Friday Link Love

TONS of links this week!


Grains of Sand Magnified 250 Times

Beautiful stuff. (see right, click the link for more)


Five Ridiculously Easy Ways to Unblock Writer’s Block

I especially like “From A to B in 5 Semantic Fractures.”


Soldier Leaves Much Bigger Legacy Than ‘He Was Gay’ — CNN

Lovely story about Andrew Wilfahrt, who is first known gay soldier killed in war since the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”


Anne Lamott: The Habit of Practice: Faith and Leadership

What do you do when perfectionism, vanity, self-loathing and projecting are wearing you down? The writer talks about what she has learned from tennis, faith and writing to deal with these “demons.”


Looking Back and Moving Forward–Gathering Voices

I panicked in the middle of Puget Sound, breathing heavily, shaking erratically, shoveling warm pieces of salami and pecorino into my mouth before I passed out.

Erin’s post touches on a lot of the same stuff I was feeling/thinking on the mountain.


And some audio/videos:

A “Modesty Manifesto”–David Brooks

Audio of Brooks at the Aspen Ideas Festival (how did you get that gig, BTW?). Brooks starts about 6 minutes in and deals with “modesty and how a lack of it is making it much more difficult to solve our nation’s problems.” I found myself quibbling with some of his ideas and stats but he makes a compelling case.


Beautiful Oops–Barney Saltzberg (YouTube)

Love this whimsical book! Such a sweet way to think about the “oopses” in our lives.


Taking Imagination Seriously: Janet Echelman (TED)

Janet’s art is luminous and beautiful and (in keeping with the link above) came out of an “oops.”


Pete Rollins at the Wild Goose Festival

“I would love to see communities which are more like the singer-songwriter, where the liturgical space reflects our suffering in a way that we can confront our brokenness, confront our darkness, work through it, and give it the space to breathe. Because if we do not give it space, it will come out in other ways. It will come out in hatred of ourselves or hatred of others.”

We missed this presentation Sunday morning because we got on the road early. Nice to have a chance to see it. I am a hopeless Rollins groupie.


Can We Redeem “Everyone Gets a Trophy”?

You may have noticed, as I have, that “everyone gets a trophy” has become a shorthand phrase to describe the uber-entitled, narcissistic, everyone-is-a-special-snowflake world in which many of us are, apparently, raising kids. I’ve played devil’s advocate with the narcissism thing before.

I don’t want to suggest that there isn’t truth to this phenomenon. But as you know from reading this blog, I like exploring the nuances of stuff. What can I say, bumper stickers and catch phrases make me suspicious.

This particular issue hits home for me, because on my daughter’s swim team, everyone who participates does indeed get a trophy. It’s about six inches tall, with the name of the team and the date. But there are other trophies given out too. Big ones. Trophies for achievement: for being one of the top three swimmers in a specific age group. There is also a “coach’s trophy”; it’s a subjective award, given to the kid with the most hustle, the most heart. It is abundantly clear that there are differences between the participation trophies and the achievement ones.

The latest research strongly suggests that generic, blanket praise is not effective for children. In fact, praising them for being “smart” or “good at art” can actually inhibit performance because it makes them less willing to take risks or do things that don’t come easy. For feedback to be effective, for it to really motivate kids, it needs to be specific, and it needs to acknowledge effort. “I noticed you did these math problems without counting on your fingers—that’s a first!” “You really kicked hard across the pool this time!” (It also needs to be true. Kids are great crap detectors.)

So the question is, which category does a participation trophy fall into? Is it an empty, generic expression of praise (not helpful), or is it a tangible acknowledgement of effort (helpful)? It it’s the former, then I’m OK ditching it. God knows I don’t need any more clutter in my house. But if it’s the latter, then let’s not malign the practice. It’s simply another way of affirming commitment, which the research suggests is important feedback for the development of children. (By the way, report cards around here give grades for achievement and for effort. Useful information to have as a parent.)

