Living Against the Grain: How to Make Decisions That Lead to an Authentic Life

Living Against the Grain: How to Make Decisions That Lead to an Authentic Life

by Tim Muldoon

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780829445046
Publisher: Loyola Press
Publication date: 04/01/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 912,900
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

TIM MULDOON is a theologian, professor, and author of many books including The Ignatian Workout and, with Sue Muldoon, The Discerning Parent: An Ignatian Guide to Raising your Teen. He has taught Ignatian spirituality for many years at the undergraduate and graduate levels at Boston College, Washington Theological Union, and LaSalle University. He and his wife Sue live with their three children just west of Boston.
TIM MULDOON is a theologian, professor, and author of many books including The Ignatian Workout and, with Sue Muldoon, The Discerning Parent: An Ignatian Guide to Raising Your Teen. He has taught Ignatian spirituality for many years at the undergraduate and graduate levels at Boston College, Washington Theological Union, and LaSalle University. He and his wife Sue live with their three children just west of Boston.

Read an Excerpt

Living Against the Grain

How to Make Decisions that Lead to an Authentic Life

By Tim Muldoon

Loyola Press

Copyright © 2017 Tim Muldoon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8294-4503-9



Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, from "God's Grandeur"

Your passport to life has already been stamped. You have gone through customs. You are alive, and you are living in a very busy world.

The beginning of discernment is quite simply the awareness that you live in a world not of your own choosing. You are subject to its laws and affected by its social mores. You interact with people who, for the most part, are in your life for reasons that have less to do with your choices and much more to do with choices made by others over centuries. You speak their language; you are from the place where they landed. You have been thrown into the world, and now you must decide what to do here. How do you do that?

Well, you look around at what others are doing and copy them. Babies imitate their mothers. Toddlers mimic the language patterns of adults. Children watch their parents closely. Students look at what the bigger kids are doing, whether in early grades or in college. Then off to work, where you pay attention to those who are successful and copy them. If you desire holiness, you imitate Christ or the saints. You buy books from the people who have achieved success — how to make money, how to lose weight, how to raise kids, how to organize your home, how to run a marathon, maybe even how to pray. (I can recommend one or two.)

On some level this pattern is unavoidable, especially when you are getting to know a new place. Imitation, or mimesis (as Aristotle called it), is a profoundly human capacity. We are at our root meaning makers, persons created to do some good in the world, who look at the data of our experience in order to interpret it in poetic or pedestrian ways. We can either follow along with the crowd, going after what they desire (or are told to desire by the arbiters of culture), or we can discern a new, creative way to live — a new adventure. As Mary Oliver wrote:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

So you have a life: What are you going to do with it? Will you build skyscrapers or compose operas? Will you make movies or send people to Mars? Will you become rich and famous? Will you become a head of state or win a Nobel Prize?

Let's wait a moment before we send you off on your next life's adventure and ask a rather big question. Are any of those things worth desiring? What, exactly, is the good of building skyscrapers, writing operas, making movies, sending people to Mars, becoming rich and famous, or a head of state or a Nobel Prize winner?


Let me introduce you to a character from Dave Eggers's novel The Circle, a young woman named Mae whose career path at a tech company is a parable of desires that take her away from her most authentic self. Hers is a cautionary tale about how sometimes our desires steer us to be like everyone else, and we need to have the courage to mark out a new path for our wild and precious lives.

Mae is a few years out of college, working a dead-end job, when a friend helps her get a job at the coolest company in the world. The Circle is a tech conglomerate that has bought out or overtaken Google, Facebook, Twitter, and every other Silicon Valley wannabe. Everything about the Circle is ahead of its time: the open campus with tons of recreational activities, the organic farm, the health center, the minigolf area, the movie theater, the bowling alleys, the grocery store. The ten-thousand-plus employees have free access to the on-campus dorms. In short, the Circle is like college, only they pay you to be there:

Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought. Who else but utopians could make utopia?

The Circle represents the summit of everything that Mae can desire. She has a job that people outside the Circle envy. She always has something interesting to do, whether it's partying with coworkers after dark, or playing kickball, or going to a brunch with people who are interested in Portugal.

The ethos of the company is built on fostering a complete circle of communication through technology. Social media, streaming real-time video all over the world, and constant awareness of one's connection to others through phones and cameras provide employees with an almost divine knowledge of the world. Yet there are Circle skeptics, including Mae's former boyfriend Mercer, who casts a wary eye on the creeping omniscience of the Circle. Mercer shares his concern that social media, the allure of the digital world, and the monetization of everything are harming authentic person-to-person contact:

I mean, all this stuff you're involved in, it's all gossip. It's people talking about each other behind their backs. That's the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication.

