The Allure of Talent and Gift of Practice

The Lens of Talent

As western individualists, we celebrate the idea of “talent”. It plays itself out in how we laud athletes and artists, saying things like they are a natural at playing a saxophone or hitting a four-seam fastball. When we think about the feats of people such as Michael Phelps or Elon Musk, we place these individuals on a particular kind of pedestal that sees their talent as on a higher plane of existence. It is almost impossible to not do this when we watch Lebron absolutely own the court with elegance, poise, and strength.

This perspective is equally present – although in a less obvious way – when we assess the attributes and skills of others. How common is it for us to think that someone is naturally good – or bad – at something based on our initial judgment of their ability?

“I’m not good at it…”

It’s also present in our self-understanding. We can quickly judge whether we are good at something after only a short trial period. For instance, I have always thought that I’m not good with music because I struggled to grasp rudimentary musical concepts in my elementary school years. However, I’ve thought of myself as fairly proficient at disciplines such as math, because it seemed like “I got it much easier”. These working principles of self-understanding in turn impact how we invest our time, both in the short-term and long-term.

The Iconoclast

However, Expertise expert Anders Ericsson has something to say about this assumed monopoly of talent. Ericsson has invested his career in the study of the human dynamics of expertise and success, and has concluded that on an empirical level, intrinsic talent or “gifts” play a minor role in a person’s success and expertise in a particular field. Genetics merely establish particular thresholds; they do not determine how we will actually preform.

Deliberate Practice

In Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders establishes that what determines a person’s success and aptitude in a particular arena is whether they participate in “deliberate practice”, which is preforming repetitions with focused attention and with the goal of improving performance. Deliberate practice is not the mindless hitting of balls at the driving range; it is the focused application of mental energy, awareness, strategy, and feedback as we are intentionally going through each swing of the club.

In a pretty straightforward model that risks oversimplification, Ericsson states that talent + deliberate practice = aptitude, and that aptitude + deliberate practice = success/expertise. Thus, practice is exponentially more valuable than talent in the cultivation of expertise. This places a much higher premium on grinding out repetition after repetition, workout after workout, trusting that the process will yield the fruit. It is almost impossible to overemphasize the importance of the unsung early morning and late night session in the gym, hall, library, or wherever you get after it.

The Renaissance Man

There is another potential pitfall of participating in the cult of talent; it can become a roadblock in our journey to developing resilience and grit. In Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, he discusses the nuances of learning. Josh has a bit of insight into this field, as he was a world champion chess master (he was the young boy who was the inspiration for the film and novel Searching for Bobby Fisher), a Tai Chi Push Hands world champion, and continues to be a performance coach for many high performers.

Entity or Incremental?

In his book, he considers the work of Dr. Carol Dweck in the field of developmental psychology, who “makes the distinction between entity and incremental theories of intelligence”. Children – and adults as well – who function within an entity paradigm “attribute their success or failure to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability”; they think that they succeed or fail at something because they are good or bad at it. Those who view intelligence through an incremental perspective think “that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped – step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master” (sound familiar?).

thesDweck’s research also shows that the incremental children are far more likely to rise to the occasion when faced with challenging material or situations compared to the entity children. In one experiment, both groups were first given rather simple math problems that both groups solved with ease. The experimenters then presented the children with math problems that were too difficult for them to solve. While both groups obviously struggled with these problems, each group responded differently; the incrementalists were energized by the challenged, while the entitists were distraught and stunned. Finally, both groups were again given a set of easy problems to solve. Here is the plot twist: while the incrementalists proceeded to crush the easy problems again, the entitists struggled with problems that they once easily breezed through. The struggle with the tougher problems shook and destroyed their self-confidence.

Keep Grinding

As a recovering entitist, this perspective challenges and convicts me. How many times in my life have I struggled to rise to the occasion because I allowed a perceived struggle to incorrectly dictate my self-understanding? How much have I wrestled with insecurities or lies that I can’t do something, or that I’m not good at something, because my initial efforts were met with adversity. As Dweck and Waitzkin both discuss, the results of the math experiment have nothing to do with intelligence levels, but instead have everything to do with what people believe in the source of their intelligence and aptitude.

If we believe that our intelligence and aptitude is based in intrinsic, then we will resist intentionally challenging things, and struggle with weathering adversity and defeat. Conversely, if we instead believe that we develop our abilities through intentionally pursuing the grind, then we will do much better with pursuing and embracing difficulty. We will do much better with getting up and dusting ourselves off when we do fall. We will value deliberate practice, knowing that this produces fruit over the months, years, and decades.

On a Pass with a Lion on a Foggy Day

Fear and Frustration

How do we approach confusion and uncertainty in our life’s path?

A few years ago, I heard a lot of people talking about a book titled In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day, by influential author/pastor Mark Batterson. The book’s title refers to the exploits of one of David’s mighty men, Benaiah, who killed a lion in a pit on a snowy day (2 Sam 23:20-21). Batterson uses this story as a way to recast how we view adversity and challenges in our lives. As opposed to choosing the path of least resistance – which is what we do most of the time – he challenges us to see fortune in these arenas of trial and adversity. He encourages us to face our fears, chase divine opportunities, and live with no regrets. This book is influential in the lives of a lot of people I know and respect, and continues to challenge people to be braver.

