Monthly Archives: September 2021
The article I’m working off in this post requires a deep dive… (links at the bottom of this post) its lengthy and skims over a lot of data and ideas. Its also provocative in ways that you might make someone “dislike” it before they really dive into it. The major premise of the article is that most of us will experience a steep decline in fluid reasoning after age 50. Fluid reasoning (for those not familiar) is basically your ability to problem solve… in a unique situation how well do you make leaps of understanding and connect seemingly unrelated ideas to find a previously unknown way out of an untread predicament.
For the sake of the article its tied to ingenuity and innovation and the author (Arthur C Brooks who, at the time he wrote this in 2019, was the President of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a public policy think tank in Washington, DC., and is now a professor of public leadership and management practices at Harvard) is making the case that for people in leadership and creative positions will peak at age 50 and experience a sharp decline in effectiveness after that age as a matter of biological development (in other words… its out of their control). He will go through data on what age do people win literary awards, write great music, make scientific breakthroughs, etc. You will get insulted (if you are over 50) but don’t let him scare you off. His point is valuable, and he makes a lot of astute and helpful points along the way – each one worthy of an hour or two discussions. If his provocative premise is a decline in fluid reasoning after 50, his conclusion is this: your skills are shifting – so shift your expectations and job to match those shifting skills, and he will then compare how this was done in the life JS Bach versus Charles Darwin:
“What’s the difference between Bach and Darwin? Both were preternaturally gifted and widely known early in life. Both attained permanent fame posthumously. Where they differed was in their approach to the midlife fade. When Darwin fell behind as an innovator, he became despondent and depressed; his life ended in sad inactivity. When Bach fell behind, he reinvented himself as a master instructor. He died beloved, fulfilled, and—though less famous than he once had been—respected.
The lesson for you and me, especially after 50: Be Johann Sebastian Bach, not Charles Darwin.”
We’d all like to imagine that we will defy the odds. That isn’t how the odds work. And there is great wisdom in reminding ourselves of our mortality and what is simply a fact of nature: our skill sets change. A major league baseball player’s eye no longer catches the spin of the stitches… and they can’t hit the ball anymore. For me… a pesky disk in my back made my doctor tell me I had to stop running and really should not lift anything heavy… for the rest of forever. What? I’m only 45!! Apparently that argument doesn’t change anything. Facts are facts. This doesn’t have to be “bad”. It a matter of how we learn to live within this new world we didn’t ask for… can we alter our expectations for ourselves? Can we recognize the need to change what we expect of similar people around us?
There is a really popular refrain from an old Dylan Thomas poem that reads “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” (Did you know that Bob Dylan changed his last name to Dylan in honor of Dylan Thomas… that’s a lot of Dylan.) This refrain is popularized in movies and funerals (or at least, movie funerals). Its one of those “excepted as universally wise” refrains. But is it, wise I mean, for us to rage against the dying of the light?
I’m not an either/or kind of guy. I like to “hold ideas in tension” so I’m not saying let’s throw out the idea of not succumbing to death… but do we really want to make our life about raging against the inevitable? Who benefits from this? You cannot fight death. You can seek life. I have always liked the idea of recognizing that there is a moment when we want to start paddling downstream and stop forcing ourselves to go forward in unlikely ways that requires nature to become our enemy.
What does it mean for us to recognize, and even accept our limits (or shifting gifts… lets even stop calling them limits)? What does it mean to live within the world presented to us rather than continually trying to force a different reality? What would it mean to question the polarity of options of “passive acceptance or rageful fighting” as if there is no middle way? There is in fact a whole world of opportunity where we allow ourselves the grace of shifting talents, gifts, and possibilities – and then play within those. Brooks notes that highly intelligent people are prone to less happiness in mid-to-late life, likely because since childhood their keen intellect has been central to their identity… and the didn’t imagine that keen intellect might fade in the same ways a pitching arm, or a running backs legs do. We cannot fight nature… what we can do is learn, and live to learn, within these inevitabilities so that our happiness is not tied to “defying the odds”.
