I’m not sure I’ve changed more than in the two years I spent in the Alabama area serving a mission for my church. Up to that point, that experience was far and away unlike anything I’ve ever had to do in my life: completely separated from friends and family, given the charge to engage with, mostly devote Christians, of mostly conservative, evangelical protestant traditions. I was sent out very young, very naive, filled with unresolved issues with the charge to preach Christ to an area suffering from a deep legacy of racism, Jim Crow and slavery. Culturally, Alabama had issues far more complicated than anything I was prepared to take on.
And this is true for all Mormon missions, 18, 19, 20 year old kids are sent out to some location around the world, with a very short training period, and then asked to go find people who might respond and be helped by our message. It’s difficult, often unproductive and inefficient, but for me, life-changing.
When I came home from my mission, coming off the plane in Yuma, picked up by my parents, thrust right back in the life I had left. It was jarring, to be honest. I was expecting the world to have changed as much as I did. And it wasn’t like I was on another planet those two years, and in a sense, it was. I was in a bubble. No news, no concerns about money or rent, or food, not really. All of that was taken care of before I left. Money was being sent monthly. All I had to do was focus on one thing, studying, sharing and living the gospel, every single day. And suddenly, I had to face the life I’d left with every unresolved issue still waiting for me two years later.
A couple of days ago, I bought yet another book by Adam Miller, “The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace: Boredom and Addiction in an Age of Distraction”. In the preface, he sets up the point of the book and essentially how he interprets a major theme in David Foster Wallace’s work:
“If you worship (and you do), this moment will come. You’ll pass the point of inversion, the spell of transcendence will break, and with that break, you’ll lose your religion. You’ll give up. You’ll have a mid-life crisis. You’ll get divorced. You’ll wonder what it all means. You’ll stop buying new clothes or going to church or wanting to impress people or reading the Bible or believing in the magic of television. You’ll be sad. This sadness is risky. It’s risky because it threatens to obscure the urgent revelation shining at the heart of your loss: the revelation that the end of worship was, all along, immanence and that, though your head may invent a thousand ways of escaping this world, the point of religion is to return you to it.”
Before I really dig into what I think this is getting at, I want to say how closely this resembles the primary thesis of another book I’ve just finished, The End of the World Plan B. In this book, Charles Shiro Inouye describes two types of turning, one toward God and out of the burning house and another turning, away from God and back into the burning house. The first turning is motivated by a sense of justice, wanting to get the mess of our lives in order. The second turning is motivated by compassion earned as we suffer through immense sorrow as we realize how hopelessly unjust the world and our lives in that world really is.
Taking these two books together, the burning house is likely a more dramatic image than it needs to be. When I think back on my experience coming back home to live once again with my parents in Yuma, this returning from the mountain back into the burning house, I think of all of the other similar times this has happened. After a really great honeymoon with my new wife in London, visiting art, listening to concerts, enjoying the city, and then coming back into the clutter and mess of our first apartment together. Or the many times, I’ve been invigorated on a mountain hike and then returning back into the every day doldrums. And what does a typical day look like? I’m sure you can relate:
1) Every single night, fighting with our kids to get them into bed on time.
2) Trying to make sure our oldest daughter’s blood sugars are high enough to get through the night.
3) Cleaning the same dishes that get dirty every single day.
4) Trying to figure out how to find an electrician we can trust to fix an electrical problem in our house.
5) Trying to find time to buy a new minivan to replace the old one we’ve been driving for far too long.
6) Hoping we’re saving enough money for retirement and our four kid’s college education.
7) Trying to find time to home teach every single month, families that I’m not sure really want us to come visit anyway.
8) Getting to work every single day, doing mostly the same thing, day in and day out.
Yes, I set goals, I get excited. I want to learn a new piece of music on the piano, I want to get into shape, I want to eat better food, I want to read a difficult novel, maybe I want to take on a new home project. What do each of these require?
1)Piano: To really learn the piano, you have to practice, regularly, working through technique and theory that can be tedious, frustrating, mundane and repitious.
2) Exercise: Regular and consistent and difficult.
3) Diet: Grocery shopping for fresh food, cook healthy meals, plan ahead. Junk food is easy and convenient, healthy food isn’t.
4) Hard books: Careful reading, note taking, sticking with it to the end, even if the plot doesn’t get you, even if the novel takes you on tangents you’re not always interested in. Persisting through the boredom anyway.
It’s regular, day in and day out, the same thing over and over again.
In her book, “Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life”, Margaret Kim Peterson puts it this way:
“Housework is akin to these natural and human rhythms of the day, the week, the year. We fix lunch because it is lunch-time. We wash the clothes or the windows because it is Monday or because it is sunny. We pack away coats and boots and get out of shorts and sleeveless shirts because winter is over and summer is coming. As we engage with the litany of everyday life, we engage with life itself, with our fellow human beings, with the world in which God has set us all, and thus with God himself.”
In my day job it’s no different. I spend big chunks of my time at work, in front of a monitor, developing software. There’s been some fairly recent innovations on the way software gets developed that I think is relevant here. We come up with big, transcendent ideas for something we want to build, architect the software down into size-able chunks, and then organize a set of Scrum teams to build the software. But we just don’t build it. We organize our time into two week sprints and try to make small, demo-able improvements toward our larger goal. The day-to-day activity of building software is often a bit like housework. It’s redundant, often tedious, sometimes difficult.
I stare at the screen; think deeply about the problem; work through a low-level design; write the code in a way that solves the problem elegantly enough to be easy to read, maintain and extend; build appropriate re-runnable unit tests; think of all the possible ways the software might break; try to find new ways to break it; fix and re-test; deliver, demo and then start again.
I think this is just life. Life is hard, it’s boring, it’s mundane, it’s filled with distraction. But this is the hard work that’s required toward real-authentic moments of transcendence. This is how we get out of the burning house toward the top of the mountain. And when we reach the top, its what we must do all over again. Go back into the world and re-engage with boredom and repetition and climb up that mountain all over again.
This is also what religion is about.
To be honest, it’s taken me far too long to understand this. Like most people, I hate doing my taxes, I hate paying my bills, I hate cleaning toilets, I hate cooking, I hate shopping. It’s hard, it’s boring. And like most people, I love feeling connected, uplifted and inspired.
And in our modern day, it is possible to get cheap inspiration without having to endure the boredom, the work and the difficulty. But there’s also a price. I discovered this very young. You can feel a sense of connection and inspiration. It comes to us streaming through a screen, on our computer, television set or in a movie theater. I’ve always loved movies. It can be transportative, a distraction from boredom. I’ve often been inspired, I’ve seen a lot of really great movies in my life. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.The internet has amplified these possibilities. It offers a chance at transcendence and a fix against bored one and makes this ever-present and in our pocket.
In Adam Miller’s book, the subtitle is “Boredom and Addiction in the Age of Distraction”. The antidote I think is in what I just described. Being in the world, fully and completely in it, and not of it. I think being in the world means being present, really living in it, fully engaged, even though it’s mostly boring, repetitive and mundane.
This is my challenge as a Christian, as a Mormon. I can do better.