I have been recently reflecting on how another interchange with a lion offers an additional view on trial and struggle that can both augment this perspective of bold enterprise, and strengthen our flagging spirits when we spend seasons in the doldrums. This scene takes place in one of the most face-melting collection of books ever: C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. Outside of the Bible, these books have had the most profound and persistent impact on my life. Brief aside: one of the things I anticipate the most  as a parent is reading these books to my kids, although these works will probably cause me to ugly-cry in front of my kids – sorry children.

Self-Pitying Shasta

In this particular book, The Horse and His Boy, the narrative tracks the journey of a supposedly common boy, Shasta. By fleeing from his corrupt foster father with a runaway warhorse, Shasta finds himself in the middle of international power struggles, dramatic chases, and a race to inform the honorable northern kingdoms of a deceptive attack from the south. Throughout the journey lions hunt Shasta on two separate occasions, and also has an unnerving vision of a lion in the midst of some haunting tombs. The journey takes its toll on the youth; he reaches his breaking point on a foggy mountain pass as he falls behind his traveling party and is completely lost. At this point, he begins to feel sorry for himself and scorn his apparent great misfortune while sobbing.

The Breath in the Fog

However, at this point he also realizes that someone or something is walking beside him. While unable to see it due to the immense darkness, he could only hear the traveler’s breathing. However, he could sense that it was massive in scale, and this terrified him. After Shasta was able to work up the courage to say something to it, it invited Shasta to talk about his struggles.

Shasta “told him how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fisherman. And then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of the dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis (his traveling companion).”

The voice said that he did not consider Shasta unfortunate, to which Shasta responded by asking, “don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?”

The Lion’s Lesson

The voice then drops a bombshell and tells Shasta there was only one lion, and that he was that lion.

It proclaims, “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile that you should reach the King in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”

As those familiar with Narnian lore know, this voice is the great lion, Aslan, who is the Jesus of Narnia. In sum, Aslan is telling Shasta that these apparently disparate aspects of the boy’s life were actually integral to bringing him to this present moment, and are profound signs of God’s presence, activity, and care in Shasta’s life.

Discerning in the Shroud of Confusion

I struggle to read this passage without tearing up, because of how easily it is for me to empathize with Shasta, and I know I’m not alone in this sense. As I struggle to follow God’s leading throughout my life, the apparent futility and clumsiness of my path quickly frustrates me, as it jolts and jerks from place to place.

Am I doing the right thing?

Why does everything seem so shrouded in uncertainty?

Should I persevere in the path I’m on, or should I change?

I can feel this struggle more acutely when I expect the same level of clarity in present choices as I possess when I think about past choices. As the saying goes, “hindsight is 20/20”. It is much easier to discern whether one of my choices was correct, or where God is moving in my life, when I consider it five years after the fact as opposed to the week it occurred. If I expect the same level of clarity regarding recent events that I have regarding events of the past, then it can easily mislead, confuse, and dishearten me.

Backwards and Forwards

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” This powerfully captures our plight; we can only really get a sense of our life’s story through the rear-view mirror, when we can see how initially diverse and separate storylines intersect and weave together as they all play out. Looking back on our past can bring a unique kind of coherence to our life’s that only comes from that remembering and reflecting. However, we can only live in one direction – into the future. As we live forwards, we usually work only with inklings and nudges.

So what can the Shasta’s conversation with Aslan teach us?

It’s that we can take heart and be courageous when we may be experiencing futility and frustration.

It’s that it is futile to seek a level of clarity and synchronicity in the present that only comes about through the passage of time.

It’s that we can hope that even the most fractured and apparently irredeemable aspects of our live will find a place in a much wider and beautiful story than we could’ve ever imagined.

May we all have this hope as we journey the foggy mountain passes of our lives, knowing that we too are joined by a lion as we traverse them.

The Wild Country of Community

Wild, Wild Country

From my estimates, three out of four American adults have watched the Netflix documentary “Wild, Wild Country”, which extensively explores the rise and decline of the community surrounding Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Due to the fact that I live and work at the location of their Oregon community, which is now a Young Life Camp, many people have recommended it to me. It seems like this documentary has hit a chord for some people, as the Washington Family Ranch has seen a dramatic spike in the amount of people “dropping in” and “swinging by” the property – which don’t exactly seem like the best terms to use in light of the secluded nature of the place.

In order to be a student of the times and of our place, my wife and I watched it. Many things about it were striking, but the most profound thing was the dichotomy between what the community tried to embody, and what ended up being the systemic fruit present within the community.

The Rajneesh community tried to exemplify a Utopian community that is entering into the next order of men, however jealousy, pettiness, hunger for power, iniquity, and sin brought down the community.

Life Together

A few years ago, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic meditation on living in community, Life Together. The pages contain countless face-melters on what it means to live in community, especially with fellow Christians. Don’t read it unless you’re in the mood to contemplate how you can approach community in a better, healthier way. Out of all the book’s gems, one quote especially hangs with me. In the midst of discussing how we should approach the expectations we have of “community”, he drops this bomb:

He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

Living the Dream?

The Bon is saying that we must be careful to not allow our ideals and dreams for our community to get in the way of our ability to love our communities. If we instead idolize our communal ideals, it can destroy the elegant and complex gift of this community that transcends our narrow understandings of how community should be.

