1. Nothing like a global pandemic to expose the limitations of the cult of productivity, eh? At least, that seems to be one of the more universally agreed upon lessons to emerge thus far from our corona-ordeal. Hardly a day has gone by without some fresh high profile confession about the psycho-spiritual burden of not working, or the challenges involved in maximizing the quarantine (and/or silencing the voices demanding we do so). Yet no one thus far has come as close to naming the underlying seculosity as Laurie Penny did in Wired this past week. “Productivity Is Not Working”, she writes, and her tone is downright repentant:

The drive to stay productive is about so much more than making rent. It is a moral discipline. When I check in with friends and family far away, I usually get an update on how productive they have or have not managed to be since we last spoke. “Productivity” is not a synonym for health, or for safety, or for sanity. But as a precarious millennial who for the past 10 years has answered every cautious inquiry about my well-being with a rundown of how much work I got done that day, I do understand the confusion…

No matter how many marches I go to, there is some part of me that believes that if I can only self-optimize a bit harder then the world will right itself, no one I love will suffer, and death will have no dominion… There has always been something a little obscene about the cult of the hustle, the treadmill of alienated insecurity that tells you that if you stop running for even an instant, you’ll be flung flat on your face—but the treadmill is familiar. The treadmill feels normal.

The idea that hustling can save you from calamity is an article of faith, not fact—and the Covid-19 pandemic is starting to shake the collective faith in individual striving. The doctrine of “workism” places the blame for global catastrophe squarely on the individual: If you can’t get a job because jobs aren’t there, you must be lazy, or not hustling hard enough…

The cult of productivity doesn’t have an answer for this crisis. Self-optimizing will not save us this time, although saying so feels surprisingly blasphemous. This isn’t happening because you didn’t work hard enough, and it won’t be fixed by optimizing your morning routines and adopting a can-do attitude.

If frantic productivity is a fear response, the opposite urge—to tear it all up and declare deadline bankruptcy—feels like blasphemy. Laziness is the only sin out of the seven big ones that seems to count in the moral metric of the modern economy, and what other word is there for that edge-panic impulse to simply delete your email address and spend time doing small, gentle things that make being alive hurt a little less?

2. By way of counterpoint, there’s Bill Withers, one of those rare artists who had the courage/wisdom to stop producing after the thrill was gone (rather than sully his catalogue with cash-in’s and compromises). His final album appeared in 1985, after all. Emily Lordi eulogized the singer-songwriter with “The Stutterer’s Song” in which she included a show-stopping anecdote. We spoke about it on this week’s episode of The Mockingcast:

[There’s] a brief moment of the 2009 documentary Still Bill, when Withers goes to New York to be honored by a support group for kids who stutter. Withers himself was afflicted by a stutter, especially as a kid, and was often mocked for it. In New York, he tells a small group of parents and kids about a party he attended the night before: he went up to a man to introduce himself, and got stuck after saying his name. “And it brought back memories,” Withers says, brushing away tears,

Because there was a woman with him, and she started to laugh. There was fear—fear of the perception of the listener, this fear that makes us apprehensive right at the point of trying to speak that stops us. Well, one of the ways to deal with the fear is to approach people with a prepared forgiveness. We have to be more civil than most people that we will encounter. Having had people not understand me … helped me wait a little beat to where I could extend something that hasn’t been given to me. And I think that makes you a much bigger person.

Approaching others with a “prepared forgiveness” they had not granted to you sounds a lot like grace in practice to me, born (predictably if lamentably) out of suffering. I suppose the opposite would be the sort of “prepared condemnation” we’re witnessing via corona shaming? Anyway, add it to our list of euphemisms alongside “non-complimentary behavior” and “one-way love.” Yes, it’s a lot to expect from another human being (or oneself) but also a beautiful description of who and how God is. Lordi’s conclusion sums it up beautifully:

In this season of loss, when we wait, on edge, to see which blows might come next, we might hear in Withers’s music a way of facing the many facets of what is, and of approaching ourselves and each other with a prepared forgiveness of all the ways that we are destined to fail.

