Friday, February 22, 2013

Technology and Poor Kids

Another concern I have about the role of technology in our modern communications is quite distinct.  As many have noted, there is a growing technological divide based on socioeconomic status in this country. 


The affluent have all kinds of gadgets.  They are deeply enmeshed in electronic communication.  But the less affluent are not.  If technological communication is the new norm in how we interact in our professional and civic lives, then the poor are at a huge disadvantage in terms of professional attainment and participation in civic discourse.


I had heard about this problem for well over a decade, but it started to become less abstract to me over the years as I have worked with at-risk teens in various ministries and nonprofits.  In various contexts, I have seen a pattern.  One reason these teens were labeled as “at-risk” to end up in these programs was that they had stolen cell phones or smart phones, or they had appropriated such devices that the owners had lost.  They were considered to have engaged in various forms of theft, a criminal activity.


Let me acknowledge that in the base case I don’t tend to have a lot of sympathy for theft of non-essential items.  In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean stole bread to feed hungry children.  Inspector Javert is relentlessly unforgiving, but most readers (or members of the audience) believe Javert’s heartless approach is not deserved or appropriate.  I too appreciate the desperation of a man trying to feed starving children.


But when we are taking about non-essentials like electronics, I just don’t understand.  I have been a victim of property crimes at different points in my life.  It is not fun.  It is not fair.  When you don’t have a whole lot, it is particularly tough when what you do have is stolen.  It is easier for me to sympathize with the victim rather than the perpetrator of property crimes.


Perhaps I’m hard-hearted, but I have not been inclined to be sympathetic when the teens I’ve met have stolen or misappropriated the cell phones or smart phones of others.  But I’ve worked with so many teens who have engaged in such behavior that I’ve at least become aware that it is not an uncommon phenomenon.  And I’ve tried to understand the mindset and the emotional difficulties of a teen who would engage in such activities.  I have listened to their perspective.  It is not easy for me to understand, but I try. 


It has to be acknowledged that the teens with whom I’ve worked have been from economically deprived families.  These are not kids from affluent families taking someone else’s cell phone or smart phone though they have access to one through legitimate means.  Instead, these are kids who live in cramped, ugly apartments.  Their parents have dead-end jobs or are unemployed.  There is not always food in the house.  Health care is available only if the state budget guidelines are inclusive enough.  In these households, luxuries like electronics are non-existent.  On some level, I can conceptualize that it is tough to not have the ability to text or e-mail or get information from the web when it feels like everyone else in our society has that ability.


Recently, I caught the tail end of a program Bill Moyers did on this issue of the high price of access to mobile phone and internet.  Mr. Moyers interviewed Susan Crawford who had been a special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation.  She has written a book: Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.  The interview is accessible at the link below



In the next few posts, I will discuss some thoughts about Ms. Crawford’s ideas.



Matthew 7:11

As bad as you are, you know how to give good things to your children. How much more, then, will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Technology and Relationships

A related, but separate issue is the role of technology.  So many people today spend so much time interacting with other humans via various electronic devices, that face-to-face interaction is becoming a lost skill.  I recently heard an interesting radio program that covered that issue:


Professor Sherry Turkle of MIT described how communications in even familial relationships are “truncating” and becoming “briefer and briefer.”  She notes that relying on such electronic communications has benefits, but fails to allow us “to experience the humanity” of our relationships.  Technology makes relationships “less messy” because electronic communication is “less involved” thanks face to face or even telephone communication.


The same program looked at the impact of electronic communication from the perspective of families:


One apparently affluent, tech savvy family was studied.  The parents described the biggest challenge as being that they had to make sure “that our kids still interact with each other, and articulate in conversations with adults.”  They had concerns about an older son who didn’t necessarily know to make eye contact on job interviews.  During the journalist’s interview with the family, they were apparently not even all paying attention to the interviewer.  The dad was channel surfing and one son was texting.


Such trends worry me greatly.  In my experience, they are not aberrational.  As a parent myself, I would really like to raise children who have deep and meaningful relationships, who are intimately connected to the world around them, and who can interact with (and minister to) others who are experiencing pain.   When Jesus walked this planet, he spent a lot of time developing deep relationships with those around him.  He got to know them intimately.  That seemed to be important to his ministry.  Truncating communication without being face-to-face and looking people in the eye would not seem to hit the mark.


