Fromm Me To You – Part 02

One of the main sources of strife between us humans comes from holding too tightly to our opinions; not being willing to hold them loosely when confronted with alternative perspectives.

This is understandably hard, because we barely realize how deeply ingrained our frame of reference is. Erich Fromm writes that people “simply take their own philosophy for granted because to them it is only common sense, and they are unaware that all their concepts rest upon a commonly accepted frame of reference. When such persons are confronted with a fundamentally different total view of life, they judge it as ‘crazy’ or ‘irrational’ or ‘childish,’ while they consider themselves as being only ‘logical.’” (138)

This explains the fear we feel when confronted with an alternative worldview. It feels threatening. We have a deep need for human connection, and our opinions and worldview connect us to others. The alternative worldview threatens the solidarity of our group, or community.

Part of what makes it difficult to entertain alternative perspectives is that we tend to view our opinions as possessions. As things that make us who we are. Fromm writes, “Each is afraid of changing his own opinion, precisely because it is one of his possessions, and hence its loss would mean an impoverishment.” (33)

“Indeed, to one for whom having is the main form of relatedness to the world, ideas that cannot easily be pinned down (or penned down) are frightening–like everything else that grows and changes, and thus is not controllable.” (29)

Fromm Me To You – Part 01

I’ve been reading “To Have or To Be?” by Erich Fromm. His insights into human nature and behavior, education, raising children, faith, morality, greed, prosperity—to name only a few—are among the most poignant and thought provoking I’ve read in a long time. Like any good book, his insights raise good questions, rather than provide concrete answers.

Fromm attempts in various ways to show how pervasive the “having” mode of existence is in our culture. Take language. He talks about the “trend of the substitution of nouns for verbs.” He says:

“Here is a typical, if slightly exaggerated, example of today’s language. Assume that a person seeking a psychoanalyst’s help opens the conversation with the following sentence: ‘Doctor, I have a problem; I have insomnia. Although I have a beautiful house, nice children, and a happy marriage, I have many worries.’ Some decades ago, instead of ‘I have a problem,’ the patient probably would have said, ‘I am troubled’; instead of ‘I have insomnia,’ ‘I cannot sleep’; instead of ‘I have a happy marriage,’ ‘I am happily married.'” (21)

I noticed my tendency to not only do the above, but also to talk about time in a possessive way. For example, “I have time to read a book.” My perception of time as a commodity shows up in phrases like, “I made time for so-and-so,” or “We spent time together.” I’m finding that to talk about time in this way is to detract from the actual experience of being with someone, or enjoying a hobby. To go a bit deeper, Fromm writes:

“Speaking of having something permanently rests upon the illusion of a permanent and indestructible substance. If I seem to have everything, I have—in reality—nothing, since my having, possessing, controlling an object is only a transitory moment in the process of living.” (77)

This one really struck me. Not only because we are in the process of buying a house—the largest, most expensive possession I’ll (hopefully) ever buy—but because it sheds insight into why finding my identity in anything is futile, whether concrete or abstract. For example, it’s easy to find my identity in the things I have—job, family, socioeconomic status, money, skills—or what I do, create or produced in the world that might have a lasting impact. But all these things are impermanent. I am impermanent. So to say, “I am I because I have X,” as Fromm writes, is to say that “my property constitutes myself and my identity.”

On the fifty-six

I’m traveling on the 56 train back to Vermont after spending three days and two nights in New York City.

This was the first “business trip” I’ve ever taken. I went down for a conference on Distressed Investing. The first time I’ve been away from my family for more than one night.

Rachel and I got up early Sunday morning so I could catch the 8am out of Springfield, MA. (I didn’t order my ticket early enough to catch one out of Vermont on the busiest traveling day of the year.)

It worked out, though, because it gave us some time to be together without the kids, uninterrupted, while her parents stayed with our sleeping children.

On the way down we listened to Krista Tippet’s “On Being” program in which she interviewed Belá Fleck and Abigail Washington. At one point Abigail tells a story of leaving Vermont, ultimately headed to China to study law. I forget the exact details, but from what I remember she had planned to stop off at a Bhuddist Center in transit, and to play a few shows the following week (she’s a banjo player/singer). She says she meditated for five days (not straight), and that it was the hardest thing she’s ever done. Just being still. Pushing all her anxious thoughts to the side. Letting go.