Mae dismisses Mercer's complaints, though, seeing only the good that the company represents. What she sees are the limitless possibilities opened up by the Circle: people sharing instant communication, making their needs and desires known. The Circle, she believes, will transform democracy itself when politicians "go live," streaming their lives in real time so their constituents can vote in an instant on this or that idea. The scope of the Circle is total: it will make human beings like God.

Mae and her friend Francis have a brief interaction with a former divinity school student, a middle-aged man who gives voice to this growing power of the Circle:

"Now all humans will have the eyes of God. You know this passage? 'All things are naked and opened unto the eyes of God.' Something like that. You know your Bible?" Seeing the blank looks on the faces of Mae and Francis, he scoffed and took a long pull from his drink. "Now we're all God. Every one of us will soon be able to see, and cast judgment upon, every other. We'll see what He sees. We'll articulate His judgment. We'll channel His wrath and deliver His forgiveness. On a constant and global level. All religion has been waiting for this, when every human is a direct and immediate messenger of God's will. Do you see what I'm saying?"

Once upon a time, people ascribed anything that was unknown or mysterious to God. What the man puts his finger on in this passage is the sense that technology can replace God, making us almost omniscient. Moreover, technology can provide its own morality: the vox populi, the voice of the people. "We'll channel His wrath and deliver His forgiveness," the man says. Is this not what we see in the prevalence of virtual shaming and public confession? The desire to condemn others or be forgiven by the vox populi?

Yet what lies underneath Eggers's narrative is an uneasiness about the way that the voice of the people has replaced God. Bowing to the pressure to gain social approval may have a dark, shadow side. It may compromise our ability to discern the way our gifts might lead us to new paths and new relationships. For Mae, whose identity at the Circle is built almost entirely on the approval of others, there is a high cost of social approval: She starts to lose herself. She also begins to prioritize relationships with virtual friends and forgets about the importance of relationships with those closest to her. In going totally virtual, she loses her soul.


When we compare ourselves to others, we lose sight of what makes us unique and begin to question whether we are good enough. And what is becoming a growing concern for many is the way that social media accelerates this process of measuring ourselves against others. According to the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of teens are online every day, and nearly a quarter report being online "almost constantly." Since adolescence is a period when much of a person's developmental work involves coming to a nuanced understanding of the relationships between self and others, it is little surprise that we see a host of concerns related to mimetic pressure: from cyber-bullying to self-harming behavior facilitated by social media; from sexting and other forms of digitally facilitated sexual behavior to various forms of addiction. Mimetic pressures are real, and in the digital age, they are on steroids.

Anne Becker, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, has studied the link between media consumption and body image in young women in Fiji. The key takeaway from her 1990s study was that after the introduction of television, there was a notable rise in adolescent girls' eating disorder symptoms, connected to watching shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place. More recently, Becker has observed that the influence of media is not limited to those who access it directly; it extends to those who are part of social networks where digital consumption takes place. If one person is comparing herself to a TV model, then all her friends get the message that the TV model is the one whom everyone is supposed to imitate. And then they all start to feel inadequate.

The bottom line is that Becker's studies point to the power of media and social networks to misshape desire, especially among young people, who are particularly vulnerable to mimetic pressure. These networks have the power to present images of people — Photoshopped and airbrushed — as perfect objects of desire. Over time, a kind of contagion develops: Everyone wants to be like the perfect people. People's desire is directed toward a common, unattainable object, and the inability to attain it leads them to develop patterns of self-loathing. "I'm not a perfect model." "I'm not a great athlete." "I'm not a brain surgeon." These patterns of misshaped desire obscure much more fundamental questions that lead to growth: What are my gifts, and how might I use them to touch those around me? What does the world need from me? Who are the people in my life who need my generosity, my love, my attention?

But are young people all that different from older adults? At every stage of life there is a temptation to be a little bit better than the poor souls around us. We have an elaborate vocabulary for this rat race, from childhood to adulthood: "popular," "prestigious," "acclaimed," "well known," "famous," and so on. What's more, we race to make our groups the best, whether it's a sports team or a nation. We elevate the accomplishments of our group and assault those of another, as if happiness in life were a winner-take-all proposition. In adulthood, the race is the same but the prizes change. Bragging about being the fastest in fourth grade is not much different from driving an expensive car or chest-thumping about how great your group is. All are visible markers of being better than other people. Is that what you really desire?

Let me point out the obvious: happiness and being the best don't always go hand in hand. If that were true, then we would expect that our cultural elites — athletes, movie stars, billionaires, entertainers, politicians — would all be perfectly happy. But that's not the case. Recent studies suggest exactly the opposite: being super successful may actually make one more prone to depression. Deborah Serani, a psychologist and author of the award-winning book Living with Depression, has worked with many cultural elites over the years. She writes:

There's no doubt in my mind that they struggle more with depression. ... They constantly compare themselves to the Joneses. Countries that are low-income, on the other hand, have low depression rates. When you come from [a] premier country, there's extreme competition and extreme feelings of failure: You constantly ask yourself, "Am I a have, or a have-not? Or am I an almost-have?"

