Friday, December 30, 2011

Relativity of Normality

"No one who can rise before dawn, 360 days a year, will fail to make his family rich." - Chinese proverb as quoted by Malcolm Gladwell

"Instead of being regarded, as it ought to be, as a matter of personal convenience and adjustment, it has come to regarded by many as if it were part of the essential morals to get up early in the morning." - G.K. Chesterton

     It has occurred to me in recent days as I have simultaneously been reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, G.K. Chesterton's Tremendous Trifles, and Glenn Beck's Being George Washington that "normal" is an entirely relative term. As are "morality," "education," and "success." I suppose it's no big break-through, and I know I've vaguely acknowledged this fact before, but the combination of isolation, great literature, and winter break tends to clarify things... while at the same time making me question my self worth.
     I counted. With the exception of a horse show three Saturdays ago, I hadn't seen, let alone spoken with another person my age for 22 days straight. Regardless of the freshness of the company, I can get somewhat senile when I'm around only adults for that long. Thankfully, tagging along on a business trip to Chicago solved that problem, but not before I began to question the solidity of the definitions of normality and success.

     How should success be measured? Could a low perception of my self worth be determined merely by an incorrect definition of success? Can going 22 days without seeing another teenager be considered normal, even if I am an only child?
     Malcolm Gladwell, in his book on the "non-randomnity" of success named Outliers, presented, (in his enjoyable way), a study conducted in 1921 by a man named Lewis Terman. In essence, the study concluded that children with IQs in the genius level were, later in life, divided into as many successes and failures as a grouping of people with entirely random IQs. This meant that a child of a high IQ had an equal chance of success in adulthood as a child of a low IQ. What, then, determined the success and failure of Terman's group of geniuses, or, for that matter, the success and failure of anyone? Poring over data collected throughout the duration of the study, the only unifying factor between all of the successes and between all of the failures was upbringing, family background, financial status, and social status. 
     Terman's study was able to pattern the adults into three groups; A, B, and C. The 150 comprising top 20% were what Terman called the "A group;" the "true success stories." The middle 60% was the B group. These were the adults who were doing "satisfactorily." The bottom 20% were the C group. These were the adults "who had done the least with their superior mental ability." The data showed that nearly all of the successful adults had, as children, come from the middle or upper class; from families who raised them in concerted cultivation. This is simply a method of actively fostering talent through activities and organized lessons or instruction. It's the kind of childhood I had for roughly the first ten years of my life, and, to some degree, it still is my life; but not to the same extent. Somewhere along the way in my life, there was something of a paradigm shift; a prioritizing. It was not a shift however, if I can use the metaphor, in "getting up before dawn" like the Chinese, to Chesterton's appreciation for sleeping in. Rather, it was a recognition that "making your family rich" is not "an essential moral."
     But to clarify. I do not, in any way, think it is wrong or immoral to make money or be materially successful. On the contrary, it is good that we prosper in the work God has given us. Money is not the root of all evil. It is the love of money that is the root of all evil. (1 Timothy 6:10). 
     In moving away from the society of concerted cultivation and into a society of agricultural cultivation, it placed our family, once in the middle class, into a culture which is primarily the working class. It places me in the unique position where I interact with people on both ends of Terman's alphabetical spectrum. Unfortunately that usually implies large swings from low self esteem to a "too-high" self esteem. 
     I'm starting to realize that it shouldn't bother me in the least to know I may have more material potential than what my circumstances dictate. It doesn't bother me because I'm realizing that in the long run, material success is not that "standard to which the wise and honest can repair" to quote George Washington. What really matters when it's all said and done, is not material success or even fame. It's success in the Kingdom. It's relationship. It's discipleship. Sure it'd be nice to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, or see your own book on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, but here again, the kind of self esteem that is generated in success is essentially worth nothing in the world to come unless it is done to glorify the King and advance the Kingdom on earth; a very tough order, but never one to shy away from.
     If my goal is success in the world, I may be justified in my drop of self esteem. As it is, I have no cause to see myself as any less (or any greater) than the range of classes that my life is presenting me with. Why? Because my self esteem should dictated by my contentment in my current community, family, and lifestyle; not by comparisons to the lives of others. No longer should I dabble in comparisons as I attend the same online school as a television actor and a boy who's written a book on positional chess, before picking up fresh milk from the dearest working class farmers that live down the road. Contentment, and not comparison is the key to a healthy self esteem. Glenn Beck, in the authors note at the beginning of Being George Washington sums it up quite nicely as he places things in the proper perspective:
     "You're not going to be George Washington next week, or even next year. You may not, in fact, ever cross the finish line. But that's okay. It's the simple act of reaching for a standard that so many others will dismiss at unattainable that is enough to make a real difference. I can tell you unequivocally that being George Washington will be the hardest thing you will attempt to do in your life. But it will also be the most fulfilling and rewarding. Living a life of honor, integrity, and humility may not make you millions of dollars, or result in your name being splashed across movie posters, but you will earn something far more enduring: the lasting respect of those you care about most, and if that doesn't happen, well, you can always eat ice cream."

