The Man Who 75 People Watched For an Hour

Last week, I put something out there: that I don’t think today’s social norms foster the kind of friendship that deepens us as people and as faith beings.

We started the conversation while reminiscing about the good old days when people noticed when you died.

pics of police line, police line pics, police line photos, photos of police line

The Man Who 75 People Watched For an Hour

The same year that Natalie Wood died, the police in Almeda, California received a call from a woman whose son was attempting to drown himself.

Her 53 year old son had waded into the San Francisco Bay. He was still standing there, neck deep in the 60 degree water when police and firefighters arrived to respond to the call.

In some ways, the conditions for rescue seemed ideal. The man, who community members reported was depressed and off his meds, was not submerged over his head. And he was not moving quickly. Reporters noted that he stood in the same spot, neck deep, for more than an hour.

This relatively easy scenario, unfortunately, was muddied by the fact that the emergency workers were not only uncertified in water rescue, but they were strictly forbidden from even entering the water—which was considered Coast Guard jurisdiction.  Even more unfortunately, in a strange Catch 22, since the man was standing in such shallow water, the Coast Guard could not use their boat (and their rescue helicopter was on another call).

So the firefighters, policemen, and 75 beachgoers watched as this woman’s son stepped forward into the water and drowned to death.

Eventually, an off-duty nurse in her twenties dove into the water and retrieved the body.

In the aftermath, the fire chief was asked by stunned reporters if he would’ve entered the water to save a drowning child.

He responded, “Well, if I was off duty I would know what I would do, but I think you’re asking me my on-duty response and I would have to stay within our policies and procedures because that’s what’s required by our department to do.”

Though the local policy forbidding rescue personnel from entering the water has since been reversed, no known charges of wrongdoing were filed. As with Natalie Wood, the official judgment was there was no crime.

Why So Serious?

I know. This is dramatic and sobering stuff.

Like Natalie’s story, this one has a way of jarring us to attention. And while I’m committed to moving beyond sensationalism and working more practically toward a stronger sense of community, I think it’s important to pause in the uncomfortable events a little bit longer…to further confront the mystery of how people (including ourselves) can live detached from our fellow human beings… both in unusual scenarios like these and in life’s ordinary moments.

When Rescuers Don’t Rescue

Besides, it is important to note that while these stories are exceptions, they are not one time occurrences. Many similarly confounding incidents occur each year in communities across the world.

Not long ago, for example, you may remember the headline about two firefighters who refused to assist a man having a heart attack across the street from their headquarters.

The story, recounted by his daughter after his death, tugged the heart strings of the region.

“[The firefighter] just leaned up against the fire engine with his arms folded the entire time. I can’t get that image out of my head,” she said.

Local mayor, Vincent Gray, was outraged.

“Common sense and common decency would’ve said you go to someone in distress,” said Gray. “Who in the world is going to punish someone for violating protocol but you save someone’s life in the process? I’m not buying that.”

When School Staff Don’t Intervene

Or your mind may be taken to the growing number of students who like 15-year-old Phoebe Prince have been driven to suicide by bullying. For three months, Phoebe was targeted by two boys and four girls who were eventually indicted with felony charges including statutory rape, bodily injury, harassment, stalking, and disturbing a school assembly. 

District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel stressed the teens’ conduct far exceeded the limits of normal teenage drama.  But it was not just the teens who concerned her. “The actions or inactions of some adults at the school were troublesome.” Once again, however, her findings echoed a line we’re growing used to hearing: the adults’ failure to intervene was disturbing, but did not violate any laws. 

Once again, in failing to intervene, no crime was committed.

Equally disturbing are stories like that of a young New Jersey mother who was viciously beaten by a larger woman, while her 2-year-old son tried helplessly to defend her. A group of adult strangers watched, even taking video on their cell phones, but did not call 911. When the video later surfaced, it showed multiple adults doing nothing but standing by watching as she and her toddler screamed during the brutal attack. 

‘I think it’s messed up no one came to my rescue,’ the mom said.

But while assaulting someone is a criminal act, watching while someone is being beaten is also NOT a crime.

There are many, many more stories just like these.

It leads us to ask the question (which I’ll get to in the coming weeks), Why does this happen? Why do people fail to feel enough attachment to act in the interest of another person in need?

Some would caution that in attempting to answer that, we can’t simply write off the bystanders as monsters. Lt. Kellene Davis, who was responsible for the firehouse that failed to serve the man having the heart attack, is quick to tell you she’s not a monster. She blames misunderstandings, a malfunctioning P.A. system, and lack of information for the oversight. “I feel bad because that’s not how I am,” she said.

And while police condemned the people who stood by during the attack on the young mother, it was the mother herself who cautioned against demonizing the onlookers, insisting they should not be seen as monsters.

There seems to be a sense that in complex and sometimes shocking scenarios like these, people’s awareness is sometimes clouded and they aren’t necessarily prepared or courageous enough to act on their stated values. That their sub-par responses unintentionally break from what they themselves know is best.

Ramping Back Down to Normal Life

Tensions that arise in us as we read about these emergency scenarios may give us insight into how civility and care get back-burnered by ordinary people in every day life as well. Little things are also changing as we stand by observing our culture.

Today’s infants, for example, spend much less time being held and more time in carriers, car seats, and strollers than they did in the past. Modern extended families have become much more geographically spread out as well (according to Notre Dame Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez).

Social habits like holding children less or moving away from your adult siblings is just a natural part of a changing, modern society, we note. There is no crime involved here either.

Or think about how college kids today rank about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, according to University of Michigan researchers. Have they set out to be self-asbsorbed? Probably not. They are likely acting out of impulse, or out of conditioning, or perhaps are drawing from a different set of social skills than those that went before them. Such a decrease in empathy may not foster the healthiest climate, but there’s nothing illegal or criminal going down.

Similarly, take the decreasing number of friendships people report today, according to one Cornell survey of more than 2,000 people. Forty-eight percent of participants report having only one close friend, 18 percent report having only two, and more than 4 percent didn’t list any friends at all. Did these people philosophically aim to be isolated? Did they mean to detach themselves from those around them? Of course not, It’s more likely they fell into unintended isolation due to life circumstance or perhaps that they need more developed social skills than the ones they acquired.

So how do we hold all of this? Both in the moment when extreme headlines cross our screens and in the everyday, local moments when we experience a fleeting awareness that civility and connectivity is slipping?

The legal system may not prosecute crimes in any of these cases, but that doesn’t mean increasing disconnection is okay, healthy, or even desirable.

The first step toward a more connected life experience, then, is raising our collective awareness. It’s giving ourselves permission to pause and hold onto those fleeting concerns about the pace and disconnectedness of society. To recognize they’re not just the rambling worries of the old-fashioned. They’re valid, instinctive critique of the direction our culture is moving.

What about you? Do these fleeting worries come to you? And if so, what other observations of everyday life suggest to you that social-connectedness might be slipping?


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Surround Yourself With Good People…and Their Words.

Surround Yourself With Good People

Surround Yourself With Good People…and Their Words.

While the internet can easily go south (think election time Facebook posts), there’s also–thankfully–some beautiful human beings writing thoughtful (and sometimes funny) contributions to compassion, civility, friendship, and just general well-being.

While I may not agree with everything they say, the good questions and points raised here are plentiful. Together, we imagine how the world might grow to become a better place.

What if you could just be yourself on Facebook and Instagram?

The Marshmallow Test for Grownups by Ed Batista at the Harvard Business Review:

Not only are we constantly interrupted by alerts, alarms, beeps, and buzzes that tell us some new information has arrived, we constantly interrupt ourselves to seek out new information. We pull out our phones while we’re in the middle of a conversation with someone. We check our email while we’re engaged in a complex task that requires our full concentration. We scan our feeds even though we just checked them a minute ago. There’s increasing evidence suggesting that these disruptions make it difficult to do our best work, diminish our productivity, and contribute to a feeling of overwhelm.

From What I Instagrammed Vs. What Was Really Happening OR My Entire Life Was a Lie by Olivia Muenter

Instagram, like all social media, is about presenting the ideal version of yourself. It’s notnot yourself per se. … It’s more like, all the best parts of you displayed to the world and ignoring all the worst parts. Because as attractive as I am while I watch Real Housewives of Orange County and eat random food I find in the pantry (BTW, is eating uncooked pasta bad for you?), I feel like I should spare the world of that Olivia.

What if technology isn’t all good?

How I Switched Sides In the Technology Wars by Andrew Leonard:

When I started out with Salon, I sometimes had to explain to the people I was interviewing what exactly this thing we called the Internet was before I could explain what exactly an “Internet magazine” was. Eighteen years later, that’s no longer necessary. The Internet is embedded in every facet of our existence. And a funny thing happened to me along the way. I made a slow, painful transition from cheerleader to critic. You might even say I switched sides in the tech culture wars.

We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often by John Frank Weaver:

One of the big reasons those technological advances were so hard on working and middle class workers is that we never adequately addressed them with legal changes as we did following the Industrial Revolution. But we also had much less time.

What if I still believe in Home Cooked Meals (but not the pressure to make them) no matter what this study says?

Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner by Amanda Marcotte:

The home-cooked meal has long been romanticized, from ’50s-era sitcoms to thework of star food writer Michael Pollan, who once wrote, “far from oppressing them, the work of cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention.” In recent years, the home-cooked meal has increasingly been offered up as the solution to our country’s burgeoning nutrition-related health problems of heart disease and diabetes. But while home-cooked meals are typically healthier than restaurant food, sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton from North Carolina State University argue that the stress that cooking puts on people, particularly women, may not be worth the trade-off.

What if someone confesses, to their own surprise, that they see something good in the Duggars?

