Hi, I'm Tom Shakely. I try to write daily about culture, social entrepreneurship, marketplaces, platforms, Catholicism, place, etc. Each Sunday I share a recap of the week; you can subscribe here.

Solitude

Jenny Judge writes on solitude at The Guardian, specifically on “the search for solitude in an internet of things.” I think it’s a fascinating topic:

Solitude has long been the condition for inspiration. John the Baptist fled to the desert; Descartes retreated to his fireside; Mahler took refuge in his lakeside cabin. Through solitude, religious, intellectual or creative enlightenment can be reached. As Nietzsche said: “How can anyone become a thinker if he does not spend at least a third of the day without passions, people and books?”

Solitude involves some degree of social withdrawal, but it is not necessarily a state of loneliness. “I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude,” declared Thoreau; the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer describes it as friendship with oneself. Solitude may be enjoyed “in the midst of cities and the courts of kings”, as French philosopher Montaigne observed in the 16th century – but, he said, “it is enjoyed more handily alone”.

Developing a capacity for solitude is extremely valuable. I think it lies at the heart of an appreciation for the humanities. It’s also a competitive advantage in an era of new distractions:

Montaigne thought that the most admirable way to live was not to seek to own more, to do more, or to be more. “The greatest thing in the world,” he wrote, “is to know how to belong to ourselves.” The internet of things doesn’t have to usher in the death of solitude. On the contrary: it could herald its return.

I think the best tech becomes invisible and subtle, in the sense of becoming like a utility. Pencil and paper are examples of this. 

The “internet of things” requires thoughtfulness and tastefulness from its designers and its consumers in terms of the sort of tech we embrace. Will our homes become entirely characterized by their technical capacities, or will the tech within them be restrained and moderate in nature?

Whenever I buy some new piece of tech, a question I ask is whether it’ll represent another demand on my time, no matter how small. If it is, it’ll compete with the moments of solitude that home exists to foster, and it probably doesn’t belong.

Foreign influence

The Economist recently looked at the evolving relationship between Christians and the Chinese Communist Party:

The Communist Party is struggling to manage the only cult in China bigger than itself—the Christian church. All down the country’s eastern seaboard it is hard to find a village that does not boast a spire or tower topped with a cross. To some in the party, this is a provocation, especially in the south-eastern province of Zhejiang around the coastal city of Wenzhou. Over the past 18 months, party leaders have ordered the demolition of such crosses. But this month the provincial branches of the Catholic Patriotic Association and the Protestant Christian Council—two of the government bodies that administer the official churches allowed in China—each issued an open letter to provincial officials condemning the demolitions.

The letters accuse the party of violating its own commitment to the rule of law. They add that the incidents have damaged the Communist Party’s image at home and abroad. It is, says Yang Fenggang of Purdue University in Indiana, the first time that leaders of official churches have come out openly on the side of ordinary believers against the Communist Party.

The article quotes a Chinese Communist Party leader who asserts that Christianity there should be “independent of foreign influence.” Christ told his followers to render to God what is His, and to Caesar what is his. Christianity is itself a foreign influence on the heart. No serious politician could believe it would be otherwise for the state.

More on cultural nests

There’s been more substantial writing lately on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option concept for Christian communities. I’ve written previously on the topic from my own perspective, relating to Christian naïveté, what we might learn from American Indian communities “cultural nests,” and traits for Catholic cultural nests.

In short, the Benedict Option describes the necessity and means for orthodox Christians to rejuvenate their communities of faith, starting on as local and personal  level as possible, ideally within the context of a meaningfully Christian family life. One of Dreher’s recent contributions to this conversation:

St. Benedict’s solution was revolutionary for its time because it recognized that neither the life of work nor the life of prayer can be pursued independently of the other. Giving credence to Benedict’s insight in our time demands radical efforts to develop new institutions where work and other mundane activities can serve as both a means of cultivating the virtues and as a preparation for the Gospel.

Jefferson’s concept of a wall of separation between Church and State is being taken to its most extreme, which now suggests that the Establishment Clause prohibits not only the establishment of an official state religion, but also the presence of Christianity or other religions in the public square. Its effect is that faith is now seen as a pleasant, emotionally soothing personal belief, rather than one that should be present (let alone meaningfully impact) public life.

Yet the stories of the struggle for social justice in America from the founding to abolition to civil rights to the present is rife with leaders whose public lives are driven by their personal morality and religious conviction. The germ of every public law sprouts within our moral consciousness.

