In a Quiet Room Alone

Blaise_Pascal_Versailles

Blaise Pascal Versailles” by unknown; a copy of the painture of François II Quesnel, which was made for Gérard Edelinck en 1691. – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.–Blaise Pascal

I’ve come across this quote several times recently. I suspect for many of us, Pascal sounds like a real downer. At first glance this statement seems to say we only have two alternatives: misery or sitting in a quiet room alone.

I wonder if part of what makes this hard is the sitting in quiet. What does it say that if we cannot sit for any length of time without sound or the visual cacophony of images and text that bombard us on phones, tablets, computers and flatscreens. Now even our cars have touch screens and blue tooth connections to our phones. I’m guilty of this as the next as I see the steady stream on twitter of natural disasters, human-made crises, and unspeakably horrible things that people do to each other. And I wonder at times if it makes us miserable–or at least miserably heavy with bearing a load of terrible knowledge that in other times only the God of the universe carried.

Then there is the challenge of just sitting. What is it in us that makes us so restless that we must always be doing something? In our restlessness are we running to or running from something? I can’t help but wonder if for many if it is the latter–running from the fear of our own insignificance, running from the fear of our own mortality. We are miserable in driven lives, and we often haven’t stopped long enough to even name what is driving us.

We don’t want to be alone. I suspect it is not just a fear of loneliness, which may sometimes be at its greatest in a crowd, but rather of who we will meet when we are alone. We are afraid to be alone with our thoughts and ourselves. Will we like and will we love what we find. Yet we are miserable to know that we alone, each of us, are indeed beloved.

We are not only miserable because we cannot sit in a quiet room alone. We inflict great misery on others in our own restlessness. We consume more than we need. We demand what others cannot give us. Sometimes our frustration flairs into destructive anger. Our restlessness turns into insatiable ambition that relentlessly drives others struggling under the burden of “never good enough.”

Would it be different if we spent some time sitting in quiet rooms alone? I don’t know, but it does make sense that miserable people cannot bring peace and wholeness and wellness into the broken places of the world. Psalm 46:10 says, “be still and know that I am God.” Some of my richest moments sitting alone have been when I’ve realized there is a God and it is not me and that I don’t have to manage the universe, invent my own significance, or wonder about my belovedness.

Sometimes, I’ve led others into stillness with these words, removing a word or phrase each time I say it until I simply say “be”. It can be a wonderful thing to connect with the being of my humanness. We aren’t human doings! It is really OK to take time just “to be”.

What I said in the beginning does indeed suggest two alternatives: misery or sitting in a quiet room alone. Except these are not equally dismal alternatives. The quiet room can be the gateway to joy and connectedness and belovedness. And that’s not so bad!

Bob on Books Best of 2014

This is the time of year when every review magazine (and blog!) releases its Best of 2014 book lists. Since I follow a number of these, I’ve seen many of these lists and gotten some interesting ideas of books to read for the future. One of the most amazing is a free download  from Publishers Weekly with all their starred reviews for the year.

Most lists focus around books published in 2014 which makes sense for these outlets. Mine is a little different. I’m a reader first, and at best, an amateur book reviewer. I started writing reviews mostly to remember what was salient in the books I read, and I choose the books to read because of my own interests at the time. So my list includes both books published in the last year, and older books I’ve finally gotten around to reading which I think especially worthwhile to commend. So without further ado, here is the list, not in any particular order since I thought all outstanding. All of these are linked to my full reviews of the book.

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1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. This best-selling book argues that introverts are simply different, not inferior or superior but rather offering unique gifts to the world that arise from their temperament. Contradicting what I wrote above, this would probably be my “best” book of the year. She nails what it means to be an introvert without being whiny.

2. Journey Toward Justice, by Nicholas Wolterstorff. In short chapters Wolterstorff shares both his own ideas about justice and the personal encounters with victims of injustice in South Africa, Palestine, and the Honduras. And he contends that it was the personal encounters with those whose dignity was impaired and whose inherent rights were denied that informed his theory of justice centering around human dignity and inherent rights.

3. Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard. The author renders a fascinating account of the life, assassination attempt against, and subsequent death of James A Garfield, interwoven with sketches of his deluded assassin and benighted physician, James Bliss, whose methods introduced infection and probably were the real cause of Garfield’s death.

4. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life, by Nancy Koester. Stowe did far more than just write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was a pioneer among women authors, the daughter and spouse of New School Calvinist pastors who moved away from these theological roots while not moving away from Christ, and contributed far more to the abolition of slavery than simply her novel. An outstanding biography.

problem from hellboth-andto change the world

5. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power.  From the story of Rafael Lemkin who gave us the word “genocide” to the tragedy of Rwanda, and our first real steps to intervene in the Balkans, Power tells a story of America’s studied avoidance for the most part, of using its power to prevent genocide, even while piously saying “never again” after the Holocaust.

