What an Army general can teach Millennials about happiness

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My latest column at Patheos is entitled “How Millennials Can Be Happy Again.” In it I discuss a recent interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks in which Brooks draws lessons from the life of former Army Chief of Staff George Marshall.

Excerpt:

Brooks made a point of emphasizing that Marshall was willing and eager to make serving the Army his life’s commitment. He gave himself to the cause of the institution, Brooks said, in a way that allowed the Army to shape his identity. He “emptied himself” in order to become a servant of the institution. Thus, Marshall’s legacy became one of historic self-control and indefatigable service to those around him.

Brooks uses Marshall and other examples to argue that one of the signs of a person who has character is a willingness to make “amazing commitments” (Brooks’s words) to meaningful causes. Whether to another person, an institution, a cause, a church, etc., the emotional centering that defines people with consistent character comes from making self-emptying commitments to something(s) that exists outside of the self…

The kind of self-emptying that Brooks described in the life of George Marshall is loathsome to many postmoderns. They think of such a life as unthinking obeisance and passivity. To use one’s life to make commitments to others rather than to “discover” and actualize our own existences runs the risk, many suppose, of becoming what Ayn Rand called “second-handers,” those who only live through the lives of others. But let us ask carefully which is the truly second-hand life: The life of commitment and service and identity in something that lives and lasts beyond us, or the life of the “selfie,” the constant rebranding and submission of our identities into the marketplace of our peers to eagerly await the next “Like” or “Favorite”?

You can read the entire piece here. Have a blessed weekend!

Moving On

All I can say is: Wow. What an amazing experience I’ve had in the past year with this blog. I picked blogging back up after a long hiatus late last year, registered this site, and proceeded to write. Several months later I’ve had over 5,000 hits, dozens of comments, several freelancing opportunities, and more blessings than I can remember, much less deserve.

Yesterday finally completed my transition to Patheos Evangelical channel. This blog still lives, but it will now be hosted at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inklingations. Even though the blog in its entirety is there, I still feel a sentimental separation. This blog address has seen some amazing things and I can’t wait for what else is in store. Soon this blog address will forward people to my new home.

So, go over to my new site, and be sure to connect with me there!

NFL, Domestic Abuse, and the Way Forward

The NFL’s unprecedented month of woes has elicited reactions that are unfortunately falling neatly along right/left lines. Writing for SBNation.com, Jane Coaston says the NFL itself is essentially evil:

Football has never been good. There has never been a time at which football, a game dependent on both incredible skill and irredeemable violence, has been good. Don’t think that football has not always been a violent game full of terrible people. It has been, and is, and will likely always be.

Joe Namath was a “lovable rogue” only because we did not have First Take back then, and because Colin Cowherd would have set him on ritualistic fire. Every football superstar you can think of has likely done something that would offend your most cherished beliefs. The great secret of all of history is that everything has always been kind of bad but slowly, painfully, it gets better. That is true in football as well. We just have the unique privilege of knowing exactly how completely terrible it is.

Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel agrees:

But if you consider yourself a moral consumer who cares about equality, there is no excuse for continuing to be a fan of the NFL. “Not all NFL players!” is not an excuse when leadership is rotten from the top down. “But I’m barely contributing anything bad!” is as valid an excuse for continuing to support the NFL as it is for littering. No matter how fun it is, how thrilling, if you’re a person who claims to care about women, watching the NFL is morally indefensible until something changes. No one can be perfectly morally consistent at all times or completely ethical in everything they consume (that would be exhausting), but this one seems like a gimme.

If you won’t eat at Chik-fil-A because the company’s leadership doesn’t support gay marriage (because you believe in equality!) but you still watch NFL football after its leadership made it clear for the millionth time that it shelters and supports domestic abusers, you are a [expletive] hypocrite.

That passage seems to me more revealing about the author’s particular ethical approach than anything. Mentioning Chick Fil-A as an “equality” issue which can more or less be compared to domestic abuse is not a credibility-winner. It only makes sense in a zero-sum ethic which reduces all moral categories to one-‘equality’-and pursues an exclusivist approach in determining who is moral and who isn’t.

