Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lenten Practices: Putting off the "elsewhere self"

This year I have a theme to my Lenten practices. I don't think I've ever thought of my Lenten practices in thematic terms, but that's what the Spirit seems to be prompting in me and the following quote captures the spirit of my desire to mentally de-clutter. This comes from Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn's very fine essay, "From Inwardness to Intravidualism," published in the recent Hedgehog Review. Tracing out the lines of thought in Dalton Conley's incisive book, Elsewhere, U.S.A, she draws these observations:

"Recent socioeconomic trends have yielded a whole 'new breed of person' and a 'new texture of everyday life' (17-8)--a phenomenon he hopes to capture by employing 'elsewhere' as an adjective. The 'elsewhere' society is comprised of only the most 'fleeting and one-dimensional' social interactions, and the 'elsewhere' individual is in perpetual state of inner conflict, plagued by the uneasy feeling that no matter where one is, one is potentially missing out on something more important.

This new person is not so much an individual as an 'intravidual', someone with 'multiple selves competing for attention within his/her own mind, just as, externally, she or he is bombarded by multiple stimuli simultaneously' (7). Gone is the stable self with an 'authentic inner core'--as in the phrase 'finding oneself'. Instead of being guided by the imperatives of self-development in the old-fashioned sense, 'intravidualism is an ethic of managing the myriad data streams, impulses, desires, and even consciousness that we experience in our heads as we navigate multiple words' (7).

Like a fan at the sports game who, realizing she or he is on camera, cannot decide whether to enjoy the moment by looking at the screen or to perfect his or her image by looking at the camera, the 'intravidual' is uncertain and anxious, forever plagued by the road not taken. Caught up in the winds of multitasking, other fans cannot resist text messaging or talking on their cell phones, even though they have paid an exorbitant price for their seats."

After reading this passage I put the journal down, because I needed to process her words. I felt an intense dissatisfaction with tendencies that I have observed in myself and both Conley and Lasch-Quinn had a name for it: the "elsewhere self."

I have too much going on in my life. I have too many channels of data trying to squeeze themselves into my head. In consequence I feel that I'm losing two things: my moral ability to process the data wisely and a quiet, internal space in my soul. What I need is a re-calibration of internal appetites. I need to constrict the flow of external data so that there can be, as it were, an expansion of simplicity on the inside.

I don't sleep well. I struggle to keep in my memory things that I am studying. I feel increasingly distractible. And with a baby on the way, I sense a need to do things that will strengthen my emotional capacity to be present to Phaedra and the baby rather than, well, be elsewhere.

All I have to say, in that light, is thank God for Lent. Lent is a beautiful season that not only reinforces bonds of kinship with Christians, it also offers us an excuse to reorganize the "spiritual life."

Here, then, are the practices that by God's grace and the ever-present aid of the Spirit, in cooperation with fellow believers, will begin in me a necessary process of mental declutter.

MEDIA
1. Be off the internet by 7 pm. I miss my evenings. The fact is, surfing the internet always provides the easiest, most brainless, most passive way to distract myself. If I want to recover a measure of quiet in my life--that would make going to sleep a gentler matter--then I need to put up a boundary with my internet use. I want to read novels. I want to listen to music. I want to hang out leisurely with Phaedra. I want to have an evening proper, one that isn't chewed away by the internet, and that means raising a fence against the temptation to do what is merely easy.

2. Be off of Facebook. I like FB. I enjoy rummaging around and seeing what folks are up to. But I also have acquired a mental tick. Every time I post something, my mind fidgets with curiosity, wondering if people have written comments. I want a break from that mental tick and so I'm setting aside the use of FB. I'll post on Sundays only. If you send me a message via FB, I'll try to respond as readily as possible.

3. Before I read the morning's news and email correspondence on my computer, I want to practice my morning devotions first. It's a little pathetic how easy it is to crawl out of bed, wash my face, brush my teeth, grab a glass of water and then shuffle over to the computer to see what exciting things have happened while I was asleep. I don't like this habit, to be honest.

Spending 30 minutes to an hour on the computer not only makes it difficult to recover a quiet space to read Scripture, pray and prepare my heart for the day. Sometimes it makes it impossible to want to embrace my morning devotions. So I'm putting up another boundary. I'm forbidding myself from opening the computer until I have engage a proper spiritual exercise and allowed my soul to receive from God his grace for the day.

FOOD
I'm not going to try and tackle a big food discipline this year. The media disciplines will demand plenty of energy. So this year I'm simply cutting sweets out of my week. It'll be simple, sure, but I'm sure my body will thank me for the break.

ONE ACT OF ENGAGEMENT
I want to memorize one Scripture or prayer a week. I've been working through the Collects in the BCP. I'd like to try to memorize all of them. I want things inside my soul that I can carry around with me wherever I go. I've not been good at memorizing Scripture for some time, and I'd like to recover that practice too. If I only manage to memorize one verse, I'll be happy. At least I'll be doing something.

Lastly, it's nice to know that I'm not entering into these Lenten practices alone. Phaedra will join me in some of these exercises, while also practicing a few of her own. And then there is our community at All Saints Anglican and our friends scattered abroad.

May our Triune God grant us grace to keep a good Lent this year. May he encourage you in whatever you take on in your journey with Christ and his people through this season. And may we encounter a "new creation" on the other end. Amen.

