Saturday, August 11, 2012

Where Coffee Met Cool

Wearing sunglasses indoors DOES make you cool.
The coffee is irrelevant.

I work in a treatment clinic for teenage children. Our rule there is that, unless you are 18, you may have no coffee. If you are 17 and behave well… well, thanks for the cooperation, but you still get no coffee. My superiors are in general agreement with what seems like an almost heavenly decree: children do not get coffee.

The word “weird” falls beyond short of giving a description of my adolescent personality. For my sixth Christmas, my parents, in their fathomless wisdom, spoiled me as their beloved only child with a candy-apple-red Power Wheels Jeep. The only game I ever played in it was “Jurassic Park”, a game in which my freakishly tall best friend and I captured “dinosaurs” (plastic horseshoes) from Isla Nublar and pitted them against one another in Thunderdome-esque combat. I drove the Jeep because his knees couldn’t fit in the doors. Sometimes it really is surprising where children derive an air of superiority, mine being my lack of height in this case and the subsequent God-given ability to drive a toy Jeep. It could be totally possible that this was my first real taste at developing a sense of entitlement.

Entitlement, at least from the point of view of my already fractured long-term memory, is what first drove me to drinking coffee. To a young teen, nothing is manlier than coffee consumption. Alcohol was portrayed in school as cold, liquid delinquency in a bottle, and the words “drug use” could have been followed by an equal sign (=) and “baby murder” and still conveyed the exact same point that our counselors got across to us through more subtle means. But coffee was where the real masculinity was. There were no written laws against coffee consumption, nor were there true consequences for buying it. Kids just didn’t. “They” didn’t, “you” didn’t, “we” didn’t.

But I did. Eventually.

The word “cool” also doesn’t describe my childhood. Maybe “anti-cool” would do the trick. Definitely not cool. I approached coffee in the way that a first-time homeowner might approach purchasing a lawnmower: I have no attractive yard because I have no lawnmower, and therefore need a lawnmower to achieve maximum yardage. Coffee was my lawnmower, albeit in a sense of its perceived absolute need in order to find a doorway to “coolness”. Pokemon, band class, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 fulfilled the same roles as football, toilet humor, and girlfriends did for other malefolk my age. Society tends to favor the latter traits in rearing male children of merit (for some odd reason), and it took me a long time to notice that I lacked any sort of “valuable” social currency. Once I had, though, the feeling of inferiority slammed hard.

The killer app I needed was coffee. None of the sporty guys dared to touch it, for fear that they may taint the All-American path that their parents had put them on, nor did the wealthier and well-connected kids for fear of their parents withdrawing their privileged incentives in retribution for disobeying the all-encompassing Coffee Law. I, however, was under the impression that because I studied for school, played guitar, and worked hard at a real job that I needed (Nay! Deserved!) to be respected. So I purchased coffee.

Humankind may never fully understand why the tastebuds of those under 18 are different from those belonging to the over 18 crowd. All I know is that coffee tastes pretty crappy the first time one drinks it. For me even, it was pretty crappy the second time. But I persevered, and eventually I learned to adore the taste of coffee.

With chai (my personal favorite).
Pressed or drip.

I learned to enjoy it for what it really was: consumable art made by oftentimes quirky, weird, and, by Society’s standards, pretty uncool people with a passion for sharing the joy of coffee.

Nobody really cares about their peers’ drinking habits during adolescence. I’m glad our teenage years end, though. That’s when we tend to realize that our shoes are our shoes and that walking a mile or two in them makes us pretty cool. Or at least cool in a way that nobody else is cool. We tend to call that quirkiness. I dig quirkiness. Maybe you do, too.

I hope the teens under my care at work come to that same conclusion. Until then, I’ll continue to derive a sense of schadenfreude at their excuses for why they deserve coffee. I’ll keep saying no, because hey, children do not get coffee.

Be You.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Self vs. Identity

His Self is derived from his sunglasses...
Seems to be working.
George Herbert Mead revolutionized the way that individuals think of "selves." Plainly put, the Self is the persona that one portrays. The Self is complicated, as we cannot ourselves determine... well, our Selves. In developing a Self, Mead claims this rule as truth: You are not who you think you are, you are not who others think you are, you are instead who you think others think you are... If that was complicated, think of developing a Self instead as behaving dependently on how others have communicated their favor or disfavor with you.

We humans are constantly striving to define our identities. Finding identities requires a decent amount of introspection, and we find who we think we are through analyzing our weaknesses and strengths. When people present themselves to others, more likely than not, individuals choose to "put their best foot forward" and smile big for their daily social photo op.

My conflict is thus: What am I searching for? An Identity or a Self?

Erving Goffman (you'll remember his cold cynicism from several posts back) postulated that we have no single Self. Instead, Goffman believes that the Self can adapt and change depending on the social situation. In short, we act differently with different people, thus presenting a Self to strangers and superiors that is unlike the Self that our dearest friends and family know.

