when you are too small for Aleppo

I feel weird sharing this, and I would feel weird not sharing this: I wrote two versions of my last post, about Aleppo, and they said nearly opposite things.

As I pondered Aleppo, I wondered, too, about all the war zones I don’t know about—the ones I don’t have the energy for. And my fingers flew off on something of a tangent that, in the end, I recognized as good and true but I also felt myself resisting. It was true for someone or sometime, but that night my own heart needed another cry. And that other cry is the one I published.

The first draft was for another me: the me who is so often overwhelmed by this world and so often unable to cope with her own small fears and wounds, who would be drowned so easily by it all if there weren’t grace for her, too. Although this week my own call was to pay attention, keep vigil here for Aleppo, just as often, I learn that my calling is to let it be; it is held. I hesitate to say this is a balance; that sounds like a skill you could develop or a decision you could make using a flow chart. Finding a place between a compassion that stretches you, and an acceptance of your own finitude even in this regard, and then again the knowledge that God calls us sometimes to a compassion that breaks—this is the work of the Spirit. It is a mystery, not a balance.

It can be true that we have a responsibility to lament and, at the same time, that you have a responsibility to rest, or to lament for something closer to home, or to hold those who lament. If Aleppo, so far away and so unbearable, is too much for you to hold this week, here is your permission to unfollow.


Our technologies push us beyond our limits in countless ways, but for some of us, this is the most persistently bewildering. It is beyond us to process a new disaster every week and every day, to carry news of this civil war and that kidnapping, this famine and that drug war, let alone the occasional reminders that refugee camps, climate disasters, human enslavement, utter poverty grind on and on every day, far from the front page. No one could respond appropriately to any one of these things over any course of time, but they appear, rapid-fire, in our feeds. We breathe prayers and give a few dollars and we feel that it is nothing, and it is nothing, and we flick the thing away before it drowns us in despair.

The expanse of humanity is more interconnected than ever before, but is that even a good thing? Can you encounter the expanse of humanity with an open heart? Or would it tear you open at the seams?

I submit that if you tried to direct fifteen minutes of your full attention to every disaster, crisis, and tragedy that crossed your field of vision, you would be crushed. Try to absorb it all, and blow after blow will leave you gasping against a wall; try to carry it all, and you will stumble, too tired to lift your face from the mud; try to love them all, and you will suffocate as the weight of your body and theirs halts your breathing, alone and covered with wounds.

Only one person has ever been able to hold it all. But not before it killed him.

You are small, faithful one, and grace frees you to admit that. You are allowed to breathe prayers and give a few dollars and return to the work you are doing in your own heart, in your own neighborhood, in your own state. Yes, it is enough to send a letter to your Congressperson advocating for refugee resettlement the United States. Yes, it is enough to light a candle. Yes, it is enough to lament. Yes, it is enough to feed your neighbor or to have sent all your money to last week’s cause, because anything but paralysis pushes back the darkness. If you are asking the question, then it is enough. If you are open to the voice of the Spirit, then you will know when it is your day to mourn for strangers. If you are faithful to your own daily work, then you will have made room for God to do God’s work.

Look, friend, before we were connected by the lights and bytes zinging around the globe, we were connected to each other by the dust from which we were formed. Scientists are just discovering what Jesus had told us all along: that nothing exists apart from the webs of life that enfold and ground it. To say your actions in Tennessee affect people’s lives in Syria is not simply a metaphor. And the more we learn about the problems of the world, the more we see that this is true: the destruction of the planet is the poverty of its poorest is the violence of its most desperate is the indifference and isolation of its wealthy. It feels like bad news, that no single problem has a single solution in this weary world. But if all of our problems are connected, then all the solutions are, too. Your own generosity and patience and peace are the restoration of something and a saving grace to someone else. They are miracles, they are ripples in a pond, they are the very most raw materials of the Spirit’s transforming work in the whole earth.

