Mushin no shin

Mushin no shin. It translates literally to “mind without mind, ” but this fails to capture the nuance of it. Mushin, for short, might best be described as a state of being dispassionate, freeing oneself from all mental and emotional attachment so that one may respond rather than react.

Mushin has a happy home in Zen and other meditative practices, which makes perfect sense. I first encountered it in my martial studies, where it comprises part of Bushido, the way of the warrior. There, mushin is a state of detachedness from ego that allows one to act without fear, to focus on the technique of combat rather than the result. “He who seeks to save his own life” and all. Or, as Mad Max would have it, “Fear is the mindkiller.”

During my days as a concealed handgun instructor, I advocated for mushin, for a number of reasons. First, as the samurai well knew, it is an effective combat mindset for those who achieve it. Second, in civilian uses of deadly force in self-defense, strict adherence to the law is a necessity. Many infractions of the law occur out of a fear response–the civilian produces his weapon before he is justified in doing so, or she fires it without sufficient objective indication (what the law in Texas would call “reasonableness”) of imminent harm to authorize the application of deadly force.

At the time, though, mushin interested me at least as much for its applicability at conflict de-escalation as during the escalation of hostilities. Most of the conflict de-escalation techniques I have been taught, or have personally taught, require stepping back from one’s ego to manage the situation logically and persuasively instead of as a matter of preserving sense of identity and saving face. Now, I am even more interested in that aspect of mushin.

Especially as a parent. Much of the discipline of children is done from a place of anger or frustration. This is understandable–children can be both anger-inducing and frustrating. But being understandable doesn’t make it acceptable. I’m not casting aspersions; I’m just as guilty, and I’ve tried to be introspective, realistic and candid in my own failings and unnecessary power struggles in that regard.

I’ve harped on TBRI before, and this seems an opportunity to do so again. Without calling it that, TBRI incorporates the same principle as mushin into its approach to parenting–if you can’t center yourself and can’t remove your own emotions from the situation, you can’t effectively parent. You are reacting, not responding. And, yes, sometimes parenting feels like the attack-parry-riposte of the duel.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you know that I have a strong sense of self and identity–and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I work on the assumption that the uniqueness of my personality (what we might call the “writer’s voice” if we want to be formal about it) is interesting enough to keep my audience coming back.

But I also know that I’m at my best as a parent when I put all of that aside. When I focus on my child’s needs, both in the short-term meeting of needs and in the long-term development of character, I develop parenting strategies that do more than momentarily relieve my own frustrations–I build trust and relationship just as I am redirecting, correcting, of flat-out dodging certain behaviors. That’s love, both practically- and theologically-speaking.

It’s a strange thing to think that love sometimes happens best when given from a place of detachment and dispassion, but the strangeness of that comes from a society that tells us that love is a feeling, a fleeting emotion whose high we must chase continually. While we can’t–and shouldn’t–deny the emotional aspects of our relationships, we cannot roll them into intent and behavior and pretend that the mess that results is one monolithic thing. Sometimes love is a choice, and we are called to pursue it even when we don’t feel like it. When we choose to be loving to another when it doesn’t come easy is when that love is most powerful, when it is self-sacrificial.

But there’s a trap here as well, and we shouldn’t get it twisted–we humans have emotional needs that must be fulfilled by our relationships for them to be healthy, positive, and functional. For those persons with whom we intend to travel large swathes of our lives, we ought to like them as well as love them. We ought to feel that emotional pull as well as the conscious desire to seek their good first.

But, as I’ve said, children are often infuriating, even as we also feel loving emotions toward them. But to raise them up in the world, our parenting must be about them and their needs, not about our personal weaknesses or psychological quirks and desires.

We must become like samurai, dispassionate and able to see the situation for what it really is, to–as objectively as is humanly possible–look down the skeins of time for the far-reaching consequences of our own behavior. We must be unattached to emotional needs and distant from fear of particular results so that we may employ the techniques we know to be beneficial, healthy and effective.

Because, while parenting may sometimes be a fight, it’s not one comprised of strikes and parries, of throws and joint locks. It’s not even a fight between us and our children (though we often feel that it is). We have met the enemy, and it is us.

Sanity Check!!!!

The children have gone to church with K. I’m taking a more “authentic” sabbath and keeping a day of rest–and writing (conveniently, the sermon being preached today is entitled “You need the rest,” and concerns the fourth commandment).

There’s so much I want to do in this ephemeral freedom, so many easy distractions with which to sate superficial needs and truly kill time. But I’m exerting some self-discipline and spending the time doing what I love best–and what will truly restore some much-needed energy and sense of value. Writing. This post is the warm-up to returning to some work in writing the finer plot details for my novel as preparation for writing proper. If I hit a block on that, I suspect that there may be further blog posts later this morning.

Two sorry-not-sorry apologies to begin. If you clicked on this post hoping for something gaming-related (and who could blame you), you’re going to be disappointed–this is a post about raising children. If you have no idea what a “sanity check” is or who H.P. Lovecraft is, you may need to open Wikipedia and/or do some independent research for all of this to make sense. If you are a gamer parent, or a gamer who expects to have kids one day, I expect that this post will be especially enjoyable.

It occurred to me that I have some subconscious association between having kids and H.P. Lovecraft. When we had our first placement (three years and one day before this one), I reread all of Lovecraft’s corpus. This time, I find myself drawn to the recently-released Call of Cthulhu and Sinking City games (though I have no time for them at present and thus have not purchased them). A psychologist would have a field day, and we’ll delve into that deeper in a moment, I suppose.

But first, the two boys who are with us need some names for blogging purposes. Our first two were, by sheer randomness, Abe and Bess. This time, I’m having more trouble deciding. There’s Cain and Abel, but that didn’t work out so well. Jacob and Esau, but that too isn’t the best of relationships. Joseph and–nope, that one’s not going to work either. Has anyone else noticed how many dysfunctional family relationships are in the Old Testament? There’s some great theology to be had there, or as my pastor friends would say, “That’ll preach.” Someone remind me to do a post to delve into that, it’s a topic for another time.

That still leaves me with no names, though. How about Hawkwood and Marshall? Two famous English mercenary captains. They’ve been waging a concerted war against me, I’m sure, so it seems to fit in my own mind. We’ll make Hawkwood the older boy, three in October, leaving Marshall for the younger, of course, one in October.

Now that we’ve got some names, some fun ones, I hope (and if you don’t enjoy them as much as I do, that’s too bad–I’m a nerd and I’m the one writing!), let’s get to the point.

Why is it that I’ve got this link between Lovecraft and raising children in my mind? I pride myself on being especially self-aware, particularly able to look at myself in a somewhat objective light and get to the bottom of my psyche without assistance; let’s see if it works this time.

Lovecraft wrote a different kind of horror, not entirely free of historical influences and bindings, of course, being especially mired in the nihilistic thought and existential philosophy that developed over the course of the 19th century. We can associate some of the classic tropes of horror with Lovecraft–body horror, Otherness, fear of mortality, societal and psychological anxieties, etc. But Lovecraft went further with his Cthulhu mythos, which is why we call his genre of horror cosmic. Lovecraft’s deepest form of horror is existential–that the universe has no overarching and benevolent structure or meaning, that suffering is inevitable, constant, and without redeeming value, and that entropy and despair are the ultimate fates of all things. That’s the type of horror that sticks with a person long after the sudden shocks and momentary frights, after the monsters have gone back under the bed or into the closet and the ghosts have been exorcised for a while.

