Tom Shakely

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I'm Executive Director of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network. I wrote Conserving Mount Nittany, and I write daily here. (Get my weekly digest. I'll always respect your inbox.)

Leaving Diyarbakir

It’s 1957. You’re an American geologist in Turkey. I won’t be born for another 30 years, and you’re my grandfather.

It’s nearly evening near a border crossing, after leaving Diyarbakir earlier in that day. (It was in near Diyarbakir that you took the photo above, of some goat skin rafts.) You’re with your friend and coworker, looking to travel and explore while on an extended work break.

You’ve sailed across the Pacific by this point in your life. You’ve come to the Middle East to work, and traveled a lot by the time you mark your 30th birthday.

You’re waiting at the border crossing for what seems like too long a period of time. You’ve explained your plans to the border guards, and they’ve walked off a bit to talk amongst themselves—maybe about the fee for crossing, you think. Your friend edges a bit more toward them, having heard a few of their words. They don’t know he understands their dialect. What are they arguing about?

After a few moments, he shuffles toward you with a glint in his eye.

“Don’t run,” your friend instructs, as he grabs your arm. “But walk back toward the jeep as quickly as possible without attracting their attention.”

You make it to the jeep and hop in, the border guards now having turned their attention directly back to you. You fire up the engine, reverse the jeep and speed away—back to Diyarbakir. As you make it far enough to safety, slowing down, you ask:

“Well what the hell was that about?”

“They were trying to decide whether God would bless them for killing two Westerners, traveling alone, probably Christian, wearing beards.”

The rest of the trip, silence.

 

 





Three places for stronger culture

Yancey Stickler talks about “a monied imperialism of changing local cultures” that prioritizes safe financial bets over more vibrant and perhaps more volatile but meaningful community life. This is the “imperialism” of thousands of Bank of American branches replacing thousands of old, local New York City businesses.

It’s really heard to talk about and it’s really important to talk about at the same time. … It seems like any city that has any kind of dynamic culture or where young people live at all starts to experience this and it’s unclear what to do about it. …

I think this is the big battle of our age. So what can you do about it? I don’t have a solution, but I have three places where I think it starts.

These “three places” (don’t sell out, be idealistic, and be generous) are right on.





Far better people than you have died

Sententiae Antiquae, an online commonplace book, translates Lucretius, De Rerum Natura:

Add as well the friends of the Muses whose single Homer,
the sceptered lord, has been quieted in sleep like the rest.
Democritus, too, when advanced age finally warned him
That the moving memories of his mind were fading,
He freely offered his own head to his end.
Epicurus as well departed when the light of his life ran its course,
He surpassed the race of man with his genius, who overshown
The light of all men the way the sun washes out the stars—
And now you will hesitate and be angry to die?

The translator writes: “It is a given that everyone dies, true, but however unimpressive I am, it still seems absurd at all to exist rather than not exist. To close the circle by ending it seems, even if appropriate, equally absurd.”

A friend of mine has joked that the proof of Christianity lies in its absurdity. Another way to say that might be that the proof of Christianity lies in life’s absurdity.

The triumphs, the glories, the tragedies, the grief—what cause do we have for any of it?





Tradition, a sort of time travel

The election of the ancient kings of the Roman Kingdom (753BC-509BC) followed a process that in many respects is carried in the Christian elevation of the pope:

Whenever a king died, Rome entered a period of interregnum. Supreme power of the state would devolve to the Senate, which was responsible for finding a new king. The Senate would assemble and appoint one of its own members—the interrex—to serve for a period of five days with the sole purpose of nominating the next king of Rome. After the five-day period, the interrex would appoint (with the Senate’s consent) another Senator for another five-day term. This process would continue until a new king was elected. Once the interrex found a suitable nominee to the kingship, he would bring the nominee before the Senate and the Senate would review him.

Rome’s Pontifex Maximus and College of Pontiffs is an echo of the same thread of human practice that has been transformed in the College of Cardinals of Catholicism.

The core of Western legal tradition descends from the common law of England, which results in beautiful occurrences like a 2025 legal dispute being settled with reference to a 1345 common law precedent. In the same way, it’s beautiful to appreciate how the core of institutional Christianity has its roots in the human practice of the ancients. These things remind us that the way we govern and live are gifts of a long human experience, inherited across the spectrum of time with its highs of glory and lows of tragedy.