3. On The Point, philosopher Agnes Callard’s article “The Emotion Police” almost passed us by when it was published last month. So glad we caught it, as nothing she writes isn’t worth reading. After surveying the contrarian strand in contemporary philosophy (as evidenced in popular treatises “against” emotions like grief, anger, regret, and empathy), Callard proposes a new target for such emotional censoriousness, namely, hatred itself, which she describes as “all bathwater no baby.” But where she truly aims her arrows is self-righteousness–not so much the impulse to hate but the impulse to justify our hate:

Hatred is painless anger; anger without vulnerability; anger without love. It offers us the opportunity to get good and enraged without exposing ourselves to all those difficult conversations, all that loss and pain and—perhaps worst of all—the potential of being called upon to acknowledge ourselves as having been the bigger jerk. Hatred holds the badness of the other at arm’s length from oneself. It is condemnation without involvement or investment.

Everybody has somebody they feel they can safely hate: if it’s not Republicans, it’s people who hate Republicans. Billionaires, tourists and politicians are popular targets. Or, safer yet: sexists, racists. Safest of all is to depersonalize one’s hatred: I don’t hate X, but rather what X did…

We know hatred is bad, and search for workarounds: “I am a good kind of hater, because I only hate bad people.” Or: “I am not a dangerous hater, since I hate only those more powerful than myself.” Or: “I am a philanthropic hater, since I hate ideologies and actions and afflictions, not people.” Or we use a different word, such as “disgust,” as in “I am disgusted by corporate greed.”

Each of us is on the lookout for safe spaces in which we can allow our hatred to flourish; we cultivate our garden of contempt, we surround it with walls of self-righteousness. If you think I’m wrong, ask yourself: why do Hitler-comparisons continue to flourish in political conversations?

4. Next, another writer who keeps, er, producing fantastic content, quarantine be damned. I’m talking about Casey Cep in the New Yorker, who mused this week on a stunning photo essay by Mark Peterson depicting a post-corona parking lot worship service in Virginia Beach. Click on “How a Megachurch Adapted to Social Distancing” to view more images like the one above (and this week’s featured image), but don’t miss her commentary, such as:

[Mark Peterson’s] pictures are striking in part because of what is missing from the frame. There are no hymnals or bibles, no pews or crosses…. The fervor of the subjects is obvious, but not its object. The people in these images could be stuck in a traffic jam, tailgating before a bowl game, getting ready for a rock concert, greeting an eclipse, or trapped in a hostage situation; they could be waving down strangers for help or the authorities for intervention. Which is, of course, in some ways exactly what these men and women are doing—obeying the psalmist by lifting up their hands to the holy place and calling on the Lord…

Peterson took these pictures two weeks before Easter, right when what had been true around the world was starting to become true here: hundreds of thousands of Americans were falling ill and thousands were dying, and municipalities everywhere were taking more and more measures to enforce social distancing. Peterson remembers feeling that a “deeper sense of mortality” washed over the worship service as the faithful gathered to praise a God who promises to wipe away all tears.

Promises like that are invisible, but the hope for them is evident in every face and frame. Such is the fundamental nature of faith: the devout always embodied, the holy often elusive. One image in particular seems to me to reveal the eternality of religious searching as manifested in this specific moment in time: in it, a woman wearing her medical mask like a vestment and a thin linen top patterned like monastic lace raises her hands in a classic gesture of blessing. Her long fingers reach for the sky, paused somewhere in the sign of the cross or summoning the Holy Ghost or calling on heaven’s angels to descend. For all that’s modern about this affliction and the trappings of the Rock Church drive-in service, the woman could almost be Mary at the foot of the crucifixion crying out in pain for her dead son, or Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb, surprised by joy and raising her hands in bewilderment.

5. Last week Bryan mentioned Kate Julian’s ueber-longread in The Atlantic “What Happened to American Childhood?“. Instead of writing a dedicated post about it, I thought I’d reprint the two most memorable paragraphs, which get at the same dynamics I tried to capture in the Seculosity of Parenting chapter of my book:

Most critiques of this century’s child-rearing practices have treated parents as rational actors, however extreme some of our actions might be. If we hover above our children (or lawn-mower or bulldoze or snowplow a path for them), we are said to do so in reaction to the surrounding conditions—media coverage of kidnappings, for example, or plummeting college-admission rates. In other words, modern parents, or at least the upper-middle-class ones who populate most articles about parenting trends, are widely perceived not as flailing but as the opposite: too hyper, too competent, too vigilant. And yet, despite more than a decade’s evidence that helicopter parenting is counterproductive kids today are perhaps more overprotected, more leery of adulthood, more in need of therapy.

