Discerning Your Nature

I’m not going to comment at all about work here, because none of that belongs on this website.

And I’ll rarely comment about things I report on at work, since none of that belongs here either.

But on occasion, I will write about something that strikes me as important.

Saturday morning, I spent a little time at a career event held for high school girls for a short feature story I was writing, interviewing some of the kids, taking a few photos (they weren’t as good as I liked, given that one of the event organizers said I didn’t really have permission to get anyone’s face, which kind of limits what you can do), and listening to a few speakers.

I don’t know how typical this event was of career discernment for teenagers — because it was basically vocational discernment. The kids didn’t take the kinds of aptitude tests I took when I was in high school 35 years ago, an assessment of skills. Rather, they were asked about values – what was important to them as individuals, to their families, and where they differed from the communities they lived in. How do you define success?

And how are important are things like helping society and/or others, organizing things, prestige, intellectual stimulation, being creative, independence, teamwork, being in charge, stability … the list is much longer, but rather than measuring what you could do, it measures what’s already important to you.

Career types were climbed into the following categories based on the collection of values most important to you — artistic (writer), realistic (police officer, engineer), enterprising (finance, sales), social (counselor, medical), conventional (accountancy, computers), and investigative (programmer, professor, psychologist). Again, this isn’t exhaustive.

But it denotes an approach to discernment that aims for self-understanding first. What am I to do? should simply and naturally flow from an understanding of Who am I?

“If you are wired for something, try to do that,” one of the speakers said.

I’ve railed a lot about the understanding of human beings as resources, as things to be managed. I’ve found that to be a fairly inhuman approach to dealing with human beings, and it has been my experience that any system of management tends to be arranged for the convenience of the managers, and not to the benefit of those being managed.

But as I have gotten older, I have come to accept a few things. First, as a good pastor friend at seminary told me, these systems will work for most people, and in mass society, very few any have any real alternatives to being put through them. It behooves us, then, to make these institutional structures, these systems of formation and discernment, as compassionate ands as broadly accepting as possible. They were never that for me, but I’m an outlier and an oddball. (That fact makes Psalm 10 Ministries both possible and successful.) Anyone who wants to know my sad and terrible experience of school and church can read my book, so I won’t rehash any of it here.

If human beings have to be managed, and if this process works for most people, then yes, help people discern who they are and once they have some grasp of that, then let them tackle What am I to do?

I would have liked something like this, something that would have let me figure out who I am – get sense of my nature as person — and then how I could be useful, how I could love, as I was called to love. I’m not sure Southern California in the early 1980s was up to this — Upland was not a place that valued kindness, mercy, love, and compassion — but I can see a value in this.

Just so long as the oddballs and the outliers also have room to figure out who they are. That their struggle isn’t too painful.

And this leads me to my second point. In talking to the young women I interviewed for the piece, I realized — and am learning to realize as I do ministry even with the abused foster kids who find me — that most people dream small dreams. “I want to be a teacher and a mom,” “I want to be a paramedic because that’s a tradition in my family, and family tradition is important to me.” Dreams like this. Simple dreams. And there’s nothing wrong with any of this. There are days I wish I could go back and be 19 and have such simple dreams.

I know a lot of my kids ache to have simple lives, and realize simple dreams. Which makes something like love, and family, and belonging, not so simple. Easy to dream, but not so easy to realize. Easy to reach for, but hard to grasp.

Granted, small dreams usually require a functional community in order for them to be realized, a sense that things work for you, or at least don’t actively work against you, and this community seems to more or less work for most people in it.

I’m actually glad to see this. And I hope it really does work. I love being there for the broken, the unloved and unwanted, but honestly, I’d rather the world was arranged in such a way that my presence in it — my willingness to love — was simply not needed. It would be nice if no one was bent and broken as community and society tried to form and shape them.

Yeah, I just wrote that.

But I know the world, and I know people. Someone will always be broken. Someone will always need to know they are loved.

Welcome to the Margins. Now Stop Living There.