You will know the people, places, and politics to which you are called. Some of us are keeping vigil for Aleppo, fighting for local food, and holding potlucks for our neighbors. Maybe you sacrifice for other things. These are all simply offerings to One who gathers them together, breaks them, and by a miracle feeds a hungry world. He holds it without your help, and he holds you without any anger at your smallness. Let it be. It is beyond you. He weeps for all that you cannot.

On smartphones: an excursus on coffee

I harbor a deep and abiding hatred for Keurig coffee brewers – the devices that deliver a single fresh-brewed cup of coffee in about a minute with the push of a button. To the many devotees of the Keurig whom I know, this confession may come as a bit of a personal affront; why, they might demand, should I expend precious energy resenting a machine that can perform such a miracle? As several of them quite sensibly said, when the coffeemakers first came out and I first began ranting about them: “Don’t get one then.”

My irritation, though, was not only with the sighs of neeeeed inspired by the coffeemakers in people who, weeks or months earlier, had been quite content not to own a thing they hadn’t imagined existed. Nor was it only with the inferior (but outrageously expensive) coffee produced, the bizarre noises that seem to be necessary for the Jetsons-like effect of the process, or the ecological disaster that is the unrecyclable K-cup. Rather, I have come to realize what my initially almost-unexplainable discomfort with the Keurig’s popularity really reveals: the Keurig, like any tool or technology, is the physical instantiation of a whole mess of assumptions. In this case, they’re assumptions about machines, about humans, and even about coffee which, to my mind, make the Keurig the culmination of the entire phenomenon called “late modernity”. Here are a few of them:

A machine should be designed to look nice and perform efficiently, not to perform well or to be easily understood and repaired. Watching a Keurig make coffee for the first time has an awe-inspiring effect precisely because we do not know how it works – and we do not want to know. In late modernity, we prefer and expect that our machines will work magic for us using mechanisms that are completely hidden, and would be inscrutable to us if they were not. In place of concern for whether a thing is well-made or even useful we have taken up an obsession with surfaces and “design” as exemplified by the impeccable tastemaking of Apple, Inc.

Individuals can and should expect to be able to choose between many options at any given time. The Keurig user never again has to share a pot of coffee with that one colleague who makes it way too strong. In fact, the brewer can be used to make any number of hot drinks: mediocre coffee, mediocre tea, mediocre cider, and mediocre hot chocolate can all be yours. Nor must anyone ever feel silly again, trying to make one cup of coffee in a large drip coffeemaker when she is the only one at the breakfast table. A large, shareable pot of coffee is really rather undesirable when everyone has her own preferences, schedule, and needs. I have been to a catered dinner where a line snaked around the room as an attendant made one cup of coffee at a time in an effort to offer more drink choices (at the expense of time for convivial conversation over dessert).

The laws of physics should be manipulated to minimize wait time. To make a good cup of coffee requires a certain (rather small) number of minutes which we refuse to acknowledge we “have”. We prefer to make a terrible cup of coffee by blasting hot water through a plastic capsule of powder. The value of technology is in speeding things up, not in making them “better”. Things can always be faster.

Throwing things away is preferable to cleaning them. From start to finish, the Keurig hides those pesky coffee grounds from us, containing them so there is no measuring, no spilling, and no ugly waste (that we can see). Compared with the value of being protected from our own waste and saving the time required to clean anything, the cosmic demerits of throwing out an impenetrable plastic capsule are immaterial. In fact, we have come to expect this of ourselves: “In the ‘nowist’ life of the denizens of the consumerist era, the motive to hurry is partly the urge to acquire and collect. But the most pressing need that makes haste truly imperative is nevertheless the necessity to discard and replace.” New moments, new desires, new opportunities require that we abandon anything old, bulky, or high-maintenance.

It does not matter where things come from. The powders in K-Cups bear only a glancing relationship to coffee beans, milk (for lattes), tea leaves, apples, or chocolate, but this is no matter. The authenticity of the ingredients or depth of flavor derived from “real” foods has little value compared with the ease of acquiring a similar, pale and limpid cup made from dried, processed, and imitation foods.

