Friday, April 24, 2015

"I Don't Want to Go": Or, Having an Existential Crisis in Barnes & Nobles

I recently finished journalist Christine Kenneally's The Invisible History of the Human Race for a kind of unofficial book club I accidentally started at work (I was joking when I suggested it...). I enjoyed it for the most part, especially since it was the first book on genealogy I'd ever read. In the very first chapter, Kenneally describes an experience her husband had years ago:

When my husband was a graduate student, he had to physically brace himself every time he walked into the university library, as the sight of all those books, written by all those people, about so many more people, with references to even more people who had written many more books about other people, was too much to contemplate. Or rather, what was too much was the multiplicity of the books plus the intrusive realization that he would never in his lifetime be able to read them all. Hundreds of people blithely stepped over the library's threshold all day long, but for [my husband], to catch a glimpse of the library's immense holdings was to come face to face with his own mortality.[1]

I had a similar experience about a month or so ago in Barnes & Nobles. It started out small. I walked by a section of Best-Selling or Classic Literature (can't remember which), pausing to note how few I had actually read. This caused a slight increase in my breathing tempo, but I calmed down as I made my way to one of the store's comfy chairs. After reading an article on performance compensation in the latest issue of Harvard Business Review, I began my serious browse. Before I upgraded to an iPhone, I would write down book titles on small scraps of paper as I perused the numerous sections in the store. Now I snap a picture of the cover of any book I find interesting for future reference and serious consideration. Having gone back through my photos from that day, I count 9 book covers. Nine. And I only browsed the new books tables,
Nope
the business section, and the rather small psychology section. But what really hit me was when I started riding the escalator down to the lower level. As descended, I had a somewhat aerial view of the bottom floor. The shelves of books expanded further and further out the more I came down. It was only when I had a full view of the lower floor that I realized I would never read all of the books in view. Panic set in. How many wrong ideas were rattling around in my head solely because I hadn't gotten to one of these books? What if those ideas stayed there all my life? It was a reminder of how little I know. An uncomfortable uncertainty set in. If I were Belle, the Beast's gift would've freaked me the hell out.


Furthermore, it got me thinking about why I wouldn't get to all the books: I'm going to die. As the quote above put it, I came face to face with my own mortality. Do I believe in an afterlife and eternal progression? Sure. But the chance of being wrong still looms, especially when you're looking at a wealth of knowledge you know you don't possess. It made me feel stuck. I didn't want to leave the store. And I didn't want to leave this life. I've been trying to turn this realization into a regenerative process; an embrace of epistemic humility. Some would experience this situation in just such a way: the realized ignorance and amount of unread books would be exciting. Boredom could never set in because there would always be something new to read or learn. Life is an incredible adventure, with the universe and its mysteries waiting to be explored.

Unfortunately, that is not my experience. All I keep thinking is "I don't want to go."





NOTES

1. Christine Kenneally, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures (New York: Viking, 2014), Kindle edition. Chapter 1: "Do Not Ask What Gets Passed Down."

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

2015 Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference



I recently had a paper presented at the 2015 Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference at the LDS Institute of Religion and Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. Unfortunately, I was unable to personally attend, but my friend Adam Miller was kind enough to read the paper on my behalf. The title is "'At This Time, A Friend Shall Lose His Friend's Hammer': An Eschatological View of Work." This paper has a lot in common with the one I presented at the Faith & Knowledge Conference in February and the Mormon Transhumanist Association Conference last year. However, there is a new emphasis on eschatology:


Abstract: Despite the Platonic ideal, people do not spend the majority of their time in the act of deep contemplation. Instead, they are performing the seemingly menial tasks of daily life. This largely consists of one’s form of employment. Similarly, implicit within the dramatics of apocalyptic prophecies and eschatological visions is the continuity of the mundane. In building the Kingdom of God, Church leaders from Brigham Young to John Widtsoe continued along the path set by Joseph Smith whose theology collapsed the traditional distance between the sacred and the secular. Furthermore, they argued that continual progression gave meaning to the eternity. Finding meaning in the lone and dreary world of day-to-day work has been a point of increasing interest among management experts and organizational theorists. Their findings yield fruitful insights into human well-being and consequently Mormonism’s doctrine of eternal progression. This paper discusses how the positive psychology underlying concepts of flow, mastery, engagement, and progress provides a powerful lens through which to realistically view human progression towards Zion, life in the age to come, and eventual divinization.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Magical World of Miyazaki

