1. This first one hit close to home. I’m referring to Zach Baron’s column in GQ, In Praise of Being Washed. Not washed out, or washed in the blood of the lamb, but simply “washed”. To be “washed,” he tells us, is to have arrived at the point in life where horizons have begun to recede, where your best is behind you but you’re still far from ready to throw in the towel–basically a fresh euphemism for what we used to call “over the hill.” But what sounds like a putdown at best, and a verdict to struggle against with all your might (and dollars) at worst, may be in fact something else:

People tend to use the word “washed” as a pejorative, or as a mild, self-deprecating admission of defeat. But I’m not so sure. I’m beginning to suspect the word describes something far more ecstatic.

If you’re anything like me, you spent the better part of your teens and 20s tirelessly working on being, basically, a more interesting version of yourself… You spent years building up something—taste, experience, judgment. You were trying to like what you saw in the mirror, as all ambitious people try to do.

Sub out “ambitious” for “enslaved to the law” and you can see where he’s going. You become washed the moment that the “facts on the ground” reveal the Law of Who You Ought to Be for what it actually is (i.e., a distant abstraction), the moment when you realize that life is not an upward-sloping trajectory of moral/physical/professional improvement.

To ambitious ears, this sounds despairing. To religious ears, though, the double entendre couldn’t be more perfect: to be “washed” is to be set free. Rarely does this actually happen in a single moment (more like every day), but the example Baron gives locates one such occurrence, the press conference that tennis maestro Roger Federer held after losing the 2011 US Open Final to Novak Djokovic:

It was in this moment that Federer became washed. He modeled it for the rest of us. He didn’t quit. But he let go of the idea of himself as perfection incarnate. He let go of the idea of himself, in some ways, entirely: After a decade of representing some abstractly infallible version of whatever it was he was trying to be—a pursuit that seemed to make him miserable, especially when he was young—he was just a man with a bad back and some talent that he was still trying to make the best of. He stopped crying so much in post-match interviews. He raised one set of twins, and then another. These days he takes the spring off in order to rest for the summer…

The description echoes T.S. Eliot’s famous line about the goal of life being “to care and not to care.” The freedom to lose is the freedom to win, etc. Baron closes by connecting it with his own life:

I think about all the dumb Fridays in my life. High school: drugs. College: alcohol. Twenties: Let’s not talk about what any of us did in our 20s. And now the dumb Fridays of my present arise in front of my windshield—all my flaws, my corny pastimes, the great things I’ve left undone and will never do. I listen to my golf clubs rattle gently in the trunk and am consumed with thoughts about how some other, younger version of myself would be so terribly disappointed at what I’ve become. But what I mostly think is: Damn, I wish I’d known about this earlier.

It’s funny, when Baron mentions earlier in the piece that, given how great it is, there’s no reason you can’t become washed when you’re 22, I immediately thought, “well, just become a Christian.” What is a conversion, after all, if not a surrender–of identity, ambition, fear–to a God who loves you as you are rather than how you (think you) should be? That’s what it was for me, and continues to be, thank God.

I now realize how rare that experience is. If I’ve learned anything from working at a church lo these many years, it’s that people really do experience religion not so much as a haven for the washed than as a megaphone for the Law and Expectation that necessitate getting washed in the first place. I used to think that characterization was a bit of a straw man, but no longer. It’s an understatement. Instead of–or in addition to–spending your youth shoring up a more interesting version of yourself (and then sighing in relief when you finally hear about a savior “whose property is always to have mercy”), you grit your teeth trying to fashion yourself into something holier, and then resent God when your spiritual or material trajectory slopes downward instead up. Or maybe you just reach an age where your progress, however joyfully or non-neurotically gained, cannot help but be called into question, and then where do you go in your washed-ness?

It’s a quandary, to be sure, and more of an emotional than intellectual one. We did our best to address it on this week’s Mockingcast.

2. Next up, in the NY Times writer Chris Beam confessed that, “I Did a Terrible Thing. How Can I Apologize?” The article marks my introduction to the term “teshuvah”, which sounds a whole lot like Steps 4, 8 & 9 of the 12 Steps.

The word “apology” comes from the Greek “apologia,” which means justification, explanation, defense or excuse. Our American apologies are often nothing more than linguistically limber exercises. From Harvey Weinstein scapegoating an entire era to Bill Clinton expressing “regret,” we see example after example of people wriggling away from explicit blame…

The Jewish process of apology, teshuvah, requires that the one seeking forgiveness first undergo a personal inventory, or reckoning. In Hebrew, “teshuvah” means “return.”

We live in a Christian nation (resist all you want, but three-quarters of us identify as Christian) and I wonder whether that foists a redemption frame on our apologies. We look to be absolved, forgiven, immediately, the way we look to God. But people are not gods, and I wonder, in this era of facile press-release apologies, whether we need to slow things down. Of course, apologizing for committing a crime is different from apologizing for breaking someone’s heart. But there is some crossover.

I’m reminded of Harriet Lerner’s recent lessons on apologies, namely, ““I’m sorry” shouldn’t be viewed as a bargaining chip you give to get something back from the injured party, like forgiveness.”

In other words, no matter how heartfelt or courteous (or sanctified!) it’s expressed, when you tack on a plea for forgiveness to an apology, you mix the message and embed a condition. If we know anything about conditions, they have a tendency of inciting resentment, not relieving it. A genuine apology is more like a leap of faith; all you can do is put it out there and see what happens. We talk about this more on The Mockingcast, too.