This dynamic is all too common; how many of us allow our expectations of community to impact how we assess the all-too-real daily mess of community? This force contributed to the downfall of the Rajneesh; it also led to the downfall of pretty much every communist regime; leaving a trail of both metaphorical and actual bodies in their wakes.

Farting Monks

However, there is a reason the Bon mentions this temptation in a book on Christian community; it’s prevalent in those communities as well. I remember reading an account of long-time Catholic monk who was reflecting on how new monks would integrate into the community. He said that the new monks struggled the most with how the monastery was so normal and ordinary. There were excessively crabby monks. Other monks were gossips. Some monks argued almost incessantly about sports, and some monk’s lack of personal hygiene offended other monks.

The new monk’s frustration of someone chewing with their mouth open, or the surly nature of a supervisor quickly smashes the new monk’s expectations of some kind of ethereal and utopian community where everyone was in a rhythmic state of perfect agape. It is at this impasse – and every similar impasse after – where the monk is faced with a decision of what they will allow to win in their minds and hearts: is it their spiritualized utopian ideal, or the gritty, and messy group of broken humans that daily greet them.

Dog Poop and Small Groups

This same thing happens out here. I have seen a dizzying amount of people come into this community, with some idealized expectations of what this kind of close Christian community should embody. Maybe it’s the belief that they should resonate with most – if not all – of the people out here. Perhaps it’s the expectation that the minutia of life together should disappear in Christian community. Possibly it’s the thought that living in this community would just be easy.

At some point they have to ask their neighbor to pick up  their dog’s poop for the thirtieth time. Someone may not invite them to a group function. They could struggle to find a small group. What they are daily experiencing is not congruent with what they were expecting. This unforeseen struggle is jarring and frustrating.

The Downward Spiral

All too commonly the next step that people make is to conclude that the community is dysfunctional and broken. Sadly, many of these people become jaded and choose to leave disappointed with unmet expectations. Now, to give them some credit, the community is indeed dysfunctional and broken; however, so is every other community in their own ways on this side of eternity. We face the same question as the new monk. Which community are we going to love: our ethereal ideal, or the one that greets us in all the untidiness of life together.

Purgative Paradise

Thomas Merton, a twentieth century Trappist monk, said that a monastery is an earthly paradise because it is an earthly purgatory. This concept should blow the doors off of how we should instead approach community. The monastery – and any other community of Christians – is a taste of the world to come because of how it purifies us through the friction and struggle. In our limited and hedonistic perspectives, we tend to think that a community is a taste of paradise when it is easy and enjoyable to us. However, through the Lord’s transcendent desire for us to grow, He elegantly allows us to experience the beautiful grind of the communal mess.

 

So how will we respond in the face of humanness in our communities? Can we embrace the idea that the tough aspects of community help us become more like Christ? What will we love more: our dream of community, or the people around us?

Chaos, Courage, and Good Friday

Chaos is such as short, clean word for the harrowing and unnerving reality it depicts. We step over the rim of what is familiar and at least nominally understood, and into a space of struggle, disintegration, and dizzying confusion (or feel like we were drug over that rim kicking and screaming). Whether it comes about through a loss of a job, a rupturing of a cherished relationship, an unforeseen health issue, or any other number of “surprises” of life, chaos can quickly descend upon a life, separating it from our familiar moorings and casting us into a primordial sea of waves and storms. It leaves us feeling helpless and passive. However, how can we respond with courage?

THE CHAOS OF GOOD FRIDAY

Today, Good Friday, commemorates the most epic encounter of a man with chaos in the history of the world. Jesus experienced the cumulative ire of humanity on a path that He believed was His to walk, and it took him on the road of abandonment, alienation, and a humiliating death on the cross. The friends, habits, and life he had known dissolved in a matter of hours. One of the many stunning facets of the accounts of Jesus’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion is his utter passivity. Especially compared to the rest of the Gospels, where Jesus is establishing the pace and rhythm of things, Jesus appears to be little more than an object being passed around.

This resignation of Christ began in his struggle in the garden of Gethsemane. As his closest friends fall asleep, Jesus writhes under the weight of what He is about to embark on. Jesus encountered the bared teeth of chaos and it’s surround shroud of darkness in that Garden in a unique way to him, and it takes him to his own edge.

In the midst of the unfathomable sorrow and angst, he prays these faithful words: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” While it’s at this point that Jesus’s passivity begins, Jesus also exemplifies two ways for us to respond when we encounter a sense of passivity and impotence in the face of chaos in our own lives.

THE COURAGE OF CHRIST

Jesus responds to this chaos with courage and trust. One doesn’t need to look any further than Jesus’ prayer in the garden to see his full humanity on display. Even though he was deeply convicted in the road he must walk, he still asks his Father to remove it if possible. As I read that passage of Jesus’s prayer in the garden, I get the feeling that it is at this point in which He becomes committed to going to the cross in a deeper way than ever before. It’s like in order to go skydiving for the first time; it requires a particular level of courage to sign up for the jump, and another level to get on to the plane, but a completely different level of courage to actually jumping out of the plane. To me, that is the garden; it represents the point in which Jesus jumps.

This sets the tone for the rest of the saga, not just in respect to Jesus’ passivity. It also sets the tone for the strength of Jesus. For even though Jesus is yielding on his way to the cross, he also seems deeply powerful. He is unflappable in the face of the harassment of the crowds, or the manipulation of Pilate or Herod, or even the physical pain of torture and crucifixion.

