1. Sitting on the beach last week, every hour some prop plane would drag a banner across the sky advertising the miracle of CBD–and where we could buy some. A month earlier, traveling to a wedding, my wife and I counted three brand new CBD boutiques on the main commercial drag of a prominent ‘new South’ destination. Overnight, it would seem, shopfronts selling the cannabis-derived extract have popped up everywhere, no social media feed safe from influencer testimonies about its benefits. Without presuming to weigh in on the substance itself, it’s still bracing how quickly yesterday’s “drug” can become today’s “supplement,” THC or no. I can’t help wonder if the “Summer of CBD” prompted former NY Times columnist (and Mbird Conference speaker) Tim Kreider’s recent column “I Do Drugs” on Medium, which contains more than a few nuggets of prime low anthropology:

Would my life improve if I stopped drinking or doing drugs? Yeah, sure: it would also improve if I rode my bike every day and practiced vipassana meditation and volunteered to teach adult literacy. But I am not going to do any of these things, because I am a lazy stubborn selfish indulgent person. If I were the only person like this, then the whole problem with everything would be me, but it turns out, on a cursory examination of human behavior and history, that pretty much everyone is. When my vet scolded me for feeding cheese to my cat, I asked her why not. “Because it’s bad for them,” she explained. “Then why does she like it so much?” I asked. “Because it’s bad for them!” she said. Or, per Dostoyevsky’s refutation of the whole of Western philosophy in Notes from Underground, “man, whoever he might be, has always and everywhere preferred to act according to his own wishes rather than to the dictates of reason and advantage.”

I do not believe that people are perfectible. People are a mess. I take what I think of as an artist’s view of human nature, rather than a moralist’s or politician’s. My sister tells me I’m a Russian — a people who have been forcibly divested, by their entire history, of any delusions of human perfectibility… I don’t think the dysfunctional American legal, penal, or medical systems can begin to have any kind of realistic relationship to drug use until we start thinking of drugs not as a something that’s happening to other people, but as something we’re all doing.

And yet–and yet!–there’s this:

2. Can you feel the tears welling? I sure can. An ostensibly more formal–and ever-so-slightly more Rogers-esque–approach to the same question arrived this past week via B.D. McClay’s essay “Tell Me I’m Okay” in The Hedgehog Review. McClay surveys a couple of contemporary methods of seeking reassurance (Todd May, Jordan Peterson) before landing on some older ones (Simeon Weil, Simone de Beauvoir). Here’s how she defines our core dilemma:

It is natural to seek reassurance that we are good people, but from whom we seek reassurance is an interesting question. Should you give money to a homeless person? You’re going to look for the answer not from a homeless person but from other people in your situation: comfortably off. Social media overflows with people who feel bad because they don’t feel bad enough about this or that political crisis. The only action available seems to be attention. So they pay it, consuming images and stories of horrors they often can do nothing directly about. Collectively, the images present a world that is so bad and in which action is so impossible that all you can do, if you’re a winner, is gloomily acknowledge that you shouldn’t be. And by whose standards are you seeking to be good? The answer is the same: those of your peers. Being a good person is being thought well of.

So what we often want to be told is not just that we are good people but that we are normal Some commentators find this situation silly and mock those who go on about trying to be a good person. Yet the seekers are responding to real moral problems, and the feelings of being lost and failing describe something that is not simply an emotional state. Very few people do live up to their own standards, let alone those of others…

This mixture of goodness and normalcy–that far exceeds “okayness”–is what I’ve been calling “enoughness,” and McClay hints at a related hope when she writes, toward the conclusion:

What our neighbors can’t provide us is satisfying moral reassurance or a definitive labeling of our intentions or our goals as good, bad, or decent. Nor can they, in a lasting sense, expiate our failures.

Mr Rogers, you’ll note, was more than just a neighbor or peer to the children who watched him. He was an authority as well, a father you might even say, imputing blessing everywhere he went. While heartfelt reassurance like that goes a long way, it goes much further when accompanied by what McClay refers to as the lasting expiation of one’s failures. I dare say Fred knew to look for that elsewhere than a TV screen, or even from other human beings, period.

3. Writing in The LA Times, Varun Soni, the dean of religious life at University of Southern California, outlines the degree to which these frustrated yearnings are wreaking havoc among undergraduates (see also: Jeremy Park’s wonderful reflection from yesterday). At bottom, Soni believes students are beset by an epidemic of loneliness:

Whereas students used to ask “How should I live?” they are now more likely to ask “Why should I live?” Where they used to talk about hope and meaning; now they grapple with hopelessness and meaninglessness.

What I have noticed in my work with students is that many of them face the same hidden root challenge: loneliness. According to a recent survey by the global health service company Cigna, the loneliest generation in the United States today is not the oldest Americans but the youngest, specifically young adults between 18 and 22 years old. I never got the question in my first five years at USC that I now get almost daily from students: “How do I make friends?”

At which point the article veers into rather Onion-like territory with a kitchen-sink collection of resources intended to foster community and meaning. It’s hard not to read it as an anything-but-G-O-D list: “In the fall, we will debut our new artificial intelligence well-being assistant, named Ari, which will guide students to appropriate support resources and communities on campus. We also offer and host yoga classes, drum circles, friendship courses, community teas, coloring sessions, laughing groups, sleep classes, connection workshops, meditation retreats, campfire conversations and primal scream opportunities. We’ve recently appointed our first director of belonging, while our full-time wellness dog, Professor Beauregard Tirebiter (affectionately known as “Beau”) strolls the campus daily.”

Then again, I could’ve used a ‘director of belonging’ myself freshman year, as Fred was a distant memory by then.

4. Over at The Atlantic, Faith Hill profiled one such attempt to meet the needs that organized religion has historically addressed, albeit one that’s proven a bit too on-the-nose to take off. She details the decline that many of the “secular churches” founded in the last 10-15 years have been experiencing of late. I dare say some of the lessons apply more widely:

If the sudden emergence of secular communities speaks to a desire for human connection and a deeper sense of meaning, their subsequent decline shows the difficulty of making people feel part of something bigger than themselves. One thing has become clear: The yearning for belonging is not enough, in itself, to create a sense of home.

Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at Pew Research Center, says that about one-third of nones fall into the category of “principled rejecters” of organized religion or “principled embracers” of atheism or humanism. But the majority of nones are just indifferent to religion. “On what basis would you pull them together?” Cooperman asked. “Being uninterested in something is about the least effective social glue, the dullest possible mobilizing cry, the weakest affinity principle, that one can imagine.”

I touched on these dynamics a bit in the conclusion of Seculosity. Suffice it to say, the attempt to conjure or approximate a religion of grace out of thin air may be better than nothing, but it’s ultimately a self-defeating enterprise. Because for love and mercy to penetrate a heart, they cannot be contrived. They must be true, or at least perceived as such. Or you could say, the gifts we give ourselves don’t hold a candle to the ones that come from an outside party, especially the ones that come by surprise. This is why the historical element of Christianity—that Jesus actually lived and died and rose again—isn’t arbitrary but essential. Much as one sometimes wishes it weren’t so, any religion of grace potent enough to get people out of bed in the morning has to be received, not constructed.

Or I suppose you could forego the grace entirely and replace Sunday Worship with Civic Saturday, as this group in Seattle is proposing.

5. In fact, that brazen slice of the seculosity of politics leads into this next piece, Caroline Henley’s review of Seculosity over at Marginalia. The chapter on politics was by far the hardest to write, so I was particularly encouraged by her take:

The author is more interested in the tribalism, the sense of belonging, the love and acceptance that political groups offer. Zahl writes that yes, voting and organizing do have meaningful consequences for individuals, nations, and the planet. His argument is that forcing politics into a religious endeavor, the crusades of which define one’s identity, will immediately drive anyone straight into the arms of self-justification. While certain civic activities are certainly worthy to pursue, the ‘right’ politics will never lead anyone to paradise.

I bristled.

There is a chapter in Seculosity that will serve as a litmus test for any reader. I’m not a parent, and I’m not one to boast about a busy schedule. But the idea that politics can never bring about full justice offended me. The message asks me to cede control. And there it is: the Gospel message that the author aims to relate. Any replacement religion will fail, because self-reliance will always fail; “a culture awash in seculosity is a culture of despair.” We will always use the idea of God to try and fix the world or fix ourselves, rather than simply enjoy our forgiveness.

But such an epiphany can be a tremendous relief. It’s a freedom that will allow one to pursue their passions, and when they fail, or let others down, they can hold onto a hope rooted in something deeper…

6. Before we move on from capital-P Politics, last month in a weekender we mentioned The Perception Gap study, and it’s important enough to warrant circling back. It found that–surprise, surprise–people not only have little understanding of their political adversaries, but that education doesn’t help. From a self-justification perspective, the following tidbit was the most striking:

Americans who rarely or never follow the news are surprisingly good at estimating the views of people with whom they disagree. On average, they misjudge the preferences of political adversaries by less than 10 percent. Those who follow the news most of the time, by contrast, are terrible at understanding their adversaries. On average, they believe that the share of their political adversaries who endorse extreme views is about 30 percent higher than it is in reality.

As a follow-up here I’d highly recommend CJ’s excellent post from earlier this week about loving your enemies and Scott Jones’ recent interview with David French in which they talk helpfully about the study in question, especially as it relates to civility.

7. Shifting gears back to the capital-R Religious landscape, the long read of the week is definitely Laura Turner’s essay for Slate, “Sixteen and Evangelical,” in which she details the ways that she and her Willow Creek youth group friends have grown–and grown apart–in the fifteen years since high school. It’s a moving and poetic coming-of-age account that touches on a number of the factors that made 90s Evangelicalism such a ‘mixed’ blessing, yet unique among the current spate of such essays for how she refuses to dismiss (or patronize) the zeal of youth or even the goodness of God. All this without turning a blind eye to the trauma and melancholy of adulthood. Someone should make it into a movie.

8. This next item is my favorite bit of social science to come out in quite some time. TED Ideas reported on “the subtle, surprising way that payment apps may be affecting your relationships.” What looks like a cautionary study about the effects of technology is actually a primer on the (not-so-surprising) toxicity of scorekeeping in relationships and the nature of love, yes, even the divine variety. Get a load of this:

In their study, [researchers Tami Kim, Ting Zhang and Michael Norton] showed participants the Venmo transaction histories for two different people. One showed the individual paying back their friends using round numbers ($10, $35, and $20); the other showed the individual paying back specific amounts ($9.99, $34.95, and $20.06). The participants were asked to pick who they’d rather be friends with, and the overwhelming majority (81 percent) chose the person who paid in round amounts rather than the exact change.

Hmmm … why would people prefer someone who underpays? “When people exchange in these behaviors, it makes the relationship feel transactional,” says Kim, assistant professor of marketing at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. In other words, we don’t want to feel like our friends are keeping precise track of what we owe them, and vice versa. It undermines our bond by turning a trust-based relationship (say, a friend offers you a ride home, no strings attached) into a transactional tit-for-tat relationship (where your friend expects reimbursement for gas).

“There are a lot of other ways you can engage in these behaviors in the offline world,” says Kim. For instance, you call your sister to catch up. When she says she can talk for only four minutes and then tells you at the four-minute mark that her time’s up, you may be annoyed but not know why. You could be feeling like she has put a specific, impersonal limit on a personal interaction. “This concept that we’re studying is not just confined to digital trends, but it’s reflective of what’s more broad general human behavior,” adds Kim. In fact, the researchers found that participants readily related to the study. Norton says, “We’ve asked people, ‘Do you know somebody whose like this?’ and almost everybody can immediately generate someone and they typically don’t like that person all that much.”

9. Finally, in humor, McSweeney’s “Things You’ll Never Hear a Three-Year-Old Say” (e.g., “Here’s your phone back.”) hit waaaay too close to home. And The Onion delivered the goods with “Insecure Infant Worried He Unworthy Of Animatronic Toy Rabbit’s Love” and especially “Woman Spirals Into Vortex Of Self-Doubt After Trader Joe’s Cashier Does Not Compliment Any Of Her Selected Items”:

“The woman at the register next to me is practically drowning in accolades from store employees, but my cashier hasn’t said a thing, not even about the olive tapenade hummus or the chocolate babka, and I just don’t understand what I did wrong,” said the self-conscious Kolman, who described bottoming out with deep shame when the cashier scanned her entire cart of frozen appetizers, wines, and assorted baked goods without uttering a single word of praise.

Strays

  • In TV, I don’t think any of us watch Big Little Lies for the moments of grace (we watch it for Laura Dern!), but holy moly, that finale! I’m referring not only to–semi-spoiler alert–the forgiveness that leads to certain vows but the boys with Meryl after the verdict. Also, Scorcese’s Rolling Thunder Revue documentary contains some truly sublime moments (“Ashes!”), and the second season of Netflix’s Dark was mind-bendingly good.
  • Have you heard the good news about Gaming Church? No, but I’ve heard it #rhymeswithvelocity!
  • In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing, remember when Buzz Aldrin took communion up there? These people do. Walter White dramatized it for HBO below.
  • A new episode of The Well of Sound dropped a couple weeks ago, this time on Roxy Music. Do the strand, boys and girls.
  • I had the privilege of talking #Seculosity with Andy Hale on the CBF Conversations podcast earlier this month.
  • Bonus Long Read: The Paradoxical Effects of Pursuing Positive Emotions: When and Why Wanting to Feel Happy Backfires by BRETT Q. FORD & IRIS B. MAUSS