Another Week Ends

1. It’s a little too easy, but Barry Ritholtz over at Bloomberg helpfully reminds us that […]

Will McDavid / 10.24.14

1. It’s a little too easy, but Barry Ritholtz over at Bloomberg helpfully reminds us that Ebola is no threat to the personal health of 99.99% of Americans, which goes into a broader point:

We fear the awesome predatory perfection of the great white shark, and have made the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” “the longest-running cable television programming event in history.” This seems somewhat disproportionate, given that 10 people a year die from shark attacks — out of more than 7 billion people. If you want to fear a living creature, than logic suggests it’s the mosquito — they kill more human beings than any other animal on the planet. Man, be it through wars or murder or wanton disregard or simple benign neglect, comes in a distant second.

Behavioral psychologists of the ilk of Kahneman and Tversky have been reminding us, for a few decades now, of human irrationality – we fear the wrong things, we think the wrong things will make us happy, and so on – and the case of fear is an interesting one. The average person is far more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash, but with planes, we’re not in control… and we systemically overestimate our amount of control and proficiencies when we’re in the drivers’ seat. (Imagine the reaction of an octogenarian with six fender-benders in a year’s reaction when the kids try to take driving away – could be a sermon illustration in there.) The factors promoting the Ebola scare in America (and it is a serious cataclysm for West Africa) are many, but of interest here are the I’m-not-in-control factor, the fear of the unknown, our preference for focusing upon the grandiose threats/opportunities rather than the mundane, and the several-years-running apocalyptic furore. For here, the takeaway is just another psych sermon on human irrationality, but amidst our reviving preoccupation with boundaries (terrorism, immigration, epidemics), the amount of good analysis on the ‘Net concerning our fears will likely grow.



(image xkcd)

2. Speaking of things 100,000 times more threatening than shark attacks, USA Today issues a sobering wake-up call to the problem of suicide in America. It’s worth pointing out that American-specific language is misleading; among developed countries, is doing close to average internationally. But the problem continues to be underrepresented in the media; perhaps we news readers/viewers find it more comfortable to dwell on the enemy without.

Americans are far more likely to kill themselves than each other. Homicides have fallen by half since 1991, but the U.S. suicide rate keeps climbing. The nearly 40,000 American lives lost each year make suicide the nation’s 10th-leading cause of death, and the second-leading killer for those ages 15-34. Each suicide costs society about $1 million in medical and lost-work expenses and emotionally victimizes an average of 10 other people…

“Is there the kind of concerted effort (for suicide) that’s been made with HIV, with breast cancer, with Alzheimer’s disease, with prostate cancer?” asks Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “There’s never been that kind of concerted front.”

“When we invested in HIV/AIDS and breast cancer, we dramatically reduced the rates of death,” says Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the foundation. “If we invest in suicide prevention — really invest in it — then we have a good shot at bringing it down.”

More medical efforts should certainly be made and more money invested, but the article almost completely ignores a more in-depth analysis of contributing cultural factors. The difficulty of conversation about the problem, the fetishization of happiness and (especially) self-actualization… when we have more freedom and more opportunities to make ourselves happy than ever before, why is the number rising? Perhaps that’s a contradiction, or maybe the two feed on each other; 65% of 2012 suicides were white males. Increasing medical efforts is laudable, but viewing the problem as a purely medical one risks skirting deeper, more painful, and culturally further-reaching questions.


3. Before moving into sunnier territory, Eve Tushnet at The American Conservative contributes a worthy reflection on “Sublime Recovery vs. Banal Recovery“.

So far (I’m on about page 640 of this 1000+ tome) Infinite Jest is deeply embedded in the 12-Step world. In this narrative, addiction and recovery are basically spiritual. Forgive me for drastically oversimplifying a novel I’m loving, but in IJ addiction is often an enslavement of the will or an escape from the self. Recovery is even more insistently spiritual. You recover by giving up and doing as you’re told: Unconditional surrender is the only path to personal peace. If you don’t learn humility through obedience and accept total transformation through surrender to some kind of obscure Higher Power you will destroy yourself and everything you care about…

In this [sublime] narrative addiction and recovery are sublime experiences. They involve moral and spiritual concepts we have a hard time articulating today: Helen Andrews wrote the key essay here, noting,

The irony is that the aspects of AA that seem to resonate with them are the things they hate about organized religion: the admission of powerlessness, the submission to authority, skepticism about the value of thinking for yourself, the rote repetition of phrases that to an outsider seem vapid, sentimental, or silly….

