Silicon Valley Suicides

Silicon Valley Suicides

I.
Its been another devastating month for Bay Area students and their loved ones. Three suicides in as many weeks. Two students jumped in front of CALTrains and another off a 280 freeway overpass. Those are just the ones I’ve heard of through friends and social networks, the ones that were reported on by news media. School administrators, teachers, parents, education policy experts, we all keep talking about the fact that our students are under incredible pressure, quite literally killing themselves to meet expectations, to achieve, to compete. Schools add suicide prevention programs, parents attend seminars and read books such as this one on the “Price of Privilege” to try to discern a way through the craziness. And still our kids are killing themselves, death perceived as a viable alternative to the weight of adolescent living. This dire situation is not abstract for me. I’m in the middle of it, trying desperately to lead two pre-teen daughters through the minefield that is Silicon Valley, through the even larger minefield that is a “21st Century Education” and even larger still the Global Economy in which they must someday exchange goods and services in order to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. I make my choices. I pray, I worry. I do my best. But none of it feels adequate. Sometimes I inadvertently even add to the pressure when what I am trying most desperately to do is simply to give them the tools they need to thrive, my good intentions paving a well-traveled road that is only ever down and out.

II.
I heard of these suicides within a few hours of reading this article, Better All the Time: How the “performance revolution” came to athletics and beyond— in the New Yorker. Author James Surowiecki explores the impact of ever-increasing levels of performance training to produce the best “fill-in-the-blank”: the best athlete, chess player, musician, corporate worker, student, teacher. Summing up his observations, he writes,

“That’s actually the biggest change in performance over the past few decades—it’s not so much that the best of the best are so much better as that so many people are so extraordinarily good.”

I have been told by friends who live elsewhere in the States that the pressure — no, the need — to be extraordinarily good is now nearly universal in affluent communities, of which Silicon Valley surely is the vanguard. Where money is no object, we can invest it in churning out the best and the brightest, no longer understood as limited or more positively, shaped by natural talent, God-given ability or grit, but only by the amount of focused training a developing student receives, either at their request or at the insistence of a well-meaning, petrified parent. It goes without saying this applies not only to athletics but to music, academics, extracurriculars of every stripe. I will never forget the day the Principal of our local public elementary school informed me that in excess of 80% of attending students went to “school after school” — not remedial tutoring, mind you, but accelerated learning: Kumon, STEM curricula, language classes (for second and third languages). She admitted to me without even flinching that her teachers did not need to teach basic skills because 80% of her students were learning those basics and more after hours, and if I wanted to compete I should consider putting my Kindergartener too in after-school learning programs. Because, you see, the assumption was that this was the only way to produce a student who was extraordinarily good, and that manufacturing of said student was what I desired to do. Kindergarten, it turns out, was actually all about me and not in the least about my 5 year old.

III.
Let’s talk for a moment about that parent I mentioned above, the well-meaning, petrified one. I know that parent because on too many days of too many weeks, I am one. Every day I wrestle with how to help my daughters grow and thrive, and my wrestling is not always infused with excitement and anticipation but rather with anxiety and doubt. They are inheriting a difficult world absolutely saturated with dog-eat-dog competition. Nevertheless, it is a world they need to be able to cope with, make sense of, thrive within. But they were born into a cultural moment suffocating beneath technology, succumbing to the relentless pounding of elusive forces driving us into isolation and fragmentation, a moment where childhood is cast as a race to the top and where the complexities of daily life befuddle even the grown-ups who are supposed to know how to navigate — but we don’t, we can’t, because the world changed beneath our feet. It changed so fast we were knocked off-kilter and many of us are having an increasingly hard time figuring out how to right ourselves first, let alone help our children keep their wits about them. I quite literally cannot tell you the number of times I have talked with friends who grew up in the America of the 60s and 70s, where kids played in the neighborhood after school until the streetlights came on, where homework arrived for the first time in modest amounts somewhere around 6th grade, where being good at cheery drops off the high bar on the playground was enough to make you feel like you were something special. This is the world we understand, the world we were prepared to pass along to our children. Work hard at school and do your best, find what excites you, learn how to get along with peers by playing baseball and soccer in the neighborhood, no adult supervision required, with sweatshirts for bases and goals and the ubiquitous though contentious “Do Over.” Do I even need to say it? Those Days Are Forever Gone and in their place are high octane days of rigorous school and hours of homework, special projects and travel teams and Tiger Moms. In the circles I run in, for many it is a given that their child will not merely attend Stanford (that is a fait accompli) but will attend on an academic or athletic scholarship — never mind the fact that the parents have 10s if not 100s of millions of dollars in the bank and the scholarship is purely for parental bragging rights, proof positive that their labor to produce an award-winning child has succeeded.

