The Personal Blog of Jason Fleming
On 22, May 2013 | In Uncategorized | By Jason
Durability. Hardly a highly prized quality in most of what we interact with as Americans. We live in one of the strangest times that has yet existed in the world; we create low-quality, throw-away consumer goods out of materials that are nearly indestructible, and yet, are not particularly durable in relation to their original function. What does this say about our products, and ourselves?
If we ever encounter durability in the marketplace, it is as a value-added luxury mark-up tactic. We have come to a point where we believe that durable products are only available for the rich. And we might not be far off in that assumption. Unfortunately, this is more driven by consumer choices than it is anything else, but more on that in another post.
But why should we care? In an age of light-speed technological innovation, why should we care if something lasts? Doesn’t that just mean we will get stuck with an older, less awesome model of something?
Durability matters because it is one of the founding elements of attachment to physical items. Studies have shown memory cues are attached to the physical objects we encounter, and the things that we carry with us through life accumulate, almost by osmosis, a store of memories that can help us contextualize our existence.
Beyond that, durability also means forgiveness. There is an assurance that if I drop my phone, it will keep working. I don’t have to baby it. As a human I am a fragile, imperfect, often clumsy being. If I had to treat my phone with kid gloves, it would demand more of my attention than is reasonable. My phone would become a drain on me over time. Because I am prone to error, I seek to surround myself with things that can withstand the effects of those errors. Rather than a moment of butterfingered mishandling resulting in a pile of pieces on the rug, the incident can be swept under the rug, and life goes on. Thus, durability is a safety-net of sorts for my imperfect humanity.
So, memory and forgiveness. Two qualities that a durable product can give. This raises a few questions in my mind.
What effect does it have on our general level of satisfaction that we are not surrounded by durable things?
As consumers, we have traded the worked-in comfort and dependability of long-lasting objects for the fleeting excitement of acquisition. While the rush of acquiring a new product is not inherently bad, it is transitory, and as a source of consumer contentment, it must be maintained over time. It is happiness on subscription. We must constantly be acquiring rather going back to a familiar well of satisfaction in the items we surround ourself with. This leaves us unable to get off the treadmill of consumerism, and probably unsatisfied with the items we have already purchased.
Do we value durability in people?
The same principles of memory (or context) and forgiveness that I appreciate in objects applies to people as well. As does the trade of short-term excitement versus long-term satisfaction. Now that I am in my thirties, the friendships and family ties that I rely on are often decades old. They are piled with memories, and I know that the people I have surrounded myself with are able to withstand and forgive my moments of inattention and fallibility.
What does it take to make durable things, and durable people?
For things, it means doing it right the first time. As a designer I spend my working life waging a war against “good enough” and “that will do for now” solutions. Helping people break the cycle of constant revision and patching it together means promising something that is rather intimidating for me; a solution that will actually solve the problem now, and continue to be a viable solution down the road no matter what comes along. This demands insight, planning and some tough decision-making to do effectively and efficiently.
When it comes to people, the same principle applies. Parenting well, giving kids a strong foundation, helping people understand what good decisions look like, supporting them in the event of mistakes — these are the building blocks of durable people. Thankfully, we have the opportunity to retro-fit durability into ourselves and others as life goes on. That is a benefit of enduring the challenges of life, if you are willing to pay attention. And it is just as well. If we take the opinion that people are dispensable and consumable, we will keep wearing through throw-away friends, littering our worlds with landfills of broken relationships in the same way we have filled our world with a century’s-worth of broken, plastic crap.
It has been more than three months since I have had a steady income. While this is much in the norm for a job change in the current economy, (and some evidence suggests I am just getting started) it is still past what I expected. Probably because I was more focused on what I was leaving than what I was walking into.
Of the many realizations this time has brought, one unexpected revelation is on the nature of economic activity as related to social worth.
