Christina Crook "Joyful Living in the Digital Age" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. I want to welcome you to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences right around the world. Because we’re new to the world of podcasts, taking time to give us a review or thumbs-up or even sharing this episode will mean a great deal to us, and allow us to reach more people with meaningful and hopefully deeply spiritual content that continually reminds us of Henri’s writings, his encouragement and, of course, his reminder that we are God’s beloved child.
So, with that said, let me take a moment to introduce my guest. Christina Crook is someone who has been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen. She herself is a poet-pundit, and I think of her as a modern-day prophet. She writes books, speaks and podcasts. I interviewed Christina in 2020 on her book, JOMO: The Joy of Missing Out. She’s released a new book and it’s outstanding – Good Burdens: How to Live Joyfully in the Digital Age. It is a book for our times that really helps us find the path to meaning and to joy. I’ve enjoyed this book and felt so freshly empowered by Christina’s insights and challenges.
A book is a little like a baby. Christina, I want to thank you for birthing this new baby.
Christina Crook: Thank you so much, Karen.
Karen: Well, let’s jump in where we are today, almost two years into this worldwide pandemic. From your perspective, how has COVID changed us? Do you see us more entrapped and addicted to social media?
Christina: By some accounts, we’ve sort of fast-forwarded our shift online by a decade, due to the COVID pandemic. You know, the places where futurists thought we would be 10 years from now is actually where we are today, in terms of how much of our lives have shifted online. Our online spending habits are remote, work situations [are remote]. So, I mean, it has absolutely transformed the ways that we live and it has been our lifeline. We’ve been nearly 100% dependent upon the internet for just about every one of our needs. So, in that respect, yes, I think it has exacerbated our digital addiction, our digital problems, but I also think it’s opened up wonderful opportunities in terms of the ways in which we build relationship and also the value we put now on in-real-life experiences.
Karen: I’d like to know, first of all, why you felt compelled to write this book. As I said, it’s like birthing a baby. Why this book, why did you birth this? Was it sitting there in your spirit after JOMO? Or… just take us on the journey.
Christina: Yeah, this was a book that had percolated for a long time, like many books do. I first encountered the phrase “good burdens” when I encountered the work of Dr. Albert Borgmann, who was a Christian philosopher at the University of Montana, and he actually wrote about good burdens in his 1984 book, Technology and the [Character] of Contemporary Life. And he describes good burdens as certain activities that, once you get across a certain threshold of effort, that the burden of it disappears, it becomes a joy. So, you know, the example of putting in the effort of creating a meal and gathering loved ones to sit down for it – we’re actually recording this on American Thanksgiving. That is a burdensome thing, right? The creation of that thing, but it is a good burden. And I felt like at the beginning of COVID, which was an incredibly difficult time, I think for absolutely every person on the planet, that we did have this opportunity to reclaim and shift from a passive, consumptive, technology-driven culture to prioritizing the goods in the real world.
And I saw that happening in my neighborhood. I write in Good Burdens about the little funny signs, right? People were putting signs up in their windows. There were houses in my neighborhood where they called it the Ministry of Silly Walks, right? It’s Monty Python. And you have to do a silly dance across the threshold of our home, right? And we would do them, because we were all so bored. And we would walk around, like I said, the walks around the neighborhood were everyone’s lifeline. And I saw this grounding happening in choosing to take up these good burdens of playfulness and community-building and sitting on the porch and just looking out for someone to talk to. So, this is a book very much influenced by what we all went through with COVID-19, but is not specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, I should say.
Karen: It seems to be more of a response to FOMO, which, in a sense, you understand so well. Maybe you can share with people what FOMO means and what, in a way, you are addressing.
Christina: So, FOMO is the fear of missing out, which psychologically is a phenomenon known as social contagion, which in the simplest terms is wanting what other people have or what other people appear to have. People appear to have certain things, for example, through social media. But there’s no way of really knowing. But FOMO, the big push of consumerism, is putting these beliefs in us. Like, I don’t have enough. I’m not doing enough. I am not enough. This fear of missing out, that there’s something more I should be reaching for and grabbing for. And it’s a place of utter dissatisfaction, because we never arrive at our destination, because we can never have every experience. And the really sickly, the crucial part of the lie of FOMO is the belief that not only should we be doing everything, but that we can. And we can’t, right? When we say yes to one thing, we’re saying no to a thousand other things, and that is such an important reality to grab ahold of. And so, Good Burdens is a response to FOMO in that it’s, I hope, an inspiration and a challenge to us to choose just a few important things, a few important, vital relationships, a few major creative projects, a few community-building efforts, and really sinking ourselves into them. Saying yes to a few things and saying no to the thousands of others.
Karen: One thing you speak so well about is the reality of how much we can be addicted to our digital devices, how much our life can become, in a way, just observing the world go by through our phones. It’s a life of passive consumption. And what does it do to us? I mean, what are you seeing as the crime in that, or the loss in that?
