Another Week Ends

1. Probably the smartest thing I did this week was bypass most election coverage to […]

CJ Green / 11.6.20

1. Probably the smartest thing I did this week was bypass most election coverage to binge The Good Lord Bird, a limited series on Showtime about John Brown. The show’s title comes from a nickname for the glorious ivory-billed woodpecker, a rare bird that represents understanding: “They say one feather from a Good Lord Bird will bring you understanding that would last your whole life.” In the first episode, one such bird is tragically killed; in real life, they are debatably extinct. Some metaphor!

There are a lot of standout moments as John Brown bellows scripture and condemns hypocrisy and murders people. But one extraordinary exchange is relatively quiet, from episode 4. Brown, having caused grave harm to a formerly enslaved boy, Henry, asks his forgiveness. Henry responds: “Didn’t you say we’s all already forgiven? The world’s a pretty confusing place, captain, and you don’t seem much more confused than most folks, even being white. You don’t gotta ask for forgiveness from me.” Such grace, unsurprisingly, leaves Brown stunned and viewers in tears. If only the rest of us, like Henry, had that feather of understanding.

2. For the New York Times, Ian Marcus Corbin recently contributed a moving op-ed urging Americans to embrace weakness. Working in a hospital, he noticed that shame that often accompanies recovery from a stroke, when speech and movements are slow.

Many stroke patients — far too many — consign themselves to a more private, solitary life in the wake of a stroke, not out of practical inability, but out of shame. This shame is an old American disease, whose current-day symptoms, including an “epidemic of loneliness” and rising “deaths of despair,” are becoming impossible to ignore. […]

Weakness has a special sting if you understand it as a moral failing. Many stroke patients express frustration, even anger at themselves, that they haven’t been able to regain full functionality by sheer force of will. There is an assumption that mastery is our natural, proper condition, and if you aren’t capable of it, you’re defective.

But that is wrong. Mastery isn’t our default state of being. Mastery is a great accomplishment, achieved only temporarily and with tremendous help from other people. From birth, we fitfully climb the ladder from childlike clumsiness to adult virtuosity. Loss of that dexterity is part of life. We use our prime years to help the weak, to raise our own children, to ease our parents into old age. Or at least we should.

This interdependence is not a flaw in the human condition; it’s our great strength. Some evolutionary biologists argue that our uniquely broad range of intellectual and emotional capacities results from our tribal solicitude toward the weak, for instance to our children, who take an astonishingly long time to reach adulthood compared to other mammals. When your species is this interwoven, when there’s so much to be patient and forgiving about, virtues like empathy, kindness, and sensitivity are adaptive for both individual and group survival.

Related to the theme of weakness, here is a talk from a few years ago; it is excellent. Giles Fraser describes the foundational Pelagius v. Augustine smackdown and applies it to our everyday experience.

3. For many of us this week, anxiety has likely been the predominant emotion. If you weren’t constantly refreshing the maps at FiveThirtyEight, or wherever you checked your maps, my hat’s off to you.

But for anyone who struggled with capital-A Anxiety long before the dumpster fire of 2020, this year has been especially difficult. At The Cut, Lisa Miller describes just such an experience:

I have, for my whole entire life, approached my future with the tiger in mind, anticipating dangers and taking steps. I have devoted billions of brain cells and many midnights to this, making lists and plans and sending emails to defend against personal and professional outcomes I hoped to avoid. This constant prognosticating, which I called “drive,” felt to me like a shrewd strategy, and I harbored the magical belief that it kept me safe. But I was wrong. My condition was diagnosable anxiety, to paraphrase the DSM: excessive worry, most days, about everyday life. Now, faced with actual, persistent chaos, my brain wants to grab a blankie and bail.

My friend pointed me to a Rosh Hashanah sermon given by Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, in Brooklyn. In it, she spoke of the experience of Admiral James Stockdale, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven and a half years. The optimists died first, Stockdale said. They told themselves they would be out by Christmas, and then by Easter, and then by Thanksgiving, and then Christmas rolled around again. Stockdale said they died of broken hearts, but I think maybe they died of exhausted brains, which kept casting backward and forward to imagine solutions or ends to their present horrors that did not corroborate with reality. This is what optimism has in common with anxiety, a distorted view that pretends to be self-protective but is not. Stockdale’s fellow prisoners simply could not imagine Christmas without glad tidings of joy. What Stockdale recommended, instead of wishful thinking, was something more like realism and endurance. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end, which you can never afford to lose, with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

4. The election’s ups and downs were off-the-charts; I for one needed a laugh amidst it all. The Onion did not disappoint: “Woman Hopes She Did Enough Worrying to Help the Biden Campaign.”

“I’ve been panicking pretty much every day for the last few months, but now that there’s only one day left, I wonder if I could have done more,” said Stalter, admitting that while she had regularly taken to the streets to collapse in a puddle of despair, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she could have gone even further with her mental breakdown.

