“The Chother” and the Movement of Anti-Grace, by David Dark

This is an excerpt from David Dark’s newest book, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re […]

Mockingbird / 3.15.16

This is an excerpt from David Dark’s newest book, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious. Don’t miss our excellent interview with the author on the latest episode of The Mockingcast!

I have a concept, sacred in my estimation, that arose from repeatedly leaving a child alone in front of a television. It’s a serendipitous slip of the tongue I gleaned and now treasure from the testimony of my once-four-year-old son when he offered a commentary upon an iconic image within the Hanna-Barbera tradition. Giving voice to his specific love for the antics and escapades of Scooby-Doo and the community with whom he makes his way through a harried world, he once told me that he especially likes the moments in which Scooby and Shaggy get scared to the point of paralysis. In what I suspect is a touchstone in every episode, though I can’t claim to have studied the matter thoroughly, there comes a time when Scooby and Shaggy respond to duress (a man in a monster costume, for instance) by leaping into one another’s arms and quivering together for a couple of seconds, a precious moment in which it’s hard to say where the dog stops and the man begins. They hold each other, we might say, but in his effort to articulate what delighted him so, the child put it much, much better: “They hold their ‘chother.”

With the enunciation of this concept, that of the chother, I believe we’re sitting squarely within the glow of a religious insight, an insight that meets all manner of resistance–also religious–in our hurry-up-and-matter, mad, mad world. First, the resistance. As I understand it, the idea that any of us can have our meaning alone or be the sole authors of our own significance or have joy for which we only have ourselves to thank is a death-dealing delusion. This psycho covenant implies, for instance, that a strong, successful few might somehow gain their lives without losing them, that there are those who have earned, thought or perhaps bought their way beyond the neediness–the essential vulnerabilities–of relationship. And as the delusion has it, there are those among us who through will, drive and ingenuity might somehow join them. Influencers? VIPs? High-impact people? Perhaps you know the parlance, or rather, the creeds.

This bizarre and ineluctably religious vision of humanity is such an unacknowledged given in the popular thinking of the Western world, viewed so simply as the way things work, that it can feel awfully difficult to hold it at an angle or at arm’s length long enough to consider the possibility that it might not be so. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, the saying goes, as if such a thing were possible. Hard work pays off. Well, of course. Yes. It sometimes does. Does this mean that anyone who isn’t getting paid is probably in that pickle for lack of trying or that those who do get paid–and then some–have what they have for having labored so truly and excellently? That…would be an insane claim. And yet it’s so in circulation, a myth perpetuated among adults like a handshake, a tale told to children as if it were gospel, a contagion we know to be very much airborne. When you begin to see it, you find that it’s the default moral of…a very significant chunk of the best-selling contemporary tales of our time. Look at the books on display at the airport. Is it not the case that a sizable sum of the stories on offer give a moving account–you can skip to the end–of how someone hurried up and at long last mattered? Why are those faces on those magazines? These are amazing people who finally got it together and really went for it. [eyes closed] All hail the power of the lone individual.


There are so many ways of naming this popular delusion. It’s the very hubris that gets classically played out in song and story and on screen and stage repeatedly, and it’s probably remembered and then quickly forgotten as a problem we ourselves might have numerous times on any given day. One very helpful naming of the evil spirit comes to us from the mind of writer George Monbiot, who gives to this otherwise airy nothing a local habitation and a name by describing and skewering the phenomenon as–wait for it–the self-attribution fallacy. Perhaps you’ve witnessed it: “This means crediting yourself with outcomes for which you weren’t responsible.” Ever discerned that little mind dance in action?

Think of self-attribution as the movement of anti-grace. It’s the opposite way of the gift. This isn’t to say that we bear no responsibility for any positive outcome. It’s just that the conditions for thriving so many of us enjoy aren’t necessarily the natural result of the reign of righteousness in the world. It wasn’t all justice, we might say. An awful lot of what we have–clothes, computers, food, the abode in which we lay our heads to rest–arrive via “the ruthless exploitation of others and accidents of birth.” Or in some cases, to put it more simply: “luck and brutality.” We’re fond of recalling aloud that we don’t deserve what we have, but does that cliche go especially deep in our self-understanding? Does it play our in the way we like to see the lives of others ordered? Maybe not so much. Because this is all a “myth of election” so easily reduced to comedy the moment a sober person comes close to voicing it aloud, it can only thrive–and it really does–through insinuation and the explaining away of the lived tragedies of so many whose access to abundant life is blocked by the wicked ordering of life and resources we anxiously lobby to keep in place…

Scooby and Shaggy, meanwhile, hold their chother. Take a moment to think about it. The wondrous image is of course just one more iteration of the ancient, soul-saving obvious but still countercultural realization that to be whole is to be part. If we hold to the chother principle, we understand again what we’re hell-bent on denying and forgetting, that our very sustenance and whatever identity we can be said to have comes to us via the fact of relatedness or not at all… Or as the Jewish mystic Martin Buber liked to say, in the beginning was relationship. Whether via the biblical injunction to die in order to live or the Buddhist principle of anatta (no-self), all manner of ancient wisdom counsels that whatever self I can be said to have is the gift of self I receive from my relation to others, the groundless ground (think of the way Shag and Scoob almost levitate) of the chother.

The realization of the social fact of the chother of course happens all the time. The hope that it might happen today, some lived experience of real community, is often what gets us out of bed in the morning. And of course, in what can be a slightly sad way, it’s why we retreat to another screen. It’s why we eavesdrop, and it’s why we like to sit in bars and coffee shops. It’s the way we look to a song. We ache for it. When we’re confronted with crisis, when we join together in music or when we experience (or receive) a vision of soul, whatever the source, the question of where my one life starts and that of my neighbor stops begins to dissolve…

For one mad moment, we’re relieved of the sociopathic burden of trying to convince ourselves and others we’re self-made people who might matter just a little bit more than the average human.