Don’t Just Do Something. . . Sit there!

Don’t just sit there, do something!
(Aphorism, rightly or wrongly attributed to televangelist, Robert Schuller)

Sit there. . . the admonition levelled at the shiftless, the lazy, the unfocussed, the unmotivated. Capturing the essence of the Western idyll, elevating the list-makers — or more properly, the list-completers. And vilifying the ‘Type B’s’ (if there was ever such a ‘personality type’, characterizing the non-Type A’s), as the laid back, feet-up-on-the-porch-railing folk who seem content to just watch the world pass them by. In short, if you’re not moving, preferably forward, there’s a problem. A restlessness, agitation even, a kind of culturally sanctioned ADHD has come to be the norm.

Let’s try another one: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Basic, grade 11, Newtonian physics. And, so it would seem, basic social psychology as well.

My sometime running coach opened our first conversation with a simple question: ‘What’s your distance?’ Scraping away the obvious, he wanted to know how to shape a training program so it best served the mileage at which I intended to compete. I reasoned, from my modest (very modest) success in the dozen or so years I’d already logged at the sport, that marathoning was an open invitation to injury. Equally, I was never going to be a successful miler. So it was down to what is affectionately known as ‘middle distance’ — the space between endurance and sprinting. He exhaled, clearly relieved at my decision. Metaphorically, I’ve spent much time in this same space in the years since. Or at least tried!

This middle middle ground is indeed a challenging and challenged place to live. Sometimes dissed as fence-sitting, equivocating, ambivalent, passive, uncommitted . . . the list goes on (and on). Sometimes lauded: balanced, equanimous, neutral, considered. Generally elusive and unsustainable . . . and almost always preferred to the polarities that lie to either side.

The maxim of the quick hit, do it . . . and move on to the next (preferably as soon as possible), that so informs our culture in this era of the compelling need for instant gratification, is further complicating the process. The usual whipping boy (person?), digital distraction, heartily supported by myriad, internet-spawned algorithms and their wee squirts of dopamine (aka ‘Likes’, thumbs-up and their emoji kin) and immediate access to endless rabbit holes, may as much be a reflection and symptom as a cause. Automaticity, reactivity have been around for a very long time. A resistance to taking the ‘long way round’, ‘sitting with’, savouring, steeping is the norm. Goal attainment over process.

I’m currently slogging (??) through the 500 pages of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, a wonderfully detailed review of the research of the past several years of cognitive process — and how we do it. The title is a very succinct summary of these findings: we spend most of our time ‘thinking fast’, using our intuitive takes on things, our ‘knee jerk’ (often factually unsupported) responses to navigate our day. He points out that this is frankly the only way to deal with the multiple decisions, needs for quick action that face us. But at a cost of ‘slow thinking’, where time is taken to weigh and measure, to consider the evidence, to make truly informed and thoughtful choices. He neither lobbies for nor picks a preferred mode. Both are necessary and have a role to play. But his writing is a (relentless) reminder that critical (considered, slow) thought may be being further eroded, less valued, and just too time consuming.

The case for ‘the middle way’ is both simple and ancient. Just not easy! Practice, repetition, noticing and embracing incremental, gradual change occupy a place both in long established wisdom and in an increasing canon of modern research as the mysteries of the mind are progressively married to the workings of the body, our physiology. The benefits of pausing, ‘staying present’, reflecting and reshaping our neural pathways (aka, neuroplasticity) are rooted neither in speed nor ‘one-shot deals’. Both require patience and many iterations. And neither happen without intention and purposeful choice. Auto pilot serves us well — until it doesn’t. . . when life gets too complicated to just push back, to move on to the next rabbit hole, to dance to the limbic urgency to fight or flee.

Method # 2 ??

Why is it better to get our news from a newspaper than from television?

