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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 21, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Crisp Cookies, Sabbath, Triple Package

I never heard of Moravian cookies until I passed my first Christmas season in Greensboro. However widespread the fame of those thin, crisp cookies might have been, it had not penetrated to any of the places I had lived.

Now, however, I have found that same thin, crisp Moravian cookie style in a chocolate chip cookie. The big baking corporations seem to try for bigger, thicker, softer cookies, and I agreed with that quest, since my own chocolate chip cookies are at their best soft and slightly undercooked.

But Salem Baking Co. of Winston-Salem went the opposite direction, with delicious results. "The Art of Moravian Baking," proclaims the package, and inside are fourteen perfectly thin, crisp, and subtly flavored chocolate chip cookies.

Will they make me forsake the thicker, chewier cookies I've enjoyed all my life? Not possible. But as an alternative that I did not have to bake myself, they will do very nicely.

*

When we moved to Greensboro, this was still a sabbath-keeping town. Of course, it was observed on Sunday, the Christian sabbath. But in those days when most of the big chains were not yet established here, most stores and businesses shut down on Sundays.

Only one drugstore was open, to meet emergency needs; the rest closed up on the sabbath.

But those days are over. It wasn't long before Fleet-Plummer Hardware left Friendly Center because the shopping center management demanded that all stores open on Sunday, and the owners of Fleet-Plummer wouldn't do it.

I made it a point to shop at Fleet-Plummer from then on, even as they converted from hardware to a fireplace/outdoor furniture/knick-knack store. I never quite lost that sense of solidarity in a cause, as long as that never-on-Sunday policy remained in place.

It's a losing battle, though. A good friend of mine, who owned several convenience stores, explained it like this:

"So a potential customer goes looking to make a purchase on Sunday, and when he comes to my store, he finds that it's closed.

"He's not going to think, Good for them, keeping Sunday as a holy day! He's going to think, I can't rely on this store being open when I need it.

"So the next time he needs a convenience store, I'm probably open -- but he won't know that, because he'll go to the store he found open for him on Sunday."

That's the economic reality. Store owners are free to keep the sabbath, and to allow their employees to do the same. But the price they pay in lost business and lost customers is too high for most of them.

The result is that while I'm part of a sabbath-keeping church, many of our members are forced to choose between keeping their jobs and keeping the sabbath. Supporting one's family is a high priority, and nobody criticizes those church members who have to work that Sunday shift.

That's why so-called "blue laws" were so helpful. When the local government required most businesses (those providing non-essential goods and services) to close on Sundays, the playing field was even. Nobody could gain an economic advantage by doing business on Sunday.

But those laws dated from a time when the overwhelming majority of people in Greensboro considered themselves to be Christian, and the sabbath was taken seriously.

Nowadays the whole world keeps the seven-day week, or at least has to stay aware of it. It wasn't always that way. The Romans divided the month into calends and ides, with about fifteen days between.

But the seven-day week makes a lot of sense. Unlike months, which vary in length in order to keep them matched up with the year, unvarying seven-day weeks come only one day short of matching the 365-day year.

Calends and ides were reflected in the schedule of local fairs and market days; now, when every day is a fair or a market, if we want it to be, we still keep that seven-day week as if weekends were a natural right.

The seven-day week spread with Christianity, yet now that Christians are no longer dominant in the West, and are savagely persecuted in many places, the week continues to thrive. After all, the labor movement had to work too hard to get Saturdays off and create the two-day weekend for anyone to willingly surrender it now.

Yet all those workers needed something to do on Sunday. When they were no longer required -- by law or custom or convention -- to spend the day in church, what were they supposed to do except go somewhere and spend money?

And in order to do that, somebody had to be working in order to sell them stuff.

Under that system, one person's weekend is somebody else's required workday.

Nowadays in the West there are far more people professing other religions, or no religion at all, and the attitude among most Christians seems to be that the sabbath ends when they walk out of church services.

When we told the parents of our children's friends that our kids couldn't go to a Sunday birthday party because the planned activities were not appropriate for the way we keep the sabbath, they were baffled.

"But ... it's in the afternoon," they explained, as if we hadn't read the invitation correctly.

