Saturday, August 29, 2009

Frank Schaeffer: Further Thoughts on Finding Common Ground

In my last post, I wrote about the book
How Free People Move Mountains: A Male Christian Conservative and a Female Jewish Liberal on a Quest for Common Purpose and Meaning by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer. I expressed my admiration for the way Kathy and Frank provide a lived demonstration of how two very different people find common ground from which to plan and act to solve our country's problems. In this post, I will discuss thoughts and questions that the book raises for me. These thoughts are a bit random and sometimes spring from tangential points in the book.

SELF-EXPRESSION. This term as used by Kathy and Frank puzzled me a lot at first. Kathy and Frank say that our consumer society is based on our perceived right to self-expression. And when they say this, it's clear that they don't consider self-expression to be a good thing. What on earth? I thought. How is self-expression wrong? I thought self-expression was a good thing. And in fact, elsewhere in the book, Kathy and Frank do use this term in a positive sense, as when Kathy tells Frank that he expresses himself well and when Frank talks about the way art so deeply expresses human emotion. So what's up? I wondered. What IS self-expression?

After reading the book three times, I think I understand.

  • Negative sense: To express ourselves through the stuff we choose to consume or own.
  • Positive sense: To express ourselves through the way we choose to act. Our moral choices express who we are. What we choose to create does, too.
VOLUNTEERING. Frank and Kathy say that volunteering is a measure of happiness. People who volunteer feel more fulfilled and happy. The key is serving a purpose larger than oneself. On page 124, Kathy says, "People who are engaged have demonstrably more social skills, which make it possible for them to build and sustain communities and hence the larger society." In Chapter 13, Frank talks about his late father-in-law, Stan, a fulfilled and happy person who contributed much to society through the many stimulating organizations he belonged to.

Here's what I would say. People with good social skills and an extraverted disposition will find fulfillment and happiness in volunteering. An extravert is energized by being around other people. It's a different story for an introvert. Being around people causes an introvert to spend energy. The introvert replenishes energy through solitude. If an introvert is interacting with people all day at work and then volunteers in the evenings and on weekends, this introvert will not feel fulfilled and happy. In fact, the introvert will likely feel worse because the introvert may wonder, What's wrong with me that I'm feeling depleted when I volunteer while everyone else seems to be fulfilled and happy? Even if the introvert volunteers just one evening a week, the introvert may come to dread that evening.

Though Kathy and Frank seem to emphasize extravert types of engagement, they do recognize that there are many ways of volunteering and serving, some of which don't involve so much people interaction. If I have to meet and greet people or go around trying to make people feel comfortable or welcome, I can guarantee you that I won't feel fulfilled and happy--I'll feel uncomfortable and inadequate. But if I can help someone revise or edit a piece of writing or learn the basics of computer use or understand the weirdities of New Orleans, then I do feel fulfilled and happy. So I guess Kathy and Frank are right.

MITZVAH. This is a wonderful Jewish concept described by Kathy on pages 123-125. Mitzvah is a good deed. The good deed is itself a blessing and a connection to God and to any other person it may involve. I do see this. A good deed certainly puts more good into the world, it raises the energy level of the planet and of the local environment in a positive way, and it makes the world a better place. People doing mitzvah will transform their environment, whether a family or a neighborhood or a workplace.

ART. Frank has a wonderful passage on art on pages 110-115. His language soars as he tells of the utter importance of art for all humankind.

EDUCATION. Kathy and Frank talk about the importance of educating our children in ways that develop their moral character, their creativity, and their joy in beauty. Frank says that our consumer society has resulted in an educational emphasis on producing good consumers who simply need the basics of readin', writin', and 'rithmetic. This is why we base our educational system on standardized testing, letting practice time for these very basic standardized tests crowd out the soul nourishment of art, music, dance, and the deeper study of language, history, science, and mathematics. Yes, consumerism taken to its extreme leads to education based on standardized testing.

SWITZERLAND. I'm a little puzzled about what Kathy and Frank say about Switzerland in How Free People Move Mountains. It's very different from what Frank says about Switzerland in his memoir, Crazy For God. In Crazy For God, Frank indicates that people in Europe (and Frank must be including Switzerland here because that's where he lived) have a fatalistic attitude, believing that nothing they do can change the way the governmental bureaucracy operates, while in the United States, people will get together and take action to change laws and policies. But in How Free People Move Mountains, Kathy and Frank say that Switzerland is a model of democratic involvement on the part of the citizens, while people in the United States feel that their government has become too unwieldy for the citizens to affect it. This puzzles me.

WIN-WIN. In speaking of the need for families to stay together and to sacrifice for each other, Frank says on pages 187-188, "Yes, that means we'll miss out on some things. Not everything is win-win. Some things are right, period." Here is what I would say. I think it's very important in families for everything to be win-win. What's the alternative? There are three: win-lose, lose-win, and lose-lose. So here are the four possibilities. I've written them as though between two people.

  • Win-Lose: I win and you lose. I get my way, and you don't get yours. I win at your expense, and you feel it.
  • Lose-Win: I lose and you win. You get your way, and I don't get mine. You win at my expense, and I feel it.
  • Lose-Lose: We both lose. The chosen solution makes neither of us happy. We are both disgruntled.
  • Win-Win: Your happiness is as important to me as is mine, and you feel the same way about me. I am committed to finding a solution that you and I both feel good about, and you are also so committed. I won't feel happy about a solution that favors me at your expense, and you feel this way about me. The key is that I deeply want you to be a winner just as much as I want to be a winner, and you deeply want me to be a winner just as much as you want yourself to be a winner. With that commitment, I believe that two individuals or whole families can always find Win-Win solutions.
OVERALL. I love this book (as I do all Frank's books) because, while enjoying the book, I also receive important insights.

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