In just a few short weeks I will be on summer break. Hands down, one of my favorite things about being a teacher is the time off. I will have twelve weeks this summer that I can dedicate to time with family, friends, and my own personal pursuits. Last summer, only nine days before we discovered that our house was infested with black mold, I wrote a post about the habits Amanda and I were going to try to cultivate that summer so as to focus ourselves on our values. So, Lord willing, nothing else major happens to us before the summer is out!
I only have a handful of official commitments this summer, including taking a graduate level course through the Dallas Institute for the Humanities. This course will focus the genres of tragedy and comedy, and will see me reading works as great and diverse as Crime and Punishment and the Oedipus Cycle. This course will take three weeks at the end of July. I also plan on attending the Society for Classical Learning Conference in Dallas at the end of June. Two of my personal heroes (Jamie Smith and Rod Dreher will be giving plenary addresses!). Finally, I will be teaching a three day course at my school in June to any incoming 8th graders who want help with their summer reading.
So, all-in-all, I have something like 8 weeks of precious time to spend with my family. And I plan to make the most of it!
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Readers of this blog are well aware of my whole-hog acceptance of Jamie’s Smith’s prescription of the cultivation of habits as the material answer to our disordered lives. My oft repeated line is “habits both shape and are shaped by our affections.” As primarily affective creatures, we only change as our loves change. Of course, Smith gets his ideas from Augustine as mediated by the Christian virtue tradition, which itself is deeply indebted to Aristotle. And I have actually been writing about this approach to pursuing virtue since long before I read Smith.
Back in December, I wrote about my embrace of Benedictine spirituality with its tripartite emphases on incremental moral improvement, obedience (humble orientation to others), and stability (commitment to a specific place or group) as the middle term floating between abstract virtue ethics and concrete habits. I argued that I had become stuck in my pursuit of virtue because I lacked a coherent framework within which my habits could be practiced. Benedictine spirituality became that framework. I still fundamentally agree with this diagnosis, but I think I have been missing something else. Benedictine spirituality outside of the cloister comes with its own set of challenges, namely the lack of an abbot and, well, the cloister itself. Without walls and an authority, it is hard to be a monk. What and abbott and a cloister provides for a monk is the structure within which he can practice his rule. What kind of similar structure is possible for people like me with a secular vocation and life? I think simplicity is the answer.
Elsewhere, I have defined simplicity as “Living with intention. [It has to do w]ith making decisions on purpose, in the full light of day. Simplicity has to do with control, with deliberation. It has to do with waking up, day after day, and knowing precisely how and why I got to where I am.” In this way, then, simplicity is less concerned with specific content and is more concerned with an orientation or attitude to the subject matter of one’s life. In fact, as I wrote back in September 2013, simplicity as expressed in different religious and secular traditions can be contradictory. This is because, at its core, simplicity is about fidelity to one’s values (or, more likely, the values of one’s primary community). Thus simplicity, with its overtones of being “easy to understand” or “natural” takes the clearest and most obvious path available for accomplishing its ends; and it doesn’t play games. At its core, therefore, simplicity is conservative (in the Burkean sense) because it affirms that change, innovation, and “progress” must be justified in light of core values. But it is also disruptive because simplicity insists that the status quo itself must be justified.
The practice of simplicity, then, requires: 1) One be aware of one’s values (I promise I’m not a relativist here; it does matter what one’s values are. It just doesn’t matter much for how simplicity functions since simplicity is a tool that can be used to achieve either rightly ordered values or disordered values). 2) Understand the hierarchy of one’s values. Since values will often contradict one another, it is pretty important to know in what order they hold precedence. 3) Cultivate a set of habits that will help one ever increasingly live in cognizance with one’s expressed values. This is quite a bit harder than it sounds since one is not ever nearly as aware of the direct connection between value and habit as one should be. 4) Assess the habits (chosen and unchosen) that one practices regularly for the degree to which they correspond to one’s values and then eliminate or replace any bad habits. This is also very difficult as one’s unstated values (like comfort and ease and pleasure) disrupt one’s stated values. And by the way, all of this (at least for me) does not happen nearly so linearly as my numbered points might suggest; simplicity is recursive.