Again, what does this have to do with children? A few things, actually. Sanity being one of them. Not in the broad sense of a person’s mental health, but in the localized sense of those little insanities that sometimes overtake each of us when we lose our cool and the concomitant ability to act rationally. These are my moral and personal failings–but a two-year-old sure has the fast track to bringing them out in me. Just as I had to deal with them with Bess (see Just Give Her the Damn Goldfish!), I’m still letting myself get out of my own head with desires to achieve some modicum of control over situations where control doesn’t matter. Since two-year-olds often say one thing and then do another, or change their mind about what they want or don’t want in milliseconds, opportunities abound.

As (I think) I’ve mentioned, Hawkwood is extremely intelligent. His vocabulary is astounding, he bent our Alexa to his will within two days (we’ve listened to Toto’s “Africa 57,432,001 times now. I used to like that song.), he can help with laundry, dishes and cooking. But between two and three is when children begin to learn to consciously manipulate to get what they want. This is developmentally appropriate, it is the early stages of learning important social and relational skills. But since Hawkwood is so intelligent, his attempts at manipulation are especially infuriating. A few examples: Hawkwood asks questions (often random, but always associated with something or someone nearby) whenever he wants to change the subject and avoid something he’s being asked to do; he phrases what he wants as questions: “Do you want milk?”; he parcels out affection when it is calculated to achieve his ends. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a sweet boy and I’ve quickly become quite fond of him. He’s also a little booger.

It’s that the above combines with his inability to rationalize or employ logic (although it’s possible he’s just using non-Euclidean geometries in his logic) that has a tendency to make me lose my head. You can’t bargain with a child who’s not ready to evaluate cost and benefit. You can’t reason with a child for whom cause and effect are not entirely real, such that consequences–particularly those that are minutes or hours down the line–carry any real sense of urgency.

As you know, I am a lawyer in my day-to-day career. There are a few things I’ve learned well in that profession: (1) You cannot make someone do something they don’t want to do without coercive force; this is never a positive experience and always has consequences. (2) For those people (and it’s certainly not everyone), with the ability and desire to act rationally, they must be able to reasonably calculate costs and benefits in order to be persuaded. (3) For those who cannot or will not be subject to reason, you can only achieve compliance by playing into their pre-existing beliefs, weaknesses and expectations (something our current president does all too well).

All of these things remain true of a two-year-old, except that they cannot be expected to act according to reason and do not yet have any pre-existing beliefs and expectations (other than selfishness) to use to advantage. That leaves me–someone who is typically quite persuasive and (I think) very good at working through conflicts–powerless when it comes to Hawkwood. And I hate being powerless.

Add to this sleep-deprivation, a schedule that currently revolves entirely around meeting the needs of the children and helping them to adapt in what is a very difficult situation for them, and putting aside the semblance of frustration (as much as possible) to help them to bond to you, and you quickly lose sight of the idea that this is a phase that will pass. Once the children are in daycare and I’m back to working, the days will be far easier and life will return to something that feels manageable. In the meantime, the horror feels existential. Cue Lovecraft.

But Lovecraft was an atheist, and that left him little respite from his nihilistic despair. I am a man of faith, and one possessing a powerful will at that. So, regardless of the similarities between the terror of children and the cosmic terror of otherworldly beings, the differences are greater, and the ending is not the same. I will not succumb to despair, and my present situation will not acquiesce to tragedy or insanity. We will make meaning out of chaos and thereby dispel the lurkers at threshold.

Maybe that puts us closer to August Derleth’s much-maligned “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft, in which Derleth’s own Christian view superseded Lovecraft’s atheistic nihilism in the stories of the Cthulhu mythos the two wrote “together.” Maybe that’s what I should pick up next, to read while Hawkwood is slowly drifting off to sleep at night after I pick him up and rock him, play the classical music on his night-time CD, and sit with him in the bed until slumber takes him.

More to come.

 

Day One

It’s 6:30 on Wednesday morning; K is trying to put the infant back to sleep as I write this (bless her!). It wasn’t as long a night as we’d expected, but it was a long day yesterday.

Two precious little boys, eight months and about two-and-a-half, arrived in our home yesterday morning. The older boy is talkative, curious, intelligent and very busy. We were told that he was hyperactive, but that doesn’t seem to be the case–he’s just a normal, active two-year-old. The infant is already full of personality–smiling often, but also very stubborn and opinionated! And about as food-motivated as Berwyn (our dog) is!

Yesterday was a typical first day, filling out paperwork, learning as much as we can, trying to get back into parenting routines. All of this brings with it a lot of stress and exhaustion, but only the situation itself was the cause–the kids themselves are fairly easy-going.

As expected, everything came to a head at bed-time, at least for the two-year-old. That’s when the realization that this isn’t a fun daytrip sets in. I’m extremely thankful for having attended the Empowered-to-Connect conference stream a few months back (see my TBRI post); it was fascinating to watch our little boy as he went into “survival mode” and exhibited exactly the sorts of behaviors expected of him. This understanding allowed me to remain calm and centered rather than becoming frustrated–I could easily remind myself that this was not a matter of willful disobedience or obstinance, but simply a child experiencing very understandable trauma trying to regulate himself. And, from that place of understanding, however limited and abstract it may be, I could respond with compassion, using the same techniques I’ve learned through TBRI trainings and the ETC conference in particular.

In this case, this meant picking up the toddler and holding him until he was able to regulate himself and calm down some. This took about an hour, and I began to doubt my ability–my physical ability to stand up and rock a thirty-pound child after a day already filled with a lot of physical exertion–but we made it through. After that hour, I was able to lay him in the bed, awake but much calmer, and we gradually dimmed the lights and moved him toward sleep.

It didn’t take long after the kids went down that I went to sleep myself–I know that when they’re asleep is my only chance to get some rest! I slept soundly, though K informs me that she had a rough night doubting that the baby monitor was working. It was, as it proudly (and loudly) informed us at 5:45 this morning.

So here I sit with my computer and my coffee in the calm before day two. As promised, this part of the blog will come alive as I share my experiences, joys and frustrations of parenting–and “co-parenting with the state” as they say.

I’ll be turning now to continue working on my novel for as long as I can before the kiddos wake again. More to come soon!

Update 6-18-19

The blog’s been quiet for a little over a week and, as usual, I like to explain myself a little bit when that happens.

The Writing
I had planned to wait until NaNoWriMo to start working on finishing a novel again, but those plans have been happily dashed. What started as a short-story ended up as a twenty-thousand-plus-word text, one that needed a lot of work on pacing and a lot of filling in of details. So it just made sense to turn it into a novel. That’s been the bulk of my writing time in the past few weeks, both in the original story and now in plotting out the novelization.

Plotting is almost complete and I’ll begin the writing (and re-writing) proper shortly. If posts to the blog are sporadic over the next short while, that’s what’s going on.

This novel does not yet have a name, but I’ve also already got broad-stroke plans for three sequels; two of which will likely be part of an initial trilogy and the last of which (which also started as a short-story that expanded out of hand) will likely be the start to a second trilogy. The story is set in Avar Narn (of course) and is something of a noir story. Saying it feels in some ways like a bastardized mix of noir fairy-tale and dark fantasy is pretty close to the mark, I think.

If you’ve followed the blog for a while, you may remember that, in 2017, I began work on a different Avar Narn novel, tentatively called Wilderlands. I fully intend to finish that novel, potentially as part of a trilogy between the two trilogies discussed above (the characters in the current novel and Wilderlands are entirely different), but it’s on the proverbial back burner for now.

Kiddos
Any day now, K and I could get the call that brings kids into our lives again. We’re going a little crazy with the wait, to be honest. But, when it happens, you’ll see the Fatherhood section of the blog come to life again.