Our Christ came as the ultimate bridge builder between God and man, but even he had a particular moment at which to arrive. The human heart had to wait for millennia for an end to its estrangement with God. In the meantime, our historically distant brothers and sisters developed the ways of life, and the ways of being, and the ways of passing along a sense of the good and just life, that perhaps were preconditions for God’s reappearance.

In any event, carrying on the traditions and practices of our long dead ancestors reassures us that, at some distant future point when we ourselves are long dead, our ways of living might survive among our decendants.

 





A better start

Blended learning can mean real sleep for students:

One small district in Alabama has found a way to allow students to sleep in without changing the school schedule or reducing learning time. Piedmont City School District, located in a community with fewer than 5,000 residents about 90 miles from Birmingham, has created a virtual first period for 10th-12th grade students who maintain a B average. These students can complete the assignments for their first period class, which must include online coursework, anytime they want, allowing them to sleep in during the week.

First, this is exactly what our federal system—with states-as-laboratories-of-democracy—is designed for. It’s gratifying to learn of experiments like this.

That said, why are we calling the experience these students are having a “virtual start” every morning. It’s perhaps a more authentic start to their day than they’ve ever had in school, particularly if it’s true that so many show signs of being practically unconscious so early in the morning after waking up, rushing out the door, being carted in on a bus in dark and frigid morning weather, etc.

Get a real start, in the warmth of the home and with a mom or dad-cooked breakfast, then get into the school building later for other classes.





Advocating speech

University of Chicago provides from invigorating news in the form of a notice sent to incoming students:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority—building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.

“A trigger warning,” TIME explains, “is advance notice about subject material that may be difficult for certain students to read, hear or see; a safe space is a place they can go to avoid those subjects or heal after confronting them.”

FIRE lauds University of Chicago:

That UC has taken this bold and important step is no surprise to FIRE: UC is a leader among colleges and universities in its approach to freedom of speech. Last year, faculty members spearheaded the hugely influential Chicago Statement, which FIRE has endorsed and promoted as a gold standard for universities articulating a commitment to free expression on campus.

I shared an anecdote from Ohio State’s handling of political protestors on campus a few months ago, writing: “I fear that what safe space/trigger warning advocates either don’t realize or don’t care about is that the sort of society they’re intent on creating would be one that’s hostile toward First Amendment free speech. There’s this rooted hostility, in other words, toward one of the basic premises for our way of life. It’s tough to imagine calls for less free speech (let alone free range intellectual discourse) will stay confined to our campuses.”

If enough University of Chicagos speak so clearly for free speech, bad ideas like trigger warnings and safe spaces will suffer the quick death they deserve.





Homes v. cocoons

millennial recently bragged to my friend that he no longer has much reason to leave the comfort of his basement office. There, he enjoys a tri-screen computer setup and can simultaneously manage his business, view porn, and compete in online gaming tournaments from a single cushioned reclining chair. Money to the left of me, sex to the right, and the victor’s glory ahead, he might wax lyrically. Real-world financial, romantic, and combative endeavours cannot seduce him from his cocoon. Our technologically contented contemporaries find it rather difficult to muster a sentiment of existential dependence upon anything greater than the devices that surround them.

Long before the phenomenon of techno-seclusion, Blaise Pascal claimed that the “sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Pascal envisioned the home as an oasis from distraction, where a man could converse with the wisdom of the ancients and listen to the voice of God in his conscience. Today’s digital possibilities make the home attractive for reasons very different from Pascal’s. Breadwinning through online ventures and entrepreneurial self-employment eliminate the inconveniences of early rising, commuter traffic, and office personality clashes. There are no nine-to-five constraints on money-making potential. There are no coworkers to distract from the goal at hand.

Michael Baggot, writing on the difference between virtual and sacramental reality. I love the sentence I bolded above on Pascal’s vision of home life—conversing with the ancients and considering your own soulfulness. This seems right and just to me,

Something that Baggot gets at in his lamentation/observation, I think, is that our home life deserves to be intentionally constructed. Our electronic technology is now cheap enough to be pervasive, and this means it can seep into the pores of our home life without realizing it. It gets to the point where our parents and children and relatives living or visiting might as well be on FaceTime, so removed as they might be from real encounter or engagement with their fellow family members.

This is to say nothing of the idea of them setting up three screens in the living room during Thanksgiving dinner—hopefully not watching porn while checking the sports scores.





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