3. But on the subject of people not being gods, I’m not sure how we missed mbird fave Terry Eagleton‘s review of fellow Brit philosopher John Gray’s new book, Seven Types of Atheism, that ran in The Guardian this past April. Gray has long been ranked among our very favorite atheists and is always good for a #lowanthropology soundbite or three (see: The Most Harmful Fiction That’s Ever Been Promoted Anywhere). Eagleton brings the socialist Catholic goods as per usual, e.g., “One might note that Christianity is as pessimistic as Gray but a lot more hopeful as well”. If only some of those enamored with the deconstruction-mania that’s sweeping the post-Evangelical landscape would read either of these guys. Too bad they don’t have a podcast – zing!

Gray believes that humanists are in bad faith. Most of them are atheists, but all they have done is substitute humanity for God. They thus remain in thrall to the very religious faith they reject. In fact, most supposedly secular thought in Gray’s view is repressed religion, from the liberalism of John Locke to the millenarian visions of the Jacobins and Bolsheviks. The popular belief that atheism and religion are opposites is, in his view, a mistake. Gray also takes a swipe at the kind of atheism that sees religion as a primitive stab at understanding the universe, one that science will later replace. Gray, to his credit, sees that religions are not theories of the world but forms of life. They are less systems of belief than acts of faith…

Gray belongs to that group of contemporary thinkers, of whom George Steiner is the doyen, who disdain the secular but can’t quite drag themselves to the church or synagogue. They turn, instead, to a kind of transcendence without content, of which there is no finer example than what one might call Hollywood spirituality.

4. And speaking of Hollywood attempts to conjure transcendence, it’s hard to think of something more ripe for parody than the article and photo essay that appeared in The NY Times last week on “Tech Elites and their Soul Salons”, AKA the latest expression of what Silicon-Valley-the-show lampooned as Silicon-Valleythe-place’s anything-but-Christianity ethos. I’d be tempted to call the soul salon a new frontier of Seculosity, but the forms in play here are too overtly Religious. Take that, secularization thesis!

Tech elites who are looking for more than extra zeros in their bank statements are finding it in an unlikely place: so-called songversations, emotion-heavy gatherings that combine philosophical rap sessions with improvised music, run by a ukulele-strumming songstress who describes herself as a “heartist.”

Branded as “Soul Salons,” they import the cosmic-explorer sensibility of Burning Man’s dusty playa into the cozy living rooms of prominent entrepreneurs, where they sing freestyle on topics as diverse as environmental degradation and heartbreak. Think of it as a free-jazz equivalent of an Esalen retreat.

Portlandia-bait-ish as these events may be (and they’re only going to get more so, imho), the itch being scratched is anything but. The main guru they interview, “Ms Magic”(!), understands her role in downright pastoral terms, as providing a respite from workaholic optimization-itis, or an alternative to the cult of productivity:

Ms. Magic believes that her appeal is rooted in the spiritual hollowness so many business elites feel, despite their wealth. “People forget that they are human beings rather than human doings,” she added.

“One of the reasons why I do what I do, and why I am, honestly, on this planet, is to show up with such a level of vulnerability and sincerity and authenticity, that it almost gives people permission to let it go for a little while,” she said.

One has to ask: if stand-up comedians are our new preachers (e.g., Bo Burnham, Hannah Gadsby, Dave Chappelle), does that make ‘heartists’  our new liturgists? Oh boy.

5.  Social Science finding of the week: The average American worker takes less vacation time than a medieval peasant. Also, a new longitudinal study of marriage found that “happiness doesn’t change much in long marriages—shared activities do”:

Conflict, for instance, declined dramatically and continuously over the course of a life together. After a dip in the first decades when work and family obligations consume a couple’s time, the frequency of shared activities increased. By the fourth decade of marriage, couples reported spending as much time dining, socializing, and having fun together as they did when they were newlyweds.

6. Many thanks to Matthew Milliner for pointing us toward Matthew Rosebrook’s absolutely wonderful Law and Gospel in Paint series, which offers a wide-ranging and spirit-stirring tour of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s masterful work on the subject. Do yourself a favor!

7. Over at That Atlantic, Ian Bogost asks “Why Is There a ‘Gaming Disorder’ But No ‘Smartphone Disorder?’”, in the process exploring contemporary debates about what constitutes addiction and what role culture plays in shaping social pathologies. No real answers on offer (other than a halfhearted nod to ‘systems’ over chemistry), but worth reading nonetheless.

8. Finally, in humor, couldn’t have asked for a better week for The Onion to rerun their summertime classic “Seagull With Diarrhea Barely Makes It To Crowded Beach In Time.” The Babylon Bee made me laugh with “Pastor Decides To Try For Fifth Kid Just For The Sermon Illustrations.” And then Hard Times broke the story that “Sammy Hagar Discovers Theoretical Second Way to Rock.” Praise God. Oh, and Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson turned 60! Which accounts for the cartoons this time.

Strays

  • The middle segment on the most recent This American Life, “Change You Can Maybe Believe in”, is a great example of how people both love and hate forgiveness.
  • Amanda Petrusich went to Graceland recently and wrote about it for The New Yorker. I was there myself last week and heartily concur with her conclusion – the place is “grotesque, and gorgeous, and ours.” If you do find yourself down that way, I can think of no more visceral instantiation of The Nazareth Principle than Sun Studio. Blew my mind. Stax was pretty great too.
  • New episode of The Mockingcast is up! RJ, Sarah and myself relive eighth grade and try to figure out who’s the most “washed”. (Spoiler alert: it’s RJ). Also, Mr Rogers makes an appearance.