The Counter-Cultural Appeal of 19 Kids and Counting by David Harsanyi:

I can recall that the shows my children grew up watching almost always featured some bratty kid with an endless supply of snappy comebacks and the ability to outwit all the hapless adults in their lives. Most reality TV I’ve run across oscillates between depravity and stupidity. 19 Kids and Counting is basically the most earnest show I’ve ever watched. And while almost any mainstream show I grew up watching saw social conservatives through a political prism—irrational and hopeless—the Duggars’ charitable spirit allows people to see the manifestation of religious ideals in real-time. Or so this apostate imagines. In any event, it’s almost impossible to not be charmed.

What if we replaced our theologians with robots?

Why Artificial Intelligence Is the Future of Religion and automation by Michael Schulson:

The robot’s biggest role may be in helping to thaw the long silence among evangelicals, and among religious groups of all kinds, on issues related to personal technology. I first noticed this silence last summer, while trying to find some kind of religious reaction to the NSA scandal. What I found instead was that, on issues of internet privacy and the growing role of personal technology in everyday life, religious groups were remarkably silent.

What if so many parents let their kids play outside that it didn’t seem strange to see them at the park?

From Stop Criminalizing Parenting by Nick Gillespie and Anthony Fisher:

“People say, ‘Now that I can get arrested any time I let my child play outside or walk to school, I won’t do it. And that’s the opposite of what Free Range Kids is about,” saysLenore Skenazy, proprietor of the blog She adds, “Free Range Kids is about getting so many kids outside, that it doesn’t seem strange to see a child playing in the park.”

What if we really got enough sleep? No, really this time.

From The Power of Sleep  by Alice Park:

When our heads hit the pillow every night, we tend to think we’re surrendering. Not just to exhaustion, though there is that. We’re also surrendering our mind, taking leave of our focus on sensory cues, like noise and smell and blinking lights. It’s as if we’re powering ourselves down like we do the electronics at our bedside–going idle for a while, only to spring back into action when the alarm blasts hours later.

What if Friends (the sitcom) would’ve listened to their early (and negative) audience reviews?

From Not Very Entertaining, Clever, or Original by Andrew Harrison:

In May 1994, four months before the first episode screened at 8.30pm (PST) on Thursday September 22, an internal NBC report described the Friends pilot as “not very entertaining, clever, or original.” Of its six characters only Monica generated much interest from the test audience but even this approval was “well below desirable levels for a lead.” The appeal of the other cast members was considered marginal or lower. Rachel the runaway bride was a scarcely believable spoiled brat; Ross the divorcé “generated little sympathy and no one cared much what happened to his character.” Though teenagers quite liked Phoebe the “airhead,” the characters of Chandler and Joey barely registered. And apparently the coffee-house setting was “confusing.”

What if no matter how many gadgets you have, you still prefer words on paper?

From Millenial Generation Likes Old Fashioned Technology: Books with NPR’s Lynn Neary:

As it turns out, the generation that has grown up in the age of technology has a fondness for a very old-fashioned habit – reading. According to a new Pew Research Center report, those under 30 were more likely to have read a book in the last year than those over the age of 30.

What if the things people say in their Facebook feeds gives you something inspiring to live up to?*

positive effects of social media, positive social media

Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 10.11.01 PM

Please feel free to email or leave links of other great stories you’ve read in the comments.

*Used with permission.
Photo Source: Girls


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Friendship as Sacrament


The Ocean Through a Funnel

Over the past five to ten years, I’ve spent hundreds of hours talking about, thinking about, and reading about subjects like community, civility, compassion, and friendship. This is a good thing. But trying to synthesize all that info into 500 or 1,000 word blog posts feels a little like trying to serve you the ocean through a straw.

Bits and Pieces?

To get off the blocks, I’ve decided to break down my own learning in different ways–sharing personal and cultural observations on Monday, for example, but then moving into research on Tuesday, and–for those interested, I’ll be sifting through faith & belief-y stuff on Wednesdays.

And my big goal for Thursdays (get ready!) is just to lay out some impactful sentences I’ve encountered in other authors’ work…and invite you to let them sit with you a while.

On With Thursday Number One!

For the first few Thursdays, I’m pulling some nifty sentences and paragraphs from a book called Sacrament as Friendship. It was written in the 1980’s by a Catholic spiritual director.

The book is an intense plunge into the idea of “spiritual friendship” for those of you who want to dive deep into the subject and don’t mind a little fanciful thinking here and there. But even for those of you who don’t want the title on your bookshelf, there’s some stuff here that is still rich and useful and I think you might love it in bits and pieces.

In Jesus, God incarnated himself in our history and in human flesh: in our mothers and in our fathers, in our brothers and in our sisters, in our children and in our friends, in the rich and in the poor, in the weak and in the strong.

We can look to some of our deepest relationships and find there a clue to the unfathomable love of God.

[God] sends us other people, friends, as sacraments of his presence, to bring us life.

There are people in our lives with whom we may spend a great deal of time–co-workers, neighbors, members of our family, etc.–but too often we do not seem to realize that we actually share life with them; that there is a sharing of the richness of persons that issues from the richness of God. When there is interpersonal union, there is a transfusion of grace, a special sharing in the very life of God. There is always something in a genuine love relationship that is larger than the relationship. It is not something we own, it owns us. That something is a share in God’s own life.