6. Both-And: Living the Christ-Centered Life in an Either-Or World,  by Rich Nathan with Insoo Kim. Pastors Nathan and Kim describe and narrate the vision of Vineyard Columbus to live as a both-and church that is both evangelical and charismatic, both united and racially diverse, both showing mercy and pursuing justice, and more. I chose this not simply because these were “home town favorites” but because they articulate a “Third Way” vision that transcends the polarities and divisiveness of our society.

7. To Change the World, by James Davison Hunter. Many organizations and movements in Christian circles have used the language of changing the world but have not been cognizant to the deeper dynamics of culture change nor its double-edged character. Hunter explores what is really involved in culture change and thinks Christians best achieve this through “faithful presence” throughout society.

interpreter of maladiesAmerican Godsrise of roosevelt

8. Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. This Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories by Bengali Indian Lahiri explores the intersection of traditional Bengali values with modernity, particularly in negotiating the immigrant experience. A number of the stories are set in Boston, where Lahiri was educated.

9. American Gods, Neil Gaiman. Shadow, a released prisoner gets caught up in a war between the old and new gods with which Gaiman populates the American landscape, and discovers his own identity in the process. This is something of a classic, but one that I think explores well the “gods” (idols?) of the American landscape.

10. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. This is the first of a three volume biography on the life of Teddy Roosevelt, tracing his adventures from sickly childhood through young rancher, civil servant to the fateful day he learns he has become President at the death of McKinley. All of the volumes of this biography are a delight, but this one most of all in covering a period of Roosevelt’s life that is less familiar to most and which reveals his character in both its strengths and flaws.

These books afforded hours of good reading this year that amused, informed, and challenged me. I hope one or more of these might do the same for you. And if you missed these books when I first reviewed them, I’d encourage you to follow me either on WordPress or via emails delivered to your inbox whenever I post.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year’s from Bob on Books!

 

Alone…And Not Alone

As a petulant child, I can remember saying “leave me alone!” Yet I might have silently added in my head, “but not too long.” This Sunday, Pastor Rich talked about the Christian alone and how rare it actually is to be alone. Some of this has to do with the myriad distractions in our lives–our work, families, and an ever more ubiquitous technology. The latter is sometimes a paradox as we are connected to the world digitally and more socially cut off than ever.

Alone often seems to equate with loneliness. And yet sometimes I’ve felt most lonely in a crowd of people, and not at all lonely by myself. What is harder though is being alone, and unplugged. For ten seconds, there is the blessed silence of alone–and then the thoughts come. Sometimes it is recalling a task that I need to accomplish and it is relatively easy to add that to a “to do” list and return to silence. Sometimes it can be a fairly constructive process of mentally chewing over a problem or thinking through an upcoming presentation and beginning to experience the gelling of my thoughts.

What can be harder are some of the other kinds of thoughts. At least for me, and this may reveal my own dysfunctionality, the thoughts can be of shortcomings or failings–the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” kind of accusations that remind me that I could be a better person than I am. Or it can be thoughts of the tempting sort as I become aware of hunger and other desires. No wonder it is easy to open up the computer or turn on the radio.

What sometimes seems to help is remembering that I am alone…and not alone. I am not just with my thoughts but with the God who knows my thoughts, and neither runs away in horror or hammers me into oblivion. Instead he invites me to confess them, the word “confess” meaning “to agree with.” Somehow, acknowledging my failings, my frustrations, my desires, my anxieties seems to bring me to a place where i can let go of them into God’s care–kind of like telling your dad about something that was really bugging you as a kid, and then somehow knowing it would be all right. Dad knew.

Sometimes just to get to this point is blessed relief. But sometimes we might experience something more. That is when silence and aloneness leads to stillness. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Sometimes, I believe there is a point in aloneness where no words are needed, where our clamoring thoughts for just a moment are stilled, and we are just being with the God who is “I am”. We are both in wonder in the presence of the Holy One, and basking in the delight of being the beloved of the Father.

And this perhaps is the point where we might “hear” God. It might be a scripture that comes to mind. Perhaps a person comes to mind to call, or pray for, or visit. Sometimes there is nothing but being alone in the Presence, and attentive to whatever may come in the hours ahead. Rich observed that when we’ve been attentive to our thoughts and attentive to God, then we are best prepared to be attentive to others and truly enter into community.