Coffee is a caffeine-delivery system. We don’t care much for the quality of our drink because the drink is only a means to an end. It is a surreptitiously-snatched “treat” to get us through an interminable day, or a substance we treat (with respect to caffeine) in a manner similar to abusers of wine, in Robert Capon’s estimation: “Nothing appalls me more than to hear people refer to the drinking of wine as if it were a forbidden and fascinating way of sneaking alcohol into one’s system… With wine at hand, the good man concerns himself, not with getting drunk, but with drinking in all the natural delectabilities of wine: taste, color, bouquet; its manifold graces; the way it complements food and enhances conversation.” The addictive qualities of coffee, likewise, have come to overshadow the conviviality of the coffeehouse or the savored subtleties of flavor afforded by various growing regions and roasting methods, which historically made it so valuable. Demand for caffeine in coffee form has, in turn, driven prices down so that a labor-intensive luxury food has become a commonplace whose existence depends on the exploitation and degradation of workers who have, in all likelihood, never seen a Keurig.

By insisting that a machine for brewing coffee can have moral significance, I do not mean to condemn all instances of its use. It must be said that I harbor no animosity or ill-judgment towards Keurig users, and I readily acknowledge that certain situations or certain life patterns may make the Keurig a good choice of hot-drink-production apparatus. Moreover, like most people, I am quite willing to abandon all matters of principle in situations I consider dire, and will happily accept a cup of Keurig coffee on mornings when no other is available. I only wish to raise the point that it is worth asking questions before rushing to adopt an expensive space-age apparatus: What do we lose by being too busy for fresh-ground coffee from a drip machine or French press? Is the convenience of a K-Cup really worth the money ($40 a pound)? What exactly makes the Keurig so desirable, and what does that say about our way of life? And what is coffee really for? Though we have learned to regard everyday choices and the pursuit of real, full enjoyment as trivial, it might yet be important to return to Capon’s meditation on sin and human vocation:

“Wine is not – let me repeat – in order to anything but itself. To consider it otherwise is to turn it into an idol, a tin god to be conjured with. Moreover it is to miss its point completely. We were made in the image of God. We were created to delight, as He does, in the resident goodness of creation. We were not made to sit around mumbling incantations and watching our insides to see what creation will do for us…Creation is God’s living room, the place where He sits down and relishes the exquisite taste of His decoration. Things, therefore, as things, are inseparable from God, as God… Poor earth, poor stars, poor flesh. Without a Giver, they never become themselves.”

By forever turning the ends of God’s good creation into means, by asking that machines hide work that can be enjoyably done by human hands, by prizing the choices of individuals over the complex rewards of sharing, does it not seem that we late moderns commit the sin of continually rejecting a priceless gift?

written in a spiral notebook

I wanted to write this first thing in the morning; I thought it – and you – deserved a clean and sober author, even if I knew I’d immediately succumb again. But I really did have to send a couple of emails, and one thing led to another, and now here I am – a cup of coffee, an inbox, a twitter feed, and one round of Candy Crush later.

The smartphone wins again.

Last week I traded my indestructible flip phone for a shiny Droid with a cheaper plan, and added a small tablet to my research battalion (an old 15-inch laptop, decrepit but loyal). I had known the day would come eventually; I made my decisions carefully. I thought I was prepared as The Internet became, not a place I might choose to go, but a layer over my entire life.

My phone, as seen from my tablet. Glowing its sinister glow.

My phone, as seen from my tablet. Glowing its sinister glow.

The first chance I got, I installed Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest – and turned off all the push notifications. “I won’t jump at your silly beeps and tiny icons,” I said to my phone. “I own you, not the other way around.” I think it narrowed its eyes and growled back at me, but I didn’t notice. I was busy talking to my tablet.

For a 23-year-old American, I am embarrassingly bad at using these things. I installed five different PDF readers before I discovered, completely by accident, that the tablet has its own button to lock the screen orientation – thus, the apps didn’t. “I just got this phone,” I later cringed at the TSA agent waiting for me to do something – I knew not what – with my digital boarding pass. I’ve accidentally called a bunch of people whom I was trying to text. Sorry, guys.