On that note, I'm off to eat some ice cream... perhaps with some other kids my age. I've officially decided that's normal.

Friday, December 9, 2011


"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." - Ernest Hemingway

     Blin•king•cur•sor•itis: n. A neurological disease closely related to Writer's Blockosis in which those infected stare endlessly at the blinking cursor at the beginning of a blank Word document, email, or blog post, trying to think of what to say.

I think I officially have this disease. In fact, I had to take medication just to write that last sentence. I hate medication. But that's beside the point if there is a point to be beside. In my case, the disease usually manifests itself when I'm trying to remember how to be creative, or when I have to make the first sentence of an argumentative research paper on ancient astronomy somehow sound interesting. If you've ever written a paper on ancient astronomy, you'll know why that's not as easy as it sounds. This is especially true if you're me, and you worry if you're sounding like a moose (however that's possible), or you place yourself in the shoes of Captain Nemo, the guy from 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, and wonder how he would handle the situation. In my case, by the time I've finished hypothesizing about how Captain Nemo would write a paper on astronomy, I will have ended up sounding like a moose anyway, and will have managed to slide, face-down onto the floor moaning, and without having written a single word.
While moaning for a while on the floor does tend to make things a little better, I'm going to play doctor here and prescribe a few things that have helped with my case of Blinkingcursoritis.

1. Pray on it. Maybe it does have cliche connotations, but this is probably the best think you can do to work through a difficult few opening paragraphs. "Humble yourselves, therefore,  under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." 1 Peter 5:6-7.
2. Listen to inspiring music. Classical is always good for important, critical, or analytical papers, Epica works for research projects, and period music is always the best choice for books or short stories.
3. Eat a cookie. Chocolate chip for maximum brain usage. I made that up.
4. Write a paragraph from somewhere in the middle of the work, or write a rough concluding sentence, then work back to the opening.
5. Outline. To use a metaphor, outlines are the dinosaurs in the natural history museum. Finished papers are the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. When everything else has decomposed, your outline should still be left. Make it strong.
6. Bang your head against a wall. It's scary how well this works.
7. Type a few dozen random letters and numbers, then backspace them all. It somehow feels constructive.
8. Come back to it. I have a really hard time with this one, but sometimes it can be best to let it sit for a while. Fresh eyes often times make all the difference.
9. Eat another cookie. Repeat, if necessary.
10. Start your work like you would start a fictional story. Dramatize your emails, hyperbolize your research papers, and enliven your newspaper columns. In some cases, it's easier to desaturate the drama out of a work to a realistic level than it is to work straight into that realistic level. 

So, the foregoing list is probably nothing new, but it's helped me get through a few tough papers this past week, and it's always a good excuse for eating cookies!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Turkey and Dolphins

"They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength, and had all things in good plenty." -William Bradford
     Our family traveled to Indiana this year for Thanksgiving. It was a monumental feat in and of itself to assemble one entire side of my family and extended family for a day and a half. Add half-a-dozen grand-puppies to half-a-dozen cousins trying to work together in the kitchen, to me skipping around with a camera, to my aunt conspicuously showing off her felt turkey hat, to deep questions about the meaning of life, and you get dolphins. We debated hotly about the meaning of life, and even placed a Skype call to Australia, but the cousins and I officially concluded that dolphins are the meaning of life.
     On a slightly less aquatic note, this year's Thanksgiving was a great "second Succoth" for our family. Much like Thanksgiving minus the pilgrims, Succoth, or "Booths," is the Biblical festival that closes the traditional Bible reading cycle, and looks forward to the heavenly feast of Revelation 19.
Succoth is the final fall feast in the list of seven Biblical feasts, and it originates in Deuteronomy 16:13-15: 
"You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress ... because the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful."
     It may even be speculated that the very first Thanksgiving was actually a modified version of Succoth. As we see from William Bradford's writings, he studied the Hebrew scriptures and language quite extensively, and we may assume that the original Thanksgiving on the shores of North America was a New-World spin on the Biblical harvest feast. Our family has been celebrating Succoth for several years now, and with every new Feast of Booths, it's given us a chance to look back toward the journey of the Hebrews through the wilderness, and forward toward the coming wedding feast in heaven.
     This year, our feasting and our reasons to be thankful were doubled with our trip to Indiana for the Thanksgiving holiday. It was great to see my cousins again, and even amid tens of dozens of card games, and late nights of Ping-Pong, we still managed to find the meaning of life. In fact, we even discovered that "nothing" is a theological impossibility, that all paradox is fundamentally literary, and that it is, in fact, possible to eat too much turkey. Dolphins, however, somehow remained the trump card to all discussions. Go figure.