We’ve done too much in the past on addiction to belabor Tushnet’s description, but the interesting observation of hers is the development of a chippier, cheerier model, one that leaves us sort of in control:

In this emerging narrative addiction is better understood as a medical problem than as a spiritual one… Most people who do abuse substances (using what I think is the most useful definition, compulsive use of a substance or behavior in spite of detrimental effects on one’s life) recover without rehab or AA or any other kind of specific help; most people just grow out of it. Lots of people moderate their substance use. You (…for certain values of “you”) really can cut back. And even for those who need to abstain from drugs or alcohol completely, demanding total abstinence up front is more likely to produce despair than compliance. Offering an identity as more than a drug user, in this worldview, is the best way to help somebody become no longer a drug user…

Maia Szalavitz, a truly invaluable journalist whose work I’ve recommended here before, recently asked, “Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It–Why Is This Widely Denied?” Part of the answer, I think, is that the growing-out-of-it type of recovery is invisible–and it’s invisible because it’s boring. It’s banal. As far as I know there are no novels or sitcoms about banal recovery, because it looks like staying basically the same. You get to keep the self-image you started with: You can keep thinking you’re smart, good, and competent, able to handle whatever life throws at you. You’re able to keep mislabeling your luck as “Good Choices I Made,” if that’s a thing you do.

But this banal recovery, this recovery in which you get to hang onto your ego and keep all your fantasies of competence, makes certain things possible. I know a lot of people who went from destructive use of drugs and alcohol to moderate use, and what that made possible for them was friendship, marriage, babies, honesty, wholehearted religious participation. And these experiences are sublime. People who managed to avoid the unconditional surrender of sublime recovery have so many other, more beautiful paths to surrender.

Marriage is humiliating, parenting is humbling, friendship is a school for gratitude. The fantasies and ego will be burned off by love.

Apologies for the long quote, but just too good to over-excerpt. She manages to affirm both and to find surrender and the death of the ego in more mundane settings. The only thing to add would be that the ‘banal recovery’ model, while wonderful when it happens, may be dangerous if it gets too imperative or too ego-affirming; but Tushnet seems to be saying that the ego’s death will happen one way or another, and that’s certainly good news.

4. In culture, Charles Carman at Books & Culture reviews Dave Eggers’s new book, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? It seems like an interesting read, a man desperate for companionship and answers (but seemingly dilettantish in both) kidnaps friends to force them into good conversation, which doesn’t seem to ever be quite as good as the kidnapper protagonist (or the reader) wants. But the review gives way to a broader set of questions:

Now, what do the prophets have to do with contemporary life or literature or criticism or culture? The glory of poetic literature is to reawaken us to the gift of existence. It reminds the reader to be thankful. Nihilistic literature reverses the thankful into the moribund, life revealed as a dreadful cage. Drunk on the spirit of poetry, the reader’s thoughts turn into doxologies. Under the hood of nihilism, the reader walks aimless and sullen. But the prophet does not evoke thankfulness or despair. The prophet is not trying to give his listeners an existential education. The prophet turns his audience to repentance.

Between poetry and meaninglessness, peace and war, is there any space in literature for poetic insight mingled with woeful petition? We can think of novels that have made us thankful for existence and others that depressed or unsettled us. When has a recent novel made its readership repentant? Thomas could not do it. He could only attain the zeal of a harbinger, who shouts that doom is at hand; but doom is always at hand. Thomas could not speak as the prophets do, revealing to us the the arms of forgiveness spreading.