I’m living in a season of telling myself not to expect fish to fly and giraffes to swim. (They can swim – giraffes that is, but not well – so don’t ask them to be lifeguards at the pool.) If I know premise A to be true, then I need to play by the consequences of that reality. I’m usually better at the first part than the second. I want to make all things work. I want to defy the odds. But that’s not how the odds work… and we live with some toxic American myths that tell us “you can do all things” and that the highest good to force your way through where no way exists…. We are told stories that revere and set the standard at the larger than life concepts like Paul Bunyan and John Henry. Stories that teach us to work ourselves to death.
You, we, deserve more than rage… and unending work. Don’t you? What does it mean for you to shape a life more like Bach than Darwin… more like peace than rage?
Links for further readings, the article on the decline of innovation reasoning:
Link for Dylan Thomas’s poem (which I still like even if I question its wisdom):
author’s additional note:
Acknowledging that I have not lived this journey but have lived alongside this journey hundreds of times I want to say this is not an accusation and is meant to be the exact opposite of “out with the old and in with the new”. Its about recognition and appreciation. I experience in people the grace of naming things. When we name a reality and realize we aren’t the only ones experiencing this we can sometimes finally breathe and say: “ok. This isn’t just about me.”
Not everyone feels that grace but so many people do and I think Brooks’ article (when you sift through some of the data that can get insulting as if its saying people over 50 aren’t worthwhile… which is not where he is taking us but on how to reclaim worth by being realistic about expectations and goals) is about being willing to offer ourselves the grace of admitting we aren’t the thinkers and innovators we used to be. And that’s ok, let’s find the gifts of experience and wisdom and the time for mentoring and guiding, and the intentional paring back of life to enjoy what is, rather than rail against what is no longer.
Our world will get smaller.
We will lose independence.
We will lose intellectual skills.
Our work will become someone else’s
(often without the gratitude and recognition we wish for… see the Charles Darwin story)
This is not something we can stop.
But we can change how we choose to relate to that journey.
The consequence of this for me are wide-ranging but I didn’t have time to do it all in the article itself but one of the things I am telling my church leadership right now is “we have to stop worrying about who is no longer here or what we can no longer do”. We have to be the church with who shows up and the means available to us. And when we make that pivot I think we will be much more hopeful about tomorrow. (The exact point Brooks’ make about happiness through mid-life.)
(edit: Not sure why this post today… I wanted to talk about “naming things” and in some roundabout way I got to this. I’m not talking to you… none of you offended me by calling me Andy. I like when folks from my childhood call me Andy and I don’t expect you to do otherwise, but it’s not my chosen name for people who know me from now… and this story just served as an anecdote to a larger conversation about the importance, challenge, and power of names.)
Somewhere between my 18th and 24th years of life my name changed from Andy to Andrew. It wasn’t seamless, this transition in names. It has a muddy middle when I went to college where monosyllabic grunts are necessary. For many years I went by Kuk more than any version of my given name. This means if you meet someone that knows me from my early years (mostly in Illinois), then they call me Andy. (If you happen to get me to play tennis with you I will yell at myself as Andy… old habits die hard.) But now, and for everyone that met me after college, I go by Andrew. In fact it is something of a personal pet peeve of me if people who meet me now call me Andy – it usually signals things for me, as I have never introduced myself that way, written my name that way, or granted permission for you to simply change my name on me. There is a power in names and one’s own name can be intensely personal. It bothers me to no end when I learn I have been pronouncing someone’s name wrong. It is a most basic courtesy to name someone based on their own identity work with their name. You don’t get that power, its theirs to give you. You never know what you are signaling with a small shift… so let me tell you a story about my name.
I am sure that at some point in life every person looks up their name to find out what it means. They lay this alongside stories of origin from their parents and families about why they were given a name and what legacy that name might carry. Each of my four children were blessed (and burdened) with significant names to the merged family trees and history of Caroline and myself. Those names mean something, and we named our children with deliberate care – as most people do.
