I Am More Than A Computer

This is the first part of my series exploring humanity. Click here for more.

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"[Tolstoy] could observe the mass of persons, the peasants, who in the most miserable of conditions found life deeply meaningful, and even sweet. They had not heard about particles and progress. But this is no longer possible. The peasants now watch TV and constantly consume media. There are no peasants now. " Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

This is what the culture demands: work another hour; add another client; bill another dollar; buy another car, a bigger house, and extra pair of shoes, a new watch (the automatic sort, +/- 20 nanoseconds, Greenwich); know your boss, your neighbor, the contact in Beijing who might be a potential client; connect with them on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (do millennials use it?), Instagram, Snapchat (do Gen-Xers use it?); know 10 Ways To Travel On The Cheap, or [tweetherder]5 Ways To Please Your Lover in Bed[/tweetherder], or 7 Habits of Highly Defective People; know a language; know Beyonce's "Lemonade," Trump's xenophobia, the time Hillary barked like a dog; Know the best ways to poke fun at Sarah Palin (this might actually come in handy); know about sex, and not just the euphoria of post-relational bliss, but know about its permutations and associated rights; understand gender, identity, the ideologies of sex, sex, sex; know the news, pop culture (an interesting play on words), literature, art; know Jesus, or Buddha, or The Prophet; know religion, all religions, how religion corrupts, the way it gives life and has stolen it; know justice and mercy--conceptually, not practically; know how to make bread, grill steak, roll sushi, steep tea; learn a language; know how to promote the self, the [tweetherder]8 Paths To Marketing Your Ego[/tweetherder]; be so proficient with Google that no one knows how little you know; be a human computer.

A human computer--yes, be that. Compute, compute, compute. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Above that, opine. Above all else, consume. Consume like a baby bird or a murder of crows. Consume like a tapeworm. Consume like a blackhole. This is what the culture demands, and to bolster its demands it plays this endless sleight of hand: consumption drives economies forward; expanding economies drive progress; progress provides jobs; jobs make people happy; happy people consume.

This is the truth of the modern life. And if that feels a bit too broad for your liking, allow me to restate it: this is the truth of my modern life.

There comes a point in life when one has to say enough is enough. I think I've reached that point. No matter what the advertisers, social media, the internet, the educational system, the church, the gym, the civic organization, or the market forces sell me, I am a person bound by the very real limitations of time and space. I simply cannot keep up with everything, no matter how much I try.

In the creation narrative provided in scripture, God created the sun and the moon, bodies which govern time. We call the cycles of their rising and setting days, and these days consist of only 24 hours. He placed immovable heavenly bodies as a tangible reminder--there is only so much time. He then gave us flowers, animals, companionship, things to enjoy. And though these things can be enjoyed in near-infinite arrays, there's only so much time to enjoy them. The limitations of time mean, simply, every decision I make excludes another possible decision. This is the fundamental premise of economics--a decision to enjoy or know one thing excludes enjoyment or knowledge of another (i.e., you cannot have it all).

Consider this illustration. I have the opportunity to watch a presidential debate and to live Tweet it, blow by blow. In that moment, my connection to the debate and my followers on Twitter precludes a meaningful engagement with my sons or my wife. (As an aside, she'll attest that I fall prey to this tradeoff.) On occasion, such tradeoff might be warranted. I might argue that voters should be adequately informed before walking into the booth. But the rub comes when we become constant consumers, always trading human connection for the dollar, the digital, or the Donald (or any other politician). The rub comes when we trade our family, our friends, or meaningful experiences for endless consumption.

Winn & John

Hunter

Ken

I love what I love. I love roots music, literature, and I have a passing fancy for art. I'm no expert in any of it, though society expects me to consume to the point of pretending to be such an expert. I haven't watched "Lemonadeyet (thought I want too), and I haven't sorted out the legalities of North Carolina's Bathroom Law (though I have private thoughts on that, too). I have three less clients than I ought, make a few thousand less than I could. I suspect I'm limited in my culinary skills (though I can stew just about anything and make it edible). I've lived 38 years worth of sun settings, moon waxing and wanings. I'm not claiming any unique wisdom has come with that age--I'm still young-ish, after all--but I've learned a hard-won lesson. I cannot keep up with the consumer demands of today. They rob me of my humanity.

So, don't ask me about my thoughts about the news or entertainment item du jour. Don't ask me to care, or to Google it, or to understand the nuances of it all. Don't tempt me to become something I'm not. Don't tempt me to become digital.

I am not a computer. I am a person. I want to live a human life, not the life of a Mac.

***Tiny Letter***

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Aschalew Abebe: A Celebration of a Good Man

I said to Amber, "if I have one fear, it's that I will not live an interesting life." She smiled, patted my arm gently, and said, "I don't think you have to worry about that. Think of all of the wonderful people you've met in all the wonderful places." Amber is right.

I have had the good fortune of being surrounded by good folks who are engaging in good work. Some of them live in my local context; others live oceans away. Today, I'd like to introduce you to my friend Aschalew Abebe. He is a rare gem.

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We rattle down the washed-out road from Welkite to Gunchire as the sun slips behind the eucalyptus groves and kisses the horizon. Kilometers are marked in clusters of thatched-roofed huts and mosque minarets. I’m jostled side to side, and every pothole we hit sends a jolt through my lower back.

“How much farther?” I ask.

