On Combat and Kierkegaard

I was thinking about leaving work for the day, not yet getting ready but in that hour before when you begin to think about what you need to do in order to leave: how many unread emails would you like to respond to, how many of those niggling tasks that you’ve been putting off? But my friend came in, and we sat at the table in my office, the one with the globe and the stack of books — my wife buys me globes because of how I like maps, which she learned on our honeymoon when we drove to Cayucos and I charted our progress on a Rand McNally atlas. So my friend I’ll call Michael and I sat at the table with the globe, and we talked a little about work, and he also talked about combat, since he is ex-military. He told me about parachuting into a combat zone under fire, and how he was trained and prepared for such an event, prepared to see a member of his squadron get hit, prepared to hit the ground and begin moving, working to accomplish the mission. 

“I miss that clarity,” Michael confided. “Civilian life is so confusing.”

I’ve thought of this over the past weeks, this moment of connection and grace and insight. We lack clarity to our lives. On one hand, this makes sense: if the stories we live are first shaped by our desires, by the want to have something and the need to reach out and get it, ours is a world where desire proliferates. Simply watch a commercial break on television, and you are inundated with all that could be missing from your life. A new car. The right dishwashing detergent. The phone to help you experience life more deeply. Even your dog isn’t living his or her best life without the right dog food. You hear and see this in 120 seconds.

At work, we’re told our white-collar jobs engage us more fully than adding parts on an assembly line, and yet the meetings and email are endless, each with a different priority, each asking something of you, some engagement, and you shift between tasks constantly for nine hours before you drive home in traffic and watch email from your phone. Shifting from task to task, responsibility to responsibility without true awareness of which is more important, science tells us is the perfect way to diminish productivity. Yet, this is how we’ve set up our modern offices. Such shifts in our focus and such clamor to shape our desires: this is why life is confusing to people like Michael and, often, myself. 

If our lives are to have the meaning of a story, I know of no cohesive story where the character wants a new car, and a bigger house, and a wife, and a new phone, and better dishwashing detergent. In fact, stories based on what you can buy — outside of desperate need or sacrifice — are not engaging stories at all. The same is true at work. If I want to move forward on a technical project, and support a branding project, and also spearhead a project with the marketing team, I am quickly in a place of confusion and exhaustion. After all, I also have a day job outside of these projects.

Kierkegaard writes, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

If we go too long without one desire shaping our stories, or if we go too long with incoherent stories, shaped by myriad desires, we risk our lives falling into meaninglessness. As Alasdair MacIntyre writes in After Virtue, “When someone complains…that his or her life is meaningless, he or she is often and perhaps characteristically complaining that the narrative of their life has become unintelligible to them, that it lacks any point, any movement toward a climax or a telos.” A telos is an ultimate objective. An aim. An overarching goal.

Combat provides a telos. I think, in some way, so do maps. They offer a chance to chart progress against a goal, to see where we’ve come. Maps, of course, also offer possibility: “If we turn here we can see Mono Lake.” Maps are an opportunity for a journey, and journeys are not necessarily from point A to B, but opportunities to move forward while experiencing the world. 

MacIntyre goes on to write, “The unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest.”

*

If our desires shape our stories, Kierkegaard and MacIntyre argue for one great desire. Kierkegaard calls it the good, and MacIntyre writes of recovering the Aristotelian telos. But how are we to do this? Or, how am I to do it with my white-collar job and endless supply of emails? A telos, it seems, is for the weekend when I can focus on one desire of, say, loving my family and see the narrative of life. What am I to do — what are we to do — on Thursday afternoons when the weekend is far away and life is not a narrative quest but a comedy, where my best efforts turn against me? For this is also a uniquely modern problem — not only to identify a telos but to move toward it, and we can often be uniquely situated where meaningful work toward a goal is difficult. But I’m straying into other ideas.

