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The Ted Lasso Approach to Reading
I now exist not as a person who has 'some really interesting thoughts' about "Between the World and Me" but only as a person who has read “Between the World and Me” and is happy he did.
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One of my favorite silver linings for our pandemic year was the emergence of Ted Lasso.
On its surface, the show’s concept seemed a bit fraught for our current national mood.
Here we are, locked down, enduring this trial, fearing for our loved ones, angry with our politics, and we’re making a show based on an 8-year-old TV commercial? That’s the plan? Really?
Oh and the “hero” is a white, male, American getting dropped into a different culture and being the boss? This just went from fraught to perilously out of touch.
Let’s just say that my expectations were not super high for Ted Lasso. And yet, the show quickly won me over just as it seemed to everyone else. It was a near-universal hit with audiences and critics too.
It is somehow hilarious without being offensive, ignorant, or tone-deaf. The show makes a habit of introducing us to unlikable or downright despicable characters, then peeling back their armor layer by layer until, by the end, we care about them all.
Most of the peeling was done by Ted, whose persona really anchors the show.
Ted somehow does it right. And I think the key is one simple yet elusive attribute: Humility.
Ted is just as loud and just as ignorant as any stereotypical Midwestern American tourist. But what he lacks is our general American sense of certainty about the way things ought to be. He hates tea, for instance. But he doesn’t badger or belittle the folks who drink it. In fact, he tries it on multiple occasions, thinking his tastes might eventually evolve. They don’t, but he does.
The show’s biggest takeaway – uttered during a near-certain contender for future “best TV scene” listicles – is a quote from Walt Whitman, relayed by Lasso, that summarizes his and the show’s entire philosophy:
Be curious, not judgmental.
After watching, I wrote the phrase big and bright on my whiteboard wall, where it remains today, threatening to become permanent.
That phrase – curious not judgmental – could also sum up my present approach to reading.
I don’t know about you, but this is not how I was taught to read.
Growing up in a Reformed Baptist church, we were taught to read Scripture and books by Christian authors. We were to be wary of everything else. But whatever we chose to read, we were encouraged to read carefully and thoughtfully.
We were to weigh everything – especially the Christian books – against what we knew to be taught in Scripture.
Now, of course, how we came to know “what we knew to be taught in Scripture” is a whole other dubious rabbit hole we won’t go down here. But my pastor was very fond of invoking the Bereans, an obscure group of early Jewish Christians who appear briefly in Acts. They were great models, he explained, as they “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true.”
Every sermon you heard, every book you read, needed to be examined against the Scriptures. Read it for yourself, my pastor demanded.
I am not sure he counted on anyone actually taking him up on it. But I did. And that’s where all my troubles with the Church started, as I eventually came to a Princess Brideian conclusion: “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The ensuing discussions/debates would put me in a defensive posture as I went off to college, where one of the biggest goals of our liberal arts education was to teach us to “think and read critically.” Sifting through philosophy, history, sociology, and so on, we were encouraged to weigh authors’ arguments against one another, consider the authors’ cultural and historical contexts, spot potential biases, and, of course, weigh in with our own opinions in responsive essay assignments.
Once I got to graduate school, we were even encouraged to critique authors based on arguments they weren’t making, and on criteria they weren’t even thinking about at the time they were writing.
And so perhaps thanks to both my fundamentalist church and my liberal arts education, I approached reading in my adult life as though I was going into battle. Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, agreeing or disagreeing, thinking of examples or counter-examples, deciding what it was I thought about the authors’ arguments or points of view.
It was pretty exhausting.
I remember the exact moment it all changed.
It was about five years ago. I was on my way to work, sitting in traffic across from the fire station in Belmont, Massachusetts, taking the back way as usual to avoid the traffic on the highway.
This harrowing commute was only 20 miles, but could easily take an hour or more. This necessitated a large, comfortable vehicle, many podcasts, and, when those were exhausted, an Audible subscription.
On this particular occasion, I was listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.
At the time the book was fairly new. I can’t remember how I learned about it, but I remember understanding that it had been deemed something Important, and as such, I felt it was something I needed to read (or at least listen to).
Now, Ta-Nehisi Coates has said explicitly, and others have pointed out how important it is, that this book was not written for a white audience.
Nonetheless, I remember being swept up in the flowing beauty of Coates’ prose, enthralled by the story of his life, and, of course, jarred by some of his conclusions.
He’d write long, gorgeous sentences that rendered hard, sweeping judgments on America, The Dream as he dubbed it, and the white people who perpetuated it. Some of which, I’ll admit, made me bristle.
I could feel my hackles getting up — an urge to argue. Thoughts like, “well that’s not how I’ve experienced it” or “how can that be true across the board?” would flash across my brain as I crept along in traffic.
But in that moment, across from that fire station, I suddenly flipped a switch.
I remember thinking, this book is Important. It’s showing me a perspective I could never experience firsthand. It’s beautiful and moving. Then, this thought hit me:
Why do I need to figure out if I agree or disagree with it at all?
Why is agreeing or disagreeing the point? Why can’t I simply let this book wash over me? Enjoy its language, hear its author’s voice, feel his feelings, absorb what is there to be absorbed?
Isn’t the lens through which I see, hear, and understand the world inevitably going to be limited or distorted in some ways?
So why do I have to force-filter his perspective through my lens?
Why do I have to have my own personal take on Between the World and Me? Why am I required to draw my own conclusion?
So I didn’t.
And now, I exist not as a person who has ‘some really interesting thoughts’ about Between the World and Me but only as a person who has read Between the World and Me and is happy he did.
