Few people seem to be able to resist the allure of so-called hacks: time-saving shortcuts that promise to release us from drudgery so we can go do the stuff we really enjoy and need to do. People develop a lot of these shortcuts. Some of them are even good time-savers. But for some stuff, there’s no substitute for doing something the long way for a result worth having. Here’s a look at shortcuts–why they’re so seductive, what they can’t accomplish, and why some people go overboard with seeking them.
A Somewhat-Lacking QA Department.
When I came to America, there was no money in bodybuilding. So besides going to school and getting an education, I also worked as a bricklayer and took acting classes. If you want to get to the top, you learn that there is no shortcut to anything.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Red Bulletin, December 2017
GQ sources the term life hack to programmers‘ “geek-speak” in 2003, which sounds about right. The term caught on like blazes. Very soon, websites, videos, and social-media hangouts began talking about “hacks” that were guaranteed to help people live fuller, richer, thriftier lives. Everything had a hack associated with it–from personal finance to minor home repairs to cooking to dating to weight loss.
Ideally, a hack is a shortcut for a longer and more tedious set of tasks–and it’s supposed to bring a person to the same goal at the end. And some hacks are great–like using one’s clean hands to separate egg whites and yolks rather than fussing about with gadgets.
The problem with hacks is that they aren’t usually tested objectively in any way. If someone sees a hack that claims that refrigerating batteries makes them last longer and tries it and the batteries actually drain more quickly, it’s not like anybody’s going to refund their money for the batteries. The marketplace of hack ideas is very much buyer-beware.
Sometimes these shortcuts are flat-out disastrous, too–made as jokes or offered up by ignorant people (as we saw parodied in 2005 in King of the Hill, when Peggy Hill published a household hints column that innocently suggested that a splendid homemade cleanser could be made at home for pennies by mixing ammonia and bleach).1
It seems like there’s just a personality that is drawn to the quick-fix nature of shortcuts. And I knew a lot of people with that personality in fundagelicalism. My then-husband Biff was like that long before he converted ; he used to talk a lot about figuring out what “the angle” was that rich people were working. The term came from a popular 1980s NSFW animated movie, Heavy Metal, which featured a segment about a smug asshat who was trying to squirm out of a laundry list of criminal charges by utilizing “an angle,” which in this case was a guy he’d paid off to lie for him about, well, everything. Belief in the power of “the angle” didn’t stand the asshat much good in the end, but Biff never remembered that detail.
Every time Biff thought he’d worked out “the angle” and actually tried to execute one of these schemes, he literally only pushed himself back further in the great game of Life. For example, our short-lived trip to Japan in the mid-1990s was simply another of his “angle” schemes.
Biff told people–often, loudly, and with a beaming Jesus Smile–that “Jesus” had told him via magical telepathy that we were meant to go there to bring about revival. But that was totally not his real reason. He’d heard around campus that even part-time and untrained English teachers there made enough money to buy horse farms outside of Tokyo (YES) and were treated like rock stars by the awed Japanese (YES), and that sure sounded better than anything he had going on in Houston, where our lives were the exact opposite of that fantasy.
When I finally began to perceive the many ways that he’d ignored and hand-waved away reality to convince himself that he’d finally found his “angle,” it didn’t take long at all for me to remember all the other “angles” he’d pursued. And with some exasperation, I saw my friends moving forward in life–finishing college, finding good jobs, starting families. Though I didn’t share their dreams exactly, I saw that Biff and I were very unlikely to ever see our dreams realized, thanks to his insistence that there had to be this magical shortcut to unimaginable wealth, and that all he had to do was find it and then everything would be smooth sailing. When one scheme failed, he was already off to his next one–and usually had totally forgotten about the failure of the last one.
But he wasn’t the only Christian doing that. He’d fallen into a broken system that not only allowed for the chasing of “angles,” but which actively encouraged adherents to pursue them.
Let us count the ways! Allez cuisine!
A Shortcut to Personal Peace.
Christianity promises instant forgiveness. That promise is one of the cornerstones of the religion–and one of the offers that many evangelism-minded Christians consider their most potent sales tool. One can see why they like it. Just mouth a magic spell at the ceiling and feel very, very sorry while doing it, and an invisible wizard in the sky will wipe your slate clean and forget that the offense ever happened–at which point the Christians around that now-forgiven person had better do the same.
Most flavors of the religion throw in some other stuff about requiring repentance for the magic forgiveness to work; others throw in reconciliation or restitution; this Mormon site throws in a demand that the person requesting magic forgiveness also try really, really hard to “refrain from the sin thereafter.” (Maybe we ought to ask them to refrain from all that alliteration!) These demands, however, are almost never evaluated or enforced.
In reality, forgiveness is one of the more complex parts of the human experience–and Christian teachings don’t come anywhere close to embracing that full complexity. Sometimes it can take years for someone to fully atone for a wrong done to someone else–and even then, that other person isn’t ever under any obligation to forgive them even when full restitution has been made.
No wonder Christians prefer mouthing magic spells at the ceiling.
A Shortcut to Change.
One of the biggest magic shortcuts Christianity offers is that of instant personal transformation. After a Christian obtains magic forgiveness, then the Christian god moves into that person’s heart and mind and starts changing that person to be more acceptable to him. This transformation (which my group called the infilling) is not only supposed to be far-reaching but also obvious to anybody observing the newly-converted Christian.
And this doctrine, like the one about forgiveness, is all but universal. Billy Graham insists that deep, all-encompassing, dramatic personality “happens all the time” to Christians–though he’s careful to cover his ass with the usual list of asterisks that one finds any time Christians talk about miracles: too much pride will stymie his god, but he also blames an implied lack of proper submission to “Jesus” in the Christians who are praying super-hard for atheists’ minds to change (which makes his god sound like someone refusing to donate to a charity because he didn’t get enough likes from his friends list on his cryface selfie).
Billy Graham needs to asterisk his list because when those atheists don’t actually ever convert, the Christian writing to him will need some pre-fabricated boilerplate excuses about why those magic spells failed.
Besides changing other people’s minds and hearts through magic, Christians also depend on the same processes to change themselves. And there, too, even motivated Christians discover very rapidly that magic change only works if the long, drawn-out process of working hard at real change happens alongside the prayers for magical aid. The problem there is that their social teachings don’t lend themselves at all to the process of real change. Shortcuts promise the results that these Christians haven’t been able to find any other way.
A Shortcut to Knowledge and Wisdom.
Anybody who tangles with hardline Christians–be they Catholics, like that Angelo Stagnaro fellow, or fundagelicals, like, well, almost all of them–notices quickly that they genuinely believe that they can be filled with knowledge and wisdom instantly thanks to their infilling by their god.
I was there once. It’s so tantalizing for people like that to believe that any ole numnut Creationist with a library card or an internet connection can totally become the equal of a doctorate-holding, peer-reviewed, frequently-published biologist or cosmologist or physicist–or doctor or teacher–and moreover that this level of education can be acquired quickly.
Instant knowledge and wisdom happens via two methods.
First and most dramatically, Christians like that really believe that if they will only open their mouths, then “Jesus” will speak through them and–since the words will really be coming from him, not from the Christian–whatever comes out will be the perfect thing to say right then for those on the receiving end of that divine miracle. We’re supposed to ignore that none of these divine utterances has ever produced any verified information that the speaker couldn’t have known or guessed.
The second method involves my favorite activity: doing the research, y’all! In this method, the Christian self-selects information to consume that will reinforce and bolster their existing beliefs and opinions about a subject and model arguments that are sold as slam-dunk wins in debates. Thus fortified, our brave adventurer then ventures forth to do battle with heretics and heathens–and gets smashed. Their shields of antiprocess will protect them from learning, however (and their admirers, who accept these Christians’ claims of expertise without question, won’t abandon them).
If the shields falter, then sometimes the Christian will realize how mismatched that fight was. In college, I once worked for a whole weekend to build a persuasive mini-sermon that a professor of mine had graciously allowed me to give–so he could just as graciously destroy it. No sarcasm there, either; it was a lesson was so gently and lovingly given that it penetrated even my full-throttle fundagelical indoctrination. I went up against a college dean with an M.Div from one of the most rigorous seminaries in America, and I ended up liking and respecting him all the more afterward. He’d done the real work; I had only dabbled. And our mismatch had been obvious from the moment he opened his mouth in response.
There is simply no shortcut to a rich, deep knowledge base–and it’s not hard to see why Christians bristle so much at that simple truth.
Even so, it’s annoying when Christians assume that all people with real educations and knowledge bases are as unqualified as they themselves are.
A Shortcut to Love.
