1. While much of the Internet is saying that the rest of the Internet just needs to relax already, Jerry Useem, at the Atlantic, is saying something else. We need not a mere few deep breaths but a full-scale crash-and-burn: “Bring Back the Nervous Breakdown,” is the title of his excellent write-up on the historical benefits of plunging headlong into mania, and taking some time to recuperate.

For 80 years or so, proclaiming that you were having a nervous breakdown was a legitimized way of declaring a sort of temporary emotional bankruptcy in the face of modern life’s stresses. John D. Rockefeller Jr., Jane Addams, and Max Weber all had acknowledged “breakdowns,” and reemerged to do their best work. Provided you had the means — a rather big proviso — announcing a nervous breakdown gave you license to withdraw, claiming an excess of industry or sensitivity or some other virtue. And crucially, it focused the cause of distress on the outside world and its unmeetable demands. You weren’t crazy; the world was. As a 1947 headline in the New York Herald Tribune put it: “Modern World Viewed as Too Much for Man.”

Often on this website we like to remind readers that, sinner, your problem is you. But in acknowledging that the world actually is crazy, too, we also acknowledge that some madnesses can’t be controlled by meditating and juicing celery and any of the other myriad ways we might try to “recharge our batteries.” It may be that these callous injunctions to “overcome” contribute to the problem.

The term nervous breakdown first appeared in a 1901 medical treatise for physicians. “It is a disease of the whole civilized world,” its author wrote. This disquisition built on the work of a Gilded Age doctor, George Miller Beard, who posited that we all had a set amount of nerve force, which could be depleted, like a battery, by the stress of modern life. Beard had argued that an epidemic of nervous disease had been unleashed by technology and the press, which accelerated everything. “The chief and primary cause of this … very rapid increase of nervousness is modern civilization,” he wrote in American Nervousness in 1881. […]

The nervous breakdown was not a medical condition, but a sociological one. It implicated a physical problem — your “nerves” — not a mental one. And it was a onetime event, not a permanent condition. It provided sanction for a pause and reset that could put you back on track. But as psychology eclipsed sociology in the late 20th century, it turned us inward to our personal moods and thoughts — and away from the shared economic and social circumstances that produced them. […]

But in a society reflexively suspicious of rest, getting a restorative break tends to require a formal mental-health diagnosis. Otherwise, you risk getting called a slacker. 

Useem proceeds to explain that we should try to incorporate breaks, if not breakdowns, into our day. If we don’t find healthy ways to survive the modern world, we find other ways. Useem reports that “Alcohol consumption is up; drug overdoses are up.” I would add that bingeing TV is up. And I suspect, too, that high intensity exercise is also up. Especially if it has an emotional-communal-spiritual element.

2. Such as Peloton. In 2020, Peloton added at least 620,000 paying subscribers while its value increased by about $40 billion, according to Michelle Boorstein, writing for the Washington Post. Its appeal seems to be more than pandemic-related stress relief. Peloton also offers the emotional release of a physical breakdown and a spiritual lift-up.

In general, taking a Peloton class is like simultaneously having a hyper-fit, in-your-face gym trainer pushing you to the max, while also listening to a mega-pastor or Ted Talk life coach urging you to stare your life’s purpose in the face. Demands quickly flip from how high to crank your hill to how honest you’re willing to be with yourself to how thankful you are. There are frequent, if general, references to forces bigger than one’s self.

For many, the combination is spiritually intoxicating.

“Alex’s ride this morning was for me like a religious experience. When he played P. DIDDY’s song and talked about missing his Grandma, I literally started bawling and immediately thought of the love of my life looking down at me and being proud,” one user posted on Facebook.

Technically, Peloton is “fuzzy” on religion, and promotes no religion at all, despite mimicking it so obviously. Religion is, actually, one of the exercise company’s touchiest subjects. Referring to the Peloton Facebook account, one man confides, “I will warn you about things that trigger everyone on the main page … Asking for Christian [bike] rides — a holy war ensues.” There are so many opinions about how churchy Peloton should be, but what’s most interesting is why this is a question in the first place.