For weeks, I have been unable to partake in all but the most basic economic activities. The transactions that make up our lives, daily exchanges of value between ourselves and our fellow citizens, have been off limits. I simply haven’t had enough money to consider anything except purchasing groceries, fuel and a few other staples. The remainder of the money my wife and I pull in has gone to the “invisible” transactions like paying a mortgage; those potentially weighty bills for services and goods that are so obvious and routine as to go unnoticed. (This has also brought to mind thoughts about how to engage consumers with services like trash removal, but that is for another post.)
This near-elimination in my economic capacity has had a profound and unexpected effect on my psyche. Being unable to simply transact business ranges from humiliating to distracting to liberating. Here’s a look at those three in order.
It is humiliating to be excluded from the menial transactions that portions of our society treat as “permission-to-play” baselines. Being able to meet someone for lunch or grab a cup of coffee at Starbucks in seen in middle class America as standard procedure. To make a reasonable wage demands you have surplus cash for these activities. For most working people, this is a mark of having made it. Suggesting to people that they could come and meet in my home for lunch usually elicits exclamations of pity and something on the order of “Don’t worry about it … I’ll pay. Lunch isn’t going to break me.” An unconsciously pointed statement, because it would, in fact, break me on some days.
This is significant in that it highlights a perception of relatively higher value on commercially-based interaction than on relationally-based ones. To come into someone’s home is an intensely personal thing, and we are often uncomfortable with that level of exposure to and inclusion in the lives of people we regularly interact with. To eat in a restaurant provides a level of abstraction; an opportunity to maintain the distance from each other to which we have grown accustomed. That and the food is usually tastier, if I am honest.
My lack of economic capacity is distracting to the degree that it now consumes much of my mental reserves. Will this job pay? How long until that check arrives? Which of these clients has more connections to future work? What parts of my website might be driving away business? All relevant concerns in their own right, but only now that I am consumed with them do I realize how poisonous they can be when taken out of context.
Like so many things in life, it is a matter of proper proportions. Thoughts about the efficacy of a business model are important, and there is a certain amount of responsibility that is demanded of us in life to keep tabs on our activities to ensure continued profitability in whatever endeavor fills our time. To be pressured by these concerns to the exclusion of thoughts on vision, purpose and direction is another matter.
I have always been a fan of stories of great men and women who were able to keep focused on an unshakable vision when immediate, short-term concerns of cash flow and bank balances threatened a long-term vision. Only now am I coming to realize just how commendable that focus is, and how truly hard it is to maintain a long term perspective in the face of short-term needs. Success in these times is likely a delicate balance of fine-tuned time management skills, a hint of self-deception, cool-headed pragmatism, monumental courage to follow a dream and just a bit of stubborn irrationality.
There is liberation too, in my current exclusion from what makes up so much of our lives. With less solid work that fills a day and no chance to be distracted by temporal, economic ambitions, I have more time left to look around and to listen. The world around me continues to be as beautiful as it was when I was making steady money, and the people I know are just as flawed … and just as charming. Hours a day that I would spend worrying over when a plane ticket could be bought or how long until we could fit something into the budget are now free for contemplation, conversation or simple meditative silence. The Colorado mountains that I love are mine again now, as much as they ever were; only now more accessible without the useless weight of cares I used to carry to the trailhead.
Like most truly valuable things in life, this blessing of clarity is intimidating. It is a frightening thing to be bereft of the cloak of commerce with which we disguise our deep desires and frail ambitions. To be naked to the world, limited only to my physical humanity and not the sprawling influence of a job and a salary and a budget is a centering thing. To be, again, a point and not an area is the start of something, a confirming, honest manifestation of the truth we so often lose sight of; that we as humans are in turns immensely powerful, alarmingly fragile and consumed with consuming fading things.
In The Church
On 15, Apr 2013 | In The Church | By Jason
– Philippians 2:5-9
There is, and probably always will be, a soft spot in my heart for Evangelical Christianity. For all that one can say against it (and there is much to say), I have been privileged to see the possibility of an expression of belief in Christ that is unencumbered by the less-useful burdens of divisive doctrinal rigidity that can permeate more traditional denominations of Protestantism. However, all sub-cultures will eventually show their darker side. For all the value of throwing off the chains of stifling bureaucracy and legalism, the freewheeling, hard-charging evangelical spirit is plagued by a substandard grasp on a few key points of order regarding our relationship to God.
