Don't Be Square

Below is the transcript from the commencement address I delivered on May 12, 2016 at New Saint Andrews College. 

The 2015 film Room, nominated for four Oscars, tells the story of a kidnapped mother and her five-year-old son Jack, as they attempt to escape the shed where they have been held captive for many years. The boy was born inside the shed. He’s never been outside of this small confined space. All that Jack knows of the world is what he sees in “Room.” Aside from the small skylight in the otherwise windowless dwelling, Jack has no idea what the outside world is like. He has no idea what wind feels like, or rain, or sand. The squalid square of his prison is the only home he’s ever known.

Room isn’t the only recent narrative to explore themes of confinement within boxed-in spaces. The 2016 sci-fi thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, and the Netflix comedy The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, also explore the claustrophobia of being imprisoned in bunkers. Much of the 3-hour runtime of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight takes place in the claustrophobic confines of a frontier trading post in the midst of a raging blizzard, with tension arising from the array of unseemly characters stuck together in tight quarters. A few years ago the Ryan Reynolds movie Buried spent its entire 95 minute runtime inside the confined space of a coffin.

The predominance of pop cultural narratives like this, narratives of confined spaces and solitary prisons, has got me thinking: Why is our culture so anxious about being boxed in?

Isn’t western culture today the freest it has ever been? Isn’t America in the 21st century the place where you can literally be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do, as long as it is an authentic expression of your true, autonomous self?

This is the world of Rachel Dolezal, after all, a white woman who is unapologetic about calling herself a African-American woman. This is also the world of Caitlyn Jenner, a world that celebrates the bravery and freedom of people born as men who declare themselves later to be women, and vice versa. It’s the world of Paul Wolscht, a 50-something father of seven who identifies and lives as a six-year-old girl.

If biological traits like race and gender and age are no longer uncrossable boundaries that in some sense restrict our identities, then what does restrict us? If the autonomy of the self is absolute, if WE have ultimate authority to determine our identities and our abilities, then why on earth are we as a culture so anxious about being boxed in? What could possibly feel restrictive or oppressive in a culture like this?

One answer to this question, I think, has something to do with an object most of you probably have with you right now: the smart phone. Is there a more powerful metaphor for the boxed-in claustrophobia of our age than the small rectangular screens of our smart-phones?

This phone, I would suggest, is the ultimate metaphor for a larger philosophical paradox: that limitless freedom and autonomy can actually lead to a shrunken existence.

These phones promise the world. On their screens we can Google anything and find answers to any question. We can find like-minded comrades for any cause, rancorous communities for any minority viewpoint. We can see any piece of art from any museum in the world. We can watch almost any film or TV show ever created, or listen to any song. Through live-streaming apps we can live vicariously through people in their day-to-day lives, whether tourists in Tokyo or Uber drivers in Iceland. We can also say anything that is on our mind, tweeting opinions as they come to us or SnapChats as they pop into our heads. If we have Tidal, we can listen to the new Beyonce album. We can do almost anything.

Furthermore, these devices don’t judge our motives, they offer no restrictions beyond what we impose on ourselves in our system preferences. The “i” metaphor of Apple’s iPhone says it all: this is my personal device, my personal cockpit through which I can navigate the world on my own schedule, according to my terms and custom settings.

If I want to binge-watch Friday Night Lights on Netflix or stream the new Explosions in the Sky album on Spotify during my free time (and I do do this), I can. If I want to rattle off a hot-take blog post about Donald Trump or Pope Francis or Bruce Springsteen or racism or sexism or any other ism I feel oppressed by, I can. And if in the midst of it all I come across something that makes me uncomfortable or angry, I can block it from my life forever.

With a few clicks we can unfriend and unfollow people whose opinions annoy us or whose lives make us envious.

These devices also make it easy to project images of our lives that are cropped, framed and filtered perfectly to our liking. Our Instagram Selfies project images of our lives that are often far rosier than the real thing.

If there is one app that epitomizes the boxed-in nature of our world today, the way we exist in frames, it is Instagram. I don’t know about you, but there are many friends and family members in my life whose lives I only know from the Instagram photos they post. And this is sad. How much of their cropped-out lives am I missing? And what skewed understanding of me are they getting from my little square photos?

On Instagram we can crop out the ugliness and frame ourselves and our experiences to our liking. But is this really freedom?

Way back in 1977, cultural critic Susan Sontag said that “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.” Four decades later, the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography has reached new heights in this era in which our phones are also cameras.

If we go on vacation and don’t post photos from it on Instagram, did we truly enjoy it? If we see a beautiful sunset but fail to pull out our phone in time to capture it, can we be sure it was really beautiful?

Our whole lives today seem to be orienting around the idea of being seen, but in the midst of it all are we losing the ability to see being?

Our obsession with being seen is just one of the most vivid examples of the larger cultural retreat into the confines of the self, and smartphone cameras are only making the retreat easier.

Yet while technology has made it easier to be visible but harder to be known.

Answers today are easier to come by, but are we losing interest in asking good questions that take us out of ourselves?

It is easier than ever to take things at face value. We scroll through our feeds and each article headline or Instagram photo of some friend’s engagement or cousin’s baby’s first steps receives maybe a second of our attention. We toggle between windows, moving from TV show to movie to text conversation, with little time for critical reflection.

One way to break free of the restrictive boxes of this world is to learn how to think beyond the frame. I know your years here have taught you to do this, but it will be even more important for you to keep it up as you leave.

Don’t allow yourself to live within the boxed-in perspectives of this narcissistic age. Challenge yourself to push against the boundaries and enclosed frames that we so easily fall into.

Part of growing up is being able to get outside of yourself and care about things beyond the immediate pleasures and challenges and desires of your pint-sized, boxed-in world.