I meant to blog about this last year when I first came upon this sign posted in a Chicago “L” train, but for some reason it got away from me. Jennifer and I were headed up to the North Side for a friend’s Bible study when we came across the advert:


At face value, there is nothing inherently wrong or even bad about the sentiment expressed here: No one should live on the margins! This is a commitment to combatting poverty, and the problems of the economically marginalized — the very poor — who lack resources and skills and who are constantly preyed upon by those seeking fairly easy profits and who possess far more resources and skills than they do.

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development has a long history of this kind of work (it is what the US Conference of Catholic Bishops created the campaign for), and I suspect it has had its measure of success. Based on some public service announcements from the early 1970s, I suspect the campaign has also understood that dealing with poverty is more than simply a matter of economics — it is also a matter of community, belonging, and the meaning of human existence.

So far as it goes, I’m okay with the sentiment expressed here.

But there’s also something that bothers me about this sentiment — No one should live on the margins. It feels … authoritarian, if not downright totalitarian. As a command, and a cultural aspiration, it means no one is allowed to not conform to cultural or social norms. No one should be allowed to live on the margins… Again, that sounds compassionate. After all, marginal lives are vulnerable ones, vulnerable to predators and abuse and the personal and institutional callousness that is all-too-often life in community for those who fall on either tail of the gaussian distribution of conformity or ability or identity. The law is rarely a shield to protect those who live marginal lives. Most of the time, it is a club. One that falls fast, and furious, and is often merciless.

I suppose, then, wanting to make sure there are no margins — and no people living in them — by expanding notions of acceptable conformity is humane. Even laudable.

Except I find frequently it is not. Progressives are limited simply by the way they think of people, as members of classes or groups defined by race/gender/sexual orientation. Personality and ability don’t count as difference, as least not as acceptable or tolerable difference, in the progressive worldview. Progressives have expanded the center — and the number of people who can now inhabit that center — and further squeezed the margins. But the progressive view, at this point, seems to be: “We’re a great deal more inclusive of difference so now it really is your fault if you cannot conform.” In a society inclusive of diversity, it’s actually harder to live on the social or cultural margin.

The diverse society that progressives are creating is actually more conformist and less tolerant. As Nicholas Kristof wrote recently:

We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.

Any community or society held together by a shared ideology is going to be inherently intolerant. Because it will assume anyone can and should embrace the ideology (and all good people will), and it will insist that the ideology — the right ideas — be the only thing that holds the community together.

So, there can be no margins in an ideologically constructed society. Anyone who lives on a margin is simply a victim of misfortune or discrimination who needs to be either elevated or educated. And anyone who persists in living there is a criminal and a threat to the community and they deserve what they have coming.

The reality is some human lives are inherently marginal. This is just a truth of being human that no ideology of inclusion or diversity can change. Going back to that gaussian distribution, there’s a large and well-inhabited center and increasingly thinner tails the farther you get from that center. This also includes non-conformists and dissidents from culture, depending upon how the majority (or plurality) of the community or society is constructed.

There is a truth that gets forgotten — the center needs the margin and the margins need the center. You cannot have one without the other. The margins are where creative energy resides, where the ability to regenerate a complacent center arises, where the art and literature of a people really comes from, where real liberty exists in all its rough and messy ways. The center is where order and stability lie, where the measure of what is marginal originates, and where the resources to sustain that margin come from. The center atrophies and collapses without the margin, and the margin sinks into a desperate and deeply uncreative hedonism without the center.

The center needs a creative margin (which is always poised on the edge of dissolute self-destruction) and the margin needs a confident center to both provide order (which is always poised to try and destroy what it sees as a deeply disorderly and frightening margin) but also to be the order to organize and identify against.

Our ideological world, however, wants a center without margins, or margins without a center. These end up being the same thing, though — a world in which conformity is so valued, so expected, so demanded, that no one is allowed to acceptably non-conform. In which the authority to compel is run amok, unchecked, and uncheckable.

It is also a world in which no one is really allowed to be human.

How to be Your Own Oppressor

A number of conservatives are looking upon the American landscape in the age of Caitlyn Jenner and legalized same-sex marriage and saying, “there are no rules anymore.”