Shadowrun
If you’ve been keeping a weather eye out for RPG news, you’ll know that a Sixth Edition of Shadowrun has been announced for release this summer, boasting a “streamlined” ruleset.

Shadowrun: Anarchy disappointed me greatly in its failure to translate some of the most fun things about the Shadowrun universe into a more narrative-focused design. As such, while I’m excited to see a new edition, I’m not sure that it’s going to provide what I think the rules need to really present a modernized and excellent take on the game’s design. So, look out for two things: (1) continued posts for my Cortex Plus/Prime hack of Shadowrun (which may end up remaining the sweet spot for me for playing games in the Shadowrun universe), and (2) a thorough review of the Shadowrun Sixth Edition Rulebook when I get my grubby hands on it.

Theology
More to come and soon.

What do I mean by “New Mysticism”?

Today I was reading an interview between CNN’s Daniel Burke and comedian Pete Holmes, star of HBO’s “Crashing” and author of the new book Comedy, Sex, God.

I want to copy for you here a portion of that interview that really struck me. He says: “But what we’re talking about is symbol systems and labels. And those are good; those are helpful. (But) we’re trying to get our inner reality to respond. So in the book, I’m trying to rescue some Bible verses, I’m trying to rescue some ideas of Christ. I’ll always get a lot juice out of rescuing something that Jesus said. It’s healing to me, psychologically, to do that with words that were used to convince me that I was in danger of going to hell. It might be my favorite thing to do, is to go like, “Oh my God, it was right there.” We just didn’t have eyes to see. We didn’t have ears to hear. We were listening wrong. We were listening with an agenda. We were listening with our egos. We were listening with a deep desire for membership and identity and certainty. We weren’t looking as the mystics are. And when you look at the Bible the way a mystic sees it, it opens like a flower and you’re like, whoa.”

This really resonated with me, as did the general story of Mr. Holmes’ spiritual journey from evangelical Christian upbringing to spiritual voyager. His use of the idea of mysticism also struck a cord.

I have casually remarked in my posts on this blog that I have given the (haphazardly) systematic theology I am slowly developing the name “New Mysticism.” Pete Holmes’ comment above (and perhaps his comments more broadly) seems to provide a good entry point into discussing what I mean by that term.

I am not qualified to be a mystic in the classical sense. I cannot sit still long enough to meditate. I am too busy (over-)thinking to calm my mind. I have too strong a sense of self to be satisfied with the idea of the unio mystica, though I have a deep desire to feel a strong connection with God. I have no supernatural gifts that allow me to see the fabric of reality other than through a glass, darkly. I have no divine message to share, only the thoughts and feelings of a human inescapably drawn to pondering the nature of existence and reality, subject to my all-too-human limitations in finding definitive answers to the many questions I ask. I am no mystic as the term is often intended.

Why “New Mysticism,” then? As I’ve laid out in a Brief Outline of My Theology, my theological approach is both existential and epistemologically skeptical; some amount of mysticism seems an inexorable conclusion from such a starting place.

In existentialist thought, we acknowledge that our understanding of all things is mediated by experience, by imperfect sensory apparatus analyzed by imperfect minds. We must acknowledge some slippage between what we perceive (the existential) and what actually is (the essential).

Skepticism of our ability to know follows closely. I’m not one to take epistemological skepticism to absurdity (if our knowing is flawed, how can we know that we know?), but I do acknowledge that the human mind has its limits.

The philosopher David Hume once made the argument that we cannot definitively know that causation exists. What we observe is a (very) strong correlation of events. To borrow his analogy, we see the cue ball hit one of the other billiard balls and then the second ball begins to move. Through math and science, we can even protect the force and direction of that movement based upon the angle of impact, speed and rotation of the cue ball (and myriad other details, such as the evenness of the pool table). But we have no way to, beyond any doubt, prove that the cue ball is causing the other ball to move rather than that we are only observing a very consistent “coincidence” that is caused by forces and factors we cannot perceive.

We cannot live and function should we focus on that doubt, of course. We must live with the very great probability that this is in fact causation (it hasn’t failed us yet, after all). We cannot meaningfully interact with the world around us, certainly cannot plan such interactions, without taking for granted causation exists and we believe it to.

Do not be misled into thinking that I am making some argument against either knowledge generally or science specifically; experience seems to demonstrate (if not prove) that we can know some things reliably enough and science is in fact the best tool to understand the nature and action of the world around us.

But there are limits to the sorts of questions that the human mind may understand. Science can show us with relative certainty that the universe began with the Big Bang. It cannot, no matter the angle at which we hold it nor the manner in which we dissect it, tell us why in any sense behind the mundane and lifeless. The question of, “If the Big Bang caused everything in the universe, what caused it?” stretches to infinite strings of causation or some manner of causation we cannot perceive. Either way, the answer is beyond us. When God tells us that God’s name is “I AM” or “I AM THAT I AM”, that is a mystical answer to a question that defies logic. There is nothing we can understand about God in any temporal sense; God simply is God. We must either accept or reject that, there is no way to prove it or explain it.

It is here that we find the necessity of mysticism; that is: a belief that some knowledge is not susceptible to human logic, that there are things we may know from experience that we could never prove to anyone else, that there are ways of understanding apart from cold logic. I know of no other way to describe such things other than “mystical.” But it strikes me that that mysticism is not entirely the same as the term has been formerly understood. It may also be a mode of experience, but in my mind it is first a worldview, one without which we are not open to such modes of experience, no matter the labels we place on them.

And so, I find my theology to be firmly rooted in the mystical, the supernal, the sublime. How could it be otherwise? The spaces between cold logic are where faith, hope and joy come alive, where we find (or create) the only meanings that, at the end of the day, really matter to any of us.

This mysticism is different, perhaps, from the mysticism of the past in another way. It does not dismiss, nor reject, nor argue against logic and science, instead recognizing that these are God-given tools to develop understanding to the extent that we can. If there is a God, and God created everything that exists, then every rule of science, every geological fact, every evolutionary development represents in some manner the will of God. Understanding the operation of the natural world may thus give us some understanding of the nature of God. Even if it doesn’t, such understanding proves quite useful, and we’ll need more of it if we are to hope to undo much of the harm we, as a species, have done to the world.

This “new” mystical approach allows science and faith to co-exist by understanding that, just because a story in the Bible is not historical fact does not mean that is not True in the most important, dramatic and essential ways by telling us something meaningful about existence itself. If only we are able to understand, whether by logic or by divine revelation.

“New Mysticism” is intended as a middle road between an unquestioning faith and an equally unquestioning materialism, one that gives fair play to all manner of knowing and seeks to incorporate all of the experiential, the existential, into a meaningful whole.

 

After-Action Report: TAC 2019

This year’s conference was a whirlwind. K got commissioned as a deacon this past Tuesday night in what was a beautiful ceremony with a great sermon by the Bishop. I can’t say how proud of her I am; I just don’t have words for it. That’s something, as this blog is itself proof of my usual verbosity.

Amidst all the doom and gloom surrounding the United Methodist Church of late, I left the conference with more hope than I had upon arrival. It’s a voting year for 2020’s General Conference, so nothing that happened at the 2019 Called Special Session of the General Conference is really set in stone yet. Palpable tension settled upon the conference from the beginning, thickening as we approached the clergy voting session Tuesday morning.

Despite extensive technical issues with the voting system, issues which seemed not to affect the voting results but simply to drag out the process, the clergy muddled through in their first voting session to astounding results.