One of these unfortunate misunderstandings is pointed out very bluntly in the passage quoted above. As warm and cuddly as it feels to dwell on Christ’s post-resurrection remark about the disciples (and by extension all of us) being His “brothers,”(a) we would do well to remember the distinctions that remain in the family of God.
Scripture is replete with references about our standing as adopted children in the family of God through the work of Christ on the cross. Spend any time in American Evangelical churches and you will inevitably encounter some sermon or conference or book recommendation teaching us what it means to own or live out of our new identity as sons or daughters of the King. We are Princes and Princesses, we are told. The Royal Children of the greatest King. And this is true to a point. What you don’t hear as often is the full clarification of that identity.Always a prince, never a king. Forever a princess, never a queen.
It is perhaps important for us in Western culture to remember the permanent nature of the reign of the all-powerful God. Our understanding of the term “prince” or “princess” is inherently skewed by the entropic and temporary world we live in. It is necessary that a prince become a king someday, as all kings die. This makes the title loaded with potential. Auspicious and portentous, we think of a prince in aspirational terms, destined for leadership, power — even a semi-divinity of his own. The term is synonymous with potential.
This understanding is further supported by the smaller family size in Western royal dynasties, our limited attention span as an adoring, historically-aware public and an unfortunate history of fratricidal behavior in ruling families. All of these lead to the generally accurate impression that there is a high possibility of accession to the throne for anyone carrying the title “prince.”
This is absolutely not the case in the Kingdom of God. The Bible hints at the wonders that await those of us who will “reign with” Christ, enticing us with the prospect of a fulfillment in some royal office in the service of God throughout eternity. At no point, however, is there ever a suggestion that we will supplant God; that we will attain to His position. He will never die, never abdicate, never divide His Kingdom and retire.
Our aspirational understanding of royal lineage gives rise to a notion of progression through increasing levels of responsibility and authority with the eventual consummation of will and agency only found in the supreme rule of the independent monarch. This lies in direct opposition to the position we will actually reach in eternity; a limited, dependent, subservient title which will be final, without alternation, progression or accession.
This permanence is expressed through the actions of Christ described in Philippians 2. He is willing to humble Himself for us in the full knowledge that what He is doing is an act of service to the Father, to the King, arising from His role and capacity as the Son. This is not aspirational in the sense that Christ’s humiliation will not grant Him access to the Throne (which it does not), but it is an act of servitude to the will and to the person of God. Christ himself as the “firstborn among many brothers”,(b) whose position we must usurp (if there were such a thing as a line of succession) blocks our path by clearly denouncing, through His actions, any claim to rise above His station. If he will not move forward, we cannot move either without destroying or supplanting Him.*
And this is where it all comes home for me. For Evangelical Christians in America today, there is a powerful sense that we have been pulled from the mire of a fallen world, and are thus entitled to the privilege of royalty. Unspoken in this belief is the subtle suggestion that we have rights and privileges, not because of who God is, but because of who we believe we will eventually be because of who we think God is. We believe Him to be the archetype and predecessor in a role we feel destined for. Thanks to the presumption that princes and princesses eventually become kings and queens, we hold to a hope that we shall one day become the rulers of our own destiny.
Mistakenly, we seek to understand our own place as adopted children in God’s house, not because we long to accept a new role of eternal servitude, but because we have quietly convinced ourselves that our salvation was a first step on a longer road to complete sovereignty, albeit with the benefits of protection, comfort and liberty we gain from our standing in Christ. We labor under the misconception that we will eventually become Christ (and then God), not that will we merely be like Christ.(c)
Much of the haughty carelessness and myopic self-centeredness that is the essence of many evils justifiably attributed to Evangelical Christianity stem from our failure to understand this point. What we forget, though Christ clearly demonstrated, is that the benefits of being a child of God are inextricably linked to the immutable, permanent position which we all take up before God — forever His family but never His equal.
