1. This weekend’s opener: stories from the Craigslist Confessional. Several years ago, on a whim, a woman named Helena Bala posted an ad online, offering anyone who needed it the service of a non-judgmental listening ear. Crazy, huh? “Woke up the next morning…inbox was flooded.”

The video is a testament to the power of listening—just listening, without corrections, prescriptions, or solutions. Later she says, “I hadn’t done anything…I hadn’t provided any extraordinary insight…. I was just listening.”

But there’s an interesting part, two-thirds into the video, when a leading psychotherapist challenges Helena’s work, saying that, in his opinion, she isn’t doing longterm good, that in fact she may be doing harm by putting mere band-aids on large, toxic wounds. Helena’s clients, however, contest this. It seems they aren’t looking for a solution but a connection. In any case, she is very clear that she is not a therapist, she is not offering solutions. Still, it seems, the confessors emerge for the better.

So, sure, on the one hand, in certain cases, perhaps there ought to be a plan for longterm healing or therapy; on the other, perhaps a simple listening ear can be just what the Doctor ordered—the first step in a much more winding process.

2. A powerful essay by Amanda Hess showed up in this week’s NY Times, about the unwritten expectations of keeping up appearances. Despite the increasing traction of “body positivity,” Hess argues that today’s standards of beauty are higher and more demanding than ever because now there’s a willpower component. She uses the new Amy Schumer flick “I Feel Pretty” as her jumping-off point:

The movie suggests that the only thing holding back regular-looking women is their belief that looking regular holds them back at all. That attitude puts the onus on individual women to improve their self-esteem instead of criticizing societal beauty standards writ large. The reality is that expectations for female appearances have never been higher. It’s just become taboo to admit that.

This new beauty-standard denialism is all around us. It courses through cosmetics ads, fitness instructor monologues, Instagram captions and, increasingly, pop feminist principles. In the forthcoming book “Perfect Me,” Heather Widdows, a philosophy professor at the University of Birmingham, England, convincingly argues that the pressures on women to appear thinner, younger and firmer are stronger than ever. Keeping up appearances is no longer simply a superficial pursuit; it’s an ethical one, too. A woman who fails to conform to the ideal is regarded as a failure as a person. […]

In other words, beauty has become an action—a performance, or, perhaps, an expression of a certain ideal. “Women are expected,” Hess points out, crucially, “to perform femininity and feminism at once.” Body positivity, then, often takes the form of the law, and thus suffers the same ailment as the thing it has tried to counteract. And what looks like self-actualization may in fact be a carefully performed show to make oneself look good.

What struck me was how many of the women hailed as “strong female characters” [in movies] are nevertheless required to hew to the same physical requirements as the eye candy — beautiful, young and small. To take just one example, the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” protagonist Lisbeth Salander is specified as “a small, pale, anorexic-looking waif in her early 20s.”

What’s more, these women are meant to be naïve to their own looks, like the heroine of “Brooklyn”: “open-faced pretty without knowing it.” These descriptors poke at another lie in “I Feel Pretty”: that all regular women need to succeed is a healthy dose of confidence. That new beauty mantra mirrors corporate messaging around “impostor syndrome” and “leaning in” — the idea that women’s lack of confidence is holding them back from professional success, not discrimination. In fact, our culture’s ideal woman is beautiful and modest.

Why is it so hard to talk about this? Ms. Widdows has a few theories. Feminists don’t want to pose as killjoys bent on confiscating mani-pedis. Besides, striving for beauty is ultimately a rational choice in a world that values it so highly, and converting that pressure into fun or communal experiences is its own form of resistance… I suspect it’s also simply too painful to address head-on. The amount of brainpower I spend every day thinking about how I look is a monumental waste. The sheer accumulation of images of celebrity bodies in my browser history feels psychopathic. I like to think of myself as a pretty smart person, but the truth is that I can’t seem to think my way out of this. The only way I’ve found to banish momentarily that shadow of the idealized self is to pay for it to go away — with a Sephora shopping spree or a spin class.

Hess’s conclusion—rather, her lack of it—reminds me again of the Craigslist Confessional (above). Sometimes, when the solution seems out of reach, what we really need is a compassionate listener. When we feel ugly, we don’t always need someone to tell us how pretty we are. We might just need someone we trust enough to share our real self with.

3. Some great humor this week. From The New Yorker: “GPS Directions For Adults.” (Irving must really love Applebee’s! Then again, who doesn’t.)

Also, from The Onion: “‘We Can Have Differences of Opinion and Still Respect Each Other,’ Says Betrayer of the One True Cause.”

