Saturday, September 19, 2015

Permanence, Fear…Love

Thoughts on religion in America and the strange case of Kim Davis.

Kim Davis
The strange case of Kim Davis, the elected County Clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, who on August 31 began refusing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in her county, has gotten me thinking about my own religious odyssey, and the role of religion—and in particular, Christianity—in American life.

Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that same-sex couples must have the right to marry no matter where they live in the U.S., Davis was jailed for contempt of court, but subsequently released to the delight of thousands of supporters. This chain of events, predictably, has elevated Davis to the position of Culture Warrior Numero Uno in the eyes of Fox News, Christian conservatives, and Republican Presidential candidates. (Ever the opportunists, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz high-tailed it to Kentucky on news of her release, eager to be on stage with the religious right’s latest cause célèbre.)

And as always and apparently forever, the more one learns about the case of a crusading modern Christian in America, the more bizarre the story gets.

Davis is reportedly an Apostolic Christian, a particularly conservative sect that believes in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Though it is worth mentioning that there seems to be some confusion about her true denomination, and no congregation has stepped forward to claim her. This is strange because Apostolic Christians do the whole laying of hands thing when someone joins up, and given that Davis only converted four years ago, one would think someone would remember her. Whatever the brand of Christianity that has led her to flout the law and in so doing claim the national spotlight, Davis has probably violated its teachings, since she’s been married four times and appears to have birthed her children—including a son who works in her office and, sharing her religious convictions, is also defying a court order and refusing to issue marriage licenses—out of wedlock.

One report says that Davis claims to have been “ordained by God” to do what she’s doing—sitting in jail for five days on the public dime, refusing to do the job she was elected to do, and now claiming that marriage licenses issued by her office against her will are legally null and void—none of which is particularly surprising, since God has long been the go-to excuse for so many people who decide to do dickish things in this world. But…tending to be more of a contemplative type about things like this, I find myself asking the question, Why? Why, in the 21st century, can’t we, as a species, get beyond this? And these are questions that invariably lead me to recall my own long and deep experience with Christianity.

* * *

My own Christian odyssey is pretty much the opposite of the one Kim Davis appears to have traveled. Rather than sowing wild oats for 40 years and then falling under the sway of a conservative brand of Christianity, I was born into and educated in early life under a comparatively liberal brand of Catholicism, the brand that thrived in California and around the country in the 1960s and led so many white Christians of all denominations to march alongside their African-American Southern Baptist counterparts during the Civil Rights Movement. My parents were typical of the Catholic couples wed in the 1950s, eschewing birth control and begetting and raising nine children, seven of whom (including me) were educated in a then-affordable private school under the watchful eyes of Dominican nuns and Franciscan priests. As a student at St. Frances Cabrini School from 1966 to 1973, I don’t remember much talk of hell. I also remember no readings from Leviticus, no talk of sodomy or homosexuality, and in fact nothing that promoted exclusion over inclusion. (This despite the towering presence of our 4th grade lay teacher, Miss Mock, an incorrigible dyke who shocked our nine-year-old sensibilities the day she unabashedly announced, “Not everyone’s a Catholic. I’m not a Catholic.”)

San Francisco Peace March, 1969
Our many masses at St. Frances did of course feature those vivid, realistic, and macabre images of Christ being tortured—getting lanced in the side and nailed to a cross, etc.—but what I remember most of those years (aside from a certain calliope beginning to find tune in my adolescent loins) is lots of love and lots of song. Nonetheless, I distinctly recall that at around the age of 10 or 11, I used the critical thinking skills the nuns and lay teachers had nurtured in me from the beginning to decide on two things: 1. If there is a God, he’s probably not such an insecure wuss that he needs all of his followers to go into a building once a week to “worship” him, and 2. If there is a God, he’s probably not the kind of supreme jerk who would take people that He created and banish them to a tortuous inferno for all of eternity.

But my own misgivings and eventual fall from the fold aside, the one thing the holy orders at St. Frances Cabrini were able to convince me of was that Catholicism was about inclusion and not exclusion, about unification and not division. And this is the one teaching that has been, beginning in my 10th year and continuing on since then, soundly refuted by both experience and the most basic understanding of world history. Christians kill Muslims and vice versa, Muslims kill Hindus and vice versa, Muslims kill other Muslims and vice versa. It’s a vicious cycle that has persisted for millennia, and when it comes to Christianity in America, you’re either in or you’re out. In the 1960s at St. Frances Cabrini and elsewhere in the nation, that was just fine: you go your way and I’ll go mine and we’ll see how it all shakes out in the next life. In my own family, in fact (and there are dozens of us, four brothers and four sisters, some with large families of their own), we have the Christian and the non. My father is Christian, my mother is not. We nonetheless live with each other and love each other unconditionally as families do all over America. And this is the way it was all over America once, when the division that is inherent in all religion sat comfortably in the back seat and not only didn’t interfere with human progress, but stepped aside so that Christian leaders like Martin Luther King could actually drive human progress. But oh how that has changed. Today we see the term “religious freedom” used to mean my right to deny you your civil rights, my right to deny you services to which you are legally entitled, my right to deny you your basic human dignity. It’s no wonder that—and, ironically, this is the good news—Americans are moving away from religion in record numbers.

