G.K. Chesterton on “tired democracy”

Do we think of democracy as the pinnacle — the culmination of long striving toward a fuller expression of human ideals — the summit of human progress?

G.K. Chesterton, writing in 1925, points out that such a view may have it backwards:

If there is one fact we really can prove, from the history that we really do know, it is that despotism can be a development, often a late development and very often indeed the end of societies that have been highly democratic. A despotism may almost be defined as a tired democracy. As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep. (The Everlasting Man)

America is only a couple of centuries old, but when you consider the consolidation of power in this country, and the various ways we hand over our freedom and privacy, it appears fatigue has set in already.

Alone Together

M.I.T. professor Sherry Turkle has written two previous books on the subject of technology and its effects on humanity. Apparently The Second Self, published 26 years ago, presents a more sunny thesis that online exploration is beneficial to self-development. But Turkle’s new book, Alone Together, is a fascinating and at times devastating exploration of the question posed in its subtitle: “Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.”

The first half of the book describes our interaction with robots: robotic toys like furbies and My Real Baby; robotic animals like AIBO the dog and Paro the seal, given for therapeutic purposes to Alzheimer’s patients; and more sophisticated robots like the interactive ones developed with an eye toward human companionship. It was news to me that for the more repetitive tasks of childcare and elder care, such robots are being developed and refined. Sherry Turkle interviews a wide variety of people, from children to older adults, and studies their interaction with these machines.

This was intermittently interesting to me, but as I have not had much (or any) experience with robotic toys, either for myself or my children, I didn’t really see where it was going till I got into the second half of the book. For what it’s worth, Turkle seems to come down where I do on the subject of robotic companions for children and the elderly, the most vulnerable among us. She writes,

We know that the time we spend caring for children, doing the most basic things for them, lays down a crucial substrate. On this ground, children become confident that they are loved no matter what. And we who care for them become confirmed in our capacity to love and care. The ill and elderly also deserve to be confirmed in this same sense of basic trust. As we provide, we become more fully human.

The second half of the book, where Turkle makes the jump to the machine-mediated relationships of the Net, interested me the most. It focuses on the behavior and experiences of the generation that grew up with toys that talk back and parents who multitask with their electronic devices. For the most part it’s a sad story of people turning to computers — Facebook, texting, email, online games and confessional sites — because they supply a level of interaction that’s better than nothing. But eventually, the majority come to the belief that they are simply better. Better than flesh and blood real people. Better than real-time interruptions like the telephone. At least that’s the perception. But whatever the definition of “better” (in general it seems to mean merely “convenient”), it fails to satisfy. We are made for relationship; we need solitude and privacy to develop as individuals and as social beings; we are drawn to technology to lighten our load and find ourselves bearing stresses caused by the machines that were supposed to help us. “It is poignant that people’s thoughts turn to technology when they imagine ways to deal with stresses that they see as having been brought on by technology,” writes Turkle.

It’s not fashionable to think the Net is insidious. It’s understood that in any conversation about technology, we’re supposed to begin with, “I’m not anti-technology,” or “Facebook isn’t evil (knowing chuckle),” or “I’m no Luddite.” But most of us are aware of some troubling aspects of the technology explosion of recent years: lack of privacy, superficiality of relationship and of thought, narcissism. There is a seductive pull that’s hard to resist. Turkle doesn’t like the word “addiction,” in the same way that the doctor who helped me years ago when I was treated for bulimia would not apply the word to eating disorders. An addiction can’t be broken except by quitting whatever the addictive substance is. But in the same way the person with the eating disorder needs food to survive, the internet has become a pretty much necessary part of modern life — in politics, economics, the labor force, the academic world. It’s not going away.

So Turkle ends on a cautiously optimistic note. In the book’s concluding section, she urges us not to set up false alternatives like, “Either I’m on Facebook or I have no social life,” or “I have to either unplug completely or watch more and more of my life swirl down the drain of technological demand.” She calls this “quandary thinking,” and quotes Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Experiments in Ethics:

In the real world, the act of framing — the act of describing a situation and thus of determining that there’s a decision to be made — is itself a moral task. It’s often the moral task. Learning how to recognize what is and isn’t an option is part of our ethical development… In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you’re playing.