MacIntyre argues for a certain type of narrative, against a life being a comedy where my efforts turn futile. A quest has a certain narrative shape, against a tragedy or comedy or rags to riches story. In its classic form, it’s meant to get something and bring it back for the good of the community, and half of the story is convincing the community they need whatever you have. For Odysseus, since the Odyssey is one of the most famous quests, almost half of the story occurs after his return to Ithaka and now must make it clear that his return is good — though it assuredly won’t be for the suitors. 

If the stories we live are about our desires, a quest asserts that one desire must be above those others. If we want our stories to have coherence, to have meaning for us, we cannot pull from a grab bag of desires every morning or every commercial break, or even every workday. We must have some conception of an overarching desire. MacIntyre again: “Without some at least partly determinate conception of the final telos there could not be any beginning to a quest.”

*

I cannot answer your telos. For myself, however, I have thought about who I was as a child, and who I want to be when I am fully grown. I have thought about what I need to live, and what makes me alive. I have, tentatively and carefully, shared these ideas with others to see if my work has resonance in the world. And I return, inexorably, to the ideas of meaning and awareness. We must become aware of our lives, of turning off cruise control or autopilot or however we go about our days, and we must see our lives anew, and we must do it again and again. Otherwise, our lives fall into routine and rhythm — which can be helpful — but we must always know why we have such routines and rhythms, or they become banal and binding. Such awareness, I believe, invites us toward meaning. And meaning is always infused with significance and hope, for a meaningful act is a hopeful act. I know of no better way to bring awareness and meaning than story, by telling stories and by urging people to see the stories of their lives. This is my quest.

I will lose the thread, likely later this week. And I will need to build up, all over again, what I truly desire, and whether I am pursuing this, and where I can impart meaning and awareness. A quest is not a decision, but a daily journey, an overarching shape to our lives, and while I’ll have detours I also hope to move forward. I suppose it would be similar to tracking my progress on a map.

On Homemade Art and Stories

Beside my desk, on the wall to the right, hangs a work of art. It is four pieces of construction paper taped together with orange tape; each piece of paper is a different color. The art makes a sort of lopsided and sideways T, and it tells a story and invites the viewer into a world. Across the top is a railroad track, a restaurant below, a windmill and horse and — to the right, where the length of the sideways T extends, mountains and cars and a rocket. My daughter gave it to me on my birthday this year, in the way children have of giving you something they made, and I made a frame for this lopsided T of a picture, stained the wood, hung it beside my desk. It hangs as a reminder, as I write, to make worlds and tell stories. It reminds me, too, of something I would have made as a child. As children we are storytellers and story makers, and I wanted something to remind myself of that, and this was the perfect thing.

I know that “story” is a buzzword now, used in marketing and data analysis, politics and current events and, thankfully, even literary circles. I can’t help but wonder where story has grown so popular because of our loss of it as a culture: that is, the loss of a metanarrative and unifying story with unifying ethics, morals, a unifying telos or end of humanity and each person individually. That is, I am convinced the more society talks about anything — be it story, identity, or truth — it’s a good sign that we lack whatever we’re obsessed about, like a group of starving men and how they will, inevitably, fantasize about food. Our society does not have this unifying story, so we talk about stories without knowing what to do about them, but without a common story we don’t even have a common language to speak to one another.

But we cannot escape that we are storytellers, or we once were, as the picture on my wall asserts. And we know we want stories, we watch them many evenings or binge them on weekends. We also want them, I believe, for our own lives. Or rather, we have them for our lives whether we realize this or not, and we want control over them, and to squeeze the meaning out of them, to realize what this world with its commutes and coffee, email and exercise, sleep and lack thereof, is all for. Yet, we cannot pull our stories out of the ground, fresh and new and ready to take home. Instead, we find ourselves with an amalgam of stories already, bringing the stories of consumerism and success to stories of faith and religion, mixing them and wondering where the narrative lies.