John 11:33-36

 Jesus saw her weeping, and he saw how the people with her were weeping also; his heart was touched, and he was deeply moved.  “Where have you buried him?” he asked them.

“Come and see, Lord,” they answered.

Jesus wept. “See how much he loved him!” the people said.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Giving Gifts v. Experiences

Towards the end of the Diane Rehm show on shopping addiction, one guest shared something that I found really encouraging:


“So I created a new tradition in my family that I don't actually give gifts. We give experiences. So about five years ago when I first finished my master's in financial planning, I really learned that my family had a lot of these issues that I've come to know quite a bit about now. I knew nothing about them then. And so I created a new tradition. I don't give gifts at all for birthdays, Christmas, anything. But what I do is we give experiences. And so we spend more time together. We do things that really build relationships. And I've now taught my grandchildren the same thing. It was rough the first couple of years.”


The person who shared that new tradition was a recovering shopping addict, and was finding a new way to cope with holidays and other gift-giving occasions.  Like a recovering alcoholic trying to navigate employer cocktail parties, that must be a very tough situation on many levels.  Dealing with addiction while juggling social expectations must be a challenge.


It was also fascinating to me that this same person realized her family also had a lot of the same issues.  So often in life, one of us will hit rock bottom with a particular problem that wrecks our life.  As we get a handle on that problem, we look around us and realize others have the very same problem.  But as this speaker seems to suggest, others may not yet be cognizant of their problem, let alone trying to take productive steps to deal with it.


The speaker said she no longer gives “gifts” for Christmas and birthdays, but she gives “experiences.”  I’ve heard plenty of people say that in other contexts, but often times what they mean is they give a gift card for AMC Movie Theatres, Massage Envy or for Applebee’s.  I don’t think that is what the speaker meant. 


Giving gift cards is nice in the sense that it doesn’t clutter up the recipient’s home.  Gifts do that.  Even when they are wonderful gifts. 


When my husband and I got married many years ago, we did so in his small hometown.  Everyone knows one another.  And it is deeply entrenched custom that everyone is invited and everyone gives a gift.  Some of the gifts might be small.  Indeed, like many small towns, my husband’s hometown has not had a lot of economic opportunity and most folks are not affluent.  At weddings a gift might be one single fork from a pattern of cutlery or one single tea cup from a place setting.  But everyone gives something.  My husband and I were so generously gifted on the occasion of our wedding, but we only had a tiny one bedroom apartment where the kitchen/living room blurred together without a dining room.  It was already cramped getting into that apartment once both of us had our stuff in it.  But with the arrival of wedding gifts, we literally had stacks all over the place and couldn’t even enjoy what we’d been given. 


Obviously, that is an extreme case, but every time any of us gives gifts that happens on a smaller scale.  Tangible gifts take up space.  George Carlin did a funny monologue once where he said “That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff.  If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house…Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house.  Why?  No room for your stuff anymore.”  (It was much funnier when you heard Mr. Carlin say those words; he had great intonation and timing.)


Anyhow, I don’t think the speaker of the quoted language from the Diane Rehm show was talking about gift cards.  She said, “But what I do is we give experiences. And so we spend more time together. We do things that really build relationships.”  I love that idea.  But it is hard to give experiences without engaging in the materialistic consumer culture all around us.  It is so deeply entrenched. 


But as my kids get older, I treasure those types of experiences and hope they do too.  Taking walks.  Reading aloud.  Cooking together.  Cleaning up the back yard.  Having a picnic.  Just last week, my kids were so thrilled to show me a “book” of art projects they had been working on.  Last night, my older daughter read me a “novel” she is writing in a spiral notebook.  Each time I had work that I would have liked to have done, but I thought about this quote from the Diane Rehm show and gave them the “gift” of my time.  Last week, we all got in bed and cuddled as they explained each drawing in their “book.”  They are easily amused, so they were cracking up at some of the drawings’ quirks, e.g., a missing arm, legs twice as long as the trunk of the person, etc. 


I worry sometimes that because of our consumer culture we are collectively losing our ability to spend time together without consuming products or services together, without spending money.  It is like consuming is all we know anymore.  We don’t know what to do if we aren’t consuming. 