What game are we playing with our machine-mediated relationships? Turkle reminds us that we haven’t been playing it very long, and there is time to stop and think about how we can restructure it to better preserve our humanity and nourish those we love. “We don’t need to reject or disparage technology,” she writes. “We need to put it in its place.”

I found this to be engaging and readable, as well as very sobering. A few of the reviews I’ve read contend that the evidence is largely anecdotal, but I am mystified by the claim. Numerous studies and interviews are cited, research conducted with various subjects at MIT as well as enough anecdotal illustration to keep the book readable for a layperson. Where Nicholas Carr’s book focuses on how the internet affects brain behavior, Turkle examines how the widespread use of social gadgets and robots affects human relationships, and the level of insight and analysis she provides casts a helpful searchlight on the subject.

Some of it is horrifying… In the end, I still can’t make up my mind whether computers dehumanize us, or whether they simply magnify and exaggerate human nature with all its flaws — of which extreme self-centeredness has always ranked pretty high. Either way, this book has been illuminating to me, and if it does occasionally horrify, it motivates as well. My online commitments are relatively light, consisting of only this blog and email. But since I started reading Alone Together, I’ve been doubly aware of my screen time, and doubly conscious of how easy it is to divide my attention when the people I care about need all of it. This is a step toward a more proactive, and less self-defeatingly frustrated, response to the whole “quandary.”

I’ve read a fair amount on this subject over the last year or two: Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly, Sven Birkerts’ Gutenberg Elegies, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, Jesse Rice’s Church of Facebook, and before all of it, Wendell Berry’s canon. But this book is what I’ve been most hungry for — a sharply focused look at the interaction between our humanity and our technology. I’ve given only the most cursory summary of it here, but it’s hard to imagine anyone for whom Alone Together would not be a worthwhile read.

The Ordinary Princess

“Was it a good book?”

I asked my daughters this question after finishing The Ordinary Princess. The answer seemed obvious; though I read it to them on my Kindle (complete with some decent illustrations, but still without the attractions of actual ink and paper), they were completely captivated from beginning to end.

“Lots of giggles!” exclaimed my warm-hearted 7-year-old. “And I almost cried at the end!”

“It was great,” said my reflective 9-year-old.

Last week I pondered princess tales of two varieties: the helpless princesses who exist till a prince they don’t know at all sets them free by marrying them, and the self-sufficient ones who decide they want to be single, wage-earning citizens. This week we struck gold with Princess Amy, whose cranky fairy godmother bestows not beauty, but ordinariness, on her as a gift at her birth. She has freckles. She’s sensible, and at times feisty. And when she learns that her father plans to hire a dragon to ravage the countryside in order to attract a suitable prince to marry her, she takes drastic measures — that lead to a truly happy ending.

I’m trying to do this without spoilers, so that’s all I’ll say about the plot. Let me just add that the writing is entertaining and fun. As my daughter said, it’s “full of giggles” — droll and charming, and easy to read with expression. As far as I can tell it was published on 1980, though it feels like an older “classic.”

It’s hard to pick out what I liked best personally. There are several likable characters, the princess foremost. She’s principled, decisive, and capable without being brittle. Among her friends are a red squirrel (Mr. Pemberthy) and a crow (Peter Aurelius), whom she attends to faithfully through thick and thin. But mostly I liked that the story depicted love more convincingly and realistically than some of the better-known princess tales. Here, it starts with friendship — as it did for me. So, there’s an ever-so-slight spoiler — but not enough to do much harm. If you have girls, this one is definitely worth checking out!

Visit Read-Aloud Thursday at Hope Is the Word to see what others are reading this week.

Pathological — or “normal”?