On the fifth day, I think, she had this experience where she actually got lost in the meditation. She just remembers coming back to herself, unsure of how long she had been meditating, the room was empty, her shirt soaked from tears.

As she tried to make sense of what happened, she realized she had finally let go of something. Some hurt. Some pain. Some burden that she had been carrying for a long time. And now it was gone. And she felt free.

A week or so later she played a show in Tennessee, I think, and was recognized by a record label who wanted to sign her to a deal. “I was finally ready for it,” she said.

*        *        *

On Sunday night I went to bed at 9pm. I felt tired, but couldn’t fall asleep right away. Maybe it was the bed. Ultra smoosh-y and thus, ultimately and ironically uncomfortable. Maybe my mind was too full of GSE drama from dinner.

So I turned on another podcast. This time an interview Rob Bell conducted with Jill Rowe of Oasis (not the band), a Christian non-profit organization that, among other things, goes into failing schools to help turn them around.

It was so inspiring to listen to. Their approach, so humble. So refreshing. And she (Jill) seemed so free. So simple. So trusting in God to accomplish something that seems so impossible in a situation where the students and teachers feel hopeless it could ever improve. A long term labor of love.

As the interview finished and I settled in to the “squishness” of the bed (as Annie puts it), I couldn’t help but contrast turning around failing schools (a completely and purely noble pursuit to me) with the content I’d be hearing about the next day. Attorneys and financial professionals discussing the complex nuances of turning around failing, multi-billion dollar corporations. Failing schools in failing, broken, poverty-stricken communities contrasted with being in the center of one of the financial capitals of the world.

*        *        *

On Monday morning, before the conference started, I took a walk in search of a good New York style breakfast, and bold coffee.

I had been walking up and down dimly lit streets when all of the sudden I turned a corner into Times Square, and felt like I was in the middle of the apocalypse. You know that feeling you get while watching an apocalyptic movie of some sort, just before the tsunami, asteroid, or atomic bomb hits, there is this moment of intense silence that makes you feel your emptiness. Your alone-ness. Your need to hug someone close to you. To absolve all hurts and pains and discord between yourself and everyone.

That stark, punch to the gut sense that everything has been laid bare and you can see what is real and what is not. That feeling that everyone is now fully aware of the futility of wealth, fame and pleasure, and that they should just huddle together with their loved ones.

Then the disaster hits, and the previous silence is enveloped by a new, sound shattering silence. A chaotic, and stunningly beautiful destruction.

It was the light contrasts, I think. Something ominous about the light of the Square being brighter than the faint, pre-dawn sky above. An inverse silhouette it seemed. A moment of such infinite and timeless surreality that even a master like Dali, I think, would struggle to capture it.

Window-full buildings, blindly raising their spires against the rhythms of heaven and earth. This feeling that all the noise, money, and power were clambering for artificial superiority over the subtle softness of the natural world.

In my hurried, plan-less attempt to find this ethereal hole in the wall, New York style breakfast, I found nothing of the sort, and landed at Pret. A decent, though half-hearted attempt at a robust breakfast sandwich. The coffee was fine. And I made it back in time, suited and tied for the 7:30 continental breakfast. I poured myself some more coffee, and did my best to mingle with folks several notches above my pay grade.

*        *        *

The conference lasted till 5:30pm with an extended, plated lunch break in which I got to talk to a few of the media representatives, an attorney, and a judge’s clerk.

As I looked around the room, observing valuable connections being made, It occurred to me that I’d never been in a room with such wealth. Not just wealth of financial and legal knowledge, but actual net-worth.

Particularly at 8:50 am. Because who other than Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Holdings walked into the room for the Fannie & Freddie Reform Roundtable.

There’s no way to really tell what the net worth of such a room was at that hour. My monetary conception begins to break down after one billion, anyway. What’s interesting, though, is the way people act in those settings. The way they change. The way I change.

There is a clear and distinct regard among us for those present who offer the most in terms of a valuable buisness connection.

I felt it not only in the way I viewed others, but in the way others viewed me. I didn’t have much, if anything, to offer by way of connections or knowledge. So the conversations I initiated would sometimes sputter out quickly. Not every time. Sometimes I’d ask questions about family and children that would extend things. Or how they got where they were vocationally.

*        *        *

I hadn’t known much about the Fannie & Freddie (F&F) narrative before this weekend. My boss and I sat down for dinner at Bill’s Bar and Burger, surrounded by a surprisingly full Sunday evening crowd. It was noisy, and I was tired. I didn’t feel like carb loading with a burger and fries, so I opted for the chicken cobb salad, which was excellent.

The F&F drama is a multi-layered, onion like story, I soon realized as he explained things to me. To summarize (to the best of my ability), F&F went into conservatorship immediately after the mortgage-backed security meltdown, sometime in 2008. F&F had over-estimated their losses (which they didn’t realize at the time), and it looked like they were headed towards bankruptcy. So the treasury took them over via conservatorship virtually overnight. (Fact checking may be needed – this is just my recollection of the four or so hours of facts I’ve accumulated over the last several days.)

In layman’a terms, the government “took them over,” then lended them 187B dollars to cover their supposed deficit.

Well, as it turns out, once F&F realized they overestimated their losses in 2008, in 2012 or 2013 they were able to re-adjust losses from the previous years and start posting ridiculous, unprecedented profits. They ended up paying back the treasury something like 260B to date. But the treasury says they still owe the 187B. (Strange math.) Understandably, the shareholders are a bit perturbed by this fact, and the document known as “the third amendment” has allowed the treasury to sweep all F&F profits up indefinitely, and still say they owe 187B back.

Anyway, it is an interesting narrative, which like all complicated stories has various sides, perspectives and biases.

After the conference I had the privilege to join six others at an upscale club around Central Park. (A pay-for-membership in order to overpay-to-eat kind of deal. I had a peak at the final bill and “wow” is all I can say.)

The conversation revolved around the details of the F&F story, and questions as to how the new (Trump) administration and his appointments to certain heads of government, (particular if Steve Mnuchin is tapped to head the treasury) could aid in the resolution of these shareholder suits, ultimately bringing a large return on their investments.

While I could make sense of most of the conversation, there were more than a few concepts, terms and names that were lost on me.

Either way, I did know for sure is that my lamb chops were tender, fatty and delicious. And expensive.

Two-and-a-half hours later, by 9pm, the conversation was wrapping up. The facts had been hit from every angle. All the new insights had been shared. Connections had been reignited and re-soldered. There was renewed purpose and vision in their united cause as common and preferred F&F shareholders.

*        *        *

This morning I attempted round two at coffee and breakfast. I packed up my bags early, wanting to get some time in for reflection. Or possibly record a podcast. When I checked the weather, however, I saw it was going to rain all day. So no opportunity for a leisurely stroll around Central Park and finding a nice bench to settle into for awhile. I checked for good breakfast spots around my hotel, and lo and behold, around the corner was Angela’s Sandwich Shop, which looked reasonably priced and provided just what I was looking for: a hearty, heart stopping breakfast.

I stepped in and ordered their two egg, bacon, home fries, toast and coffee special for $6.95. And it well worth twice that.

I got my umbrella back out and decided to head towards La Colombe on my way to the train, because no trip to NY (or Philly) would feel adequate had I not stopped in at the finest coffee shop in the world.

As I walked south from central, stepping over puddles and tipping my war-torn umbrella left and right to avoid collisions, I couldn’t help but ponder all the tensions, nuances, and complexity of the last few days – the intertwinededness, if you will – of wealth and poverty, discrimination and diversity, arrogance and humility, concrete and abstract, free-markets and government regulation.

New York and all it represents is a monstrosity too big to tear down and reinvent from the ground up. As is all of modern society. Though I desperately may want to at times.

It seems that each side depends on the other for its survival. The poor (for the most part) need the rich for jobs and security. The rich build their empires on the backs of the poor.

They depend on each other, but also avoid each other. The rich want to remain segregated from the poor (I’m thinking of some extremely blunt comments that I heard this weekend), and the poor want to tax the rich and over-regulate their economic activity. They want redistribution.

(I’m broad-stroking, I realize.)

The more complex society is, the more money you can make. Complexity requires specialization. And people pay a premium for specialization. They pay when people have the ability to spot arbitrage opportunities in the nuances.