The Texas Annual Conference had nine spots for delegates to General Conference, an additional nine spots for delegates to our Jurisdictional Conference, and spots for four alternates–this each for clergy and for laity, voted on separately.

At the end of voting (clergy voting had to be continued yesterday morning because of the time it took to fight with the electronic balloting system), the clergy had elected progressive/compatibilist delegates for all but two of the alternates, who were from the Confessing Movement/WCA slate. I’m told with some frequency that the Texas Annual Conference is the most conservative conference of the UMC in the U.S., so this was quite a surprising sea change from our last elections (in 2015). I’m not prepared to say that this represents a majority of clergy favoring full-inclusion, as I don’t know that. I do have confidence that this represents a majority of clergy that want to keep the church together, to be in fellowship in our disagreement with one another on theological issues. I can also soundly say that these elections constituted a firm rejection of the Traditional Plan’s passage at the 2019 GC.

A quick note on the word “compatibilist”: it is used within this context (and I believe within the UMC as a whole at present) to mean someone who supports maintaining the unity of the Church despite our theological differences. There are compatibilists on both sides of both the sexuality issue and the issues of theology and scriptural interpretation that underlie that more visible issue.

The laity elections, on the other hand, went exactly the opposite. You will recall, I imagine, that I ran as a lay candidate for the 2020 General Conference this year. As both a staunch progressive and a staunch compatibilist, I had the honor of being part of the “That We May Be One” slate of candidates. Despite having about 45-percent of the lay votes, we were soundly defeated by the traditionalist/Confessing/WCA contingent, electing only two alternates among the 22 total spots for GC and JC. I was not among those elected.

As much of a beating as the election itself felt, the numbers still give me hope. If the lay delegates of the Texas Annual Conference are still forty-five percent on the side of keeping the Church together and finding a way forward in unity, and if we are in fact the most conservative of the U.S. Annual Conferences, I think we’re in for a very interesting delegation to 2020 GC.

Voting this year also pointed out to me a great problem with the Book of Discipline structure of the UMC.

Under the current rules, each delegate gets to vote a number of times equal to the open spots being voted for. So, if we’re voting for 9 GC delegates, each voting member of the conference (again, separated between laity and clergy) gets nine votes.

But each vote must be for a different candidate. To be elected, a candidate needs 50% of the votes cast during that ballot. So, if a group controls 50% of the votes, they will, minor anomalies aside, control all of the delegates elected. This is exactly what happened in our voting this year.

The solution is simple: we go to corporate-style voting. Under corporate voting, each delegate would get nine votes if there are nine spots. But these votes could be allocated between candidates however the voter wishes. So, a voter could give all nine votes to the same candidate. This would ensure that a minority group could get some representation to GC while also maintaining the ability of a majority group to have the majority of the spots. In other words, the results of the election would be a more representative slice of the annual conference the elected delegates are supposed to represent.

Except that they’re not. Delegates are expected to “vote their conscience” at the General Conference and are not actually given any duty to represent those who elected them. On the one hand, this makes sense, as we’re (sometimes) talking about sensitive theological and moral questions. But the practical reality is that it means we’ve essentially taken the worst parts of the American-style democracy on which the UMC governance is based to form our electoral system and the expectations of the delegates to our legislative body.

There’s no fixing this right now. Elections are happened, these rules would have to be changed by the General Conference, and the 2020 GC already has enough on its plate. But this is something to consider for the future of the UMC if we are (as I continue to hope we will be able to) able to keep it together or the successor denominations if we are not.

During the evening session of laity voting, I had a somewhat contentious conversation with an older, conservative lay delegate. I tried to be civil–but did not succeed as well as I should have. Nevertheless, I want to bring up a few points we discussed in case they are common to others or some of my readers encounter them in the future.

The first argument that this man made were that “sociology” (he meant “social issues” rather than the soft science discipline) and theology should be kept separate, as they are separate things.

I could not disagree more. In the immediate, issues of social justice, the treatment of others, who we marry and ordain, and how we view our morality (if we are going to rely on the argument that morality is absolute and comes from God) all soundly fit within the realm of theology. More broadly, if our goal is truly to follow Christ and to “become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect,” everything is theology. I’ll probably write a full post to treat that issue.

But we cannot separate our politics or our social beliefs from our faith. That’s a careful line to walk for me, because I both believe that my faith should guide my politics and that there ought to be a separation of religion and government. This also merits a full post (or a book!) to treat fully. For now, suffice to say that I do not believe that we compartmentalize our social or political and spiritual beliefs when they are contradictory. In my opinion, the conservative Evangelical right as a political force in this country is emblematic of what happens when we do compartmentalize.

The second argument–really a statement of belief–that the man made was that the sexuality issue is “destroying our church.” I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I’m sure that this man and I have very different ideas about the why and how. More important, the principal factor that guides us should be, “what is God calling us to,” not “will this change the institution to which I am accustomed.” I realize that this argument could be used to suggest that the UMC should split, but I believe that we are called to unity in addition to social justice and must attempt as best we can to walk that line.

As I mentioned above, the clergy voting seems an indication of a desire to walk that line. The laity voting, not so much. We would do well to continue to ask ourselves, “Are we destroying the Church?” I don’t know that there’s a right answer to that question, and it’s the one that must inevitably follow that I care about most: “Whatever we’re doing, are we doing it out of an earnest desire to follow after Jesus and live out the Gospels for a world in desperate need of the Good News, or are we pushing our own agendas, propping up our own senses of identity, reshaping our Christianity to fit our preconceived notions, or adapting those notions in light of our faith?” There are no easy answers here, nor should there be.

 

Texas Annual Conference 2019 – A Fiery Start

K and I arrived at the Hilton of the Americas this afternoon at about 4:30, just ahead of the start of our annual “meetings vacation” (her term; she likes meetings way more than me). By good fortune, we managed to avoid the long line to check into the hotel–turns out there’s an app for that now. The future is here.

Of course, checking in remotely didn’t get us a room key, and the app told us we’d have to present ID at the desk to use the phone as a key. I took a chance and asked the concierge whether she could check our IDs and give us phone access to our room. She didn’t seem to be aware that that was a thing, but she was able to make us a physical keycard, so no harm no foul. In the middle of her programming the keycard, she got a phone call. After a few short words exchanged, she apologized to me and made another phone call. I overheard something about a car being on fire on the side of the building. About that time a fire truck rushed by outside.

In all honesty, I didn’t think much of it. I took the keycard and went to check that it worked before K stepped out of the line for check-in. Once inside the room, I first sent a text to Kate telling her that she could meet me upstairs. Then, I sent a message to a colleague asking for confirmation that our 5:30 meeting was still on. She responded with, “The building is on fire.” A non-sequitur if ever I’ve seen one.

I looked out the window from the hotel room and could see black smoke billowing skyward, a disturbingly dense cloud. I left the room in hopes of meeting K and found her coming down the hallway toward me, determinedly, and with her face held tense as she does whenever she worries. “We need to leave. I see smoke,” she said, matter-of-factly.

I went back into the room, grabbed my briefcase with my computer, and we decided to take the stairs. The Hilton of the Americas has internal stairwells as wide as the Champs Elysee, if you didn’t know–and we had them all to ourselves. It wasn’t until we reached the first floor that we heard the fire alarms: piercingly high-pitched and all but irrelevant at that point.

We made a beeline outside, where we were able to confirm that, yes, there was a fire. But it wasn’t actually the hotel, but the parking garage across the street and the skybridge between the two buildings. The parking garage, mind you, where we’d parked our car an hour earlier.