This courage is grounded in Jesus’s immense and ruthless trust in his Father. It’s a kind of trust that is impervious to the flighty ups and downs of daily life. It is a deep existential grounding in a foundational understanding of how the world is. Jesus had a profound faith in the provision and care of his father, a faith that could bear the dread and weight of his approaching death. It allowed him to face this fate with dignity and courage. It has helped countless others like the church father Polycarp. When told to denounce his faith in Jesus, or else he would be executed, he responded, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

STAND TALL

So how do we face the chaos in our own lives? It is easy and natural to take the posture of passive victimhood, since we have been continually forced to encounter the benign yet sharp edges of life. The sense of the unnerving banality and absurdity of life can be palpable at these points. In these moments, we can hopefully draw inspiration from Jesus’ manifestation of courage and trust in the face of victimhood. While we may find ourselves in a situation that may feel totally helpless, we need not collapse under the weight of it. As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude.”

In his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan Peterson challenges us to take the posture of standing tall with our shoulders back. Peterson compellingly explains that we impact how we view our lives through the physical postures that we choose to embody through hormones and neural transmitters. In the face of chaos, we should do all that we can to not fearfully curl up and take the posture of a victim, because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, to physically stand up with your shoulders back is to encourage that same posture in the face of the chaos of existence. “Standing up means voluntarily accepting the burden of being . . . you respond to a challenge, instead of bracing for a catastrophe”. This gives a good picture of Jesus’s response after the garden; he responded to a challenge instead of bracing for a catastrophe.

We too can face the swirling chaos with this courage and trust of Jesus, who was a radical realist regarding the forces he encountered on his way to the cross, and yet could stand with a poignant strength and eloquent grace in the most harrowing of human circumstances. So when we encounter situations in our own lives where we feel stuck, abandoned, and cursed – our own version of Good Friday – may we stand tall with our shoulders back, choosing to face the storm with gallantry and trust that what you’re experiencing is not the last word, and that there can be new life even in the face of certain death.

Practice Gratitude; Actually Practice It

At first glance, gratitude appears to be a reaction to the conditions of our life. Like smoke from a fire, gratefulness can commonly be understood as the consequential output from the cumulative condition of our days and relationships. We think that the reason we are (or are not) grateful is because we have (or don’t have) particularly rich relationships, a job that is deeply meaningful and satisfying, a spouse that loves and appreciates us, or any other combination of things that we view as optimal or thriving.

Now while gratefulness is indeed inspired by something, it still raises a couple questions. One question is whether gratitude is necessarily produced by those conditions and events of our lives, or if there is an option in the matter. Frankly, more evidence is indicating that is an optional response. One reason is that as people, we are quite adaptable to persistent conditions. For instance, when I first moved to Central Oregon, I was completely overwhelmed by the smell of sage and juniper, but now I literally do not smell it unless I rub it in my face. As with the juniper and sage, we grow accustomed and calloused to things that are continually present in our lives, even the good things!

We are also battling against another ungrateful dynamic: how much time we spend daily trying to solve problems and issues in our lives. The reason this is an issue is because how our brains work. Long story short; when we spend more time thinking about something, it enlarges and occupies a more prominent position in our mental lives. As it begins to take up a disproportionate amount of mental energy, it easily impacts our mental outlook in a corresponding disproportional way.

If we are not consciously and intentionally mindful of the people and parts of our lives that make us grateful (through journaling for example), then our appreciation for them will inevitably drift into the background noise of our lives. We instead pay more attention to the novel interruptions and disruptions throughout our days, and it will then inordinately sculpt how we view our lives.

Presbyterian minister George Buttrick tells the story of “a lecturer to a group of businessmen displayed a sheet of white paper in which was one blot. He asked what they saw. All answered, ‘A blot.’ The test was unfair; it invited the wrong answer. Nevertheless, there is an ingratitude in human nature by which we notice the black disfigurement and forget the widespread mercy. We need to deliberately call to mind the joys of our journey. Perhaps we should try to write down the blessing of one day. We might begin: we could never end: there are not pens or paper enough in all the world. The attempt would remind us of our ‘vast treasure of content.’”

We get hung up on the black dot, and easily miss the sea of white.

Ann Voskamp presents a great picture of this in One Thousand Gifts; a memoir (at least so it seems) of her pursuit of listing a thousand things she is grateful for in her life. Taking a survey of the points of gratitude in our lives doesn’t come naturally to us; these gratitude muscles need to be intentionally exercised in order to get better at remaining grateful. So Ann as Ann journeys towards her millennial mark, she reflects on the rhythms and eddies of gratitude in her own life. However, Ann noticed something else through the process. As she was intentionally searching for things that made her grateful, she noticed a pervasive posture of gratitude that began to permeate her vision of the world. She found herself overwhelmingly grateful for the absurdly quotidian and domestic aspects of her life. Among many others, Ann points out how the Greek word for “thanksgiving”, eucharisteo, is where we get the word the word “Eucharist”, another name for communion, or the Lord’s Supper. I think it’s fair to say that there is a deep relationship between a grateful outlook, and a deep intimacy with God.