Look deep into the sense of offended justice at the suffering of many Evangelicals today, or their callous indifference to a hurting world, and a misunderstanding of our eventual role is likely the at the center. We become impatient because we believe suffering and subservience is beneath us, and that someday we will rise above all such ignominious limitations. Through our mistaken, aspirational belief rooted in our worldly understanding of temporary monarchies, we have looked past the demanding, yet liberating, truth of our unchangeable, eternal position before the only King, and begun making plans for our own kingdoms.
(a) Matt 28:10
(b) Ro 8:29 (c) 1 John 3:2 * To desire our own sovereignty, we must destroy each other, Christ, and eventually God, as all stand between us and the only position of true, limitless power and liberty in existence which we aspire to. This is the logical result of all teaching in the church which inappropriately exalts humanity over the centrality of Christ in our understanding of the unassailable position of God.
It is a full month now since I have quit my job. Freelance work is beginning to trickle in, and the little pile of cash my wife and I have made is flowing out. So, that means it is time to really kick things into gear on finding work or even another permanent job. It also means anxiety at the thought of returning to the frenetic pace that I recently escaped from.
One of the most consistent challenges I had at my last job was the feeling that something wasn’t right about the frenzied pace we kept. I should say at the outset that I am not talking about simply long hours, or even hard work. There is nothing really to be said against either of those two concepts in isolation. As a church staff, and as Christians in general, I believe we were and are always called to do excellent, passionate, even remarkable work to bring glory to the name of God. And this may even mean that there are times when long hours are necessary.
That isn’t the whole story, though. There was something else that made my previous employment untenable; an attitude of frenzy.
As a staff culture, we were often scurrying from one project to the next while texting in the midst of a conversation about something else that needed to happen tomorrow and answering a phone call about why something didn’t happen yesterday, all while trying to remember a hallway conversation we just had about three things for next week. Any number of days, I would only return to my desk at 5:00 to begin the “real” work of the day after everyone else had gone home. This is not unique, of course. Many people live like this. It is just a consequence of trying to keep up in a fast-paced world where the accelerating pace of change means if you don’t keep running, you will just get run over. At least that is what we all believe.
Research tells us a different story, however. Today I ran across this article on Swiss Miss. The gist of it, for those not curious or patient enough to read it in it’s entirety, is as follows; working hard, working with focus, separating work and play and defending leisure time can be the difference between average and excellent, especially when all other factors are largely equal.
This isn’t news, of course. It is just another note in a growing chorus of voices singing a tantalizing tune in the world of business consulting and leadership thinking. The challenge is, to dance to this new song we must give up our beloved notion of ourselves as tragically heroic workaholics simply trying hard to get what we really want; better results in our jobs and our lives.
Mind you, there are some people for whom workaholism is an end in and of itself — individuals whose lives and work are so intertwined that they cannot extricate them, or who are running from something in their personal lives they would rather not deal with. And there are also those who simply don’t know any better, having only seen that kind of single-minded devotion modeled and there are even those who are so absorbed in their work that nothing else could possibly hold the same allure. For all of these people, any suggestion that working less for any reason is likely to smell foul. Suspicions of laziness come to the surface almost immediately.
However, for most of us, working frenetically is not a means or an end. Many of us really want to do good work, even great work, but aren’t terribly sure how to go about it. We believe busyness is the price we have to pay to get what we want; just a little more money, to get one big project out of the way, to get on top of things at the office, to get the next big promotion. Whatever the reason, it is the lot of many of us to live in a state of constant, buzzing frenzy at work; a condition likely to spill over into the rest of our lives.
What is startling about the study cited in the aforementioned article is not that there is a meaningful difference between individuals on talent or capacity, but on discipline. This would come as no surprise to anyone who has worked in an environment where even one individual’s lack of discipline, attention to detail or adherence to systems has caused conflict. Hence phrases like “your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Excellence is, then, a function of personal character as much as it is a matter of perseverance or skill.