There seems to be something fundamentally wrong with us. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others and measuring our own happiness in relation to them. When we look at those who have more than we have, we are saddened. When we look at those who have less, we become a little happier. The pattern has been studied by many over the years, and the evidence is overwhelming. Here is how the journalist Shane Snow puts it:

So how does one avoid billionaire's depression? Or regular person's stuck-in-a-dead-end-job, lack-of-momentum-fueled depression?

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile took on the question in the mid-2000s in a research study of white-collar employees. She tasked 238 pencil pushers in various industries to keep daily work diaries. The workers answered open-ended questions about how they felt, what events in their days stood out. Amabile and her fellow researchers then dissected the 12,000 resulting entries, searching for patterns in what affects people's "inner" work lives the most dramatically.

The answer, it turned out, was simply progress. A sense of forward motion. Regardless of how small.

There is another word for progress, one that has the ring of a life's purpose in it — "mission." Mission is the feeling of being sent (from the Latin missio) to do something with your life, the nagging sensibility that you have gifts to offer the world, even if in a small corner of it. The primary task of a person thrown into the world is to discover what that mission might be, regardless of how small.

So a key question for discernment, for finding out your true desires, is this:

How might I become aware of mimetic pressures — that is, the pressures to do what others are doing and so to fit in? And how might I develop practices that help me not to become beholden to them?

To ask it a little differently:

How can I become smart about how much I imitate others, and how can I be free to be myself?


The prerequisite for attaining that kind of self-knowledge and freedom is to find reflective space — that is, both physical and psychological space in which we are able to let go of the usual distractions and pay attention to the teeming world that is our inner lives. We must put down our phones, turn off our screens, and reconnect with the real, living world. And when we do, we not only open ourselves to the benefits of better health and mental well-being but also afford ourselves the opportunity to know what is going on in our conscious and subconscious minds, as we strain to find expression in everyday life.

Today, there is a growing body of research that points to the relationships between our environment and our physical and mental well-being. Environmental psychologists are shedding light on the way physical space affects us: how being in a beautiful national park affects our brains in ways radically different from sitting in a cubicle, for example. Doctors are explaining how physical exercise can dramatically improve mental health and overall well-being. And I see a link between the environment and our inner life in the reflective essays my students have written over the years in response to an assignment to spend no less than an hour in a beautiful natural setting. They find an opening to reflect on important relationships, experiences, and desires. Environment matters: the natural world does not instant-message us, ask us to buy something, entice us to turn our attention from one thing to the next, or demand approval. It invites us to contemplate the really real.

Our bodies, our minds, and our spirits crave a connection with natural beauty. And when we give ourselves the chance to experience it — whether by going outside to breathe fresh air, hiking a mountain path, or simply walking the dog unplugged, we offer ourselves the opportunity to listen to that inner voice of desire. And through daily practice, we allow ourselves to return to the fundamental questions that drive the construction of our most authentic selves:

What do I really want?

What do other people tell me I ought to want?

What do advertisers tell me I ought to want?

What does the economy tell me I ought to want?

Will any of these things make me happy?


Excerpted from Living Against the Grain by Tim Muldoon. Copyright © 2017 Tim Muldoon. Excerpted by permission of Loyola Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue ............................................................................................ix1 Travel the unpaved road ..............................................................1
2 Seek graced understanding .......................................................17
3 Live a happy missioned life ......................................................35
4 Practice kinship..........................................................................55
5 Love freely ..................................................................................71
6 Be a friend ..................................................................................89
7 Serve others ..............................................................................111Acknowledgments ........................................................................125
Additional reading........................................................................127
About the Author .........................................................................143

What People are Saying About This

Michael E. Sanderl

Tim Muldoon provides a valuable reference and resource for those who mentor and accompany young people in their discernment and decision-making process.  Building upon examples from his own life and ministry, and those of others, he integrates scripture and the writings from philosophers, theologians, and spiritual writers for deeper exploration.  I really appreciated the thoughtful questions he offered for the themes throughout the book for both individual and shared reflection for meaningful discernment.  This book will be a resource for my ministry as well as a companion for prayerful reflection on my own life and vocation.

Richard Hauser

Living Against the Grain is deftly crafted to present key insights from Ignatian spirituality squarely within our contemporary cultural context. My advice: take this book on vacation or retreat and read a chapter a day. Reflection on insights will help you discover constraints of contemporary culture and help you become the person God created you to be when God knit you together in your mother’s womb!

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