1. Let’s start by heading straight to the jugular this week with “The Age of American Despair” by Ross Douthat in the Times. There’s not a whole lot to say that we haven’t said before, but hot on the heels of the tragic headlines about pastor Jarrid Wilson, it felt irresponsible to lead with anything else. Douthat is concerned primarily with how best to conceive of the dramatic uptick in ‘deaths of despair’ — which have more than doubled since the turn of the millennium — to what extent they should all be lumped together and if it’s even possible to parse the cultural and economic factors from the spiritual ones. Needless to say, it’s a little dismaying to see the urgency of the #Seculosity project underlined so dramatically in the final paragraphs. Lord have mercy:

We should subdivide the “despair” problem into distinct categories: A drug crisis driven by the spread of heroin and fentanyl which requires a drug policy solution; a surge in suicides and depression and heavy drinking among middle-aged working-class whites to which economic policy might offer answers; and an increase in depression and suicide generally, and among young people especially, that has more mysterious causes (social media? secularization?) and might only yield to a psychological and spiritual response…

But at the same time the simultaneity of the different self-destroying trends is a brute fact of American life. And that simultaneity does not feel like just a coincidence — especially when you include other indicators, collapsing birthrates and declining marriage rates and decaying social trust, that all suggest a society suffering a meaning deficit, a loss of purpose and optimism and direction, a gently dehumanizing drift.

So if we’re going to answer whatever is killing tens of thousands of our countrymen, it’s as important to pay attention to the would-be cultural healers — from the old churches to the New Agers, the online Nietzscheans to the neo-pagans, Jordan Peterson to Marianne Williamson — as it is to have the policy conversations about what’s possible in the next presidential term.

Despair as a sociological phenomenon is rarely permanent: Some force, or forces, will supply new forms of meaning eventually. And it matters not only that this happens, but which forces those will be.

2. Those of us with a vested interest in “the old churches” serving as cultural healers in some fashion–or at least the forces in question maintaining some vestige of grace–would do well to pay attention to this next piece, Onsi Kamel’s account of how “Catholicism Made Me Protestant” on First Things(!). Kamel’s journey from heartland Evangelicalism into John Henry Newman-style Catholicism into Reformational Protestantism is relayed with such charity and affinity that it had me doing a bit of a double-take to be honest. But what got me sitting up in my chair was the way he describes the heart of the matter in the conclusion–which has less to do with “this type of Christian vs that type” than “why wake up early on Sundays, period.” Holy guacamole, ht MM:

I will never forget the moment when, like Luther five hundred years earlier, I discovered justification by faith alone through union with Christ. I was sitting in my dorm room by myself. I had been assigned Luther’s Explanations of the Ninety-Five ­Theses, and I expected to find it facile. A year or two prior, I had decided that Trent was right about justification: It was entirely a gift of grace consisting of the gradual perfecting of the soul by faith and works—God instigating and me cooperating. For years, I had attempted to live out this model of justification. I had gone to Mass regularly, prayed the rosary with friends, fasted frequently, read the Scriptures daily, prayed earnestly, and sought advice from spiritual directors. I had begun this arduous cooperation with God’s grace full of hope; by the time I sat in that dorm room alone, I was distraught and demoralized. I had learned just how wretched a sinner I was: No good work was unsullied by pride, no repentance unaccompanied by expectations of future sin, no love free from selfishness.

In this state, I picked up my copy of that arch-heretic Luther and read his explanation of Thesis 37: “Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.” With these words, Luther transformed my understanding of justification: Every Christian possesses Christ, and to possess Christ is to possess all of Christ’s righteousness, life, and merits. Christ had joined me to himself.

I had “put on Christ” in baptism and, by faith through the work of the Spirit, all things were mine, and I was Christ’s, and Christ was God’s (Gal. 3:27; 1 Cor. 3:21–23). His was not an uncertain mercy; his was not a grace of parts, which one hoped would become a whole; his was not a salvation to be attained, as though it were not already also a present possession. At that moment, the joy of my salvation poured into my soul. I wept and showed forth God’s praise. I had finally discovered the true ground and power of Protestantism: “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (Song 2:16). Rome had brought me to ­Reformation.