11 comments:

The Aesthetic Elevator said...

A-MEN to point number one.

Wish I could be there too, but probably not this year. Working 50 hour weeks, two different jobs both of which are 90% computer centric.

Bryce said...

How beautiful is it that we have a built in time for askesis in our liturgical calendar. It's tough to start, and make sure you keep this time holy, but well worth it. As we pray through these 40 days may we be stretched in ways we couldn't have imagined. Keep it HOLY!

Adam said...

I was just thinking... I've often seen an interesting (but not necessarily 1:1) connection between social networking (like Facebook), and the communion of saints. I wonder if you could make a connection between the unhealthy attention given to the "elsewhere self", and the unhealthy extremes of traditionalism.

...just thinking out loud.

Holly said...

I'm inspired! Thanks, DT

w. david o. taylor said...

Paul, Bryce, Holly: thanks for the comments.

Adam: tell me more. I'm curious to hear what you have in mind there.

I confess, I'm curious what's going on in the ol' FB world at the moment. :)

Burning Myth said...

Bravo my friend. I commend you. I also want to say— oops, excuse me, my phone just chirped-- this text could be important— gotta go...

Adam said...

Well, it's just an intuitional connection, a thought in embryonic form at this point, but it goes kind of like this.

There is this idea of the communion of the saints across space and time. And this is something to be considered "good." What is the nature of that community? It's certainly not definable in the same sense as a local church can be called "community." But there is still some sense that we find ourselves in communion with those who have gone before us, and those all around the world. We pray for them. We have concern for them and their wellbeing. We learn from them: our doctrine and liturgy is informed these "elsewhere" saints in mind. The connection that exists between us and this invisible communion is a disembodied one. It's cognitive as we study and learn. It's spiritual as we pray. However we might explain the nature of this communion, it can't really be explained as physically "here." One thing that is fascinating to me about Facebook (and things like it) is that this new media helps to open up actual engagement with these other saints throughout the world in a way that has never previously existed.

I have often described myself as having a crush on Eastern Orthodoxy. I love so much about it. One characteristic of Orthodoxy has a very strong sense of this communion of the saints -- I would say probably stronger than any other Christian tradition. There is evolution of liturgy and doctrine in Orthodoxy, but it is very, very reluctant evolution because it holds with such reverence ideas and ways of those who have gone before them and other Orthodox communities all around the world. Even as it has expanded into other countries, it has largely retained its form.

While I have a lot of respect for this characteristic of Orthodoxy, I tend to think that the extent to which it takes this respect for tradition is a bit extreme. It has such a strong sense of respect for the interests of the "elsewhere" saints that it doesn't seem to really allow individual communities to truly find and express themselves in indigenous ways. There doesn't seem to be much allowance for Christian community to be incarnated in this particular place in this particular time. The particular is swallowed by the universal. The needs and interests of the invisible seem to take overshadow those of the visible so that it can create a barrier to engaging those who are present with them. (The opposite extreme, of course, is found in many evangelical protestant communities that almost completely disregard the interests of the invisible church.)

Anyway, it seems like there might be a loose, but interesting, analogy between this "elsewhere self" phenomenon of Facebook and an overzealous reverence of communion and solidarity with the invisible church. The moral of the story being that it is a good thing to value our community with those not present with us, but it is also important that this elsewhere focus doesn't drown out our sense of self and awareness of what is going on immediately around us.

...or something like that.

Anyway, I think it's a great idea what you're doing!

BTW - Kara and I visited Christ Church again this week. We both really enjoyed the worship and the community -- both on Sunday and for the Ash Wed service. I've been researching Anglicanism this week, trying to figure out if it is something I can fully embrace. Do you think there's a chance that they can just save me the trouble and corporately convert to a Baptist church? Just for me? Huh? Do you think it might happen?

Tamara @ Living Palm said...

"elsewhere self"! I love when a discovered phrase helps us de-clutter the loose threads of thoughts and ideas that jumble up our heads. thank you for sharing your finding!
may God bless your commitments to Him, Phaedra and baby Taylor this season. (how I LOVED writing that sentence)

Joshua Banner said...

If you can, add one more (one that I'm failing at right now): no internet in bed. Maybe you already keep the computer out of the place you sleep. We stopped that at the beginning of the school year and have read more together than ever.

w. david o. taylor said...

Jefe: you rascal.

Adam: interesting observation. Yes, I periodically feel an EO crush myself.

My sense, though, of the article I cite is that it's not so much about "elsewhere" viz relationships but about "elsewhere" as the fragmented, constantly distracted and therefore un-grounded self. Our communion with the saints across time and space can in fact contribute to our integrated self.

Lasch-Quinn simply gives a name to a malady all too common in our day: the intravidual who always feels like he's missing out on something better than what's happening around him, and to the extent that such a person remains in this "space," he remains vulnerable to the idea that a virtual self, mediated through multiple media communication devices, is to be preferred to a real self, mediated chiefly (though not exclusively) through embodied relationships.

Tamara: I love that sentence too.

Josh: I've always been afraid of bringing my computer to bed. The easy temptation it poses is too great. So it's remained on my desk, where I have to walk to it if I want to open it. And even then, it calls out to me like a very, very bad Siren.

Adam said...

I love this article's perspective on Facebook, technology, etc. It resonates a bit with what I was talking about.

http://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/2756/