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1. We all love The Incredibles, right? It’s as good a movie as Pixar has made, which is saying a lot (rumors of a sequel are legit!). And we all remember the rant that Bob Parr goes on in the middle of the film, when he objects to attending his son’s “graduation” from the fifth grade. “He’s merely moving from the fifth grade to the sixth grade,” Parr notes. Director Brad Bird put his finger on something that many have noticed in our culture, the rise of the “participation trophy”, where kids get prizes and acclamations just for showing up and/or doing things that used to be expected of them. To paraphrase Mr. Incredible, when everyone is exceptional, no one is. That is, affirmation becomes meaningless when it’s doled out willy-nilly. Just this afternoon someone responded to a compliment I had given them by asking if I was being “actually nice” or  “grace-guy nice,” i.e. was I sincere or was I doing a blanket niceness thing.

Well, Alfie Kohn to the rescue! You may remember him from such books as Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes and Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community. As you may suspect from the titles, Mr. Kohn has provided us with a goldmine of material in the past, and he more than rose to the occasion last week. In an op-ed for The NY Times (adapted from his new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child), the education expert sets out to challenge the mentality that he believes fuels “trophy rage”. While there are clearly some legitimate points of contention, the piece heats up–and gets into very relevant territory–once he gets to the third value in question, what he describes as the notion that “children ought never to receive something desirable — a sum of money, a trophy, a commendation — unless they’ve done enough to merit it. They shouldn’t even be allowed to feel good about themselves without being able to point to tangible accomplishments.” He goes on:

IMG_7411In this view, we have a moral obligation to reward the deserving and, equally important, make sure the undeserving go conspicuously unrewarded. Hence the anger over participation trophies. The losers mustn’t receive something that even looks like a reward.

A commitment to conditionality lives at the intersection of economics and theology. It’s where lectures about the law of the marketplace meet sermons about what we must do to earn our way into heaven. Here, almost every human interaction, even among family members, is regarded as a kind of transaction.

Over the last decade or so, two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, and their colleagues in the United States and Belgium, have conducted a series of experiments whose consistent finding is that when children feel their parents’ affection varies depending on the extent to which they are well behaved, self-controlled or impressive at school or sports, this promotes “the development of a fragile, contingent and unstable sense of self.”

Other researchers, meanwhile, have shown that high self-esteem is beneficial, but that even more desirable is unconditional self-esteem: a solid core of belief in yourself, an abiding sense that you’re competent and worthwhile — even when you screw up or fall short. In other words, the very unconditionality that seems to fuel attacks on participation trophies and the whole “self-esteem movement” turns out to be a defining feature of psychological health. It’s precisely what we should be helping our children to acquire.

Wowza. It’s amusing that he references theology as something which fuels and exacerbates ‘conditionality’, when we might view it as something that does the opposite (despite all evidence to the contrary). Clearly he hasn’t read One Way Love yet! One would like to think that a religion of grace, at its best, can engender the sort of ‘unconditional self-esteem’ he mentions precisely because it doesn’t ignore or mislabel the very real shortcomings we all face, but instead looks to a God whose relationship with his children is based on the (unassailable) achievement of Someone who is not them. Suffice it to say, Alfie remains a favorite. As do Christopher Nolan and Matthew McConaughey :

(Anyone else hear some Titan A.E. in there?!)

2. Sadly, I doubt we’ll find Kohn’s book at the top of the bestseller list any time soon. Not because it isn’t important or provocative or well-written, but because conditionality tends to move a lot more units than the alternative, at least according to The Wall Street Journal, which reported just this week that “nothing sells luxury goods like snubbing the customer.” (Notes business professor Darren Dahl, “when a retailer signals, ‘No, you don’t deserve to be here,’ it makes us want to be a member.”) A much safer bid for that Barnes and Noble front display would be Arianna Huffington’s new manifesto, Thrive, which would appear to embrace the performancism Kohn rejects, albeit in a slightly subversive way. Cue Elissa Strauss’ brave “Dear, Arianna Huffington: I Don’t Want to Thrive”, which unintentionally channels a talk Tullian Tchividjian gave at our 2013 NYC Conference, ht HS:

The rupestral sanctuaries of CappadociaTo be a woman born in the past 50 years is to be someone who has spent her life subjected to such pleas for self-improvement. Somewhere out there, I’ve often been told, there is a better me, and it is she I need to find. At 34, I am starting to have enough. Sure, I want to live a good life, a full life — but that is not the same as my best life. I don’t want to live my best life. It sounds exhausting

Huffington sees Thrive as a spiritual manifesto, a roadmap for individuals to reconnect with all things transcendent, but again and again returns to the idea that following this advice will increase our productivity at work... By defending the Thrive lifestyle only by referencing the rich and famous, Huffington is telling us how much she still values the moneyed and powerful, all the while telling us to not work so hard to get money and power…

We don’t need to make more to-do lists. We don’t need more metrics. We don’t need to do anything for the sole sake of bettering ourselves. Instead, we need to start getting out of our own way and just yield to the mystery and irrationality of life. We don’t have to call it anything except living.

3. Speaking of Ms. Huffington, though, her website compiled an incredibly cool collection of “cave churches” this week, ht AD. Also in church-related news, those wondering if Pope Francis would be happy to baptize aliens (if they asked him to), can wonder no more.

4. Elsewhere, Brain Pickings pulled out some fabulous quotes from Flannery O’Connor’s collection of letters, The Habit of Being. A couple favorites would have to be:

Dogma can in no way limit a limitless God. The person outside the Church attaches a different meaning to it than the person in. For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction. It preserves mystery for the human mind. Henry James said the young woman of the future would know nothing of mystery or manners. He had no business to limit it to one sex.

Fr. [Jean] de Menasce told somebody not to come into the Church until he felt it would be an enlargement of his freedom. This is what you are doing and you are right, but do not make your feeling of the voluptuous seductive powers of the Church into a hard shell to protect yourself from her.

I think most people come to the Church by means the Church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all. However, this is true inside as well, as the operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner; which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.

5. In his editorial for The Times this morning, David Brooks looked to none other than Augustine (again!) for “The Stairway to Wisdom”. The last few paragraphs are particularly, um, wise.

6. TV: Sunday night has really become something else, hasn’t it? Between Ginsberg’s shenanigans on Mad Men, Tyrion’s scene-chewing magnetism on Game of Thrones, Erlich Bachman’s buffoonery on Silicon Valley, and the ever-escalating hilarity of Ryantology on Veep, it’s a bit of circus, eh? But in the best possible way. I for one wouldn’t change a thing. On Tuesday nights, I’ll confess I was skeptical at first but Fargo has me completely in its grip. Alison Tolman is amazing, and Billy Bob continues to astound. The Coens should be proud. Louie‘s been pretty touch and go so far this season, but he was at his prophetic best last week, dropping law and grace all over the place in ‘So Did the Fat Lady?’ and striking quite a chord in the process. We’ll have a full post on it soon. Finally, thank God for this:

7. In music, some beautiful soul ranked every single Cheap Trick song a couple weeks of ago, throwing yours truly into a well of power pop from which I may never return. To think that we sometimes give The Internet a hard time… Elsewhere, it was nice to find a kindred spirit in John J Thompson’s review of the recent Dylan in the 80s compilation on ThinkChristian (see our take here). Only wish he’d mentioned Ivan and Alyosha’s version of “You Changed My Life”, which casts a flattering light on one of Bob’s real gems from the period (“Talk about salvation, people suddenly get tired/ They’ve got a million things to do/ They’re all so inspired”). And speaking of Dylan, sounds like he’s got a new record coming out. Best thing I’ve read about MJ this week is what Ben Greenman put together for The New Yorker, “In Search of the Sweet, Melodic Michale Jackson.” Oh and Morrissey released a new single and the tracklisting for his new record this week too, and let’s just say his knack for song titles has not left him. Can’t wait to hear “Forgive Someone.”

8. Finally, in the wake of yet another Facebook birthday, our friend Nick Lannon confesses on Liberate that he would do anything for love.

P.S. We sent out our big spring appeal and newsletter this week. If you’d like to get a copy, be sure to sign up for our mailing list. New monthly donors between now and the end of the month will not only receive a complimentary subscription to The Mockingbird, we’ll send them a pre-release copy of Eden and Afterward as well. Just sayin.