IV.
I see parents responding to this cultural moment in a few ways, and I am not casting judgement on any of us. The older I get the more I realize we are all doing the best we can and maybe that’s why I feel so compelled to talk about why we are choosing what we are choosing –to deconstruct our choices if we can so we can see more clearly the places where we parent from fear and where we lead and nurture our kids from a place of faith, confidence and unimpeded vision. If you have comments and nuances to add to these categories — or challenges to them even — please do so, keeping in mind that language choices must be made carefully and with attention to the fact that others might be choosing differently than you. If you can’t find a place of genuine collaboration, it might be wise to just listen for a while. Perhaps if we can understand the available options we can invent better ways through the quagmire, because invention seems to me the only way forward.

Rejection. Parents literally relocate their families to rural or intentionally non-affluent settings to make it easier to embrace values that dominated in previous generations. Unschooling and extreme homeschooling, Christian patriarchy, homesteading and communal living are all examples.

Co-opting. Parents opt out of traditional schooling and secular-based organized sports, music and drama programs and put their kids into Christian versions of the same programs, an argument in kind that says the institutions aren’t the problem, only the people running the institutions.

Competing. Parents play the game — top schools, expensive sports programs, private music lessons, after school academic classes to augment in-class learning — with or without a self-reflexive awareness that they are in fact playing the game.

Combining. Parents try to cobble together a unique way forward based on what they think are the best parts of each approach. I see the most doubt in this group, frankly, perhaps because they can’t locate themselves in any of the other spaces.

V.
How do we connect the dots then, between the horror of children broken beneath trains, broken beneath the pressure to achieve, and how we are parenting as individuals and as villages? How do we help our children develop into adults — find their passions, discover their talents and gifts, connect with the people who will enrich their lives — given the changing landscape of the world we now inhabit, where excelling above and beyond the pack seems to be Job #1 and yet ironically where “so many people are so extraordinarily good”? How do we stop talking and start doing, in ways that shield our kids from the worst of the worst but still prepare them to step into adulthood as fully functioning members of an ethnically and religiously diverse, fast-paced, global society? This all feels incredibly urgent to me. My daughters are growing fast, and they are looking to me to guide them — to know when to intervene and when to step out of the way, to know when to give counsel and when to show I trust them by my silence.

I don’t know about you but bromides and pat answers don’t work for me when the stakes are this high. This feels complex and risky and totally resistant to anything that could be stuck on a Pinterest board or Tweeted. Plus, I have that chilling sense that I only get one shot at getting it “right” — scare quotes intentional, because perhaps ultimately that’s the root of all this evil.

What do you think?imgres-1


Header image is taken from promotional materials for Race to Nowhere.

GI Jane got me thinking …

GI Jane got me thinking …

Time for a confession: about once a month I sit down in the middle of the day.

That’s it. That’s my confession. You were hoping for something a bit more titillating, weren’t you?

Mainly I sit down because I’m so exhausted that the mere thought of trying to be productive makes me want to curl into the fetal position and cry, but since doing so would freak me out, instead, I watch TV.

TV, in the middle of the day, even with 999 channels (we have satellite) is an utter wasteland. 999 channels and there is seriously Nothing On. Friends reruns. Two-bit talk shows. Porn. Flipping channels can honestly make me despair about the future of civilization, or wonder if we’ve deceived ourselves collectively into thinking we are civilized when that ship sailed long before The Maury Show hit the airwaves.

But every once in a while, deep in the HBO channels, there’s a movie on that I remember from my 20s and I’ll watch it for a while. Last month it was True Lies (1994). Remember that disaster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis as Harry and Helen Tasker? The most impressive thing in that movie was the AV-8B Harrier jet that Harry commandeers near the end. But what arrested my attention at this most recent viewing was the way in which the movie captures the shift that was well underway by the mid-90s concerning the relationship between the sexes and women’s roles in particular — what the expectations were for us in marriage, the workplace, society, sex.

Movies, we all know, both reflect and shape cultural expectations, so when a mess like True Lies hits the screen, we unwittingly bear witness to the tension, usually without even knowing it. In my case, I didn’t see anything “wrong” at the time with True Lies — to the contrary, I thought it was great that the frumpy housewife got to be a sexy spy after all, and that she did things like slug her boorish husband in the jaw for lying to her. But the movie drips with misogyny — I just didn’t have eyes to see it.

