And Happy New Year! It’s not too late to say that, right? Especially since I’m just now showing up in your inbox for the first time in 2022. I had fully intended to send out the year’s first Wonder Report last Friday, but a sick child, post holiday distraction, and the side effects of a shingles vaccine kept me from it. Isn’t it hard to be a human right now?
In fact, that’s where we’re going to start with this new season of The Wonder Report, with the human struggle. I’ll go first …
1. Being More or Less Human
On Wednesday, I got a call that the February doctor’s appointment I’d been waiting for since early October had to be changed because the doctor was now going to be out that day. Since the appointment was still a month away, I assumed the change wasn’t due to an illness. Very likely the doctor simply needed to make an appointment of her own or maybe just needed a day off. Fair enough. But when I called to reschedule, the associate on the other end of the line told me that I’d need to wait an additional two months before seeing the doctor.
“But I’ve been waiting since September,” I said, not intentionally bending the truth but just forgetting how long it had really been. “Is there nothing sooner?” And just like that, she found an appointment a whole month earlier.
To be clear, I didn’t raise my voice, didn’t use inappropriate language, and didn’t make loud huffing noises to express my disappointment or attempt to intimidate her. But I did raise a simple protest that resulted in getting what I wanted. With a busy doctor who suddenly needs a day off, I can imagine this same associate had several of these phone calls that day, with limited availability of appointments to offer. It’s possible she’d been yelled at or called terrible names already that morning. Unfortunately, those kinds of confrontations are just par for the course these days. And with the potential for such bad behavior, she may have intentionally set aside a few “better” appointments as a way to appease angry customers.
I wouldn’t call myself angry, and I have no idea if this was actually her strategy. But however it went down that day, I hung up the phone feeling satisfied that I now have to wait an additional month for an appointment I really need. As I reflected back on that entire conversation, I realized just how hard it is to be a human right now.
We’re used to going out in public with our actual faces showing. We’re used to going to work even when we’re sick—because how else are we going to get everything done? We’re used to our kids going to school. Every day. And staying all day. We’re used to going to restaurants and being served promptly. We’re used to showing up at grocery stores with fully stocked shelves. We’re used to the mail being delivered on time. We’re used to our paychecks stretching a certain amount. We’re used to getting our way. That’s what it means to be human.
Or at least that’s the line we’ve been sold for years. Remember the Burger King marketing campaign back in the 90s: “Your way right away”? It was actually just a play on, “Have it your way,” a slogan they’d been using since the 70s. The implication was that whatever the customer wanted they could have, and promptly. It was another in a long line of attempts to live out the concept that the customer is always right, even if the senior executives and the customers themselves were the only ones who believed it.
According to CNBC, in 2014 Burger King changed their slogan from “Have it your way,” to “Be your way,” which Fernando Machado, Burger King’s senior vice president of global brand management, said moved away from the purely transactional to “making a connection with a person’s greater lifestyle.” This way of “championing individuality” has actually been very popular among corporate brands in the last decade. It’s a way of reminding us of the importance of getting our own way, doing our own thing, being our own self. That’s what it means to be human.
Which is why David Brook’s New York Times editorial this morning, “America Is Falling Apart at the Seams,” should come as no surprise to anyone. “Over the past several years, and over a wide range of different behaviors, Americans have been acting in fewer pro-social and relational ways and in more antisocial and self-destructive ways,” he writes. Particularly over the last two years, we’ve seen a stark rise in these behaviors:
“What the hell is going on?” Brooks asks, befuddled by the unraveling all around him. “The short answer: I don’t know. I also don’t know what’s causing the high rates of depression, suicide and loneliness that dogged Americans even before the pandemic and that are the sad flip side of all the hostility and recklessness I’ve just described.”
I’ve got a guess. What happens when we don’t get our way, can’t do our own thing, and aren’t able to express ourselves the way we want? Being human becomes very hard. And we don’t like it.
But what if getting our way is actually not what it means to be human? What if having it our way right away is actually an inhuman value in an inhuman world of our own making?
In his recent book, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World, Alan Noble makes the case that the very notion of “championing individuality,” or valuing self-belonging above all else, is actually the opposite of what it means to be human.
“From the early political liberalism of the seventeenth century, with its language of individual liberties and rights, over time westerners began to think of themselves as naturally sovereign,” Noble writes. “To be your own and belong to yourself means that the most fundamental truth about existence is that you are responsible for yourself and everything it entails….No one else has the right to define me, to choose my journey in life, or to assure me that I am okay. I belong to myself.”
But if I belong to myself, that means I am not only free but responsible for defining my own identity, purpose, meaning, and values. Since “everyone else is also working frantically to craft and express their own identity,” that responsibility eventually becomes a burden. What we are left with is a culture of narcissists competing “for attention, meaning, and significance.” And whether we rise to the challenge—always striving for more and better—or abandon the challenge—out of despair and failure—ultimately, belonging to ourselves makes us less human and leaves us spiraling out of control in many of the ways Brooks describes above.
If we don’t belong to ourselves, then to whom do we belong? And how does subjecting ourselves to another make us more human and not less? Noble acknowledges that the language of belonging may make some people bristle, especially those whose identities and purposes have been suppressed by other people or institutions.