Coaston’s argument doesn’t seem much better. It sounds as if she’s responding to a claim no one is making, that the NFL is a bastion of virtue and goodness that should be given every benefit of the doubt. Ironically, this might be evidence that Coaston and her fellow feminist commentators have themselves been hoodwinked by the NFL’s PR machine. At Commentary, Jonathan Tobin acknowledges that the NFL has strategically marketed itself as a community helper. Understanding that this posture is one of style and not substance, Tobin argues, should make us see the NFL as neither holistically good nor holistically evil:

But though it’s hard to sympathize with Goodell or any of the other rich people that arrogantly preside over the sport, the rage against the league is as disproportionate as the league’s swaggering image. Like other industries, including other forms of popular entertainment, the NFL employs its share of thugs. But contrary to the pop psychology being spouted on the networks about football and domestic violence, this might be a good moment to point out that criminal louts were beating their wives, girlfriends, and children, long before Yale’s Walter Camp sketched out some of the key rules that differentiated American football from rugby and Princeton played the sport’s first college game against Rutgers.

In other words, the NFL is a product, one that comes in do-good packaging but is a reflection–not a shaper–of cultural values.

A powerful piece of evidence for this thinking is the Rice incident. The overwhelming majority of media coverage has focused on a Watergate-like attempt to find out what Commissioner Roger Goodell knew (specifically, what he knew about a video recording of Rice’s vicious knockout of Jenay Palmer) and when he knew it. Lost in this inquisition are hard questions about why Rice’s judge allowed him to sidestep jail and enter a pretrial prevention program. The same judge denied the same pretrial program to a single mother who relocated to New Jersey possessing a handgun that was licensed in Pennsylvania but not yet registered in her new home state. She is now facing prison time, but Judge Michael Donio has yet to face the firestorm that has pursued Goodell. This seems to accord with the notion that domestic violence is not addressed strongly enough in the culture at large, a fact which is reflected now in the NFL. (As an aside, one wonders if folks on the Left like Coaston are unwilling to criticize a judge tough on guns but soft on domestic violence.)

So Coaston and Ryan mistakenly reduce morality to corporate encroachment of equality. But simply going in the other corner doesn’t quite work here either. Rich Lowry misses the mark, I believe, by changing the subject so as to put the media in the dock.

In recent weeks, you’d think that the fate of justice in America depends on how harshly the NFL punishes a few miscreants. Only if Ray Rice and accused child-abuser Adrian Peterson are banished from the game do women and children have a chance of living in a country where they are safe from violence and abuse…

No matter how many sermonettes we hear to the contrary, the NFL is not the key to fighting domestic violence. In fact, it has no connection to it whatsoever. Domestic violence declined 63 percent from 1994 to 2012, according to the Justice Department — even though the NFL had a lenient policy toward domestic abusers across this period.

I get what Lowry is saying, but isn’t this the same mistake that Coaston makes? Simply because the NFL cannot fight domestic abuse the way that some say it should doesn’t mean its policies can be “learn as you earn.” That certainly isn’t the approach that commissioner Goodell has taken with his substance abuse. Until this week the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement specified a four game ban for a first time offense with marijuana. That CBA, by the way, was agreed to by the players union only after two weeks of preseason in 2012 were lost to a lockout. Goodell and the NFL were willing to strain profits in order to have a tough drug policy. It’s a fair and important question why such toughness evaporated when players hit women.

The most expensive media air time in the world is the NFL’s championship game. That fact alone is enough for me to dismiss Lowry’s complaints that the media should have better things to do than cover the NFL’s culture problems. Again, I think Tobin is exactly correct here: “If you ask people to treat you as gods, you can’t complain when they find out you have feet of clay and start talking about tearing down the altars where false deities are worshipped.”