It didn’t take me long after conversion to notice that a lot of the people who joined my church were not, shall we gently say, well socialized or surrounded by meaningful friendships. At the time, it made sense in a way that such people might be a little more in tune with the supernatural call of Christianity. But gradually it began to bother me; when I saw Christians in my church descend specifically upon people like that, I began to perceive this behavior as predatory. It’s like Christians wanted to find people who were having trouble finding friends and spouses, like they were happy to see someone who’d regard their friendship evangelism as sincere.
Meanwhile, I developed a disdain for the longer, more drawn-out process of making real friends. Small talk, in particular, bugged me. I thought it was shallow and superficial, far beneath anybody who wanted quick and effortless intimacy with others. And thanks to my own troubles with socialization, I was really, really wanting that.
I didn’t realize that small talk has some very important functions in helping people decide how close to get to another given person–and evaluate how safe that other person is to be around. Making friends usually takes time; it’s not something that can be rushed. If that relationship has lifetime potential, then that evaluation period becomes even more important. Sometimes people might just know that they’ve just met their new best friend or their future spouse, but most of the time we need time. There’s not an instant magic shortcut there.
And the sheer number of purely abusive relationships–both on the friendship level and the marital level–that I saw erupting out of my own denomination, and the many times that number I’ve seen since leaving Christianity, tells me that whatever magic shortcut Christians use to evaluate their potential friends and spouses, it doesn’t work at all.
A Shortcut to Authority.
Biff’s love of “the angle” extended far past monetary wealth, of course. I really think that one reason he got into Pentecostalism as quickly and thoroughly as he did was that he thought he’d found the fastest shortcut ever to gain both power and respect.
Simply because he was a man, “Jesus” had granted him total authority over his spouse. And if “Jesus” hand-picked him for ministry, then obviously ministry was where he was going–everyone would be obligated to give way and let him grandstand and prance around church stages all over the world. Nobody would ever ask him to prove that he deserved total power over his future wife; nobody would ever demand that he demonstrate the core competencies that any hiring organization in Reality-Land would ask of any potential leaders. Literally all he had to do was to point to “Jesus” as the source of his desired power.
And that was an astonishing turnaround for him. In the non-religious world, he didn’t get much respect from others. He was a known quantity: a liar, a manipulator, a schemer, a two-faced conjob. I was probably the very last person around him to figure it out. People liked him anyway because he could be very boyishly charming–but they were careful to keep him at arm’s length and curtail his ability to wreck their plans.
The really hilarious thing is that Biff didn’t realize that our denomination’s leaders were doing exactly the same thing to him that had happened in the secular world!
When he busted into our dying pastor’s deathbed vigil with a bottle of Pompeian extra-virgin olive oil (my denomination’s oil of choice for this purpose, and no, I don’t know why) to dab the poor man’s forehead and pray for his magic healing, he got thrown right out of that room by the grieving family. He never got further in the denomination than occasional guest preaching; he was never paid to do anything; he was never more than a volunteer youth pastor in any formal capacity. Years after my own deconversion, I would look back at that whole situation and think maybe they weren’t quite as bonkers-for-Jesus as they pretended to be.
I still think Biff could have turned people’s perceptions around, both in and out of church culture. But it would have taken time. It would have been difficult. He had a lot of really awful things to live down by the time we broke up. And he just wasn’t interested in anything difficult. He found it easier to simply declare his divinely-granted authority. Those who believed it would fall into line; those who did not, he was clearly willing to see walk away from him.
Everything is Reps, Reps, Reps.
I’ve outlined a lot of shortcuts here that I see Christianity offering people who aren’t thrilled with the time that reality-based goals would take to achieve. And if any of these hacks worked, I guess that’d be one thing. But none of them do.
It’s this simple: Any system that promises these kinds of instant results is one to avoid–along with those who would seek to sell that ideology to others. People chasing after hacks and “angles” are wasting a lot of time, money, and effort that none of us has in infinite supply–and they are showing us something unsavory about themselves in the doing.
By contrast, the stuff that actually develops us as human beings is fairly time-consuming stuff. There are no shortcuts to developing a strong body or an educated mind. For those of us not blessed with family connections, wealth-building takes time–if it can happen at all. There’s not a fast hack to becoming a real expert in whatever skill or knowledge-base interests us. Everything we want in life that’s actually within our reach and worth the having takes time and effort to attain.
And man oh man, we sure do find a lot of ways, as a species, to get around that difficult truth.
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