The smoke on the street, couple with the crowds and the multitude of firetrucks, quickly proved unpleasant. We decided to journey a few blocks away and find a place to take refuge. We chose the site of our impending meeting and ended up having a pleasant dinner with great company (which is usual for TAC).

The fire was taken care of in due time, with little permanent damage. The skybridge was reopened, our car and all of clothes (which had remained inside while we got checked in) and everything else turned out fine. The opening worship ceremony was delayed by fifteen minutes, but other than that, everything proceeded as normal.

It’s election year, and as I’ve mentioned, I’m running as a delegate to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, with idealistic hopes of finding some middle ground that can bring inclusion and some amount of justice to my LGBTQ brethren and sistren while preserving the unity of the denomination. It’s a tall order, and the deck isn’t stacked in my favor. Let’s just hope our fiery welcome was not an omen.

More to come…

Learning from Game of Thrones

[SPOILER ALERT: This post presupposes familiarity the sweep of the Game of Thrones TV series, with a focus on the final season. If you’re sensitive to having narrative spoiled for you and haven’t watched everything yet, don’t read.]

It would be hardly original of me to spend a post simply lamenting this last season of Game of Thrones, despite my desire to do so. Instead, I’m going to spend some time pointing out what I think are some lessons to be learnt by aspiring writers (in any medium) from the recent failures of the show.

To preface that though, I need to exhibit some due humility. The greatest lesson to be taken from the recent episodes is that good writing is difficult, no matter who you are. It is, as with so many things, far easier to criticize than to create. D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, and the other writers who contributed throughout the show’s run, have managed to create for widespread public consumption. At this point, I have not. I feel it’s only appropriate to bear that in mind and take what I have to say with a pinch of salt as we continue (though ultimately, I hope that the weight of my arguments, rather than the status of the people involved, carries the day in this discussion).

Show Don’t Tell

It’s one of the commonly-touted pieces of advice given to writers. Don’t use boring exposition when you can just as easily let the audience get the necessary information from context or from being immersed in the setting and story. Don’t explain the inner thoughts of the characters when we can understand them just as well by how the characters act and speak.

This is especially true of visual media–which is why Industrial Lights & Magic and Weta Workshop have been able to do such wonderful things for defining setting in films and TV, why concept art is such an important aspect of designing for those media (and even for the written word)!

So, for me, Game of Thrones’ after-the-show talks with the showrunners pointed out a key problem. When you have to explain what you were trying to get at in an episode after the episode, you haven’t written the episode well enough to stand on its own. When you smugly assume that everyone got exactly what you’re talking about while watching, you’re adding insult to injury.

This is largely a result of rushing the storytelling. Without time enough to lay all of the necessary groundwork to explain events and occurrences within the show, you’re going to have to either let the audience create their own explanations or hand the explanations to them elsewhere. The lesson here: make sure you’re taking the right amount of time to show what you need to show so that you don’t have to tell later.

To be clear, this is a general rule, and general rules can always be broken in good writing–if done well and only when appropriate. It is possible to have key events happen “off stage” and describe them later or to play with the relation of key information in other ways, but these decisions must be made carefully and deliberately. My recommendation is to start with a “more is more” approach when writing and then employ a “less is more” approach when editing. It’s easier (I think) to lay it all out and refine by cutting out the dross than to realize your narrative isn’t complete and then struggle to fill in gaps–I’ve been there!

Here are some specific examples from Season 8 of this being an issue: the tactics employed at the Battle of Winterfell, Daenerys’ suddden change in the attack on King’s Landing. This lesson could just as easily be called “Timing is everything,” or “Don’t Rush” (the latter of which is probably the cause of most of Season 8’s mistakes).

Reversals of Expectations: There’s a right way and a wrong way.

The showrunners made a great deal out of “defying audience expectations” in Season 8. Defying audience expectations is a key technique in good narrative, but there’s more nuance to it than that. The technique, properly employed, has two parts: (1) give the audience a twist that they don’t see coming AND (2) set up the narrative so that, in retrospect, that twist feels somehow inevitable.

This is not a game of “gotcha!” Good writers do not play with twists and surprises simply because its something to do. Good writers use twists to increase tension, remind us that, like life itself, the unexpected (but often foreseeable) occurs in narrative, to create drama.

A good surprise must satisfy multiple demands in addition to the two basics mentioned above. The twist must follow the internal consistency of the setting–it should defy expectations of plot, but not of the personality and character of the actors or the rules (spoken or unspoken) of the setting itself. It must have sufficient groundwork laid in the story; without this the “twist” feels random and unmoored from the themes and scope of the rest of the narrative.

In “gritty” fiction, there will be times when bad fortune or ill luck interjects itself into the story, times when both readers and characters are left wondering “is there a meaning to all of this, or is everything that happens just random?” But those types of events only work when explained by coincidence and happenstance–they must truly be strokes of bad luck. When we’re talking about the choices made by characters, there must be believable motivation and a way for the character to justify the action–even if we don’t agree with the logic or morality of that justification.

The example that undoubtedly comes to mind here, as above, is Daenerys’ sudden decision to kill everyone in King’s Landing. There is some building-up of her story arc in the early narrative (following Martin) that Dany might not be the great savior everyone hopes that she will be. She is a harsh mistress to the Masters of the cities of Slaver’s Bay, willing to commit atrocities in the name of “justice.” But this moral ambiguity (strongly based in the character of historical figures in similar situations) is not the same as the desire for justice slipping into a desire for power and control to implement that justice. That story arc certainly works (it is the rationale behind Morgoth and especially Sauron in Tolkien’s world), but we need a solid background for such a morally-repugnant act as mass murder of innocents. We are given the groundwork for her eventual “fall” into a person willing to use harsh means to achieve her idealistic ends, but not for her to do what she did. This lack of laying the proper foundation for her sudden change leaves it feeling like, as some commenters put it, “a betrayal of her character.” This leads us to the next point.

Internal Consistency versus Authorial Fiat

For me, the greatest issue I took with Season 8, the thing that left such a bad taste in my mouth, was my belief that the showrunners decided what would happen and then shoehorned in all of the details to get them to those decisions. Euron’s sudden (and nonsensical) appearance before an undefended Targaryen fleet and ability to quickly slay a dragon compared with his powerlessness before one remaining dragon at King’s Landing is only one exemplar here. Having Arya kill the Night King (which had been “decided early on”) is another. And just about all of Episode 6.

One of the great joys of writing (in my mind, though I hear this with some frequency from other writers) is when a story takes on a life of its own. What you thought would happen in your story gets suddenly left behind because of the momentum the story has accrued, the logic of the setting, the narrative and the characters within it. We find ourselves mid-sentence, suddenly inspired (in as true a sense as that word can be used) with the thought, “That’s not what happens, this character would do X instead! Which means Y needs to change!” All of sudden, you’re going somewhere better than you were originally headed, somewhere truly rewarding to write and to for your audience to read or see.

This is the result of a dialectic that forms between the moving parts of the story. The narrative, the dramatic tensiveness of the story, the themes and motifs, the characters involved and the conditions established by the setting; the gestalt of these elements becomes something that lives and breathes, something greater than the mere sum of its parts.

Pigeonholing the plot forces it to become stilted, forced and (worst of all) didactic. Dead and mechanical. This is, in part, the difficulty with story “formulae.” There are narrative structures that provide a general framework for certain types of genres or stories, but following the formula with nothing else results in something unsatisfactory.

Here, though, my suspicion is that the problem was more a matter of fan-service and a slavish devotion to defying expectations than rote adherence to fantasy-story formulae.