Miyazaki

I recently watched the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness about famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I was both inspired and saddened by the mesmerizing, yet cynical Miyazaki in the throes of his last film The Wind Rises. But one scene in particular that stood out to me took place in a seemingly small hotel room as Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki awaited a press conference following the release of the film. Looking out the hotel window, Miyazaki beckons the camera over. Peering over the rooftops, Miyazaki's imagination begins to take hold. Pointing to a building, he says,

From that rooftop, what if you leapt onto the next rooftop, dashed over to that blue and green wall, jumped up and climbed up the pipe and ran across the roof and jumped to the next? You can, in animation. If you can walk the cable, you could see the other side. When you look from above, so many things reveal themselves to you. Maybe race along the concrete wall. Suddenly, there in your humdrum town is a magical movie. Isn't it fun to see things that way? Feels like you could go somewhere far beyond. Maybe you can.

The conversation was spliced with various clips from Miyazaki's films, often matching the very actions he was describing. It was thrilling to see Miyazaki take the mundane and make it magical. Enchanting the ordinary strikes me as very close to--if not the same as--sacralizing the mundane. Perhaps we are our moral and creative best when we do so.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Finding Meaning Within Chinese Factories


We, the beneficiaries of globalization, seem to exploit these victims with every purchase we make, and the injustice feels embedded in the products themselves. After all, what's wrong with a world in which a worker on an iPhone assembly line can't even afford to buy one? It's taken for granted that Chinese factories are oppressive, and that it's our desire for cheap goods that makes them so.


So, this simple narrative equating Western demand and Chinese suffering is appealing, especially at a time when many of us already feel guilty about our impact on the world, but it's also inaccurate and disrespectful. We must be peculiarly self-obsessed to imagine that we have the power to drive tens of millions of people on the other side of the world to migrate and suffer in such terrible ways. In fact, China makes goods for markets all over the world, including its own, thanks to a combination of factors: its low costs, its large and educated workforce, and a flexible manufacturing system that responds quickly to market demands. By focusing so much on ourselves and our gadgets, we have rendered the individuals on the other end into invisibility, as tiny and interchangeable as the parts of a mobile phone.

Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable desire for iPods. They choose to leave their homes in order to earn money, to learn new skills, and to see the world. In the ongoing debate about globalization, what's been missing is the voices of the workers themselves.

This is how journalist Leslie T. Chang begins her enlightening TED talk (based on her book Factory Girls) on Chinese factory workers. The talk as a whole looks at how these workers construct meaning in their employment. See the whole talk below.



Sunday, March 8, 2015

Being Co-Creators With God

During my flight to the University of Virginia for the Faith & Knowledge Conference this past weekend, I finished a small AEI-published book entitled Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing.[1] Human flourishing is one of the major lenses through which I make sense of my religion. One of the most well-known scriptural passages in the LDS canon is God's declaration to Moses: "For behold, this is my work and my glory -- to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39). To me, "the immortality and eternal life of man" is the ultimate example of human flourishing. According to authors Chris Horst and Peter Greer, entrepreneurship can play an important role in bringing about this flourishing:

Made in the image of God, the imago dei, humankind still bears the Creator's fingerprints. When a mother gives birth or we create something with our hands, we mirror the wonder of creation. In some small but significant way, we have the privilege of being cocreators with God. If we look closely enough, we see this ability to cocreate all around us as: an artist transforms a blank canvas into a masterpiece; a builder assembles planks and raw materials into the structure of a home; a pharmacist synthesizes substances that heal; or a farmer reaches down into the dirt, plants seeds, and watches life spring forth.[2]

This is because "entrepreneurs are in the business of solving problems, not creating them. Their initiatives and inventions--and the businesses that sustain them---meet human needs...When entrepreneurs fulfill their mandate to serve others and solve problems, humans flourish. And to solve these problems, entrepreneurs recruit workers, who can also then experience the dignity of work. At its best, entrepreneurship aims to encourage human flourishing."[3]

This is why I'm interested in the theology of work. When we recognize that economies and organizations are networks of relationships, their place in the larger picture becomes a bit more clear.



2. Chris Horst, Peter Greer, Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2014), 78.

3. Ibid., 8-9.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Blessed Are The Laborers?


...And in this moment I am happy.