In my study of growing up in a networked culture, I meet many children and teenagers who feel cast off. Some have parents with good intentions who simply work several jobs and have little time for their children. Some have endured divorce — sometimes multiple divorces — and float from one parent to another, not confident of their true home. Those lucky children who have intact families with stable incomes can experience other forms of abandonment. Busy parents are preoccupied, often by what is on their cell phones. When children come home, it is often to a house that is empty until a parent returns from work.

For young people in all of these circumstances, computers and mobile devices offer communities when families are absent. In this context, it is not surprising to find troubling patterns of connection and disconnection: teenagers who will only “speak” online, who rigorously avoid face-to-face encounters, who are in text contact with their parents fifteen or twenty times a day, who deem even a telephone call “too much” exposure and say that they will “text, not talk.” But are we to think of these as pathologies? For as social mores change, what once seemed “ill” can come to seem normal. Twenty years ago, as a practicing clinical psychologist, if I had met a college junior who called her mother fifteen times a day, checking in about what shoes to buy and what dress to wear, extolling a new kind of decaffeinated tea, and complaining about the difficulty of a physics problem set, I would have thought her behavior problematic. I would have encouraged her to explore difficulties with separation. I would have assumed that these had to be addressed for her to proceed to successful adulthood. But these days, a college student who texts home fifteen times a day is not unusual.

High school and college students are always texting — while waiting in line at the cafeteria, while eating, while waiting for the campus shuttle. Not surprisingly, many of these texts are to parents. What once we might have seen as a problem becomes how we do things. But a behavior that has become typical may still express the problems that once caused us to see it as pathological. Even a typical behavior may not be in an adolescent’s best interest.

It’s a good question: is using technology this way pathological, or normal — or both?

It’s interesting that Sherry Turkle would get to this question on page 178 of Alone Together, because as I’ve been reading I’ve been remembering my own high school years. I can tell you right now that I would have been driven off a cliff if I’d been expected to “talk” — text, email, whatever — as continuously and excessively as today’s teens, by all accounts, do.

More to the point as I’ve thought back to high school, I’ve considered how back then I had some problems relating and growing up, and they expressed themselves in a way that was undisputedly pathological: an eating disorder. As I’ve been reading about the kinds of insecurity experienced by teens tethered to their social media and cell phones, I’ve  thought, “Why doesn’t this have a name? — Technology Disorder, or Facebook Nervosa, or… something? How is this not unhealthy and damaging to the development of a mature self?” And I’ve remembered a discussion last spring in which a high school senior told me that without Facebook, her “life would be ruined.” But if someone’s sense of self is that fragile — is it ruined already?

Then again, maybe it’s not fair to focus just on teens. Here’s one more excerpt, this one from page 160:

We may begin by thinking that emails, texts, and Facebook messaging are thin gruel but useful if the alternative is sparse communication with the people we care about. Then, we become accustomed to their special pleasures — we can have connection when and where we want or need it, and we can easily make it go away. In only a few more steps, you have people describing life on Facebook as better than anything they have ever known.

Poetry Friday: Finishing Well

One never knows, but I’ve been thinking lately that I’m probably about halfway through my life. Maybe a little over.

What do I have to show for it?

I look back over my story so far and see an odd jumble of ingredients that don’t seem to have resolved themselves yet into a definite direction. If I were reading it in a book, some episodes would make me sad or worried, but nevertheless I like my story. I wouldn’t want to trade it for someone else’s; I’ve grown attached to it. But… where is it leading? What impact will it have?

Many good stories don’t really gain momentum till after they pass the halfway point. Then all the threads are gathered together and the total picture comes clear. I’m hoping mine will be in that class.

In this mood, Wendell Berry’s “From the Crest” comes to mind. It’s a long poem, but these lines from the third section lend a voice to my mid-life ruminations:

From the crest of the wave
the grave is in sight,
the soul’s last deep track
in the known…

I am trying to teach
my mind to accept the finish
that all good work must have:
of hands touching me,
days and weathers passing
over me, the smooth of love,
the wearing of the earth.
At the final stroke
I will be a finished man.

