The Tao of Shaved Ice and Other Tales

I plan to spend my 30s pursuing character, something Americans pursued during the era of the Culture of Character. And I hope to pursue this character within the context of community.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, but I didn’t feel how much I’m missing community down to the depths of my very soul until recently. It involved shaved ice.

I walked with my wife through the neighborhood to our local New Orleans style shaved ice stand. As we walked and talked and enjoyed the simple joy of walking as a couple, I saw all sorts of tiny, idiosyncratic church communities, all providing meaning, shelter, and community for their members on small scales. I took in the taste of my cotton candy flavored ice. SO smooth. It was totally surprising how good it was. I’d never had New Orleans style shaved ice. It’s a completely different experience than the sugar crunchy ice cubes I was used to – you should try it if you have a soul.

I looked up from a lick of my shaved ice, full of peace, and was suddenly transported outside of time, seeing both the past, present, and future all at once. I saw a sanctuary full of symbology, full of congregants honoring their past. Where I stood up and preached at 15, totally out of my depth, but so full of passion that a few of the faithful were prone to anoint me a future pastor of the flock, a shaman-in-training. I never believed them, so it never happened. I saw a fellowship hall where congregants greet and reconnect. I saw myself growing through the years, going up the same steps again and again with greater aplomb. I saw a large all-purpose gym, where children could play and learn about their faith/cultural heritage. Where potlucks were shared. It was like the church I grew up in, almost identical in square footage to the church in the city I now live in, where part of a cultural archetype of a space just the right size to accommodate a Dunbar’s number sized community. Then my dog barked, startled me, and the vision collapsed into shaved ice spilled on my man-boob.

A longing for the tried-and-true format of the church or parish where you see the same people week after week holds deep resonance given my upbringing [0].  That said, I’m afraid I can’t go back to the Church since I don’t share their belief in the same metaphysical creature, but I do believe in some of the principles Christianity gave us that are inextricably linked to Western Culture. I want this group to stand for something, and I’m increasingly inclined to believe that ‘something’ for which my group stands must include at minimum the value of direct truth-telling (as opposed to Eastern indirectness), of individual identity and responsibility (as opposed to being subsumed by a collective, a society, or an ideology) [zir], and a mutual commitment to best practices for living a good life (such as marriage) [.5].

As I think about the kind of person I’d want to become, partially shaped by this future community, I think the key to unlocking the door of our current sociability crisis is to recover the right bits of said Culture of Character [1]. Traces of that culture were kept alive in unique ways by my grandparents even as the Culture’s time had passed a generation earlier thanks to Dale Carnegie and replaced by the Culture of the Salesman.

To do this, we must travel back further and deeper than the 1950s paradise imagined by Robert Putnam. I imagine his idyllic childhood as the suburban paradise of Dale Carnegie styled salesmen going over to each other’s houses, truly gaining social benefits that we lack today, but falling short of the bonds that are formed around shared conceptions of character development, community, and mutual concern and with too much a tinge of self-promotion, salesmanship, showmanship, and materialism in maintaining appearances. Sure, they would have had richer connections and more strongly shared conceptions than we have today, but I would posit that they (50s suburbanites) had less social cohesiveness or benefits, in turn than their counterparts in the more agrarian 1800 small town or rural community Culture of Character (as opposed to the overall, urban, 20th century figures presented by Putnam).  The vestiges of this 50’s neighborhood cookout neighborliness that I’ve caught still existing today have oft been fraught with the pride of the extraverted Salesmen who can’t wait to brag and tell everyone about his tight knit group of neighbors.

Image result for 1880s community

The way I imagine it [2], many of the true believers of the Culture of Character were utterly blind to the power wielded over them and how they were used as means-to-an-end by various cultural forces above them in the social hierarchy. But there was something powerful in their belief in earnestness, an honesty essential to forming a deeply knit tribe built on trust and not mutual lust for power. A foundation of Stability. Meaning. Love for fellow community members that ran deep enough to lay down one’s life for them. Accountability.

Though some may challenge the notion that a la Little House on the Prairie, the Culture of Character approached a level of loyalty to the community that was within eyesight of loyalty to one’s family, that’s the narrative I’m going with for now.

Image result for old man praying

Purity of heart.

That’s what I’m seeking to recover from that history.

When I was 16, I went all-in on Evangelicalism augmented by a mystical Christian book or two and tried on Evangelical clothes as all-encompassing identity. I prayed. I meditated. I stopped making excuses and stopped being possessed by teenage-flavored Ressentiment[3]. I admitted where I was weak and tried to improve. I pushed the areas where I was strong far beyond my comfort zone. I did some very awkward, predictably share-your-faith things that I wish the world didn’t have to continue to endure looking back, but which were acts of courage within my moral framework at the time.