One of the things that made the Song of Ice and Fire books, and the Game of Thrones TV show so popular, so gripping for the audience, was that it pulled more from medieval chronicle than fantasy yarn for its structure. The story is about the world and the group of characters as a whole in a way that is bigger than any of the constituent characters, that survives the misfortunate end of any one (or more) of them. This left no character safe, allowed for real surprises that contradicted expectations of narrative structure rather than expectations based on the internal logic of the harsh, unforgiving setting and culture(s) in which the story takes place. The internal logic, then, drives the defiance of expectations instead of resisting forced twists of expectations inserted into the plot by the author’s whim.

In fantasy in particular, internal consistency is the golden rule. In settings where magic is real, where dragons may soar in the skies and burn down the enemies of a proud queen, we are required to suspend disbelief. Of course. But we can manage that suspension of disbelief only when there is a reward for doing so and the obstacles that might prevent us are removed from our path. Magic is a wonder to behold in the truest sense, but it fizzles and dies when it appears that the magic in a setting does not follow certain rules or structure (even if we don’t fully understand those rules or that structure). If the magic is simply a convenient plot device that conforms like water to whatever shape the author needs or desires, then it fails to carry wonder or drama. Drama constitutes the ultimate reward for the suspension of disbelief–allow yourself to play in world with different rules from our own and the stories you find there will satisfy, amaze, entertain and tell us truths about our own world, even if it is very different. But without internal consistency, there can be little meaning. Without meaning, narrative is nonsense.

Season 8 lacked this internal consistency on many levels. From the small, like the much-discussed “teleportation” around Westeros, to the glaring, like battles being predetermined by plot rather than by the forces and characters that participated in them.

But the greatest issue I took with Season 8 in its (lack of) internal consistency was the ending. To me, the sudden appearance of the nobility of Westeros to decide, “Yay! Constitutional monarchy from now on!” seemed far too after-school special for me. For a story where peoples’ personalities, desires and miredness in a culture of vengeance and violence long proved the driving factor, you need far more of an internal story arc for a sudden commitment to peaceful resolution of issues to be believable. They would have to reject their entire culture to do so, rather than rationalizing how the culture is correct all along (what much more frequently happens in real life). I can see such a decision for Tyrion and for Jon. But for Sansa and Arya, I do not. And why Yara Greyjoy and the new Prince of Dorne wouldn’t likewise declare independence, I cannot say.

In short, I just don’t think that the narrative satisfactorily supports the actions taken by the ad-hoc council of Westerosi nobles in the final episode.

When a Narrative Fails Your Narrative

Why did putting Bran on the throne fall flat in the final episode? Tyrion gave an impassioned speech about how stories are what bind people together and create meaning (something with which I wholeheartedly agree as aspiring fantasy author and aspiring existential Christian theologian) and then made an argument about the power of Brandon’s story.

Wait, what? You lost me there. What was the power of Brandon’s story? Yes, it started strong, and he did do some amazing things–crossing north of the Wall, becoming the Three-Eyed Raven (whatever the hell that means), surviving his long fall from the tower at Winterfell. But, given his role in Season 8, I’m not sure that any of that mattered. He played relatively no role at the Battle of Winterfell (at least that we mortals could see), the narrative of his role as Three-Eyed Raven was left impotent and undeveloped at the end of the series, and of those with decision-making authority in Westeros, few had any direct experience with a Three-Eyed Raven, the White Walkers or the Battle of Winterfell. To them, the whole thing is just a made-up story by the North.

For narrative to be effective, we must be able to use it to find or create meaning. Bran’s story is too jumbled a mess without a climax or denouement for us to be able to piece much meaning out of it. In fact, we’re left wondering if it meant anything at all.

Since the idea to put him on the throne relies on the meaning of his story, the act of crowning him itself becomes meaningless; we can find no internally-consisted basis for supporting making him king (other than that he can’t father children) and no meta-narrative logic for the event either. This is exacerbated by the fact that Bran earlier tells us that he doesn’t consider himself to be Bran anymore. Without continuity of character, narrative loses meaning.

Thus, the finale fails because it relies on a sub-narrative that has failed. It is a common trope for fantasy fiction to use other stories (often legends) from the setting’s past to convey meanings and themes for the main narrative (Tolkien does this, Martin himself does, Rothfuss does as a major plot device in The Kingkiller Chronicles); writers looking to follow suit need to make sure that any “story-within-a-story” they use itself satisfies the necessities of good storytelling, or one is only heaping narrative failure upon narrative failure. The effect, I think, is exponential, not linear.

What the Audience Wants and What the Audience Needs

Several of my friends who are avid fans of the show and the books, before the final episode, expressed their feelings about the uncertain ending in terms of “what they could live with.” This was often contrasted with both their hopes for what would happen and their expectations of what would happen.

There’s been much talk (even by myself) about the showrunners performing “fan-service” in this season, whether through the “plot armor” of certain characters or the tidy wrapping up of certain narratives.

The claim that the showrunners made plot choices in order to please the audience has set me thinking about these types of choices on several fronts. On the one hand, GoT rose to prominence in part directly because of G.R.R. Martin’s seeming refusal to do any “fan-service.” That communicates to me that there is a gulf between what readers want from a story and what they need to feel satisfied by the story.

We can all recognize that there are stories that don’t end happily, either in general or for our most-beloved characters, that nevertheless remain truly satisfying and meaningful narratives for us, ones that we return to time and again.

So, should giving the audience what they want (or, to be more accurate, what we think they want) be a consideration for the writer? There is no simple answer to this question. The idealistic writer (like myself, I suppose) might argue that crafting a good story–which is not the same as a story that gives the audience exactly what it wants–is more important than satisfying tastes. On the other hand, the publishing industry has much to say about finding the right “market” for a book, and knowing what kind of stories will or won’t sell. For the person who needs or wants to make a living as an author, playing to those needs may be a necessity. Even if income isn’t a concern, there’s still something to be said for what the audience organically finds meaningful as opposed to what the author seeks to impose as the meaning and value of the story.

I just want to point out this tension as something that the final season of Game of Thrones might help us think about, not something for which I have any answers, easy or otherwise. When the final books in the series are released (if that ever happens), maybe there will be some fertile ground for exploration of these ideas. Of course, the intent of the various creative minds on all sides of this collection of narratives may remain forever too opaque for us to glean any true understanding of the delicate relationship between author, craft and audience.

Conclusion

I, as many of you I suspect, was left profoundly unsatisfied with the ending of a story I’ve spent years being attached to by the final season of Game of Thrones, and my frustration is further stoked by the knowledge that the showrunners could have had more episodes to finish things the right way instead of rushing to a capricious and arbitrary ending.

That said, the failures of the season (not to mention the great successes of previous seasons) provide many lessons for we would-be authors.

What do you think?

 

Nootropics for Writers

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor; this post is not intended to be medical or nutritional advice. It is only a description of some of my own experiences. “Dietary supplements” like the ones discussed herein are insufficiently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or other agencies and there are no serious standards for the protection of consumers or for claims made by manufacturers. I highly recommend that you consult with medical professionals before making a decision to use any supplement, chemical or “herbal treatment.” Proceed at your own risk.

I don’t, as a rule, take drugs that are not prescribed for me or available over-the-counter for the short-term remedy of mild conditions. As I’ve expressed elsewhere on this blog, I suffer from clinical depression due to a chemical imbalance in my brain. It is well controlled under my current pharmaceutical regimen, and I have no desire to threaten that careful balance. I have never used an illegal substance and have no desire to start. I don’t smoke.