In 1 Corinthians 13 (vs. 11-12) Paul says:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

In this famous passage Paul associates “giving up childish ways” with the humility of acknowledging that we “now see in a mirror dimly and know in part.”

Childishness is thinking we know who we are and what we want, and asserting that we are right about everything. Childishness is hubris. It’s a small world.

Growing up should in theory be about selflessness and humility. It should be about seeing that we can only now see dimly, because the world as we know it gets bigger and more mysterious with every year we live.

Growing up should be about broadening our frames and getting outside of the small boxes and playpens of childhood.

Unfortunately our culture’s current obsession with identity politics and self actualization are keeping us all in a very childish place. Our culture tells us that when we look in the mirror we see perfectly. Our culture tells us that what we see and know of ourselves can’t be wrong. Our culture tells us that no one can define us other than ourselves.

But this is childishness. We can and will never know ourselves fully, especially as long as we are looking mostly to ourselves for answers. So I challenge you to give up your childish ways. Cultivate the ability to look beyond your own little box.

When I was writing my book Hipster Christianity I did a lot of reading about the history of the hipster in America and the way that the counterculture has changed in the last century.

60 years ago the beatniks and hippies of the American counterculture used the word “square” to describe people who they viewed as too conservative, repressed, restricted or boxed in. The term originated in the Jazz era, as a way to contrast the “square” rhythms of 4/4 with the more free-form time signatures of jazz. In the 1960s, “squares” became the enemy of the counterculture and the sexual revolution, which pushed for complete personal autonomy and subversion of societal norms for acceptable behavior.

The counterculture fought and in many ways won, because their ethos of ultimate autonomy and moral freedom has become an accepted standard in western culture today. But the irony is, this once-countercultural idea has become tremendously bourgeois. The expressive individualism fought for by Abbie Hoffman and Alan Ginsberg and Gloria Steinem in the 1960s is now reinforced on the backs of Starbucks mugs and through the “Let it Go” anthems of Disney movies. Boundless freedom as an ideal is no longer countercultural in any way, but actually quite cultural and suburban and capitalism-fueling. Wall Street and Silicon Valley and Hollywood are cashing in on it.

And the most ironic thing of all is that the more mainstream this sort of boundless freedom becomes, the less free we actually are. Today the countercultural thing is not to embrace 100% autonomy but to question it. The ones who suggest that life is actually not about “finding myself” have become the new rebels. The people who willingly submit their desires and their preferences to an authority beyond the self… THAT is the true countercultural today. The new “squares” are those who have willingly locked themselves inside the prison of unchecked autonomy.

Our culture is telling us to worship ourselves, that the ultimate and greatest thing to be revered is our own autonomous will. The rituals of this form of worship are everywhere in our culture: the iPhone, the selfie, the customizable burrito at Chipotle. Yet the more we worship our freedom, the smaller our world becomes. The more we insist that we “see in a mirror fully” the less we can actually see. The more constricted our world becomes.

But looking outside of ourselves helps break us out of this box. And in doing this we’ll find it easier to worship not ourselves, but the One who truly deserves our praise.

He is the God who breaks us out of every box.

Belief in God, and obedience to the life he has outlined for us in Scripture, EVEN when it puts limits around what we can be and do, may seem like the ultimate in “square” living. But the square of Christian belief is actually a door, and it’s the only door that truly offers a way out of the prison of Self confinement.

So as you finish your educational journey here, I challenge you to open that door and get outside of yourself. Scan the horizons beyond the borders of the modern world. Don’t become trapped within the square frames of your device screens and the confines of narrow-minded, politically correct grids.

Flourishing comes NOT from squares, but circles.

The circle is the shape of a lens, a magnifying glass, an eyeball. Circles are about seeing, and I think seeing well is the most important skill an education can offer. So don’t be a square. Be a circle.

Be a magnifying glass. Be a lens. Take a closer look at things.

For about a decade I have been a film critic, and the thing I try to do in my reviews is not so much tell people what to think about a movie or give a thumbs up or down, as to model a certain way of seeing. I try to model a way of looking closer and slowing down, being attentive in a way that goes beyond how it makes me feel.

This kind of posture of seeing can and should become a way of life, one that keeps us from falling back into childish narcissism.

To be a circle rather than a square is to have a more 360 degree field of vision. It is to have eyes to see what we might otherwise miss if we stayed within the rigid walls of our self-enclosed boxes.

We box ourselves in to the extent that we let our desires define us and let our assumptions go unquestioned. We box ourselves in when we let the politicians tell us that to be a Republican or Democrat must mean this and this and that. We box ourselves in when we insist that OUR way of doing church is the best and most biblical way. Or when we take Elsa seriously when she sings, “No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!”

No right, no wrong, no rules… is not freedom. It’s an illusion that falsely portrays freedom as a journey inside ourselves. But the deeper we go in “finding ourselves,” the more shrunken our world becomes. Our field of vision constricts. We get boxed in.

Don’t be a square. Be a circle. Look for goodness and truth and beauty everywhere. Perceive the bigness of the world beyond yourself.

The clearer you see, the more compelled you will be by the epic story God is telling. Every tweet you send, every Selfie you take, every Google search will be infinitely more significant when these things are not idols of control but signposts of something far greater than yourself, glimpses of a far more magnificent world, hints at the moment to come when we will know fully, even as we are fully known.

And that is a truth to cling to, graduates, as you go out from this place.

One day we will know fully, even as we are fully known.

But that day is not yet. There is still much to learn, about God, His world, and His mysterious image-bearing creations (us). So never cease in your exploring.

Don’t be a square, which is fixed and rigid and self-enclosing.

Be a circle, and may the world open up to you more beautifully with every passing year of the rest of your lives.