Don’t call it an “office”

There are a couple things in life that I’m passionate about. Hills upon which I am willing to die. In no particular order:

  • One does not put two spaces between sentences; the computer will space it appropriately for you.
  • One does not grind one’s coffee until it is time to brew said coffee.
  • North Carolina is in no wise “first in flight”; Ohioans commandeered their beach and wind.
  • The bottom button of one’s blazer, suit coat, or sport coat is to remain unbuttoned.

And, more recently, a new rule:

Don’t call my study an “office.” It’s a study

Nomenclature matters, folks. Our words create the worlds we experience and the quality of our experiences therewith. John Culkin famously said that “we shape our tools, and afterward our tools shape us.” Names of things are human-shaped tools, which thereafter shape us. They shape our expectations and our realities.

I don’t have a classroom of my own. I instead have a tiny room at the end of a hallway. I love this arrangement. I get lots of privacy and in turn I get lots of things done. And, by “things done”, I mean principally “thoughts thought” and “learning learned.”

That’s because my room is my study.

When I tell a student to come see me in my study after school, I am indicating to them that we are going to learn together. Whatever problem they may be having with their grade, the paper they’re writing, their attendance record, their behavior, their language acquisition process, or their mastery of the course content will be approached in a specific way: it will be approached with the conviction that we are, together, learning.

Consider the alternative. I could call my room my “office.” What experience can a student, a colleague, a supervisor, or a parent expect to have in my “office”?

They can expect to have their problem dealt with administratively. They expect their problem to be solved like the unclogging of a procedural bottleneck. They show up to get a grade fixed, a paper corrected, an assignment postponed or a concept explained. People who come to an “office” expect bureaucracy, and they pray that maybe this will be the one time in a hundred when that bureaucracy actually works efficiently, achieving the results desired. They expect, though, to be processed like any other data input that might come into that space, whether through paper and ink, email, telephone, or flesh and blood.

As for me and my study, we shall serve the learner. The learner inside me, and the learner inside student, teacher, administrator, and parent. I want people to come into my study–myself included!–with the expectation that both solitary and collaborative learning takes place in this sacred space. The sofa and armchair, the bookcases, the coffee station and the aroma that regularly makes it into the adjoining hallway, the round table (as opposed to a desk, aka bureau, hello!), and the natural light coming through the windows–all of these things help indicate what this space is for.

But especially the name of the space. Don’t call it an office.

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Grace and Effort

I don’t do anything halfway. So when I was a Lutheran (sometimes ecclesially, sometimes theologically, sometimes both) as a young man, I was really Lutheran. Probably more Lutheran than Luther. So, probably not really Lutheran, actually.

What that means, of course, is that I didn’t like good works. Or trying hard. Or any sort of effort at all. It was an attractive spirituality, because I’ve never been attracted to workaholism. The Protestant Ethic missed me.

By the time I encountered Dallas Willard in my early thirties, I had changed enough to be ready to hear what is, in my estimation, the best line in all his writings:

Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.

I both hated and loved this. I hated it because it meant that I couldn’t be the champion of spiritual sloth in order to elevate grace. I loved it because I finally sensed the liberty to try.

Not to try to impress God, but to “make it my aim to please him” (2 Cor 5:9).

Not to try to impress others, but to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col 3:23).

The notion that keeping a list and checking tasks off of it is a form of works righteousness? Yeah, I couldn’t fail people any longer under the cover of grace.

The notion that the meaning of life was to receive grace and live a passive existence rather than trying to glorifying God through the exercise a certain amount of holy ambition? I couldn’t fool myself in that respect any longer either.

Jean-Luc Marion, in reflecting on a long career as a Christian and a philosopher, articulates what a lifelong application of Willard’s dictum looks like. Tolle, lege:

At several points, indisputably, I had the impression of being taken from the herd and put where I did not even know one could go. In those moments, I did not realize projects or ambitions coming from myself, but I received what happened to me. Often, my life as a whole seems to me like some of the years when I trained as a runner:

During long and exhausting training sessions, one suffers enough to know oneself to be the one who makes the effort, but, once one is in form, on the day of competition, in the sun of spring or the overhead light of an autumn evening, when suddenly a state of grace causes one to accomplish the impossible (a victory, a personal record), one wonders who has done all that, or, rather, I wonder whether I have done it or even whether this has happened to me.

From there stems this strange feeling that has never left me, of living with someone bearing (in all the senses of the word) my name, who does things without warning me and whom I had to accompany. At times I would almost have preferred that he leave me alone, but I have always lived with someone who is stronger than me and whom I follow. Yes, and I cannot do otherwise. I hope so, all the way to the end.