- Incubus, "Wish You Were Here," Morning View (Epic Records, 2001).



In his book Gross National Happiness,[1] economist Arthur Brooks reports--based on data from the General Social Survey--that one of the key elements for achieving happiness and self-fulfillment is work. This is due to its connection to what Brooks calls earned success: the ability to create value in our lives and in the lives of others. Perhaps there is a reason that the beating of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is part of the prophetic eschatological hope (Isa. 2:4; Joel 3:10; Micah 4:3). "The point of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks," writes New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, "is so that the weapons of war may be turned into tools of work. When Isaiah [and other OT prophets] envisages the final or eschatological state of affairs, his vision of shalom, well-being, peace, is not of a workless paradise, but of a world at peace worshiping the one true God and working together rather than warring with each other."[2] Jesus taught, "Blessed (Gk makarios) are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" (Matt. 5:9). As I've explained elsewhere, the Jewish understanding of peace (Heb shalom) is not limited to a lack of war or strife, but instead points toward wholeness and a state of overall well-being. Furthermore, the Greek makarios was a word ascribed to the gods, who were free from the frailties and misfortunes of human life.[3] In essence, makarios was the divine life. The Septuagint often used this to translate the Hebrew asre, meaning "Oh the happiness of the one" and describing those with divine approval due to proper religious behaviors or attitudes. Unfortunately, this experiential understanding of the word is lost in the English "blessed." As one pair of biblical scholars explains, "Consequently, we often interpret [Matt. 5:9] to mean, "If you are a peacemaker, then God will bless you." But this isn't what Jesus meant. Jesus meant, "if you are a peacemaker, then you are in your happy place." It just doesn't work well in English."[4] This is because "happy sounds trite..."[5]

Perhaps work is integral to the divine life (makarios) and eschatological peace (shalom).





NOTES  

1. Brooks, Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America--and How We Can Get More of It (New York: Basic Books, 2008), Ch. 7 "Happiness is a Full-Time Job."  

2. Ben Witherington III, Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), xiii-xiv (italics mine).

3. It was also used to the describe the dead, the rich, and the wise. See D.E. Garland, "Blessings and Woes," in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 78-79.

4. E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 75.

5. Ibid.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Wellbeing: The Dignity of Work



Every day I've tried to salvage some of my pride,
To find some work so's I might pay my way
But everywhere I go, the answer is always no,
There's no work for anyone here today,
No work today.
...For as long as I live, I never will forgive,
You've stripped me of my dignity and pride
You've stripped me bare.

- Christy Moore, "Ordinary Man," Ordinary Man (Walker Music UK Ltd, 1985).*



In the Gallup-published Wellbeing, I came across an interesting and important piece of information regarding work and well-being. The authors Tom Rath and Jim Harter explore five essential elements to overall well-being:
  • Career Wellbeing - how one's time is occupied.
  • Social Wellbeing - the strength of one's relationships.
  • Financial Wellbeing - effectively managing one's economic life.
  • Physical Wellbeing - having good health and enough energy on a daily basis.
  • Community Wellbeing - engagement with the area in which one lives.


In regards to Career Wellbeing, Rath and Harter reveal this significant point about the need to work:

The Impact on WellbeingOne of the more encouraging findings [of one study] was that, even in the face of some of life's most tragic events like the death of a spouse, after a few years, people do recover to the same level of wellbeing they had before their spouse passed away. But this was not the case for those who were unemployed for a prolonged period of time -- particularly not for men. Our wellbeing actually recovers more rapidly from the death of a spouse than it does from a sustained period of unemploymentThis doesn't mean that getting fired will harm your wellbeing forever. The same study also found that being laid off from a job in the last year did not result in any significant long-term changes. The key is to avoid sustained periods of unemployment (more than a year) when you are actively looking for a job but unable to find one. In addition to the obvious loss of income from prolonged unemployment, the lack of regular social contact and the daily boredom might be even more detrimental to your wellbeing.[1]

The authors connect our career--what we do day in and day out--to our identity, making one's work "arguably the most essential of the five elements."[2] Human flourishing and dignity are connected to one's work in this life. I imagine it will continue in the next.

This information will certainly find its way into my upcoming paper at the Faith & Knowledge Conference.



*Thanks to Allen Hansen for showing me this song.

NOTES

1. Tom Rath, Jim Harter, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements (New York: Gallup Press, 2010), 17-18.

2. Ibid., 16.