1. First up, some low-hanging fruit from The Atlantic, Olga Khazan’s “The Problem with Being Perfect,” an expert deconstruction of America’s favorite #humblebrag. Khazan fills in the shading a bit more than journalists usually do when tackling this subject, especially toward the end, where she catalogs not just the appeasement response to the law perfectionism, but the flight one as well. Meaning, Type B paralysis and self-sabotage can be evidence of pathological performancism just as much as Type A workaholism. But it’s her final line that’s to, er, die for:

View of “The Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures” at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, in Vienna, curated by Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf

Though it is often portrayed as a positive trait—a clever response to the “greatest weaknesses” question during job interviews, for instance—[researchers] say extreme perfectionism can lead to depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation.

What’s more, perfectionism seems to be on the rise. In a study of thousands of American, Canadian, and British college students published earlier this year, Thomas Curran of the University of Bath and Andrew Hill of York St. John University found that today’s college students report higher levels of perfectionism than college students did during the 1990s or early 2000s. They measured three types of perfectionism: self-oriented, or a desire to be perfect; socially prescribed, or a desire to live up to others’ expectations; and other-oriented, or holding others to unrealistic standards. From 1989 to 2016, they found, self-oriented perfectionism scores increased by 10 percent, socially prescribed scores rose by 33 percent, and other-oriented perfectionism increased by 16 percent.

A person living with an other-oriented perfectionist might feel criticized by the perfectionist spouse for not doing household chores exactly the “right” way. “One of the most common things couples argue about is the proper way of loading the dishwasher,” says Amy Bach, a psychologist in Providence, Rhode Island.

Michael Brustein, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan, says when he first began practicing in 2007, he was surprised by how prevalent perfectionism was among his clients, despite how little his graduate training had focused on the phenomenon. He sees perfectionism in, among others, clients who are entrepreneurs, artists, and tech employees. “You’re in New York because you’re ambitious, you have this need to strive,” he says. “But then your whole identity gets wrapped into a goal.”

But, therapists say, there are also different ways perfectionism manifests. Some perfectionists are the sleeping-bag-toting self-flagellants, always pushing themselves forward. But others actually fall behind on work, unable to complete assignments unless they’re, well, perfect. Or they might self-sabotage, handicapping their performance ahead of time. They’re the ones partying until 2 a.m. the night before the final, so that when the C rolls in, there’s a ready excuse. Anything to avoid facing your own imperfections.

He warns that some people go into therapy expecting too much—an instant transformation of themselves from a pathological perfectionist to a (still high-achieving) non-perfectionist. They try to be perfect, in other words, at no longer being perfect.

2. While we’re on the impossibility of engineering our own enoughness (#seculosity), in Time Magazine writer Annabel Gutterman echoed a familiar observation about the ubiquity and danger of buying into The Soulmate Myth:

While nearly two-thirds of American adults believe in [soulmates], according to a 2017 Monmouth University poll, psychology professor Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. says the term ‘soulmate’ can be dangerous. It can connote perfectionism — and perfection in relationships is essentially unattainable. “If you believe in soulmates, then you are less likely to work through [problems] because this person was supposed to be perfect and everything was supposed to be easy,” he says. But being able to confront conflict as a couple is imperative to growing a healthy relationship, he adds.

When people are searching for their soulmate, they can end up on a never-ending quest, says Ramani Durvasula, a psychologist based in California. If you believe in soulmates, it’s easy to think that you need someone else to complete you. But a relationship should always be an enhancement, rather than a necessity, she says.

3. Moving on to more merciful territory, Chad Bird penned a stirring meditation on Augustine’s conversion, “A Cynic Walks Into a Church“, focusing in on the erstwhile bishop of Hippo’s relationship with Ambrose, the kindly church father whose preaching and person had such a towering impact on the young cynic:

There is no divorce between doctrine and life, preaching and loving. The teachings we confess to be true are like trees waiting to drop the sweet fruits of love and kindness and hospitality. The more that we hear the law, the more we recognize others as those who, like us, are torn and tattered by the wounds of sin and brokenness. And the more we hear of Christ’s grace, the more we recognize them as those who, also like us, have our names traced on the very heart of God.

And speaking of God’s love manifested among the broken and wounded, how’s this for an image?

4. Next, this is the first I’m hearing of Finland’s “National Jealousy Day”, AKA the day each year when every Finnish citizen’s taxable income is made public. Lines out the door of the tax administration building at 8AM sharp. Absolutely fascinating for what it says about comparison, condemnation, self-justification and, well, money:

“It’s a psychological exercise,” [says German-born author and Finnish transplant Roman Schatz]. “It creates an illusion of transparency so we all feel good about ourselves: ‘The Americans could never do it. The Germans could never do it. We are honest guys, good guys.’ It’s sort of a Lutheran purgatory.”

