The Material and Personal Dimensions of Conflict

In Ken Sande’s book The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, he has an interesting discussion about some of the reasons we find it hard to resolve conflict in a peaceful way. Often people get into fights without ever identifying the real issues. This is often because there are issues behind the surface issues that obscure the real nature of the problem. In particular, conflict over material issues (i.e., issues that involve practical decisions and substantive matters) are often confused because of conflict over personal issues (i.e., issues that relate to what is going on inside or between persons), and visa versa. How many times in marriages, family life and churches is it impossible to even discuss material issues without personal issues getting in the way and obscuring the decisions that need to be made? But conversely, how many times is it impossible to discuss personal issues without the way being blocked by strong disagreements about material matters?

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Two Ways to Improve the Quality of Life

“There are two main strategies we can adopt to improve the quality of life. The first is to try making external conditions match our goals. The second is to change how we experience conditions to make them fit our goals better.”

— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Gratitude Detox

The Taylor Study Method has just posted an article I wrote on using gratitude to detox your brain. I pointed out that when you pay attention to negativity, you actually create toxins in your brain. This includes simply thinking negative thoughts. However, by cultivating an attitude of gratitude, you can starve all thinking that is negative, disordered or toxic. Just as fire can’t survive in an environment of water, so toxic thinking can’t survive in a neurological environment characterized by constant gratitude.

Use Gratitude to Detox Your Brain

Gratitude for Ordinary Things

In my recent TSM post ‘Gratitude as a Way of Seeing‘, I suggested that the areas we should be the most grateful for are often the things we easily overlook:

“Consider that much of what we think are justifiable grounds for complaint, and many of the circumstances that we become unhappy about, actually occur against the backdrop of lifestyles that are unimaginably prosperous and blessed from the perspective of all human history. The normal things in our life that ought to be occasions for profound gratitude are often overlooked precisely because they are so normal.

“For example, when was the last time you registered gratitude for clean drinking water? When was the last time you were grateful for the absence of enemies on the border of your town? When was the last time you experienced gratitude for the accessibility of books, music, tools and comfortable transportation?
“We’re naturally grateful for the things that are out of the ordinary—a bonus from work, a warm comment from a stranger, an extra special meal, an appreciative letter from a friend we haven’t seen in years, and so on. But we have to really work to cultivate gratefulness for the ordinary things that we tend to take for granted—our normal paycheck, routine kindness from family members, not having to go hungry every day, having a warm place to sleep at night, to say nothing of cultural advances that are ubiquitous. When you think about, these ordinary things ought to occasion the highest levels of gratitude. We ought to be grateful for these things precisely because they happen frequently enough to become normal.”

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Philosophical Realism and Literature

From my Colson Center article ‘The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars (Nominalism 7)‘:

Overemphasizing the noetic effects of sin and underestimating the reality of common grace has enormous ramifications in how we approach pagan literature. When we come to a text like Homer’s Iliad, or the plays of Sophocles, is our knee-jerk instinct to assume these texts have nothing valuable to teach us regarding human nature and God’s world? If so, we will conceive our task primarily to unearth worldview deficiencies in these writers: to attack, criticize and condemn.

But if, on the other hand, we recognize that the ordering of reality has left the imprint of a divine grammar that even pagans cannot help but recognize, then we will come at these texts expecting to find additional confirmation of the inherent logic of creation – a logic which not even human sin can fully eradicate. Once again, there is a structural order to creation that is larger than, and prior to, God’s pedestrian commands

The Role of Stillness in Education

I’ve been involved in various college prep schools, including charter schools and classical schools, and when I talk to the educators in these systems the one thing they always lament is lack of time to cover everything they would like. Content, content, content – the more the better. Accordingly, curriculum is structured with the goal of cramming as much information as possible into the students’ minds. As inputs are continually increased, the outputs expected of the students also increase, with the result that little space is left for reflecting deeply on any one thing. Thus, from an early age students learn that success in life is directly correlative to the speed at which they can absorb inputs and produce outputs. When students are occasionally given time to reflect deeply on a single thing, their minds often find it difficult to adjust to the slower pace. When the freneticism of information overload is the norm, thinking deeply feels strangely uncomfortable, while stillness comes to feel unnatural, even frightening and disconcerting.