Or, a third way: whatever the motivation for teams giving them out, perhaps we parents who care about these things can frame participation trophies in the latter way: as an acknowledgement of hard work, dedication, teamwork, and the decidedly mundane practice of showing up and trying your best. You know… those unsexy things that life is all about.

Call my kid entitled if you want, but Caroline is pretty proud of her swim trophy. It means something to her. When she gets home from school, she’d much rather relax and play for a while, but instead, she sits down and does her homework so she can make it to practice. Once school is out, she will get up and out of the house early each morning, something she is, shall we say, loath to do. She will stand around during those interminable meets for the chance to swim her one or two heats, and she will cheer for her teammates, including the ones who win blue ribbons every time. She will accept each participation ribbon for her heat and she will string them all together and display them on her dresser. She will do everything the coach asks her to do. She will never, ever complain.

She will get stronger. And a little bit faster. And while she may yet surprise me, she is unlikely ever to break into the top group of swimmers. She will never get that top trophy. But she is earning her little trophy, my friends.

I agree with my friend Jan who says that we need people around us who will help us discern our gifts and those areas in which we are not particularly gifted. “We need to see ourselves as a balance of strengths and weaknesses,” she writes. I agree. It seems like that’s part of our job as parents, isn’t it? It’s also about discernment. “Good job” doesn’t tell a kid anything. “You’ve been working on the butterfly for three solid weeks and you finally got it!” does.

So I try to describe reality as best I can. Sometimes that’s wildly affirming: Caroline is ridiculously musical. She takes it upon herself to pick out complex melodies on the piano, singing along and adding her own chords. (Her latest is “Castle on a Cloud.”) God has given her a gift in this area. And I tell her that. And when you have a gift, you work at it and play at it and seek the joy in it.

And in the case of swimming, her love for and dedication to the sport are her greatest assets. And I help her set good goals. Trying to beat the other kids is not a good goal. Trying to beat her own time, and trying to get across the pool in fewer breaths, are good goals.

And when she gets that trophy this year, it will mean something again.

More on Narcissism and Facebook

In my musings on the links between narcissism and Facebook, I said:

We need some measurement of what people are actually doing during their social-networking time for [the narcissism charge] to be credible. Are they really spending untold hours massaging their profiles and uploading new and more flattering pictures? Most of us, I suspect, spend way more time connecting with friends, family, colleagues and (yes) strangers—interacting, in other words—than designing an online persona.

A new study seems to give us just that sort of information—maybe. Read the article for yourself; it’s not altogether clear precisely what they found. In one paragraph they suggest that people who spend more time updating their profiles tend to be narcissistic (which seems like a ‘duh’). But they later say that “Those who scored higher on the narcissism test checked their Facebook pages more often each day than those who did not.” Do they mean checking one’s profiles for any reason (e.g. to check in with friends), or is that paragraph linked to the previous one about checking in to tweak one’s profile?

I also note that the study included only 100 people and was of 18-25 year olds, which I’ve already argued may be more narcissistic than the general population—developmentally so.

Then there’s the whole correlation/causation thing. Is Facebook making people narcissistic, or is it merely enabling narcissists to indulge their narcissism?

Still, linking to this study (which seems to contradict an argument I’ve made, though it’s hard to tell) seems like the intellectually honest thing to do.

More research is needed though.

The Spirituality of Facebook

Shane Hipps (whose teachings I enjoy, and who wrote the book Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith) wrote an article for Relevant magazine this month (Sept./Oct. 2010) about Facebook. The title/opening blurb is “What’s [Actually] on Your Mind? … Social networking is changing the way we think, pray and ‘like.’ But what has it cost us?”

As I said in my earlier posts, Hipps hits the narcissism angle, but I’ve already said enough about that. Except one final point:

He talks about how we spend a lot of time tweaking our profiles and building our online personas, which is the technological equivalent of looking at ourselves endlessly in the mirror. I take this with a big grain of salt. We need some measurement of what people are actually doing during their social-networking time for that to be credible. Are they really spending untold hours massaging their profiles and uploading new and more flattering pictures? Most of us, I suspect, spend way more time connecting with friends, family, colleagues and (yes) strangers—interacting, in other words—than designing an online persona. Sure, those interactions make up part of the persona, but that’s not really the goal of them. The goal is relationship and connection.