That’s pretty much the way I strive to read everything to this day, regardless of the subject.
I would not get into practicing mindfulness until a couple years later (perhaps as a result of this very same more passive approach to reading and ideas in general), but looking back it strikes me that you might characterize this approach as “Mindful Reading,” as opposed to “Critical Reading.”
I even try to take the same approach, albeit cautiously, with media bias. I know a number of people who will not take any article from certain publications — most typically what they consider “liberal mainstream” media outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or CNN — seriously.
If they do condescend to read an article from one of these publications, it’s done more so as a game of “spot the bias” than with the sincere desire to glean any useful information or insight.
When you’re really looking for it, it’s pretty easy to spot biased or potentially biased language in almost any article.
Whereas the better approach, to my mind, would be to recognize that every article is written from a point of view, and every author must make choices about what to include or not include. Every author has biases. And different authors go to different lengths to keep those biases out of their stories. Others deliberately keep them in, offering their “take” on a topic.
To fixate on biases as though they are disqualifying of a journalist — or worse yet the entire outlet they represent — is to miss the vast amount of unbiased and likely germane truth in their writing.
Rather than set ourselves up with the impossible task of finding “unbiased” articles to share, an individual desirous of being well-rounded and well-informed should read a number of sources with a curious mind, seeing where they overlap and where they diverge, ultimately using them together to get a fuller picture or opposing points of view.
Personally, I like to peruse both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal to get both a “liberal” and “conservative” take on the day’s news. There’s a lot more good reporting in both papers than there is blatant one-sidedness in either.
This curious-not-judgmental approach has led me to read the sorts of spiritual books that would have horrified my church leaders. Books by Buddhists, Universalists, Atheists, Liberation Theologists, and also books by Comedians, Celebrities, Economists, and Business People. And rather than forcing them through the filters of my lens, I think each one has done a part in grabbing my frame and widening it for me.
This approach has even helped me come full circle to read some Christian books I likely would have shunned due to some of that resentment I still feel toward the Church.
A few months ago a friend sent me a very Christian book about near-death experiences (NDEs, for short) called “Imagine Heaven.”
They say not to judge a book by its cover, but I did. Harshly. This book looked like it belonged on the shelf of the cheesiest Christian bookstore you’ve ever set foot in. A ray of heavenly light broke through some billowing clouds under a Roman font worthy of King James himself.
And on the back cover came the kiss of death: One of the endorsement blurbs was written by a faculty member from Liberty University, a notorious home to the kind of religious fundamentalism I count myself blessed to have escaped; essentially, the den of Satan himself (that’s not my lens talking; that’s simple truth).
A few months later, I was about to reunite with this very friend after we hadn’t seen each other in several years. It occurred to me that I should read a few chapters of this book, so that I could at least tell him I’d given it a fair shake.
What I read shocked and delighted me. What folks who had experienced NDEs had consistently reported actually seemed to confirm the almost stupidly simple interpretation of the Cosmos that I’ve come to embrace over the last 20 years or so: namely, that there is Good and Evil in the world, and we want to be on the side of Good, in whatever capacity is available to us.
If people came back with any sort of lesson or directive, it was to “learn to love people better” or “forgive people more,” not that all sinners should beware eternal hellfire, or that America would crumble under secular liberalism, or that doctrine X was the true and correct interpretation of the Scriptures and they needed to spread the word far and wide, lest all the misguided world be cast into the fiery pit.
I honestly loved the picture of God and heaven that the book painted. People who’d experienced NDEs spoke of an overwhelming feeling of total love and acceptance, and of being “fully known” in a way that was impossible on Earth.
This was one of four books I took with me on a recent trip to New Jersey, a place that naturally lends itself to the comprehension of Heaven, Hell, and – particularly on the highways – the idea of Hell on Earth.
Using my Lassonian reading technique, I was able to embrace the encouraging takeaways of Imagine Heaven, while letting some of the less thoughtful passages speculating on how it all might “work” with the Bible and more traditional Christian teaching simply wash over me and flow on.
Another book, called The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley presents an economic and historical case for the evolution of prosperity via division of labor and innovation, arguing that in the long run, our collective brain may very well be humanity’s ultimate salvation. I also found this book to be tremendously encouraging, as it challenges its readers to look beyond our present state of perpetual crisis, amplified by our media, and acknowledge how people working together have vastly improved the quality of life on this planet, and will likely continue to do so for millennia to come.
N.T. Wright, a British theologian and the author of the third book I brought to N.J. would disagree. In Surprised by Hope he argues that a faith in pure humanism to solve the world’s problems is foolishly naive. But he argues that it is our job as Christians to work to establish God’s kingdom (as in “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”) here in this world as best we can until Jesus returns to finally and fully redeem all creation, including this very planet!
And finally, I had along with me Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. This is the book I would reach for when I had trouble sleeping, and would spiral into anxious or negative thoughts. I find this book to be filled with deep truths about the nature of our lives and our existence, as the author encourages a mindful and, yes, curious, approach to joy, pain, and the points in between.
These books offer up very different – and, some might argue, competing – worldviews. But I don’t see them as clashing. I have not been wrestling and striving to determine which one “gets it right.” Instead, I’m finding positive, complimentary ideas in all of them.
Between the letting go of striving that Pema encourages, the rational optimism that Mr. Ridley champions, the sense of mission laid out by old N.T., and the hope for ultimate, unconditional love and forgiveness from the Creator of the Universe, I am feeling pretty darn good!
I think Ted Lasso would approve.