The Joy and the Bullshit

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An Uncommon View on How to Make 2018 an Uncommon Year

Our [human] natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.
— Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, Princeton University, On Bullshit
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling that, of course, he is a nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
— C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

The New Year is upon us and you know what this means: well-intentioned and pressurized assurances about how much better we are going to do this time around. 

  • How much thinner we are going to be.
  • How much more reading we are going to complete.
  • How much more self-care, more family time, more “me” time, more focus at work,
  • How much less arguing with our spouse, less nagging our children. 
  • How much more spiritual (because we’re not going to be religious).
  • How much better we’re going to manage our work, our finances, our volunteering, etc.
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Disclaimer:

Begin Disclaimer: some of a more puritanical mind than I will find the use of profanity (“Bullshit”) in an essay on spirituality misplaced.  I don’t use it to grab your attention, but, rather, because I feel that it is the most accurate word for what needs to be described below.  I could have used words like “humbug” or “chicanery” which carry similar meaning from more antique times, but let’s be honest, no one knows what those words mean anymore. We aren’t talking about lying (intentionally purporting untruths), we are talking about selling a song that wants for neither truth nor lies, but wanders the world looking for impressions and validations: this is bullshit. With the wind of 2017 at our backs, when I say the word bullshit—you know exactly what I mean. End Disclaimer.

And we will all post about it endlessly on our social media channels with great intention.  This is not because we are bad or manipulative people (at least not uniquely so), but because we are caught up in a belief system—a way of seeing the world—which says that improvement is the way forward and that a goal is not a goal unless it has been announced.  We believe the ultimate purpose is achievement: a good family, productive children, a happy home, a successful career, an enviable travel schedule, a virtuous life.

The New Year does gnarly and misguided work on our hearts, burying deep the incisors of self-focus and self-disgust which only gnaw surreptitiously the rest of the year.  In the New Year, what normally exists as a low-grade hum of self-judgment and doubt surges to a symphonic roar, demanding to be heard and acted upon.

This is the year we will get better.  And will have the Instragram and LinkedIn feed to prove it.

This is all, of course (you know it as well as I do), bullshit. 

Bullshit is the delivery of word or action which intends to create an impression without serious intent to engage the reality behind that impression. 

The root of this idea comes from another archaic phrase a “bull session” where “what tends to go on…is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things in order to discover how others respond, without its being assumed that they are committed to what they say.” (Harry Frankfurt)

It is the belief that in saying it I make it I could make it true, or—more accurately—your warm reception of my bullshit makes the truthiness of it irrelevant.  We are dependent upon the ultimate bullshit (once marketed as “The Secret”) that what you put out into the world will come back to you.  If you put out your intention, then the universe will grant you its cooperation. 

Calling our good intentioned resolutions out as bullshit just as a new year takes flight is not errant cynicism.  It is a reframing full of purpose: we’ve got to get clear about the game we’re playing.  I say all this not to shame you (or me) or anyone else who is quickly fabricating their better self for 2018.  I say this to liberate us from the fog of self-deception and a cultural milieu of bullshit that we have unwinkingly accepted as unavoidable.  We—for lack of an alternative—believe all this public and private pumping ourselves up is required despite how repulsive we may find it in others. (And how ineffectual it annually becomes.)

When the president (or his detractors, depending on your political persuasion) pump the news and internet waves full of bullshit to manage your impression of them, you can smell the hot steam from a thousand miles away.  When celebrities deeply complicit in a culture of misogyny tweet aggressively about their new-found clarity regarding sexual assault, the cattle yard scent is palpable.  And yet, we share and retweet and respond to these comments as if they were truth statements worth real consideration.

Why? Because we want someone’s bullshit to be believed.  If their image management campaign can work, then that means image management campaigns are believable, and therefore it is worthy work to think my campaign may someday be believed. 

I, too, have spent the better part of decades trying to craft a justifiable image.  I have tried religious ones, business ones, financial ones, artistic ones and disruptive, cynical ones.  All were derivations of what could be true, but none were interested in being true.  That is the power of bullshit.  It doesn’t have to be false, it just doesn’t care about true or false.  Like the sirens on the rocks, bullshit woos us away from the open sea of humble ignorance, where we can admit that the truth is out there, but it is too mysterious to be accurately named.  It exchanges the opportunity to joyfully say, “I don’t know!” with the more alluring “look how much I care about this thing that I really want you to think I care about!”

As Dr. Frankfurt makes clear in his incredibly important book, On Bullshit, the curse of democratic society is that citizens are led to believe that we should have opinions on everything—even particularly things we know nothing about.  We should have a thought (and arguably a passionate one) about human trafficking, the tax code, the threat in North Korea, the efficacy of the FBI, the worthiness of homeschooling, and whether or not the Paleo Diet is a fraud. We should think and feel strongly about these things and then we should express those feelings and give money to them and then, maybe just then, we could justify our existence on the planet. 

The New Year feeds on this excremental methane gas. We begin every year believing we ought to attentively improve ourselves, a premise unfindable in the great spiritual traditions of the world.  Certainly not present in the tenants of the Jesus Way.  Neither do you find its converse: some sort of self-deprecating false humility which celebrates unworthiness.  No, the Gospel has an uncommon charge.  We are charged to find our lives hidden—inscrutably unfindable—with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3)

We are charged by our culture to “be ourselves” or even more gratuitously to “be our best selves” in 2018.  But the way of Jesus says our “self” is hidden.  It comes to us in whispers and groans from the Spirit of God, and will not be so explicit as to create a personal mission statement.  Personal mission statements are very likely bullshit: a mantra created to sell myself to the world in order to get the reaction which would validate my bullshit.

