"Practice Ambivalence" - Life Direction with Amy Poehler

Having made several major life and work transitions in recent years and now working with young adults in that oh-so-fun time of figuring out the future, I often find myself thinking about helpful ways to approach our future as individuals.

A common attitude that guides many is summed up in phrases like, “The world is at your fingertips.” Or, “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want.” Essentially, we tell ourselves that if we make just the right choices at just the right times, life will work out perfectly and all will be well. Success, when it comes to down to it, is all about determination. Hard work wins.

Christians, while committed in belief to trust God in all things, including life direction, in practice often twist the comfort, “Do not worry,” into a motivational warning that if we don’t get our act together and make good choices, we’ll be left unhappy. “Blessed are the determined” is our paraphrase of the beatitude, “Blessed are those who persevere.” All the while we neglect the two simple words that are about facing difficulty (“under trial”), not determining to avoid it. When it comes to life direction, we risk believing determination can help us avoid any hardship. Let's be honest; this just isn't true.

Celebrities always have good advice in areas of life direction, right? Okay, maybe not. But I’ve been reading Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and was struck by her overall transparency in telling her story, and in particular, some wisdom she’s learned on her road to success:

“Too often we are told to visualize what we want and cut out pictures of it and repeat it like a mantra over and over again. Books and magazines tell us to create vision boards. Late-night commercials remind us that ‘anything is possible.’” Positive affirmations are written on our tea bags. I am introducing a new idea. Try to care less. Practice ambivalence. Learn to let go of wanting it…

Ambivalence is key.

You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look....

You will never climb Career Mountain and get to the top and shout, “I made it!” You will rarely feel done or complete or even successful. Most people I know struggle with that complicated soup of feeling slighted on one hand and like a total fraud on the other. Our ego is a monster that loves to sit at the head of the table, and I have learned that my ego is just as rude and loud and hungry as everyone’s else’s. It doesn’t matter how much you get; you are left wanting more” (Amy Poehler, Yes Please,  222-225).

As I continue to process my own life transitions, goals, hopes and dreams, as well as support and encourage others in doing the same, Poehler’s reflection is timely. Life isn’t a formula. Hard work doesn’t always win. To practice ambivalence, on the contrary, suggests a posture of openness and reliance on others, that while uncomfortable and unpredictable at times, allows us to let go of our striving and live into a healthy sense of self both today and for the future.

Beyond a Fear of Difference

A significant part of my work with young adults is encouraging them to pay attention to the world around us. And then as Christians in particular, to notice and reflect on the ways in which our lives as followers of Jesus relate to this world we participate in.

Inevitably, as most committed Christians will encounter, we bump up against topics that create angst or uncertainty.Whether it's approaches to injustice that involve troubling forms of violence, or exorbitant amounts of money spent on seemingly trivial matters, or the presence of vastly differing beliefs around issues of personal morality, much in the world creates tension for the follower of Jesus, let alone a young adult in general. And really, it should (the whole New Testament is about navigating such tension after all).

But how Christians respond to the differences of our world is no simple matter. And this isn't just an issue Christians face. Society in general, for all our talk about tolerance, struggles to exist in the presence of difference. Judgementalism, violence, exclusion, and alienation are just a few of the symptoms of a cultural problem many people, Christians included, cannot seem to shake: a fear of difference. Whether it's Christians ignoring God's call, or humanity ignoring the call for tolerance in general, we end up like Jonah in the Old Testament. We see "them" and we self-righteously run the other way. We accept a posture of fear and ignore the very thing our world needs: presence.

It's often assumed by both Christians and non-Christians that the Bible is one long narrative (or rule book) about not getting too close to "them." And yes, there are warnings - e.g. intermarrying in ancient times or adopting pagan rituals in Roman times - but we risk equating these warnings with a complete disengagement and lack of presence with those who are different. We forget where Jonah's fear got him.

A fear of difference wasn't the way of Jesus. He was known as a friend of sinners for a reason - he was actually their friend. Literally. We hear the word "pagan" or encounter people who are different and feel discomfort or even fear towards "them." Perhaps we even feel justified in our judgment and avoidance, forgetting all the while that the label "pagan" is preceded by the encouragement to "live such good lives among the pagans" (1 Pt. 2:12). Among=presence.

The tension between the way of Jesus and the way of world cannot be easily navigated or reconciled, I'll admit. But fear cannot be our response to difference either. Like Jonah, we are sent into the places of difference to be a presence - friends - with those we differ from. And like Jonah, we cannot refuse this call. This is the way of Jesus. This is the way we are sent beyond a fear of difference:

I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. (John 17:14-18 NIV).

"Fierce urgency of now"

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States.

A group of us at the college watched his famous "I Have A Dream" speech over lunch and I was struck by the ongoing relevance of his message as I pondered conflict, violence, oppression, and various forms of segregation still prevalent around the world.

We still live in a world where there is a "fierce urgency of now." Let's not stop dreaming.