1. Some fascinating links for your perusal this week, first of which is this, from Vice: The Pursuit of High Self-Esteem Is Making Us Miserable, by Shayla Love. What is here defined as “self-esteem” would be more accurately rendered “contingent self-esteem.” Notably the most popular of its kind, contingent self-esteem resembles flattery or affirmation and is derived from external sources; “other-esteem,” is what I’ve heard this called, when other people, rewards, or promotions become agents of validation. Pointedly, Love explains:

We all want to hold ourselves in high regard. But getting to that place through contingencies — I’m only worthwhile if my boss, friends, partner, or teacher thinks highly of me­­ — can backfire. Self-esteem defined in this way can be an ill-fated desire, sprung up from a culture that puts an exaggerated amount of emphasis on the importance of self-esteem itself.

Strangely, the goal of garnering self-esteem contributes to a lack of it, i.e., “Do I have enough??” One thing Love doesn’t explicitly mention, but which I think would be worth discussing, is the guilt inherent in this kind of score-keeping. If a certain level of self-esteem denotes a good, healthy life, how can one resist measuring or gauging its absence?

“We think of boosts to self-esteem as analogous to sugar: tasty but not nutritious,” wrote Jennifer Crocker, a social psychologist at Ohio State University who has been researching self-esteem for 40 years, in a 2005 paper. A fixation on getting those brief hits of pleasure, especially if they’re contingent on other people saying nice things about you, she said, could instead make us miserable, adding to anxiety and depression.

“It’s like a bottomless pit, because there’s always another person who could be judging you, and they could have a higher standard or a different standard.” […]

People who rely on contingencies for self-worth end up in a vicious circle of chasing approval, finding it, and then going on the hunt again. That’s exhausting, and can also make it harder to achieve your goals and be successful: Many people will actually sabotage themselves in order to have an excuse when they fail, Crocker said. This is called self-handicapping—say, for instance, getting drunk the night before taking a test so that if you do poorly you can say you were too hung over to have done well. People rely on it to prevent the low self-esteem that comes with not achieving something.

“I was a worthy and valuable person yesterday because I was able to do good work, but what about today?” Canevello said. “Can I make it happen again? That’s part of the anxiety.

As everyday life has become more performative, self-esteem has become less about inherent self-worth and more like “an ongoing, desperate desire for approval from others.” People have always had to perform publicly but do so increasingly, now, in the private sphere, at home and with loved ones, as we snap and make our private lives transparent. We try to manage how we look to others, to anticipate how we will be judged in any given scenario. Naturally this cycle becomes isolating and self-revolving:

Ironically, impression management and contingent self-esteem can end up making a person a bit self-centered and hurt our relationships. When you are constantly worrying about how you’re being seen by others, you can stop paying attention to what other people really need.

That people tend to seek esteem externally suggests the difficulty — impossibility? — of conjuring esteem from within. Good luck just deciding, “Today I am good enough!” The question of self-worth — of human worth — is what Love calls an “existential” question, too big to tackle — so far as I can see — without the boldness of faith. Or at the very least, mediated expectations. If you find yourself in the latter camp, I think you’ll enjoy the following, from McSweeny’s Internet Tendency: Motivational Quotes Revised for People with Reasonable Expectations: “If you can dream it, that’s good enough. After all, dreams can be pretty damn realistic.”

2. All of this self-centered self-esteem self-talk is a perfect lead-in to Jessica Hooten Wilson’s bold piece for Christianity Today, “The Devil Lives in the Mirror.” This comes on the heels of Sarah’s recent post, also about the man with the forked tail, from last week. Studying Dostoevsky and O’Connor, Hooten Wilson makes some incisive observations about the devil in everyday life:

Unlike Frank Peretti — whose demons lurk in shadows and wage war from outside of us — Dostoevsky and O’Connor depict the devil within us. O’Connor defines the novelist’s job as reflecting “our broken condition, and through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by.” If you read her stories, you will be shown a mirror that reflects a scandalous image — yourself as possessed. […] The choice to follow one’s self actually enslaves a person to demonic whim. […]

For believers, this struggle between good and evil, between God and Satan, comes down to our view of authority. We Protestants often cringe at this word in part because we recall abuses of power and authoritarian overreach. However, the word should also evoke the one who authored us into being. If we reject all authority in order to “think for ourselves” and “be our own guide” in the world, Dostoevsky and O’Connor (and I alongside them) suggest that we will unwittingly fall prey to demonic authority. But God is the ultimate authority.

Kudos to Dr. Hooten Wilson for giving due not just to the devil but to art. O’Connor and Dostoevsky (and to a large extent Lewis) have rendered some of the most enlightening and memorable depictions of the devil because they are not addressing his wiles head-on, waving Bibles or shaking rosaries (so to speak). Shame the devil and tell the truth — but tell it slant? My friends and I watched Carrie this week (now on Netflix!) and I can’t help but think of Margaret White’s super unhelpful need to denounce the devil in the most boisterous ways possible. Meanwhile her daughter just needed some love.

And speaking of the devil… Here’s some relevant humor from this week’s New Yorker: The Devil Critiques Expressions That Mention Him.

Devil on my shoulder: Cute imagery, but if I’m going to reside in some part of human anatomy, it tends to be more around the pants area. The shoulder’s of little interest to me. “Devil in my jeans”? Now, that’s an expression I could get behind.

3. In the political sphere this week, Yascha Mounk for The Atlantic offered an enlightening report about polarization, what she calls “negative partisanship.” The defining element of partisanship has become not what one is for but what one is against. And what one is against is typically, at worst, a phantom; at best, a distortion of reality. (A scapegoat??) Using the term “the perception gap,” Mounk explains that Democrats and Republicans misperceive Americans on the ‘opposing’ side:

Researchers asked Democrats to guess how Republicans would answer a range of political questions—and vice versa. (The survey was conducted among a sample of 2,100 U.S. adults the week immediately following the 2018 midterm elections.) What they found is fascinating:  Americans’ mental image of the “other side” is a caricature. […]

So naturally you have some hellfire spreading, particularly, admittedly, online. Oddly enough, online is where information moves quickest…perhaps too quick. Mounk argues that, problematically, “the perception gap” results not only from not-enough-information. In fact, information and the “gap” have less-than-ideal correlations here:

Unfortunately, the “Perception Gap” study suggests that neither the media nor the universities are likely to remedy Americans’ inability to hear one another: It found that the best educated and most politically interested Americans are more likely to vilify their political adversaries than their less educated, less tuned-in peers.

Americans who rarely or never follow the news are surprisingly good at estimating the views of people with whom they disagree.

There you have it. Words and numbers can only take you so far. Sooner or later you will need “the Word becoming flesh” — presence, a real person, to settle your deep-seated fears.

4. Next up, sports/parenting: Anyone see that viral video of the parents brawling at a baseball game — for 7-year-olds? Proceed with caution honestly. It’s a little unsettling. (But Satan is rebuked halfway through, so, all good on that front.) For the Wall Street Journal, sports columnist Jason Gay offered a heartfelt response. He’s critiquing over-involvement and the all-too-common tendency for parents to see their children’s activity as a reflection on (or perpetuation of) themselves:

Adult over-seriousness is [the problem]—and that’s a mentality that runs the gamut from yelling at umpires to locking a child on one sport at an early age. Listen to the pros, the coaches and the orthopedic surgeons: There is very little benefit to going “all in” on a single sport. More likely, it’s a pathway to repetitive stress injuries, exhaustion and burnout.

That’s why it’s better to play everything. Organized sports and disorganized sports. Team games as well as individual ones. […]

I’m in no position to give anyone a parenting lesson—I’m just getting started, and I’m surely screwing up all the time—but I’m fairly certain that learning how to bounce back from failure is one of the most important takeaways a child can get from sports.

I mean, my son is playing baseball. It’s a failure-based sport! The greatest hitters fail roughly 70% of the time. It is not a game for the perfectionist, or the person who expects good things to happen all the time. Just ask a Mets fan.

There’s another important lesson here, too: unpredictable things happen. Sometimes, the ball takes a bad bounce. Sometimes, there’s a dog in the outfield. Sometimes, incorrect calls are made, and that’s OK, too. I worry that the cult of TV instant replay is turning us all into forensic obsessives who expect the right decision to be rendered every time, and we’re carrying that attitude down to every level of athletics [and parenting in general].

What a powerful image for both little league and life: not every decision can or needs to be scrutinized on instant replay. While many of us would like to be able to re-play certain social interactions in order to find some assurance of how they went down, that would also be miserable — à la Black Mirror and “The Entire History of You.” It might take a more objective assurance (Hebrews 11:1) to let go and let God.

In any case, like the columnist above, I hope to remain far afield from parenting advice — but can’t help noting the evident seculosity in play. I was reminded of this prescient excerpt from David Zahl’s new book (This chapter will also be re-printed in the upcoming Family Issue of our magazine—shipping next week!):

Whatever creed we claim to follow, hovering behavior betrays a belief that there is no future for our kids—ultimately no enoughness—beyond that which we engineer for them. Such astronomical burden is a recipe for breakdown in parents just as much as their kids.

5. On par with the difficulty of raising kids, let’s now turn to Cain and Abel, the original problem children who were born east of Eden. On his site this week, Chad Bird wrote a beautiful piece about the brothers’ rivalry, and Cain’s murder. Afterward,

God says, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” […] Blood has taken the microphone and it’s not letting it go. […]

Cain is driven out, yes. He becomes a vagrant and a wanderer, yes. But he also becomes, in the strangest of surprises, a protected man. He is marked with a divine sign that shields him.

He who deserved the worst, this first murderer, is still shown grace. How unbelievably unexpected is that?

Perhaps not so unbelievable after all. Because this same God who heard Abel’s blood crying, had already—in the mystery of mysteries—heard the blood of the Lamb crying, who was slain from the foundation of the world. And, as Hebrews beautifully says, that blood speaks better than the blood of Abel. It speaks the red rhetoric of redemption.

It would be shed, this blood of Jesus, in the course of time. Like Abel, he too was a brother, a shepherd, the one whose sacrifice was accepted. His blood too has a voice, it cries out to God, and it too is heard by heaven. When Christ’s blood takes the microphone, every square inch of the vast universe, every subterranean haunt of darkness, every hot and blackened corner of hell, and every angel in the celestial choir, shut up to listen. When Christ’s blood takes the microphone, it is the only sound in creation, the booming declaration that echoes down the corridors of time, saying, “Father, forgive them.”

Strays: