Some years ago, I heard of one family’s coming-of-age ritual for children on their 12th birthday: prepare and serve a multi-course dinner for the family. Not by micro-waving or Grub-hubbing but by doing it all from scratch. Deciding on a menu. Making a list of ingredients and buying them. Setting the table. Prepping and cooking each dish. Planning it all so everything would be ready at the right time. Announcing, “Dinner is ready” and calling everyone to the table. Then doing the clean-up after everyone is done.
This was expected of each child, regardless of gender.
I doubt if I would have wanted to do that when I was a kid. It would involve giving up highly productive activities I preferred – like watching cartoons and sitcoms. It would require listening, observing, experimenting, and being patient. I might very well experience what we can call “friction”– the discomfort we experience when we are doing something difficult.
My use of the word “friction” comes from a philosopher of technology, Albert Borgmann. I encountered him and his work twenty years ago when I did a sabbatical project exploring how digital technology was changing personal life and spiritual practices. Borgmann observed how digital devices often reduce friction in our life. Instead of getting up and having to do something that may take effort and skill, a device invites us to avoid the effort – the friction — and instead, we tap a button or give a voice command. Borgmann’s point is that the more and more we expect a friction-free life as the way things are supposed to be, our capacity to deal with friction when we encounter it diminishes. He also believes the way in which we handle friction in daily tasks carries over to the formation of our character and capacity for nurturing interpersonal relationships.
I remember a time when our family was practicing having a “digital sabbath day” – one day a week when we would not turn the computer on. (This was long long ago in a galaxy far far away — before smartphones and tablets competed with oxygen and water as essential for moment-by-moment survival.) My six-year-old daughter was bored. She begged me to let her turn on the computer and play a game. I told her we were taking a day off from using the computer. Why not, instead, play with a favorite neighborhood friend of hers?
“We had a fight on Friday”, she said.
“Well, you could call her and try to get over it,” I said. She fumed. But after minutes and minutes of misery, she decided to call. They got together, cautiously at first. But soon they became lost in play which continued for two hours. They faced the friction of interpersonal issues and got through them. It would have been easier to be digitally distracted — and alone. But working through the friction led to a renewed relationship.
Whether it’s marriage, family, or the workplace, dealing with other people often involves some discomfort – some friction – and it takes patience and determination to see if things can be worked out. The more digital technology leads us to expect a friction-free life, the less and less able we will be to deal with other people — those pesky humans just don’t seem to respond to our desires as quickly and easily as our beloved devices.
My wife spent many years teaching first graders, who can become frustrated learning a new skill. She would tell them to say to themselves: “I can do difficult things.” In a sense, it’s saying, “I can bear the friction I experience as I learn to master something new or challenging.” And developing our will and stamina to do that strengthens our character.
Huston Smith said that one of the shortcomings of our contemporary culture’s understanding of “spirituality” is that we often make it too easy and self-serving. Spirituality becomes something like a buffet table – we walk by displays of various ideas and practices and put on our plates what appeals to us at the moment. In doing so, we may avoid anything that is difficult. But the great global traditions include practices (Ramadan, High Holy Days, Lent, vision quests, etc.) that ask us to take on difficult things, like fasting, repentance, and acts of service. Our ego may resist, but our soul welcomes the challenges as the means to a more personal strength and maturity. The traditions, Smith said, “have traction.”
I’ve often thought of that family’s dinner preparation ritual. Imagine turning 12 and, for the rest of your life, having the confidence and skill to feed yourself and others. How strong and free you would feel.
Image: “Mickey Mouse and Goofy: Thanksgiving Dinner,” #776, Children’s Book Illustration, Whitman, c. 1970s (apparently the guest on the right is a turkey who’s been invited to share in a vegetarian banquet instead of being the main dish.)