Or, in my case — a finished woman.

Poetry Friday is at Read Write Believe today.

The Fair Penelope…

This afternoon, we finished Rosemary Sutcliff’s Wanderings of Odysseus. My second-grader squirmed with delight next to me, pumping her feet and clapping her hands over her mouth to smother the squeals at Odysseus’ return. My fourth-grader was silent and rapt. (This is despite the fact that when I asked them for words to describe the book, “bloody” was one they both offered…)

There is something so satisfying about Odysseus’ multi-chapter homecoming. Concealed from his family and faithful servants by a beggar’s disguise until one by one they recognize him, this great hero’s tentativeness as he tries to figure out whether his family still wants him back is endearing. The details are exact and, even woven into such a fantastical epic, they lend an air of realism: the scar on his leg that makes his old nurse recognize him; the old dog who gives a welcoming thump of the tail, knowing his master behind the disguise; the details of Odysseus’ bow and marriage bed with the single olive tree at one corner. He’s crafty and masterful till the end, laying his plan to defeat the obnoxious suitors who have tormented his wife for so long.

But the one I found myself thinking about was Penelope. The story isn’t just about Odysseus, after all. He is an archetypal hero, it’s true, but Penelope is no less an archetypal heroine. Loyal, cunning, hospitable, beautiful, and strong in the face of long adversity, she never loses her tenderness for her husband, but she’s smart about devising tests and tricks to make sure it’s really Odysseus who stands before her. She’s the perfect blend of strength and receptiveness.

One reason I find her so impressive is that I’ve encountered a few other stories lately that seem to regard the desire for a man as weakness. Though they’re fun in their way, something about the alternative vision they offer seems prosaic and a bit preachy.

One is The Paper Bag Princess, which centers around a princess who rescues a prince — then, recognizing that he’s a spoiled, wimpy fellow, opts out of living happily ever after with him. It’s been awhile since we read the story, but that’s the way I remember it.

The other book is Girls to the Rescue, which I downloaded for free on my Kindle. It takes traditional fairy tales, and adds a few original tales, and spins them so that the female characters are more resourceful and strong. Or at least, that’s the goal. Cinderella gets herself to the ball without a fairy godmother; she makes her own dress and walks, barefoot. After getting her glimpse of the big world, she decides to move out from her stepmother’s house and set up a dressmaking shop in town.

As I said, it’s fun. In my creative writing class in college, one of the writing exercises we performed more than once was “twisting” a fairy tale — working within the form to give it a different gist. But both these stories seem to set up a false set of choices. You don’t really have to choose between strength and love. It’s true that some of the old Cinderella stories depict helpless heroines, but loveless heroines aren’t much better.

The Odyssey gives us someone pretty inspiring in Penelope. She’s smart and self-sufficient when she needs to be; she’s strong; she’s shrewd. But she’s also loving, proud to belong to Odysseus, and she remains faithful through long trial and crisis. I have mixed feelings about both Cinderella tales and PC revisions of Cinderella tales, but not about The Wanderings of Odysseus. My daughters will read all kinds of stories and meet all kinds of girls and women across the pages, but I’m glad they’ve met Penelope early on.

Visit Hope Is the Word to see what others are reading this week.

The Red House Mystery

True confession: I’ve never actually finished any of the Pooh books. I’ve tried more than once; most recently, I attempted Winnie the Pooh as a read-aloud. Failure again.

But The Red House Mystery is one of A.A. Milne’s books for adults, written, one source explains, for his father, who loved mysteries. I found it an entertaining, witty read that maintained a light-hearted mood despite being a whodunit.

In the office of an English country estate, a shot is heard, and a corpse is found. Just at that moment, Antony Gillingham appears coincidentally on the scene. Tony is a jack of all trades, possessed of unusually keen powers of observation and a questioning mind, so in this tale he decides to try his hand at detective work. He and his friend Bill Beverley hearken back to Holmes and Watson, whom the two go so far as to allude to and purposely emulate.