While I find the narrative of all this economic complexity interesting from a story perspective, I also find myself repulsed by it all. Maybe repulsed isn’t the right word. Maybe more like disinterested. Why?

Maybe it’s summed up in a phrase spoken to me recently, “Follow the money.” A phrase intended to help inform some initiatives and business goals I’m working toward with this company.

It’s a phrase, especially after this weekend, that makes perfect sense if you are trying to build your business. If you are trying to make money.

If you could’ve seen that room at 8:50 when Ackman walked in. That dinner at the upscale club. Money was the current that flowed through our veins. The glue that bound us together. The love that united us.

“Follow the money.” It makes perfect sense, yet is also utterly confusing to me. Utterly sickening. It feels completely backwards. Upside-down. Money drives everything. But should it?

I have no alternative solutions. Nothing to propose. How could I? I don’t have that kind of mind.

Only questions.

Like, “How does one live in this tension? How does one live between the necessity of wealth and capitalism and it’s futility? Between complexity and simple, trusting faith?”

*        *        *

On the way up I read the first three chapters of Paul Hessert’s Christ and the End of Meaning. In it, he is attempting to show that the crucifixion simply doesn’t make sense (he is not denying the crucifixion, to be clear; just pointing to its weakness and the way Jesus made himself poor, so to speak, to make us rich), by expositing Paul’s idea that “wisdom” and “signs” break down at the crucifixion (1 Corinthians 1:22–25). As I understand it, he is saying that meaning is precisely found in the embrace of non-meaning. That if we are always searching for meaning and significance, we will never find it. I don’t have the energy to go into it further, so here are a few quotes:

Christ crucified is not meaning to be known because it is the breakdown of meaning. (26)

God must be found in the absence of power and in the absence of meaning. (29)

Faith in Christ crucified means giving up the kind of justification of life that realizing one’s potential would offer. There is thus a direct correlation between faith as the surrender of the claim to divine power and “Christ crucified,” which is the absence of such divine power.

Similarly, “Christ crucified” is not a principle that satisfies the search for wisdom by becoming the key to the “meaning” of life. If it were satisfying in this way, only deep cynicism could result, for then the key to the meaning of life would be the tragic frustration of life’s unselfish motives or a glorification of suffering for its own sake. And if such cynicism is forestalled by resurrection also interpreted as wisdom, then life’s “meaning” would be the rosy promise that “every cloud has a silver lining,” no matter how dark the cloud is – scarcely commensurate with the weight of the Gospel.

Resurrection is not the restoration of what has gone before, something anticipated in the natural rhythms of life, but the abandonment of that kind of expectation in the faithed certainty of new life beyond the point where “possibilities” leave off. Forgiveness is not an adjustment in the balance of one’s good and bad deeds but the end of that kind of calculation altogether. And the reign of God is not the realization of human political hopes but the end of the present order along with its possibilities. […]

To faith is to live without power over the future; and that surrender of power over the future is precisely what “Christ crucified” entails. To “faith” is to be “crucified with Christ.” (31)

New life beyond the possible. The end of calculation. Perhaps that is it. Perhaps this is how to “make sense” of the nuanced complexity and tension.

But again, it is not really a “making sense” at all. It is so much more. It is a “letting go.”

What if both “sides” were to let go? What if I were? Would the distinctions begin to fade between the sides in my mind? Would I then begin to see the “solution” in synthesis, rather than antithesis?

More and more this “letting go” seems central to living well. To living fully. Letting go of wanting to find meaning in life. Letting go of everything that cannot give me life.

Again, the tension. The “knife edge” we all must walk on between both sides of meaning and non-meaning. Embracing the present, being “now here,” while letting go of past and future, aka, being “nowhere.”

*        *        *

I’m three hours from home now. Soon I will see my loved ones. Ones I’ve missed so dearly and intensely over the past few days. I will hug them, embrace them, kiss them, and be warmed by their love. I will lay aside the complexity of the last few days. And if it’s cold, we’ll build a fire in the wood stove, observing the nuances and beautiful complexity of the flames as they dance around oak, beech, and ash.

Home. Where real lifeblood flows. Where the electricity of filial love pulses through, comforting, relieving, and restoring. Where money means nothing, and only serves the greater good of provision of nourishment and shelter, which bind us together even further around table and hearth.