Identity (as far as I've seen) is instead our striving for what about us brings meaning and individuality to our lives. Identities are wrapped up not in rituals that make us more socially acceptable, but instead are formed by the qualities that make us unique. What's your Identity?

Are you an...
Something else entirely?

I believe that our deficiencies and weaknesses are just as important in forming our identities as our strengths and the things that we want to believe about ourselves are. Embracing where we struggle can bring more than just self-pity. In recognizing weakness, individuals can instead supplement a previous approach to life with a new drive for self-improvement. And, socially speaking, what more powerful tools are there to the search for meaning than love and selflessness? The Identity is what makes us Us and not a collection of scared individuals.

The Self is instead shallow. Constant striving to change and perfect a Self is the drive of most modern consumers such as myself. I want to be flawless and perfect in the eyes of others. I assume most of my associates and the general Western population is driven in the same way. This front is detrimental in developing me into a person who understands a meaningful life... or a life lived for the betterment of others. How can mankind continue to progress into a better state with Selves that are determined to serve their own interests above Humanity's? Or, for Christians, where is there room for the Kingdom of God if we are too busy developing our Selves into desirable socialites instead of bringing love to the poor, oppressed, depressed, and hurting?

As a Christian, I choose to give my identity to God and accept that His will is one full of love and strength through self-sacrifice, even when the pain of giving is tantamount to my social discomfort. I know many of my readers are nonbelievers as well, and so I ask both Christian and nonChristian alike to embrace their weaknesses. With acknowledgment of our downfalls comes a respect for others' lackings. Find your Identity not in who you want others to think you are, but instead in who you are in actuality. True friends/community will respect that. And remember that living to develop a perfected Self is not conducive to living a life of fulfillment. It is instead taking up precious resources that could otherwise be applied to changing the world for the better.

Choosing an Identity of caring,

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Peace without coffee

Now that's advertising!
My daily haunt is a little coffeehouse smack dab in the middle of my college town. The building is made to replicate the cafes of old, with giant brass espresso mechanisms, cracked bricks, old bicycles, and creaky wooden floors. Like most folks, the fragrant aromas of coffee and chai draw me from the “world outside,” in which I live life as a disheveled undergrad, to the world of “coffeehouse,” in which I am instantaneously at ease.

I think this is an atmosphere of peace. Everything, from the consciously chosen mood music, to the continual bombardment of herbal fragrances on our persons brings some semblance of calmness to each of our senses. It is all meant to produce a micro-environment of peace so as to draw our busyness out of life… and maybe turn a profit.

It’s funny how we as people can invent our own version of pseudo-peace. We crave this quiet environment now more than many other sources of sustenance. Life is loud, and our worries are urgent. To cloister ourselves in a giant coffee box from the constant upheavals life tends to throw at us is now a viable business model.

Peace is commercial. Peace is consumable. Peace is now “supply and demand.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love the social possibilities coffee joints offer to us as communal beings. A warm drink and a strong sense of comfort have been of utmost importance in many powerful interactions, revelations, and epitomes in this short, idealistic life of mine. I’m not attacking the coffeehouse industry itself, nor am I leveling anything at any individual shop. Instead, I feel it important to examine why I, and so many others, manufacture peace as a commodity.

There is no command more repetitive in Scripture than “do not fear.” In fact, those exact words are used nearly 365 times throughout both Testaments. For the Christ-inclined, life is meant to be in a constant state of anti-worry. Lack of restraint gives birth to life in its fullest, most meaningful form. Faith in God and trust in humanity save us from fear.

I’m sad that I forget this so often. I’m sad my consumptive, anesthetized culture draws me away from the satisfaction and contentment that is produced from living for others. And, most disappointing of all, I’m sad we settle for peace in consciously constructed environments.

Find peace in who you are, and in who God made you to be. It’s never bad to be active, but life isn’t about doing every single task in existence you can before you die. It is instead about doing the small things for others that build upon themselves until they crash into society as a giant wave of contagious love. There you will find peace everywhere you go. You no longer have to rely solely on a coffeehouse for your soul’s refreshment.

Stupefied at how much he spends on coffee,

Saturday, March 17, 2012

No Small Dreams

He dreamt big enough to write a book...
so that I might rip the photo off for my blog
Am I the only one who envies those select few who, no matter what the circumstances, always dream big? Or more simply, does anybody else envy the work ethic required to continuously strive for leaving this world a better place than when one enters it? This rare talent propels the world into meaning and beautiful stories. My dreams seem so sad and small when compared to those dreamers who refuse to cease dreaming.