3. From the Gospel back to its precursor, Jayna Maleri issued “The Case Against Summer” in the NY Times, and it has everything to do with little-l law. Performancism, it turns out, is great way to ruin your summer.

The main reason I hate summer is because I’m not allowed to. Summer’s elevator pitch is that it’s the one season per year when we can relax and do what we want. But there’s a rigidity to how we go about it that undermines the whole premise. The pursuit of summer fun can feel so oppressive.

We all know that maniacal drive to do all those summer things you only get a few months to do, and stitching them together is the thread of enjoying it while it lasts, a concept that really pours the pressure on…

[Besides,] how can anything compare with the summers of our youth? How can carefree in your 40s possibly compare with carefree in your teens? The obvious answer is that it can’t, the same way driving a car can never feel as exquisite to me as it did on that first 20-minute voyage to camp.

When I think about it that way, this aggressive push to love summer takes on a slightly more melancholy cast. Maybe we’re all just trying to hurtle ourselves backward through time for three months of the year. [#seculosity] Maybe refusing to relinquish the idea of summer as a season of less responsibility and more freedom is a necessary coping mechanism we’ve collectively put in place.

Spiritual yearning that’s aimed at the past rather than the future–AKA nostalgia–happens to be one of the subjects we took up on The Mockingcast this week, in reference to Joel Stein’s “I Toured the ‘Brady Bunch’ House and It Did Not Go As Planned.” For a more redemptive take on the subject–of nostalgia as a doorway to hope just as much as grief–be sure to revisit Nate Mills’ exquisite essay “Memories From the Future.”

4. Before we move on from the perils of performancism, The Guardian brought us “What does ‘living fully’ mean? Welcome to the age of pseudo-profound nonsense” by Rainesford Stauffer. Familiar territory, yes, helpful in so far as it highlights the stiflingly narrow view of human flourishing preached on social media, one that in practice tends to produce its opposite. Go figure, ht JD:

Dr Erin Vogel, a social psychologist who explores the influence technology has on our lives and wellbeing, says: “Social media seems to define ‘living fully’ as being adventurous, spontaneous and extroverted. For people who are fulfilled by a quieter life, social media seems to tell them that they’re living life the wrong way.”

What makes us happy, at its core, is an existential question, according to Sara Kuburic, a psychotherapist and counselor who works with millennials. She believes inspirational tropes are popular because they offer the promise of immediate fulfillment. “I find that people increasingly conceptualize living fully as seizing opportunities, taking risks and exploring the unknown,” she says. “Living fully, in the Instagram age, is often then reduced to doing things that would be worth documenting.”

But, Kuburic argues, a full life – which she defines as one full of meaning, freedom, responsibility, and grounded in an authentic relationship with yourself – is the same as it was pre-Instagram. “We are eager to live our lives fully,” she says. “Yet the pressure to prove this to our ‘friends’ is a major reason why we are not.”

On a similar note, if you haven’t been following the Caroline Calloway debacle, it’s a fascinating case in point.

5. Wednesday it was Daniel Johnston, this morning it was Eddie Money, and I can’t shake the feeling that my beloved Brian Wilson isn’t long for this world. A couple weeks ago Damon Linker penned a prophetic little column on “The coming death of just about every rock legend.” He’s referring to the fact that the “rock era” was a pretty short one, that there are only so many rock legends [Axl being the last of his breed] and most of them are entering their final lap. So the next 20 years will be a tough time for fans. This can be taken either as yet another occasion for melancholy or an opportunity appreciate the privilege of having lived through a time when art and commerce existed in relative harmony. The resulting explosion was nothing short of glorious, the fruit of freedom you might say:

Rock bands and individual rock stars [post-Beatles] were given an enormous amount of creative freedom, and the best of them used every bit of it. They wrote their own music and lyrics, crafted their own arrangements, experimented with wildly ambitious production techniques, and oversaw the design of their album covers, the launching of marketing campaigns, and the conjuring of increasingly theatrical and decadent concert tours.

