“Ten Thousand Hours”

“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint,
The greats were great because they paint a lot.”

—Macklemore, “Ten Thousand Hours”

Some of you know Macklemore because of “Thrift Shop.” Some know him because of “Same Love,” his ballad in support of gay marriage. I fell in love with his work some years ago when I encountered his early song “White Privilege.” In the quote above, he’s not saying anything new—the title of the song and other lyrics make his debt to Malcolm Gladwell plain. The point is that if you want to be good at anything, you have to practice it a long, long time, and due to his long hours of work, Macklemore figured out a way to say it well—so well that the words grip me and refuse to let go.

In his book Outliers: the Story of Success (2008), Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to truly master anything. To put that in perspective, if you started on January 1st, 2014, and worked at one single skill for ten hours a day, seven days a week, you’d be a true master of the skill on October 7th, 2016. Gladwell invented his number, of course, and everyone varies, but Gladwell has his reasons, and his central point is entirely sound. There are vanishingly few Mozarts in the world, child prodigies—and even Mozart reached the pinnacle of his genius because he took his talents and used them constantly. Macklemore works eighty-hour weeks.

So, Friends, let’s consider: if it would take nearly three years to master a skill while working at it non-stop, how long do you think it would take to master a skill only practicing it once a week? For an hour on Sunday mornings, say? Continue reading

The Economy of Love

Trust and Abundance

Some years ago, I lived in a house with several other young Quakers, and we often pooled our resources for buying food. This meant that people often thought whatever was in the fridge was up for grabs. Once I went to the kitchen to make a sandwich, and discovered that the loaf of bread that I’d been planning on using had vanished.

At first, I was irked. If anyone had asked me for the bread I would have gladly given it to them, I thought, but this was going too far. I had plans for that bread, after all, plans which were now ruined. But as I calmed myself down, I realized how ridiculous this was. For starters, there was plenty of food that I was welcome to eat, and before long I was munching on leftovers. Secondly, it occurred to me that a lot of my irritation was from having my plans thwarted, despite the fact that the food I was eating now was probably rather healthier and tastier than what I’d intended to eat. And finally, I remembered that it was just bread: not worth arguing about.

That lesson has come back to me recently. Last week I was eying my rather minuscule paycheck before I tried to settle into my daily worship. My mind would not let go of financial worries until I heard, “Don’t worry about the money. All will be attended to.” Later that day, an unexpected check from my grandmother turned up in the mail.

That was plain enough… but soon thereafter, I stumbled on the video of a TED talk given by the musician Amanda Palmer. It’s worth watching in its entirety, but briefly, she makes two points about our modern-day economy: one, there is more value in the world than capitalism has measured with money, and two, there is an astonishing power in asking for money rather than charging, relying on love and generosity.

Then I visited the new-grown farm of some friends—including two Quakers who had lived with me in the house I mentioned earlier—and again got the sense that the universe was telling me something. Though I hadn’t planned on staying so long, they persuaded me to linger three days, with abundant hospitality. I initially demurred because I didn’t want to be a drain on their resources, but I earned my keep by helping with a few chores and with the spring planting—and by simply being a friendly face from outside the small and busy world they now inhabit.

There are two ways we can interpret all this: either I have figured out a high-concept way to justify my mooching, or the Spirit has just handed down a clear and lovely reminder of an old lesson: “You cannot serve both God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6.24b-25).

Or, to put it another way: let go of that loaf of bread, and let yourself be fed. Continue reading

An Example

Once there was a good Quaker. She subscribed to Friends Journal and read all the FCNL action emails. She served as clerk of Coffee and Oversight Committee when asked to, and gave regularly to AFSC. She had raised all her children as Quakers, and one still even went to meeting! In short she was an exemplary Friend. And the Light came to her and gave her a powerful leading to wear a bright-orange traffic cone on her head as a hat. Continue reading

Conviction

The election is done; but it has not solved all our problems. Martin King said, in his classic speech “A Time to Break Silence,” “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Going by Dr. King’s formula, the United States is still dying. President Obama is treating symptoms of that illness (such as abuses of health and some legal rights) while not treating causes (abuses of wealth and power). It would dismay Dr. King to see the first Black president doing so, but it might not surprise him.