I have a friend who dreams big. He possesses a plethora of V-necks and wears cardigans during the summer… definitely one hip dude. More striking than his wardrobe, however, is his desire to bring meaning to others in big ways, and, as a consequence, find meaning in his own life. He wants to open a coffeehouse in a community struggling with… well, community. He dreams of mentoring youths through corporate worship and informal teaching settings so as to raise up a loving Church. And, most powerful of all, he dreams of travelling to all the world’s countries with a camera to interview and document religious minorities. This guy dreams big. I can only imagine the process of a mind in constant search for ways to bring meaning to the lives of others. This dude is the real deal!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe best illustrated the importance of dreams when he suggested all should “dream no small dreams, for they have no power to move the hearts of men.” Goethe understood how reaching the hearts and passions of those around him was of utmost importance, and that none can truly bring others into a place of passion and drive without a life-changing, terrifyingly risky dream. These dreams don’t bore us into the comfortable stupor that keeps the majority of us desensitized from the plights of others. Real change, according to Goethe, can only come about when we refuse to fear risk and dream big enough to cause excitement in others.

When we speak of dreams, we must realize that the dreams that bring true meaning are never fully realized. The profoundly enormous dreams are the ones that will be set into motion so as to last far beyond our own lives. When we dream big others will join in that dream, and passion for changing the world will grow exponentially. I pray that each of us grow into uninhibited dreamers who risk all for the betterment of those we can serve, and, in doing so, we live lives of complete fulfillment. May you never fear risk, nor allow society to numb you to the plight of the oppressed.

May your dreams be oases of life!

Friday, March 16, 2012

It's all about the "Me"

It's not all about you! It's all about Apple... right?
If reading this blog has left the reader confused as to how I see the world, I think clarification may be required to maximize understanding. I am comparative in nature. On some days, I see the potential good within the Church, yet am also quick to see the evil and the misguidedness of the modern faith in the very same context. Or what I should do, but, as is nearly always the case, what I actually do. "Hows" and "How-Nots" have long been my modus operandi in regards to expressing my world views. In pursuing this method for self-expression, I have developed two habits that may be categorized as both healthy and unhealthy.

1.) I like reading lists.
2.) I like compiling lists of my own.

Paul is one of the most profound list-makers of all time. The NT is littered with Paul's frank and explicit lists. Think fruits of the Spirit, armor of God, spiritual gifts, etc... What many are also quick to notice is how Paul is just as plain in listing the things that God hates. These lists tend to run the same rhythm from letter to letter and serve to communicate the stupid ways that Paul had seen many lead their lives. Practices like debauchery, drunkenness, sexual immorality, and idolatry were common practices in the Greco-Roman world (... or America) that Paul sought to inject faith and love into. I tend to communicate in lists like this as well (see nearly every last paragraph in nearly every post on this site). But I think, deep down, these lists hint at something that is ungodly:

I tend to write for attention, just as almost all of my actions seek attention.

Striving for community is not a bad thing. We were created for it! But one of Paul's common evils listed is "selfish ambition." Selfish ambition drives us in nearly everything we do (I can't speak for all of you, but I CAN speak for many). Lists are used to compare the things we see and do, and so I use lists to compare my thoughts or beliefs to others' viewpoints. But over time, this has devolved in my life to the point where now I compare myself to other people constantly. Ambition drives me to be above, better, far more "awesome" than those around me... and that is a terrible way to walk.

To combat selfish ambition, one needs to hear Paul speak of freedom in Galatians 5: "1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." and "13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love." Selfish desires for attention, sugar coated as "selfish ambition," is a yoke that serves to blind us from serving others. We are called to love, which requires empathy. The development of empathy can only come from serving others (especially when we would rather do anything else). 

Paul knows that Jesus came to liberate through servitude via love. If we want to live (and love) as Jesus did, we need to learn to serve others in everything. In doing so, we will live life to the fullest in genuine community, and our selfish ambitions will become instead the realizations of something meaningful. No longer will we compare ourselves with others for our own sense of self identity. Instead, our Christ-like walk will lead us into the identities we were truly meant to own. 

I leave you with Paul:

"2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, 5 for each one should carry his own load." - Galatians 6:2-5

Would love to hear your freedom stories!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Wall Street's got nothin' on me...

It has... coins for organs?
Does anybody else out there have a guilty pleasure blog? You know, that one piece of perpetually updated internet writing that shouldn't be enjoyable, but it claws at your brain without your permission? Huffington Post's blog section is like that for me. I enjoy the news they offer, yes, but I've always held the belief that commentary and opinion on a news site should be avoided in general. But on HuffPo... well, maybe I can fudge a little bit on my conviction.