In 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman recounts a study done on gratitude in which the subjects were split into three different groups. One group was assigned to spend a few moments weekly writing only about five things for which they were grateful, one group wrote about five things that annoyed them, and the last group recounted five events that happened to them. “Compared to those in either the ‘annoyed’ or the ‘events’ group, those expressing gratitude ended up happier, much more optimistic about the future, and physically healthier – and they even exercised more.” This study highlights how gratitude is a force-multiplier: a seemingly small investment of taking time every week to reflect on things worthy of gratitude creates a tremendous splash in a large portion of our lives; it shifts our vision, helps with motivation and perseverance, and even gets us to be more physically active.

Just think of it: by taking just minutes every week to reflect on a few things that made us grateful, we can deeply sculpt and change the worlds that we inhabit, because of how it transforms our vision. This has some profound practical repercussions on our daily lives. If you only need to invest a small amount of intentional time each week to create a significant improvement in gratitude, what would be nurtured by taking time every day to be intentionally thankful. Like every other desirable habit, it requires practice in order for it to take root and grow. We need to exercise these muscles in order for us to become dynamically thankful. Then we increasingly move beyond merely appreciating components of our life; our lives become a song of gratitude in which the rhythms of eucahristeo and gratitude change the very world we live in.

We then live in the immense white sea of mercy.

 

 

Saints and SEALS: Discipline Equals Freedom

A significant amount of insights in our lives happen when we experience surprising connections between multiple seemingly unrelated ideas. This psychological phenomenon, referred to as “lateral thinking”, is the fertile soil of creativity where our subconscious can sense and establish connections, which fosters innovation.

One arena I have been experiencing some laterality – if I may coin a term – is between the historic Christian understanding of spiritual formation, and one of the most elite class of warriors in the history of the world: the Navy SEALS.

So let’s start here.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to go flipping tires or doing burpees, at least not yet.

The dude with the crew cut has a name that’s only fitting: Jocko. Jocko Willink.

I came across him a little under a year ago; I was listening to an archery podcast, in which the hosts were going over a book. Books and bowhunting, you say? I’m in.

The book they were going over was called Extreme Ownership, and two things became quickly evident to me.

First, the two guys who wrote the book, Jocko and Leif, were former Navy SEALS (what else would they be with names like that) who used their experience from war to glean leadership lessons. Secondly, the dudes on the podcast had a massive man-crush on the authors and the book, if it’s possible to have a crush on a book.

Now, I was initially suspicious; ever since I became a Christian, I have increasingly wrestled with the justification of war. However, this podcast made me curious, so I picked up a copy of Extreme Ownership, and also watched the TED talk with the same title.

And I was surprised and challenged.

Jocko Willink served as a Navy SEAL for two decades, and he commanded Task Unit Bruiser in the Iraq war, which became the most decorated Special Operations Unit in the war. Chris Kyle, the American Sniper, served on this team. After retiring from the service, he co-founded Echelon Front, a business-consulting firm, wrote a New York Times Best-Seller Extreme Ownership, and began one of the most popular podcasts, the Jocko Podcast.

One of Jocko’s cornerstone pillars is that “discipline equals freedom”. Through his time of leading SEALS, Jocko noticed the counterintuitive principle that discipline, more accurately self-discipline, is the actual path to nurturing and forming freedom in our lives.

This is largely in step with the view of spiritual formation and growth throughout the history of the church, going all the way back to the beginning.

However, as I’ve talked to people about this idea, they tend to see two types of contradictions present: a spiritual contradiction to the Christian message of freedom through grace, or a logical contradiction between the concepts of discipline and freedom.

THE SPIRITUAL CONTRADICTION

Regarding the spiritual contradiction, a common response I get is that “this sounds like legalism, which Jesus came to free us from.” Paul tells the church at Ephesus “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God – not the results of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians. 2:8-9). Consequentially, there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less.

Now this is all a good point. However, lets turn to another passage written by Paul: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.

“Do you not know that in a race the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”

What do we see here? Well, we seemingly have a very different picture. In this passage, Paul is spurring the church at Corinth to change from their libertine ways and pursue discipline in their faith and lives. Before this passage, he had been challenging and correcting the Corinthian church and their laundry list of naughty behaviors. and then he rolls into this passage.

Here’s some historical context. Every two years, Corinth would host the Isthmian Games, which was an athletic event that was second only to the Olympics in scope, fame, and glory. So Paul’s audience would quickly get the analogy that Paul was giving.

I’ve read multiple commentaries on this one to see if Paul was making some kind of historical appeal that is now outdated, but this passage is pretty straight forward. One commentator even goes to the extend of saying that the main point of the passage is that we should “exercise self-control in everything”, as “the whole life is at issue, not simply the ‘soma’ body’s desire to eat meat, but wholesale attitudes toward others which determine day-to-day practical stances.”

In the The Spirit of the DisciplinesDallas Willard says that “the successful athlete knows that his disciplines must be undertaken, and undertaken rightly, or all his natural abilities and best efforts will go down in defeat to others who have disciplined themselves in the preparation for the game”.

In this passage, Paul is saying that our attitudes should be like that of athletes, who pursue self-discipline in our lives for the sake of pursuing their goals and missions. They should cultivate an increasing level of sleekness and limberness in their lives as they leave the dross and extra baggage behind through discipline and training. This level of self-discipline is a theme throughout Paul’s letters, and is modeled by Jesus throughout the gospels.