In fact the whole political left is largely focused on symptoms, and each group has picked one and made it their hill to die on. There is little agreement about what should take priority (other than beating Republicans). In fact the left—or liberals—or progressives—can’t even agree on what to call themselves. And in such tight financial times, the left plunges into what I call “liberal cannibalism”—fighting over who gets the last crumbs of the pie, rather than asking what happened the pie as a whole. The result, as W. B. Yeats put it, is that “The falcon cannot find the falconer./Things fall apart; the center cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, and the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.”

Quakers are far from immune. I have watched Friends leave meetings, and the Society, because of divisions over which worthy cause is worthiest. The result, in my part of Quakerism, at least, is that Friends have embraced a wide range of causes, but generally those causes are lifted up by individual Friends, or by individual meetings. This is to be expected: one of the most central Quaker tenets is “What canst thou say?” We are a faith that puts great faith in individuals. But the down side of “What canst thou say?” is that there has been less of “What can we say?” Meetings and Yearly Meetings are slower to take action. And may I point out that while minutes do indeed say something, they do not by themselves do anything? Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Quakers minuted opposition to slavery in 1688. A century later, Philadelphia finally banned slavery among its members.

So even we Friends can lack all conviction.

But while virtually all liberals wail and moan and wring their hands over priorities, we Quakers have an alternative. We know where to go to find the answers: George Fox called it “Living in the life and power.” We have over us the ultimate authority. When it comes to authority we accept no substitutes; only the Spirit will do. We do not even always listen to each other, after all. Sometimes we do need to stand aside and let the Meeting go a way we wouldn’t choose, but this is acceptable as long as we do find and follow the leadings of the Light.

When we do… ah, what we can do then!

So we do not need to stand in bafflement at all the different threats and causes, trying to triage an entire civilization. We can instead discern what the Spirit says we should do, and then move with true conviction towards the holy goal.

I don’t think this would mean abandoning any causes near to our hearts. There is so much overlap, after all: gay rights matter for immigrants because some immigrants are gay, and environmental damage so often follows poverty and war, and so on. After all, don’t our testimonies overlap? There’s no real line between Peace and Equality, is there? And to truly live up to Integrity we have to be both peaceful and equal. Moreover, everywhere I look, I see one core problem: abuse of power. Confront abuse of power in every form, and that’s the first step to social justice, no matter which form of abuse is dealt with first. But I also suspect that we may not be called to a particular agenda, but to a particular way. A deep way, a difficult way, even a dangerous way, but a way sure and true. The manner of Friends may come to mean not what we all do, but how we all do it. If we all lived so deep in the Spirit, that might well be enough.

This is just my guess, though. After all, we must come together and discern our way. But we can do this. To come back to Yeats’ poem again, we are the falcons who know how to find the falconer. To return to King’s speech, it is our time to break our silence. We may not see the path clearly, but we can follow the Light in faith, and trust that we are well on our way.

 

Authors and Finishers

My country is increasingly fractured and divided these days, with this oncoming election widening the rifts deeper every day. The election has, to an extent, become a clash of ideologies. And though there are still more things that unite us than divide us—all the candidates love their country, all the candidates are trying to protect it—the rifts are so deep that compromise is becoming not just a dirty word but an equivalent to “surrender.” Too many have come to the conclusion that even agreeing with their political opponents is tantamount to treason. I will not pretend that all parties are equal in this respect; one political party, after all, has seemed to drift rightward in the wake of the other’s extremism. Now, it’s possible that the election will end some of this; if Governor Romney wins, he might attribute his success to his late-race moderation, and if he loses, the Republican Party may recognize that it is because of their ideological extremism, and adjust accordingly. But there is no guarantee of that. And with the politics of rage reaping a rich harvest of hate for both parties (though to an unequal degree), I do not see politics in this nation becoming more civil any time soon. The electorate is remarkably divided this year, with few swing votes up for grabs. This means that first, most voters were set along party lines long before Election Day, with few people deciding not on party name but on the merits of arguments, and second, the way to win the election is a matter of firing up the party base and bolstering loyalist turnout. Which means more vitriol and more hatred, because the easiest way to motivate people is through fear. It is almost becoming a situation where we no longer have the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, but the Anti-Democrat and the Anti-Republican Parties. Or at least that is how they bring out the vote.

This makes me deeply uneasy. Continue reading

What I Mean When I Say Compassion

This one is about definitions. This is how I define respect, how I define compassion, how I define the old Quaker injunction to “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in every one.” And since it’s me writing this, we start with a story.