4. Speaking of differences of opinion, you won’t be surprised to hear that we solved everyone’s problems at MockingbirdNYC, themed “The Grace of God in Divided Times.” (Recordings to be posted soon…keep your eyes on the site!)

Even so, division remains, understandably, a source of considerable anxiety in both the contemporary Church and society at large. In The Living Church, Matthew Kemp addressed this concern in a wonderful piece, excerpted here:

To be sure, we would like to be at the end: we want the Church to be the risen and glorified body of Christ. Indeed, some ecclesiologies assume that this is so, but it comes at a cost. Unity and catholicity are either confined to one’s ecclesial body or reinterpreted in a way that is unchallenged by visible disunity. Holiness either becomes completely abstract or requires turning a blind eye to the Church’s sins. Apostolicity is reduced to either institutional continuity or something like a missional outlook, with each element denying its need for the other.

But what if we are not there yet? What if, figuratively speaking, it is still Holy Saturday? What if the Body of Christ we see before us is not yet the risen and glorified Body, but the Body that has been beaten, killed, and buried? What if the Church is not as we know it should be because only God can raise it up?

…if the Church before us is the crucified Body of Christ, this should also give us hope. Precisely in the failure of our ecclesial efforts we discover anew that only God can raise the dead. Our hopes for the Church do not rest on human perfection but on divine grace.

5. In the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman (one of last year’s Mockingbird conference speakers), reviews a new book awesomely titled Things That Bother Me by Galen Strawson. In this one, Burkeman discusses “free will”—while firstly admitting that’s a charged term [even more so for Christians]. Specifically, here, he is wondering: “for which of my accomplishments in life am I entitled to claim credit?”

What if you’re super-rich but got there thanks to your intelligence? You were just lucky to be born intelligent. What if differences in intelligence are down to nurture, not nature? Again, luck: you didn’t choose your parents or most of your teachers; and in any case, you might not have been gifted with the self-discipline to learn from them.

OK, but what if you taught yourself the self-discipline? Still luck: you were gifted with the sort of character capable of cultivating self-discipline.

On and on it goes: whatever your station in life, you got there by following some course of action. But even if that course of action were wholly your doing, you still had to be the kind of person able to pursue it; and even if you became that kind of person by the sweat of your brow, you still must have already been the kind of person who could raise that sweat…

Eventually, working backwards, you will reach some starting point that can’t have been your doing. The troubling conclusion is that the person born in poverty, with no parental support, who scrimps to put himself or herself through college, finally achieving success through ceaseless suffering, owes their triumph no less to luck than, say, Eric Trump does. Or, as Strawson pithily puts it: “Luck swallows everything.”

Among other things, this has interesting implications for the way we talk, these days, about “privilege”. Some people undoubtedly have advantages over others thanks to their gender, race or class. But if it’s true that luck swallows everything, there is also a sense in which differing degrees of privilege are the only thing there is: your social situation is a matter of luck, but then so are your underlying skills and character.

We should fight, strenuously, to make society less sexist and racist. But the result won’t be a world in which accidents of birth matter less; it will be a less sexist and racist society, in which accidents of birth still account for everything.

I realise that plenty of people, some much smarter than me, don’t buy this view of free will at all. I’ve never been able to find a flaw with it, though. It’s dizzyingly unsettling, but that’s just my tough luck.

The underlying thing here, it seems to me, is simply that we are masters of much less than we’d often like to think. This view of things, in my experience, lends to a greater sense of gratitude over and above a sense of bitter deserving and expectation. It might even lend to, in the end, a greater sense of freedom—that for a moment, we might breathe a little easier and begin to release certain things (albeit with the whitest of knuckles) that were never in our grasp to begin with.

From The Onion

6. It seems like the responses to The School of Life’s “How to Get Married” video (below) have been mixed. You may find yourself LOLing or watching with perplexed squinty eyes. For what it’s worth, I think it’s mostly dry humor with a sprinkling of some amazing, practical insights. Either way, it reminds me of Stephanie Phillips‘ “wedding vow revolution” from her new book Unmapped:

“I promise not to steal and eat the cookie dough you hid in the freezer and WHEN I DO, I will buy more immediately.”

“I promise to actually tell you out loud when information passes through my brain that is relevant to our daily life and/or well-being.”

“I promise to bodyslam my mother if she attempts to take the baby away from you without permission.”

Strays:

Tell someone not to do something and sometimes they just want to do it more. That’s what happened when Facebook  put red flags on debunked fake news. Users who wanted to believe the false stories had their fevers ignited and they actually shared the hoaxes more.