A week ago, temperatures surged to the seventies, and we were walking the dogs in shirtsleeves. Today, it’s 28 degrees and snowing, winter’s reminder that even seasons are not as linear as we’d like, and the calendar rarely has the final say.
This week’s topic feels much the same way. It would be nice if I could toss out a word like “wholeness” and you’d know exactly what I’m talking about—and “wholeness” definitely communicates an element of what I want to share. But the idea I’ve been ruminating over has grown so complex in my mind, by the time you get to the end of today’s Wonder Report, it’ll likely feel like a snowstorm in March. Incongruent. Inexplicable. But not entirely unexpected. At least not in these parts.
In other words, I’m leading us into territory I feel ill-equipped to cover. But let’s give it a try anyway. Shall we?
1. Chasing Wonder and Other Attempts to Become a Whole Person
For much of my life, I’ve been a person of many and diverse interests. In high school I played sports, sang in a choir, showed cows and pigs in 4-H, wrote short stories and poetry, and worked as a housekeeper on Saturday mornings. As a young adult, I landed a job as a data analyst, volunteered with teens at my church, visited the art museum on the weekends, and learned to cook without recipes. Since then, I’ve worked at a science library, a mega church, and medical billing company. I taught myself to play guitar; I’ve run half marathons.
When I became a full-time freelance writer, my disparate interests found a place to express themselves. People often ask me what kind of writing I do, and my standard answer is: “Wherever you’ve encountered words, I’ve probably written something like it.” I’ve written advertising slogans and marketing emails. I’ve written magazine articles and nonfiction books. Novels, poems, devotions, short stories, essay: all part of my body of work. And the topics I’ve written about have been equally diverse: farming, restaurants, medical billing, family issues, Medicare policy, tourism, church history and polity, nature and ecology, Christian faith and doctrine, state and federal legislation, the opioid epidemic, gardening, state parks, great works of art, and my two dogs, Harper and Tilly, who are sleeping behind me.
But in a world where authors are “brands” and readers are only loyal if they know what it is they’re “buying,” being a writer like me is often frowned upon. Choose one thing to write about and stay in your lane, I've been told. You need to narrow your focus, others have advised. What do you want your readers to think about when they think about you? I’ve been asked. If you had to summarize your work in a sentence, what would it be?
So three years ago, in attempt to make my writing life more palatable for “the market,” I gave it a try. I laid all my work and interests on the table and evaluated each one carefully. I attempted to narrow down what it really is I want to write about. I imagined a life as someone who only wrote about nature or who only penned novels. I wondered whether I’d be happy only doing marketing work or only writing food articles. I thought about giving up everything but the one thing I could go big on.
Then, instead of following the common advice, I came up with an over-arching theme that would give the appearance of a focus but would actually allow me to keep doing all the things I’d been doing all along. It’s when I began writing under the tagline Chasing Wonder and first conceived of the idea of The Wonder Report.
Not all writers have this problem. Some writers are naturally able to focus their topics or styles so readers know what to expect. Others start out unfocused but are disciplined enough to narrow down what seems to be most popular or what they’re most passionate about. But the problem goes beyond just a vocational one for me. And I suspect the same could be true for you. In fact, having lots of disconnected interests and mismatched parts of life actually feels like what it means to be human in the 21st century.
Many of us work for companies that are far away from our home (even if the pandemic actually moved our work itself into the spare bedroom). We attend church with a different set of people, sometimes in another community from where we live. Our work friends and our church friends will likely never meet each other, and of course they don’t know the people we sit with each week at the track meet or read together with at book club. We buy food grown by farmers in other states and countries. We patronize businesses that exist only online. And when we do shop or eat out “in person,” we drive 30 minutes or more to visit brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants with workers we don’t know, owned by people and companies we’ve never heard of.
To make up for the fragmentation, we try to pull ourselves together by choosing identities we are comfortable with. We share a certain version of ourselves on social media, telling stories of a life that feels connected and authentic. In his book You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World, Alan Noble says this is a key feature of living in an inhuman world as though we belong only to ourselves.
“If I am my own and belong to myself, then I must define who ‘I’ am. My parents can name me, and the government can issue me a Social Security number, but only I can decide my identity,” he writes.
Even when we decide who we are, we often look to others to validate those identities, since identity by its very nature “always requires the acknowledgement of other people,” Noble says. Which means “modern life often feels like billions of people in the same room shouting their own names so that everyone else knows they exist and who they are.”
But what if the identity we’ve chosen doesn’t garner the attention we desire? And maybe more importantly, what if the identity we have chosen doesn’t account for all the disparate parts of who we actually are? What do we do with the past that doesn’t fit our current image? Where do we stick that hobby we’re embarrassed to tell people about? How to we account for the friends who have no idea how important we are at work? Or the family members whose ideologies are so different than our own?
Here’s where I digress into “snow storm in March” territory: because it may seem like this is a discussion about identity politics and self-expression, but it’s not. It’s a discussion about wholeness. I want to talk about what it means to be whole people who don’t fit neatly into trendy taglines or tiny squares on social media. I want to talk about the fact that I wear my pajamas to take the dogs out, even though I live in a well-lit suburban neighborhood, how I really love fish sandwiches from McDonalds even though normally I shop at farmers markets and eat organic food, and how I don’t actually like Shakespeare even though I am a professional writer and an avid reader. There, I said it.