When I was in high school, there was a student named April who was developmentally disabled, with the conversational ability and habits of a seven-year-old, though she was older than I was. She was always cheerful, always smiling. On two separate occasions, I happened to see two different people interacting with April in similar ways. Both times April was brightly telling the other person about her day, or what she was headed off to do next. The difference, however, is what stands out. Continue reading

An Adolescent System

Capitalism’s basic mechanism is sometimes boiled down to “Find a need and fill it.”*

Growing up, as I often teach my students, basically means, “You don’t always get what you want.”

If capitalism seeks to profit by filling every need (and inventing new ones, or trying to fill them faster), and if maturity means setting aside what you want, for a time, for someone else’s sake, or forever, then doesn’t it follow that capitalism is adolescent?

Some needs are best filled slowly, some needs are best filled only in part, and some needs are best not satisfied at all. But with the market’s efficiency, capitalism will try to fill the first category rapidly, the second category fully, and the third category quietly.

To say “I want everything and I want it now” is classic teenager behavior. But instead of advising us, “You can’t always get what you want,” capitalism says, “Absolutely! And here are more things to want, and ways to get them faster! Just type in your PIN here…” In fact, in doing some research for this piece, I came across many comments that “find a need and fill it” is bad business advice: the real money is in filling wants. Capitalism will even go so far as to suggest, “If you don’t get what you want right now, then you are a failure.” Capitalism does not understand self-sacrifice, and has forgotten anything it knew about delayed gratification.

Growing up means, in part, controlling one’s desires. This was something our wiser teachers tried to get into our heads. But capitalism would much rather our desires controlled us, to profit by us. The most insidious form of capitalism, after all, is to make money off never-ending desires: promise to fulfill a need/want, and not quite deliver, so that there’s more need tomorrow. This is why the drug trade is capitalism perfected: create a want so strong, so controlling, that a person will give you everything, including selling their children, in order to get it. And they’ll come back tomorrow for more.

Of course, since we are all participants in a capitalist system to one degree or another, capitalism is us.

So let’s pause for a moment, shall we?

What do we want… and what do we need?

I have been experimenting with paring back my desires. Some of my most heartfelt wants are for things that we capitalists have always promised each other but never could quite deliver: Time. Love. Peace. I also want justice, but I can’t remember capitalism ever promising that. I’ve wanted glory; I’m learning better, though my desire to leave a mark on the world is no less—I’m just much less excited about getting the credit. But let’s turn to the tangible. I want books; I’ve been selling off my library. I want music; I never buy albums, and have learned ways to borrow. I want games; I don’t buy new ones, and I’m contemplating throwing out or giving away the ones I have. I want TV shows: instead I watch online, or just tell myself no. I want a nice place to live—quiet, well-lit, safe, with a good kitchen. I’ve settled for a place to live, period. I want good, healthy, clean food; I’m still spending a lot of money on that, but I don’t buy meat even though I will eat it, and I’m starting to figure out how I can grow some of my own food.

I mean to control my own wants, needs, and desires as much as I can—because that’s what growing up means. I think most mature people would agree with me, and I hope they start to find similar ways to cut back the wants, scale back the desires, and focus on what needs to happen and what’s most important in life. If enough of us start to do that, we can begin to sort out the adolescents from the adults… and I think age would have nothing to do with it.

 

* The quote is attributed to Ruth Stafford Peale, wife of Norman Vincent Peale, but it was possibly popularized by Kaiser Cement Co., among others.

The Emmaean Christ

One of my favorite Bible stories goes like this: two men went down the road to Emmaus, and ran into a third man, who explained something to them that they didn’t understand. At dinner, their new companion blessed the food, broke the loaf, and was gone — leaving two men at a table with three pieces of bread, knowing that they had spent the day in the presence of Jesus. Their eyes hadn’t seen what their hearts already knew.

I love this tale because it ties together several passages at the heart of my faith. First is, “As you do to the least of these, you do also to me,” and its parallel, “I will not always be with you [to honor me], but the poor will always be with you.” And then there are the greatest commandments: “Love your God with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” The road to Emmaus shows me why these commandments were given: if I do not know who walks beside me, then I have to love my neighbors, because they might be my God. So when I see street folk with their hands out, I try to stop to talk, to give them a dollar or two. I don’t know who I’m feeding, or who I’m talking to… and when I pass them by (as I do) I don’t know who I’m ignoring.