Yes, and here we are getting closer to how the NFL can truly go forward on domestic violence. Violence against women and children is an ugly manifestation of self-worship and flexing of power. It’s highly plausible that the football’s swagger and success has fostered a climate of invincibility, buoyed by athlete-olatry that occurs when many of these players are in high school. If you’ve skirted academic requirements your entire scholastic life, you might find yourself with a worldview that is antithetical to the sacrifice and self-control that relationships–all kinds, not just romantic ones–demand.

Correcting this culture takes more (but not less) than rule changes. It requires a transformation of the imagination, one that stops cutting corners on life and responsibility for the sake of sports. It requires that sports fans (like me) lead the way in reversing the placement of athletics above critical discourse. What A.O. Scott refers to as the “unassailable ascendency of the fan” has created a sports culture that is beyond criticism because of the tribal identity and purpose it bestows. This must be fixed at every level. The demotion of football from pantheon to pastime will not eliminate domestic abuse, of course, but it will bring football players and fans back to reality, a reality in which everyone is created equally in the image of God, regardless of skills.

Roger Goodell’s Credibility Problem

The Ray Rice fiasco is leaving a gaping hole in NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s credibility. First, he suspended Rice for two games, the same month the league handed down punishments ranging from 3 to 8 times that amount for recreational drug use. The NFL then circled the wagons around the decision and made themselves look criminally absurd in the process. Then, Goodell admitted that he had mishandled Rice’s situation and announced a tough, zero-tolerance policy for players who commit domestic abuse. “I didn’t get it right,” he confessed. Good on him, we said.

Today, video released showing…well, showing exactly what we were told happened. The video of Rice viciously hitting his fiance unconscious is a chilling visual experience, but it’s not actually news. What happened in the video is precisely the charge that Rice was given in criminal court, the one he entered a pretrial program for and avoided jail time. There is zero substantive difference between what we knew Rice did back in July and what we know he did now. The only difference is that Rice’s violence can be watched online.

And that, in the end, is what Goodell really doesn’t want:

The Baltimore Ravens terminated running back Ray Rice’s contract on Monday, hours after TMZ Sports released a video showing him punching his then-fiancée in the face in an Atlantic City hotel elevator in February.

Minutes later, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that, based on the latest video evidence now available, Rice is suspended indefinitely from playing in the league. His two-game suspension for assaulting Janay Palmer was scheduled to end Friday.

The Ravens are well within their moral and contractual rights to terminate Rice. They don’t want to be associated with him or this situation. Good for them. Goodell, however, is a different case entirely. He is making Rice pay not just for what he did but what Goodell didn’t do. The league can plead all they want that they never saw the video until today (which I HIGHLY doubt is true). In the end, what does that matter? Ray Rice did exactly what Roger Goodell and the NFL front office punished him for. The only difference between then and now is that what he is being punished for is public viewing.

This is completely asinine. It’s one thing to be tone-deaf and morally pitiful on domestic abuse. It’s quite another thing to scramble to cover the egg on your face by pushing human shields in front of you. Ray Rice is not being punished today for what he did. That already happened, shameful as it was. He is being punished for the moral blindness exhibited by Goodell and the league in the first place.

Look at what Goodell told Rice in his letter telling the player about the two game suspension:

“I believe that you are sincere in your desire to learn from this matter and move forward toward a healthy relationship and successful career,” Goodell wrote to Rice. “I am now focused on your actions and expect you to demonstrate by those actions that you are prepared to fulfill those expectations.”

“I am now focused on your actions.” Which actions? Has that stopped being true? If so, how? Goodell is showing a total lack of integrity here. In the letter, he explains to Rice that the league is satisfied with Rice’s commitment to not abuse women again. Today, the league is no longer satisfied. Why? Because….well, nothing’s changed. Because we all know what Rice did, we just weren’t able to watch it until.

Shame on Roger Goodell. Shame on the NFL. Shame on anyone whose moral indignation goes only as far as a video goes viral. Shame on anyone who changes the rules of the game in order to cover their failures. I’m not saying Ray Rice deserves to play in the NFL. What I am saying is that Roger Goodell doesn’t deserve to get away with being two-faced.

 

What I Learned From Truett Cathy

In July 2009 I was hired by a Chick Fil-A in Louisville, Kentucky. I was a sophomore in college and a freshman in life. Chick Fil-A (affectionately abbreviated as CFA) took a chance on an awkward 20 year old with no previous job experience and gave me the opportunity to pay for college and gas until I left in October 2010.  My debt-free graduation last year was at least partly CFA’s doing, which is why I want to pay a personal respect to founder Truett Cathy, who passed away this morning.

I never met Mr. Cathy, but the businesses he founded was so molded in his image that I can honestly say I did know him. I knew his values; “customer service” was a cheap word for what we were trained to do at CFA. In fact, our managers trained us to use the word “guest” instead of “customer.” A customer is someone you serve but a guest is someone you welcome. Cathy understood the power of language and ritual in creating a culture. The guest may not have always been right (oh, the stories I have!), but the guest always mattered.

Showing up on time mattered too. I was typically a very punctual employee, but one time I was confronted for clocking in 5 minutes after my scheduled shift time. It was ridiculous, overbearing and anal; except, of course, to my coworker whom I was meant to relieve. Even in enforcing standards, CFA was careful to go to bat for its employees. Not every thing was good, of course, but again: I mattered. My coworkers mattered. That alone is enough to set CFA far, far apart from the fast food industry.

I was paid above minimum wage, remarkable given my almost total lack of professional references. Every employee was given a free meal every time they worked, which I found out later is definitely not industry-standard. Off the clock, food was 50% off for employees and members of their household. That could add up quite a bit for a college student who still lived at home. I worked with several guys who planned on their shift meal being their evening’s dinner. The perks mattered.

Cathy’s well known policy of closing on Sunday has probably handcuffed CFA’s profits about as much as any restaurant’s policy has ever handcuffed them. I can guarantee you that, were CFA open on the Lord’s Day, it would burst at the seams with customers. CFA has held fast to this policy in the face of what was I’m sure incredible temptation to abandon it, particularly in economic downturn and the decline of the strip malls that introduced America to Cathy’s food. For Cathy and Chick Fil-A, principle mattered.

For these reasons (and more), I cannot take seriously anyone who accuses Cathy or his business of homophobia merely because he votes his values. Such a statement is ignorant and hateful, yes, but it’s also absurd. The entire legacy and culture of what Truett Cathy accomplished in Chick Fil-A is one of great appreciation for people–guests and employees alike–and a sense that doing the right thing, even when hard, matters. Those lessons I learned in my time in Mr. Cathy’s restaurant. For that, I am very thankful.

 

Back to School

Inside of my mind there are two kinds of memories. The first kind is the kind you thought about immediately when you read the word memories. It’s the visual kind, the recorder, containing images and sounds from life that can be played back at will. The second kind is the memory of feeling. This is memory not only of fact but of sensation. The best comparison I can think of is remembrance of a sweet or horrifying dream. Remembering the actual content of the dream is usually difficult, but what is easy is remembering the feeling of yearning or dread that overwhelmed you right when your eyes first opened and the mirage disappeared yet lingered. That moment, between waking and wakefulness, contains the memory of feeling. Read More

Why Football Matters

You should know that what follows is an utterly biased blog post. I am a lifelong football fan, specifically of the St. Louis Rams (farewell, Sam Bradford). So many cherished memories include the blending of football and family that often I find myself using NFL games as a shorthand to identify particular snapshots of memory. As far as I can recall there has never been a time in my life that watching, playing or “Maddening” football has not been featured.

Football matters to many people. From a numbers standpoint, pro football has graded out as the country’s #1 sport for a generation. That doesn’t even take into account the Leviathan known as college football, or the head-spinning salaries of some high school football coaches in places like Texas. Much, much more than a pastime, football has become a cultural ritual, uniquely American and irresistably populist. Let’s face it: You know you’re kind of big deal when mainstream media campaigns for your championship weekend to be a federal holiday. Read More