Another Week Ends: Loving Pets, Eight Year Plans, Liberal Arts, Good Places, Academic Hoaxes, and Private Life

1. With the exception of a month-long garter snake residency, I grew up in a […]

David Zahl / 10.5.18

1. With the exception of a month-long garter snake residency, I grew up in a pet-free house. Allergies was the official reason behind the prohibition, but I suspect the fact that my brothers and I were more than enough for my folks to handle also had something to do with it. As I’ve gotten older (and now that my own children have begun lobbying for a dog), I’ve noticed the comforting and, well, gracious role that pets play in many households. A loyal pet exudes a no-matter-what love for their owner, and seems to absorb it in kind. The relationship is so uncomplicated, and so reliably positive, that it approximates the unconditional love of God. At least, that’s what it looks like to my un-experienced eyes. And that’s certainly what came across in Danielle Ofri’s beautiful tribute to her family dog in The NY Times article, “Nursing Juliet”:

A dog is a two-way highway for love unbounded and unadulterated. In a world that relentlessly enforces limits, the love of a pet is a refuge for unconstrained emotion, especially for a child… This became even more apparent as our dog Juliet aged. That infant on the bed is finishing high school, with two other teenagers right behind. While adolescents tend to be blithely self-centered in all manner of human interaction, when it came to Juliet, my three were solicitous, tender and concerned. They treated her as a treasured child whose every fault could be forgiven and whose every personality quirk was lauded like a work of Mozart, retold with the pride of parentage…

As a parent, your instinct is to protect your children from anguish. But [when we had to put Juliet down], there was only the raw pain that is inextricably linked to love. It was an unvarnished introduction to life and the existential risks we take when we choose to love another being.

We wish, of course, that she could have lived forever. But we have to make do with the gifts she left us. The most powerful is what Juliet gave to our children: the opportunity to tender — and to weather — unconditional love, love as an outward, selfless reach. She allowed them to experience what parents experience — love as the magnificent harrowing plunge.

That closing phrase makes for a particularly beautiful euphemism for God’s grace. Then again, as I found out in our conversation on The Mockingcast this week, the Ofri’s experience may be more singular than I imagine.

2. Next, another verse in the age-old ballad known as “Amateur Diety Blues”: Charles Chu explored “The Tyranny of the Perfect Life” for The Polymath Project on Medium, in which he comes to terms with a self-inflicted but nonetheless cruel form of Ought.

A year after I wrote my Eight-Year Plan, I quit my job with the intention of traveling the world for at least a decade. I had absolutely no desire to settle down or find a stable life partner. That wasn’t what the cool kids did. Of course, a few short years later, I did precisely the reverse: I quit traveling, settled down (in Japan, of all places), and got married.

Before I met my wife, my “ideal woman” was an intelligent, polymathic book-lover, cultured and with a PhD in math or science. Instead, my wife is a dance teacher, rarely reads, hates math, and never went to college. She’s great…

To pursue the perfect life is to assume that you have knowledge of who you are, what you want, and how you might get there. But history, science, and personal experience have all taught me that I’m not so good at knowing myself or what I want from life…

When I was most-obsessed with my Eight-Year Plan, I was tyrannical, self-hating, and not so fun to be around. Friends and girlfriends were to be “liquidated” if not useful for personal growth. Time not spent productively was a failure of willpower or planning. I rarely took any days off and — when I did — I did it because taking time off would help me come back later and work harder.

3. While we’re on the subject of work (and career plans), in an essay highly reminiscent of the talk William Dersiewicz gave at our NYC Conference a couple of years ago, Quartz explains How Workers Killed the Liberal Arts, touching on a number of familiar themes, and tying into CJ’s masterful post from earlier today about our vanishing hobbies, #seculosity:

The liberal arts, until relatively recently, were regarded as “liberal” to the degree that they taught students that some things in life, being good in themselves, were not done because they were useful or necessary but entirely for their own sake. The liberal arts took as its purpose that of introducing students to a space of freedom beyond expediency, practicality, and utility.

Sadly, pretty much all that was liberal (or “free”) about the liberal arts has since withered away, and now they live on mostly in name only, and only so long as they’re deemed useful… In this world of “total work,” everything must be undertaken in the name of “work,” and because of this, there can remain no space of inquiry distinct from and higher than the demands of work. Now even intellectual engagement, if it was to be justified at all, could only be justified as “intellectual work” and only so long as it proved to be socially beneficial.

What the liberal arts had for the longest time held open was a space in which human beings could discover that they were more than “functionaries” or “workers,” a space devoted solely to the contemplation of higher things. Now this sentiment cannot but sound highfalutin, nostalgic, “useless,” “indulgent,” unambitious,” “idle,” “lazy,” and most especially “wasteful.”

While there are scholars still insisting that the liberal arts’ value lies in its development of critical thinking… the purpose of this critical thinking is most often framed much differently than it used to be. By the time I went to college in the late 90s, I had grown accustomed to hearing that developing strong critical thinking skills would make me highly employable.

Having attended college at the same time, I concur 100%. And if my experience working with undergrads this past decade is trustworthy, the situation has palpably intensified since then, especially among young men, i.e. spot a male English major in the wild today and you’ve spotted someone with courage beyond their years. Course, one suspects that the vanishing of “a space of inquiry distinct from and higher than the demands of work” and decline of religion isn’t a coincidence. If you take God out of the equation, or capital-T Truth more generally, what point is there to education other than preparation for the workplace? Some vague sense of personal or civic edification hardly makes a person want to take out another loan.

4. On a lighter note, What Makes The Good Place So Good? asks Sam Anderson in The NY Times Magazine, and the answer may surprise you:

This is the trick of “The Good Place.” Ethics is not some kind of moralistic byproduct; it’s baked into the very premise. The show is entirely life lessons. Every episode is Very Special. It synthesizes those old contradictory impulses — jester vs. guru — so completely that they cease to be in tension. If “Seinfeld” was a show about nothing, “The Good Place” is a show about everything — including, and especially, growing and learning. By all rights, it should probably be awful — preachy, awkward, tedious, wooden, labored and out of touch. Instead, it is excellent: a work of popular art that hits on many levels at once. It has been not only critically acclaimed but also widely watched, especially on streaming services, where its twists and intricate jokes lend themselves to bingeing and rebingeing. The modern world, perhaps, is hungrier for ethics than we have been led to believe…

The idea that excited Schur, for his next sitcom, was both simple and infinitely complex: what it means to be a good person. It was an idea he had been obsessed with in different forms for many years — and that had crystallized for him back in 2005, when Jennifer Philbin, who is now his wife, got into a very minor traffic accident with a man driving a Saab. No one was hurt, and no visible damage was done, and yet the incident would become, Schur later wrote, “one of the most interesting and complicated events of my adult life.” When the Saab driver filed what Schur thought was an unnecessary insurance claim and demanded $836 for bumper damage, Schur countered with a grandly high-minded alternative. If the man would drop his claim, Schur said, he would donate the $836 to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Schur’s plan went viral, and friends and supporters jumped in to pledge more than $30,000 — an incredible philanthropic victory — and yet Schur began to feel a growing sense of unease. He suspected that his mission was not, perhaps, entirely righteous. There was an element of grandstanding to the gesture, of moral one-upmanship, and Schur spoke about it with his family and colleagues and even professors of ethics. He became fascinated by the ways people can rack up ethical credits and debits all at the same time. This, eventually, would become the subject of his show.

5. Not the most humorous past week we’ve had, but a couple of chuckles nonetheless to relay. There’s Babylon Bee’s more-true-than-funny “FBI Investigation Implicates Entire World: ‘There Is None Righteous, No, Not One’,” while McSweeney’s gave us I’m Quitting Facebook, Except for All the Parts I Currently Use, as well as a List of Dangerous Ideas, e.g., “This relationship is just for right now while I figure things out.” But to be honest, nothing made me laugh harder this week than the excerpts of the Sokal Squared hoax papers (which also shed some light on the retreat from the liberal arts mentioned above). Either a mean-spirited hit job or an urgently revelatory prank or both, what got me was language itself, which cloaks absurdity in pitch perfect academic-speak. The Atlantic detailed the hoax itself here, and Quillette provides some trenchant commentary here, but you’ll have to do some searching of your own to find the papers themselves. If that leaves you cold (or crying), at least there’s this video:

6. On the podcast front, this week on The Mockingcast, we talk about hobbies, headlines and pets. The Elizabeth Gilbert “Integrity Check” Sarah reads can be found here can be found here, and here’s the Elizabeth Bruenig article “We’re All Back in High School” which we also mention. In a timely new episode of PZ’s Podcast, “Sunshine of Your Love,” PZ tackles the flipside of the adolescence coin, which he defines as “THE time in your life when you experience the strongest emotions, emotions contingent on loss but also fulfillment, expression but also suppression. You could almost say that one’s adolescence is failed if you haven’t felt the strongest degree of pain and also of pleasure that it is possible for a human being to feel.” Oh and the Cheap Trick episode of The Well of Sound is out!