Now the reason behind this apparent contradiction is that we’ve got some things mixed up – and overly simplified – through out the millennia regarding the interplay of God’s grace and our activity. Willard goes on to say “we have simply let our thinking fall into the grip of a false opposition of grace to ‘works’ that was caused by a mistaken association of works with merit.”

So me must begin by detangling our perceived connection between exerting effort at spiritual “works”, and an attempt at earning some merit with God.

So there isn’t a spiritual contradiction present within the claim that discipline equals freedom.

THE LOGICAL CONTRADICTION

The apparent logical contradiction of discipline equaling freedom is clear enough. Common sense assumes that freedom comes through open and uncompelled choice, and typical conceptions of freedom are grounded (a) pursuing our desires, and (b) a lack of limitations. So at first blush, discipline does seem contrary to this because we are consciously enforcing our will to create parameters that hinder and block the way me may want to act. This, then, is not too far from one of the great taboos these days of being disingenuous to us.

However, there are a couple of things off with this conception of freedom.

First, it oversimplifies our interaction with our desires. We are frankly at war much of the time with the bubbling mass that makes up our desires. One study estimated that your average person spends 25% of their waking time – that is about 4 hours a day – trying to resist some kind of desire. When I first came across this, I both felt like it was crazy, but also made a ton of sense. Our desires don’t present themselves in clear, concise, and consistent ways; they instead bear down on us from all angles and all times in a cacophony.

Second, it seems to ignore the kind of behavioral limitations that we are subject to, namely habits. At least 40% of what we do throughout the day – everything – is dictated by habitual patterns of behavior (financial, relational, physical, etc) that we have sculpted ahead of time, and exert coercive pressure on us.

Our desires are a swirling mess and we are largely shaped by the power of habits already. So the pursuit of discipline isn’t a self-inflicted incarceration in the face of freedom, but is the craft of conscious, intentional habit formation. In fact, the question shifts from “do we have discipline in our lives?” to “what kind of discipline do we have in our lives?” By intentionally practicing discipline, we are consciously shaping the habits that will in turn shape our days, and these have a profound impact on how we view ourselves, others, and God.

As Jocko throws down in Extreme Ownership, we want to be physically free and mentally free. We want to be financially free and we want more free time . . . You want more free time? Follow a more disciplined time-management system. You want financial freedom? Implement long-term financial discipline in your life. Do you want to be physically fee to move how you want, and to be free from many health issues caused by poor lifestyle choices? Then you have to have the discipline to eat healthy and consistently work out.”

We should add that if we want to experience the depths of the freedom of what God has for us, then we should implement a practice of spiritual disciplines in our lives.

SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES

So what are spiritual disciplines? Here’s a brief video from one of the contemporary sages on this concept, Dallas Willard:

Spiritual disciplines are exercises and habits which equip up to live fully and freely in the present reality of God – and God works with us, transforming us as we learn and grow, such as prayer, solitude, fasting, and service. The idea that “discipline equals freedom” is a great way to describe one of the main motifs of spiritual formation throughout the history of the church.

WHERE THE RUBBER HITS THE ROAD

So what does all this mean for us? What are the practical nuggets? Welp, it should lead to the conclusion that we should pursue and cultivate discipline in our lives – especially the spiritual disciplines – if we desire to function optimally and thrive. However, this raises the question of how to go about that.

In Gretchen Rubin’s awesome book Better than Before, she drills deep into the structure of habit formation and deconstruction. I was stunned by the amount of great, practical, grounded wisdom in the journey of becoming better; it’s really a must-read. For instance, here’s a nugget she dropped that really caught me off guard: Researchers were surprised to find that people with strong self-control spent less time resisting desires than other people did, because people with good self-control mainly don’t use the will power to rescue them in emergencies, but rather to develop effective habits and routines.

Here are a couple other starting nuggets from the book that I thought were pivotal.

  1. Self-knowledge is critical; especially regarding how we respond to inner and outer expectations. Rubin discusses a framework she came up with, named the four tendencies, which helps give us an understanding of the kind of accountability and motivation we’d need for success.
  2. Beginning well is paramount to habit formation. Starting habits are more likely to be tougher than continuing them. Interrupting a fledgling habit can be derailing, as it interrupts momentum, breeds guilt, and requires a re-up on willpower.
  3. Scheduling a habit helps keeps it going. The very act of scheduling a run, time for meditation, or an important relationship helps ward off procrastination, and habits grow strongest and fastest when they habit at predictable (i.e. scheduled) times.

Again, these points are just a few practical tools; it’s far from comprehensive (get the book!).

To wind down, I want to offer you a couple quotes.

The first is from our boy Dallas Willard, from the Spirit of the Disciplines (again; sorry, but it’s that good):

“In 1937 Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave the world his book The Cost of Discipleship. It was a masterful attack on ‘easy Christianity’ or ‘cheap grace,’ but it did not set aside – perhaps it even enforced – the view of discipleship as a costly spiritual excess, and only for those especially driven or called to it. It was right to point out that one cannot be a disciple of Christ without forfeiting things normally sought in the human life, and that one who pays little in the world’s coinage to bear his name has reason to wonder where he or she stands with God. But the cost of non discipleship is far greater – even when this life alone is considered – than the price paid to walk with Jesus.
Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly the abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.
The road to growth and freedom, especially growth in Christ – discipleship – goes through discipline, particularly through the spiritual disciplines. And there is a cost for not following the road of discipleship; it’s the exact abundance of life that Jesus came to bring.
So may we heed the encouragement that Paul gave his protege Timothy:
“Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Tim 4:7-8)
For in the true paradoxical way of the kingdom, discipline equals freedom.