Of course, the consumerist story is one of accumulation. I think of buying a pair of running shoes: I could spend a week’s worth of work on this activity, researching reviews and materials, as if this buying decision somehow validates me. Or, if you’re not a researcher but more of a spender, I think of the evidence of accumulation in our garages and closets, and that self-storage is a $38 billion industry in the U.S. That’s about twice that of the entire music industry in our country. 

And if you are not accumulating products, we are desperate to accumulate experiences, or that seems to be the case form the modest amounts of time I spend on Facebook or Instagram, where our status is measured by the meals we eat and the trips we take. I rarely see posts sitting in meetings or answering emails, which are two activities that take up enormous amounts of my day. This is another story, and a distinctly American one, as if our highest end is to enjoy — or the pursuit of happiness.

This colors my faith, and if I have enough savvy to avoid thinking of God as Santa Claus, which I sometimes do, it’s easy to think of him as therapist or life coach, someone who exists so that I can be fully empowered, fully myself. But whatever truth there is to this, my vision of being fully myself generally falls into one of the consumerist and accumulation camps, with a vocation thrown in for good measure: I no longer have to worry about finances, or meetings and emails, and I have time to write, to sit outside on long mornings enjoying coffee, to philosophize. I find it strange that God isn’t more focused on my own empowerment and, the idea that we often confuse with empowerment, comfort.

A story begins, as I remember a professor telling me in grad school, with what a character wants. Specifically, she said, “To find a story, find someone who wants something and can’t have it.” This is partially why the consumerist-accumulation story is so dissatisfying, apart from deeper issues of what makes a human satisfied: it’s too easy. Any story that can be solved by cutting back at Starbucks and saving up isn’t one that will win our hearts. So, it shouldn’t guide our lives, either.

Think of your favorite stories. I reread For Whom the Bell Tolls this year and was reminded how Robert wanted to fight for freedom and win the war, but he really wanted love. I was recently brought to tears by The Color Purple when Celie’s sister Nettie, who we thought was lost, comes home. The scene was a resurrection, a yearning for life. 

A character wants something. This is where I see the story can diverge from wanting new running shoes and into the realm of faith. After all, this is the question Jesus asks again and again of almost everyone he meets: “What do you want me to do for you?” James K.A. Smith writes that this is the fundamental question of discipleship: what do you want? He goes on to write that our wants and longings are at the core of our identities, but I would amend his statement to say that are what launch our stories. To paraphrase Donald Miller, if we want the kingdom, we live a very different story than if we want a Lexus. Good literature does this. I quoted just two books I read recently, both old books, because good literature re-orients our desires to what is real and true or, if a tragedy, warns us away from those desires that will destroy us. Good stories are not about saving up for new cars, or if they are, the author knows the car means much, much more than a conveyance.

And this idea finally makes sense of the C.S. Lewis quote that we love to bandy about without knowing exactly what it means: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us…We are far too easily pleased.” We are too easily pleased because if we do not want enough, we do not live a true and beautiful story. 

There is nothing more serious than a story. We need such stories to re-orient ourselves toward what is real in this world, toward our deepest desires, so that we can live true, good stories. There is much to thinking about the stories we are living but it starts with this: What do you want? So it becomes a circle. We drink stories to orient our desires, and our desires shape our stories, our real stories in the here and now. 

The picture hangs to my left so I remember this, and I remember it, and I remember it. I grew up drawing such pictures and telling such stories — stories of love and hope, of sacrifice and, yes, violence. Today, I want to tell such stories because they are true, because they tell us what is most real in this world, but mostly because I see my desires drift from beauty and love to a new pair of running shoes far too easily. I want to desire more, because my desires shape the story I’m living. I want to live a story of beauty and truth and goodness, of hope and sacrifice and even pain in the cause of the kingdom. But I cannot get there, I cannot get my desires high enough, without a story to reorient me — even if it’s the thick and lopsided story that a seven year old drew hanging beside my desk.