My given name means “strong, and manly”. No matter what I say in this story I love my name, don’t hear that wrong, but I have a history with it and that’s the point to this story. It is Greek in origin (think Andrew the disciple) and has its roots in the Greek generic word for man, άνδρας (andras). Now let me tell you something about me and my childhood. I have never felt strong… or manly. I had good friends growing up who were great athletes. I was not. We played football in my side yard, and basketball in my driveway, we played backyard wiffle ball across the street… sport defined my childhood play and I wasn’t gifted at any of it. My friends were/are good friends and never made me feel “less” than them. But I always did. I remember the triumph of beating them in tennis for the first time because as my chosen sport there was a moment when training overcame talent. (It happens!) And I used to revel in gym class when they would let the boys (rarely) test on the flexed arm hang. I would never score well on pushups and pull ups… but I could endure pain with the best of them. Stubborn, I am, in the way of smaller kids who grew up trying to run with the “big boys”. But I never felt strong… and thus I never felt manly. I was quick to cry, and carried many fears with me everywhere. I had little self-confidence. I didn’t have the language then for “toxic masculinity” but I knew there was something different about me… something “less” though I stubbornly refused to imagine that was a problem I needed to solve – I was happy being me for all that it was “less”. I played with ants in the sand at the edge of the swings during recess instead of joining kickball games. (I’m not making that up.) I have always hated changing clothes in the locker room for gym class… or anything. I have far too embedded a sense of my “failing” as a male to ever be comfortable in that space. I was small, mostly quiet (but not if you were in my circle of trust), and… different.
Let’s not say more of that… not because I won’t – I’m happy to… I believe telling stories (telling secrets as Fredrick Buechner writes) helps empower other people to connect with their stories. So I will tell it, but not more today because its straying too far from the purpose of our dialog here. My name. My name means strong and manly. And I never felt it. And I went by Andy… a nice comfortable diminutive version of my name… it fit me… something less than strong and manly.
That’s the rub… I came later to imagine I wasn’t strong and manly enough to be called Andrew – so Andy was my appropriate name. It wasn’t how I thought of my name so much then as what I came to learn (thanks therapy and reflective journeying) in my twenties. Partly aware and partly subconscious the changing practice to using my full given name of Andrew was a personal journey to claim my identity as strong and manly… in my own way. Not what I was taught by the culture around me… but what I had learned as a small kid who was weaker of muscle and strong of spirit. I was a poor public speaker due to so much nervousness around people, quick to tears and happier by myself than with people because I found peace of mind not worried about how to act and if I belonged. I was embarrassed by so much social interaction and with a deep fear of being unaccepted. My willingness later to claim (by act of agency) my name, Andrew, was a willingness to understand that I could give wings to my personal identity and own my own strength.
A poor public speaker? It is what I do for a living now every single day.
Embarrassed by social interactions? A lot of people wish I shared a lot less! 😊
Quick to tears? I hope so!
Fear of being a burden and unaccepted? Ok… I still carry that one around… the naming wasn’t all magic!
But my name matters to me… and it represents a story of becoming and of being unashamed of the whole story. I love the child I was, the complicated youth I maybe still am, and the adult I have become. It isn’t perfect and its plenty burdened and blessed… but I claim all of that as me: Andrew.
So, you may not mean anything by it all… but if you call me Andy (and you recently met me… my mom gets to call me Andy for life) then you are touching a very personal narrative and you are telling me things you don’t know you are telling me about how you view me. I know you don’t mean to do that (or I hope you didn’t mean to… some people actually do)… that’s why I’m telling you this now. I have the strength and the position to say: don’t name me (or anyone else) different than I name myself (themselves). I’m telling you that because some people don’t yet feel that power, or lack my position, and they are deeply hurt when they are being named in “less than” ways.
Names have power. Names can shape our identity and give voice to it. The right name is a blessing, the wrong name is a distraction and confusion at best and burden and oppression at worst. Respect the power of those narratives; respect each other. A name is deeply personal thing, and the power of our names is a gift that should be received humbly and with care.
What is the story of your name – not just the story of the name you were given – but the story of the name you claimed in your personal narrative?
I first came across this phrase this summer in church leadership circles where people were beginning to name this era we currently live in as the time of “the Great Resignation” that describes both the literal – people resigning from leadership and volunteer positions left and right – to the metaphorical… as people’s capacity for care dried up.