This is vitally important for anyone looking to improve or “get ahead” or even just catch up in any organization. It blasts apart the illusion that working just a little more could possibly be the X-factor that will propel you into the new level of productivity or achievement you seek. Past a point, the busier you become, the less effective you are, and thus more work will simply act like a governor on your own potential.
Thinking you have to do more to get better results is a treadmill that never stops running. The answer isn’t finding a way to run faster. It is finding a way to focus on getting off.
In space movies, and probably in actual space flight, there is a moment right at the beginning of a flight when things get really weird. Everything starts shaking, alarm bells start whining, dash lights begin winking off and on. Somewhere a droid or scientist freaks out. In general, the whole experience feels like your world is going to come apart, and everyone on board looks like they are having a terrible time. Why did I think this was a good idea? Someone, usually a woman or reluctant hero, manages a rising, sustained scream.
Then you blast through the atmosphere, gravitational hold, astroid belt, bad guy’s security cordon or whatever and suddenly you are in the clear, streaking along through an awe-inspiring wonderland of freedom, beauty and possibility. Everyone forgets that they nearly died getting there and they all turn to the windows with kids-on-Christmas looks on their faces. Someone puts a hand up to the glass slowly.
Apparently, this is what quitting your job is like. At least the first part.
Rocketing out of the gravitational well of a stable career takes a lot of momentum, and even if your job feels like a sci-fi prison planet, leaving takes guts, energy and the willingness to strap in for the ride, no matter where it takes you. And, like blasting off from a planet, there is no way to get off and go back.
But that is the beauty of it. Success in things we won’t do in our right mind is usually less about having the wherewithal to start, and more about having the presence of mind to set things up so you can’t stop. This is essential because the turbulent beginning is disconcerting. Even terrifying. And more than a little nauseating. Space is hard, they say, which makes the brutish, one-way ticket of a rocket the only fitting transport.
So I sit here in my spare bedroom of an office, with only my laptop. The crew of my wife and my dog are strapped in for liftoff, everyone hoping we have enough fuel in the tank to blast through into whatever wonderful, silver and black adventure awaits us on the other side of this noisy, terrifying launch.
On 09, Feb 2013 | In Technology | By Jason
There are many explanations for the fanatical love people
have for Apple products. One often mentioned, yet not often
examined, is the simple touches of humanity that crept into the
design of their products and software.
On 07, Feb 2013 | In Work | By Jason
Today begins my new adventure into freelancing. It may not be a long one, as I am still looking for a job (Résumé here for those who may be interested.), but like Shackleton locked in the sea ice, I am preparing for the long haul. And hoping I don’t have to chase down penguins for food. Read more…
In The Church
On 02, Feb 2013 | In The Church | By Jason
It is odd to me that in the Christian faith, we talk so much about marriage with regard to our relationship with God. If marriage really is a representation of the relationship of God to his people, then why don’t we take it all the way?
Specifically, why don’t we take a honeymoon? It is tantalizing to me to think of what could happen if we, as a culture, embraced the idea of people leaving there lives for a period of time to really go and be with God for the purpose that you go away after you get married … to get to know the person you are about to spend your life with.
I don’t me sabbatical, although that is nice. I mean really truly going away for the purpose of knowing God. This would be radical. It would mean telling people to possibly quit their jobs, take time off of school, possibly postpone starting a family. It might even mean not pounding along down a great career track.
The whole point of the honeymoon is to tangibly, with a commitment of time and resources, say to your spouse, “Who you are and what we are about to become is worth more than anything else to me. From now on, you come first.” It symbolizes, and begins to facilitate the separation from the old life and the beginning of the new.
Imagine a people saying that to God.
On 26, Jun 2012 | In Uncategorized | By Jason
There are not many perfect nights in a year in Colorado. Tonight is one of them. The kind of night where you walk outside and the air just feels alive. A slight breeze is blowing and you skin feels tingly all over. It is like some part of your spirit is trying to remember its way back to the Garden of Eden, and clothes feel like an unfortunate necessity. Read more…