Monthly Archives: February 2015

Tidbits from the Wise, #3

As I’ve mentioned, I am in the midst of reading many books at once. Not the best habit, but little else feeds the mind or fuels the creativity so well as a variety of voices sharing their wisdom. Therefore I’m doing a series sharing tidbits from these works in the hope it gives you some mental fuel. This is Part 3. See Part 1. Part 2.

Tidbit #3: Poetry

Confession: I am reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time….ever. I know, I know. Calm down, nerds.

In my defense, too many people, myself included, begin reading LOTR without fully appreciating the challenge ahead of them. They think they can go straight from The Hobbit to LOTR seamlessly, but they soon realize everything has changed. While J.R.R Tolkien was indeed commissioned to write a sequel for The Hobbit, his imagination carried him to a new realm of complexity and impact. For one thing, Tolkien brings more of his Silmarillion mythology into the LOTR story, connecting it to eons of fictional history that must be considered alongside themes of destiny and good versus evil. For another, as Tim Keller says comparing the two works, The Hobbit is a journey; The Lord of the Rings is a quest. While Bilbo the Hobbit goes ‘there and back again,’ the Fellowship hardly harbors hope that they will ever return, and they must learn to value their goal above even their lives. The Lord of the Rings operates on a more complex, emotionally-charged, higher stakes level. Furthermore, Tolkien requires readers of LOTR to appreciate his philologist’s heart. He infuses his prose with poetic flourishes, and careful readers will notice this, pause, and join Tolkien in appreciating not just the images described but the very sound of the words themselves.

It is to this last point I wish to draw attention. I’ve never been much interested in poetry, but while reading The Lord of the Rings I am often finding myself doing double-takes with the text. There I am, going along, wrapped up in the world of Middle-Earth, until I suddenly catch myself: Did I really just read that? I go back and read it again. I think, That might be one of the most incredible sentences I’ve ever heard.

For long-time Tolkienites, this feeling of awe and appreciation of the poetry is old news. For the rest of you, I want to show you a little of what I mean. Here are a few passages. Read them slowly, and aloud. Drink in the meaning. Savor the sounds. Grin at the gravitas.

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” 

“Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced the moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a disheveled dryad loveliness.”

“High upon the rocky seat upon the black knees of the Ephel Duath, stood the walls and tower of Minas Morgul. All was dark about it, earth and sky, but it was lit with light. Not the imprisoned moonlight welling through the marble walls of Minas Ithil long ago, Tower of the Moon, fair and radiant in the hollow of the hills. Paler indeed than the moon ailing in some slow eclipse was the light of it now, wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing.”

“Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.”

“And at the least, while the Wise ones guard this Ring, we will fight on. Mayhap the Sword-that-was-Broken may still stem the tide – if the hand that wields it has inherited not an heirloom only, but the sinews of the Kings of Men.”

“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”

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Photo Friday: Flashback

Nashville was encased in ice this week. The entire country endured plunging temperatures. But the Virgin Islands exist, soo…God is good! I encourage all of you, if you are able (and ‘able’ is probably within reach for more of you than you think), figure out a way to get away, get warm, and stimulate your brain with beauty.

For this Photo Friday I will journey back in time to 2005 when my family went to St. John. I hope they can inspire you go on an adventure of your own!

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Sunset from the St. John Ferry

 

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Trunk Bay, regularly voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. See those islands? They are surrounded by coral reefs beneath the surface. We saw a turtle while snorkeling!

 

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For real.

 

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Look at how adorable my siblings were in 2005! Living it up at Trunk Bay.

 

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Two Lovely Mermaids

 

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Yeah. That happened.

 

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This is the setting of one of the best lunches I’ve ever had. Two words: Conch. Chowder.

 

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Hiking in Virgin Islands National Park.

 

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The car rental company upgraded us to a jeep for free. It was the most beautiful vehicle that ever was. We had quite a time blasting Bob Marley with the top down in this baby.

 

 

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Nashville the Popsicle

I’m learning all kinds of new things living down South. For instance, people let you pass in front of them in traffic. Weird, right? They also seem to have no qualms about using their cell phones while driving. Today, I hope they do neither of these things; the entire city is covered in a sheet of ice.

Interestingly, the city infrastructure doesn’t seem like it is going to do anything about it. On the radio this morning they said that city officials ‘urge people to stay home.’ That’s their solution: everyone stay home. Living in Chicago the last ten years I witnessed amazing feats of winter weather combat on the part of the city government. Mind you, this is not because they actually care, but because they’ve learned the hard way that the quickest way not to get reelected is to leave streets unplowed. Still, despite mixed motives, I will never forget how they cleared two miles worth of snow and abandoned cars from Lake Shore Drive in Snowpocalypse of 2011. And so it is with crinkled eyebrows I look out my window at the glaciated streets and ask, “So…we will just, er, wait…for it to melt?”

This might take a while. The forecast doesn’t show any temperatures above freezing for several days. A 1/4 inch of ice encases everything in creation. Josh spent half an hour removing sheets of ice from our cars this morning, and then couldn’t get on the highway because some poor soul slid into a cop car on I-65.