"Still Sunday," we'd reply, "and for us, that means it's still the sabbath. Till we go to bed and then get up on Monday morning."

Outside our own religion, few are the Christian sabbath-keepers we meet anymore. Most of the people we know who still keep the sabbath strictly are Jews who keep the original Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and Seventh-Day Adventists, who would have to rename themselves if they stopped keeping the sabbath on Saturdays.

Now, please don't imagine that I'm advocating any attempt to return to those old Sunday-closing laws. That was another time, and any such attempt would doubtless be sued into oblivion by people who felt someone else's religion was being rammed down their throats.

But recently I ran across a book that encourages personal and family sabbath observance -- for all the old reasons, and for some powerful new ones as well.

Sabbath As Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, by Walter Brueggemann, is a slender book, and because his points are so simple and clear, there's a bit of repetition.

He makes the traditional religious case for sabbath-keeping, pointing out that throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites used sabbath-keeping as the marker of a righteous people.

But his greatest eloquence is in his critique of the Culture of Now: The sense of urgent competition to get every advantage we can get. We never have enough, which is why it's almost unbearable to take one day off out of seven.

There are things we don't own; how can we bear to have a day in which we refuse to buy those things? Everything must be new and improved. Old possessions are inadequate and incomplete.

It's a culture of squandering: We overproduce, overuse, overspend. We generate astonishing piles of waste -- yet are not willing to invest 24 hours out of every 168 in stopping the race toward nothing long enough to think, reflect, read, worship, bond with friends and family ... to rest.

How many Christians see their devotion to watching professional sports on Sunday as sabbath-breaking? There'd be no game to watch if the players weren't required to earn their living by laboring on the day of rest.

But even if you're not a believer, the benefit of taking Sunday as a true day of rest is undeniable. If your values are not utterly competitive or materialistic, Brueggemann's picture of a sabbath-keeping life is attractive.

It's a weekly retirement from your career. You can find out who you are without your job getting in the way, without your purchasing and competing distracting you from who you are rather than what you've won.

It's a different kind of economy he's talking about. Six days, we labor and buy and compete, which keeps the market economy moving forward. But then, for a day, we take part in an "economy of neighborliness." We rediscover who we are.

One of the things we love about Greensboro is that it's still largely a town of church-going people. When we dress in our Sunday clothes and drive to church, there are plenty of people going to other churches, and though we won't see most of them in our meetinghouse, we know that they'll be gathered, like us, in congregations giving thanks and praise to God.

And I don't begrudge them the choice to go home after church, change into street clothes, and spend the rest of the day as a second Saturday.

As for me and my house, as far as possible we avoid Sunday commerce and activities that are too strenuous for us to feel that they're sabbath-appropriate. We make our own list of what may or may not be appropriate, but one of the guiding principles is this: Will we be rewarding someone for requiring employees to work on Sunday? If the answer is yes, and the activity isn't a genuine emergency, we don't do it.

But our boundaries were getting more and more relaxed. Brueggemann's Sabbath As Resistance was a good reminder to get back to a more faithful treatment of the day we consider to belong to God. We reap the benefits of that day of rest, and I mention the book to you, because you may be attracted to the notion, and wish to restore a full sabbath day to your life.

I never thought I'd regard sabbath-keeping as a revolutionary act. As subversion of an eroding culture. But now that I've read Sabbath As Resistance, I no longer feel any need to apologize for inconveniencing other people by my sabbath rules.

It's the most peaceful revolution you can take part in. Yet it can reshape your life, all for the better.

*

America is a nation obsessed with "success." This can be defined in so many ways.

In most ages of the world, for most people, "success" is the evolutionary minimum: You live long enough to have children, and if you're very fortunate, to see your children have children in turn.

But the modern nation of America was founded by English immigrants, who from the beginning defined success in different ways. The Puritans sought to discover whether they were chosen by God, and worked hard to demonstrate to themselves and others the outward prosperity that would mark God's favor.

Over time, though, this became a relentless pursuit of personal improvement. Nothing is ever quite good enough as it is -- it must be added to, built upon, improved, perfected. Possessions, family, career, reputation -- if you are not always growing, rising, perfecting, then you are failing.

These Yankees became merchants and traders, ranging far and wide to improve their fortune; or they became the ministers and professors of the new nation, teaching others how to become wiser and better ... however that might be defined.

The Scotch-Irish tradition was closer to the root of human life. The goal wasn't wealth in itself. It was enough to have land of your own, enough to support your children and keep yourself into old age.

But you had to have land -- space for your own house and farm, and for your children to farm. If your neighbors crowded in on you, it reduced your chance to expand, to put more land under cultivation.

So these became the overland pioneers, searching, as Daniel Boone put it, for "elbow room." They settled the isolated mountain glens of the Appalachians; they kept encroaching on Indian lands; they cut down trees and tore up sod. The goal was ownership and independence.

Another group were the would-be lords of the plantation system. They aspired, not to be saints or freeholders, but to be gentlemen -- living by the labor of others, engaging in no trade but mastery and lawmaking.

Naturally, none of these groups was monolithic -- but all three versions of success persisted nearly to the present day. I grew up keenly aware of "the American Dream" as being the Scotch-Irish one: To be independent, out of debt, beholden to no one, able to stand on one's own two feet.

But the others were also clearly visible -- the relentless effort to rise in status, to reach ever higher goals, or to achieve mastery and control over others.

Recently, as reported in the book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld sorted through many studies to find what traits lead certain groups in America to "succeed" out of all proportion to their numbers.

Some are obvious to everyone -- we all know that Jews tend to become highly educated professionals; that Chinese, Japanese, and Korean immigrants are hyper-achievers, especially in math and computers.

These things are so well-known they have become "racial stereotypes."

But in The Triple Package, Chua and Rubenfeld identified a lot of other groups who succeeded by measures like "income, occupational status, test scores." Who knew that Nigerian immigrants earn way more doctorates than other groups? South Asian Indians are right up there with Chinese-Americans, with far higher incomes than other groups.

Of course, what piqued my interest is my own group, Mormons, who are among the "most successful" groups identified in The Triple Package. Ours is the only group that is not based on national origin or parentage alone. As a proselytizing church, we keep adding to our numbers -- including plenty of people who continue to belong to the other groups!

So how does a religious group that is constantly expanding its membership in every group manage to become as successful as a high-achieving ethnic group.

Chua and Rubenfeld identify three attributes that these high-success groups all seem to possess: A superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control.

The idea is that all these people come from, and continue to live within, a culture that instills these virtues.

I'm not so sure. "Superiority complex" is an odd term for "having high expectations." Indeed, one can easily make a case that America, as a nation, has a superiority complex. Maybe it's really just a belief that you can succeed and therefore should succeed.

"Insecurity" is a constant awareness that you might easily lose anything or everything you have. Immigrants tend to be people who were willing to take enormous risks -- to throw the dice, move to a new country, and then make it work.

Nobody knows that lesson as well as Jews -- people keep reinventing anti-semitism and labor to take away whatever Jews have built for themselves. Look at how many Americans today are eager to believe the anti-Jewish propaganda surrounding Israel, believing insane accusations that Israel is committing genocide -- even though it's their enemies who are sworn to kill all of them.

Jews live in the constant awareness that everything can be taken away in an instant.

Cuban-Americans are largely descendants of people who lost everything as they fled the totalitarian dictatorship of Castro, which systematically persecuted high achievers.

Nigerians fled a country where prosperity comes from taking part in a corrupt system; it's no surprise that those who come here are the ones who reject corruption and prefer to compete in a meritocracy.

Mormons are on this list by default. Life in a Mormon congregation requires a life of self-discipline and participation in a religious community where every member is a minister with weekly or monthly assignments to fulfil. If you don't live by the rules, and you don't faithfully perform your duties, you begin to feel like an outsider and drift away.

So when they take part in surveys, the people who call themselves Mormons are those who choose to live by rules that require impulse control, and to take on and fulfil highly demanding yet unpaid assignments.

Since these are precisely the traits that allow you to become valued employees and managers, and that help you succeed as a professional or an entrepreneur, it's no surprise that those who call themselves Mormons are likely to also be "successful."

Here's the thing you have to keep in mind. Not every member of these select groups is "successful," and there is no guarantee that these three traits will make you happy.