Then I did some reading to learn that the term was credited to Texas A&M Associate Professor Anthony Klotz in 2019 when he predicted a coming mass resignation from the workplace… one that is in full throws right now in the summer of 2021. There are literally hundreds of articles out there now trying to talk about the why of it all. Social upheaval. Loss of meaning in the workplace. Yearning for new ways of doing things. Lack of voice in saying this isn’t working.For further thought on that I will simply convey to you this article with Prof. Anthony Klotz: https://www.theversemedia.com/…/anthony-klotz-defining…
But I want to think more broadly about all of this than employment… to circle back where I started before I knew the terms most popular history to think broadly about this whole sense of a time of “great resignation” which is resonating with me in every room I am in right now from the civic process of our country, to volunteerism on the soccer field and at board meetings, to the dwindling life of the church as a gathered community of faith. I want to think largely about the fact that we are so tired of even talking about being tired that we are left with only the capacity to withdraw and that couples with a constant demand for “hard untrained decision making”. But it also covers over that the problems behind the “great resignation” aren’t simply “COVID” but the way in which COVID acted (as Klotz’s says) as an accelerant to trends that were already happening (again, he predicted its coming in the workforce BEFORE covid).
And then I get theological… I’m preaching with a friend on EXILE this Sunday… exile and wilderness are a favorite subjects of mine. I believe them to be fruitful and essential for all that they are defined as unwanted and cut-off. And I wonder if something of the “great resignation” is actually a run toward, and not away, from exile. Exile is actually the place in which we want to make our home right now. And maybe that is right… and then we get this old gem:”The most remarkable observation one can make about this interface of exilic circumstance and spiritual resources is this: Exile did not lead Jews in the Old Testament to abandon their faith or to settle for abdicating despair, or to retreat to privistic religion. On the contrary, exile evoked the most brilliant literature and the most daring theological articulation in the Old Testament.” (Walter Brueggeman, Cadenences of Home)
(deep breath) (pivot)
The soil in my yard is very, very dry. I haven’t run a sprinkler system in years. I live in a very arid place. And you can’t just water my lawn anymore. It’s baked and dried and become somewhat hydrophobic. Hydrophobic soil actually repels water. And while my yard is not fully hydrophobic it is, at this point, so in need of water that it rejects water. (Do you see where I am going with this?) And I’m aware that at such a point if you want to bring life back to my yard it cannot be achieved by simply watering it. My soil lacks the organic and fungal material that makes soil soak up water. And in order to do that, I have to recondition the soil. I have to do deeper soil work and interrupt the water-repellant layers and create more healthy organic “wettable layers”. There is a temptation to think that if its really dry you need to unleash the firehouse. But all that will do is drowned whats left of life. We need to back off… get more subtle… and break it down even more… before anything new can fill up.
Anthony Klotz studies resignations because he says it the one time the employee gets the power away from the corporation. And he wonders what they will do with that power when they have it. He also argues that it’s taboo to talk about resignations because that taboo helps organizations/corporations to keep the control and power. “We don’t talk about it” so that nothing changes. And one of the things he sees here in mass resignation is a desire to force the conversation. Or.. what I will call… to break open the water-repellent layers so we can unearth and cultivate a healthy and whole organic system again.
Now… deep breath… again…
This reflection has no answers. Simply some observations and random connecting of dots that may be completely unrelated. I do not know what to do to inject vitality back into a congregation, or volunteerism, or the workforce. But I do think I see something of the process we are needing to have across the board:
We need to borrow from Jewish tradition and engage in a radical exilic conversation – and we need to lean into it… letting go of taboos and control and embrace deconstruction and imagination.
We need to admit that we are traumatized and something of a byproduct of that is that we are all more than a little hydrophobic right now. (And we cannot afford to get tired of admitting this.) So these conversations need to be slow, gently invasive, and creative.
We need to foster conversations about meaning and the loss of meaning in our lives… Klotz recommends this very thing: “Organizations can help remind people of how their job contributes to the wellbeing of the world.” We need to find clarity about what we are rejecting and what we are seeking and their overlaps.
We need confession about complicity and honest truth-telling in order to deconstruct all that is at work and to hold on to the clarity of what it is that we really want… and really endorse.
We need to stay very close to the experience of suffering and to those experiencing suffering… we need to lay ourselves bare before each other for isolation, insulation… and the comfort they bring hold exile and its fruit at bay.
We need ambivalence. Deconstruction and new construction is neither all old stuff reordered (deck chairs on the Titanic) or all-new replacements (there are deep and helpful resources we need… like radical exilic conversation).
We need to imagine that this is all possible – actively work on imagining it every day and committing ourselves to be willing to look for it, push it, and respond to it, just plain show up for it… because its all too easy to decide it isn’t my job… after all – I’m living the Great Resignation too.