But I did a lot of things I’m proud of, too. I reached out as a friend and built some bridges with classmates that I’d bullied back in middle school. I also reached out to my high school social hierarchy ‘superiors’ and dared treat them as people, and got positive responses. I had a transcendent spiritual experience. I started trying to take a leadership role to encourage others to do the right thing. But it was all largely without a spirit of coercion or self-righteousness, or else, I’d like to believe, it wouldn’t have been as successful. Now, there comes a time when you have to keep your humility, and despite warnings to keep the ego in check from a good friend, ultimately the lust for more power and more mystical experiences undermined my progress [4]. But maybe after a decade and a half of picking apart every aspect of that rural, evangelical, Christian, white, male worldview and finding meaning and community wanting from such a project, I can make a change. Maybe I can find success in returning again to purity of heart, albeit with a more healthy distance from some of the more nefarious aspects of those aforementioned identities so harped on by the Left [5].

When I drop the power games and the overly harsh enforcement of boundaries [6], and return to a more authentic, open-hearted, self-creating experience. I improve relationship with my wife when I return to this sort of purity.[7]

I hope that soon the same will be said again of how I’m improving, through purity of intent and action, my relationship to my community, friends, and family like it was for this brief precious months in 2003.

Now, all this said, you have to have your street smarts in this life. Nature still puts pressure on us as much as we have succeeded at harnessing its power. And that pressure sometimes stresses people past what their character can handle, manifesting in crime, poverty, resentment, deceptiveness, that have quite reasonable causes even if the reaction to those causes is reprehensible. But goodness still has to be at the center. As the authors of The Upside of your Dark Side point out, you need to harness the “dark” (critical, angry, jealous, pissed, sharp, biting) side of life for that last push of the 5k, that last 20%. This willingness to get nasty or critical, if its to avoid devolution into Ressentiment must constantly be questioned for its service to good character. We must endure enough Self-Purification (MLK) so as to know wholeheartedly, tentatively  with fear and trembling that we are a few steps to the side of Good rather than taking on the Mask of Ideology and assuming we are several Giant Steps on the Right Side of History because our ideological touchstones (Rush Limbaugh, the Black Lives Matter platform) justify our superiority.

The above is a highly introverted, highly agreeable take on goodness, but I’m going to claim it. We need more Solzhenitsyns. Maybe we’re on the naive side, but we truth-tellers have a way of exposing lies, however subtly the self-serving and difficult to pin down nature of them, before its too late. When we shirk our duty, as when all ‘types’ do, a certain amount of balance is forfeited in the eternal struggle for balance of order and chaos [8].

Image result for  Solzhenitsyns

To bring all of this full circle, I seek to find a community where I can safely practice this work of truth telling and trust. From there, from the mutual safety and support of our established group, we can attempt to stave off the entropy of self-congratulation, self-satisfaction, and isolation by engaging in bridging work with other groups towards healing the divisions in society and, for me, figuring out how to keep this culture going and working for all of its members in the Age of the Tapestry [9]. Running back home to my nuclear or extended family does not address the challenge, though I haven’t 100% ruled out that it might be a part of the solution. That’s because the challenge is not confined to my local, individual loneliness. No, the problem is existential (a problem of being alive, period), societal (a product of this moment in the US), and world-historical (a product of the technologies and pressures on the entire global ecosystem), to name a few. And I know from experience that from a solid foundation of loving relationship, beautiful experiences can be achieved.

I’m still working out what that group might look like [10]. I hope you’ll join me on this journey and add your own passions and insights to the conversation.


Please note:

This piece began as a theoretical exploration of the ideas that are intriguing me the most right now. As I synthesized and self-debated the different ideas, it grew into this piece.
I plan on cleaning up the theory-heavy piece sometime soon, again, mostly from the conviction that I should get in the habit of releasing these thoughts out into the world as a discipline of open ‘type 4’ (Enneagram) sharing, whether or not its well-formulated and illustrated enough yet to actually make sense!
Disclaimers & Footnotes

Please comment if you find the inevitable spelling and grammar mistakes. Again, I wanted to release this into the world without editing down its spirit. If I get enough commentary, perhaps it could transform with carefully selected illustrations, examples, and even changes of opinion.

As an artistic/individualist type, I’m tempted to take the Wendell Berry route, exalt rural communities as godly, and dive back into where I came from, embracing small countryside churches and down home community. But that feels too lacking of the kind of bridging work we now desperately need, and further, too full of true believing nonsense in counter-productive religious theology for me to live in such a community as my truthful, soul-bearing self.
This post is 100% my life, my passion. It is not my livelihood in any way, therefore profit isn’t in the picture at this point. I’ll kindly take down any picture that’s requested.

[0] Robert Putnam speculates that groups or organizations may not be the mode we most need, but I can’t conceive of one past it. My highly intelligent friend Justin might be onto something, more fluid than these fixed groups in his idea of the modern social library. The mark of true creativity (versus just authentic expression/self-discovery as I am apt to trade in) is coming up with something that truly no one else on the globe is talking about or has quite conceived of, and he’s done so, which is amazing!