In fact, the constant pursuit of "success," by way of high expectations, insecurity, and impulse control, is a recipe for incredible amounts of stress -- not to mention deep depression and misery when you don't "succeed."

So as I read The Triple Package, I had to keep reminding myself that what they call "success" is actually a pretty lousy measure of anything I'd call "the good life." In fact, the most successful Mormons I know are those who don't believe in the standards of "success" identified by the authors of The Triple Package.

Or, I should say, who don't continue to believe in them. There's a point when they step off the "success" train and make the choices that will make them and their children happier -- having a close family, spending time enjoying life instead of endlessly putting off happiness until they've "arrived."

Because when it comes to "success," the great cheat is that it's like an arcade game -- you never arrive, you never win. The game just keeps getting harder and harder until you die. (In the arcade, you then put in another quarter and play again. We don't get enough quarters in real life.)

Happy people are the ones who recognize that you can't win the game, and even if you do, the price has usually been too high. If "success" is measured in competitive terms, then no matter how much you achieve, there's always somebody who has done better or achieved more.

In other words, you always lose. I've known good people to be miserable all the time because they're not good enough.

Happiness comes from knowing when to say when. It comes from deriving your identity from something more under your control than money or status conferred by outside agencies.

Happy people, in my experience, are the ones who turn outward, who stop concentrating on achieving impossible standards of perfection, who don't want to gain mastery over other people, who know how to live comfortably within their means, who aren't trying to rise higher and higher, reaching for goals that move away as quickly as you approach.

And it's the outward-turning people, the ones who devote themselves to helping others achieve enough, who are most resilient when, in the ordinary course of life, bad things happen.

You lose your health; you're damaged in an accident; loved ones die or become ill; you get laid off in a bad economy; you lose status because of unfair criticism or outright lies. Those things can happen to people who have done everything right.

If you measure "success" by the standards used by the authors of The Triple Package, such personal downturns can be devastating. You can feel like a failure and become miserable as you contemplate other, less-deserving people who haven't been touched by such misfortune.

But the outward-living person adapts to new circumstances, and, in the midst of disappointment or grief, can still reach out and help others. The things they cared most about, they can still do; they things they lost were good, but losing them doesn't make such people miserable forever.

The Triple Package is actually a good, thoughtful book. The standards of "success" that they used were chosen in large part because they're independent measures. They can be reduced to labels and numbers.

"Happiness," on the other hand, is a completely personal measurement. Good people are often reluctant to call themselves "happy," and not just in a knock-on-wood, don't-tempt-fate way. Happy people are often not all that aware of their own happiness, because they don't spend their lives contemplating themselves.

Yet that "Triple Package" -- high expectations, insecurity, and impulse control -- might be desirable traits even if you don't measure success by the standards of money or status.

"Impulse control" means you can keep yourself from getting distracted by temporary pleasures or fears. Just because you want a drink (or an item in a store, or a nap, or an affair) doesn't mean you're going to have one.

Lack of self-control is a recipe for a miserable, ruined life for yourself and everyone who loves you. So impulse control is part of a recipe for happiness as well as "success."

Insecurity can mean that you're aware that no matter how much good you do, there's always more that needs doing. But insecurity as a fear that no matter how well you do, somebody or something can take it all away from you, can make you miserable. Fortunately, if you measure your happiness by the good you've done for other people, there's nothing to be insecure about.

The things you've given away, the service you've performed, the consolation and encouragement you've given -- you can't lose those things. You can't be laid off from a career of kindness and decency, because you can continue it wherever you are.

As for high expectations -- well, it depends on what you expect. If you expect yourself to always be the best at everything you do, then you're going to fail. But if you expect yourself to do good to others -- even those that haven't been good to you -- well, that's a standard you can meet, and since it's noncompetitive, other people's kindness and generosity don't diminish your own achievements.

I'm glad I read and thought about The Triple Package. It helped break down large groups into smaller cultural groups that get different results.

It helps you realize that you don't have to wait for your whole ethnic group to get high expectations, a desire to keep striving, and self-discipline -- you can work on those things yourself and help your family do the same.

You can create a mini-tribe of people with the Triple Package virtues.

And as long as your goal is happiness -- rather than to get rich or boss people around or become famous -- there's no reason you can't succeed, regardless of the culture you grew up in.


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