I enjoyed my foray into detective fiction. It’s been several years since my last mystery read (Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase), and it’s a genre that puts my mind to work in a unique way. It’s possible in this tale to figure out who the murderer is, and why and how s/he did it. Milne furnishes all the information necessary. But I made only a half-hearted attempt; it was more fun to listen in on Antony and Bill as they put the pieces together.

After getting bogged down recently in a long and detailed biography, I needed an entertaining page-turner to coax my dozing reading mind back awake. The Red House Mystery filled the bill.

Brokenness: The Heart God Revives

The other day I pulled open the kitchen drawer where I keep my Bible, and saw my old photocopy of this list. It’s a comparison between proud, unbroken people, and broken people. I’ve had it for years — it was given to me by a friend at our old church, where much was made (in talk) of the idea of brokenness. I pulled it out and read through it again.

In all honesty, I don’t pan out all that well as a broken person. I saw far too many descriptors in the left-hand column that fit me, whether they ever make it out to the surface or not. I have what Dallas Willard calls “sin management systems” to attack some of these characteristics and subdue them. But in the truly humble heart they should be simply washed away.

The list is a summary of one chapter of this book, where Nancy Leigh DeMoss unpacks the concept of brokenness with the clarity I needed. Awhile back, I read (and reviewed) Roy Hession’s Calvary Road, and that too was helpful. But this was better.

The word “brokenness” has enough layers of meaning that when tossed around in Christian circles it can be confusing. Part of the history of our former church was a revival that had occurred perhaps ten years before we started attending there, and the biblical brokenness DeMoss discusses played a major role in preparing the way. Brokenness in this sense means humility, surrender to God. As DeMoss writes, it comes from the word “contrite,” which suggests

something that is crushed into small particles or ground into powder, as a rock is pulverized. What is it that God wants to pulverize in us? It is not our spirit He wants to break, nor is it our essential personhood. He wants to break our self-will.

In our last church, the word had been used originally in this biblical sense. But “broken” gradually morphed to accumulate other meanings: wounding by the hurts of life or a fallen world, or a level of sinfulness from which no one ever seemed to be saved, or a “putting in your place” by a grim authoritarian God. I developed a guardedness against these understandings of “brokenness.” Where true brokenness leads to repentance and revival, the false variety leads to dysfunction in the body of Christ.

We left that church several years ago, but I took my internal defenses with me. This book is a breath of fresh air, and it took just a day to read. It explains what biblical brokenness is, examines a few biblical examples, and provides a few instances of personal and corporate revivals where it has played a part — including one in 1995 where Nancy Leigh DeMoss spoke on this subject just before a landslide of repentance occurred. It’s an inspiring book well worth reading and has helped me to move beyond the inner resistance that hasn’t exactly helped me in my spiritual walk over the last 5 years. It’s nearly impossible to guard against wrong concepts of brokenness without shutting out the real thing. I’m thankful to have found this road map back.

First Encounters with Homer

We’ve been revisiting a read-aloud from a few years back: Rosemary Sutcliff’s Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad. I reviewed this book when my now-4th-grader was in first grade, and I feel pretty much the same as I did the first time.

What struck me this time was what a strange position my choice of the classical approach to education puts me in at times. On the one hand, I’m pretty choosy about what my children watch on television or what movies they see. I see to it that they’re not exposed to undue violence or language or adult themes. I want them to be children, and to wait till they have more maturity before they have to confront such things. On the other hand, here I am reading them Black Ships Before Troy — a beautifully written, gorgeously illustrated account of a terribly bloody and horrific war — because it’s “a classic.”

There’s Achilles dragging Hector’s dead body behind his chariot. There’s the scene where he runs the queen of the Amazon women through with his spear, then turns and kills her horse with the broken shaft. There’s the account of three Trojans squeezed to jelly by sea monsters. And all of it is because of the infidelity of a beautiful woman and a spoiled, selfish young man.