Where do I get alone? Rich’s suggestion that if no where else we might find aloneness in the toilet might be the answer for some. For me, it is getting up in the early morning and sitting in a rocker with my first cup of coffee. Sometimes, it is a long meandering walk. And sometimes, it seems to be working out my thoughts in writing–with the “new mail” sounds muted. Wherever and however it is, somehow aloneness and stillness seems to be health for us and for our communities.

A good friend of ours teaches me much about the wonder of being alone, quiet, waiting. She writes a blog called QuietKeepers. I would commend it to give you a taste of the riches of coming to the place of quiet.

This post was also posted today at our church’s Going Deeper blog.

Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is funny how someone speaking softly but with conviction can change a conversation. Susan Cain has done just that with her bestselling Quiet. The book is about the unique gift, the “quiet power”, introverts bring to the world, particularly American culture, which places a premium on extroverted behavior–group work, public charisma, being the life of the party. And this is important as she argues because one-third to one-half of all people are introverts. Cain is not arguing that we suddenly coddle introverts or that being extroverted is bad. Rather, she paints a compelling picture of what happens when introverts and extroverts can appreciate each other’s temperament and gifts. Her examples of this include Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

She introduces the book with a compelling narrative of her work with a young Wall Street lawyer and the negotiation she faced in terror that turned out with her being offered a job by opposing counsel. During the negotiation “Laura” turned to her “quiet power” and through persistent questions and proposal carried the day against her extroverted, brazen opposite. “Laura”, it turns out is our author.

The first part of the book focuses on the American extrovert ideal. Cain traces the history of this ideal and what she calls “the new Groupthink” and its manifestations in education, business, and even the church (she visits Saddleback Church at one point observing that it was “all communication” with no chance for reflection).

In the second part of the book, she turns to the research on temperament and argues that introverts are actually different in their sensitivity to stimuli, in how their brains process dopamine, and more. This is the most technical part of the book but Cain livens this up through first person interviews and illustrative stories including that of Franklin and Eleanor, and the contrast between the “Masters of the Universe” on Wall Street and Warren Buffett. At the same time, she avoids a “biology is destiny” argument. Introverts can push the boundaries of their temperament in things like public speaking when it is for causes and purposes they care for deeply.

Part three is the shortest section, just one chapter, in which she proposes that all cultures do not share our extrovert ideals. Working in a university context with many Asian-Americans, I found this of interest because she suggests that the Asian ideal is different and that all the group discussions in our classrooms and the extroverted character of much of campus life poses real strains for many Asian-Americans. Part of the strain is the pull to deny one’s own cultural heritage and temperament, thinking the American is “better”.

Part four focuses on how introverts may constructively engage an extrovert world–when to act more extroverted than you are, how to talk to the opposite type and how to raise children who are introverted. Most enlightening to me was the idea of not “throwing them in the deep” when they fear something, but gradually and safely introducing them to new things. I’ve know introverts who received the former treatment in childhood who still carry painful memories of these experiences.

Perhaps it is part of her lawyerly training, but Cain writes with clarity, building a compelling argument in a quiet voice, with nothing extra. What I most appreciate, in contrast to some I’ve read on this topic, is that Cain does not come off “whiny” or with an entitlement mentality. She makes her case for cherishing the gift introverts bring to the world without downplaying the gifts of others. Her plea is one that plays not on guilt manipulation but the recognition of a tremendous opportunity to recognize what introverts add to our families, our organizations, and our world.

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Is Extroversion a Virtue?

That’s a question posed in Susan Cain’s QuietAlong with that comes the corresponding question: is introversion a sin? It is interesting that the context in which this arises is Cain’s visit to Saddleback Church, at the suggestion of Adam McHugh, author of Introverts in the ChurchTrue, no one says either that being an extrovert is virtuous, or that the introverted are sinners or somehow spiritually lacking. Rather, all this is inferred from the ethos of the worship experience-enthusiastic singing, jumbo-tron images, greeting neighbors, lengthy messages. As McHugh and Cain discussed the experience, one of their observations was that it was all about non-stop communication. There was no quiet, no silence, no reflection. None of this was a criticism of the message of Saddleback, or by extension of the evangelical movement. Rather, it was the case that for those who don’t like big crowds, lots of socializing, and who need times of reflection or even aloneness, that the implicit message was that there must be something wrong with you.