He also talks about the damage done to the attention span. I really can’t argue with that because I have experienced it myself. That said, I made it to the end of his article easily, which apparently makes me “an impressive and rare breed of human—an intellectual Navy SEAL.” A bit overstated, don’t you think? But I’ll take the compliment!

The other thing Hipps critiques is the way we can artificially create who we are on the Internet. He says, “This heavily edited and carefully controlled self easily hides certain parts of ourselves we don’t want others to see.” He is concerned about the spiritual implications of this split personality. Sure, Hipps admits, we do the same thing in “real life,” but sooner or later, people see through the facade. He argues that it’s harder to see through the artifice on the Internet. I think this is a very interesting point, and I want to say “Yes… and No.”

For one thing, the more we become comfortable with social networking, the better able we are to pick up subtle cues. Sure, on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog. But if that dog gets deep enough into online communities and interactions, the truth will inevitably poke through. We are still infants with this technology, but we are becoming savvier all the time.

But here’s the other thing: I don’t think anyone really believes that the people we interact with online are exact mirrors of the person’s “real” identity. Don’t you think? We understand that the Internet is a mediated experience, and we correct for that. It’s not really artificial if we mutually understand the rules… just as I’m not lying if I say “Fine, thank you” on a perfectly awful day to the stranger on the street who asks me how I am.

I would put it this way: Our online personas are not truly authentic—but we all know that. But that doesn’t make them inauthentic. Instead, I think our online selves can be aspirational. The personas we create online are reflections of the people we want to be. Which is a kind of authenticity.

I have purple hair on my Facebook profile, but real-life friends know I am pretty darn buttoned up. But that picture tells you something about me and who I want to be… despite the fact that the purple hair was for a Harry Potter costume party and came from a can of temporary spray I purchased at Hot Topic with two toddlers in tow.

An analogy: I am a big fan of the Happiness Project, and have a sheet on my bulletin board that includes some personal mission/values stuff, similar to what Gretchen Rubin advocates in her book and blog. The sheet contains my personal mission statement, twelve “intentions” or ways I want to live my life, a bulleted list of “things I’ve learned,” and a list of values I hold dear. It is my north star.

Now you might look at that list and think, “Wow, MaryAnn’s got it all together!” But you would be wrong. So, so very wrong. This is the person I want to be, and anyone who spends any time with me knows that I fall way, way short of that (hourly, some days). My actions don’t mirror that page of values very well. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that reading that page of values would tell you a whole lot about who I am. Same with our Internet selves.

If we’re going to talk about the spirituality of Facebook and other social networking sites in a way that’s positive and helpful—here might be one place to begin.

Are We More Narcissistic? Part 2

Read Part 1 on the “epidemic of narcissism” here. .

My sociology 101 professor at Rice, Bill Martin, once told us that his primary goal for the class was to help us develop our “built-in crap detector.” (He may have substituted a more colorful word for “crap” but you get the idea.) He hoped that as a result of the class that we would be able to analyze the news and culture and look beyond what seems obvious to what is really going on.

For example, I’m planning to let Caroline walk the half block from her bus stop to our house by herself this year. I will do this because despite widespread parental worries about kidnapping, I know that kid-snatching is NOT more prevalent than it was when I walked the two miles home from school in the 1970s. Human beings are terrible at assessing risk, it seems. But a built-in crap detector  looks at actual rates of kidnapping rather than focusing on the exceptionally rare (though admittedly heartbreaking) stories that make the news.

The built-in crap detector also helps us deal with “trend” articles in which writers for the New York Times style section dig up several egregious examples of something weird and breathlessly announce the latest fad.