I read an article today by Leo W. Gerard entitled "Crash Tax: Wall Street Reparations." Mr. Gerard is the president of United Steelworkers, a sizable entity in the manufacturing sector. In his article, Mr. Gerard argues for a tax on financial transactions by businesses so as to mitigate the lack of fair tax structure when it comes to taxing large financial institutions. His point, of course, being that Wall Street is guilty for the financial instability that we find ourselves in currently. As the neo-communitarian hippie in the room, normally I'd agree with this sort of sentiment (FIGHT THE NAZI-FASCIST-TOTAL-LAMEWADS!). But for some reason, this particular article caused me to approach the financial bubble crisis in a different light.

I don't blame Wall Street. I don't blame Congress. I don't blame President Obama. I blame me. And I blame my friends. And I blame the majority of the American citizenry.

70% of the American economic structure is consumer-based. That means that the majority of all the money that flows into the monetary system is spent in the consumption of... well, for the most part, it's crap. Think about any effective advertising campaign. "Buy our product" doesn't sell goods. "Buy our product so that your family/sex life is pristine, you look cooler than your neighbor, and it goes fast" seems to be a more readily acceptable marketing gimmick.

The "American Dream," simply stated, is a house, a nice car, and a better collection of doohickery than one's own neighbor. Honor seems to be a main goal, or at least some degree of social recognition. With wage decreases being a constant in America since the 60s, Americans have had to find a new way to maintain their status. If wages can no longer support the consumptive behaviors necessary to maintain the "American Dream," then we turn to borrowing money. The banks are our friends! However, when it all doesn't go according to plan and we rack up massive amounts of debt, then the loaner becomes the evilest of evil.

Oh, sure there was predatory lending throughout the late 90s and early 2000s. And there was a lack of regulation within the financial sector as it rapidly sold the lives and well-being of millions of citizens in the forms of CDOs and unstable assets. And yes, the CEOs of these companies took home huge bonuses whilst they torched the totality of the American economy. But I don't blame them. Who wouldn't grow greedy with that sort of access to easy money? No, I blame the emotionally-driven consumptive mindset of the American citizenry.

Why do you want money? Is it to buy a new car? Or a new coat? I'm not judging, don't get me wrong. I'm just as guilty! But at the same time, I pray that we all become aware of our own mindset when purchasing things. Be aware of the fact that consuming just to look good or be better than others is rampant in our society as a whole. We are driven by emotions and the want to be worth something in others' eyes. Pandering to that is good advertising. I urge you to examine your purchasing patterns and be aware of the consequences of a country of over 300 million people buying products to feel better about themselves.

Part 2 to come,

Monday, November 7, 2011

Why it's worth stopping the act

It's Heaven... twice!
So... the Goffman post was a bit of a change of pace. I acknowledge that not all of my readers are quite as fascinated with cold, cynical sociologists as I am. Who wouldn't draw all sorts of interest from moral functionalist social theory? Ridiculous! But there WAS actually a point in posting it.

I can't help but think about my interactions with others. Sometimes being completely genuine is difficult because the totality of myself seems dreadfully boring. We each have personal reputations to maintain. Or to build. Or to hope to embody someday. And there's more to our social wants than just a reputation. We want to be loved dearly by others, to know that we are of worth in others' eyes.

To be called for coffee. That's what we want at our deepest level. Maybe not coffee, but to be called for something. It's nice to call others, of course, because any opportunity to share in a friend's company is a beautiful thing. But sometimes a person gets fed up with calling. Maybe he/she wants to be called and thought of. All of us share a desire to be worth another person's thought. That is the deepest need that God has instilled within each and every one of us as communal beings.

So I act. I wear a facade worthy of Shakespearian recognition so as to impress others, using demeanor rituals (BAM! Score one for Goffman!) to try to show how worthy I am of attention. If I am in a crowd of fellow outdoorsmen/women, I loudly proclaim my achievements and latest pieces of outdoor finery/junk. Or in the presence of musicians, you'd think I was a Grammy winner, with my ceaseless boasting and putting down of others' music. But there is one thing that I am learning, with a large degree of difficulty: Trying to show my own worthiness does nothing for my desire for the love of others.

It's in the other type of ritual Goffman postulated, the deference ritual, that we come to satisfy the need for others' respect and care. To review, deference rituals are acts in which we exhibit our respect (or lack thereof) for another person. In respecting others, in loving others, in being willing to sacrifice without expectation of payment, that is where we find the environment in which we can drop the act. If you want others to include you, call them first. And keep doing it. In giving your time, ear, and love to others, you will in turn be loved, even if it takes a long time to feel the results.

I can't say I've mastered this. In reality, I struggle to remember this in my daily interactions. In fact, I am in a near 100% state of not remembering it every single day. And so I pass on to you the opportunity to think about your own personal interactions. Take a peek at my post on Goffman. If reading this post first helps you make sense of it, then feel free to utilize it. But it is worth questioning and praying about how we treat others. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," is a sequential process: If you want the love of others, do unto them first. The rest will take care of itself.

Turning a cynic into a "rock on, man!"