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Refuge in Insignificance

Moore’s law, which expresses itself in computers becoming smaller and smaller, seems to parallel what is happening in our machine-mediated discourse. Our public discourse has been shrinking at a rate rivaled by the speed at which the integrated circuit has diminished in size.

When fax machines first appeared, it was like magic precisely because they could transmit so much text. I remember standing in wonder at the fax machine in my father’s bookstore as it dropped page after page on the floor. When email appeared, it was again astonishing that so much text could be sent over the computer. People would spend hours crafting careful email messages that drew on the tradition of letter writing.

That didn’t last very long. As our communication media have evolved through instant messaging, text messaging and finally Twitter, what attracts us is not length but brevity. Our communication media orient us to eschew complexity and depth, to give preference to what is brief and transitory.

At least, that is what dawned on me this morning when reading Nicholas Carr’s chapter on Twitter in his brand-new book Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations. This chapter, which is a reprint of Carr’s 2007 blog post, points out that Twitter’s great accomplishment has been to fragment the fragments, enabling us to turn any event in our lives, no matter how trifling, into a headline. Twitter dignifies the banal and glorifies the boring by enabling us to turn any experience into a stop-the-press bulletin. Twitter thus “wraps itself and its users in an infantile language” in which we can take refuge in the insignificant. Carr’s closing paragraph connects Twitter to emerging Virtual Reality technologies:

As the physical world takes on more of the characteristics of a simulation, we seek reality in the simulated world. At least there we can be confident that the simulation is real. At least there we can be freed from the anxiety of not knowing where the edge between real and unreal lies. At least there we find something to hold onto, even if it’s nothing.

Peace of Mind – It’s Hard Work

One of the myths about peace of mind, even among Christians, is that it is something that happens to you. The reality is that peace of mind is hard work. Like everything else that makes life worth living (i.e., gratitude, compassion, love, emotional intelligence), peace of mind is a skill that involves struggle and constant practice.

In a recent article for the Taylor Study Method, I’ve explored some of the steps we can take to achieving peace of mind. Since TSM is a secular company I wasn’t able to bring in the spiritual aspects, but everything I say can be found either from the Bible or the writings of spiritual mystics.

Here’s a link to my post:

How Peace of Mind is a Skill That Can Be Developed With Practice

Intellectual Curiosity and Freedom

From ‘Best Kept Secrets About Brain Fitness: a Conversation with Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips (Part 4)

When I used to teach high school history, I often found myself puzzled why some students would diligently take notes about all the different historical figures I discussed in class but then as soon as the final test was over they would throw away a year’s worth of notes. Why was it that some students were genuinely interested in the material while others didn’t care and only learned for the test? We could probably think of lots of different reasons for this, but one important factor seemed to be the total lack of intellectual curiosity in some students.

Without intellectual curiosity learning is boring. Without intellectual curiosity the justification for knowledge ultimately rests in pragmatic concerns outside the material itself, with the result that knowledge is reduced to a utilitarian tool. Intellectual curiosity saves us from the type of servile mind that sees knowledge as only useful for material gain. That’s why intellectual curiosity is freeing, dignifying and humanizing. Intellectual curiosity arises naturally from the best education, since the finest education is able in instill in us the sense that life is intensely interesting and worthwhile to study for its own sake.

But intellectual curiosity is also very practical since it is closely connected with memory. When knowledge ceases to be interesting for its own sake then we find it difficult to remember the content. The brain is very efficient so that when something is boring for us the brain gets the message “This isn’t worth remembering, I need to conserve my resources for stuff that is more interesting.”

Most of the time those students whom we think have inherently good memories are simply the ones who are curious about the world and who therefore find the content they are learning interesting. Again, if content interests or excites us, then it is more likely to embed itself in our long-term memory as part of a larger web of schemas, associations and interconnections. But if something is boring to us, if we are only learning something because we feel we ought to, and if we don’t have the type of internal incentive to learn that comes from being genuinely curious about the world, then the knowledge is more likely to sit in our brain as isolated facts without any hooks to hang it on. Either that or knowledge is reduced to merely a pragmatic tool to help career advancement, which is what seems to be happening in a lot of science education today. (Matthew Crawford touched on this in an excellent article for The New Atlantis called ‘Science Education and Liberal Education.’)