Transparency may or may not reduce inequality, but does tend to make people less satisfied, several concluded. A study of faculty members at the University of California, where pay was made accessible online in 2008, found that lower-earning workers, after learning how their pay stacked up, were less happy in their job and more likely to look for a new one… “More information may not be something which improves overall well-being,” said Alexandre Mas, one of the authors of the University of California report.

Nowadays, Helsinki tabloids often assign up to half their editorial staff to cover the release of the data, and competition for computer terminals in the tax administration building is so intense that there was once a scuffle, which everyone agreed was totally un-Finnish.

5. Long read of the week has got to be Rosecrans Baldwin’s “My Life Cleanse: One Month Inside the LA Cult of Betterness” in GQ, which is really a deep-dive into his harrowing experience at a week-long M.I.T.T. seminar. Before he unloads the details on that disturbing experience, though, he provides a characterization of Los Angeles that’s tailormade for–you guessed it–#seculosity:

Los Angeles has been more of a myth than a reality at different times in history; now it’s all reality. Nearly 58,000 county residents are homeless. L.A. has the country’s largest jail system; it cages more people than any other city in the United States. And if you’re lucky enough to avoid those two fates, our mild climate can still feel cold. You’re never successful enough, never pretty enough. Our devotion to fitness lets our worship of the flesh seem less like narcissism (though it is) and more like noncompliance (with death). L.A. is a competitive place, full of transplants on the seek. And with each season comes a new diet (“any three-day cleanse for $90”), a new treatment to fix what’s wrong (the “Viora Reaction,” the “Vampire Facelift”). Self-help has become a habit in America, but it’s pathological in Southern California. Life coaches advertise on telephone poles. Storefront psychics are open 24/7. Writing in 1921, John Steven McGroarty, a poet who later became a congressman, said, “Los Angeles is the most celebrated of all incubators of new creeds, codes of ethics, philosophies—no day passes without the birth of something of this nature never heard of before.”

6.Why Are We Surprised that Therapy Has its Downsides?” asks Oliver Burkeman in a recent entry to his always-trenchant column for The Guardian, This Column Will Change Your Life:

According to many models of both therapy and meditation, some degree of distress proves the process is working – as Robert Frost put it, there is “no way out but through”. Confronting psychological pain is, well, painful. (The study even included upsetting relationship breakups as a side-effect, but it’s easy to imagine cases where a breakup would be a great result.) This in turn suggests that maybe “getting happy” isn’t the best way to think about the aim here. Maybe confronting life as it really is – even when that’s no cause for celebration – is the path to meaning.

7. Over at The New Yorker, Paula Mejía looks into The Brutality and Tenderness of Nick Cave’s Newsletters. The Aussie master has been holding forth with characteristic courage and beauty on his website in response to questions submitted by his fans. Subjects range from the nature of collaboration (and friendship) and the amount of animals occupying his songwriting at present, to weightier matters such as whether or not he senses his deceased son Arthur communicating with him from beyond the grave:

“It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal… Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves.” He felt that his son beckoned to him and his wife, the fashion designer Susie Bick, from beyond the grave, too, both in waking and in dreams. Within the inevitable chasm between life and death, Cave noted, something else emerged. “Dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake,” he continued.

I can hardly pass up an opportunity to point us all back to Cave’s timeless intro to the Gospel of Mark.

8. Also in pop culture, while Matthew Weiner’s new TV series, The Romanoffs, may not quite hew to the same level of consistency he established on Mad Men, as a Carver-esque series of (extremely) loosely related, lusciously produced short stories, it’s a good time. Episodes 1 and 4 contain some beautiful pictures of grace, too. But when it comes to TV, I’m mainly just excited about today’s return of Patriot! Trailer below. Elsewhere, color me impressed by Terry Gross’ interview with Jonah Hill about his directorial debut Mid-90s. Wide-ranging, raw, and surprisingly wise. Also, Alan Jacobs’ impressions of the new Dylan bootleg series box set have me salivating for Christmas. Over at The Film Stage our friend Josh Encinias traced the epic resurrection and subsequent release (last week!) of Orson Welles’s final film, The Other Side of the Wind–on Netflix as we speak. Oh and the NY Times panned the exhibit that Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf curated in Vienna, but the photos they include make it look incredibly great.

Strays