Stranger still: my daughters absolutely loved it. Yes, they exclaimed in disgust over parts of it. But my first grader, who usually flees the room at the first strain of ominous music when watching a movie, kept asking me at all hours of the day and night to please read another chapter. My fourth grader, who had heard it all before, was drawn like nail to magnet whenever the book was opened. I can’t believe it’s because the violence was appealing to them. Maybe it was the elegance of the narrative voice and the dreamy blue-green pictures of noble men and women. I can easily imagine the tale told among the ancient Greeks to an audience of all ages.

My personal favorite of these two Greek epics has always been The Odyssey. Instead of relentless war, it’s the ultimate seafaring adventure, Odysseus’ dilemmas and decisions seem more interesting, and the homecoming at the end has got to be one of the top five happy endings in all of literature. I’ve never dipped into it before with the kids, other than the cyclops episode. My dilemma has been choosing from among the three children’s versions I know of but have not read myself. I decided to lay them out and let the girls choose: Geraldine McCaughrean’s:

Padraic Colum’s:

(Yes, it’s on my Kindle), or, once again, Rosemary Sutcliff’s:

They chose (not surprisingly!) the latter, and we’re about midway through. Once again they are totally engaged. Though this story too has its disturbing parts, even the land of the dead or Circe turning men into pigs are a refreshing change from the monotony of a decade-long killing spree before the gates of Troy.

So what’s the difference between books like these and certain movies I wouldn’t let my kids see? Books aren’t as visually assaultive a medium, for one thing. For another, these tales furnish the earliest versions of themes and motifs that have been reconfigured in art for centuries; I like to think that they provide a certain ground-floor cultural literacy. Finally, reading happens at a slower pace than film, with more opportunities to stop and talk about what’s happening together, more interaction about the relationship between what we’re reading and what we believe about life, death, ethics, God, and the afterlife. These are big subjects, but not too big for the mind of a child when presented in this format.

If you’re in the market for a children’s introduction to these classic tales, one that gives plenty of opportunity to see the courage and cunning the ancient Greeks valued in a hero, Rosemary Sutcliff’s books have it all: striking prose that doesn’t condescend, wonderful pictures, and plenty of action and adventure.

Visit Hope Is the Word for more Read-Aloud Thursday selections.

One Thousand Gifts

When I first read about Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, I couldn’t wait to read it. The title, and the trailer I watched over at the author’s blog, seemed to promise something I need.

For the most part, the book delivers. It recounts Ann Voskamp’s odyssey of gratitude, which began when she responded to a dare to list 1,000 things she was thankful for. She laid a journal open on the counter and began, without any idea of how the process would change her heart and her experience of faith. As she puts it,

A lifetime of sermons on “thanks in all things” and the shelves sagging with books on these things and I testify: life-changing gratitude does not fasten to a life unless nailed through with one very specific nail at a time.

I was challenged to start paying closer attention to my life. Honestly, it has been awhile since I felt the real goodness of it. I remember a time several years ago when I was out running one morning in the spring, and I was so conscious of the richness of the ordinary. If I had to put into words what my reflexive mindset is now, I’d say “weary.” I can list some practical reasons. But things weren’t perfect before, either, and some aspects of life are better now — present stresses notwithstanding. Why am I so tired? I was interested in what Ann Voskamp had to say, and I come away with a renewed understanding of God’s generosity and love.

I struggled with the book too. The writing reminded me of Annie Dillard, whose prose is so elaborate it distracts me from what is being said to how it’s being said. It’s tempting to call it poetic, but the best poets are spare and disciplined with their words. They work to stay out of the way.

There were a couple of other stumbling blocks that kept this book from really winning me over. But it is a very personal expression of faith, an honest account of its author’s spiritual journey, and in that sense it’s an offering I prefer to receive with, well, thanks. Many of us may be tempted to think of ourselves as “glass half full” or “glass half empty” people by nature, but One Thousand Gifts reminds us that we are new creations. Something as simple as a notebook on the kitchen counter can become an open door to change at the deepest levels of our spiritual character.