Anyway, my built-in crap detector goes off all over the place with this narcissism stuff. Let me say that it is entirely possible that I am wrong, and that there really is an epidemic of narcissism. Or, I am partially wrong, and that there is merely a terrible outbreak of narcissism, plus a generous sprinkling of hysteria and savvy PR to make it look like an epidemic. Could be. It does feel like there is less of an emphasis on the common good than in the past. And the culture of celebrity gets kind of gross.

My skepticism may also be wishful thinking. Maybe I just don’t want to believe that my kids are growing up in a world in which narcissism is epidemic… not just because it will be a less pleasant place for them to live, but because if it’s true, then our planet is doomed.

With those caveats in place, here we go.

The primary statistical evidence for a rise in narcissism, especially among the young, is a survey called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, studied by Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. Apparently students’  scores have risen steadily since the test was introduced in 1982. By 2006, the researchers said, two-thirds of the students had above-average scores, 30 percent more than in 1982. Twenge says it is the self-esteem movement, among other factors, that have caused this sharp rise in the stats.

So here are some things that cause the crap detector to go PING!

1. There is something psychologically satisfying in the “epidemic of narcissism” narrative. Almost too satisfying. Our intuitions are powerful guides, but they can be duped. It just feels correct to say that we’re getting more selfish as a culture and to pine away for a better time when people weren’t all about me me me. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re right. I’m reading On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not right now, and hoo boy!

A related point: Presbyterians and other Calvinists just looooove to talk about pride as the fundamental sin of humanity. Add a rise in narcissism to that long distinguished tradition and the sermons just write themselves. I’m not saying there isn’t truth to it, but I’m wary of the relish with which some of us approach this topic as well as the pat manner in which we talk about it.

2. Cries of narcissism are tailor-made for anecdotal evidence. Everyone knows a story of a sullen twentysomething sitting around in his parents’ basement, a parent who inflicts their unholy terror little darling on a poor defenseless group of restaurant patrons, or a boorish driver on the highway. These seem to bolster the claims of the study. But for narcissism to be epidemic, or even widely prevalent, you’d have to know a great many people who exhibit this behavior. Maybe my sampling is off, but I just don’t know that many. Carol Merritt has a nice post on this, and she hits other points as well.

3. The fact that Twenge first published her findings in a book called Generation Me, frankly, makes me trust her less. Children learn what they live, and if they’ve been taught by us to be narcissistic, you’d think a responsible discussion of this matter would focus on where WE have gone wrong and how to change things for the better, rather than on how freakishly entitled “kids today” are. The fact that she decided to point fingers at an entire generation, with lots of juicy and outrageous anecdotes, causes me to doubt whether this is anything more than the “get off my lawn” carping that has been directed at the younger generation forever.

4. As far as I can tell, there’s no study of how these college students change as they mature. Many young adults are self-centered. It may even be developmentally normal. I can remember doing some things as a college student that make me cringe now. What we need more than continued studies of college students is to study people as they develop into adults. Are they still narcissistic as they get out into the world? Or are we seeing a larger swing toward narcissism in recent years, but one that will later equalize? (It’s also possible that people of all ages are edging toward narcissism, but again, let’s see the study and not just anecdata.)

5. Some suggest that the NPI is not a great tool. Check out the quiz yourself. I have no expertise in designing these intruments, and must defer to those who do, but I see a lot of false binaries in these questions, as well as questions that show shifts in cultural norms. The stuff on “showing off” one’s body, for example, may not be about narcissism but about a comfort level with one’s body that is actually healthy. Many girls in my high school wore big shirts and slouched because they were embarrassed by their developing breasts, and I’m hard pressed to see how that’s somehow better than the stylish, confident way that many young women I know carry themselves today. (That said, have the pants with writing across the butt gone out of style yet? Because No. Just No.)

6. Finally, I am certainly not alone in raising questions about Twenge’s research. Here are a couple of articles that provide a balanced approach.

Why does all this matter? I started out wanting to comment on an article I read in Relevant magazine about Facebook and its impact on our spiritual lives. In the article, the author talks about narcissism in the same broad terms I have critiqued here. Which is a shame. If we rely too easily on the narcissism trope, then it impacts our ability to talk about technology and social media in any useful or nuanced way. There’s nowhere to go from there that’s helpful. I hope to inject something useful into the technology discussion later in the week.

Thank you, by the way, to those of you who read my ruminations and hang with me as I play armchair sociologist.

Are We More Narcissistic? Part 1

Narcissus by Michelangelo

I read an article the other day about the implications of Facebook for our spiritual lives. I’ll blog about that specifically later this week, but in the meantime I wanted to talk about the so-called “epidemic of narcissism,” because the author of the Facebook article cited that in his article.

People talk about a rise in narcissism as if it’s a foregone conclusion. I’m not completely convinced, for reasons that I’ll talk about in part 2 of this post, but here are some preliminary thoughts:

Several of us got into a discussion on FB recently about manners. One good friend speaks for many of us when he wrote, “What concerns me is a purely anecdotal perception of a rise in… rudeness and anti-social behavior. Among adults and young people today, more and more, I encounter a complete lack of, well, basic manners. [What concerns me] is a sort of ‘nobody matters but me’ narcissism.”

I often think the same thing when I encounter people with bad manners and boorish behavior—that they think the world revolves around them and that they’re too good for the rules of polite society. Google “narcissism epidemic” to see how pervasive this story is.

I find myself wondering whether this is the right story, however. I hit upon an intellectual exercise: just for fun, to see how many different theories I could come up with to explain the rise in bad manners that didn’t involve narcissism. What if the party line that so many of us parrot these days isn’t true? Or maybe the party line has some truth to it, but is way too simplistic.

Here we go:

Assuming the premise that bad manners are on the rise (which I also think you could argue against), here are some possible explanations that do not include the narcissism meme:

1. We no longer live in the “children should be seen and not heard” society. Children are now empowered to speak and interact a lot more than they used to. I think most of us would see that as a good thing. At the same time, however, they’re still learning what is and is not appropriate behavior. So yes, we will see them slip up. And we’ll see that more because we see them more.

2. Children (and adults) mirror what they see on TV, which is full of wisecracking characters that say things that are designed to make us laugh, but are often not appropriate for polite society. And children are watching TV unsupervised more than they used to so they don’t get the countermessage that “we don’t do things that way.” I’m not saying this is a good thing, mind you. But it’s not really narcissistic either.

3. We are much more culturally diverse than we used to be, with a lot more mixing, so what looks like boorish behavior to us may simply be a different way of being.

4. There are just a lot more people in the world, so we’re bumping up against each other more, which increases the likelihood that we’ll see people not at their best. A related idea: people eat out a lot more than they used to, which means that ill-behaved kids [and adults, actually] are going to be more visible now. Breaches of manners that would have taken place in the privacy of the home now occur in public.

5. The pace of life feels overwhelming to us. We go too fast and demand too much of ourselves and others, and so we have no mental buffer in place when things get stressful. We find ourselves lashing out, giving the finger on the freeway, saying things we never would have said if we’d been in our right minds. Maybe people lack training in emotional intelligence rather than in good manners, but again, that’s not narcissism, but a lack of self-awareness.

6. People who are self-centered and demanding are actually NOT always  narcissists. They are people who feel invisible, like they are not being acknowledged. This is why family systems folk will tell you that people who lash out at clergy are actually seeking connection with them. Ignoring them or cutting them off is actually the worst thing you can do—the behavior will only increase in frequency and severity. (Of course we need to help people express their needs in appropriate ways. But that’s another post.)

7. There’s no question that manners relax over time. I don’t find it rude for children to call me by my first name, for example, assuming they are basically respectful when they do it. But to people who were brought up in a time when you NEVER did that, it seems like an incredible breach of respect, or at very least, jarring to the ears. And then when you see outlier behavior beyond even that, forget it.

In other words, if people did X when you were a kid, and Y was the extreme, it’s going to seem like the sky is falling now that everyone does Y, especially if you see someone doing Z.

Next up: “narcissism and Facebook.”