New Year, New Job

2014 was a very unusual year, and I neglected my blog as I adjusted to many big changes. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but one of my goals for this year is to start writing more reflections on this blog.

Life update: I had been working with the children’s group at a local church, but they caught on fairly quickly that my gifts might lie elsewhere. Last week, I started working with the Friday night college ministry, and with their afternoon Sunday school for their high school students.

One of the most challenging things for me is that I’m facing a group of students who, by and large, have grown up in the church. Given my background, I’m much better at talking to atheists. I get where they are coming from; I know how to talk to them about God. Most of the time, the God they don’t believe in is a God I don’t believe in either! They don’t believe in a God who delights in torture, who defies any logic, who allots salvation like Willy Wonka apportioned golden tickets – utterly at random – and neither do I. We have something in common.

Talking to Christian students is much more challenging, because instead of not believing in a bad God, they tend to believe the wrong things about the right God. And even if they believe the right things about God, those right things often get left at the church doors on the way out. I’m honestly a little intimidated by the prospective of figuring out how to help these students grow.

As I’ve gotten to know this church, I’ve learned a couple of things that worry me. First of all, it’s a church mostly of immigrants, which sometimes signals that members’ sense of belonging to the church may be less focused on faith in Christ and more on finding ways to preserve their culture. Secondly, I surveyed the middle schoolers and found that many (though not all) of the students do not feel God’s presence in the church. That is, for them, the primary experience they have at church is of a community revolving around a particular culture (Chinese) and obligation (my parents will be upset with me if I don’t come). Thirdly, the college students who had a connection to another Christian group (like Intervarsity) seemed on average more invested / spiritually mature than the ones who were only attached to the church. Of course, it was one of those Intervarsity guys who – when asked what book of the Bible he would like to discuss – chose Song of Songs. So maybe my judgments are entirely off-base.

One of the groups would sometimes do an activity called “highs” and “lows” in which they would share a high point and a low point of their week. I think all church groups should have moments like this – times in which we collectively share what’s going on in our lives so that we can stay in touch and offer support during more challenging periods. But after my first “high” and “low,” I realized that it’s a great exercise to build community generally, but not necessarily a great exercise to build a distinctly Christian community. (I think my high was that I started playing Clash of Clans with my family, which bought me street cred with the middle schoolers until they realized I was playing the old version. So I’ll be the first to admit that I failed at spiritualizing this exercise.)

I decided for both the college and high school groups, I’m going to replace “highs” and “lows” with something similar, but different. I’m asking each person to share something that God did in their lives in the previous week. I want to help them develop a sacramental vision to see that God lies beyond the doors of our church, that what they do in the daily rhythm of their lives matters to God, and that if they truly believe what they sing on Sunday mornings, it should offer them comfort and guidance throughout their week.

The first exercise with the high schoolers illuminated the variations in maturity. A couple of the older, more mature students were very insightful (God showed them the importance of helping their grandmother, inspired them with gratitude, or challenged them). One boy said frankly, “all I did last week was sleep, eat, and play video games.” About half the answers were a weekly recap without reference to God. But I hope as we practice this new exercise, they start to develop the vision that lets them see God’s fingerprints in the world around them.

As for me? Well, on the drive to church in the morning, I had settled that I would share about how a talk with two non-Christian friends reminded me that I need to (a) get over my obsession with being “right” about politics and listen better to move conversation to deeper things and (b) spend more time rethinking my political views in light of Christ. I had intended it to be a reminder that God works through everyone – even those who have different religious beliefs from us.

God had another plan. After the morning service, my church offered a morning class on marriage from an older couple I’d gotten to know on my first visit. They seem like a lovely family, and I seemed to get along with the wife as well as the husband (finally!). At the class, the wife shared some of the struggles they had gone through during their 39 years of marriage. She and I shared some uncanny similarities, and I talked to her afterward. It turns out that we processed in very similar ways, and she gave me some advice that will help me figure out how to resolve conflicts in my current relationship better. This came the morning after my boyfriend and I had gotten into an argument of sorts, and it was clear that something needed to change. It brought tears to my eyes to talk to this woman who shared my struggles but had persevered through them. She helped me to see the ways that I need to change, helped me to remain humble, and served as the sign I had prayed for the night before.

