In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthly in the popular literature of our time.

I recently picked up Sarah Knight’s The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck in part because it riffs on Amazon’s top-selling book (no caveat!), Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I am still waiting to look at that book, because apparently some other patrons of my local library also noted that Kondo’s book has more than seven thousand Amazon reviews, the majority of them glowing. At this point, I’ve read enough about Kondo’s book to be intrigued, and that zeitgeist drew me to Knight’s text in the meantime. I also found the subtitle alluring: “How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have with People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do.”

The more we know who we are in Christ, the more we know where to invest ourselves—and that’s a tremendously freeing way to care.

As a warning for those readers particularly sensitive to vulgarity, the text follows suit with the title; Knight drops the f-bomb liberally. I would say this is ultimately to the detriment of her book because it feels too much like immature pleasure in naughtiness than a word choice that really holds the text’s purpose together. No doubt many (perhaps more secular) readers would disagree with me, but I still believe that beneath the shell of irreverence and profanity, there’s a meaningful argument here. In a chapter devoted to illustrating how her NotSorry method improves readers’ bodies, minds, and souls, Knight writes:

It’s about to get a little woo-woo here, but bear with me for a moment. Although not everyone puts stock in the traditional definition of the soul as some ethereal life force separate from our physical beings, I’d wager that most of us understand the concepts of “soul-crushing” or “soul-destroying” as they pertain to things that hurt us on a deep, cellular level. Not things that just crowd our calendars or sap our strength, but the kinds of activities or tasks or people that, we feel, place grave limitations on our very freedom.

There are lots of definitional adjustments I could make here (starting with soul and freedom), yet at the same time, Knight’s description sounds to me a lot like ministry burnout. We may use a different framework, but the consequences for trying to be all things to all people still exist in a religious framework. Perhaps more so, because we who are gifted by the Holy Spirit ought to know our own callings. But it’s too easy to get distracted.

I‘ve never been to a church yet where busyness isn’t also the byword for a humblebrag. There’s the subtle derision against those who say no (which should probably be more of us a lot more of the time), and the glorification of those who always say yes. I’ve seen those yay-sayers do a lot of great work to glorify God; I’ve also seen them destroy their health, neglect their families, damage their friendships, and struggle in their faith because they care too much about pleasing people, or they need to feel essential in ministry to feel worthwhile to Christ. As if it were the same thing at all. One of the critical freedoms God gives us when we become His children is to be ourselves, and we cannot exercise that freedom if we are crowding our lives and calendars with relationships and events that feel “soul-crushing.”

Knight depicts the secular version of this attitude in her Introduction, explaining:

I tackled numerous projects, tasks, and standardized tests in order to prove myself worthy of respect and admiration from my family, friends, and even casual acquaintances. I socialized with people I did not like in order to appear benevolent; I performed jobs that were beneath me in order to appear helpful; I ate things that disgusted me in order to appear gracious.

It might be easy to conclude, based on an excerpt like this, that Knight’s recommendation is pure selfishness, and I admit that many of the justifications and examples she uses throughout the book contradict essential tenets of Christianity like hospitality and service (often sacrificial). At the same time, she emphasizes the importance of “honesty and politeness: a dynamic duo,” and touches on a real Christian concern as well—the hypocrisy that sometimes lies between our actions and our motives. There’s a difference between participating in ministries that fit my gifts and callings, or that fit genuine needs I can fill within my church, and participating to look like a “good Christian.” There’s a difference between treating everyone with kindness and respect and nurturing false friendships to stroke our own egos. Though I might dislike the language and tone of much of Knight’s book, I haven’t stopped thinking of it as a tool for examination of conscience.

Much of the potentially-objectionable tone and language within Knight’s book is bravado, or at least that’s my take. I understand that many of my readers might be put off by the book from the cover, though it does say “a practical parody” there. I don’t love the extensive use of the f-word either, but I also find the book refreshingly honest, and that’s part of Knight’s shtick, too. Because the truth behind anyone’s life, whatever their religious convictions, is that we all get only twenty-four hours in a day, and none of us knows how many days we get. We have to choose. Every yes is also a no, because filling our time or emptying our wallets or developing our relationships in one way always means that we can’t do the same with lots of others. It’s why the first two of The Ten Commandments instruct us in slight variation to put God first. And when we do that, it becomes clearer what we’re supposed to care about and how we’re supposed to allocate our resources.

I might say, then, that Knight’s book hasn’t taught me to stop “giving f*cks,” but to protect my priorities. It’s something I’d still like to work on. It’s not just about saying no, but about being more intentional with my yes. For example, my family recently attended one of our church’s potluck dinners. We love these events, when so many members of our church (a group split between three services on two different days) come together in fellowship. At the same time, they’re a challenge for my children, who typically go to bed early and wake up by six regardless of their bedtime. That can make the next day a total crank fest, but we feel dealing with the aftermath of a great opportunity to build relationships is worth it. But when I’m asked to bring a dish, I make it easy. I’m not the church lady you want to cook for your family. I can pick up a beautiful fruit tray from the grocery store, though, so that I can prioritize tending to my children and building our relationships. And I don’t feel guilty about it. If my kids show up in their pajamas? I don’t feel guilty about that either. The reality is that we’re always dealing with other peoples’ needs, wants, and interests, but that doesn’t mean those should tyrannize our lives. The more we know who we are in Christ, the more we know where to invest ourselves—and that’s a tremendously freeing way to care.

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