There is a right answer — or at least a ‘two-point’ response (vs. a ‘one’ or a ‘zero’). In the dark ages of IQ measurement, such questions found themselves huddled together in a ‘sub-test’ call Comprehension. The intent of these fifteen or so queries was to test an individual’s understanding of social roles, practices, and conventional standards of behaviour — the ‘why and how things work’ in our culture. The latter day ‘down-grading’ of the test itself to ‘supplementary’ status (read, ‘optional’) says perhaps a little too much about what’s currently valued.

Screen Shot 2021-03-11 at 2.59.44 PMWhat isn’t political nowadays? Timing and sound bites rule. Balance and in-depth examination have been displaced in favour of encapsulated ‘scoops’, ‘breaking news’ — orchestrated to trade on a news cycle’s ‘treat of the week’; or more properly, treat of the instant. And washed through the filter of political correctness and ratings. The bandwagon has supplanted the orchestra.

So to Harry and Meghan’s ‘bombshell’ tell-all with Oprah. It was difficult to miss the carefully crafted, stage-managed, scripted frame that surrounded this ‘intimate and candid sharing’. And I’m sure that airing the interview on the eve of International Women’s Day, as a jury is being selected in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin (George Floyd’s killer), against the backdrop of BLM was all just some fortuitous accident. Not! Oprah didn’t become a billionaire by throwing something against a wall to see what sticks.

I’ve come to accept that the Americanization of Harry is long since a done deal. This is an incomplete individual who continues to struggle with his menu selections — as in ‘Will that be fish or fowl?’ Royal or no? And, as my mom was ever so fond of reminding me, ‘if you hang around with kids from the South End, it will lead to trouble!’ (Bearing in mind that the ‘South End’ was five blocks away in our small, southern Ontario border town.) Harry appears to have leapt from adolescence to, well, late adolescence in recent times — easy pickings for the more world-wise, image-managed folk with clear(er) ideas of what they want, where they’re headed, and how to get there. Harry, sadly has been compelled to make some difficult choices. In the face of a growing awareness that fence-sitting, in aid of having his cake and. . . was not working out.

Equally, in this ‘Age of Divisiveness’, simply making a quiet call and getting on with the business of same is not an option. ‘Herd loyalty’ must be declared, good guys and bad guys named and shamed, and a public spin spun. And with such widely aired and shared proclamations, victims and villains are all the more clearly drawn — and available to be adopted as icons, symbols, and spokespeople for causes in this increasingly partisan world.

But first the drama needs to tick the relevant boxes, to provide traction and points of attachment for movements, lest the viewing audience fail to connect the dots in the intended fashion.

Let the dot-connecting begin. . . A little something for everyone.

- Racist innuendo.
- Mental health allusion.
- Echoes of one or two prior tragic scenarios
- Cult control / and attendant helplessness and isolation
- David and Goliath narrative

I like to think of myself as neither a rabid monarchist nor a barking populist. What I do find increasingly disturbing is the ease with which ‘responsible news sources’ (and others!) are able to be manipulated and ultimately exploited to self-serving ends. All the usual suspects hopped on with all the usual biases and slants. CNN and MSNBC scrambled to interview BLM and psychiatric sources. Fox and its ilk championed (gulp!) the polar opposite.

And so to the opening question. The ‘right answer’ can include:
- In depth coverage
- Assignment of opinion to editorial pages
- Balanced reporting
- Paced, measured absorption of material
- Fact checked substance

Perhaps Method # 1 has something to recommend it after all.

Choir for the Non-Singer

. . . to borrow rather liberally from John Spong’s 2007 book title.

Wilson: “Mind listening while I ruminate?”
Tim: “No, just do it over there in the bushes.”
(Home Improvement, 1994)

main-qimg-7a562edd217b0d55008b1334cd4c4a64So this feels a bit like being a next-door neighbour to something; but looking over the fence at it. Not so very different from the (borrowed) passion many of us feel as we watch the ongoing melodrama staged for our entertainment (I’m sure!) south of the border. Opinion forms, but entitlement to speak it, to judge it, is always a bit iffy. So with that fuzzy disclaimer out of the way. . . I’ll channel my inner Wilson in this effort at Church Improvement.

