Another Week Ends

1. Kathryn Schulz (of Being Wrong fame) wrote an article for New York Magazine that’ll […]

David Zahl / 1.11.13

1. Kathryn Schulz (of Being Wrong fame) wrote an article for New York Magazine that’ll get your motors running, “The Self in Self-Help.” It’s a bit of a conceptual quagmire to be honest, esp for those of us who consider God to be more than a metaphor, but it’s also pretty fun. Positively jammed with soundbites, a few of which include:

New-Arrested-Development-Photo-Buster-Bluth[The master theory of self-help] goes like this: Somewhere below or above or beyond the part of you that is struggling with weight loss or procrastination or whatever your particular problem might be, there is another part of you that is immune to that problem and capable of solving it for the rest of you. In other words, this master theory is fundamentally dualist. It posits, at a minimum, two selves: one that needs a kick in the ass and one that is capable of kicking.

This model of selfhood is intuitively appealing, not least because it describes an all-too-familiar experience… all of us struggle to keep faith with our plans and goals, and all of us can envision better selves more readily than we can be them. Indeed, the reason we go to the self-help section in the first place is that some part of us wants to do something that some other part resists.

The self-help movement seeks to account for and overcome the difficulties we experience when we are trying to make a desired change—but doing so by invoking an immortal soul and a mortal sinner (or an ego and an id, a homunculus and its minion) is not much different from saying that we “are of two minds,” or “feel torn,” or for that matter that we have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. These are not explanations for the self. They are metaphors for the self. And metaphors, while evocative and illuminating, do not provide concrete causal explanations. Accordingly, they are not terribly likely to generate concrete solutions. True, self-help literature is full of good advice, but good advice is not the issue; most of it has been around for centuries. The issue is how to implement it.

If giving your better half executive control by fiat could change your life, sales of self-help material would plummet overnight. It is a somewhat beautiful fact that the underlying theory of the self-help industry is contradicted by the self-help industry’s existence… The larger point is this: God knows we all need more help, but possibly we need less self.


2. Along very similar lines in The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith explains, with some help from Viktor Frankl, how “There’s More to Life than Happiness.” The key distinction here being that between happiness and meaning:

While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning. Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” [ed. note: !!!] That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.”

The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”


3. Brain Pickings has compiled a list of definitions of “love” from literary and cultural figures that’s worth reading through. Katherine Hepburn’s may be my favorite: “Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.” Iris Murdoch’s is also pretty fabulous: “Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.” Speaking of love, here’s a pretty heartwarming video of a flash mob singing “Here Comes the Sun” in a crowded unemployment office in Spain:


4. A fascinating and wonderfully thorough review by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker of two recent books about Francis of Assisi. Highly recommended if you’re even remotely interested in that great man (if you’re not, then do yourself a favor and rent Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis ASAP). I was personally unaware that when the order he founded diverged from his vision in his final years, rather than fight for it, he simply gave up and allowed others to run it. Powerful. As is Acocella’s closing paragraph:

Always, the objection is the same—that we can’t have radicalism and the Church—and it makes some sense. (Do you want to go around with a begging bowl? Do you want Giotto not to have created his frescoes?) Francis didn’t believe it, though. He insisted that he was a good Catholic and that his principles came straight out of the Bible. Therefore the Church, which was supposedly there to spread the message of the Bible, should align itself with him. Even before he died, most Franciscans rushed to a middle position, but some people noticed, over time, that at least one person had lived by the principles laid down by Christ and by the leaders of most of the world’s major religions. Vauchez takes comfort from this. He cites the nineteenth-century historian Ernest Renan, who said, as Vauchez summarizes it, that the example of Francis “constitutes proof that Christianity, at least once, has been lived by a human being in all its radicality within the context of a historical life: this allows us to sustain the hope that this great movement, taken and distorted by the Church, might be able one day to resume its influence.” But only one person, only once: this is a small sample.

5. Speaking of exemplary clergy, in The Wall Street Journal, Prof. Doris Donnelly sheds light on a question I’ve always had about Les Miserables, namely, if Victor Hugo was so virulently anticlerical, why did he make the Bishop character so saintly? ht DJ:

bob-seger-bruce-springsteen-thomas-weschler-1978-detroit-michiganAs Hugo worked on the novel, his son Charles, then in his 20s, objected to the reverential treatment of the bishop. He argued to his father that the portrayal gave undeserved respect to a corrupt clergy, bestowing credibility on a Roman Catholic Church opposed to the democratic ideals that he and his father held. Charles instead proposed that the catalyst for Jean Valjean’s transformation be a lawyer or doctor or anyone else from a secular profession.

The pushback didn’t work. Not only did Hugo hold his ground, but he amplified the importance of Charles-François Bienvenue Myriel, affectionately known in the novel as Monseigneur Bienvenue (Bishop Welcome). The book’s first hundred pages or so are a detailed chronicle of Myriel’s exemplary life, showing that his intervention on behalf of Jean Valjean was part of a long track record and not a singular aberration. Apparently Hugo recognized no contradiction between his anticlericalism and the possibility—or certainty—that grace could be mediated by a just priest who was transparent to the divine and never betrayed the human.

Thirty years earlier, Hugo had solidified his anticlerical credentials by crafting the repulsive, licentious Archdeacon Claude Frollo in “Notre Dame de Paris.” It was time to try a new approach in “Les Misérables,” so he rendered an ideal priest against whom clergy could measure their fidelity to tenderness and mercy. His expectation—as we know from the contemporaneous diary of his wife, Adele—was that corrupt priests would be shamed and indicted by comparison with a good one.

6. In The Onion, there’s “Mother Who Forgot To Pay 29-Year-Old Son’s Phone Bill Reminded To Really Be Careful About That”.

7. Also by way of comic relief, the new season of Portlandia is off to a tremendous start, wasting no time bringing the hilarious illustrations of contemporary law. The second episode in particular, in which Fred and Carrie act as missionaries for the Gospel of Portland, is brilliantly subversive and funny. Also, Arrested Development premieres in May! More details here.

8. In film, our own Nick Lannon points out the striking (if unintentional) Christian allegory going on in the trailer for the upcoming Warm Bodies zombie flick. Love versus judgment (Malkovich!), love bringing the dead back to life, it’s there alright:


9. Finally, in the worship-music-that-doesn’t-suck department, Mbird fave’s The Magills have done something very cool, putting little bits of scripture to music for a collage of a new record called Wallpaper. Only one of the twenty tracks is over two minutes. Beautiful but not edgeless, wide-ranging yet unassuming, and more than a little rowdy–in other words, highly recommended.