It might be small; it doesn’t take much to say it. But it’s not an insignificant contribution to literature, this. Eggers’ book shows by example a world where the prophets do not live forever, where literature has lost that middle response——repentance——between uplifting beauty and abysmal despair, amid novels (his own included) that do not or cannot expand on the human cry, “Have mercy on us.”

The concept of a type of book which moves the reader to repentance is a frustratingly amorphous one. Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World would be a classic example of prophetic literature, painting a grim picture of a possible destiny for a nation, with an implicit call to action which might avert that destiny – Orwell for government, censorship, and language, and Huxley for (primarily) entertainment and amusement. Among recent, non-dystopian novels, Crace’s Harvest seemed to fit the criteria, too. But the point is still an interesting one – authors may find it more challenging to convict audiences of sin, and therefore things like repentance and forgiveness are made difficult, too. But if Eggers’s book really does gesture toward that absence, it seems like a good start.

5. At New Republic, Casey Cep piles on the praise for Marilynne Robinson’s Lila:

The kind of faith lived so capaciously on Robinson’s pages bears little resemblance to what one finds so often on television or even in the newspaper, which is perhaps why her work appeals not only to those who identify as believers, but also those who have shed but not fully forgotten such belief. It is not that Robinson’s characters do not believe the creeds, indeed most do, but they do not find it necessary to speak only in those terms. Words like baptism, eucharist, and resurrection are spoken, but so too are love, forgiveness, and forever. Lila becomes concerned with salvation not as some abstract idea, but an applied possibility for those saints and sinners from her former life, most especially Doll. There is, of course, a specialized vocabulary for these concerns, words like predestination and grace, but here too there is also the language of the everyday, words like hope and fear…

In one exchange, Rev. Ames says to Lila, “I believe in the grace of God. For me, that is where all these questions end.” That frustrating refusal, not only to answer but to never cease asking such questions, is the best approximation of religious faith that I have read, in fiction or elsewhere.

6. Given our longstanding affection for The Onion and The AV Club, it’s worth noting/mildly recommending Clickhole, their fast-growing new addition. The name itself implies both a place for mindless clickbaiting and a repulsiveness to the whole enterprise; it’s the most intelligent writing which I’ve ever felt braindead after spending an hour on. The whole thing is an joke, a giant act of excess of inanity, satirizing first Buzzfeed, second itself, and third, the Internet and our ever-shrinking attention spans in general. A highlight this week was, “This Video Perfectly Sums Up Everything You Need To Know About Sexism In America” (here), a slow scanning of the relevant Wikipedia articles set to sentimental piano. The idea seems to be flipping off everyone who wants a two-minute summary of complex issues, and the opening shot of Wikipedia’s “This article has multiple issues” box perfectly makes the point that complex issues can’t be summed up even in an 11,000 word article. As far as irony, self-deprecation, and silliness go, it’s the best useless website out there, the Omega point of clickbait, and that certainly counts for something. Also, it’s been a great last couple weeks for the “Local” section of The Onionour favorite being “Lifelong Dream No Match for First Brush with Adversity” – the best-laid plans/intentions, and all that…

Bonus: At the NYT, mobile phone use reporting apps can help us get in touch with our excessive phone use, preaching the little-l Law in a nice, second-usey way (just don’t make it a target); also at the NYT, Roger Cohen affirms the mundane; Slate runs a piece on fictional book covers from Listen Up Philip (more entertaining than it sounds); and Joss Whedon’s forthcoming Avengers sequel finally released a teaser, Wednesday (below); and this week’s weird photoshop/CGI award goes to Mayokero (below below), ht JF:

P.S. Look for the recordings from the Houston Conference early next week!

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3 responses to “Another Week Ends: Misplaced Fear, Further Reflections on an Epidemic, Recovery and the Ego’s Death, Dave Eggers, Marilynne Robinson, and Clickhole”

  1. Love the excerpt from Lila. So good to be seeing Marilynne Robinson’s name in print so much these days and to hear everyone’s analysis of her amazing characters.

  2. Left out the link to the NYT article on mobile phone use app?

  3. BP says:

    Tushnet’s piece was sublime. Banal-ly living and dealing with addiction in everyday life.

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