This doesn’t mean there was no corporate oversight or outside influence on rock musicians. Record companies and professional producers and engineers were usually at the helm, making sure to protect their reputations and investments. Yet to an astonishing degree, the artists got their way. Songs and albums were treated by all — the musicians themselves, but also the record companies, critics, and of course the fans — as Statements. For a time, the capitalist juggernaut made possible and sustained the creation of popular art that sometimes achieved a new form of human excellence. That it didn’t last shouldn’t keep us from appreciating how remarkable it was while it did.

As if on cue, The Who released a new single this morning… which I plan to listen to as soon as I can pry myself away from Lana Del Rey’s latest.

6. Humor-wise, I can’t get enough of the Obvious Plant Instagram account (and shop), examples of which I’ve littered throughout this post. “Things My Spin Instructor Said That Made Me Cry” on McSweeney’s is a pretty hilarious satire of how the little-l law works, where what’s meant to inspire does the opposite. And then there’s The Hard Times’ “Surgeon General Warns Vaping Not as Cool as Smoking.” Otherwise, the rapidly growing genre of deprecatory obituary gained another gem this past week with the remembrance of Joseph Heller Jr:

Joe Heller made his last undignified and largely irreverent gesture on September 8, 2019, signing off on a life, in his words, “generally well-lived and with few regrets.” When the doctors confronted his daughters with the news last week that “your father is a very sick man,” in unison they replied, “you have no idea.”… Joe was a self-taught chemist and worked at Cheeseborough-Ponds where he developed one of their first cosmetics’ lines. There he met the love of his life, Irene, who was hoodwinked into thinking he was a charming individual with decorum. Boy, was she ever wrong. Joe embarrassed her daily with his mouth and choice of clothing… Joe was also a consummate napper. There wasn’t a road, restaurant or friend’s house in Essex that he didn’t fall asleep on or in. There wasn’t an occasion too formal or an event too dour that Joe didn’t interrupt with his apnea and voluminous snoring. Besides his beloved wife, Irene, and brother, Bobby, Joe was pre-deceased by his pet fish, Jack, who we found in the freezer last week.

Strays

  • At The Atlantic, Megan Garber weighs in with an engaging piece “On Chandler Bing’s Job”: “Twenty-five years in advance, Friends embraced workism’s fondest assumptions. It believed in the spiritual possibilities of labor. It treated career trajectories as love stories… [And yet] It saddled one of its six beloved characters with a job that held him captive, essentially, to capitalism itself… Chandler, for most of the show’s 10 seasons, doubles as a paradox: He is a personification of privilege who manages also to serve as an avatar of exploitation.”
  • Also at The Atlantic, for the #Seculosity file, there’s “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids” by George Packer, which contains this doozie: “The system that dominates our waking hours, commands our unthinking devotion, and drives us, like orthodox followers of an exacting faith, to extraordinary, even absurd feats of exertion is not democracy, which often seems remote and fragile. It’s meritocracy—the system that claims to reward talent and effort with a top-notch education and a well-paid profession, its code of rigorous practice and generous blessings passed down from generation to generation.”
  • Literature buffs might enjoy this collection rejection letters that TS Eliot penned while working at Faber & Faber.
  • As far as I can tell the best thing on TV right now is Succession, particularly whenever Tom & Greg are sharing the screen. But the fourth season of Veronica Mars was terrifically entertaining (if gutting!). And Archibald’s Next Big Thing (Netflix) has got to be the best kids show to debut in some time.
  • New episode of The Well of Sound deals with The Beach Boys from 1970-80 and I couldn’t be more delighted with it. And a new episode of The Mockingcast should drop tomorrow mid-day.