That said, if you tell me there’s a way to make myself a more productive writer, you can bet I’m going to investigate. While I’m passionate about writing, my brain tends to work in short bursts rather than long slogs and I personally find that much-vaunted “flow state” elusive more often than not.

As a writer of speculative fiction (mostly fantasy but with an interest in science fiction as well), I happened to come across the idea of “nootropics” while doing research into ideas and theories about human enhancement.

As best I can tell, there is a subculture evolving, partially an overlap with the more general “maker” and “biohacker” subcultures, devoted to the use of nootropics. You will find myriad sites and forums where advocates compare their personal “stacks.”

It starts with something we are all experientially aware of: some substances seem to have positive cognitive effects when administered in proper (and safe) doses. Caffeine is the most common and widely used of these substances, it seems, and it is in fact a part of most nootropic “stacks.”

The lists of nootropics is relatively long, ranging from things like gingko biloba to hardcore prescription-strength drugs like modafinil–a military-grade amphetamine alternative. Some of the substances touted for nootropic qualities act individually, while others supposedly provide greater effects when combined with other nootropics.

Most of those experimenting with nootropics (and I think it’s still safe to say that all nootropic usage is experimental at present given the lack of strong scientific support for usage or for most of the substances put forward) develop a “stack.” The “stack” consists of a collection of nootropics to be taken together, in hopes of maximizing effect.

For those who would rather not compile information and develop a stack for themselves, there are several commercially-available stacks such as Qualia.

Because I am not recommending that anyone use these substances, I’m not going to detail the particular ones I used to develop a stack for myself to see if there was anything to this whole idea.

But I will report my experiences. Over a handful of trials of the same stack (spread out over time–none of the substances in my stack, with the exception perhaps of caffeine are supposed to be addictive, but I’m trying to stay on the side of caution), I have experienced greater focus and even what I’d call “flow state.”

I would describe the most immediate effect I experienced as increased focus combined with maintained situational awareness. This is an odd sensation, but not unpleasant. While writing after using nootropics, I did experience increased word counts (as a measure of productivity) and longer periods over which I could sit and focus on writing, which is different from my typical experiences. So, yes, I did experience what I would call noticeable improvement in cognitive function, particularly for the purpose of writing productivity.

HOWEVER, I have a number of reservations as well. First, I cannot be sure that what I experienced is anything more than a placebo effect. My evaluation is, after all, entirely subjective. Further, I cannot be sure that nootropics were the direct cause of the increased productivity–I’ve been simultaneously and very consciously working on developing my writing focus and discipline. In an age of constant-partial attention, I’m not unconvinced that my difficulties writing for long periods of time or focusing for extended writing sessions are a matter of bad habits rather than chemical brain-states. Along with this, I have to question whether there are better–non chemically-dependent–measures for the achievement of the same effect. Is it possible that meditation, mindfulness exercises, actual exercise and other means could be used to do the same thing? I don’t know for sure, but I have a suspicion that the answer is “yes.” After all, the brain is a highly sophisticated organ, one which we do not understand nearly as well as we’d like to think in this information age. I think it’s probable, likely even, that there are natural ways of tapping into the body’s and brain’s natural ability to increase focus and creativity that do not rely upon the introduction of foreign substances to them.

So, if the question begged by this post is “do nootropics help writers to write?” then the definitive answer I can give is “maybe.” While I did experience some effects in productivity (going from writing about 1500 words in a sitting to writing 2500), I can’t be sure of causation in any logical or scientific way. And I can report that there are times when I naturally match the productivity I experienced without the need for a collection of horsepill-sized supplements. Further, there is no good information on the long-term effects of nootropics, and that alone should be concerning.

Given my lack of medical background, I’m not qualified to make a recommendation about the use of nootropics. Even though I personally experienced perceived cognitive enhancement through their use, I’d highly recommend that other strategies–development of habits, regular exercise, a routine where writing occurs at the time you naturally feel most creative and focused, careful curation of the writing space to be inspiring and free from distraction, etc.–be implemented before even considering nootropics as an aid to the writer’s craft.

When it comes down to it, we all want something for nothing. We writers all want some panacea, some magic trick that makes us brilliant authors without having to face difficulties. Combine that with the myth of the suffering artist, that we must either be crazy or despairing to be creative, and its easy to see why nootropics might be an enticing idea for the aspiring writer.

But the struggle with the craft, the wrestling with turning images, thoughts, ideas and emotions into words of power on a page, therein lies the true magic of the craft. For that, there are no shortcuts, no miracle drugs, no ways but the hard way. And at the end of the day, isn’t that one of the reasons we feel so driven to do it?

Temptation

This post is something of a confession; prepare yourself. It’s nothing so tantalizing as a comment about the temptation of drugs or sex; it’s about another insidious temptation with which society often plies us. Lately, I’m feeling its pull more strongly, it seems.

That temptation is the one of comparison. You know the one. It’s the one that gnaws at your soul a little, whispers doubts in the back of your mind, every time you open up a social media platform. You see people living their “best lives” and–even though you consciously know that 99% of what you see posted is manufactured and exaggerated, conveniently glossing over those problems, dilemmas, failures and weaknesses that everyone has and no one really wants to share–you still wonder, “Am I not doing as well as everyone else?” “Am I just not as good?”

I’m no exception, and lately I’m thinking about this much more than I’d like to. Part of it is a function of age: I’m thirty-five, fast closing in on thirty-six. But I can’t really lay the blame on that, because it’s just another measure I’m using for comparison.

I, like many people from upper-middle-class suburban backgrounds, was raised on a steady regimen of the importance of achievement. Explicitly or not, I was taught to weigh value based on achievements reached, things accomplished. To add to that, I fell into the belief (though I can’t, admittedly, say that anyone drilled it into me) that real achievers achieve things early and often.

This was an easy thing to satisfy when I was younger and in school. I maintained consistently high grades, took all of the advanced placement classes available to me and entered my first semester of college with forty-seven hours of credit already under my belt. I spent the next decade or so earning degrees, tangible (kind-of) certifications of achievement.

Now I’m much farther removed from academia, and I’ve become much more responsible for intrinsically maintaining my sense of self-worth.

And therein lies the battle. I have very consciously chosen certain ideals and values to live by, ideals and values inspired by my faith and my idealism, ideals and values about which I am convicted and passionate.

Sometimes, those values are counter-cultural. A significant point of my personality is the value I place on my independence. Combined with my moral compass, that’s very much influenced my career path as a lawyer. Those choices are not without consequences. One of my wisest friends once said, “you’re only as free as you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions.” Fulfilling that statement is truly living without fear, and it’s something that has resonated with me ever since I first heard it.

So–most of the time–I’m perfectly content with the career choices I’ve made. I work in a small firm with two partners who are like family, I have great independence in how I do my work and for whom I work. This has given me a lifestyle balance that truly fits with who I am, and I often tell people that I wouldn’t be happy lawyering if I was working for someone else.

But it also means that there are consequences. Balancing my broader life goals against my career and placing my moral values first when working mean that I sometimes turn down work that might be lucrative or that I perform my work in ways that place income as a secondary concern. I don’t take on new clients when I don’t believe that I can achieve anything for them; I don’t bill my clients for every little thing; and I don’t charge the exorbitant fees I sometimes see other attorneys charging.