[.5] Even if those best practices are a bit more loosely defined than “Bible-believing” church groups, I’d like to see them more tightly defined than just ‘to each her own’.  I also haven’t ruled out an intentional community, though the values of those I most often see would likely be too much like a loosely structured apartment complex to be worthwhile, or would find my beliefs to fall short of either a religious, Leftist, or collectivist benchmark for inclusion. Lest I devolve into a Special Snowflake Millennial in Need of a Community of Other People Tailored to my Needs, I’m looking forward to discussing these ideas in a couple meetup groups some friends of mine started with me. At some point, I’ll need to make a call on what fits my vision best amongst limited, flawed, human existing options or make sure that one I potentially help co-create has enough of mine in the vision to satisfy.

[zir] See communitarianism, communism, socialism, hippies

[1] excluding, for instance, the bits that were overly puritanical, exclusionary, and harsh, elements of its not-to-be-overlooked religious element, to name an example.

[2] I’m of course bullshitting here, this argument is wide open to critique/improvement/data/empricism

[3] Ressentiment (not resentment), Nietzsche’s concept of a peculiar form of angry resentment typical of ineffective individuals that is oft sublimated into passive aggressive forms of dominance, like calling weakness strength in order to drag ‘the strong’ down on the level of ‘the weak’ and have ‘the weak’ feel better about their own shortcomings. One of the influences on my complimentary theoretical piece to this piece is Stephen Hicks’s diagnosis of postmodernity as Marxist Ressentiment manifesting after its failure in the world. This understanding has been tempered by how I use Thaddeus Russell to temper Hicks/Jordan Peterson within a meta-framework provided by David Chapman. If that’s a mouthful of people you’ve never heard of before and exist in my own little corner of the universe, that’s why it’s over on the forthcoming ‘theoretical piece’!

[4] I was 16 after all. Only some of the very best among us, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., seem to attain the combination of wise choices, grit, and luck that result in keeping their upward trajectory going with minimal interference, stuckness, or regression along the way.

[5] Practicing a kind of Speculative non-Christianity akin to these chaps’ Speculative Non-Buddhism.

[6] And I do draw a firm line between over-concern with ideology or over-concern with power analysis and a cynical jaded attitude towards life itself, a line between the raw philosophy of the postmodernist and the pop-distillation of its impact in personal relationships of Robert Greene. See the other piece.

[7] I’m reminded of Kelly McGonigal’s disagreement with Rick Hanson towards the end of this podcast. Hanson keeps driving away at the need to interpret one’s relationship in a sort of power analysis of gender, but McGonigal essentially says that the benefits of a harmonious relationship and of mutual trust and giving are going to far outweigh the benefits of this aggressive power brokering, even if the premises of the benefits of that power brokering are fully accepted. Not to say they shouldn’t be challenged or heartfully discussed in a healthy relationship, but a stark reminder of what the priorities should lie if resilience, stress tolerance, and ultimately, holistic health are valued over the perceived manifestation of political goals in a spousal relationship. In my case, it’ been a harshness about debating the true consequences of feminism and wanting to make sure I get a say in the partnership as I rightly have to watch that as a High Agreeable.

[8] Again, those of us who have done and do the continual work to avoid devolving into self-servitude, or which I can’t yet count myself one, I’m only beginning this work anew.

[9] We figured it out in the age of the melting pot, but I guess in some ways took the easy way out in switching to the tapestry model as a way to put off having to deal with the consequences of diversity. We clearly can’t do that anymore. See Charlottesville, but also Berkeley (not to equivocate murder and assault, but to muddy the good/evil Leftist narrative about who’s provoking who and who is using violence).

[10] and if the solution is not a flesh-and-blood, brick-and-mortar group, what that would even mean.

Our Internet culture tells us not to reveal insecurities, i.e. not to speak the truth as it may damage your reputation. But Solzhenitsyn reminds us why we can’t give in to that temptation, and I feel a sort of archetypal responsibility to be one who does, vague-and-never-well-defined-fears-about-future-employability be damned. I’ve been afraid to put this stuff out there, but you know what, I’m someone who likes reading heady, amateur, quote-on-quote “narcissistically Millenial” too long pieces mixing pop culture and a shallow understanding of academe giants. So I’m going to put some of that out there into the world, even if it happens to be the 1,000,000th piece that does so. So if I’m open to the process of Truth, which is extremely difficult for a High Agreeable, but necessary for someone perhaps equally high in the desire for openness and the desire to know others and ideas deeply.and  I’ll be open to improving or even overturning much of this by exposing it to the world. In reality, it likely won’t get read or if its read won’t be understood, but you have to start somewhere! Also, not editing this heavily. This is not a competition to put the sheen of perfectly marketable, rhetorical stuff out there. That will make it fairly obscure for any who happen to read it. If there are contradictions, may they come to light so I can either be aware of the need to live with them or re-work my maps of meaning to alleviate them.

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