Quiet

Cain would contend that this is a part of a larger cultural trend that seems to celebrate the charismatic extrovert–whether in religion, politics, sports, business, or the media. It is not that she has it out for extroverts, or for extrovert-driven churches. Rather, her contention is that extroverts and introverts are wired differently and that each has a unique contribution to bring. She opens her book with the example of introverted Rosa Parks, whose quiet civil disobedience launched the Civil Rights movement that was greatly enhanced by partnership with extrovert Martin Luther King, Jr, whose preaching and leadership gave meaning and direction to the resistance she began.

My wife and I have spent our adult lives around evangelical sub-culture, and for the most part I would agree with Cain’s characterization. What has often struck both of us is that the church unwittingly tries to turn us into extroverts rather than tries to understand the gift that our introversion brings. In Cain’s much watched TED talk, she observes how many of the great religious leaders from Moses to Jesus to others like Muhammad and the Buddha all spoke out of their wilderness experiences. She movingly describes her rabbi grandfather, a shy, gentle introvert with an apartment full of books who brought to his weekly messages at synagogue a depth of insight and wisdom that shaped a religious community.  A breath of life to us in recent years is to have a fellow introvert for a pastor. His sensitivity, his reflectiveness, his love of study and insightfulness into both his own journey and others brings strikingly fresh insights from our scriptures for our lives.

What is the gift that introverts bring the church, and to society? In various forms, it is often a creativity that comes out being someone who listens, observes and reflects. Introverts may bring perspective, inventiveness, and artistry into what is needed, what is missing, out of their times alone. One thing that isn’t understood about introverts is that they actually value community and want to contribute. But often they speak quietly and are not the first to speak. Often, to be heard in a culture of extroverts means to press uncomfortably into conversations where the quick response in word and action is the currency of the day. Sometimes, we need quick responses and actions. But sometimes we also need the considered response and care-full action that comes out of reflection. What might happen if we have more partnerships like Parks and King, or Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs? What could it mean for our churches and other institutions to welcome the gifts that both extroverts and introverts bring? What would it mean to create spaces at work and worship that allow for both sociality and solitude?

Perhaps that is worthy both quiet reflection and considered discussion.

Current Reads February 2014

You may have noticed on the side column of my home page that a “widget” lists some of the current books I’m reading. Thought I would take a moment to let you know about some of the books you can expect to see reviewed in the near future. Previews of  coming attractions!

Pilgrim

1. The New Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan with revisions by Judith Markham and commentary by Warren Wiersbe. Our Dead Theologians group is reading this along with Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis, which we will read later in the term.  Bunyan is quite insightful about the dynamics of the spiritual life, if you can tolerate his slams at the Church of England and the papacy.

consequential leadership

2. Consequential Leadership by Mac Pier. Pier profiles fifteen leaders from government, private, church and non-profit sectors having an impact on cities and on the poor. I’ve enjoyed the succinct profiles of these leaders whose lives provide both example and challenge.

Glorious War

3. Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer by Thom Hatch. I was prepared not to like Custer, but under this author’s attention, he doesn’t come off so badly!

resilient ministry

4. Resilient Ministry by Burns, Chapman and Guthrie. This is a wonderful resource for pastors and other ministry professionals who want to burn on, not burn out, based on research done with pastors as part of a Lilly Grant program.

5. Quiet by Susan Cain. I heard her TED talk and was intrigued. So I picked up the book, and before I could get to read it, my wife read it giving me chapter by chapter updates. It explores the gift of being an introvert. Cain believes they have a great deal to offer the world that is often overlooked.

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Quiet

6. The Good and Beautiful Life by James Bryan Smith.  This is the second volume in Smith’s Apprentice series and I am re-reading it as I go through this with a spiritual formation group I co-lead on campus.

Books “On Deck”.  I also have several books I hope to read soon for various reasons that are my “next reads.”

1. Reading Scripture Together: A Comparative Qur’an and Bible Study Guide. Good friend Barbara Hampton has been involved with students reading the Bible and the Qur’an for a number of years and she wrote a book to help others with this. I’m eager to read this!

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Reading scripture

2. When Diversity Drops by Julie J Park. I heard Julie speak on this in the fall. The book is her analysis of a study of a Christian group in California and how efforts to grow in ethnic diversity and race blind admissions policies intersect.

3. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams by Sharon Daloz Parks. I’ve been reading various books on higher ed and this is the one everyone refers to in discussing “spirituality” in the higher ed context.

4. The Inclusion Paradox by Andres Tapia. This is assigned reading for some meetings I will be attending next month. Tapia sees diversity as an opportunity and not a problem and explores how we might welcome diversity in workplace and other settings.

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big questions

I will probably try to update you once a month on what I’m reading. What books are you reading right now? What books do you hope to get to soon? Who knows, your recommendations might end up on my list!