So often when I visit with other middle class mommy friends, what they share is essentially a laundry list of consumer activities, e.g., we ate at Chili’s, then we had to go shopping for the Lego set for the next birthday party, then we had to get new Sketchers and there was a problem with a smart phone, so that had to be fixed.  My mind reels.  


We visited some relatives several years ago and it was so nice because we never get to see their family.  Our family was content hanging out at the local playground and playing at their home, but they kept wanting to take all the kids to the movies or go out to eat in very fancy restaurants.   


A sweet friend of mine recently lamented we never get to visit.  Her solution was that we ought to block out time to go out to dinner just the two of us. 


To me, just hanging out with people I love and enjoy is fun.  To spend time with people, it is not necessary to go spend money on movies or fancy restaurants.  I worry that in our culture most of us have lost sight of the simpler things in life.  Most of us seem to be stuck on a conveyor belt of consumeristic activities.  What’s more, most of us don’t seem to realize it.  To me, that realization is critical.  Most of our brothers and sisters on this planet do not live such extravagant lifestyles.  A majority of the human beings on this planet are just struggling to feed themselves and their loved ones.


2 Corinthians 9:8

And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

Friday, February 8, 2013

More on Shopping Addiction

There was a particular aspect of the Diane Rehm show on shopping addiction that got my attention.  The discussion included the concept that a person’s worth as a human being is reflected by their possessions.

At one point, one of the guests said: “We may feel not very good about ourselves and not very self-accepting, but we want to feel differently and we want the world to think of us differently. So if we dress to look that part, if we buy cars to look that part, then we think that we'll become that part.”

A different guest commented, “Yes, and that's exactly why somebody who knew better than I suggested I come to Debtors Anonymous and find a spiritual solution because the gap that April talked about between who I wanted to be and who I thought I somehow could get to be could never be filled with a purchase. But that was what I was thinking would work.”

One guest spoke of shopping addiction as involving “[i]nstant gratification surrounded by a profound sense of emptiness.”

From a Christian world view, these comments describe a deeply distressing perspective. 

In the Old Testament, there was not a correlation between one’s inherent worth to God and one’s place in human society.  Over and over, the Old Testament describes ordinary, even lowly folks that society dismissed, but whom God treasured.  Joseph, Samuel, David, Ruth and Esther are examples.  God blesses those whom human beings overlook.  God’s priorities are not those of human society. 

In the New Testament, this same pattern emerges even more prominently.  God chooses Mary of Nazareth, a poor young girl, a real nobody in her culture, to bring the Son of God into this world.  God’s only son is born in a barn for animals, never has any material wealth or earthly power.  He apparently led a pretty quiet life as a poor carpenter for the first few decades of his life, then began his ministry not in a place of honor but by roaming the countryside ministering to people his culture thought were losers.  Jesus chooses Peter, a blowhard fisherman with little education, to become the “rock” of his ministry. 

Mary Magdalene was not only a woman, which meant she was pretty low in the pecking order in the base case, but she was also an outcast for other reasons.  In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, it is described that Jesus cleansed her of “demons.”  There is debate about what this means; some modern scholars believe this is a reference to a healing from some sort of serious physical ailment like epilepsy or schizophrenia.   Regardless of the meaning of “demons,” it seems a safe bet she was not welcomed in elite social circles.  Yet Mary Magdalene was apparently a very close friend and devoted follower of Jesus to the end of his life.  She stayed with him though his crucifixion, and in three of the four Gospels she is said to have been chosen as the first person to witness Jesus in his resurrected form.  That is quite amazing because women in that society were not considered to even be reliable enough to give witness in legal proceedings.  Again, Jesus chose whom humankind rejected.

So, to me, as a Christ follower, it is so abundantly clear that what one owns or possesses does not reflect one’s worth to God.  When the Prodigal Son returned home, his father ran to him rejoicing though he no longer owned anything and was in rags.

I’ve been a Christian for over 20 years now.  So this understanding is pretty deeply ingrained.  On one level, it is hard for me to conceptualize that people would feel better about themselves—even briefly—because of possessions.  To my mind, that is as nutty and nonsensical as saying bananas are purple and llamas are scaly. 