Wabi Sabi and Writing Straight with Crooked Lines

“A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on an end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.
For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master’s house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream.
“I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.”
“Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”
“I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your masters house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts.” the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the masters house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.”

As people, we are wired to make order out of the world. There are studies that indicate our brains are receiving 400 billion bits of information every second, even though we may be aware of only a couple thousand. Our brain is doing its best to process and collate the almost infinite amount of data that saturate us at every moment. This is why we can read those sentences where the letters of words are mixed up almost as easily as when the letters are properly.

Just focus on our sight for instance. At every moment, our eyes are gathering this field of data from the surrounding reality which is sent to our brain, and our brain is processing it, translating it, and carving it up into parts such as chair, door, and cranky daughter so that we can interact with them in helpful and productive ways (with the potential exception of the crabby girl). Then stack the data from our other senses – the smell of car exhaust, the feel of a slight breeze on the back of our neck, the sounds of a nearby conversation – and it’s amazing to me that we aren’t overwhelmed by the vast amounts of information. What keeps us from being paralyzed by all this – in varying degrees of success – is our ability to make sense of this chaos. Our aptitude at carving up our perceptions the world in ways that are practically helpful is what keeps us from being overwhelmed.

We also do this when it comes to trying to understand why people act in particular ways. We tend to assume that people have some cohesive narrative that is guiding the intentions behind their actions. We functionally assume that by and large, people will act rationally and consistently. However, this is pretty far from the case. We are nowhere near as rational and consistent as what we’d hope. Intentions are a swirling dance of many different things at once, some merely appearing for short time and then vanishing.

Much of our experience is like this; it doesn’t fit into the narratives and stories that we use to understand the world and our place in it. When we face the sharp teeth of suffering in our lives, especially the kind where it seems like it’s no one’s fault, how does that impact our understanding of God’s benevolence, activity, or even existence? One answer would be to say that there isn’t a God, and at first glance this would create a clean and simple narrative. It does it well enough that many people find this convincing, and I think we need to recognize this. However, I think this choice of denying God bypasses the tough crux of the struggle. If we are to fully walk into what it means to be a human, then we have to acknowledge this tension. We are continually confronted by the chaos, transience, and seeming brokenness of the world around us.

We also encounter these signs of entropy and disintegration in our own lives. We notice the mixed integrity behind our intentions. We realize that we may not be as skilled at something as we feel like we should be, or that we are no longer able to do what we once able to do with ease.

One thing that quickly emerges is a sense of shame. Since these mental boogeymen and accusers can easily impact our sense of skill and worth, we try to avoid these aspects of ourselves and instead attempt to compensate through posturing or some other kind of psychological leveraging. However, this is like trying to hold a basketball underwater; it will continue to surface, and the more we try to hide, the more wonky things will get. So then, where does this leave us? How do we process experiences that are confusing, disorienting, and don’t fit into some kind of neat box that we have set up? What if there is some way to create space in our maps and narratives for these aspects that don’t seem to fit in too easily? What if we could accept the tough, imperfect, and fragile in a way that acknowledges what we are going through, while also seeking to make some kind of sense?

Through my study, I recently came across the idea of Wabi-Sabi. A Japanese term, Wabi-Sabi refers to a perspective that focuses on the reception of impermanence and deficiency.

The first term wabi, loosely means pastoral and simple. Think small town charm. The second term sabi refers to a quality of maturation or wear that comes with time, such as the particular color of your favorite faded T-shirt. You really can’t buy that color; it’s earned with mileage.

When combined, it refers to a way of appreciating beauty that refrains from creating clear pictures of clean lines, symmetry, and balance. It instead allows the knobby, crooked, and messy to become the dominant motifs. Ranging from pottery that is far from balanced, to carpentry that is filled with holes and jagged edges, Wabi-Sabi creates space for the unsightly and graceless to be what it is.

The unforeseen consequence however is this new vision of beauty that emerges is stunning in it’s intricacy and elegance (at least I think so; feel free to disagree with me).

Now I don’t know about you, but this perspective sounds a lot more like how I experience my life, than some kind of clear and straightforward narrative. It captures the transience, untidiness, and struggle that stand out through many of my days. it resonates more with the human experience.

It also reminds me of the Psalms; that sweeping collection of poetry in the Old Testament. Many people are caught off guard by how the Psalmist speaks with so much honesty, anger, and confusion. It’s as if we think that these sentiments have no place in a book that is held to be infallible and divinely inspired, so we read those Psalms with a kind of cringe as if we were witnessing a disorderly drunk on public transit. However, the joke is on us because one of the great things about the Psalms is that it presents the human heart in all its raw and unfiltered reality.

Wabi-Sabi and the Psalms offer us the invitation to create space in our lives for the mess. They give us the freedom to not try and collapse everything into some succinct and clean perspective. While this does not mean we should become masochistic and lazy, we can freely acknowledge when things are confusing, discouraging, and cluttered. It allows us to find some kind of way forward in the mess.