In an effort to stay positive, I went and took some photos to show the prettier side of ice storms. Enjoy.

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Tidbits from the Wise, #2

As I’ve mentioned, I am in the midst of reading many books at once. Not the best habit, but little else feeds the mind or fuels the creativity so well as a variety of voices sharing their wisdom. Therefore I’m doing a series sharing tidbits from these works in the hope it gives you some mental fuel. This is Part 2. See Part 1

Tidbit #2: On Philosophy

The significance of this tidbit requires a little background info…

University of Chicago

I majored in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Chicago. You are right in thinking, as you probably are, that this is a very strange major. I always laugh when people ask what I majored in because they think it probably informed my career. Silly people. Anyway, despite the lack of an immediate professional application for this major and my embarrassing lack of retention of the material, I do have a lot of experience talking about philosophy and big ideas like existence, God, truth, knowledge, etc. What’s more, I still get a kick out of it…to a point. By the time I graduated I knew several grad students I could have throttled for taking the whole thing way too far. Why? Because they developed the nasty habit of answering every philosophical query with their own doctoral thesis. It didn’t matter if what you said had nothing to do with pragmatism, or Freud, or disillusionment–they would force it to be about pragmatism, or Freud, or disillusionment. The real trouble lay in the fact that these numbskulls graded my papers. One time a grad student give me a B in my Shakespeare class, not because my paper was bad–he provided no concrete criticism–but because he believed Midsummer Night’s Dream was an allegory of death. Really. Midsummer. The one with the fairies and the donkey-headed chap. Common’, man.

While the B still stings (haha, B Stings, get it?), I am grateful for these moments because they taught me to take over-simplified theories with large grains of salt. Nothing in all of creation is ever about one thing. The real world is organic and messy and constantly changing; if a philosophical theory takes too much of a reductionist approach, we know something has gone awry.

G.K. Chesterton

But the point of this series is not for me to ramble, but to share what much wiser people have said about these topics. The other day I applauded G.K. Chesterton who, in his 1925 book The Everlasting Man, writes the following critique of reductionist philosophy:

“The temptation of the philosophers is simplicity rather than subtlety. They are always attracted by insane simplifications, as men poised above abysses are fascinated by death and nothingness and the empty air. It needed another kind of philosopher to stand poised upon the pinnacle of the Temple and keep his balance without casting himself down. One of these obvious, these too obvious explanations is that everything is a dream and a delusion and there is nothing outside the ego…[The philosophers] have made many things out of it, and sometimes gone mad about it…But the point about them is that they all think that existence can be represented by a diagram instead of a drawing; and the rude drawings of the childish myth-makers are a sort of crude and spirited protest against that view. They cannot believe that religion is really not a pattern but a picture. Still less can they believe that it is a picture of something that really exists outside our minds. Sometimes the philosopher paints the disc all black and calls himself a pessimist; sometimes he paints it all white and calls himself an optimist; sometimes he divides it exactly into halves of black and white and calls himself a dualist…None of them could understand a thing that began to draw the proportions just as if they were real proportions, disposed in the living fashion which the mathematical draughtsman would call disproportionate. Like the first artist in the cave, it revealed to incredulous eyes the suggestion of a new purpose in what looked like a wildly crooked pattern; he seemed only to be distorting his diagram, when he began for the first time in all the ages to trace the links of a form–and of a Face.”

I love the image of life as a drawing. After all, the real world is full of curves. Do you know how hard it is to calculate curves? Remember calculus? No matter how many decimal places you use your integrals and derivatives are always approximations. Diagrams, calculations, and analogies help us understand aspects of life, but never all of life. Chesterton urges us to take our eyes off the paper and patterns and pay more attention to how life really is, both in its simplicity and its intricacy.

I’m tempted to start spouting about how I wish that the church would also do this, instead of constantly reducing theology and experience to trite statements, but I won’t. Happy Friday!

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Tidbits from the Wise, #1

So I’ve been in the habit of reading many books at once. I think I’m reading eight right now. That might make me seem like a great reader, but more likely it means I lack focus. It’s not all bad, though. Variety in my reading encourages my creativity. Different books expose me to different stimuli which, when juxtaposed, allow me to form mental connections I might not have otherwise been able to see. I present to you a series exploring some tidbits from these works in the hopes that you might make a few new creative connections of your own.

Tidbit #1: On Friendship

Last summer I read a biography of C.S. Lewis and grew deeply curious about the friendship between Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; it truly was one of those fascinating connections that changed the world. Without this friendship the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth might never have seen the light of day. A few months ago I began to look further into this remarkable pair. I realized that I knew nothing of Tolkien’s life, so I figured I would start there. In Humphrey Carpenter’s biography there is chapter devoted to ‘Jack,’ the name Lewis went by among friends (Funny aside, there was no real reason for this–it appears Lewis just liked the name as a kid and went with it). Though both men served on the English faculty at Oxford, the two were unlikely friends as they fell on different sides of the Language/Literature divide within the English department. “At first the two men circled warily around on another,” writes Carpenter. “Tolkien knew that Lewis, though a medievalist, was in the ‘Lit.’ camp, and thus a potential adversary, while Lewis wrote in his diary that Tolkien was ‘a smooth, pale, fluent little chap’, adding ‘No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.’ But soon Lewis came to have a firm affection for this long-faced keen-eyed man who liked good talk and laughter and beer, while Tolkien warmed to Lewis’s quick mind and the generous spirit that was as huge as Lewis’s shapeless flannel trousers.”

C. S. Lewis

Carpenter goes on to quote Lewis from The Four Loves on the subject of friendship, and “how the greatest pleasure of all is for a group of friends to come to an inn after a hard day’s walking: ‘Those are the golden sessions,’ writes Lewis, ‘when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze, and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as talk; and no one has any claim or responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life–natural life–has no better gift to give.” Tolkien and Lewis, Carpenter infers, shared and treasured this gift together.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Have you ever enjoyed a friendship like this? I thank God He has given me such friends. I had to smile while reading this passage because it happened to be the morning after a three hour phone call with a dear friend. The phone, I admit, was a setback, since both of us would have much preferred to be together in front of a fire with ‘drinks at our elbows,’ but we have shared moments like this and I am certain we will share more. We know what it’s like to be so engrossed in a subject that our minds feel stretched beyond our own circumstances, like we’re tapping into truths bigger than ourselves, outside of ourselves, and yet common to us and to everyone. We can also laugh about the stupidest stuff, including ourselves. In that same conversation last Friday we made references to Tolstoy and to internet cat videos, and delighted in each. I love that our conversation goes both deep and fluffy, for it is this combination that gives our friendship such richness.

Knowing the story of Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship, I wonder how my friend and I will serve each other in the years to come. Tolkien proved one of the most critical influences on Lewis’s faith. Lewis was Tolkien’s greatest source of encouragement for his creative writings and, it can be argued, was really the midwife for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Neither man would have accomplished what they did without the other. How critical, then, are these friendships that help us see past our own inhibitions and realize our creative potential. We should treasure such friendships, lest we risk living in a Hobbitless world.

 

 

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Intro to Design Thinking

This morning I enjoyed my third plunge into something called Design Thinking. Championed by the leaders of IDEO, the behemoth design and consulting firm, and the folks at the Stanford d.school, this creative methodology helps people adapt a new attitude toward innovation and gives them a proven method that works with any number of challenges, be it designing new software, building educational curriculum, or finding new ways to deliver medicine in third world countries. There are five basic steps to Design Thinking:

image from createdu.org

Here in Nashville I found a Design Thinking Meet Up that runs exercises in the methodology. So far, it’s been a blast. To begin with, the space where the Meet Up is held is magical. It is a big sunny room surrounded by whiteboards and Post-It notes. Such environments make non-linear thinkers like me salivate. We get to work in teams, develop different solutions to the challenge of the day, and share our insights and prototypes. We get to play with toys and draw with chalk and giggle a good bit. It’s the kind of place where lines between work and play get gloriously fuzzy.

But the elegance and appeal of the methodology goes deeper than playing in this big kid playground. Design Thinking helps teams and individuals expand their creative capacities and burst bubbles of convention. I see this working for three main reasons:

1. It re-introduces a human element to design. Design thinking prides itself on incorporating empathy as a critical component of the methodology. Practically speaking this means that Design Thinkers strive to share actual experiences with the target market or audience. From these shared experiences designers can draw insights they would have otherwise missed. Ideo’s CEO Tim Brown shares in his book, Change by Design, about a teammate who feigned an injury and went undercover in an emergency room to see how hospitals could run more efficiently. Curiously, he found that efficiency wasn’t the problem; the problem was that hospital staff communicated so poorly with patients that the sick and injured were left wallowing in fear and uncertainty. Had this undercover mission not taken place, the team might have completely misidentified the problem and developed a “solution” doomed to fail.

2. It helps people bypass their inhibitions. In so many hierarchical work environments, brainstorming as a group rarely works. People worry what the boss will think or what their colleagues will do if they say something stupid. Any negativity can kill the innovative spirit. Furthermore, people become prematurely encumbered by budget questions and feasibility before they even discuss what problem(s) they need to solve. Design Thinking encourages a “Yes, and..” or a “Yes…if…” attitude. All ideas are welcome in the “ideation” stage, and the group works together to build on the ideas that best solve the problem. The atmosphere is positive and collaborative and works best when the group is diverse and can represent a variety of experiences and insights.

3. It embraces experimentation and failure. Design Thinking relies heavily on fast prototyping. Let’s say your challenge was to design a better shopping cart. In no time you might be making carts out of popsicle sticks and wire. The principle is simple: experimenting sooner rather than later gets the ‘failed’ attempts out of the way. Failure, in this case, doesn’t loom over the project as something to be avoided but rather is embraced as a critical part of the process. Sometimes the best insights are formed when early attempts fail.

I still have a lot to learn about Design Thinking, but I hope you find these principles liberating as I have. Creative work often degrades into competition; we are seduced by the romance of the lone artist, so we pit ourselves against others to be the “best” lone artist. But creative work can be so much more. It can pull in people, who otherwise don’t think of themselves as creative, and liberate them to contribute. When this happens, it’s a beautiful thing.

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