Yet, on another level, I can understand a bit what these folks have experienced.  Consider the following quote from the same show:

“It's just being able to walk into a store -- I see this a lot with lower income folks who then start to attain some level of financial stability. Now they can go out and do things that they weren't able to do before in many cases. And so there's a lot of different things that go into this and I don't believe that there's any one right answer. But certainly what the emailer conveyed is something that we see at all income levels. It has, again, nothing to do with that. And I think it's very similar to what Bill was describing as far as that emotional gap, wanting to be able to have the things that you want to feel the way that you want to feel.”


My husband and I did not grow up with a lot of money, but we did not suffer extreme poverty.  I have known people, however, that did grow up with great material deprivation.  Vicariously, I have come to know that was very difficult for them on many levels.  Beyond not having basic needs met, e.g., suffering hunger, not having heat in the winter, sleeping on the floor, seemingly less dire things are endured.  I’ve heard many people who grew up in poverty talk about the shame they felt amongst their peers.  What would the neighbors think of the family with no curtains on the windows and no car in the driveway?  What would the kids at school say about the high water pants, the patched dress, the lack of a winter coat? 


Oprah Winfrey has spoken publicly about such matters, e.g., how she dreaded going back to school after Christmas because everyone else would be bragging about their presents when she had not received any.  Ms. Winfrey is one of the richest women in the world and she has been on this planet for over half a century, but she still remembers the pain of such experiences vividly. 


The late Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes describes growing up in poverty in Ireland.  Though everyone around him was poor, he too describes the shame of having even less than some of those around him.  Though everyone in his social circle experienced material deprivation to some degree, those who went without food or shoes also felt the added pain of shame from others’ judgment.


I have personally known other adults who also still carry that sort of pain with them despite having climbed out of poverty and attained a measure of financial comfort.  I hurt for folks who’ve known such pain.  I think that pain is caused by destructive societal attitudes, to which we’re all susceptible. 


My husband and I really try to raise our children in a way that they will understand what is lasting and important in this world, while not getting seduced by the shallow consumer culture all around us.  It is so hard!  Regardless of their parents' jobs, their friends seem to all have handheld gaming devices, cell phones, TVs and computers in their rooms.  At Girl Scouts, the troop leader has to tell the girls to put away their smart phones before each meeting starts.  Our daughters do not have these things, are unlikely to have them for many years.  It is difficult for them to wrap their minds around that when their peers seem to have an abundance of electronics so early.  My husband and I talk with our kids all the time about the choices we have when it comes to money. We discuss how indulging now can have repercussions later on.  We talk about using our money for fun things v. sharing our blessings with others. 


Yet even though I’ve been a Christ follower a long time and I’m trying to raise my kids to reject the empty values of a consumer society, I too am not immune to the destructiveness of that culture.  Recently, my older daughter has started participating in a local basketball league for the first time.  We had to get her new shoes for this sport, but my husband bargain hunted and got some good shoes that weren’t overpriced.  Though I was grateful for his frugality, I have found myself at basketball games noting the shoes that these ten and eleven-year olds are wearing on the court.  Most are very expensive brands, some with three digit price tags.  And though I know better and should be unconcerned, I sometimes find myself worrying at the games if people will look down on our family—or worse, on my daughter—because she doesn’t have expensive shoes on her feet.  Will they think poorly of my husband and me because they think we’re not “providing” for my daughter?  Will the other kids look down on my daughter for having non-flashy shoes?  In my head, I know I shouldn’t care.  I know it is absolutely absurd to worry about being accepted for what one has on one’s feet.  I know it is pathetic to worry about social judgment when we should just be tremendously grateful for the abundant blessings and material luxuries that God has provided.  I know people go to bed hungry at night in Uganda, Thailand and in our own community.  Yet these thoughts pop into my head at every basketball game. 


It is tough.  We all want to be accepted by other people.  If society says that having certain stuff makes us worthy or important, then even if our faith tells us that is nonsense, it is hard to fully reject those societal values.  It is hard to be different and walk to the beat of a different drummer.  So, I can in some small way understand what the guests quoted above are describing.  There but for the grace of God go I.



James 2:1-13
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.  Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.  For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom,  because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.