A whole life, in the space of an hour

Elizabeth Bruenig writes with “all the spiritual advice” she has, “learned through experience, not study” which resonates with me as we approach Easter:

About an hour passes between the second time Peter denies knowing Jesus and the third and final time. It must have felt like an eternity, sitting there in the nighttime firelight, overcome with dread and uncertainty. There was time to think.

Maybe Peter thought about some way to still stop this entire process, this thing that was prepared to happen. That had been his first instinct, after all. Maybe he thought about fleeing. Maybe he thought about the next question that would come, and what he would say. Maybe he tried to steel himself to affirm his friendship with Christ, come what may. Maybe he had the exact words in mind.

And maybe he knew by then, after those first two denials, the likelihood that he would find his strength now was rather low. Jesus had said as much, anyway.

The man must never have known a longer hour. Hope is a thorn in the side of doubt, not a thing with feathers that perches in the soul. It aches. And at the end of it all he does —you will—still fail. Peter denies Christ again. The rooster crows, and Jesus looks at Peter, because even though Peter has denied Jesus, Jesus has not denied him. His opportunities are not yet exhausted.

The majority of us — who Augustine called the non-valde-boni,the not-very-good-ones—live our whole lives in the space of that hour. We hope. We try. We will probably fail. It will happen over and over again. The most relatable Christians in literature are not the subjects of hagiographies, but of the kind of morally ambiguous stories that amount, in the end, to what we call a life. Shusaku Endo’s Kichijiro, who repents only one more time than he apostatizes, is perhaps the ideal form.

In an era where solutions are judged by their efficiency, it can be hard to accept that this is just how grace works on fallen creatures: like a spiral, circling around you over and over again as you repeat the same mistakes, drawing nearer and nearer to your heart the longer you seek it. It isn’t that grace is ineffective or inefficient but that we are, being what we are, imperfect vessels for it. The miracle is that it works anyway.

Our entire being and existence are mysteries of the most incredible nature, and way too often we all end up arguing with one another over little controversies.

Who can explain the grace and beautitude of a human life, let alone the reason for there being stars illuminating the void in which the matter of this universe coheres? Where do the things that seem firmest in our observational and scientific experiences find their origin and meaning?

A Christian is one who believes that Christ came through that mystery and into the human story for the purpose of a relationship that can survive the shattering of not only very galaxy and the universe itself, but even the calamity that is the death of one we love.


‘Neither confirm nor deny’

Joseph Goldstein reports that the New York Supreme Court has ruled that New York City police can now refuse transparency by employing the CIA tactic of “neither confirming nor denying” public requests for information:

On Thursday, New York State’s highest court told the New York Police Department that it was free to use the phrase in response to inquiries from citizens who want access to their police files to learn if they have been the subject of surveillance.

The ruling, by the state Court of Appeals, carves out a new exemption in the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which has been understood to require local agencies to at least acknowledge the existence of records, even if they were not required to release them.

But the ruling for the first time allows the New York Police Department to avoid even answering whether such files exist, said Christopher T. Dunn, a New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer who filed a brief in the case. “That’s the ultimate act of secrecy,” Mr. Dunn said.

The case before the court involved public-record requests filed in 2012 by two men to get records relating to any surveillance of them by the police. The men, who are both Muslim, filed the requests after a series of articles by The Associated Press described a secretive Police Department counterterrorism program that conducted extensive surveillance of Muslim organizations and mosques. One of the men, Talib Abdur-Rashid, is the imam of a Harlem mosque. The other man, Samir Hashmi, was a student at Rutgers University and active in its Muslim Student Association. After the Police Department refused to confirm or deny the existence of the records they were requesting, the men sued.

The police maintained that even disclosing the existence or nonexistence of any such records — let alone publicly releasing any that existed — would provide too much information. “The knowledge that a person or group is the subject of a N.Y.P.D. counterterrorism investigation would allow that person or group to alter their behavior so as to avoid detection,” the department’s intelligence chief, Thomas Galati, wrote in an affidavit. “Conversely, the knowledge that a person or group is not a subject of investigation would allow such persons to more freely engage in illegal activity.” …

In a statement, the Police Department said it has “rarely” responded to public record requests with a “neither confirm nor deny” answer. “The department will continue to do so only on a very limited basis and where appropriate,” the statement said.