State of the Household, October 2016

You don’t really know who you are until you know where you are in a physical sense.

– N. Scott Momaday

We are now less than seven days away from our move to Vermont. I recently ordered studded snow tires, a cord of dry wood, and called the local internet company to get us set up so I can work from home.

We are all excited, though sad to leave family and friends. Sad to leave what is familiar. But thankful it is within driving distance.

Although, when I mentioned our pending move to Talia the other day, in one of her weaker moments, she said, “I don’t want a-go a-Mont!” I think she just didn’t want to travel in the car for six hours at that particular moment.

*      *      *

I’ve recently been writing a good deal about wrestling through faith, beliefs, doubts and all the logical (and illogical) questions that flow from such ideas. I do it so as not to think in isolation. But I’ve been realizing, even though such thoughts might provoke good discussions one-on-one, these thoughts are also probably better expressed one-on-one. Because they are not the finished, formalized thoughts of one who has wrestled and come out on the other side with depth and joy to share with others.

I’ve also been realizing that I often write as a way to communicate what bothers me, rather than goodness, truth and beauty. And I don’t want to be known for what bothers me, but rather, for my love. Love for God and love for others.

*      *      *

My twelve-week, twelve-dollar subscription to the Wall Street Journal recently ended. I am grateful to the Journal for this trial, and for extending it a week beyond expected.

I decided to not continue the subscription, but to give The New York Times a try. I was turned off a little by the Wall Street Journal, I must confess, not because of the content, but because of the advertising. It seemed very targeted towards people who are extremely wealthy. And maybe that made me feel a little hoity-toity. I’ve only been receiving the Times for a few days now. Less hoity-toity, perhaps, but more biased politically it seems.

The Economist also has a twelve-week, twelve-dollar special running, so I signed up for that, too. I just got my first issue yesterday. It’s okay so far. I mean, good, informative, well-written content, but I think I’m looking more for publications that inspire, nurture and provoke joyful creativity. There’s enough free news out there. And news, while necessary, can be a little discouraging if it becomes too consuming.

So we’ll see. We are receiving Taproot, too. A Vermont based publication, which publishes more creative content and stories, written by everyday folks like you and me.

*      *      *

We recently started reading Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series to our children. I thought they might be too scared of the witch, but when I last asked Emeth, “Do you want me to stop reading?” he said, “She is a little scary, but I want you to keep going.”

We just finished The Magician’s Nephew, and are now entering The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Every time I read it, I think, “What a genius Lewis is.” It’s so incredibly well written. So joyful to read aloud. I’m amazed he could write so engagingly for both children and adults. It’s an evening tradition we all look forward to.

Thankfully last night Talia fell asleep before 7 PM, which is amazing. Normally she’ll conk out in the middle of day. Maybe. Then be up till after Rache and I lay down. What I mean is that after we turn the salt lamps off and say our good-nights, and finish our thousand other evening routines and rituals, Talia will get up several minutes later, sneak over to our bedroom and try to get in one last snuggle.

Last night she got up at midnight and snuck between us. I don’t mind too much. Our little ‘cutie cat,’ as Annie says. I thought it was 4 AM, so I was going to let it ride. Though after being kicked awake several times, and realizing it was indeed not 4 AM, I took her back to bed.

*      *      *

Some of the other content I’ve been enjoying is John Robinson’s Honest to God, and several of Richard Rohr’s Lectures downloaded from Audible. Sermon on the Mount, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of St. Francis, and Great Themes of Paul. He communicates ideas which are new to me, but also very orthodox in many ways. More orthodox than the kings of orthodoxy themselves, Luther and Calvin. Though, I suppose, it depends on who you ask.

Generally speaking, I find it helpful to listen to and read counter-cultural voices, and to ask myself as honestly as I can, “Is there anything good in what he or she is saying?” And if there is, if there is Truth, to embrace it and let it nourish my faith. To trust that the truth will set me free.

I see it as an opportunity to embrace those who are different than me. And that’s something I always need practice in.

*      *      *

Yesterday we disassembled the playhouse and spent some good, quality time with Grandma, Aunt Becca, Uncle Dave, Aunt Krista and the the cousins.

Roof off. Kids trying to help.
Giving the bricks back to their proper owner.
With Matthew and Aunt Becca.