For those who don’t believe in such things, there’s a secular version, too: you have no idea who these starving strangers are. Are they ragged because they’re on drugs, or because they’ve got kids to feed? I try to err on the side of the kids.

There have been times when I’ve just walked past, or when a panhandler’s gotten in my face and I’ve pulled a few bills from my pocket with serious reluctance, times when I had other plans for those dollars. So when I have a dollar I don’t want to part with — be it on the street or at tax time — and someone’s standing there who needs it more than I do, it’s good for me to remember: am I on 3rd Avenue, or on the road to Emmaus?

Altar Call

It was cloudy and drizzling; not the kind of weather you’d be out in by choice. My friend Ron, of course, has no choice. He has to beg for money every day so he and his brother Jim get a room for the night. So, huddled under his umbrella, he stood at the stoplight, waiting for people to take pity. I had a dollar for him, and stopped to talk. He was in low spirits, due to the weather, exhaustion, and little luck that morning, and he predicted with gloom that he’d still be out there when I got off work hours later: the money his brother had gotten wouldn’t even fold, and Ron wasn’t doing much better.

“It’s no way to live,” I said. “If you’re still out here when I leave, we’ll see about getting you what you need.” I had a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet, you see. Then I hurried up to work to get myself out of the rain.

But it bugged me, as I dried off inside. Ron was miserable waiting for a handout, thinking about old friends who now drove past avoiding his eyes. And I had a twenty in my wallet. Continue reading

Safety Net

Our social safety net is still fraying. In some places it is altogether worn through. This is perhaps not surprising, what with the rhetoric that fills our airwaves and legislatures: poor people are lazy, drug-addicted parasites, and safety-net programs like TANF (welfare), SNAP (food stamps), and others are just enabling their lazy, drug-addled leeching. “Leech” is more commonly applied to welfare recipients than to Social Security recipients, but even there we hear talk of “hard decisions,” which always come back to “How do we cut back?” instead of “How do we raise more?”

Democrats being what they are, there’s not much language coming back from the Left in defense of welfare recipients, but I’d like to provide some. A Google search turns up a few people, mostly actors and singers (perhaps because they get asked a lot of questions about their lives), who have stories about growing up in poverty and relying on one or another social safety net. Let’s have a roll call, shall we? There’s Shania Twain, famously, but also Kelly Clarkson, Tobey Maguire, JK Rowling, Jesus, Charlie Chaplin…

Wait, what?

Yes, that Jesus. Obviously the social safety net took a different form in his day, but he made use of the ancient version. In Israel it went like this: the law (specifically Leviticus 19:9-10) commanded that everyone had to leave some of their crop for poor people to eat, both by leaving some of the crop unharvested when the rest was brought in―leaving some grapes on the vine, leaving the ears of wheat at the edges of the field, and leaving anything that spilled on the ground lying there. In fact, those with more land had to leave more behind, which is almost progressive taxation. Moreover the law also said that anyone could eat from anyone else’s fields, though they couldn’t take anything out of the field in question. In this way everyone who had something left a little for those who had nothing, and the reason for this is given in a rather important commandment later in Leviticus 19: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus? Listen to this: “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.” (Matthew 12:1) That’s all twelve disciples taking advantage of the laws protecting the poor. Jesus himself presumably never had to worry about going hungry (lilies of the field, and so on) but he had to feed his flock, after all.

Now it’s true that Jesus likely worked as a carpenter before his ministry began, and his disciples had all sorts of jobs from fisherman to tax collector; it’s also true that where they could get freely-offered hospitality, they took it. That was the better way, and it remains the better way. But for those in-between places, Jesus and company relied on Israel’s form of food stamps.

In fact, if you squint a bit, you can see another connection to today’s situation, because just one verse later the Pharisees chide the grain-plucking because the disciples did it on the sabbath. In short, when they used the social safety net, the disciples were accused of immorality. Some things never change.

So when Jesus said, “As you do for the least of these, you do also for me,” he meant it. He and his group had used the laws protecting the poor; in all likelihood they were poor, having renounced all wealth, property, and careers to follow the call. Israel had protections and help for its poor citizens, and Jesus was among them. Which means, as I’ve often stated, that those who slander the poor are slandering the man from Galilee. “As you do for the least of these” cuts both ways.

Which is, I think, worth remembering.