Another Week Ends

1) “Who’s in Charge Inside Your Head?” asks the New York Times this week, and […]

Ethan Richardson / 10.12.12

1) “Who’s in Charge Inside Your Head?” asks the New York Times this week, and the answer? Not as much you as you think. The op-ed from David Barash compares the human mind to a phenomenon that’s taking place in honey bees around the world, that are infected by flies and suddenly have powerless compulsions to fly at night, something they never had the compulsion for before. This night-flying, parasitic takeover is Barash’s comparison to the way the human mind (and will) works in porous interaction (dependence, even) with the world around it. The piece itself may not leave much discussion room for will-of-God talk, at least intentionally, but it certainly makes sense of depression research and “Age of Anxiety“-like statements; because we are so interconnected and spongy, our contagions are generally our narcissisms, neuroses and wounds (ht CB).

But what about the daily, undiseased lives most of us experience? Voluntary actions are, we like to insist, ours and ours alone, not for the benefit of some parasitic or pathogenic occupying army. When we fall in love, we do so for ourselves, not at the behest of a romance-addled tapeworm. When we help a friend, we aren’t being manipulated by an altruistic bacterium. If we eat when hungry, sleep when tired, scratch an itch or write a poem, we aren’t knuckling under to the vices of our viruses.

But it isn’t that simple.

Think about having a child, and ask who — or rather, what — benefits from reproduction? It’s the genes. As modern biologists recognize, babies are our genes’ way of projecting themselves into the future.

Here, then, is heresy: maybe there is no one in charge (inside of me) — no independent, self-serving, order-issuing homunculus. Buddhists note that our skin doesn’t separate us from the environment, but joins us, just as biologists know that “we” are manipulated by, no less than manipulators of, the rest of life. Who is left after “you” are separated from your genes? Where does the rest of the world end, and each of us begin?

Let’s leave the last words to a modern icon of organic, oceanic wisdom: SpongeBob SquarePants. Mr. SquarePants, a cheerful, talkative — although admittedly, somewhat cartoonish — fellow of the phylum Porifera, “lives in a pineapple under the sea… Absorbent and yellow and porous is he.” I don’t know about the pineapple or the yellow, but absorbent and porous are we, too.

2) You, like me, may be a bit hesitant towards Nightlinesque near-death experience stories. Whether it’s that shock-value paranormal evangelism is hard to believe, or that we live in a reasoned age where miracle testimonies just aren’t that cool, Newsweek‘s got one for the ages, and maybe it’s more palatable because it happened to a doctor. Entitled, “Heaven Is Real,” Dr. Eben Alexander tells the story of his seven-day journey into eternity, and the Good News he heard.

The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this:

“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.”

The message flooded me with a vast and crazy sensation of relief. It was like being handed the rules to a game I’d been playing all my life without ever fully understanding it.

…Modern physics tells us that the universe is a unity—that it is undivided. Though we seem to live in a world of separation and difference, physics tells us that beneath the surface, every object and event in the universe is completely woven up with every other object and event. There is no true separation.

Before my experience these ideas were abstractions. Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also—I now know—defined by love. The universe as I experienced it in my coma is—I have come to see with both shock and joy—the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.

I’ve spent decades as a neurosurgeon at some of the most prestigious medical institutions in our country. I know that many of my peers hold—as I myself did—to the theory that the brain, and in particular the cortex, generates consciousness and that we live in a universe devoid of any kind of emotion, much less the unconditional love that I now know God and the universe have toward us. But that belief, that theory, now lies broken at our feet. What happened to me destroyed it, and I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more, than our physical brains as clear as I can, both to my fellow scientists and to people at large.

3) The Lena Dunham controversy is really interesting. The fact that the creator and star of the hit HBO drama Girls is getting advanced so much money to write a book ($4.3 mill!) is one thing–another being the fact that getting that many bones to do an advice book is sort of antithetical to the ne’er-do-well adultescent nature of the show–but more than either of those, the guiltstorm that has suddenly clouded her fan base upon hearing about all this. Dunham, the argument has it, is no longer the sufferer to give the advice that would make the book worth reading. In “selling out,” something we’ve talked about extensively this week, Dunham has lost the authenticity which makes her so great. Well, we don’t really see things that way, and neither does Ta-Nehisi Coates, over at the Atlantic, who says, “Lena Dunham Is Not Your Problem:”

It’s really bizarre. Dunham doesn’t seem to be doing anything different from what other successful creative people in Hollywood do, and yet there’s this great expectation that she should, somehow, be doing more. It’s a variation on the “twice as good” theme. Gender is certainly a large of chunk of this. But another large chunk might be our obsession with realness and selling out.

Similarly, and also on the Atlantic this week, a response to the question of whether or not “Film Culture” is dead. In response to Salon piece by O’Hehir, Jason Bailey seems to, with a shrug of his shoulders, believe the answer is no, that good movies are just “More Fun” nowadays, but that, more importantly, the question itself is kind of part of the problem. “Film Culture,” if that’s what you’re into, is preternaturally judgmental. He says, “Any serious filmgoer must wrestle with a pervading sense of guilt and fear. I feel guilty that I can’t find solace in the high-minded intellectualism of the Resnais or the experimental rhythms of Leviathan or dozens of other films that I know I should like (or admire, or respect), but don’t.” The beauty of critically-acclaimed movies now–take Whedon for example–is they tend to peel off the need for esoteric authenticity and allow a great film to be likable, too.

4) An unbelievable forgiveness story from the New York Times about the death of Eric Lomax, British WWII soldier and author of The Railway Man, his River Kwai memoir about the imprisonment and torture suffered under the Japanese in Thailand. The article describes Lomax’s hunting down of a particularly memorable torturer, Nagase Takashi, and the unbelievable reconciliation that transpired when they finally did meet (ht JD):

Jeremy Irvine, Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman star in the film adaptation of The Railway Man in 2013.

“When we met, Nagase greeted me with a formal bow,” Mr. Lomax said on the Web site of the Forgiveness Project, a British group that seeks to bring together victims and perpetrators of crimes. “I took his hand and said in Japanese, ‘Good morning, Mr. Nagase, how are you?’ He was trembling and crying, and he said over and over again: ‘I am so sorry, so very sorry.’ ”

Mr. Lomax continued: “I had come with no sympathy for this man, and yet Nagase, through his complete humility, turned this around. In the days that followed we spent a lot of time together, talking and laughing.” He added, “We promised to keep in touch and have remained friends ever since.”

5) The New Republic has an article out entitled, “Does Biology Make Us Liars?” and starts by noting how philosophers since Aristotle have described man to be naturally self-loving, but then takes a turn into the biology of self-deception. Within the human code of conduct, we are rife with confirmation biases, “rampant self-inflation,” “false personal narratives.” In other words, both biology and social psychology are insights into the incurvatus en se. It’s a long read, but definitely worth the time (ht CR):

Across cultures, it is claimed, moral hypocrisy is the rule: people tend to judge others more harshly than themselves for the same infraction. But put people under a form of cognitive load—say, have them memorize a string of numbers while making a moral judgment—and the usual bias toward self disappears. “This suggests that built deeply within us,” Trivers writes, “is a mechanism that tries to make universally just evaluations, but that after the fact, ‘higher’ faculties paint the matter in our favor.” The question is: is there a price?

6) The A/V Club’s inventory on “Film’s 23 Greatest Rock Bottom Moments” is a post in itself. Particularly the Days of Wine and Roses greenhouse breakdown, the Crazy Heart lost boy scene, and Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Boogie Nights dead-stare.

7) And finally the Glorious Ruin attention is humming! An amazing excerpt was posted on Gospel Coalition here.

Instead, the gospel is for those who have realized that they can’t carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Only when God drives us to the end of ourselves do we begin to see life in the gospel. Which is another way of saying that only those who stand in need of a savior will look for or recognize a savior. Fortunately, Christianity in its original, most authentic expression understands God chiefly as savior and human beings chiefly as those in need of being saved.


Mockingbird’s newest publication, Grace in Addiction: The Good News of Alcoholics Anonymous for Everybody, is on its way and will be available for purchase before the end of the month!