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Some would say, of course, that it was mere coincidence. I can’t prove that it wasn’t. But with sacramental vision, we can see God’s handiwork in even the most ordinary of things. I pray that God will help grow in my students the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

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Lessons in Humility

A letter to a good friend, who is struggling to manage coworkers without getting angry at them for being “stupid.”

Dear Theophilus,

When I was in the 7th grade, my history teacher made us write poems on the virtues as part of a medieval-style morality play. If I remember correctly, I was assigned humility. Needless to say, I didn’t get it. I don’t think this would surprise any of my friends who knew me during those early years.

But during that transition period during my freshman year of college, C.S. Lewis taught me that one of my biggest vices was pride. In fact, he said “pride leads to every other vice.” If I wanted to develop character, I needed to cultivate the virtue of humility. The problem is, of course, that it’s rather difficult to “work on” humility. As soon as you start succeeding, you think “I’m so proud of myself for having become more humble” – at which point, you must start the process over again.

One of the most helpful changes I made to improve my humility was influenced by psychology research. Psychologists use a term called attribution bias to describe how we’re inclined to attribute blame for others’ behavior on themselves or their character, while we attribute blame for our own behavior to our environment or circumstances. That sounds a little bit convoluted; the examples are more obvious.

“That person didn’t know this because they’re an idiot!” = attribution to person

“That person didn’t know this because they weren’t taught it in a good way” = attribution to situation

Most people have a self-serving bias, that is, they attribute negative qualities to others based on being a bad person, while attributing negative qualities or actions of oneself to the situation. “They lost the game because they sucked” vs. “I lost the game because the ref made a bad call.” And our bias for positive qualities is equally self-serving. We take the exact opposite with good qualities – for ourselves, we attribute good things to positive character while for others we attribute good things to their environment. We’re more likely to say, “I scored well on that test because I’m a hard-worker who studied hard” rather than, “I scored well on that test because my dad taught me to value education.” For others, we often will say, “she’s just nice because she doesn’t have to deal with all the idiots I have to deal with” instead of saying, “she’s nice because she is just a nice person.”

I think it’s interesting to note that the more we like a person, the more willing we are to attribute positive things to their character. Maybe that’s why the adage goes “love others as you love yourself.” When we love other people, we treat them more like we treat ourselves. We offer up a them-serving bias just like our self-serving one.

Part of my process of learning humility involved deliberately trying to acknowledge what other factors might be in play in the behavior of others, and what parts of my own behavior were caused by lapses of character and not merely situations. This is why I’m sympathetic to a lot of the conversation about privilege – because it acknowledges the untold ways my situation has benefited me – and hostile toward one aspect of it – the part which also feels wrongly deterministic, making all outcomes caused by situations rather than people.

When I recognize all the manifold ways I have benefited from my situation (good parents, good grandparents, decent money, an incredible set of friends, a rich library), it forces me to be grateful for all the blessings I’ve been given instead of taking pride in my own character. When I confront situations where I’ve performed negatively, I try to acknowledge my own character lapses rather than simply attempting to shift blame to my situation. This doesn’t have to be 100% – so many situations are part character and part environment. (Like that other situation we were in – it was partly because I was tired and partly out of a good intention, but also partly because I lacked self-control and have needed to work on that element of my character more for a while now.) But I find that mentally trying to reverse the order of attribution helps me to have a less self-serving bias. It gives me the eyes to see what I need to see about myself so that I can change when I need to change.

Similarly, when I work with others, I try to assume that they have been influenced by their situation more. That person who hurt my feelings didn’t learn about the virtue of charity that I learned. That student who struggles with logical reasoning didn’t have a philosophy professor as a father like me. Or even – that person who should know this mathematical concept just doesn’t have as good of brain for these types of things. (Again, maybe they didn’t have a dad teaching them the wonder of mathematics!) That way, when I teach something to someone, I’m not mad at them for being stupid. I just assume there is another explanation (or I attribute their stupidity to worse genes). Then I don’t feel better about myself when I have to explain something to them, or to teach them something. It all just becomes about “paying forward” the advantages that I’ve been giving, about becoming a part of a good environment to help them become their best self. And that challenges me more than it challenges them.

I hope this helps you with your situation at work. But don’t tell me if you think you’re getting better at humility; remember it was just because you got a really somewhat helpful letter from a friend.

Grace and peace,
Jordan