Casper ter Kuile, a Harvard Divinity School fellow who writes books about modern spirituality and how people are finding ritual and meaning in new ways, said Peloton is part a much bigger trend he calls “unbundling.” Within that, people are now browsing in a variety of places for the things they once got all at a congregation: worship, scripture, life transitions and social justice among them.

As a result, he said, American religious life is very unstable, very individualized. “When religion is infusing these secular spaces, it troubles the concept of religion, but also troubles the strict secularity we’ve come to expect.”

Ter Kuile noted the irony of people — Peloton riders — challenging religious institutions while they are themselves part of an activity many see as cultlike. He says that’s more about institutional religion’s current branding problem. “They’d trust Peloton as a cult but not the Catholic Church as a religion,” he said. Gym brands, he added, often embrace the cult label with “a wry smile. Like: ‘Oh, it’s a cult but I love it.’ ”

Clearly religion isn’t going away — it just morphs, with better branding. The desire for it — for community, transcendence, “emotional release” — results in ever-evolving forms of faith. You might as well find one that’s good.

I have been reading Philip Yancey’s delightful collection, Finding God in Unexpected Places (while cleaning house recently, it quite literally fell into my lap), and in an early chapter, he discusses the “exercise craze” of the mid-’90s. He wonders, “As a nation, do we grow sleek and healthy so that we do not have to think about the day our muscular bodies will be not pumping iron, but dying stiff in a casket? … Our materialistic, undogmatic culture was asking its members to defy their deepest feelings” — fear of death.

3. Which is evoked so brilliantly in the following paragraph, from Tish Harrison Warren’s new book, Praying in the Night:

We can speak of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty as some­thing we choose. We decide whether to ​“let our­selves” be vul­ner­a­ble through shar­ing or with­hold­ing our truest selves — our sto­ries, opin­ions, or feel­ings. In this sense, vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty means emo­tion­al expo­sure or hon­esty. But this isn’t the kind of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty I mean. Instead, I mean the uncho­sen vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that we all car­ry, whether we admit it or not. The term vul­ner­a­ble comes from a Latin word mean­ing ​“to wound.” We are wound-able. We can be hurt and destroyed, in body, mind, and soul. All of us, every last man, woman, and child, bear this kind of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty till our dying day.

4. Denial of vulnerability is pretty easily spotted in a class of people considered “Power Moms.” These moms are able to not only hold down competitive jobs as corporate executives but also to parent children, and they can also cast off all their self-doubt and guilt by choosing to. As Joann S. Lublin has reports in her forthcoming book, 

Time is an especially precious commodity for working mothers. While a busy Home Depot vice president, Stacey Tank somehow also found time to serve on five nonprofit boards. Her trick? She effectively invented a 25-hour day.

You feel as though you gain that mythical hour by “streamlining everything that can be streamlined,” she said. “Just be super efficient at the stuff that matters less so that you can spend time on the things that matter more.”

I just wonder what happens when she realizes there actually are no 25-hour days. Perhaps she will buy “a special towel that’s guaranteed to dry hair 70% faster,” which is the solution for another Power Mom: “Now she spends three minutes blow-drying her long brown hair rather than 15.” It reads a bit like an Onion article, but it’s a real one, I checked!

A more sympathetic read for all, not just mothers, would be Jane Anderson Grizzle’s recent “The Moms Are Not Alright,” published on Mockingbird. Referencing Useem’s aforementioned article about breakdowns, Jane writes,

A nervous breakdown requires us to admit that we cannot keep up with the rhythm set for us. That we cannot do it all. I believe many of us are closer to that breaking point in this pandemic. Articles about mothers’ Covid stress run parallel to advice columns cajoling us to find time for our children, our spouses, and ourselves. Even in the midst of arguably the greatest mental health crisis of our times, we are still trying to achieve our way out of it, to crush it, quarantine-style.

The only thing that I have found to bring me peace through this year is the knowledge that we can find our rest in Jesus. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It is not that our daily tasks or chores or plans will get any easier or go away. But I can rest deeply in the knowledge that God loves my children more than I do. And he loves me more than I do. The same is true for you — he loves your children and you more than you ever could. All our failings, our panic, our resentment, our anxieties can fall on him.