Yes. I mean, technology’s big promises are threefold. They’re always promising. The big promises are, you know, more convenience and more comfort and more control. But the reality is that’s actually in opposition to the way that we work as human beings. We actually find joy in inconvenient things like the inconvenient joys of relationship, which Henri was a master of. And so, yeah, I’m writing in the book about the shift from the promises of big technology – comfort, control and convenience – and shifting towards care and community and creativity. And this actually comes directly out of the research of a professor at the Pratt Institute in New York. Her name is Dr. Pamela Pavliscak and she had people track their technology, their experiences, in journals. And out of her study, she discovered that people who are happiest with technology actually use it differently. They use it for what I just said. They use it for care and community and creativity. So, I think there is a way, in fact, I know there’s a way, studies show, to live joyfully in the digital age. But it really does require intention and action.
Karen: I’m very struck by the fact. I will say this to our listeners: This is a great book to read. You’re very informed and you bring a lot of people into the discussion, a lot of wisdom into the discussion. And I think that’s really important, but it’s also one in which we can be so, in a way, unconscious of what have become the dominant pulls in our life, or what has become the dominant behavior. And I think, in a way you bring it back to some very good self-reflection and some very good ways of approaching things, and ways of going forward from where we are right now. I really respect that. I want to know, why did you choose that navigating the world of technology and its demands was going to be your life work? I mean, really it is your life work. How did you end up there?
Christina: Oh, this is a great question. So, it’s been said that we write what we need to read. So, I think, for a number of different reasons, I first began my studies at Simon Fraser University. It’s a very liberal university. I focused on my studies in communication. And so, it was quite a critical look at the ways in which mass communication has shaped both culture and individuals. And so, I came into my career early on with the CBC in Vancouver with that lens and sort of held that critical lens throughout my life. But really where it began for me was, we moved from Vancouver across the continent to Toronto and sort of in one fell swoop, all of my relationships – or the majority of my relationships – were all of a sudden mediated in one way or another through the internet.
And I had a growing discomfort that was quite heightened me because of my studies around the ways in which it was changing me. And I felt in many ways it was not changing me for the better. And so, yeah, that’s where it all began for me. I had a curiosity, what would happen if I ditched the internet for a time? And so I gave that up for 31 days and then wrote about that experience for a number of magazines. I wrote a number of essays and that led into my first book. And, here we are today! So, it was by choice and also by, I would say, truly by God’s leading.
Karen: Yeah. That’s really interesting. I see you as being my kind of expert I’m turning to, and a resource I’m really appreciating for this. I love the book because, at the heart of it, it grants permission to pursue joy. You know, when you see that title, Good Burdens, “burdens” doesn’t feel joyful, but tell me a little bit about that. You have wonderful subheadings within the book. One of them that I like right at the beginning is The Algebra of Joy. And then joy keeps cropping up. Tell us a bit about joy and how this connects, how this is woven into your book.
Christina: So, it’s all about joy, which makes me wish it was just joy in the title. But I felt like we need to have this conversation about what truly brings joy, and it is these more burdensome things. And I want to just reframe the word burden before I get into also understanding the word joy a little bit more closely, if you can indulge me. Which is that I made this amazing discovery when I was doing a word study for this book around burdens. And that is that which shifts capacity is called a burden. And I was just like, you know, I had all the goosebumps in the world, you know, those moments where you make this aha! moment and everything starts connecting together. Because that’s what good burdens do; they create capacity. They make more of us.
And I think the most joyful activities in life do that. They create more capacity in our hearts, in our minds in our spirits and our bodies. And so, I just wanted to sort of put that to the side, about why it needed to be around this idea of burden.
Joy. So right in the dictionary definition of the word joy are the words, wellbeing and success. And so that’s the algebra of joy. It’s not really algebra, it’s wellbeing plus success equals joy. And I define wellbeing and success in a very specific way. I define wellbeing as having a positive relationship with your abilities and your limits, and success simply as the achievement of your goals. And we need both of those things to be present in the experience of joy. We all need direction, we all need wellbeing, which comes by way of relationship, engagement and important work – all these different things.
So, joy is central to this conversation, because it’s what we all want. We all want to experience joy. And so, that’s why this is so central to the work. And so, throughout the book, it’s quite interactive. Actually, over the course of the book, you create your own list of 100 joys. And it’s because I made this discovery. I was interviewing Dr. Ellen Langer, who’s widely considered the mother of mindfulness. She was the first tenured woman professor in the psychology department at Harvard. And I was interviewing her on my podcast and the JOMOcast. And she was telling me that the definition of mindfulness is just actively noticing new things.