* * *

So back to the question, Why? Whether there is a God or not, we—those of us here on this planet—are all humans. There are no gods here, and I suspect there are no prophets either. Some of us are more vociferous than others, more charismatic, more extroverted, more boisterous, etc., but we are all humans. And as humans, we have for millennia, I think, fallen sway for very good reasons to a few key dimensions of religion.

The first is permanence. Religion is forever, so whatever happens today or tomorrow, whatever trials we might endure, from minor frustrations to war and famine, they are trivial by comparison. Saintly knights were gladly drawn and quartered, faithful friars brutally whipped native Californians into submission, and jihadists murder and maim thousands of their countrymen because today is nothing. The real action—the truly permanent—kicks off in the next life, not this one.

The next dimension is fear. Who hasn’t heard the phrase, “a good God-fearing man,” or “a good God-fearing family”? Fear of the wrath of God was instrumental in delivering the species from primitive barbarity to civilization, and even today there are those who believe that without church teachings, their lives would have devolved into thievery, mayhem, and self-abuse.

St. Frances Cabrini Church,
San Jose, CA
And the final dimension I’ll mention is love. As I said before, my own religious experience was awash in love—love not only for our fellow congregants, but for our parents, our families, and our neighbors. Coming up in the 1960s, I recall a youth that had its challenges, but I never recall being very far from a good soak in a warm bath of love. My friends and siblings in our uniforms at St. Frances Cabrini School, my brothers, sisters, and cousins on our weekend beach trips and summer family vacations, the hippies in San Francisco during the peace marches, and of course my own incredible mother and father, who faced down adversities that I will never be able to imagine, all surrounded me with intoxicating vapors of love.

In 1973, as my fellow 8th-graders and I were being prepared for the sacrament of Confirmation, we were visited by a middle-aged couple—about the age I am now—who spoke to us honestly and openly about the challenges they had faced in the course of their long marriage to one another. As we prepared to enter adulthood in the Catholic way, they were giving us a reality check, but they were also sitting before us as a shining example of two people who were desperately in love. Just about a year after this, my own parents split up after 20 years of marriage, but I never lost my faith in the institution or my determination to enter into it in my life, and I have now been happily married to my wife Caroline for more than 23 years.

Strangely, these are the thoughts and images that pass through my mind when I think of the strange case of Kim Davis. Because when I think of the case, I don’t really think of Kim Davis at all. I think of couples like David Moore and David Ermold, who were denied a marriage license by Davis, and the kind of pain and hurt that must have caused them. And I think of the LGBT couples in my life, family members and friends, any of whom could easily be sitting together in 20 or more years just like that couple who sat before us at St. Frances Cabrini in 1973, just two people sharing a long life together, a life full of the trials and frustrations that face all of us, two people who remain desperately in love. Or maybe not. Maybe they’ll end up like my parents, eventually separated and then divorced. But that’s okay. Religion has never solved that problem for heterosexual couples and it’s not going to solve it for same-sex couples either, but what’s undeniable, in my mind, is that these couples deserve a chance.

* * *

The Road to Mecca, CA
So the rather simplistic answer to the question Why? that I’ve arrived at is, Kim Davis is fixated on permanence and fear, and has lost sight of the importance of love. Religion is not for me, but I know for a fact that there are congregations out there whose faith is grounded in love, and whose actions bear that out. I’m reminded of an afternoon a few years ago that I spent with my Aunt Monessa, a Franciscan nun, at a Catholic food pantry in Mecca, California, distributing food bundles to the poor. Because those congregations exist, I have no problem with religion. We can live with it. It can bring good into the world. But when the faithful fixate on permanence and fear, we get, at the very least, oppression, and at the very worst, certifiably insane people carrying signs reading “God Hates Fags,” and even jihad.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Gamification Distraction

From video game culture, a broader distraction from the real.

I have for some time had no small degree of discomfort with the whole concept of gamification, an idea and an approach that is now raging—as these things are wont to do—across industry, education, and institutions both governmental and non. The thinking seems to be that gamifying things has the power to radically accelerate the move from intention to action, and there are plenty of good examples that bear this out. In fact, I experienced one such example in my professional life recently, where gamification played a huge role in driving the success of a development program I had designed. More on that later, but the fact is my discomfort remained, which is why I was so thrilled to read Nathan Heller’s excellent review in this week’s NewYorker. It demystifies my discomfort and, I think, clarifies the whole issue.