God calls us to life, to holiness and to intimacy with himself. But we never come to God in a vacuum. We enter into intimacy with God by relating body, mind, and soul to other human person’s. God’s love is operative in every experience of shared authentic human love.

So what do you think so far? Do any of these ideas from the book’s introduction describe how you have experienced God through others? Are there parts you’re cynical toward or have reservations about?


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It’s About the Us, I Tell You

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A Little Warm Up

If you walk through a bookstore (okay, or, if you click through Amazon), my books are usually tucked into categories like “Faith & Spirituality.” So when I started shifting this blog’s focus to subjects like connectedness and friendshipit could have been seen as a move away from my previous, faith-related content.

That’s true in one respect.

A topic like friendship opens this blog up to more readers, since–faith background or not–we all have a stake in the way humans relate to each other. Social bonds matter to everyone. But I should also tell you that, for me, delving into connectivity (and friendship) is a move toward one of the deepest expressions of faith I know, not a move away from it.

Faith, in my experience, is inherently social. Friendship and community, in fact, are among the life elements that most reveal God to me. 

I’m convinced that God sometimes dwells most obviously in the space between people.

So trust me when I say, although this blog’s sub-topics have shifted over time; there’s actually more of Jesus behind these words, not less.

I am going to be spending the next few Wednesdays (and probably many after that) trying to piece together how faith informs my ideas about community. It will be an imperfect and amateur process, full of lots of places for you to add expertise or push back, but it’s my hope you’ll help think through this together.

Put Your Highlighter Away

In my early twenties, before I wrote Beyond the Broken Church and Portable Faith, I was inspired by how Jesus aligned himself with people who society marginalized.

During this time, I remember I asked one of my friends–a religion prof–what themes from Scripture jumped out to him along these lines. “Oh you must mean Luke, the presenter of The Compassionate Jesus.” He responded.

And I remember I was immediately disappointed. (Lesson: You cannot please an idealistic twenty-something.)

The Gospel of Luke was a perfectly valid suggestion, of course. I was disappointed only because I sensed it was a little bit fraudulent to take a giant yellow macro-highlighter and mark out one book as THE PLACE where Jesus related to people on life’s margins.

I wanted to believe that the ties between God and the unwashed masses was there in ALL of it. That it was in all the Scriptures, tradition, logic, experience–ALL of it. In a roundabout, read-between-the-lines way, I give you this as explanation for why this post today starts in Genesis and not Luke.

Verses About Friendship, Bible Verses About Friendship, Bible Verse about friendship, Bible verse about friends, Friendship in the Bible,

“Creation of Adam and Eve” from
The Chapel of St. . Basil the Great House Co, by
Sister Johanna Reitlinger

Verses About Friendship? It’s the “Us”, I Tell You

So you, like me, probably paused the first time you read Genesis 1 verse by verse. There God is. In the beginning, Him. 

And then somewhere in the sequence of plants-and-birds-and-fish-and-rest, there appears a verse in which God casually drops this phrase into the conversation: “Let us make humankind in our image.” Yes, Us.

The narrator continues, without skipping a beat, as if what God has just said is all just a part of everyday teeth-brushing routines, and he has no idea this will spark question marks over the heads of readers for generations to come.

When God says, “Let Us…,” though, we in the modern world do a sentence double-take. Who exactly would God be joining forces with in this the-earth-is-barely-more-than-void state?

When God say “Let Us make humankind in our image?,” who could this “Us” possibly be?

Who was even around then?

And it’s not just this one verse that raises this question. There are other similar references, like,  “Behold, the man has become like one of US, knowing good and evil.” And, “Come, let US go down, and there confuse their language.” (Genesis 3:22; 11:7)

(There’s also similar phrases in Isaiah 6:8, I Kings 22:19-23, Job 15:8, and Jeremiah 23:18 if you want to fast forward a little.)

So who is this US?

While history doesn’t seem to agree on the answer, it does at least seem to agree on the question. The Hebrew verbs “make” and “go down” and “confuse” as well as the pronoun “us” are all plural. So there IS an Us, scholars agree.

But there are lots of theories about who the “us” is.

Here’s a few of the divergent theories that seek to explain this:

1. Some think the “Us” refers to other gods. Since the term used here for God is “Elohim” (a plural form of God), some have speculated God is speaking to lesser gods. They’d also say verses like Exodus 12:12, 18:11, and 20:3–which refer to God being greater than or against other little-g gods–prove that such deities existed.

Along these lines, some also suggest the writer was influenced by the Canaanite mythology of his day; that he was writing his Canaanite understanding of heavenly order into the Biblical account.

Since I imagine God is at work in history to preserve Scripture, and since most of the Old Testament purposefully contrasts Israel’s faith with belief in foreign gods, a reference to other deities doesn’t seem like the most likely explanation to me. (If people hypothetically believed a reference to other gods would’ve even been included in the first place, doesn’t it seem like someone would’ve edited it out later when they got to the Ten Commandments?)

To be fair, there are mentions of “spirits,” “hosts,” “holy ones,” and “sons of God” in the Bible though, which help explain how some readers came to think the “Us” in this scenario could be some sort of heavenly council of lesser deity or deity-like spiritual beings (1 King 22:19-21, Ps 89:5-7, Job 1:6, Nehemiah 9:6).

2. Some say the “Us” is royal language. Some people say the word ‘Us’ is a “majestic plural” in Hebrew grammar, which is sort of like saying God is using the Royal We. Or, a variation of this might be that God is thinking aloud to himself, in some sort of solo-deliberation.

3. Some say the “Us” is angels. Jewish rabbis seemed to have always held that the “Us” is angels, which is a reasonable conclusion given Genesis 3:22-24. Here God says, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil” right before he placed cherubim to seal off the Garden of Eden. It’s not too big of a leap to think he might be addressing these angels here.

We don’t have any Biblical reason to believe angels (who were created beings themselves) could create with God as Genesis 1:26 implies, but it’s not illogical to believe God could charge another being with the task of creating if he so pleased, right?

4. It’s the Trinity. There’s these other evangelical theologians, Keil and Delitzsch, who also attribute the “Us” to majestic language, but not before first acknowledging that the early church hadn’t always seen it this way.

” ‘We’ was regarded by the fathers and earlier theologians almost unanimously as indicative of the Trinity … “

And they’re right. Flip over here and you can get a sample of how many early thinkers viewed “Us” as a reference to the Trinity.

Critics of this one might say imposing a later concept like the Trinity over Genesis doesn’t make sense. After all, Luke 2 didn’t mention Christ being consciously in God’s presence before Creation. In fact, it says Jesus increased in wisdom as he aged, which seems to suggest that Jesus couldn’t be the one who knew good and evil in Genesis 1:26 (unless, when he later came to earth, he was just pretending to not know…or–more likely, in my mind–unless he was somehow surrendering that knowledge.)

Because most of us agree it is sometimes appropriate for later Biblical writers to connect the events of their time to past writings, it’s conceivable to me this unknown “Us” could be the Trinity. In theory, all the Scriptures point to same source of promise, right? I can entertain that since this same promise was somehow building through history, the same bearers of this promise (God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit) might’ve been at work in all of it–beginning to end.

Plus Jesus is referred to as a participant in creation, the one “through” whom God made the world. All things came into being through him, John 1:3 says. All things were created through him and for him, Colossians 1:16 echoes. And God spoke to us in his son, through whom he made the world according to Hebrews 1:1-2.

This doesn’t seem to paint the detailed picture of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit co-creating that some want to see, but the fact that later it is said Jesus occupies the same throne room as God (Acts 7:55, 1 Tim 5:21, Hebrews 12:22-24), it’s not an enormous stretch to think God might’ve been communing with Jesus at Creation in some mysterious way.

I add the clause “in some mysterious way” because this phrase summarizes how I hold a lot of unknowns in Scripture. Unlike a theologian whose field perhaps trains or even requires him or her to take and defend a specific position on an ambiguous portion of Scripture, I’m more likely to offer what I consider to be an educated guess or two accompanied by a “holy shrug.”

I don’t find the need, or maybe it’s better to say I don’t find it wise, (given the fact I’m a cloudy-seeing mortal, and not even a trained theologian at that) to drive it all to one clean conclusion.

For Genesis 1:26, then, I’m content to lean toward the idea that God was either talking to angels or to a being we would later relate to as Jesus.

The thing I am drawn to, in either case (or even if some other idea I’m unaware of ended up being true) is the US. No matter what explanation you favor, scholarship suggests there was an us.

That all of life began with a God in relationship, inviting other beings to move with him.

Given the context, this doesn’t seem particularly surprising. This is the same God who seemingly walked with humans in the Garden, who was grieved when the community of humans turned against each other, who marked Cain to provide him the possibility of living in community without falling victim to a revenge-killing, who instituted a covenant intended to bless all families of earth.

However you look at it, he seems to be a communal God, right? Let’s start there then…with a relational God.

Source: Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Peabody: Hendric., 1989, Vol. I, p. 62.

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Making Friends: What the Research Tells Us

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Yesterday, we talked stories–stories about how society’s norms might not be serving us well. Today, it’s onto the research.

Morale and Busywork

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I did my masters thesis on community morale, using my place of work–which employed 850+ adults–as the center of my research.

And also unsurprisingly, it bored me out of my ever-loving mind.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t appreciate the topic of course. At the time, I worked in the same building with my husband and was deeply endeared to many of my co-workers. Nearly every Friday a group of us went out together for appetizers and drinks to kick off the weekend, we even planned a few unofficial social events for the larger community (like a prom for adults in which my husband guest performed as an 80’s rock icon).

I actually cared about morale in the work place, then. But although I was always fascinated by my findings, it was the accompanying busywork and the zillions of needless formatting rules that made me want to burn each draft of my thesis (amidst an entertaining bonfire for the whole staff, while serving homemade cookies, of course).

Busywork, as it turns out, is not good for my morale.

I’m About To Do Things Differently

As a result, for my next book project, I’ve decided to return to a more qualitative kind of research like the kind that went into much of my first book, Dear Church. But even more so.

Qualitative research, as you may know, still follows clear protocol to make sure the data obtained is reliable and measurable. But it often centers on more natural data streams, like unstructured interviewing between the writer (me!) and volunteer participants.

This is right up my people-loving alley.

With these things in mind, my working idea is to interview a large sample of people about friendship–about how they form friendships and about how their attitudes and practices related to friendship have evolved. Following these interviews, I’ll sort through the combined responses for themes or patterns and use these to compose a survey about friendship…which I will give to an even larger sample of people.

The goal is to develop insights that helps us better understand how people move from stranger to acquaintance to friend…and beyond…as well as what kind of benefits result from that journey.

That means there are a lot of ways you can get involved if you so choose.

For starters, you can sign up for an informal interview (a 1-2 hour discussion in person or on Skype) where you will be asked mostly open-ended questions about friendship. Feel free to volunteer in the comments to do that. (I’ll be putting up a form eventually)

Also, you can also offer ideas for questions. Yesterday, Shelly–a commenter on this blog–suggested it might be interesting to look at how the region where we live (the Midwest vs. the Deep South, for example) shape the way we interact. Is there something you wonder about friendship that might work itself into my interviews? Feel free to add that to the comments too.

On Tuesdays, I’ll be sharing ideas and updates related to this research.

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I Miss the Good Old Days When People Noticed If You Died

Yesterday, via school supply laments and general soap-boxing, I suggested today’s social norms might not always serve us well.  Connecting with other human beings, I am convinced, holds potential that often goes untouched in our culture–potential to deepen us as people and to deepen our faith.

Today, we begin that discussion with a story that has stuck with me for years.

Woman found mummified in car, woman found mummified, mummified woman found

Seventy Years in the Same Neighborhood

In July of 2011, an older woman reported to Sydney police that she could not reach Natalie Wood, an 86-year-old resident who lived alone.

Officials followed up with a courtesy call to the quaint, two-story flat where the elderly Natalie resided. It wasn’t hard to find. Natalie, after all, had lived in the same house for more than seven decades.

Woman found mummified in car, woman found mummified, mummified woman foundShe had moved there as a child in the 1920’s and lived elsewhere only during a brief, failed marriage to a young soldier. After her marriage broke apart, Natalie returned home and cared for her father Herbert—a local boot repairer—until he eventually succumbed to chronic kidney disease.  She then took on work as a machinist to help support her mother, Phyllis. And after both parents passed away, she continued on in her lifelong home.

Such longevity was unique, but it wasn’t unheard of in this Sydney neighborhood. 62 year old neighbor Lorraine South, for example, had lived next door to Natalie for 23 years, describing Natalie as a “nice, ordinary old lady” who was private, but who waved when she saw her.

Woman found mummified in car, woman found mummified, mummified woman found

The Woman the World Forgot

But for someone who had been rooted in the same community for an entire human lifespan, there was surprisingly little evidence of Natalie as policemen arrived on her doorstep.  There was no mail in the box, no TV running in the background, no lights on. So when no one responded to their knocks, the officers decided to force their way inside to check on the elderly resident.

Once through the door, they found a fully furnished home with no signs of foul play.

It wasn’t until they reached the second floor that the policemen determined exactly why Natalie Wood had been unreachable. In the bedroom, they found her fully decomposed skeleton that had been laying on the floor awaiting discovery…for eight years.

Eight years.

The amount of time her body had been there, of course, wasn’t immediately known until the police completed their investigation.

Woman found mummified in car, woman found mummified, mummified woman found

How Someone Slipped Off the Neighborhood Radar

As officials delved into Natalie’s past, they uncovered a trail of sad but simple facts. Natalie’s last remaining relative, an in-law who was also elderly, hadn’t seen her since they shared a meal of boiled vegetables and meat back in 2003. Neighbors, who hadn’t noticed anything particularly suspicious around Natalie’s property, assumed the elderly lady had not lived there in years.

A long time back, the utility company had shut off power to the house when the bills went unpaid. And government agencies had continued to send Natalie her social security checks, even though the money hadn’t been withdrawn in years.

Was There a Crime?

As Natalie’s story began to leak out into the Sydney community, police superintendent Zoran Dzevlan announced the findings of their investigation. Natalie Wood, the police concluded, passed away from natural causes approximately eight years before being found.

They found no evidence of any crime.

The police department’s findings were valid of course. There was no one to prosecute for Natalie Wood’s unfortunate circumstances. There was no malice. No intent to harm. No wrong doing…at least legally speaking.

Yet for thousands of people around the world who read and commented on news coverage about Natalie Wood’s death, there was a crime. Not the kind of crime suspects are handcuffed and jailed for, but a more subtle and slow-building one.

A crime of forgetting.
A crime of isolation.
A perhaps unintentional assault on the way life should be.

Despite the official findings which cleared all parties of guilt, Sydney’s Police Minister Mike Gallacher seemed to agree with the public outcry. “It’s shameful that an elderly woman has been dead for eight years before anyone realized.” He said. “[This death] really does highlight the need for this state and indeed our community to work closer at building relationships with our community.”

Andrew Eales, columnist with Australia’s the Courier took it a step further:

“While there has been the understandable witchhunt …to find the persons or authorities ‘responsible’ for failing to discover Ms. Wood, this should not be our primary concern. Of greater worry is how as our nation develops, as people work longer and harder, as the population moves and as we become more and more reliant on electronic communication that we are losing the sense of everything that our nation is built on.”

Woman found mummified in car, woman found mummified, mummified woman found

Why Focus On This Event?

It’s important to note that this phenomena–of communities going years without noticing their dead–isn’t limited to Sydney. Google “dead man or woman discovered years later” (everyone googles that, don’t they?) and you’ll turn up dozens of recent American headlines (here’s one from my home state); even link-bait lists of people around the globe who met similar lonely ends.

While certainly these cases are still exceptions and not the norm, I chose to begin with the story of Natalie Wood because this off-beat tale of detachment grabs our attention; it creates an internal rub. The thought of an elderly woman lying there, possibly in need of help for days, offends the fibers of our conscience.

Our souls beat out a moral code: this is not the way it should be.

Stories punctuated by real, relateable human beings jar our emotions.

They require us to care.

And they push us to re-examine ourselves…probably more than we would if I had started with snapshots of ordinary, everyday life represented by statistics like these:

  • A 2008 study conducted by Liberty Mutual found that 85% of Americans feel less connected to their neighbors than Americans did 20 years ago.
  • Another study commissioned by State Farm Insurance found that 75 percent of us don’t even know our neighbors’ names.
  • Robert Putnam author of Bowling Alone, concluded today’s citizens are less invested in our communities than previous generations–less church attendance, less voting, more mobile, with more technology competing for our attention. And compared to 30 years ago, 50% more people say they “always feel rushed.”
  • A study by Duke University showed that today, Americans have 1/3rd less people in their lives who they can discuss important matters with than Americans had even 20 years ago. 25% of people, in fact, claimed they didn’t have a single person to discuss important matters with.


Numbers like these–valid as they may be–are much easier to push through without much pause, don’t you think? We scan them, shake our heads disapprovingly, and mumble about the direction society is headed to whoever is within earshot. But it is hard to feel data; to connect abstract facts and figures to our everyday weed-picking, laundry-folding, meeting-attending realities.

And so this awareness that society is losing something significant comes to us quickly, and then leaves just as quickly as it arrived. Later, when we encounter other abrasive stories about the breakdown of community, we know our concerns will return to us…probably again and again…but they will continue to leave just as quickly.

We have to get on, you know. Get on with the business of living.

In the mix of everything else swirling around us, the truth is: we know something is wrong, but we’re probably not sure we have the time or the bandwidth to care.

We’ll continue this conversation thread next Monday, but until then, I’d love to start the conversation here: What kinds of things, big or small, cause you to question whether our culture is losing connectedness?

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The Good Old Days: When Did Back to School Get So Complicated


Back to School 1970 Good Old Days

Recently, blogger Victoria Fedden wrote an entertaining post comparing the Back-To-School rituals of the 70’s to today’s yearly retail pilgrimages.

The Seventies Knew What They Were Doing

In the Seventies, she reminisced, moms descended on their one local Sears store, pragmatically picked out one pair of corduroys and a t-shirt for each kid, and made Bologna sandwich lunches, assembly-line-style, on a Formica counter-top.

The school supply list, she fondly remembers, involved a few composition notebooks and a pack of No. 2 pencils. Simple.

What's Wrong With the World Society Back to School

The Mess We’re In Now

Then Victoria moves to today, speaking with a little more tongue in cheek. Moms rack up thousands in credit card debt acquiring whole new Back-To-School wardrobes, she says. They custom-order monogrammed backpacks made from all natural materials and carefully dice organic, gluten-free lunches into Bento boxes.

Not to mention school supplies have monsooned into a 3-page list including everything from electron microcscopes to apps for their school-assigned tablets.

She’s right, I think to myself as I red-wobbly-cart my way through Target, checking off supplies that go well beyond my kindergartener’s pencil box: Kleenex, wipes, hand sanitizer, packages of stickers, I could go on…

We Can Relate, Ay?

And this, of course, is why the Back-To-School post went over so well. Because as they absorbed her words, every parent who read them felt the wit and tension ring true inside them.

Some things have gotten laughably complicated. Didn’t things used to be simpler?

And underlying that musing, a related question is implied: Didn’t some things used to be BETTER?

The subtle, sometimes fleeting worry goes far beyond school supplies. Life–how we shop, how we live, how we raise our kids, how we relate to neighbors, ALL OF IT–has changed.

It is still changing. It will always be changing.

Which raises the question: As the world evolves, how do we make sure we’re not losing anything important?

The Good Old Days Back to School

My Blogging Drawing Board

If you’ve read About My Blog, you know how easily I get HUNG UP on this topic, especially when it comes to changing social norms (friendships, relationships, community behavior):


Maybe it’s the rise of big box stores or the loss of front porch America. Maybe it’s the slow-extinction of elevator small talk as people ritually check their phones between floors.

Life seems so rushed; so riddled with opportunities for multi-tasking. We can’t even enjoy a good stoplight, what with all those emails screaming to be answered.

Connectedness is slipping through our texting, tweeting fingers.

But even though we’re perhaps proudly efficient and oh-so-happily chained to our gadgets, we’re secretly not 100% comfortable with how things are changing.

We have a sneaking suspicion that we were intended to experience life more slowly… to take the time to love bigger, to cherish the people around us, to relate to others more deeply.

We’re afraid we’re missing something.

Friendship The Good Old Days

A Little Swept Away

Even though we are adult people, bona fide voters, with our corresponding soapboxes, even the most assertive among us sometimes still feel a little bit swept away by the pace of this culture.

We do our best to hodge-podge together our own version of sanity and happiness as society evolves, even if sometimes we feel–deep down–that our raft will still be pulled wherever the cultural currents takes us. 

I don’t know about you, but on my smartest and most well days, I see the faulty logic in this sort of subconscious social surrender. I refuse to believe God has destined us to be distracted, disconnected floaters in a culture that sweeps us away from civility and connectedness. 

Something inside me insists that humans are designed for good, sweet, fully-alive experiences–like noticing the people around us, looking them in the eyes, and experiencing faith and gratitude with them. That we are spiritually wired for companionship; to feel, to reach toward others, to grab on, to slip, to fall short, and to reach again.

I tell you, friends: No matter how the world evolves, this will still be true.

Over the past few years, I’ve become a bit of a relationship enthusiast. I’m not a prodigy–one of those life-of-the-party, lampshade-on-the-head, animated-story-tellers–who naturally attracts crowds to her side. But I’ve learned enough while immersing myself in the subject, and while trying to live well by others, that I’ve become convinced we can do relationships better.

And that faith should take us deeper into the experience of friendship…and show us more of God.

So I don’t know what kind of PTO protest you should stage about the ten-mile long school supply list. [[Read Victoria's killer Back-To-School post here.]] But if a few of us pull together, if we invest in faith and friendship, if we love our Samaritan neighbor, and take care of the tribes around us, it stands to reason that our world (the one that God SO loves) will be better loved too.

I’m going to spend the next few Mondays *and probably the next few after that* grappling with today’s social norms and thinking about the way friendship can deepen both our daily experience and our faith. This also takes me in the direction of blogging about what is uniquely me, at the stuff that burns hot at the center of who I am…which seems like a logical way to go on one’s blog, ay?

What do you say? Do any of these concerns appear on your radar? Would you be interested in thinking about this with me? Feel free to leave your comments below.

Photo sources: SeventiesBusiPhone, Friendship


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Thank God That Is Happening In #Ferguson and Not Here

#Ferguson Ferguson, Missouri 2014

Noticing #Ferguson

It’s so profoundly important that we, living elsewhere in the U.S., don’t squelch the concern in our souls by saying, “Thank God that is happening in Ferguson, Missouri and not here.”

Don’t you agree it is tragically easy–in the jumble of to-do lists, multi-tasking, and smart phone notifications–to dismiss what is happening in Ferguson as just another CNN ticker tape at the bottom of our TV screen or just another link on the margins of our internet browser? To remove ourselves from a story that’s not centered in our own community, to go on with our weeding of the garden or picking up of the dry cleaning with a scary kind of casual-ness?

Sometimes I have to take a minute and focus. To intentionally pause and listen and humanize these strangers caught up in the headlines. To struggle with our neighbors in Ferguson, to face the grief and loss of real people each uniquely loved by their parents, siblings, and friends…people I might enjoy as friends if we found ourselves clumped into the same corner of life together.

If we allow geographical distance to detach ourselves from their journey; if we choose to avert our eyes and remain silent, we will only be subtly inviting these tragedies to continue to happen…and making room for the next injustice to explode into our own communities.

Please take a second with me to focus your care today, to read the stories coming out of Ferguson, to join me in conversations with our children, to speak out against racist commentary in our local dialogues, and to find whatever natural ways are available to us to put a stake in the ground for justice. What do you say? Will you join me in doubling down mentally–in raising our attentiveness–so that we do not risk becoming people whose nobility and compassion get drowned out by small enemies like busyness and comfortable distractions?

How much more good might happen if we, even us on the other side of the country, transferred the people of #Ferguson from the sidebars and ticker tape at the bottom of our lives and onto the screens of our awareness?

(Picture from my friend, our best man, and PICO community organizer, Wes Lathrop.)

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