Living adjacent to church music for the better part of three decades, it’s impossible to remain distanced from, unmoved by the choristry. On reflection, pie charting life so far — the usual ‘work, home, leisure’ wedges — would see this element, music, inform any and all ‘slices’. Where and how we vacation, where we choose to live, circles of friends who surround us, and the myriad dramas and melodramas played out before us for three decades bear witness.

Peering over the fence affords a certain perspective, the detachment allowed the observer; but not so available to the participants themselves. Couple this ‘arm’s length’ point of view with a penchant for identifying patterns, dynamics, and a passion for making sense of human behaviour. . . and a ‘diagnosis’ begins to take shape.

Communities, by their nature are a melange. A mix of personalities, agendas, motivations for membership, loyalties, needs . . . you name it. Moving to a town, no one really expects homogeneity, a seamless blend of sameness and agreement. Generally we find a way to coexist, to assimilate, to accommodate. Compromising where we have to; establishing boundaries to maintain our individuality where we can. We find our place in the grand scheme.

And choirs, to this outsider, seem to be no different. The hierarchy is clear. The roles are defined. The mayor, the neighbourhoods, the prominent citizens, the foot soldiers; conductor, vocal registers, leads, and. . . the alto line. Turf wars surface, bylaws are transgressed, egos tweaked — but the ‘village’ somehow survives, finds its balance again and settles into place, homeostasis restored.

Now consider for the moment, as a point of comparison, the scenario recently played and playing out in a political forum not so very far away. For two and a half centuries, the ‘peaceful transition of power’ has characterized the US and its installation of a new (or reprised) administration — until now. While the rest of the world has acknowledged a 46th president, functionally half (or close enough) continue to pay homage to number 45. The resulting chaos has impeded what should have been a perfunctory hand off and preparation for the next era. Confusion and a wholly unnecessary seismic rift has widened, perhaps defining and highlighting an essential schism that has always been resident — but ‘managed’. Too many cooks (by one) do spoil the broth.

And so to the clerical equivalent. The relationship between clergy and musician is complex — and has been ever thus. An overlapping, coordinated, consultative marriage may produce the satisfying result that has typified the western church for far longer than the aforementioned republic to the south. Sacred music has been fostered, sheltered, and championed with a mutual enhancement and appeal that has kept many of us ‘Wilsons’ connected and ‘in the pews’. All good — until it isn’t.

The church appears to share a few things with its current political dopplegänger — at least where the more dysfunctional examples are concerned: autocracy and a marginalizing of the ‘will of the people’ amongst the most evident. Particularly in times of transition, attempts at seizing the decision-making reins fuel divisiveness, promote a ‘choosing up of sides’ with all the expectations of stated fealty. Ultimately this creates a fault that, at best, destabilizes, dilutes the institution; at worst, destroys it. A resistance to ‘trusting the process’, relying on lay expertise that has well-served the institution is supplanted by a clerical compulsion to control and direct — to its peril!

One final constitutional parallel, this time with a monarchal flavour. Could we, just for the sake of metaphor of course, examine the role of, say a Queen Elizabeth. A symbol of an institution, guardian of ceremony and tradition, the nominal head of the church — but one that is obligated to otherwise ‘stand back and stand by’ — to horribly mix metaphoric content. Clergy have long since come out from behind the curtain. No longer are they perceived as the ‘wizards’ (pointy hats aside) that embody a direct conduit to a deity; the intermediary without whom the parishioner’s prayer is not heard. Martin Luther pretty much put pay to that.

Clearly, there continues to be a role: custodians of ritual. The day-to-day governance, the matters of ‘state’ are overseen by a corporation and counsel, by representatives of the people, and by ‘managers’ selected for their skill set and expertise. Perhaps it’s best to concede, to confine function to consultation and support, leaving music to the musicians. Perhaps autocracy has hit its best before.

How it feels on the other side of the fence.