This is part of the background for understanding why Dreher cites St. Benedict’s insight that “the life of work nor the life of prayer can be pursued independently of the other.” The sort of integrated life Leah Libresco describes isn’t only possible, but desirable:

Living supported by the Dominicans does more for me than cultivating piety on my own or even being involved in my church. The brothers (and the sisters studying at their school) offer infusions both of knowledge and of joy for us. They open up the faith so we can study in in greater detail, not just in order to amass more knowledge, but so that we can delight in beauty. They also clear out space for us to experience this delight. And they serve as a Schelling Point where we can find people we can share philia bonds with (“You, too? I thought I was the only one!”). I even went so far as to recommend to one Catholic friend (currently in law school) that he might want to prioritize finding a summer job in DC, so he could have the experience of being in such a rich and lively Catholic community, so he could decide if he wanted to prioritize living here, or someplace like it, when he did longer-term career planning.

The Benedict Option I wanted my eventually-esquired friend to try out was the experience of having some places in his life where Catholicism was an assumption, a community where asking if people wanted to pray Night Office on the way back from a bar wasn’t an unusual request, and there were ready helpers to lead us “further up and further in!”

If I were giving a very short answer to PEG’s question, I would say the Benedict Option isn’t about just working on being more pious (whether alone or in community) but about rearranging your life and community so there are spaces where joyful piety happens to you more often; a few spaces where your Catholicism doesn’t feel like an act of resistance, any more than eating does.

Expand the playing fields

Knight Foundation spoke with Anne Wallestad from BoardSource recently and posted a podcast of the conversation. In short, it addresses how nonprofits can have a greater impact in shaping policy if their boards are engaged for that purpose. Of the key points, these three stand out:

1. Decisions are made every day that have a profound impact on the missions of nonprofits, but too often nonprofits are not at the policy table. This slows the work of nonprofits and can compromise their missions.

2. The most useful and underused assets nonprofit organizations have to advance their missions are their board members, people who are so passionate that they have already put their time, resources and reputations on the line.

3. Advocacy should be part of a nonprofit board’s culture — the way it thinks, makes decisions and measures success.

For nonprofits with staff, the board should be as focused on its responsibility to support the staff’s execution of the mission as they are on expanding the playing fields for executing the mission. Anne Wallestad’s comments hit home as a reminder for my own board responsibilities, and I hope to figure out better ways to expand the playing fields whenever possible.

Mobile without borders

What John Legere has brought to T-Mobile is an instinct for change without caveats. T-Mobile’s recent mobile without borders change is an example of that, where customers can now travel throughout North America, making calls, texting, and using LTE data without roaming, overage, or special add-ons or extra charges.

When Legere unveiled the change, one of the data points that stood out to me was that 35 percent of U.S. calls are to Mexico and Canada. So it’s a big deal that T-Mobile is making life easier.

Another thing that stood out was that the other carriers are charging something like 120x the cost for data when customers travel abroad. It’s great to know that traveling to Montreal or Vancouver or even Niagara Falls will just work, without add-ons or extra expenses.

What fascinates me about Leger’s approach is that I think he’s applying the utility model to the cellular industry. No one thinks about their electric or water service at this point. It just works. Mobile connectivity has been largely the opposite of that since its inception—complex and riddled with caveats and surcharges.

It makes sense that T-Mobile is finding traction by acting more like a utility, especially one with a distinctive personality.

Cultural federalism

Ian Marcus Corbin celebrated Independence Day in Boston and struggled to feel much of anything about the experience. In what I think of as a sort of public confession or meditation on America, he shares some truly great reflections on America and our cultural diversity:

I believe we should shamelessly embrace our cultural balkanization, or to put it more gently, our cultural federalism. It is nowhere written that a person ought to feel equally at home in every nook and cranny of the state she calls home. If there is a deep sense of patriotism available to us Americans, it will have to be based in local soil.

Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British statesman and philosophical father of modern conservatism, defended a sort of micro-patriotism by arguing that loyalty to our “little platoons”—things like family, region, religion, class—is in fact the “germ” of wider public affections, which ought gradually to grow to embrace our entire nation, and then all of mankind. According to Burke, these smaller loyalties come relatively easily. Love for things like nation and humanity do not. They must be cultivated over time.

Maybe he’s right, and local patriotisms are defensible chiefly as rungs on the ladder of patriotic ascent. I suspect they’re defensible in their own right, but either way, I’d add that the thinness of American identity means becoming a nation-level patriot here is not so different from learning to love all of humanity: a herculean task, a life’s work, while surely one worth pursuing. If we follow Burke, we have our climbing orders, and they are steep.

I really like the idea of cultural federalism.

Continuity

I finished Will & Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History today. It’s a short, solid, accessible book for anyone looking to get into The Story of Civilization series or just get a sense of the insights of two of America’s greatest historical scholars. The excerpt below is described as “the heart of Will Durant” and really shines:

Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and names, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible, to as many as possible for the enlargement of men’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.