And I started to pay attention to the experience of joy. And not just mine, but my community members, my friends – all the people around me. And there were two things present in joy. There was always some sort of attention, that you need to be attentive to it, right? You couldn’t be having a joyful experience, but miss it. You could be in it, but you’re not in it. You know what I mean? You can miss it – like a gorgeous sunset and you’re just distracted and not attentive. And also, effort. And so there was something about nurturing, noticing the things that bring us joy and nurturing the things that bring us joy, and that being a good burden. It’s something that we need to be really attentive to and effortful about. So, I’m hoping I’m explaining properly this connection between good burdens and joy.
Karen: I think so. I think so. And I have my list of a hundred joys now, which was really good. It was a really good exercise for me. At first, I thought, you know, 10, maybe 20. And then you kind of get freed up. It’s almost like some stopper comes out of your inner being and you realize, you become a little bit more reflective of what are the things that really do give me joy. And I like that other part of it. I like that effort part, because, in a way, that’s one of the things I found in the book was kind of inviting us back into the present circumstances we’re in and how we can be more of a participant in them. One of the things I found is I wanted to be your neighbor. You’re a good neighbor. I really got a kick out of that. I mean, these all sorts of stories of your neighborhood. And I just kind of got the feel for someone who has decided to be aware of what’s around her, as opposed to just kind of racing out the front door and gone. And I enjoyed that. It challenged me, to be quite honest with you. It challenged me to be a better neighbor to my circle, my place, you know, where you’re planted, kind of thing.
Christina: Thank you for that. Would you be willing to share some of your joys with us?
Karen: You know, what I found consistently was, I found I love being with people that I love, whether it’s family or friends, the joy of a conversation and the joy of laughter and the joy of sharing a meal together. And the joy of just, you know, that kind of connectedness, I guess, was one of those things. But then, it came down to, you know, silly stuff. I enjoy playing gin rummy. I enjoy, you know, all sorts of crazy stuff. I enjoy gin and tonics probably, too, you know, all those fun things that are a good source of joy.
Let me ask you how you found . . . I think you have a very strong perception of who Henri Nouwen was and there’s many aspects, even of what we’ve talked about, that remind me, really, of Henri. How about you? Do you have kind of ways in which you see Henri still informing you spiritually and creatively?
Christina: Yeah. I mean, as you know, Karen, I write about Henri in the book, and specifically about his idea of holy inefficiency, which comes from a Christianity Today article about Henri many, many, many years ago. How does Henri not still inform my thinking and writing and living? I think one of the things that I – just today, like in this moment – that I so deeply love about Henri was the ways in which he struggled and kept pressing on, in the good burden of relationship, even when it hurt, even when he was doing it badly, even when things weren’t going his way. And he continues to be a consistent encouragement to me, to continue to put in that good work. Yeah. Yeah. There’s just so much in him. It’s just so much honesty and kindness and vulnerability. That actually came up in my book launch. I was in conversation with David Sax, who wrote the book, The Revenge of Analog. And he was asking me about why I felt the need to, or the desire to write with so much vulnerability in Good Burdens, about my own struggles, about my marriage, about all kinds of aspects of my life. And I would say that the courage to do that came from Henri.
Karen: Yes. I love how you’re describing your own writing, and it’s really true. That’s what I found there. I found that kind of vulnerable authenticity, and it’s actually that kind of true-line in Henri that draws people to him is the reality. He says what it’s like, he says who he is. He isn’t trying to be something other than who he is. And often he’s very hard on himself, but having said that, it still is very endearing and engaging, I think, to all of us, because we go, “Oh, that’s just like me. I get that.” And I think you know that.
Christina: Henri “Just Me” Nouwen.
Karen: Just Me Nouwen. But I found that in your writing, too, there is something, there’s a great, deep choice in saying, “I’ll share with you, not all the pretty stuff, not all the stuff that’s neat and tidy, I’ll share with you all of it.” And it just invites people into such a freer place within their own spirits. And I’m grateful to be able to say, I think you’ve inherited the very best of Henri’s approach. I like that so much. I love his line: “To be hospitable, to liberate fearful hearts.” I think that’s beautiful, too. And there’s a welcoming in all of that. As I said, I love the fact you are an instructor in how to create community. And I think that’s so valuable. You gave me some new language – and I thought it was interesting – new language for what I’ve thought of as meditation and solitude. Let’s talk a little bit about unconstructed time. What do you mean by that?
Christina: Just being with others for no purpose, which I think happens never. No. And the importance of that. So, I taught, I write about the term niksen, which is a Dutch term, which means exactly that: being together for zero purpose. And there’s something about just a state of being, which seems counter-intuitive in a book about burdens, because it might seem like I’m trying to push people to just do more, be more, but that is absolutely not the case. In fact, each chapter is about a state of being: be grateful, be alive, be you. And so, I think that a returning to – well, this goes right back to Henri and being the beloved, right? All I want you to know is to know that you are beloved, that you are loved just as you are. And I think it is only in those spaces of just resting and being, and stopping, and being present with others as well, that we really get to a true knowing of that, a true belief in that. And that’s why I think it’s so important.