“Every abuse of authority involves an authority figure who desires his or her own good at the expense of others,” Noble writes.
Belonging to God is different. His good is not in conflict with our good. He doesn’t need to “dehumanize” us in order to achieve dominance over us. In fact, he designed us as humans to worship and belong to Him. Only by acknowledging that we belong to him and not to ourselves are we able to be fully human.
So what does it really mean to be human? And how can we lively more humanly (humanely?) in a world that doesn’t always make it easy?
That’s what I want to explore over the next few weeks:
How belonging to God also means we belong to others: our families, our communities, our churches.
How being human means we value love, truth, and mercy over autonomy, expediency, and efficiency.
How our identity, purpose, and meaning are something we receive, not make.
How our limits, both the ones we choose and the ones we don’t, make us more human not less.
How eliminating the language of commerce and uncovering the myths of technology will help us treat others more humanly.
How rest and leisure are our most countercultural tools in learning to belong to God and not ourselves.
It’s a lofty undertaking … exploring what it means to be human. The very nature of this journey is both immanent—coming to terms with the inherent inadequacy of belonging to ourselves—and transcendent—understanding how we’re connected to something (Someone) greater than ourselves. It’s also to tempt turning our humanity into an idol, the very thing I’m critiquing about our inhuman world. The challenge of being more human is not, then, to acknowledge how great humans are (though we are pretty great). Rather, it’s to realize that we are most human when we rightly see ourselves in relationship with God, who “designed us to worship and belong to Him as people.”
“If God wanted subhumans or mere things to serve Him, He would have only made trees or animals. But He didn’t. He made us,” Noble writes. “And unlike any other belonging imaginable, when we belong to Christ, we belong, without effacement. In fact, our belonging ennobles us, making us co-heirs with Him of the heavenly kingdom.”
I wonder … when you hear “you are not your own,” how do you respond? What does it mean to you to “belong to God”? Have you experienced some of the fall-out of being human lately? What messages do you regularly receive that support the inhuman proposition that we belong to ourselves? How do you live faithfully to God in spite of them? In what ways do you see evidence in your own life of attempting to belong to yourself?
2. Being Here
Part of the wonder of being human is that God molds us into the people He designed us to be in part through the places he leads us to. Which means one way we can be more human is by being fully attentive to the details of those places.
Lately, I’ve been enamored with all the moss, algae, and fungi growing in our area. They offer so much color and texture to otherwise bleak natural settings, which feel gray and empty now that the leaves have all dropped, the grasses have drooped, and other plants have gone dormant for the winter.
I wonder … what have you noticed about your places lately?
3. You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World by Alan Noble
As I explore what it means to be human over the next few weeks, Alan Noble’s is just one of the books I’ll be referencing. His is a layered premise that builds and grows throughout the book, and if you’re interested in learning more about the implications of belonging to God, I commend this work to you.
Interestingly, he says himself that “no significant idea in this book is original.” I mention this because as I was reading, the experience was less about learning something brand new and more about having many of my experiences, feelings, and longings brought together in a cohesive way. I felt the relief of mysterious symptoms finally diagnosed, along with the hope of a treatment plan for moving forward. But as Kate Bowler likes to say, being human is a chronic illness. There’s no cure. And Noble’s book also fits within that somber tone.
4. Be Still and Know That I Am God
Recently, my spiritual director ended a session by reading Psalm 46, and then repeating Psalm 46:10 eight times, dropping one word with each repetition:
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know that I
Be still and know that
Be still and know
Be still and
It was a beautiful way to meditate on what it means to “be” as we come into stillness before God. I recorded myself reading Psalm 46, and then repeating that final verse so that you could have the benefit of receiving the word yourself. Before you hit play, find a comfortable position, take a couple of deep breaths, and open yourself up to hear from God through his word.
5. “Human as Gift” by Nick Spenser
If belonging to God and others is what makes us human, what is our “obligation,” or even our joy, in being part of those relationships? Is it merely what we can derive from them? No, that’s part of the tragedy of self belonging, where everything is a means to my own self discovery and purpose. Rather, when we belong to God and others, we enter those relationships by what we give, and mostly notably, by giving love.
In this thoughtful essay from Comment, Nick Spenser unpacks the centrality of giving to our human experience, rooted in our dual roles as God’s image bearers and the recipients of Christ’s sacrificial love.
Well, you’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report. As always, thanks for joining me here. It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together. I’m excited for another year of The Wonder Report. It’s my favorite part of my writing life.
As always, if you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
Until next time,
P.S. I couldn’t resist sharing this last little item. In a few weeks, my family and I are moving, and during this season of transition and preparation, we are sorting through things and getting ourselves organized. I recently went through a stack of old cards and came across one that had been opened but returned to its envelope (which is not my usual pattern). The card was addressed only to me in my mom’s handwriting, and when I opened it up it was signed by both her and my stepdad, which means it’s at least 10 year old. It was a Halloween card, and inside was a $10 bill! Mom was well known in our family for her card-sending and gift-giving, and in a stressful season, it felt like a beautiful gift from her and my stepdad, even though they’re now both gone.