5. This week’s humor: first up, for those [still] working from home, the following from McSweeney’s might tickle you: In Memoriam: Real Pants. Real Pants, the wardrobe staple that enjoyed global success for centuries, passed away peacefully, surrounded by family who were working from home …”

Two from the Onion: If you were looking for good news from the impeachment trial, at least Senators Were Overjoyed By Chihuahua Jumping Through Hoops During Impeachment Intermission. And ‘Hope You Don’t Mind I Shoveled Your Sidewalk Too,’ Says Neighbor In Devastating Blow To Dad’s Masculinity.

And for Valentine’s Day laughs, try this: I’m Not Looking for a Soul Mate, Unless That’s a Real Thing, in Which Case, Obviously I Want That. And in Relevant, “Is This Song About God, or Dating?

6. Now, despite a spate of 2020 articles humorously speculating that stay-at-home orders would be the end of the sex recession, new research suggests the opposite. As one professor explains, “our space has changed. People are working in their bedrooms, which used to be their sexy space, but now they’re staring at their computer and all these things that can interfere with sex and contribute to low desire.”

An interviewee confesses, “I can say, anecdotally at least, that a lot of these people are just in survival mode and are trying to get through each day, especially if their kids are learning from home and don’t have extra help.” Perhaps the most interesting factoid is more obvious than newsworthy, but here it is anyway: it turns out that sex in person, with a person, is, generally speaking, still the best kind:

Sexting and sharing graphic photos became more common during the pandemic, but few who engaged in that actually reported feeling satisfied with their sex lives. Sort of like Zoom with your friends and family, which we all say is better than nothing but still leaves you feeling empty.

7. A sneakily informative article from Glamour investigates the process of falling in lurve: how quickly it happens, and for what reasons. Writer Jenny Singer disclaims, “Empirical evidence isn’t conclusive. Love is, after all, hard to measure and track — it’s somewhere between a chemical process, a social construct, and some unknowable sacred thing, like a piece of God or like a poem.”

Every blockbuster, every insurance ad, every wise older person, every book series about teen wizards, tells you that love is the thing that makes life worth living. We wax poetic about the signs you’re falling in love but the moment you declare that you are in fact in it, people doubt you. Maybe you’re unsure yourself. As soon as you feel comfortable enough to start acting unbearably happy, concerned friends swoop in with questions. “Are you sure it’s love, not lust?” “You don’t really love her, you just think you love her.” “You don’t even know him.” “It’s too soon.” Well, how soon is too soon? When do most people know?

Her conclusion is essentially the age-old “when you know you know,” a circular bit of language suggesting there may be something else going on, something mysterious or even … a leap of faith.

Oh, and today Taylor Swift offered a sweet reinterpretation of her classic “Love Story” *swoon*:

8. Lastly, at his blog, Alan Jacobs penned some thoughts on the complexities of forgiveness. Considering whether a person needs to confess truthfully before receiving forgiveness, Jacobs says this: “Reconciliation is a process that begins with forgiveness and proceeds to truth-telling.” Not always, he admits later, but it can happen this way. He continues, sympathetically:

People often say things like, “Well, you can’t expect him to forgive her after what she did to him.” And in many situations I don’t expect it. Forgiveness is hard, and gets exponentially harder in proportion to the seriousness of the offenses. Sometimes I see people forgiving others and think “If I were in their shoes I don’t think I could do that.” Sometimes people might take decades to get to the point of forgiving someone, if they get there at all.

And you know what would make that process infinitely easier? If the offenders were to come to those they offended and say, “I hurt you. Will you please forgive me? Can I do anything to make it up to you?” That is, in an ideal situation the process of reconciliation will be initiated by the offender asking forgiveness, not the offended offering it. But as far as I can tell, even when that kind of confessing and penitent initiation is not forthcoming, Christians are commanded to forgive. I don’t expect them to, especially when they have been badly hurt, but I don’t see how to avoid admitting that the commandment is what it is.

How does one reconcile that gap, between the command and the capacity to do it? Grace.

Strays:

  • Some interesting facts here about your brain in love.
  • Why are we still obsessed with the songs of our youth? New research has some answers.
  • Surveys say that the pandemic has been beneficial for people’s faith?
  • A new Mockingcast episode is coming soon!