where I ended up attracting a fair amount of traffic by gleefully taking down those who loved Beth Moore. A couple other times, I had blog projects that started getting the attention of social media influencers. But by the time that happened, I had basically run out of things to say.

Every writer wants to be read. Every speaker wants to be heard. Every vlogger wants to be seen. It’s not selling out. In my opinion, there isn’t any nobility in “art for Art’s sake.” We create because we want to connect. But we have to be judicious in what we write, say, or film. We can’t just throw things up on the net.

Or maybe we can. I’m one of those people who actually abhors small talk (more than abhors it. I don’t naturally understand it), so perhaps my aversion to not wanting to write something just because I thought it would be a good idea to write everyday has more to do with that*. I don’t have anything profoundly important to write. It feels futile and dishonest to rack my brain for “something to blog.” And, so, I almost quit this blog today.

 

*Also, the “Real World Confessional” nature of this post is pissing me off.

A metaphor is only supposed to go as far as it’s supposed to go

Here’s the thing about using metaphors: They are only supposed to go as far as they’re supposed to go.

They have very short communicative half-lives.

If you cook them too long long, they end up being dry.

There is only so much blood in the metaphor turnip.

I know we like to be clever, but, too often, we draw out and extend figures of speech when talking about important things. Almost every time, what results is just a muddying of the waters. It’s sad really. It’s like we are fundamentally incapable of seeing the forest through the trees.

Mary Jane Watson is Black

*NERD ALERT*

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A few days ago we learned that Zendaya will play the role of Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot (we can talk about the reality of yet another Spider-Man franchise later. I still heart you, Toby Maguire). As with all things comic book based, well…

There’s an argument I’ve had with my oldest for a while now: Whether or not source material should be revered. As in: If a comic book renders a character one way, is it okay to change it? We’ve argued about whether Batman taking a life in the latest flick was okay (Batman famously does not kill), or whether Superman’s origin story can be tampered with. You get the idea. So now, Mary Jane, she of the long flowing locks of red hair is to be played by a black woman, and we’re back to the uproar when Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic 4 reboot (FTR: While Jordan was fantastic, the flick was decidedly not).

James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy, has written:

For me, if a character’s primary attribute – the thing that makes them iconic – is the color of their skin, or their hair color, frankly, that character is shallow and sucks.

Amen.

I’m an ordained minister, and a progressive one at that. Something I deal with often is biblical literalists. As Americans, we often hear about wanting Supreme Court Justices who are “strict constructionists.” In most areas of life, someone is telling us that there is no possibility for change, that things are the way they are, ad infinitum, forever and ever amen.

But while I grew up hearing that “ain’t is not a word,” everyone around me said it. While I grew up learning that gay folk were an abomination, I discovered otherwise. While we were being taught that “this is what America is,” the make up of America changed.

Everything alive changes. Only dead things don’t change.

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If you’re a religious nerd who’s into growth and change, you might like my book.

Asking “Why?” is just a way to drag our feet

I was in a meeting with colleagues recently, and we were discussing a situation that clearly irritated most of us. There was much hand wringing. A good bit of teeth gnashing. The crux of the conversation centered on why the situation had occurred, and no one really had a good explanation. There were lots of suggestions made, to be sure. But there was no agreement on any of them. After about 20 minutes of this, one of our number so eloquently said: “I don’t need to know why it is. I just know that it is, and that’s good enough.”

We humans spend a lot of time thinking about why something happened. We’re meaning making creatures after all. Everything has to have a cause.

  • “He must hate me, so he did thus and so to me”
  • “She just wanted power, so she threw me under the bus.”

OR

  • “I told you this thing wasn’t going to happen if I didn’t step in.”
  • “They should feel lucky to have me. They would have failed otherwise.”

We put an awful lot of stock in our own selves, when most of it is actually just luck (good or bad).

But you know what we don’t do very often? We don’t simply accept the reality that this is where we find ourselves at this very moment. We don’t take the situation for what it is and work with it. We spin our wheels and drag our feet, as if knowing the why would change any of it*. And that takes a lot of energy. Too much if you ask me.

*Clearly, I’m not talking about injustice. That shit needs to be deconstructed and blown apart.

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Once upon a time, I thought I was the cause of everything. Then I learned better, and wrote about it in my book.

You’ve gotta land the plane

US Airways Flight 1549 afloat in the Hudson River

I saw the trailer for the new Tom Hanks flick, Sully, last night during Olympic coverage. It’s the tale of US Airways Flight 1549 and its captain, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger. You know: The guy who landed the plane in the middle of the Hudson River?

How did the guy do it? That’s an amazing feat. Notoriously calm and cool, Sully once told Katie Couric:

One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.

In my first job out of seminary, I had an amazing boss. He believed in me, nurtured me, and invested in me. He saw things in me that I didn’t, at the time, see in myself. During a meeting one time he told me something I’ve never forgotten. “There are a lot of people who can fly the plane, Landon. They get up in the air and they circle around and around, and it’s amazing. But it’s not enough just to fly the plane. You’ve gotta be one of those people who can land it.”

Don’t get me wrong: I quit a surprising amount of things. I think winners actually quit a lot. There is no shame in being able to know that something may have looked good at the time, but it’s not worth the sunk cost now. But more often than not, continuing on doing the thing will have benefits you don’t see today because you’re making those small deposits into the bank of experience.

So in those moments when you’re at an important deadline, or trying to make good on a promise, or doing something no one else understands is valuable: You’ve gotta land the plane. No amount of circling is going to make you a hero.

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If you’re notoriously calm and cool like Sully, you might like my book.