In order to help explain all of this, I have a case study from my own life to share with you:
Our society’s best and brightest invented social media as a means to help us connect with people with whom we are not physically present. This increased social interaction was just an expansion of our normal, in-person social interactions. I joined Facebook when I was a junior in high school and used it with regularity (aside from a couple of blips) until November of last year. It slowly dawned on me, over time, that I used Facebook as a means to cultivate an image of myself so that others would approve of me more. I didn’t consciously set out to work on my image, but image cultivation is what happened anyway. And while I also cultivate my image in person, it is quite a bit harder to curate oneself in “real” life. For example, on Facebook I could think before speaking. I could craft wise and pithy statements. I could share learned opinions without sounding like a moron or an elitist. I could use a profile picture that I figured would be flattering. I could control who I interacted with. I could control what photos of me were on the site. Etc. This curation was designed to elicit approval from others in the form of comments and “likes.” Notifications were important to my daily life because they were a signal of how I was valued.
It thus became clear to me that the form of Facebook was itself the problem. That (and many, many studies back this up) Facebook is designed to slowly ramp up my use of it by preying on those vain parts of me. As it dawned on me that I was using Facebook in an unhealthy way, I made various attempts to get off the site/limit my time on the site. I assumed that the problem was me. But it was only after I concluded that Facebook was not a neutral tool (by the way, I reached this conclusion back in 2012; it took 4 more years for me to act on it), but itself a problem, that my orientation toward Facebook changed. I had a disordered desire to be approved of by others of course, but Facebook was encouraging that unhealthy desire in me as a way to make a profit. Now, sometimes risky behaviors are worth the risk because of the goods to which they lead. For example, I happily take the risk of crashing my car and dying every day because I think the risk is acceptable for the reward I get from driving (like buying food at a store, getting to work and earning a paycheck, etc). So, if Facebook use provokes vanity in me, is experiencing that vanity worth the good of “connection” that I experienced on the site? The only way to find out was to take a break from Facebook to find out if I still had sufficient meaningful interactions outside of the site.
As it turns out, none of the important relationships in my life needed to be mediated by Facebook. Other forms of media (phone calls, Skype, texts, emails, etc), not to mention face to face interaction, was all that was required. I therefore dropped Facebook entirely. Now, what I have written here is incredibly condensed. I have been wrestling with these questions since the Fall of 2010 and only finally dropped Facebook last November! I tried various control mechanisms (time limits, blocking it on my phone, giving my wife my password, taking “breaks,” etc) before realizing that the only way to live according to my values (in this case 1) humility, 2) being present with others without being on my phone, 3) not being distracted while at work or at home) was to entirely remove myself from the site. I only got a marginal benefit from being on Facebook, but I experienced lots of harms. It was simplicity that insisted that I even ask the question as to whether the status quo (having a Facebook account and using it regularly) was worth it.
Constantly evaluating why you do what you do may sound exhausting, but I promise that giving yourself the permission to re-evaluate basic facts about the way you live your life is actually extremely freeing. Of course, as anyone who has tried to stop doing a bad habit (anything from addictive behaviors like smoking to nervous ticks like biting one’s nails) knows, it is not enough to know what is right. You have to be attracted to it. Which is why all the twelve step people say that you only change when the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of changing. I have written about this phenomenon elsewhere.
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Last summer Amanda and I had planned to use the time off to cultivate a set of habits (centered around watching less TV and eating better) in order to live more simply. As it turns out, we had to spend all summer and half of the fall dealing with the mold crisis. And while I think we would agree that the mold crisis was horrible (it was a massive time suck and wiped out our savings), we did learn a lot and we did grow to live more closely aligned to our values (indeed, the loss of time meant we naturally watched less TV, for example). So, this summer, we are trying again. We are going to minimize the technology and maximize physical presence. We are going to take the time to cook well, do good work (we have a series of minor home improvement projects in the works), eat well, and play well. Personally, I am going to write more and read more attentively; Amanda also has her goals, I’m sure. And, to this end, we are opting (for the first time in our marriage) to not travel during the summer. I think we have two small trips planned, but otherwise we are planning to stay home and deepen our roots through spending more time with friends and neighbors. I pray that God knit our family closer together in mutual love this summer.