They especially see this in the logic of Anthony Kennedy’s majority decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which the justice wrote in 1992:

Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Our cases recognize “the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.” Our precedents “have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.” These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion by the State.

“The right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” These words are religious — they are teleological, they pertain to the ends and purposes of human existence — and they are, under this rubric, entirely up to the individual and the individual alone.

And that means chaos, conservatives say. Because there aren’t any “right” answers anymore. Aren’t any “shared” answers anymore, “objective” answers against which any individual conclusion can be measured. It’s anything goes.

Except, they’re wrong. Note this little exchange from the 1999 film Office Space between Joanna (played by Jennifer Anniston) and her boss Stan (played by Mike Judge) at restaurant Chotchkie’s about the amount of “flair” Joanna is — or in this case, isn’t — wearing:

STAN (MIKE JUDGE) : Joanna! . . . We need to talk about your flair.

JOANNA : Really? I have fifteen pieces on (demonstrating).

STAN : Fifteen is the minimum, mmkay. It’s up to you whether you want to just do the bare minimum. Brian for example has thirty-seven pieces of flair—and a terrific smile.

JOANNA : Okay, so you want me to wear more?

STAN : (Sighing.) Look, Joanna, people can get a cheeseburger anywhere, they come to Chotchkie’s for the atmosphere and the attitude. That’s what the flair’s about. It’s about fun.

JOANNA : So . . . more, then.

STAN : Look, we want you to express yourself. Mmkay? Now, if you feel the bare minimum is enough, well, okay, but some people choose to wear more, and we encourage that. You do want to express yourself, don’t you?

This may seem like a tawdry example, but this exchange is, I think, deeply indicative of how the therapeutic world works. While Stan clearly wants Joanna to wear more “flair,” he simply cannot simply tell her to do that. He cannot and will not be an external voice of authority. Instead, he wants her to want to wear more flair.

“We want you to express yourself.” You would think this would be fairly open ended statement with no right answer, but it’s not. It clearly has a correct answer. But it’s one that must be discerned internally. Brian is held up as a standard not because he wears 37 pieces of “flair,” but because he clearly wants to wear those 37 pieces. That’s self-expression in this world, and while Stan won’t tell Joanna “be like Brian,” (that would go against the whole notion of individual expression) he’s telling her to “be like Brian.” Because Brian expresses himself correctly.

Joanna doesn’t really care about all this, and thought wearing the minimum — and doing her job — would suffice. But it doesn’t. Stan needs her not just to do the right things, but to feel them, to want them. Of her own accord. To put those things inside her and make them part of her. She cannot simply do the right thing; she has to be the right thing.

In the therapeutic world, there are no clearly stated right answers because it will be assumed the right answer already exists inside everyone, and it’s just waiting to be found or cultivated. This has always been part of the paradox of American freedom — Americans were “free,” but it was always a tightly constrained freedom limited to certain kinds of choices. It was freedom from external authority (the main goal of the Enlightenment) — which is clearly tyranny — but it replaced that external authority with a semi-coherent internal authority. In order to function, this internal freedom demands a great deal of conformity — moreso even than any externally imposed order. In fact, in order for freedom to work, everyone has to make roughly the same choices. Wrong choices cannot be tolerated. They don’t just threaten the social order; they also signal that there’s a problem with the chooser, who is clearly disordered.

The right choices available would never really be explicitly outlined, and you wouldn’t know what they were until you actually failed to choose one of them. You might not be compelled to make those right choices, but right choices would still be expected, and failure to make right choices would still be sanctioned or punished. This was just as true of the socially, religiously, and politically conservative Southern California suburb I grew up in as it is of liberal and progressive America.

This kind of individual-defining, autonomous freedom is deeply conservative simply because it is American. Kennedy’s definition of freedom stands in the long tradition of allegedly expansive but simultaneously deeply constraining and conformist notions of American freedom. Very little has really changed, including the reality that there are wrong choices and wrong answers and that those who make them will be punished. Conservatives are suddenly griping about this now only because it’s finally working against them.