The heritage that we can now more fully transmit is richer than ever before. It is richer than that of Pericles, for it includes all the Greek flowering that followed him; richer than Leonardo’s, for it includes him and the Italian Renaissance; richer than Voltaire’s, for it embraces all the French Enlightenment and its ecumenical dissemination. If progress is real, despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal to which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.

History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage. Progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use. To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors. It becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach, and carve, and sing.

The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it. Let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate, he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother, and our lasting life.

When the heritage of our nation, community, or family’s past is severed or neglected, the clock resets to some degree. The story of civilization is the collective story of peoples and cultures attempting to achieve greater continuity.

Contentment

[W]e should define what progress means to us. If it means an increase in happiness, its case is lost almost at first sight. Our capacity for fretting is endless and no matter how many difficulties we surmount, how many ideals we realize, we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable. There is a stealthy pleasure in rejecting mankind or the universe as unworthy of our approval. it seems silly to define progress in terms that would make the average child a higher, more advanced product of life than the adult or the sage, for certainly the child is the happiest of the three.

This I really like this. It comes from Will & Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History, and I like it as a reminder that human progress does not bring with it contentment. In other words, the material aspects of life tend to improve, but the spiritual and psychological aspects of life tend to remain constant.

I also like this because it speaks to why Christianity makes intuitive sense to me. We accept that greater progress doesn’t bring greater happiness. In other words, we accept that a lack of contentment is a defining aspect of our experience. Given that contentment is fleeting, it makes sense to be that there is a state of existence where it is not fleeting. Virtue and vice. Light and darkness. Yin and yang.

There must be a place where happiness is the defining quality. Durant’s point that “the child is the happiest” also syncs with Christ’s remark that we will need to make ourselves child-like to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Lessons of history

I’ve started reading The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant. This excerpt near the opening about the personal and cultural value of history struck me:

Other studies might tell us how man might behave or how he should behave; history tells us how he has behaved for six thousand years. One who knows that record is in large measure protected in advance against the illusions and disillusionments of his time. He has learned the limitations of human nature, and bears with equanimity the fault of his neighbors and the imperfections of States. He shares hopefully in the reforming enterprises of his age and people, but his heart does not break, nor his faith in life fade out when he perceives how modest are the results and how persistently man remains what he has been for sixty centuries, perhaps for a thousand generations.

It is a mistake to think that the past is dead. Nothing that has ever happened is quite without influence at this moment. The present is merely the past rolled up and concentrated in this second of time. You too are your past; often your face is your autobiography. You are what you are because of what you have been: because of your heredity stretching back to forgotten generations; because of every element of environment that has affected you; every man or woman that has met you; every book that you have read; every experience that you have had. All these are accumulated in your memory, your body, your character, your soul.

So with a city, a country, a race. It is its past and cannot be understood without it. It is the present, not the past, that dies. This present moment to which we give so much attention is forever flitting from our eyes and fingers into that pedestal and matrix of our lives which we call the past. It is only the past that lives.

The Lessons of History audiobook features interviews with both Will and Ariel, and Will says at one point: “I discovered that to understand how man behaved and how he will probably behave in the future, you have to study history.”

I think fields like sociology (while valuable) represent something closer to tinkering on the fringes than providing the sort of immense value that historical encounter provides. History provides perspective by providing a sense of simultaneous wonder and modesty in surprising balance.

Refreshing Philadelphia’s workforce

Mark Dent’s recent Billy Penn post is one that nearly slipped off my radar:

A couple of weeks ago, Philadelphia managing director Richard Negrin reached out to several millennials in fields ranging from business to politics to tech to meet at the City’s Innovation Lab. …

Negrin’s office found that in up to five years, some 36 percent of city employees will be eligible for retirement or at least a deferred retirement plan. That’s a really big deal. It means Philadelphia will have about 9,000 positions to fill. It also means the city’s current batch of employees isn’t too reflective of the much-discussed youthful boom Philadelphia is currently experiencing. …

“Your age doesn’t necessarily matter, your talent does,” he says. “If we can get that message out, I think people would love to work for a great city during a critical time and really change our workforce.”

It’ll be fascinating to see whether any serious culture change among City of Philadelphia civil servants takes place in the years to come. Filling 9,000 positions is a momentous thing, but so is culture, and the culture of Philadelphia civil servants isn’t a robust one. The first thing I would be asking is whether every one of those 9,000 positions really need to be filled when older employees retire.

Whatever the case, those who come next will be guided as much by office precedent as leadership from the mayor’s office and his deputies. The fact that Negrin is one of those deputies, and is targeting millennials, is a good sign for the city.