Karen: You also talk about something that was a beautiful phrase, something you were called into as a young girl: what it was to be a sanctuary for another person. And in a sense that is an amazing offering we can give to anybody – to be a sanctuary for them. Maybe you might just elaborate a bit about what that means.
Christina: Yeah. So, I had this experience in Grade Nine, I was about 14 years old, where my best friend’s mom attempted suicide. And it wasn’t a call for help; it was a sincere attempt. And I had a group of teachers – I actually went to a Christian school and I think this is very unique to this particular inner-city school in Vancouver – where they pulled me aside. I had no idea it had happened and they just told me that I had a free pass off of school for at least the next three weeks, to just be there for my best friend. And we actually just recently connected, this best friend, at IKEA, after she read the book. And yeah, that was an opportunity for me to be a sanctuary for her. We didn’t know what she would need and that’s what my teachers said.
They said, “You know, we don’t know what she’s going to need. You’re not going to know what she needs, but you just need to be available, to be there for her.” And so, it just gave me permission to do that. But it did feel like such an incredible privilege to be whatever she needed me to be for her in that time. And I think that’s the longing of all of our hearts, right, we’re just saying, “Would you just be here with me?”
We’re so busy. None of us have margin. The digital space is so overcrowded. There are so few moments where we’re not being bombarded by incoming information or willfully choosing information. But really, our hearts are just wanting to be, you know? With God, with ourselves, with others. So, yeah. That’s why the importance of sanctuary.
Karen: Do you think technology can be used to carry good burdens?
Karen: Tell me how.
Christina: Absolutely. Yes. And that is really what I hope people take away from this book, and it comes back to what I shared before, about Pamela Pavliscak’s findings about how the people happiest with technology use it very distinctly. They use it in very distinct ways and they use it for purposes. They use it for caring for others. And it could be also for caring for yourself, right? And actively engaging with resources that support you, building community – I think communities can be begun online. I do think that we need to close the gap, in terms of being in person or being as direct as possible. Like, we’ve got Facebook groups, but if you make a connection with one person, putting that into a direct chat. Building community more directly, I think, is always the goal that we can start there.
And then creativity, right? You and I are currently using technology for a creative project that is this amazing podcast. And also the sharing of my new creative work, which is the book. We’re using these technologies in very distinct ways. And I think if we can keep those three Cs in the forefront – care and community and creativity – and just ask that question. You know, maybe you’re scrolling on Instagram or whatever, you’re binge-watching YouTube, just ask yourself: “Is this helping me to care? Is this helping me to build communities? Is this helping me creatively?” And if not, then maybe it’s time to shift your attention in a different direction.
Karen: It’s interesting, because I think one of the greatest dangers of technology is it can fill every minute and you don’t have quiet. Quiet as important in terms of communicating and having peace with God. But it’s also the place where out of which I think creativity can really come, ideas can be birthed and burdens can be given. And I think some of those burdens need to come from God himself, in terms of what we take on, what we feel led to, what we feel called to. But if we have no quiet in our life, we may miss it. I don’t know. That’s just my thoughts.
Christina: No, absolutely. And so, I guess I should say on the other hand, to answer your question. Yes. I do think that we can use technology for good. But I absolutely think we need to keep space away from technology on a regular basis. Daily, weekly, monthly, annually, taking breaks really intentionally. I’m feeling more of an urgency in my own life and I’m kind of trying to wrestle it through in my own life before I start to teach it to other people. But I’m feeling an urgency around spending more hours of the day off of a screen than on one, which seems like it should be pretty easy. It actually requires some intentionality, at least in my own life. And there’s something about skewing the balance to the real world and being away from devices that can really be vital for grounding in what’s really true and what’s real. Even yesterday: I went for a walk and just sort of lingered on a walk, a midday coffee walk. It just felt important. And so, I think it’s important to pay attention to those nudges, because I do think that’s the Spirit, I do think that’s God trying to get our attention – and I rarely feel that online. I don’t know if I ever have actually felt that online, that nudge.
Karen: Isn’t it interesting? I think I would agree with you. What I found throughout your book was I could tell without having to ask you what was on your joy list, there’s this longing for the real and for that which is grand and beautiful.
Christina, you’re so savvy about the world of technology and in your strength, you lead others on a voyage of discovery, teaching people how to thrive in our digital age. Your latest book. Good Burdens, is one I can highly recommend.
Christina: Thank you so much, Karen.
Karen: I mean it wholeheartedly. I find delight in your book on every page. You call us to make hope our compass. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Christina: Thank you so much for having me, Karen. It was a joy.
Karen: Good to be with you.
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