Also funny: “Liberal Asks Ballot Station Attendee If They Have Any Larger ‘I Voted’ Stickers in the Back.” And “Four Ways to Punish Yourself For Not Committing to Your Self-Care Routine.”

5. If politics is all you can think about, there may be no better time to spend a few hours reading about love. This one is long, but I couldn’t more highly recommend it. From The Point, S. G. Belknap writes about Lovers in the Hands of a Patient God. Belknap spins a beautiful narrative of faith and the human will as metaphors for the contradictions within America and romance. I mean, good stuff.

A particularly noteworthy section is about Jonathan Edwards, who insists that we cannot will the most powerful emotions; then again, there is also a great section on William James, who insists that we can. Is love a gift or something we create? For Belknap, the answer is both. When it comes to romance, we are powerless at one point, then powerful at another:

Amid all the confusion, lovers need not worry, because for lovers the confusion can work itself out. It’s really very simple: the moment of necessity and the moment of freedom do not conflict, because they are separated in time. Waiting comes first, waiting for the world to deliver a special someone, instead of trying to impose your preferences on the world; willing comes second, willing the love for the person who has been delivered. First you fall for someone, and that is not up to you; then you believe, you believe with all your heart, and that most assuredly is. First you don’t will, then you do. You wait, and then you leap.

Why does it work that way? Who knows, that’s just the way it works. We don’t make the rules. But there is at least something philosophically satisfying in it. Human beings spend their lives torn between necessity and freedom. Of every single action it can be asked: “To what extent was that the product of my own will? To what extent was that just the result of the way I was raised, the food I happened to eat, the street I happened to walk down? Alas, when is something mine?” In love, you know the meet-cute wasn’t yours, or you know you used to think there was no chance in hell you would marry someone like that. But in love you also know that when you say damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead, then that definitely is yours. Thus there come into the world, side by side, an unambiguous necessity and an unambiguous freedom. And you get to bring them together. Delightful. The boundaries of existence meet up in love.

Is this too much fuss? No, it is just the right amount.

6. Next, a fantastic account of segmented sleep from Fahad Sperinck at Tedium. In preindustrial Europe, Sperinck writes, people slept in two segments of 3-4 hours each, with at least an hour in between. During this period of wakefulness, people might read, have sex, or stare blankly into space. When, in an experiment, these conditions were recreated,

the subjects had an uncommon cocktail of hormones in their midnight waking hours. Relatively low cortisol, and heightened prolactin production, gave rise to a calm wakefulness, prompting Wehr to remark that they were in an “altered state of consciousness not unlike meditation.”

Whether due to anxiety, bodily aches, or persistent blue light, sleep is hard for many of us. Moreover, in the age of workism, it also seems like a waste of time. Thomas Edison agreed:

Edison famously declared that he needed only three to four hours of sleep at night, and so begrudging was he of the whole affair that he predicted its eventual obsolescence: “In the old days man went up and down with the sun. A million years from now we won’t go to bed at all. Really, sleep is an absurdity, a bad habit. We can’t suddenly throw off the thraldom of the habit, but we shall throw it off.”

The imperfection of segmented sleep is surely one of its main attractions. It offers time to sit and stare into the darkness, in a half-hypnotic state, time to free-associate; it is an antidote to relentless productivity. A lack of light forces us to submit gently to the demands of the night, and be blissfully idle. We again become intimate with the soothing chaos of the dark, like coming back to an ancestral home.

More commentary on this, and Lisa Miller’s article on anxiety, can be heard on the latest episode of The Mockingcast, available today!

7. To close out, here is a beautiful meditation from Christian Wiman, published at Commonweal:Faith Comes Through Hearing.” He quotes a lovely poem by Carol Ann Duffy that reads: “Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer / utters itself.” Wiman reflects:

Faith comes through hearing. I always think of that line from the apostle Paul (Romans 10:16) when I read — or rather hear, for this poem only comes fully to life when read out loud — this “prayer” by Carol Ann Duffy. […] Faith comes, in this deeper sense, not through taking in and assimilating the meaning of words, indeed not through content at all, at least not primarily. It comes, literally, from the air, from sound. 

[…] some days, although we cannot pray — because we are too busy, or because we are in too much pain, or simply because the words will not come — a prayer utters itself. There is a wrenching moment near the end of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila when the title character and her husband, John Ames, are discussing, almost arguing, issues of faith and prayer. John finally throws up his arms and says, “Family is a prayer. Wife is a prayer. Marriage is a prayer.” By which he means to say something similar to what Carol Ann Duffy is saying in her poem: that the world and the soul, our existence and God’s, are far more permeable — and much more possible — than words like “faith,” “truth,” or even “prayer” can suggest.

Oh, and don’t miss this new song from Josh White: