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Friday, December 28, 2007

Liquidity and You

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Just the other day I was discussing the world of blogging with one of my dear friends. He asked me why I don't post essays that I have written for MHGS courses. I replied by saying, "People who post their essays do so because they have nothing better to write."

Apparently I have nothing better to write.

Here is an essay that I hope will be accessible to all. Enjoy this glimpse into my academic life.
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My wife has always called me her “Big Boy.”

I was comfortable with that affectionate nickname when I was a 6’3”, 165-pound high school athlete. I was taller, had more muscle, and was simply bigger than most of our friends. The nickname seemed fitting.

However, when I graduated high school, fell in love with Chipotle, and gained 35 pounds the nickname no longer seemed cute. The innocent identity given to me by my wife now made me uncomfortable due to my expanding waistline.

I did not want to be a big boy. I wanted to return to my fit, healthy ways. I wanted to reestablish my previous weight, gain more muscle, and be healthier than ever before. But in all of my magazine purchasing and abs machine gimmick believing I was not after health. Although I was clinically “overweight,” visits to my doctor’s office were no different. He did not mention health concerns or worry over my blood pressure. He told me things looked great and sent me on my way. Yet, I continued to desire a “healthier lifestyle.”

I was not after health. I was after fitness. And it was my individual skills, hard work, Thighmaster, and Chuck Norris endorsed Total Gym that was going to get me there.

The ideas of health and fitness differ because of the existence and absence of a ‘norm’ against which they can be measured. A doctor can measure your health. Blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, and weight can all be placed on a healthy/not healthy spreadsheet plastered to the doctor’s office wall. Fitness, in contrast, struggles to find an axis as it is subjectively measured.

Fitness is a chase after a prize which one cannot describe until it is reached. The dilemma is that the measure for fitness is always changing and thus cannot be reached. There is no clear distinction between normal and abnormal or fit and unfit. Those seeking fitness will find themselves in a state “of perpetual self-scrutiny” running a race without end. The definition of fitness is liquid.

Zygmunt Bauman defines this fitness/health relationship to be a microcosm of our age. In his book Liquid Modernity he says, “As a matter of fact, however, the status of all norms, the norm of health included, has under the aid of ‘liquid’ modernity, in a society of infinite and indefinite possibilities, been severely shaken and become fragile” . Bauman, using health and fitness as an example, is pointing out that “Liquid Modernity” is a condition of society that lacks a clear sense of orientation, or the kind of stability that derives from a long-standing tradition or set of norms.

In a world that forbids standing still, we are no longer defined by our securities and social constructions. An individual and an individual’s progress have moved to center stage. Individuals living in “liquid modernity” have the freedom to construct themselves from the beginning without support. As Bauman points out, they must not only construct themselves; they must construct the measures that allow them to assess the meaning and success of their lives.

Bauman says individuals are bound only by their own freedom. He unpacks this by saying with “the boundary between right and wrong no longer in sight, the world becomes an infinite collection of possibilities: a container filled to the brim with a countless multitude of opportunities yet to be chased or already missed. There are more – painfully more – possibilities than any individual life, however long, adventurous and industrious, can attempt to explore, let alone to adopt” . These endless possibilities lead individuals to consumeristically shop through the aisles of identities. Thus individuality is now defined through the actions of a shopper.

The Internet is a superstore for our identity experiments. A quiet woman can write jokes in e-mails that she would never say in front of her peers. A modest salesman can create a womanizing avatar that is an excellent break dancer. Passive-aggressive peers can confront friends behind the guise of a screen name or networking site. It is easier than ever to be someone you are not. You can expand your identity and self-construct your greatest dreams. It is quite simple to become what your culture, your parents, your peers, and your institutions ask you to (or not to) be. In a time where one man may exhaust himself from updating four different blogs, the question remains, where will we find our identity?

In our e-efforts of self-creation and self-assertion we find no finish line and little room left for solidarity with other humans.

It seems to me that community may be the antidote to liquid modernity’s “born again” individualism. It's not anything new in terms of human history, but community is difficult to obtain while in the postmodern throes of comparison and consumerism. Community is difficult to find in the Pottery Barn catalogue or on the bookshelf at Barnes and Noble. It's not something that a CEO can devise or creative governmental policy can establish. It can't be found on Opera or in the pages of Men’s Health Magazine, yet these are the places we may look to find value.

Bauman goes on to quote Melody Beattie’s 1987 bestseller as an example of this “I” centered age. Her book reads, “the surest way to make ourselves crazy is to get involved with other people’s businesses, and the quickest way to become sane and happy is to tend to our own affairs.” Beattie is reinforcing the independence of the individual. To muddle in the business of others will only distract you from the personal responsibility you must address. It is for this reason that we obsess with talk show guests, advice columns, and fitness plans; we are looking to follow the individual journey of another rather than joining in a journey together. What is ours is ours and we want it to stay that way.

Bauman concludes his discussion of individuality by saying this liquid individualism “divides human situations and prompts cut-throat competition rather than unifying a human condition inclined to generate cooperation and solidarity” . Yet Christ calls us to life in community - to a life of co-operation. So the challenge is then, can the Church stand in such a liquid culture and take a group of I’s on a journey together as a “we”? Can the Church stand not for the success of individuals, but for the process of forming a "we"? Will the Church refuse to hide behind "mega-community" or small groups and form confessing, challenging, inspiring community? Can "we" be more?

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*thelongbrake said...

Sell.

Cough.

Out.

Was that subtle?

Johanna said...

Hey, Jarrod! Found your blog - you write really well! It's great getting a new view of you here and reading your interesting ideas.

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