Don’t be a better you in 2018.  I promise I won’t either.  I don’t even have a clue what that means to wake up each day and be myself.  I, like you, am this inscrutable mix of light and darkness, good and bad intention, hope and despair.  I am one moment clear as daylight on what matters most to me, and the next moment believing my own hype.  The moment after that—raging against my own limits, confusions and failures.  And sometimes those moments are one in the same. 

To be a better me in 2018, I must decide what kind of me I was before.  I must choose a set of arbitrary (and probably bullshitty) measurements to judge myself and others against.  Under this pile of platitudes and do-betters I will be buried, all in the name of self-improvement.

We have masked critical self-judgment under the fauxian mask of “self-awareness.” We have become professional finger-waggers, fighting to prove that our parenting is better than our parents’ parenting, our new food is better than our old food, our politics better than their politics.  (In the world of judgment there is always a proverbial “they.”)

Time out on the running... This running ain’t no kind of freedom.
— David Gray

On this path there is no joy.  There is only the momentary egoic relief of achievement.  Ephemeral as a shot of adrenaline, pissing out of our system as fast as it came.  Any sense of accomplishment washed away as the goal line suddenly sprints ahead just as we crossed it.  Proverbially, life is a marathon not a sprint, but what if we had reason to stop running?

The throbbing heart of the bullshit campaign is judgment.  Judgment toward myself and others.  A grasp at mastery of a subject we are woefully unmasterful: the knowledge of good and evil.  Right and wrong.  We are Icarus playing with fire, flying too close to a blazing sun of evaluation, performance and image.  The seeds of this problem are found in an unexpected place—the origin stories of the Bible.

You will remember Adam and Eve (the Hebrew words for Humanity and Life) placed in a garden at the dawn of human consciousness.  You will remember, perhaps, that the garden was purposed to be the place where the Image of God (Humanity and Life) was found.  And you will recall that the conflict of our origin story arises around the fruit a tree: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. For shorthand and accuracy, we can just as easily call this the Tree of Judgment.  It is this ability and willingness to take judgement, an arrogant grasp for control of what is right and wrong in the world, which distracts our characters (Humanity and Life) from their purpose in the Garden itself.

Adam and Eve (the Hebrew words for “Humanity and Life”) land in a temple garden where the image of God is to dwell and their purpose is simple—attend to what is in front of you.  Name the animals (have authority where it has been granted), tend the ground (cultivate space for things to grow), protect the garden (put boundaries around the beautiful and the frail) all within the pleasure of walking with God.  What they are never purposed to do is to understand themselves, find their why, or develop a set of personal values.  This small world of active, intimate engagement is the place where God walks with humans.

The only simple joy is purpose.  The unevaluated, blind and shadowy purpose of committing to garden where you live.  Investing heavily into what is yours to steward, cultivating the world for beauty and life, and tending the boundaries for predatorial bullshit.  Only in this small space are our stumbles true enough and our light bright enough to find the joy.  From the safe distance of opinion and theory, our mistakes are too academic and our actions too ineffectual to actually live a life of joy.

Joy comes in the morning of our truly personal dark nights.  Joy comes in the minutes of faithful attentiveness to that which is right in front us. Humanity and Life are commissioned to flourish with the ultimate humility: freed from the judgment of deciding the worth of my life or its progress, liberated to where it is not necessary to size up my life at all.

  • This garden of our own delight has no map, but the territory does have recognizable boundary markers:
  • We are 100% committed to what is ours to steward and 0% committed to what is not. (Name the animals in your garden, leave other people’s pet projects alone.)
  • Our thoughts are deeply seeded in the present moment, because each day has enough trouble of its own. (Our opinions about the future are a projection of our self-judgement.)
  • We are free from regret or a need to improve ourselves from year to year.  (Our opinions about the past are a projection of our self-judgement.)
  • We recognize the capacity for beauty and sustenance all around us. (Give us this day our daily bread.)
  • We live deeply curious about how God is appearing in every situation. (The joy garden is where God walks.)
  • We recognize the spark of divinity in every person. (Humanity and life in all its forms are God’s image in the world.)
  • We get our hands dirty making our garden better. (The soil, the dust, is the home of humanity, we get to tend what’s ours.)
  • We become allergic to bullshit, ours and others. (Self-evaluation, shame, judgement and the image management that goes with it are all products of deception in the joy garden.)
  • “I don’t know” and “That’s not mine,” become regular parts of our conversation. (Recognizing limits and boundaries gives space for joyful purpose.)

Reading this list, you may find your old bullshit voice rearing its head – I need to get better at those things!  I should make them my New Year’s Resolution!  And then you will stop and realize what is happening.  The territory is not the map. These things describe what life in a joy garden looks like, but striving after them will bring you no joy.  I encourage you surrender to God any impulse to attack this project like one more project.  Instead a simple prayer, “God, I recognize my self-judgment and I need help trading judgment for joy.”

What will this mean for 2018? I think you know.  The surrender of judgment and self-improvement clears the weeds from the garden floor.  It opens the soul of the soil up for simple joy.  A joy where we abandon our evaluations of self and others.  Where we stop propagating and commenting on bullshit.  Do not think about the person you are becoming.  Whether you are thinner or kinder or smarter or more well-read.  Any metric you would use to evaluate these things will only lead you to narcissistic bullshit.  Think about beauty and kindness that you cannot control.  And for long stretches of time think about nothing at all.  The very idea that your thoughts are all that necessary is part of the factory of bullshit we all live in. 

Then we will all meet back here, on December 31, 2018, and the conversation will go something like this:

“How was your year?”

“I’m not really sure, I haven’t given it much thought.”

“Oh really, why?”

“Because I was too busy enjoying it.”


If you wish to dig deeper into purposeful living and the origins of this work in the book of Genesis, please discover our ORIGINS study in 2018.

Nick Richtsmeier1 Comment