I feel those choices every time I look at my bank account. Don’t get me wrong, I make a decent living and my practice grows with each passing year–it turns out that being honest and capable actually is a good business model! I’m happy to accept the consequences of those choices; I’ve found in the past few years that I need far fewer material things to be happy than I thought I did, and I have mostly disdain for the pursuit of wealth, power and status.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was scrolling through Facebook over the weekend and happened across a post by a couple I went to law school with and felt a pang of jealousy. Here’s the strangest part: my jealousy was about the background of the picture, about their kitchen. I’ll be very excited to see K’s reaction when she reads this, because she knows me well and knows how little stock I typically put in the size and fanciness of a person’s home.

Of course, my feelings weren’t really about the kitchen. They were the result of the doubting my own adequacy in light of the financial success this couple presumably enjoys. These feelings were really about me asking myself if I’m really good enough, according to a standard I don’t believe in and actually reject!

I don’t want a house like theirs. I don’t want the type of life consequences that are attached to such a choice (which is not intended to be a judgment of their choices, simply a statement that that is not the path for me). But it doesn’t matter who you are, that temptation will reach its ugly tendrils into each of us at some point, if not regularly.

When it comes down to it, though, career achievement is the place where the temptation of comparison to others is easiest for me to bear. I’m very proud of how I conduct my business and uphold my values; that I try to practice the Christian ideals I so often discuss on this site. Again, that’s not intended to be a judgment on others, just a matter of trying to keep my own hypocrisy to a minimum.

The two other temptations I frequently feel to compare with others hit closer to home. The first of these is about parenthood; the second: my writing.

Those of you who have followed this blog for some time, or perused it in depth, or who know me personally, know that K and I plan to foster to adopt, and that we’re again waiting for a placement of kids. That’s difficult enough as it is, but we’re quickly approaching a time where it seems that we’re the only ones without children. One of my partners at the law firm has two; the other is expecting his first this Fall. My (younger) sister is pregnant with her first (and I am very happy about this and excited for her!) and I’ve got several siblings and cousins–many of whom are younger than me–who already have children as well.

I know better than to think of having children as a matter of achievement, really I do. But the fact that I have to write that here is revelatory in and of itself, is it not? And I know that K and I are not the only ones to deal with such comparisons with others–not by a long shot.

For me, my writing is where this temptation cuts deepest. If I can discern any sort of divine calling for myself, it lies in writing fiction and theology. If there is a personal pursuit about which I am truly passionate,  it is in writing. If there is a single most-powerful, non-divine source of my sense of self-worth, it is in my writing.

I’ll make a true confession by way of example, so get ready for some vulnerability on my part: This past weekend Rachel Held Evans died. She was an outspoken writer for progressive Christian values and, even in her short life, accomplished much in service of Christian faith and demonstrating to the unchurched (and perhaps millennials in particular) a Christianity that rejects fundamentalism, embraces the Gospel truth of love and reminds us that Christ calls us to pursue an agenda of social justice that does not rely on identity politics, a rejection of immigrants, or fear. (Here is one article with some information if you’re not familiar with her).

To my shame, I have to admit that, in addition to the sincere sorrow I feel at her passing, I was awash in a sense of unreasonable jealousy. She was only a little older than me and already had five published books! Obviously, my feelings of inadequacy have nothing to do with her; they’re really about me questioning myself, worrying that maybe I just don’t have what it takes.

I told myself that I’d get my first major work published before I turned 40. As that time slips ever closer, I find myself often looking up other author’s ages when they were first published. I can say that I understand that their life isn’t mine, nor should it be. I can write that I know that the value of a writing originates in the writing itself, not how old the author was at the time of creation.

And that knowledge, I think, is where the truth will out. Particularly in my theology, I talk about the importance and beauty of ambiguity. I also admit the difficulty we naturally have with the ambiguous. And let this post be evidence that I don’t stand above that difficulty; I’m not free from that struggle.

There are no easy ways to judge the value of a writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. Style is so highly varied and individual, the myriad ways in which a story might be told so dependent upon the consciousness in control of the tale, that there can be no single measuring stick. And yet, we humans like to have some certainty, even if that certainty is artificial and illusory.  For me, I can find some tangible standard of measure by looking at age at time of publication as a meaningful comparison (though I know in my heart it is not).

Again, the craziest part about falling into self-doubt by making such comparisons is that I intellectually do not value them! In my fiction, I follow after Joss Whedon: “I’d rather make a show that 100 people need to see than one 1,000 people want to see.” At this point in my writing, I’m not sure that I can do either, yet, but the point is that I’m more interested in deep connections with a smaller group of people than broadly appealing in a commercially-viable way. The same goes for my theology–I’d rather write something that resonates deeply and inspires just a few people to legitimate faith, that gives even a single person permission to practice Christianity in a way that isn’t “one-size-fits-all,” than to establish some great presence in the history of theology.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m not even sure that I’m interested in traditional publication avenues right now. I’d love to be able to make a living writing, to devote all of my time to it, but not at the cost of having to cater to publishers or what will be successful on the current literary market to do it. My self-comparisons with published authors, though, makes me wonder if all of this idealism is simply cover for the fear of failing. “Know thyself,” the oracle says. “I’m trying!” I complain in response.

Ultimately, the temptation to compare ourselves comes from a positive place–we want to be meaningful, to be creators of meaning and to live lives where others can easily recognize meaning. That is a natural and divine thing. It’s where we let society tell us that meaning must look a certain way that we go wrong, where we try to make someone else’s meaning our own that we lose ourselves. Perhaps that is what Jesus means when he warns us about the temptation of the world, what Paul is alluding to when he warns us not to be “conformed to this world.”

What I do know is that I am passion about writing, and in particular I’m passionate about writing speculative fiction and easily-accessible theology. I’m working on the discipline to match that passion, and with every passing day I’m probably coming to understand the art and craft of writing just a little bit better–no that anyone truly ever masters it. Those things need no comparisons to be true, to be inspiring, to be fulfilling. So why look beyond them? As with so many things, easier to know what to do than to actually do it.

How do you cope with such temptations? Having read the blogs of some of my dear readers, I know that there is insight out there, meaningful stories to share. If you’ve got one, comment, or post a link to a post on your blog, or send me a message!

Post Script: Maybe in talking about my struggles writing, it would be useful to give a short update on where that writing stands:
(1) Children of God: This is the tentative title of my first theological book. I’ve had finished about 75% of a first-draft for several years now, but it needs a rewrite from the beginning and I need set aside the time to do that.
(2) Wilderlands: This is the first Avar Narn novel I’ve seriously set to working on. The first draft is about 40%-50% complete. I’m starting to feel an itch to return to the story; I’m not sure whether I’ll do that soon or wait until NaNoWriMo this year (which is how it started). It needs to be finished and then needs some significant rewrites in the portion already written.
(3) Unnamed Story of Indeterminate Length: This is an almost-noir-style story set in Avar Narn and what I’ve been working on most recently. I had envisioned it as a short-story, but it’s already swelled to 16,000 words and I’m not finished. I’ll be sending to some volunteers for review and advice on whether it should be left as a novella, cut down significantly, or expanded into a novel. I’ve got several other “short stories” in mind with the same major character, so this could end up being a novella set, a collection of short stories, or a novel series. I’ve also got an unfinished novella-length story with the same character I may return to while this one is under review. If you’d like to be a reader, send me a message.
(4) Other Avar Narn Short Stories: I’ve got several other short story ideas I’m toying around with, but I’m trying not to add too many other projects before I make substantial progress on the above.
(5) Avar Narn RPG: I have a list of games to spend some time with and potentially steal from for the rules here, but I’m mostly waiting to get some more fiction written to elaborate the setting before continuing seriously here. I’m occasionally working on additional worldbuilding and text that could fit in an RPG manual.
(6) The Blog: Of course, more blog posts to come.