But Mr. Dunn, the civil liberties lawyer, expressed concern that the Police Department would keep to that.

“The big question is how far they are going to push this,” he said, noting that the Police Department recently issued a “neither confirm nor deny” answer to a public records request the New York Civil Liberties Union had filed that sought information regarding a 2014 Black Lives Matter protest. In that case, the civil liberties union wanted to know if the police had listened to — or jammed — phone calls among demonstrators.

“They’ve already used it in a protester case,” Mr. Dunn said.

Odious. It’s one thing to defend the value of secrecy on the national/international level wherein there is at least hypothetically a public good to be served by non-disclosure. It’s entirely another thing to rule that domestic public authorities can simply refuse to answer public inquiries from citizens, journalists, etc. for private reasons.


Livable places

Hazel Borys writes:

Tonight I was thinking back through all of the places I’ve lived, correlating the physical form of the places to the size of my circle of friends. While completely an anecdote of a sample size of one, I noticed that when I lived in more walkable locations, I certainly had a much more engaged urban tribe. Just out of university, I moved into a flat on High Street. Most every morning, I’d go for a run with a friend, then meet up at the coffee shop with three or four friends before work. Saturday mornings at the farmers’ market with a larger circle were a weekly standard. Some of those friends are still close today, despite the long distances between us. I had more social capital paid in before 8 a.m. than I did all day that time I lived in the suburbs, where I only lasted two and a quarter years.

Another chapter of life was in a small town, a five minute walk to the town square. We frequently had dinner on the front porch, where friends would meander by and stop awhile. Gardening in my front yard, a complete stranger stopped on the sidewalk to chat, and she soon became one of my closest friends in town.

I had plenty of time to think through this today as we completed a favourite holiday ritual of baking cookies for 31 of our closest neighbours. This is something we never did while living in a suburban environment, even though we had a small child, who is more likely to connect us to others. While I’m sure that that there are just as many lovable people in the auto-oriented suburbs as there are in walkable, complete communities, livable places connect people, and make social bonds more likely. …

I realize there are significant stage-of-life factors that figure in to how connected we are to others. Most people tend to have significantly stronger social bonds just out of college than later in life. And having a young child strengthens those bonds as our kids open doors to community.

… as Charles Montgomery writes in The Happy City, social isolation has much to do with the form of our built environment. Those connections that are essential for well-being are particularly difficult to come by in the auto-centric dispersed city, and are more likely in walkable, connected neighbourhoods. Charles points to happiness economist John Helliwell at UBC, who found that in Canadian cities, trust in neighbors was the key for life satisfaction, not income or wealth. He also cites Elizabeth Dunn, who found even superficial contact with strangers generates a “social-tie density” that supports wellness and productivity.

It’s good to live in a place where you can walk to all of the places you really need to get to, or at minimum hop in a subway/train or reasonably-priced Uber/etc.


Digital minimalism

Cal Newport writes about “digital minimalism“, a concept and a book he’s drafting:

In late 2017, as part of my research for a book I’m writing on digital minimalism, I invited my mailing list subscribers to participate in an experiment I called the digital declutter.

The idea was simple. During the month of January, 2018, participants would take a break from “optional technologies” in their lives, including, notably, social media. At the end of the 31-day period, the participants would then rebuild their digital lives starting from a blank slate — only allowing back in technologies for which they could provide a compelling motivation. …

Since January, I’ve been reading through the hundreds of reports that participants sent me about their experience with the digital declutter. I’ve been learning a lot from these case studies, but I want to focus here on one observation in particular that caught my attention: when freed from standard digital distractions, participants often overhauled their free time in massively positive ways.

