1. How can we not lead off by talking about Robert Smith’s surprise announcement during his commencement address to the graduating class of Morehouse College last Sunday? A third party who wipes a slate clean, shoulders a burden, absolves a debt, gifts a wholeness–by surprise, without coercion, and at a cost to themselves–whatever language you choose, it was an act of grace. And I don’t think it was a mistake that Smith’s kept repeating the refrain to his audience “you are enough!” It was inspiring, to say the least. CNN spelled out the particulars this way:

Morehouse College seniors got a surprise Sunday when billionaire investor Robert F. Smith announced during his commencement speech that he would pay off the student loan debt for the historically black college’s graduating class. By aiding nearly 400 young men at an estimated value of $40 million, his donation is the biggest single gift in the school’s 152-year history. President David Thomas called Smith’s gesture “a liberation gift.”

Of course, like any act of grace, the criticisms of Smith’s momentous gesture have come fast and furious, usually under the auspices of what’s fair/unfair. Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post relayed a few anonymous responses that sound eerily elder brother-ish (or like the early risers in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard):

“The Robert F. Smith/Morehouse gift has resonated with me and not in a completely positive way,” a reader from Virginia wrote. “Of course I’m happy for the students and am very appreciative of a rich person who contributes from his success to others. However, my immediate thought was: ‘What about the classmates who struggled and sacrificed to pay the cost of their education without going into debt?’ There must be many feeling left out, unlucky, or even resentful. I feel conflicted without being smart enough to guarantee some better conclusion, but I think in his place I would have [the] generous contribution into a permanent scholarship fund.”

Several other readers echo this same sentiment. “There are others who racked up debt with no idea of how they could minimize it or how they would pay it off and are being rewarded for irresponsible financial behavior,” one reader wrote.

2. Further in the grace-in-practice, imputed-enoughness arena, this one, er, killed me: The Washington Post profiled the experimental practice of “mock funerals” that some visionary educators are implementing at various low-income high schools around the country and holy moly! “Mock” because no one has died, instead students are invited to “cast their cares” into an open casket, and by “cares” I mean anonymous confessions essays about their struggles and secrets. At least, that’s how it went at the Atlanta one they detail:

Attendance at the mock funeral was voluntary, but the bleachers were full. A controlled chaos reigned as students found seats and Byron Cage’s gospel song “Broken But I’m Healed” filled the room.

It turned quiet when three mothers took the stage. Each had a son attending Douglass High who was shot and killed last year, and photos of the boys were projected onto giant screens. A cousin of one of the boys spoke to the students. “We’re standing before you today … telling you, ‘You are loved. You are valued. We need you,’ ” Chevian Dudley said…

The mock funeral appears to be grounded in research showing that children do best when they feel that adults in the school know them, but said the exercise would benefit from follow-up and evaluation. “It’s a really powerful message that the school is sending to the students — that we value who you are: We see you, we know you, we understand you are more than how you perform in algebra,” she said.

Also on the subject of letting go, The NY Times helpfully rounded up the latest research on the deleterious effects of grudge-holding — a much-needed rejoinder to their column from earlier this year promoting so-called “healthy grudges”. Oy vey.

3. Next, Legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb (“Wichita Lineman”, “MacArthur Park”, “All I Know”, “Where I Am Going”) was interviewed last month in Washington Life Magazine and dropped this incredible quote:

“I firmly believe that every individual will encounter some moment in their life that is, for whatever reason, a crucial, catastrophic, crisis moment. They’ve lost something or someone, and that seems unbearable. But there’s always a song that, like an angel, comes down and attaches itself to them. So many of these people look me in the eye after a show and shake my hand and say, ‘Thank you for writing ‘Wichita Lineman’ because it got me through the worst moment in my life.’ It’s such a humbling thing because I know I didn’t do that, I didn’t write that song specifically for them so they could get through some terrible episode. But I know that there’s another power working, there’s a spiritual power that works through music and I strongly believe that. You ask me how on earth did you write these songs? I have to say that the credit comes from what I believe is a spiritual conduit from a real inspiration.”

4. From the sublime to the ridiculous, some distilled #seculosity via The Economist’s update on the fast-expanding world of sleep technology, especially as it relates to the cult of productivity in Silicon Valley. The word “orthosomnia” joins “orthorexia” as a new go-to for illustrating the logical endpoint of little-l law. We talk about this more on The Mockingcast:

For tech tycoons, it seems, sleep is the new fitness… The mania for sleep technology makes perfect sense for the tech industry: it fits with the industry’s metrics-driven worldview. Applying similar techniques to sleep and other aspects of their personal lives—an approach known as the “quantified self”—seems a logical step. As those in the startup world like to say, “what’s measured improves.” [ed. note: Calling McDavid!]. Sleep-tracking also aligns neatly with Silicon Valley’s cult of productivity, and the constant search for “life hacks” that will make entrepreneurs more effective, efficient and successful. They also let people extend their quantified-self efforts into the one part of the day that was previously untouched: shut-eye. Relentlessly pursuing productivity only while you are awake is for wimps.

Never mind that a study published in 2015, by researchers at Mass General, found that sleep-tracking devices could not accurately measure sleep, and that claims made about them were long on hype and short on solid evidence. Ignore the fact that another study, published in 2017 by researchers at two medical schools in Chicago, warned of the dangers of “orthosomnia”, defined as a “perfectionistic quest for the ideal sleep in order to optimise daytime function”, as obsessive users of sleep-tech devices self-diagnose sleep disturbances based on dodgy data, or stay awake all night worrying that they are falling behind by not sleeping as efficiently as rivals.

5. In The Atlantic, Amanda Mull names another peculiar modern anxiety, one brought on by online shopping and its infinite choices. Searching for “hangers” on Amazon, for instance, yields 200,000 different options, instantly stressing people out:

Contemporary internet shopping conjures a perfect storm of choice anxiety… Those infinite, meaningless options can result in something like a consumer fugue state. After shopping online, I often don’t remember days later whether I actually made a decision or not, and I regularly pause at the mountain of Amazon boxes next to my apartment building’s elevators to glance at the names on the labels, just to see if I forgot to expect something. Often, one of my neighbors is there doing it with me. Usually, both of us get on the elevator without boxes.

Helping consumers figure out what to buy amid an endless sea of choice online has become a cottage industry unto itself. Many brands and retailers now wield marketing buzzwords like curation, differentiation, and discovery as they attempt to sell an assortment of stuff targeted to their ideal customer. Instead of making sense of a sea of existing stuff, these companies claim to disrupt stuff as Americans know it. Casper (mattresses), Glossier (makeup), Away (suitcases), and many others have sprouted up to offer consumers freedom from choice: The companies have a few aesthetically pleasing and supposedly highly functional options, usually at mid-range prices. They’re selling nice things, but maybe more importantly, they’re selling a confidence in those things, and an ability to opt out of the stuff rat race.

6. In humor, there’s some terrifically funny stuff this week. First, The Onion reports that “Woman Attempting To Cultivate Self-Love Forced To Start Completely From Scratch After Photo Where Nose Looks Kind Of Weird”, then McSweeney’s cracked me up with their close-to-home “Glossary of Frenzied Parenting” (“MWG”! “edamommies”! “screen-size paradox”!). But what takes the proverbial cake is McSweeney’s “The Thing I Need Most In My Life Right Now Is a Purpose-Driven Paper Towel Brand.” A pitch-perfect parody of the #seculosity truism that “meaning-making is a growth industry”. This deserves a post of its own:

I’m so excited about the prospect of forging a long-lasting relationship with a household paper product that I’ve begun to re-evaluate all of my consumer packaged good brands. So I’ve started curating a completely new portfolio that will meet my material needs while inspiring me to be my very best self and making the world a better place — all at the same time.

For example, I’ve decided to demand more from my dental floss. Keeping my teeth and gums healthy by removing trapped, half-digested particles of food just isn’t enough for me anymore. My new enlightened-consumer self expects a flossing experience that actually means something, like ENABLING A BETTER LIFE. The fact is, there just isn’t one good reason why my intermittent use of waxed monofilaments shouldn’t help elementary-age, refugee school children gain critical STEM skills… I’m simply no longer satisfied anymore with products doing the thing they’re supposed to do well. I want my earplug brand to do something that matters, like create a MORE PEACEFUL WORLD.

7. Social Science Studies of the Week Month are the ones Ben Healy collected for The Atlantic, in his brief article, “Hell Is Other People’s Vacations.” After lamenting the fact that Americans take less and less vacation–and pushing back against the seculosity of work–he trots out a few well-researched reasons to hit the beach this summer, albeit with one significant caveat:

The best reason to take a break may be your own health. For the Helsinki Businessmen Study—a 40-year cardiovascular-health study—researchers treated men at risk of heart disease. From 1974 to 2004, those men who took at least three weeks of vacation were 37 percent less likely to die than those who took fewer weeks off… People who take more of their allotted vacation time tend to find their work more meaningful. People who took all or most of their paid vacation time to travel were more likely than others to report a recent raise or bonus.

…a 2015 study found that “travel and leisure” provoked envy—perhaps the single most toxic substance known to man—more than any other attribute examined (including “relationship and family,” “appearance,” and “money and material possessions”). The effect may be especially acute on social media: 62 percent of people who described Facebook-induced bouts of jealousy said they’d been triggered by travel or leisure experiences—versus less than a quarter of people whose envy had been piqued in person.

So for your own health and sanity, book that vacation. But for everyone else’s, please… take it easy with the Instagram.

8. Finally, in TV, much as I loved and agreed with Bryan’s reading of the Game of Thrones finale from earlier today, I’d also raise my hand among the throngs of the “mildly disappointed.” Most of the reactions I’ve read thus far say more about the audience than the show, myself included. For example, I was less disappointed with specific plot points than how the showrunners punted on metaphysics almost entirely. The supernatural dimension of the show was, to me, the most interesting part of the world George R.R. Martin created (White Walkers, Children of the Forest, Lord of Light, Old Gods vs New Gods, etc), and we basically got nothing. Maybe they were saving it for the author to tackle, who knows. I suppose the most we can say, from a religion standpoint, is that Martin gave us a pluralistic world in which each faith was both distinct and true. All except, you might argue, the impotent faith of the septons in Kings Landing, AKA Martin’s approximation of Catholicism, AKA the faith of his own childhood. Go figure. Anyway, now that it’s over, one certainly wonders how we’ll look back on this chapter of pop culture fanaticism… and whether we’ll all feel a bit embarrassed by how much time and energy (and money!) we put into it. Too bad the final season of Better Call Saul doesn’t arrive til 2020. Perhaps it’s time to give The Good Fight a whirl?

Strays:

  • Tear-inducing long read of the week is definitely Emma Green’s The Impossible Future of Christians in the Middle East,. But if you’re not cried out, try Nicholas Kristof’s “China’s Orwellian War on Religion.” Lord have mercy.
  • Writing in The New Yorker, James Wood reviewed Martin Hägglund’s recent book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, which sounds like it espouses some of the inverted dynamics I tried to convey in the chapter on “The Seculosity of Jesusland,” namely “that a good deal of what passes for religious aspiration is secular aspiration that doesn’t know itself as such. [Hägglund] wants to out religionists as closet secularists.” Een-ter-esting.
  • Loved this Rooted article from Kristen Bech Hatton on “The Seculosity of Parenting.” I still need all the help I can get promoting this thing, so if you’ve read the book and enjoyed, please please please post a review on Amazon or GoodReads.
  • Speaking of please-please-please’s, Morrissey turned 60 yesterday and has a new covers album out, California Sun. I’ve yet to hear a track on it I don’t like. Celebrate by reading Spiked’s refreshingly contrarian take on why “Morrissey is the Rock Rebel We Need Right Now.”
  • Podcast-wise, The Well of Sound’s second season recently soldiered on with an episode devoted to all things Bob Seger. And I’m really, really digging Dan van Voorhis’s new daily 5-minute Christian History Almanac cast. Do yourself a favor.
  • Last but not least, keep an eye out for our big Spring newsletter & appeal, which went out late last week. To receive a copy, be sure to sign up for our mailing list. (We SO appreciate all who’ve given!) A few people told us that the monthly giving form was broken, but it’s fixed now, thank God. Oh and the office is closed on Memorial Day so we’ll see you back here with fresh content on Tuesday.