This month I watched GI Jane (1997). Demi Moore plays Jordan O’Neil (note the gender-neutral name), a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy who is manipulated by scheming politicians (a redundancy if ever there was one) to be a token female in a fictionalized version of Navy SEAL training and, if she makes the grade, covert ops. It is assumed that she will ring out of bootcamp and prove that all women for all times should not serve in the US Military. Of course, our hero does not fail. She shaves her head, meets every challenge and shows she’s not only physically capable but also clever, a natural born leader. In the end, she gets serious (and poetic!) props from the Command Master Chief, played by Viggo Mortensen — the only thing in the course of her experience to bring tears to her eyes.

I’m sure library shelves are full of graduate-level theses examining the portrayal of women in film, and I have no intent of adding to that discourse here.

Rather, I want to point out — and maybe this is obvious — that when you sit down and watch a 20 year old movie it is much easier to see the ways in which our culture was trying to make sense of how men and women ought to relate, in what ways were they same and different, what the available roles were for each gender. Schwarzenegger was at the pinnacle of his movie career in 1994 and represented the ideal archetypal male. Demi Moore had posed for that scandalous Vanity Fair cover 6 years earlier and her physical transformation into GI Jane had both men and women alike slack-jawed (how on earth could a woman, a mother, do those one-handed pushups?).

Here’s the money shot. I point all this out because we are, of course, in a similar transformational cultural moment — maybe we never left the last one — and too many of us are too blind too much of the time to what is happening and what is at stake. I include myself in there, friends. What it means to be men and women is Up For Grabs right now, as technology and a global economy have shifted the ground from underneath our feet. I’m sure there are many other factors, but those two stand out for me.

The Church that I love is trying to figure this out too, both theologically and practically, and as you might expect, many people seem to be retreating to a place far away from that midline: the conservatives are getting more conservative and the progressives more progressive. Few want to occupy the tentative, tension-filled space near the middle where the line is hard to see because you are standing right on top of it.

I could write a thesis on the myriad ways in which this is happening right now in Evangelical culture. In fact, it would take a thesis-length paper to do it justice. On the one end of the spectrum, we watch the redefinition of gender-as-spectrum and the concurrent redefinition of marriage; Tony Jones and sacramental vs. legal wives; the Emergent Church and LGBTQ inclusion, and so on. On the other end, pretty much anything connected to Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Al Mohler; the Authentic Manhood movement that places Jesus in Schwarzenegger’s coveted role; the Duggars, Duck Dynasty, and lots of guys like this fellow, affiliated with John Eldredge, who in all fairness, explains forthrightly and quite thoughtfully that his blog is for men. Manly men (or those who want to be). Knife-toting, flannel shirt wearing, God-fearing, Spiritual Leader (TM) Men, not wussy metro men who live in suburbs and enjoy wearing Tommy Bahamas shirts and drinking wine. And Definitely Not For Women.

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Because women are the opposite of men, male is the opposite of female, masculine is the opposite of feminine. Or is it women and men are on a continuum, a spectrum, with gender as fluid and negotiable, and roles between and among men and women also best understood as fluid and negotiable. Or something else that’s not linear at all, a gender version of wave particle duality?

We are living in this tense cultural moment and it is hard for us to see the ways in which we are being shaped by and also reflecting and reinforcing our preconceptions. Some of us don’t care because we think it doesn’t matter. Some think if we withdraw far enough the raging current won’t knock us or our children off our feet. Some pick up arms of all sorts to wage culture war.

What will we think 20 years from now, when time and distance and experience yield hindsight and, one hopes, at least a modicum of wisdom? What will our movies, our blogs, even our theology tell us about ourselves 10 years, 20 years hence?

Perhaps the more salient question, given that there is nothing new under the sun, is how ought we to live this moment? How ought we hold the tension, treat our “enemy” who wants to shape male and female in ways we don’t approve? How ought we think about and engage with those who hold the opposing point of view?

I don’t have the answer, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

When Privilege Is A Disability

When Privilege Is A Disability

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about privilege. About what the Kingdom of God is and what privilege has to do with it. How those of us in the affluent Christian West might actually enter the Kingdom of God, and why indeed we might want to.

It all started at the beginning of the summer when I read that pesky story in Luke 18 where a wealthy, powerful man comes to Jesus and respectfully — and quite correctly, I might add — implies that because he has kept Torah since his coming of age, his obedience to God ought to guarantee him entrance into heaven (eternal life). The traditional reading has Jesus suggesting that this man’s wealth is an idol that he worships instead of worshipping God, and the implication is that the man did not go to heaven when he died because he was not willing to follow Jesus without condition while he lived.

For most of my formative years in church I was taught directly and indirectly that this story functions as a simile in miniature. Just as Luke 18 tells the story of one man’s personal decision about Jesus and the impact to his eternal destiny, so too the broad sweep of Scripture primarily concerns personal, individual salvation: the Bible as a love letter from God about how to get to heaven when one dies.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve slowly learned a new way of reading the Scriptures that doesn’t trace a theme of personal salvation but instead watches for this spacetime thing Jesus calls “The Kingdom of God,” which the prophets foretold in mysterious and mystical terms and the Hebrews looked for with eyes squinting into the future. Certainly individual conversion is built into this Kingdom, but it demonstrated over the long haul by incarnational evidence of repentance: love for enemies, compassion rather than self-righteousness, an embrace of suffering on behalf of the Other, and so on. It is not merely a shifting of beliefs or a profession of orthodoxy. It is a changed life — and the nature of that changed life is that it now seeks the Kingdom of God where before it sought something else.

Which takes us back to Luke’s rich young ruler. As I sat there, reading the story not through the lens of personal salvation but instead through the lens of the Kingdom of God, an entirely new understanding jumped off the page. It felt a little like vertigo; I got kind of woozy, seriously.

What if Jesus isn’t talking to this powerful, wealthy man about how to get to Heaven when he dies? What if he’s inviting this powerful, wealthy man to drink deeply of Heaven while he yet lives?

Because Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is at hand with his arrival. As the rabbi likes to say, God did with Jesus in the middle of history what the Jews expected God to do at the end of history. In the person of Jesus, God’s Kingdom has come. Emmanuel, theophany, God with us.

When Jesus suggests he sell all his possessions and distribute the yield to the poor, I don’t think Jesus is testing him to see if he idolizes money. He’s inviting him — genuinely inviting him! — to make his home, for the first time in his uber-religious life, in the Kingdom of God. The catch is that he can only find his way into that Kingdom as a person without — without wealth, without privilege, without a voice, without safety, without social standing. It does not belong to the religious elite nor to those whose social power comes from the color of their skin or their bank account. Not to the ones who keep themselves righteous by never embracing the dirty, diseased Other.

What this poor fellow could not do, then, is walk away from the privilege that his gender, wealth and social position gave him:

Political power
Social status
Slaves
Wives
A voice
Self-determination
Freedom
Safety

I’ve pondered this story all summer, you see because I am the rich young ruler.

Will I spend “life after life-after-death” in the Presence of God? Faith in the full testimony of Scripture tells me yes, and it’s a truth I have cast my entire life upon. But I’m not talking about that life — I’m talking about this one, and the older I get the more I realize just how right Jesus was. The Kingdom of God is hard to enter — perhaps not because we don’t want to but because our wealth and privilege turn us (wittingly or unwittingly so) into camels trying to squeeze through a needle’s eye.

I hate to break it to you, but we all are this rich young ruler. We, in the affluent Christian West, with our theology all neat and tidy saying who’s in and who’s out, with our political affiliations and our ability to isolate ourselves from global suffering and persecution, with our first world problems and our inbred materialism. And frankly, even if we all gave away our wealth, we’d still have a hard time — our privilege is so deeply engrained in how we think about and value ourselves that we are hard-pressed to actually hold real need, real weakness in our own two hands.

Men, apologies up front, but you have it worse than we women do — even when you don’t feel privileged because some other dude has more/better than you or some woman in your life outranks you, your voice still counts in this culture (particularly religious subcultures), your time produces more income, your seminary degree results in pastoral jobs and seats on elder boards, your life doesn’t bend quite so much around the needs of others because it is their lives that are required to bend around yours.

I wonder if this isn’t perhaps part of why women, it is observed, are more likely to be involved in church. Perhaps it’s not our “God-given nature” — a nice cop-out, gents, — but instead the fact that women as a class have less privilege and are thus that one small step closer to entering the Kingdom. It’s not enough though, which is in part why it is easier for me when I’m on a missions trip among the poor, with trafficking victims, or beside the bed of the diseased and dying.

I wonder too if perhaps this isn’t part of the case for having women, the differently-abled, the non-native speaker, the foreigner among us incorporated thoroughly and deeply into our liturgical practices, our pastoral staffs and elder boards, our doctrinal review meetings and our community outreach efforts. If in the Kingdom of God privilege is a disability, then those of us who have it ought to see the beauty in seeking out those without and bringing them in. Perhaps its time that I and any of you who are awaking to the deforming nature of your own privilege start listening and following the least of these.

I don’t know how, yet, to enter this Kingdom. I feel it beckoning and I feel elation because Jesus says “with God all things are possible.”

He will not leave me forever on the outside, nose pressed to the glass, looking in.