My mom was a whirlwind on Friday, packing up several boxes of things we don’t need right now. Our plan is to make a packing plan for each day, so that gradually, come Friday when I pick up the moving truck, we’ll be ready to load it.

We’re excited, though realize it will be so different in many ways. Quieter. Darker at night. Less busy. No traffic lights. More snow. Less convenience.

But we are ready for this new season. It’s been so good living here in Jersey. Hard, of course, in many ways. (But life will never be entirely free from pain and difficulty.) Though it is not the hard things that surface when dwelling on the past. In fact, it is the hard things that actually bring sweetness to it. The physical weariness of having four children back to back. Caring for, nurturing and nourishing them. The mental weariness of working in a cubicle for six years. The emotional weariness of depression.

The challenge of working through difficult questions together. Questions of how to raise our family, how to educate our children, how to wisely use our resources of time, energy and money.

But ultimately, there has been a movement towards more and more freedom in Christ. En Christo. Union with Christ. Union and freedom that frees us to want to walk in the Light, and to want to be Light in this world.

Chain saw all tuned up and ready to go. This baby was made in West Germany.
Emeth’s painting from yesterday. From left to right: Goat, Bear, Bat.



This morning, as I sat in silence, I had to battle the thought that I was ‘wasting my time’. That time is no different than money. A commodity to be ‘spent’. And that I can spend it wisely or un-wisely.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot store up time or money in such a way that I don’t need to worry about running out of either. They both provide illusory security and comfort. Saying, ‘I’ve got all the time [or money] in the world,’ could seem true one moment, then vanish the next. Because I could die, or the financial system upon which our fiat money is based could crumble overnight.

The accumulation of neither can bring security, peace or comfort. The more I focus on either, the less I can enjoy the benefits of either. In trying to preserve time, or beat the clock, the clock beats me. In storing up wealth as a way to safeguard against the uncertainty of the future, I never feel secure.

Time and money viewed as commodities tends to lead to compartmentalization of everything. In other words, when I only see things through the value they provide in terms of time or dollar units, I make decisions based on worth. It becomes easier to put things in categories of higher or lesser worth.

This type of decision making, I find, is not based on the interconnectedness of everything, but rather on the time/money return-on-my-investment it can bring, now or in the future.

This kind of thinking is not wrong, but unhelpful to me. I’ll try and explain.

This morning as I sat in silence, it struck me again that our world is interconnected in more ways than I will ever understand. For example, I was recently listening to a Radiolab episode called ‘From Tree to Shining Tree,’ in which they talked about the interconnectedness of the forest. That below the forest floor, there is this interconnected network of fungi called mycelium (excuse any poor scientific descriptions) that literally connects plant to plant, tree to tree, in a way that allows them to feed one another. In other words, each tree is not independent of all the rest. Removing one tree in the forest might damage, or even lead to the death of another tree nearby, because of this interconnectedness. (Listen to the episode for a much more detailed and eloquent explanation.)

I’m not trying to argue that cutting down trees is wrong, but simply that viewing nature as commodity, and ignorance of how nature is interconnected, tends to lead to abusive practices. One does not need to look far for examples.

Financial markets are no different. When an investor is solely concerned about yields, they might go to any lengths to get higher and higher yields (ex: housing crisis and masking the high risk of doomed-to-fail mortgage backed securities).

It seems like the same thing is happening in third world countries. There is this emphasis on growing their economies by pumping money into them. Then when their economies fails, the investors aren’t blamed for putting band aids on. (e.g. Investing in infrastructure rather than a sustainable and self-sufficient food system.) Instead, it’s the government’s fault. They mishandled or misappropriated funds. There was corruption. Something went wrong on the ground floor. (Which very well may be true.) Then the country is in bondage to its creditors, they begin to default on their debt obligations, and the vicious cycle of getting new loans to refinance old ones begins. Debtor forever. The creditors always win.

I’m not trying to be negative, or point a finger. It’s not about blame, but rather to simply observe that a compartmentalized view of life tends to lead to abuse of people and land, and an interconnected view of life leads to wholeness and sustainability.

And to ask, How might that be true in my own life? How might I treat others and my world differently, better, more lovingly – how might I be more generous, less selfish – if I seek to understand the interconnectedness of all things? How might I speak and act differently?

Just a thought.