Heller reviews the new book SuperBetter by Institute for the Future tank-thinker and repeat TedTalker Jane McGonigal. The book is, like most of McGonigal’s career, a celebration of the power of gaming to change lives for the better—nay, the superbetter! It is a prescription for a gamified lifestyle wherein the struggling human adopts McGonigal’s seven principles of the game and thereby transforms daily trials into fun and rewarding challenges one can conquer—kind of like reaching level 80 in World of Warcraft. This SuperBetter lifestyle prescription moves the popular concept of gamification out of the business, commercial, educational, and institutional spheres and into the sphere of daily life. But in doing so, as Heller adeptly explains, McGonigal runs into trouble.

My own brush with the power of gamification was in a business context, where results tend to be funneled toward the positive. Everyone wants the team to succeed. Everyone wants to be able to tell the team they succeeded. And, of course, everyone on the team wants to feel like they succeeded. In my case, my Sales Operations team succeeded in increasing what we called Sales DNA, a term we coined to describe the Operations team’s level of understanding of the Field Sales teams it is charged with supporting. We made little videos that told true stories from the field, packaged these up on a flashy, easy-to-use website, added in lessons, character bios, and thinly disguised quizzes, and gave the team a relatively persuasive management nudge (i.e., an e-mail from the VP) to go check it out. All that might have been enough—the presentation had a cool factor and the content was intriguing and important—but the thing that really drove the traffic to the site was the gamification element: We awarded “Sales DNA Points” for various activities on the site, offered cash awards to the top three point earners, and posted the points rankings twice a week. The results could not be described as anything but a success: Just shy of 100% of team members consumed 100% of the content, performance on quizzes was exceedingly high, and most importantly, a team that is widely dispersed across the globe generated a frenetic  amount of viral activity, posting hundreds of blogs and discussions, many of which generated long threads of commentary and questioning. In the end our metrics showed that Sales DNA had increased dramatically, and I personally received a barrage of accolades and awards for the program’s success.

So why the discomfort? First and foremost, there were some outliers, a few people on the team for whom earning Sales DNA Points became much more important than the true intended goal of increasing Sales DNA. This tilted focus led these people into behaviors uncharacteristic of the professionalism and integrity they normally demonstrate, and it left me discouraged. Despite the fact that the vast majority of the team acted in the spirit of the program, these few individuals required the erection, refinement, and maintenance of guardrails—a huge drain on me and on the organization as a whole.

But I can’t lay my discomfort on the wanderings of a few strays. What disturbs me more is something larger, which is that we in the developed Western world seem to be transforming into a species that requires some surface-level titillation in order to get important things done. The state government here in California, for example, is charged with funding and maintaining a public education system. Why do we need a state lottery—essentially a tax on the poor—to fund public education? Why can’t we all just decide to fund public education—without the games? Another example is the Stock Market, which exists to capitalize companies. Why do we need gambling bets like derivatives, short selling, long positions, and the rest on Wall Street? Why can’t we just decide to capitalize companies for growth—without the games? And in my much less consequential case of Sales DNA, we have a team in Sales Operations whose job it is to help Field Sales. Why isn’t that motivation enough to watch some videos, review some content, and learn about the day-to-day lives of those we’re charged to serve—without the games?

All of this, of course, expresses little more than a bias: a wish that humanity were something other than what it is. In these realms, games are here to stay, but what is encouraging about Nathan Heller’s review is that it makes a compelling case that, in spreading into the realm of self-help, gamification may have finally overstepped. SuperBetter charges authoritatively into the world of self-help, Heller explains, mainly because we are in an era of Fitbits and smartphone weight tracking apps:
Previously banished to the back shelves of the bookstore…self-help is cool again, because it comes with numbers. Progress is trackable, like Venus through the night sky. Data has become our diet.
It turns out, though, that McGonigal’s most compelling data in support of life gamification is actually self-contradictory. One study indicates that P.T.S.D. could be avoided by putting a Tetris game in front of a soldier, first responder, or assault victim soon after the traumatic experience, thus occupying the visual-processing centers of the brain so that the disturbing images cannot attach themselves. In another study, burn victims play a 3-D virtual-reality game while their wounds are being treated, monopolizing their cerebral resources and resulting in a 35−50% reduction in the pain they experience. But far from proving that gamification improves life experience, these examples show the opposite: that it improves life by distracting from the immediate experience. This is not to invalidate the findings or diminish their clinical potential; it is just to point out that it is folly to apply gamification across the whole of life experience, which is for most of us anything but harrowing, and is in fact well worth experiencing closely, mindfully, and free of distraction.

McGonigal will undoubtedly have lots of people gamifying their lives in short order. She is a compelling cult figure who has captivated intellectual sanctuaries like Ted and NPR to the point where I will undoubtedly think of her each time my local public radio station offers the Lumosity brain enhancement game during pledge week. (“Why not just read a freaking book?!” I typically shout at the car radio.) But while Nathan Heller’s review might not have given me vindication for my anti-game bias, it does at least place limits on the spread of the game—limits that will, as more and more lotteries and Lumosities and’s  parade before me, give me some amount of solace.