I don’t always vote the way you’d expect me to. I don’t always watch what “people like me” are supposed to watch on Netflix. I’m a fashion disaster without a single pair of suede booties and not nearly enough hair for a messy bun, even though sometimes I get up in front of audiences, even large ones, and speak. I like to collect and paint leaves and pinecones, and I also really like spreadsheets. Sometimes, poetry confuses me. And I almost always hit the wrong button on the remote control, even though I use to teach computer classes at a community college.
On paper, my life doesn’t make sense. When you meet me, you’re bound to have questions. But this is who I am.
See, life in the 21st century—belonging to ourselves in the 21st century—is not just about being fragmented people; it’s about being fragmented people who are trying to put ourselves back together by being something we’re not. We try to choose an identity that will make sense on paper, an identity that represents who we want to be, who we thought we would be. But there’s no identity we can choose for ourselves that’s expansive enough to account for all we actually are, all our experiences and quirks, all our secrets and hopes. For that, we need God to tell us who we are. We need God to acknowledge the whole, chaotic, and disconnected reality of who we are.
According to Noble, this is what it means to belong to Christ.
“If you are not your own and belong to Christ, then your personhood is a real creation, objectively sustained by God. And as a creation of God, you have no obligation to create your self. Your identity is based on God’s perfect will, not your own subjective, uncertain will. All your efforts to craft a perfect, marketable image add nothing to your personhood. The reason the opinions of others don’t define you isn’t because your opinion is the only one that counts, but because you are not reducible to any human efforts of definition. The only being who can fully know you and understand you without reducing you to a stereotype or an idol is God.”
If you take nothing else away from this post, here’s the single most important truth I’m trying to tell you, from Rowan William’s book Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, which Noble quotes:
“What you don’t understand or see, the bits of yourself you can’t pull together in a convincing story, are all held in a single gaze of love. You don’t have to work out and finalize who you are, and have been: you don’t have to settle the absolute truth of your history or story. In the eyes of the presence that never goes away, all that you have been and are is still present and real; it is held together in that unifying gaze.”
God made us as whole people. That’s what it means to be human. And unlike my Ikea desk, with its 68-step instruction booklet and unexplainable pieces of hardware that were leftover after the desk was completely assembled, all the parts of your life will fit together in the loving plan of God, even if it doesn’t seem like it now.
I wonder … as you think about yourself, what parts of your identity don’t seem to fit? How have you tried to reconcile those with the other parts of yourself? How easy is it for you to be your whole self in each part of your life? Looking back on your life, how have some of those seemingly disparate parts of your life prepared you for where you are now?
2. The Great Fracturing of American Attention by Megan Garber
The zeitgeist of distraction that characterizes much of our modern life also works against a unified view of own ourselves. Everyone and everything is competing for our attention.
“Distraction, Wu [Tim Wu, "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads] notes, tends to empower the industrialists and demean everyone else. If people are to avoid life lived at their mercy, he writes, ‘we must first acknowledge the preciousness of our attention and resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we so often have. And then we must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.’”
Do you think fractured attention leads to fractured lives? What role might focus have in restoring our sense of wholeness? How do social media contribute to distraction? What other technology could we point the finger at? How do you attempt to regain focus?
3. How To Make Your Life Make Sense from Lisa Jo Baker and Christie Purifoy
I loved this episode of Lisa Jo Baker’s and Christie Purifoy’s Out of the Ordinary Podcast where they talk about the evolution of Christie’s writer bio reveals her struggle to integrate all the disparate parts of her life. They list these among the key conversation points in the episode:
It's possible to make sense of the weird parts of our stories.
No part of your past is insignificant.
God isn't just allowing randomness in our lives for no reason but he's making a pattern. Do you see it in your life?
Christie and Lisa-Jo show us the courage and struggle of owning ALL the parts of our story.
I think it’s interesting to consider the seemingly disconnected and random parts of our lives in the context of God’s sovereignty. Where’s the thread that connects them all together? Do we always have the luxury of seeing it? Lisa Jo and Christie spend a good part of their conversation chasing down these ideas.
We’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. 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 know spring is just around the corner, but so far, there are few signs of it my new neighborhood. (I’ll definitely miss all the daffodils at our old house.) What’s starting to push through the dirt where you are?
Loved this so much, Charity, but to answer your question would require me to write a memoir. I've recently been in conversation about how I can step back into serving in my church, after the 2 years I've been away because of the pandemic + my own chronic health issues, with one of my associate pastors who doesn't really know me because he came on staff while I was away. When I thought about needing to introduce myself to him, for all the reasons you've mentioned, I came to the conclusion that might take a while. =)
Charity, well said! I have long had these very feelings. In work, I didn’t WANT to specialize precisely because I enjoy variety and being a generalist, couldn’t imagine why I would want an IG or social media feed that only sounded one note, resisted by writing a bio that overtly said “I’m a person—not a brand.” I have listed to Noble and not yet read the book, but love him for expressing something about our era that needed to be said and re-examined, especially if one is earnestly seeking to follow Christ. Yet how many of us have spent more time crafting an image than being steeped in scripture that can transform us in HIS image? It gives me courage to hear your voice. And to it, I can only add, “What she said.”