As someone who is pushing toward a 500-mile running goal for the year, with one month left to go, I resonate deeply. I have no idea how my joints are holding up under my heavy frame, how the Pop Tarts I had for breakfast are converted into energy for my run after work (or even if it works that way), and I don’t know how I haven’t tripped and broken half the bones in my body by now.

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But I definitely feel as though it has been me running those 445 miles. I’ve had to decide on 128 different occasions in 2017 to get off my couch and go for a run. I’ve exerted more sheer will power in the past 11 months than at any time in my life.

It kind of feels like a cliché when you hear someone say “by God’s grace I was able to _______ [win the gold metal; finish an ultra-marathon; win the spelling bee; publish 20 books].” But it’s no cliché. We put ourselves to a task, and open ourselves to the ‘haunting’ of God’s gracious presence. And often, good things happen. Things we can celebrate—whether feats of strength or increases of moral fortitude.

It was hard work. And it’s all of grace.

Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.

In Bold Defense of “I Feel Like”

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Molly Worthen wants us to quit saying “I feel like.” It’s a provocative and punchy New York Times piece that almost had me convinced—if it weren’t for a funny feeling I got that she might only be feeling like “I feel like” was a bad thing. So I got to thinking.

Here’s some bold, “I feel like”-less assertions from her column.

‘“I feel like” masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too — but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks.’

‘Most disturbing about “I feel like”: The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning.’

‘The phrase “I feel like” is a mundane … means of avoiding rigorous debate over structures of society that are hard to change.’

I completely DISAGREE.

Here’s why:

1) The author admits that language is always evolving. I assume she knows that meaning comes in the use, not in the words themselves. But then she immediately goes on to imply that, while in every other case a word’s evolution is benign, in this one special case, it “is not a harmless tic.” (This tic is SERIOUS. Like Orwellian serious!”)

Sorry, but it’s just a word, the meaning is evolving with common usage like every other word.

2) The author notes the global awareness and the empathy of Xers and Millennials—a reason for the way they’ve dialed back on intellectual bravado. But then she says it’s not actually humility, but hedging: we “feel” in order to remain on safe ground, as no one can attack our feelings the way they could challenge our thoughts.

Um, no. Is there anyone who actually thinks a sensible political comment that begins with “I feel like” has moved from the cognitive to the affective domains? That the speaker is using their heart or their gut instead of their mind? It’s perfectly clear to me that when a speaker omits “I feel like”, they are cognitively settled on their position, while when they include the phrase, they are expressing not their feelings, but their rather their uncertain, tentative thoughts. “I feel like” is a *wonderful* tool not for shutting down conversation, but for stoking it. If someone comes to me and says “If we elect Bernie Sanders, we’re asking for communism”, I will challenge that opinion if and only if *I feel* up to arguing with an alarmist partisan. However, if someone says “I feel like it’s odd that we’re seriously considering electing a socialist when we spent so much effort fighting communism”, *I feel like* I’m being invited into an actual exchange of ideas rather than a bunch of mindless sloganeering and line-towing.

3) The author assumes that our extra-cognitive faculties are less reliable than our intellectual faculties.

Nonsense. We’re just as capable of faulty reasoning as we are of getting our feelings mixed up. And besides, there is a fruitful interplay between our cognitive and affective faculties: I may like the content of what I’m hearing from a candidate, but still get a funny feeling about them based on how they carry themselves. Would it be shallow to disregard what they say about policy based on my funny feeling? Maybe a little. But “I feel like Sanders/Cruz/Whomever comes off a little bit out of touch with real people and their actual needs” might cause me to do some research to determine if the candidate is just kind of awkward, which I can live with, or if they’re consistently not hearing important segments of their constituency.

4) The author makes a last-ditch effort to appear concerned with actual feelings. There’s a shortage of feelings, apparently, because we’re “misusing” the word assigned to the affective domain.

Sorry, but we have a lot of other words at our disposal, and we can always make up new ones. We can describe our affective reaction to phenomena. People leave us frigid, cold, lukewarm, warm, fired up. Meals leave us satiated, content, bloated, hungry. There’s a gazillion words to describe subjective experience. Know them, love them, use them. We can “lose” *I feel* to the uncertain thinkers without losing the Republic.

5) Am I being a little too strident in my criticism of the author? Maybe. Perhaps I should have began a few of my sentences with *I feel like*—that would have made me come across as someone who is a linguistic non-expert who is curious to learn more. See how this works?

I feel like we should let language evolve, quit complaining when it does, use our imaginations to search for better words, warm up to the idea that some of the tics of Xers and Millennials might not only be harmless, but salutary, and welcome our actual feelings into the conversation alongside our tentative opinions and our settled conclusions.