Here are some real examples of this behavior from my digital declutter experiment…

  • An engineer named James realized how much of the information he used to consume though social media during the day was “unimportant or useless.” With this drain on his attention removed from his routine, he returned to his old hobby of playing chess, and became an enthusiast of architectural Lego kits (“a wonderful outlet”).
  • Heather, a writer and mother of three homeschooled kids, completed a draft of a book, while also reading “many books” written by others.  “I’m recapturing my creative spirit,” she told me.
  • An IT professional named Andy noted that he typically reads 3 – 5 books a year. Free from the time sink of social media, he’s on track to finish 50 books in 2018.
  • Angie is a yoga instructor, but she also has BFA and used to be a professional artist. “Not spending time on social media had me thinking,” she told me, “what do I want to get good at? Making social media posts, or getting back into painting?” She choose painting. During her declutter she booked three new art shows and had her work accepted at a juried exhibition. “For me, it was simply a refocusing of my time and commitment to myself, to get better at something I love,” she said.
  • A retired stockbroker named Bob began to spend more time with his wife, going for walks, and “really listening.” He expanded this habit of trying to “listen more and talk less” to his friends and family more generally.
  • A PhD candidate named Alma described the experience of stepping away from distracting technologies as “liberating.” Her mind began “working all the time,” but on things that were important to her, and not just news about “celebrities and their diets and workouts.” Among other things, she told me: “I was more there for my girls,” I could focus on “keeping my marriage alive,” and at night “I would read research papers [in the time I used to spend scrolling feeds].”
  • Another PhD candidate named Jess tackled Anna Karenina and Infinite Jest during the declutter. “Now that I feel like I’m actively choosing what I do with my downtime, I find [hard] activities like reading more pleasurable.”
  • A government worker named Ari replaced his online news habit with a daily subscription to the Wall Street Journal print edition. “I still feel perfectly up to date with the news, without getting caught up in the minute-to-minute clickbait headlines and sensationalism that is so typical of online news,” he told me.
  • When a publishing executive named Leonie gave up Facebook, she had an epiphany: “I do want to connect socially,” she told me, “but for a bigger purpose, and with a specific group of people, and to share a valuable message.” So she started her own blog on a topic she finds important. “It’s early days yet, but I’m enjoying this redirection my time and creative energy into making something that’s uniquely me, instead of getting caught up in the ‘compete and compare’ culture of social media.”
  • David was a former professor looking for a new job after moving to a different state. Ignoring the traditional advice that social media is key to finding jobs (as I also recommend), he deleted his accounts and dedicated his newfound free time to a more traditional job search. “I started getting more and more job interviews,” he told me, attributing his success to being able to deeply research open positions. This effort culminated in the last last week of the declutter: “I had five job interviews in five days and two offers.” He also competed a full rewrite of a young adult novel he was writing. “So I would say this experiment was a wild success,” he concluded.



What Newsweek knew

There’s this debate in America, or what I think is often a sort of pretend debate, about the moral status of the human life that’s in the womb of a pregnant woman. That is, about what precise it is that a woman is pregnant with.

We’re left with two troublesome factions in American life, neither of which do a good enough job stating what they’re after, but one of which tends to purposely confuse in its use of language by making an issue that is obviously about the value of human life into a question of the choice of the strong triumphing over the contextually weak.

The common sense civic debate Americans should be having, which boils down to how one of the wealthiest and most privileged societies in human history should be creating a wide and broad social safety net to ensure that no unexpectedly pregnant woman is encouraged to abort her child because we’re able to provide her with a continuum of care that ensures her life is not “over” due to that child—from incredible welfare benefits to education/workforce training, to child stipends until the child is of a certain age, to housing, etc. But we don’t have that conversation, and that’s largely a scandal and fault of Planned Parenthood and other “choice” advocates who in practice offer only one choice: abortion. They receive more than a billion in public funding annually, and pro-choice attitudes dominate in the media, and yet they’re not using their power and influence to broaden the public debate about the range of options that should be offered to pregnant woman. At minimum, that’s a failure of imagination.

And in the meantime, Americans sometimes debate about what exactly is in the womb. Is it a person deserving of legal protections our constitution claims to offer? Or does is have a lesser moral or legal status? Are 20 week limits on abortion, when we believe the creature can feel pain, for instance, extreme? That’s what we’re debating today.

The development of 4D ultrasound, and of modern medical technologies, help us see into the womb in ways that were impossible when Roe v. Wade was decided. We know more today than Americans could have then. That’s what I grew up hearing.

Yet here’s what Newsweek featured on its cover in 1975:

1975-03 Newsweek Cover

That’s human life at four months. And it was featured on the cover of a major news magazine months after Roe v. Wade was handed down. Do we know less in 2018 than what Newsweek knew in 1975? We know what’s in the womb, and it seems like we’ve always known. Psychologically, biologically, scientifically we know what abortion does. The questions are all political and cultural and social.

Why we don’t at least mandate that Planned Parenthood be funded to aggressively promote adoption and women’s education and workforce training and childhood stipends, etc. as much as it does abortion is anyone’s guess.


Computer science and digital literacy

Fred Wilson’s post on the push to make computer science a standard part of New York state public school curriculum got me thinking, and specifically the struggle to make that happen outside of the cities, got me thinking.

I support the addition of computer science as a standard part of K-12 curriculum, so long as it’s balanced by a strong and challenging literary/humanities curriculum. As Steve Jobs once said, technology alone is not enough. And in many respects American educational thinking is already far too focused exclusively on the economic aspect of learning, while personal and cultural knowledge is lost or never conveyed in the first place.

But literacy of any sort requires good language. Think of Albus Dumbledore’s comment to Harry Potter in The Deathly Hallows to the effect that “words are our most inexhaustible source of magic”. That means that the careful use of language in what we describe will shape what we strive to do.

How many schools still use archaic language like “Computer Class” or “Technology” or something similar? That’s atrocious phrasing that I think underscores how far those schools are from Fred Wilson’s vision of computer science for all. (The same is true, by the way, for terrible, nebulous subjects like “Religion” and “Social Studies” and “English Language Arts”, etc.) What’s really being taught (or what should really be taught in this class) is not “computers” or “technology” but digital or electronic literacy.

“Digital Literacy” curriculum would demand better teachers, because it would encompass not just basic skills like typing, systems use, coding, etc, but could go a step further by seeking to impart a sense of public citizenship. And personal social network guidance. And imparting at least intermediate critical learning and research methodology.

“Computers and Technology” is creaky language, and an obsolete, vague, unmeasurable sort of class. It’s like calling an English composition class “Typing Class”—technically accurate, while missing the point.

A digital literacy curriculum could encompass what Fred Wilson is working to do in New York, while also cultivating a wider set of virtues that would serve the whole person.


Regret and virtue

On the use of regret to live a more virtuous life:

To “live life without regrets” is impossible because we are imperfect. There are thoughts, words, and deeds which all of us must repent. “Regrets, I’ve had a few but, then again, too few to mention,” sang Frank Sinatra in the incalculably pompous song, “My Way.” In Edwin O’Connor’s wonderful old novel, The Last Hurrah, the story’s hero, Mayor Frank Skeffington, lies dying as friends gather around, and one old political rival, who announces that if Skeffington had it to do all over again, he’d do it very differently. We want to cheer as Skeffington marshals the strength to say, “The hell I would!”

As much as we might admire the pluck of Frank Skeffington, we should, if granted a second or third or fourth chance to correct our errors, resolutely do so, secure in the knowledge that virtue often proceeds from regret rightly acted upon. Regret – accompanied by restitution and resolve – are not undesirable, but, on the contrary, are the wellspring of the examined life which, in turn, leads us to know, love, and serve God.

In 1984, Pope John Paul wrote (in Reconciliation and Penance): “The restoration of a proper sense of sin is the first way of facing the grave spiritual crisis looming over man today. But the sense of sin can only be restored through a clear reminder of the unchangeable principles of reason and faith which the moral teaching of the Church has always upheld.”

To have “a proper sense of sin” leads to the regret that converts sinners into saints. As we approach the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection this week, we should also keep in mind that through Him regret can be transfigured into joy.

Another way to think about yesterday’s Kierkegaard excerpt on regret is to first distinguish between regret and remorse, and then to distinguish between things you authentically regret and the recognition of which and resolve to live differently can positively change your life, and the sort of fruitless regret that Kierkegaard tends to be speaking toward, which is the regret of opportunity cost more than lack of living as a good person.


Transcending regret

Søren Kierkegaard in Either/Or:

If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a girl, you will regret it; if you do not believe her, you will also regret it; if you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both; whether you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both. If you hang yourself, you will regret it; if you do not hang yourself, you will regret it; if you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both.

Transcending regret involves recognizing that every choice includes an opportunity cost, and learning to make peace with the myriad versions of your life that you’ve foregone or missed out on, and finding real joy in the only life you’ve got—which is the one you’re living right now.


Philadelphia criminal justice reforms

Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s new District Attorney, seems to truly be reforming the justice system for the better. Shaun King writes:

When lifelong civil rights attorney Larry Krasner was elected in a landslide this past November to become the new district attorney of Philadelphia, to say that his fans and supporters had high hopes would be an understatement. Anything less than a complete revolution that tore down the bigoted and patently unfair systems of mass incarceration would be a severe disappointment. …

In his first week on the job, he fired 31 prosecutors from the DA’s office because they weren’t committed to the changes he intended to make. …

Next, Krasner obeyed a court order to release a list of 29 officers from the Philadelphia Police Department that were on a “do-not-call list” — meaning that they were so tainted that they would be considered unreliable as witnesses. The police officers on the list had either been charged with crimes or found responsible for misconduct in internal police probes conducted by the department’s Board of Inquiry. Among the offenses, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the police officers had lied to their fellow investigators, filed false reports, used excessive force, driven drunk, and burgled. …

All of that is big, but nothing is as essential and revolutionary as the internal five-page guiding document of new policies that Krasner sent to his staff. … The first sentence says it all: “These policies are an effort to end mass incarcerations and bring balance back to sentencing.”

Then, under the heading “Decline Certain Charges,” Krasner immediately instructs prosecutors to stop prosecuting marijuana possession regardless of the weight. Furthermore, he instructed prosecutors to stop charging those with marijuana with any paraphernalia crimes.

Next, Krasner instructed his prosecutors to stop charging sex workers that have fewer than three convictions with any crime and drop all current cases against sex workers who also fit that description. All sex workers with three or more convictions are to be referred to Dawn Court – a special diversionary program created in 2010 specifically for sex workers with repeat offenses, the first of its kind in the nation.

Under the heading “Divert More,” Krasner then instructed prosecutors to avoid convictions if possible and guide cases for diversion programs instead of jail and prison.

What Krasner’s memo said next was groundbreaking. First, Krasner instructed prosecutors to stop the wide-ranging practice of beginning plea deals with the highest possible sentencing and instead, begin those plea deals at the bottom end of the available range of time that can be served. And when less than 24 months is available as a sentence for a crime, house arrest or diversion programs should be used instead of incarceration.

Larry Krasner’s predecessor is serving prison time for a variety of corruption-related crimes. And in a city where even a corrupt District Attorney’s office has to maintain a list of cops likely to lie under oath and at the same time has more than 44,000 citizens on probation, it’s clear there’s something foul in the criminal justice waters. If you’re still skeptical about the need for these reforms, this should convince you:

It’s what came next that genuinely shocked me. …

Krasner instructed his prosecutors to now add up and justify the exact costs of every single person sentenced to a crime in Philadelphia. Stating that the city is currently spending an astounding $360 million per year to jail around just 6,000 people, Krasner then gave examples of all of the things that such money could be doing in the city currently. Stating that it costs between $42,000 and $60,000 per year to incarcerate a person, he reminded the prosecutors that the average total family income of a person in the city was just $41,000. The annual cost of incarceration, Krasner reminded his prosecutors, was currently more per year than the beginning salary of teachers, police officers, firefighters, social workers, addiction counselors, and even prosecutors in his office.

Krasner wrote, “If you are seeking a sentence of 3 years incarceration, state on the record that the cost to the taxpayer will be $126,000.00 (3 x $42,000.00) if not more and explain why you believe the cost is justified.”

Spending $360 million per year to jail ~6,000 people. How many of these are nonviolent offenses? How many are due to minor probation violations?

Philadelphia helped pioneer the idea of criminal justice as a penitential and reformatory process rather than just a punitive one. Krasner’s reforms seem to me to be in the spirit of those penitential ideals.