“About 10 kilometers,” Aschalew says, as if I have the ability to convert rickety kilometers to some measurement of time. He laughs, “What’s wrong? This road is not smooth enough for you?”

I tell him it is fine, and his eyebrows lift. The edges of his mouth, too. He says, “I know you are lying, my friend.” He changes the subject as if to distract me from the road. “Do you remember the first time we met?”

“Yes,” I say, recalling that night almost four years gone by.

Continue reading at In Touch.

*Photograph by Scott Wade, via In Touch.

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5 Presence Practices

This summer, Amber and I traveled to Tuscany with a group of fellow writers. It was an eclectic group; there was a semi-conservative Baptist minister, a progressive author from Salt Lake City, an author and travel writer from Portland, a missionary, a millennial, and us. Though a few of us were friends, the group was, for the most part, composed of strangers. When traveling with strangers--whether on an international tour, or on a local church mission trip or humanitarian relief excursion--connection can be awkward. You may find the newness of your experience coupled with the awkwardness of greasing the conversational skids creates a sort of discombobulating perfect storm. And in this perfect storm, there is a great temptation to check out, to distract yourself, to turn to the things that are familiar--things like social media, the twenty-four hour news cycle, or the book you packed in your carry-on luggage.

This, of course, is not a temptation limited to international travel with strangers. This is the great temptation of the day.

We live in a state of modern disconnection, our lives fragmented from the present reality by the virtual or fantastical. A colleague comes into your office, and you fail to look up from your iPhone. In conversation with your spouse, a text message pops up on your screen, and you reach for your phone with near animal instinct. The waitress brings your your food, and you do not look up from the CNN app on your tablet to thank her, nor do you notice the arrangement of food on the plate before digging in. As Henri Nouwen wrote,

"In a time so filled with methods and techniques designed to change people, to influence their behavior, and to make them do new things and think new thoughts, we have lost the simple but difficult gift of being present to each other."

We are all fellow travelers here, whether we're traveling through Tuscany, or the mundane 8-5 shift of the day. The goal of that traveling, I think, is to recognize the presence of God around us, and to be present with each other. And allow me to make this disclaimer: I've developed my own practices of fragmentation and un-presence. That being said, here are a few practices that may help increase our practice of presence.

5 Presence Practices

1. Delete Apps. (GASP!)

If there is one thing that distracts me from recognizing the presence of God and from being present with those around me, it's the constant buzzing of my iPhone. Last week, I tried to shut off all notification hoping that this would somehow keep me from constantly looking at the ever-present stream of communication crossing my device. Alas, I am a weak man, and checked my apps during every spare moment, including conversational lulls. I am addicted to my apps.

Just a few years ago, we humans traversed this one life just fine without constant communication. Now, it's become part of the milieu of our fragmented society. Delete the apps for a day and be fully engaged with the world around you. See how you feel without the constant buzzing distractions.

2. Look up  from your phone.

I know that the news is important, that the Facebook message you just received from your friend in Kalamazoo deserves a good laugh. [tweetherder]I'm sure that the tweet mentioning you just launched you into the vaunted viral stratosphere.[/tweetherder] I know that work is buzzing, buzzing, buzzing, and that you have to answer just one last email. You keep saying, "this is it, I promise," as if the emphatic tone somehow denotes that it really is the last notification, tweet, or email you'll answer while we're at the lunch table.

Stop. Put the phone face down. Ignore the news alerts and look at your traveling companions.

3. Listen to others.

Listening is a learned skill, one which, if I'm honest, I've not honed as well as I would like. Allow me to suggest a few listening observations: (1) if you are listening while typing a text message, you are not listening; (2) if you are listening while scrolling through your Facebook feed, you are probably not listening; (3) if you are listening while thinking of what to say next, or how to turn the conversation to your own topic du jour, you are definitely not listening.

Listen to those around you. Give them your undivided attention. See how this practice affects your presence.

4. Describe your experience with words

Presence requires communication, and though some communication is non-verbal, language is our primary medium of conveying messages. Language matters. Stretch yourself to describe your experiences in the most descriptive terms possible. Is the cheese good, or is it musky, smokey, perhaps a touch sweet? Is the mountain big or does it stretch above the tree line, just over the tops of the low clouds. More descriptive language draws us deeper into the present experience. Descriptive language requires us to be observant and creative; in a word, it requires us to be present.

5. Compromise

Presence with your fellow travelers requires compromise. Your sojourner is tired and needs a minute to rest? Find a coffee bar, order a couple of macchiatos and converse. Your co-worker needs a little help with a pressing deadline and they are loosing their stuff trying to get it done? Ask whether you can help, listen as they describe the goals of the project.

The ability to compromise shows our willingness to serve our fellow travelers. Compromise with joy, peace, and patience. Serve because you want to be present.

These are not the easiest presence practices, I know. In fact, I'm struggling my way through practices 1 and 2. But the little things make a big difference, and allow us to experience the presence of God in each other. Consider employing these presence practices, and feel free to share some of your own with me.

Now, go forth and be present.

*****

If you haven't heard the BIG NEWS yet, sign up for the Seth Haines' Tiny Letter: A Compendium of Projects, People, Places, and Things. The Tiny Letter is a personal newsletter sent to subscribers once (sometimes twice) a month, and it highlights my personal projects, a few good folks, the places I go, and the things I like. The inaugural edition--the newsletter containing the BIG NEWS--has already been sent, but if you sign up for the newsletter, I'll forward you a copy!

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