Within Wabi-Sabi, there is a kind of pottery called Kintsugi. In true Wabi-Sabi form, the practice of Kintsugi is where pottery is broken, and then put back together with gold at the joints. This is a profoundly moving metaphor. We’re not limited to just acknowledging the cracks, holes, and general brokenness in our lives. Additionally, these places of perceived deficiency, clumsiness, and fragility could instead become the exact places where the glory stands out the most. As Leonard Cohen said, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light get in.” I think we could go further and say that the crack is also the place where the light shines out.
Let’s return to the water bearer and the pot:

“The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the masters house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.”
Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again the Pot apologized to the bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pots side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my masters table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”

The rough edges and cracks of our lives do not need to be forced into the shadows in order to make sense of our lives. Instead, if we acknowledge and embrace them – and just choosing to take a deep breath in that tension – then we are creating space where we can be freed from the paralysis of shame and be surprised by the mysterious and frequently obscured action of God who “writes straight with crooked lines”.

Momento Mori

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom”. –Psalm 90:12

Compared to most of my previous weekends, the past Saturday and Sunday were filled with a variety of activities that would tire me out. On top of this, I had a couple speaking engagements that I knew would be enjoyable, but would also drain me. All of this was circling in my head when a friend approached me on the previous Thursday with an invitation. He told me that he had two available tickets to a father-daughter dance for the upcoming Saturday, and he wanted to know if I would want to take my girl.

A dialogue instantly began in my head.

One voice said that I would need to rest on the weekend because of how I was worn down by the work week.

That my daughter is still pretty young and I could always do it next year when the timing would be better.

That I will be too emotionally drained from the public speaking to be worth anything to her during that time.

That it would be easier to just say no because I had not been planning on it.

The other voice nudged me towards going to to the dance; I didn’t really have anything to lose except for comfort, and I knew she would have a blast.

As I was thinking through the daddy-daughter-dance-dilemma, a recently-heard rhetorical question quickly rose up from my subconscious

I had heard someone recently talk about nostalgia and regret in our lives, and they posted this kind of question for reflection: 

“What parts of your day are you taking for granted, that sixty years from now you would pay a fortune to relive?” 

“What aspects of your day are you preforming on autopilot that you would give anything to be experiencing again?”

“How would you live your life if you knew that you would have to eternally relive this life in a kind of infinite loop?”

Something else that surfaced was the idea of memento mori. When translated from Latin, it means something like “remember that you will die”.

While at first glimpse this may sound macabre – and frankly even more so in a post about some father-daughter time – I think it is wildly relevant and an invitation to life. This saying emerged through medieval Christianity, and one of the primary manifestations was in art. Artists would create these beautiful, pastoral, and pseudo-utopian scenes in paintings, but then add a skull or tomb somewhere in the piece of art as a reminder that death will eventually come.

If memento mori could be distilled down to its essence, it would be that how we live our lives in the present should be shaped by the understanding that one day will be our day. It’s the idea that we shouldn’t passively living out our hours, days, and years as if they’d continue on ad infinitum. Think of it as a more existentially robust YOLO, without the bent towards hedonism.

Our culture tries to largely avoid the issue of our mortality. Memento mori spurs us to live with eyes open to our pending mortality and allow that to sculpt our priorities and schedules down all the way to the seemingly mundane aspects of our lives. As the Psalmist said, “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom”.

All this talk of mortality and Latin phrases can make one’s head spin; it begs the question of how it intersects with our lives, because if these ideas merely remain ethereal than they remain elusive theory and not helpful wisdom.

So what does memento mori look like when implemented?

How should these rhetorical questions sculpt our days?

I try – and I mean try – to not get bogged down in a dizzying web of angst and lethargy that can accompany the sense that all is vapor.

Instead, these questions have first caused me to attempt to recognize common moments I now take for granted, but that I anticipate will have a shimmer to them in a few decades.

Once recognized, I then try to be consciously present in those moments – to deeply drink them in. I’m striving to bask in them as much as I can in the moment, knowing that the moment is indeed fleeting, and all that will be left is a delicate memory. I try to pause more and bask in the glory that surrounds me, even if it is such a mundane glory that I can’t see it.

As I was processing through all of this – and potentially drooling on myself during the process – it became evident to me that not going to the dance was the easy, lazy, and cowardly way out for me. While I may need to dig a little deeper for some energy or attitude, the fruit would be priceless. I would be taking an advantage of an opportunity that I would never have again, even if there were more dances down the road.

So I heeded the call, and we crushed that dance in the most radiant and jubilant way possible. We danced to Taylor and JT, ate way too much sugar (sorry Mom), and took some selfies. I had a chance to prodigally dote on her, letting her know that she’s beloved.

While it was a victory for me, it was more importantly a challenge. It caused me to reflect on how frequently I focus on the flashy and urgent at the expense of the priceless. It is too for me to invest time and energy in temporary endeavors and stressors, as opposed to taking a few minutes and play some nonsensical game that my daughter just invented.

How can I become more attuned to what is important, the small moments of sapphire and emerald that are present in all of my days, but are also oddly tough to recognize?

I hope that memento mori can be a source of inspiration, grounding, and prioritization in my life. I hope that my heart can be like the Psalmist’s, who recognizes that an awareness of our mortality and the transience of our lives can be a remarkable source of power and wisdom.