But I’ve about gotten the hang of it. Now I stand my little tablet around the kitchen to play me music while I read recipes from it. I send picture messages with ease, and (unlike my flip phone) no one responds with “what is that…”. I read entertaining articles in waiting rooms instead of catching up on “what’s hot for the holidays, Christmas 1998”. I play puzzle games while I help watch my family cook. I Facebook-stalk acquaintances on the train. My mind never wanders. I never accidentally make eye contact with strangers. I never miss a soul-sucking Twitter battle.

As much as I want these devices to stay in their places – helping me in the kitchen and truly unconscionable waiting rooms – they already have tentacles in almost every moment of my day. What is it about them that mocks my intentions and demands my attention? Is it a need for connection, to feel important? Entitlement to entertainment? Some moth-like impulse towards flashing lights?

I did a big research paper on some of this recently. There seemed to be a trend: someone would write an article for HuffPo or The Atlantic expressing doubts or reservations about technology, and then someone else would respond dismissively in another article. The arguments generally amounted to, “This is The Future. Get over it.” Occasionally the tone would be more resigned than belligerent, but with the same bottom line: this is the way things are now, and your moralizing is not welcome. If you’re worried, you may proceed with caution in the privacy of your own home.

I find it inadequate and a little eerie that people are so defensive of their devices. Yes they’re great for lots of things – I, for one, am inordinately excited to have Google Calendar at my fingertips. But why shouldn’t we be thinking long and hard about something we keep on our person at all times? For millenia, maybe, you couldn’t leave home without some money and your keys – some ability to participate in the economy and your ticket back home. Now it’s wallet, keys, phone; what does that represent? Constant connection? Fear Of Missing Out? Being unconnected to the digital layer makes many of us as anxious or more than forgetting our wallets would – forget the lunch money, as long as we can still make the noontime rounds of social media.

But this is more than an “I Forgot My Phone” complaint. As childish as it is to check out of a conversation or moment with someone else because your device is shinier, that action belies an even deeper change in our orientation to the world. It’s the extreme form of an individualization, an atomization in modern society that sociologists have observed for decades. Far more than ever, our devices are making us into autonomous beings who bounce off of each other at intervals, joining groups and retaining obligations for exactly as long as it suits us. The phone invisible delineates the cocoon of my atom: its distraction shields me from the homeless person on the train; my preferred news app repels viewpoints I don’t want to hear; and I can cancel plans in favor of more exciting ones with a carefully composed, faux-regretful text that doesn’t subject me to the sound of anyone else’s disappointment.

Yet for all this self-determination, I’m mostly being led around by the nose. If my mind never wanders it’s because it’s being directed wherever the advertising dollars are. For every small time, idealistic journalist or blogger I discover via Twitter, I visit ten pages on HuffPo or BuzzFeed that generate enormous revenue by giving advertisers highly targeted access to my brain space. I pay for allllll of that free content by letting myself be conditioned as a consumer – all the more unconsciously because I “don’t pay attention to the ads”.

So an overlong essay by a humanities grad student ends with an apocalyptic pronouncement about corporations. But what am I going to do about it? I don’t know yet. I could sit on my hands every time a few seconds of boredom tempts me to whip the thing out. I can stop taking my tablet around the house with me like I’m an 8-year-old with a puppy. I can hope that the new rubs off a little and my resolutions to stay planted in the analog become easier to keep. I might uninstall a few applications, but as a blogger it’s hard to disengage from social media.

First I think I’ll look for a couple of alternative habits. Start bringing some crochet along to quiet my fidgety hands. Mark thankful moments in “real life” on Instagram, but also in writing. Read poetry, if even on the screen. Memorize poetry, even better. Pray for friends at least as often as I bow my head before that little blue-and-white bird.

Perhaps in time we’ll see that intangible layer brightening this one, instead of looming over it with its glamorous, but insubstantial glow.

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