Which raises a question: If modern parents are so unrelentingly on top of things, why have we not corrected course? Could it be that we are not at all on top of things? Might our children’s faltering mental health be related less to our hard-driving style than to our exhaustion and guilt and failure to put our foot down? We complain about kids being thin-skinned and susceptible to peer pressure, but maybe we’re the ones who are hypersensitive, to the judgment of our peers and, especially, of our children. And the harder we try to do the right thing—the more we nurture them, the more quickly we respond to their needs—the more we tie ourselves in knots.

…When we shelter kids from difficulty or challenge, he says, we are not merely shielding them from distress; we are warding off the distress that their distress causes us.

7. In humor, the funniest thing I came across this week was SadandUseless’s compilation of Ridiculous Album Covers by 1970s Swedish Bands. A total riot, as some of the images in this post hopefully attest. Anyone who’s been watching ESPN’s excellent Bulls docu-series The Last Dance will laugh out loud at McSweeneys’ The Last Glance: The Horace Grant Story. Next, The Hard Times gave us the chuckle-worthy “Middle Earth Temporarily Bans Fellowships of More Than Five.” And finally, on The Onion, “Man Not Sure Why He Thought Most Psychologically Taxing Situation Of His Life Would Be The Thing To Make Him Productive”:

“Despite my high hopes, the most devastating crisis of my life hasn’t turned out to be the catalyst I needed to meet all of my long-held personal goals,” said Ayers, who added that he had no idea what he was thinking when he told himself that being furloughed from his job and enduring a sustained period of emotional isolation would be just what he needed to start eating better, acquaint himself with world cinema, and get a jumpstart on the novel he had always wanted write… At press time, Ayers had reportedly decided that, going forward, he would instead focus all his time and attention on feeling guilty about his lack of productivity.

8. Giles Fraser gets the final word this week, asking (and venturing an answer!) the question “Where is God in this Covid horror?” on UnHerd. It doubles as a rumination on what makes the church so, well, essential during this time, and why the lack of hesitance (near-eagerness?) with which the churches in his country were uniformly closed was so disconcerting:

The church feels like the right place for many of us to go and cry. The church is not an argument. It’s not a place for Socratic disputation. It’s a place where we can be broken, presided over by a man hanging broken on a wooden cross. And it formats our brokenness with a story that speaks of love as being ultimately greater that death, and as a triumph over even the most purposeless of human pain.

This is why human suffering does the exact opposite of what the Enlightenment atheist imagines it should do: it fills our churches, it doesn’t empty them. And not because it offers some cheap consolation that all will be ok. But for the opposite reason that it takes seriously the full weight and horror of human suffering. Indeed, church remains one of the few spaces in our culture in which we are allowed to acknowledge the existence of futile suffering without someone feeling so uncomfortable about it that they need to reassure us all that everything is going to be OK.

I have sat in church on my own quite a bit these last few weeks. I have a large wooden cross set up in the aisle. I am sitting with a dying man, keeping him company. And this feels like the proper place for me to express some sort of solidarity with those on ventilators, alone, struggling for breath; those receiving the news of the death of a mother, father, child; those being buried by men in protective clothing, no mourners there to say goodbye. I call it prayer. Atheists call it foolishness. And perhaps it is. But foolishness feels like the least of my worries these days.

Strays

  • So sad to be missing everyone in NYC this weekend… It really hurts my heart. Cold comfort perhaps but at least you can save the date for next year’s NYC conference: April 22-24, 2021. Be there or be square!
  • In an act of almost perfect timing, NBW’s long-awaited podcast is finally here! It’s called The Confessional, and you won’t be disappointed. Honest, smart, poetic, characteristically provocative, and just plain pastoral.
  • Val Kilmer has a memoir out this week, I’m Your Huckleberry, which I’m excited to read but even more excited for the press he’ll do in support. Val’s on my (short) list of celebrities who can be relied upon to give unpredictable, highly entertaining interviews. For example.
  • A New Connection with the Lost Art of Phone Conversation by Daphne Merkin in the NY Review of Books is worth a read.
  • Foodies should check out Gabrielle Hamilton’s fascinating article “My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore?” and Vox’s “How Alison Roman became the reluctant, pasta-loving ‘prom queen of the pandemic'”.
  • Music lovers, what’s getting you through? I am greatly enjoying Hamilton Leithauser’s latest, as well as The Strokes’ The New Abnormal as well. The recent singles by Ivan & Aloysha have been pure comfort food. But the new release I’m most excited about is one that came out today and we’ll be reviewing next week, Jon Guerra’s Keeper of Days: