Another Week Ends

1. First off, grab the kleenbox box because here’s a beautiful instance of grace in […]

David Zahl / 8.22.14

1. First off, grab the kleenbox box because here’s a beautiful instance of grace in practice. It comes to us from little league coach Dave Belisle, whose Cumberland American team (Rhode Island) lost the Little League World Series championship game to Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West this past week. In their moment of defeat, Coach Belisle gave the following speech:

2. Looking through our archive this past month, clearly two subjects have been occupying the (hive-)mind: education and suicide. The Atlantic ran an interview this week with lead Ivy League critic William Deresiewicz about his new book Excellent Sheep, and if he’s not backing off, then neither will we. When asked about the internal struggle between “grandiosity and depression” that he has observed in students at elite colleges, Deresiewicz let fly some soundbites that were too delightfully overstated not to reprint:

These kids were always the best of their class, and their teachers were always praising them, inflating their ego. But it’s a false self-esteem. It’s not real self-possession, where you are measuring yourself against your own internal standards and having a sense that you’re working towards something. It’s totally conditional, and constantly has to be pumped up by the next grade, the next A, or gold star. As [child psychologist] Miller says, what you’re really learning is that your parents’ love is conditional on this achievement. So when you fail, even a little bit, even if you just get a B on a test, or an A- on a test, the whole thing collapses. It may only collapse temporarily, but it’s a profound collapse—you feel literally worthless.

excellent-sheep-9781476702711_lgThese are kids who have no ability to measure their own worth in any realistic way—either you are on top of the world, or you are worthless. And that kind of all or nothing mentality really pervades the whole system. It’s also why it’s Harvard or the gutter: If you don’t get into Harvard, Yale or Princeton, it’s a disgrace. If you go to Wesleyan, you can never show your face in public again… This notion that you’ve got to do X, Y, and Z or else your life is over makes you end up as a high functioning sheep…

There’s a list of things that everyone knows you’re supposed to do to get into college: scores, extracurriculars, and then these two other things, “leadership” and “service.” They’ve been completely ritualized, and kids have become cynical about them because they know they just need to demonstrate them. In the case of leadership, which is supposed to be about qualities of character, self-sacrifice, initiative and vision, it just means getting to the top, and that’s all. If you get a position with some authority you are, by definition, a leader. And service, if anything, is even worse. Service is supposed to be about making the world a better place or helping people who are less fortunate, but because it’s done for the resume, it really just becomes about yourself…

Later in the interview, Dereseiwciz makes clear one of the primary convictions informing his critique, the idea that “ultimately, colleges have inherited the spiritual mission of churches.” If this is true–and it’s debatable–then the question becomes 1. Is it reasonable to ask a university to take on that responsibility? That is, a university is necessarily based on standards of judgment–with churches, there’s at least the possibility of grace (aka a tenable basis for spiritual formation). And 2. Is it more that holiness/goodness has been replaced with success as the be-all-end-all of existence? If we wanted to get cerebral, maybe we’ve replaced goals (in the sense of achieving something) with potential (possibility of achieving anything). That is, a top-notch university is appealing partly because it gives such a wide field of possibilities, something far more exciting, on paper at least, than almost anything achievable in real life. I don’t know the answer, but I’m very grateful Deresiewicz is making us ask these questions. Speaking of which, when asked if the kind of self-reflection for which he’s advocating is narcissistic, he offered my favorite line of the interview:

I just hate it when people talk about how self reflection is somehow self indulgent—as if the things that students were being invited to do were not, like making themselves rich and powerful. How is that not self-indulgent?

3. Over at Liberate, our own Paul Zahl offered a powerful reflection on how “We Are All Suicides Now.” Heavy, I know (him?!), but also essential:

Almost everyone has seriously considered suicide at some point or another–or maybe at several points. I, for one, have. When I couldn’t see a way out for myself in terms of the emotional pain I was feeling–not to mention the physical pain that causes millions of people, if only putatively, to ponder physician-assisted suicide–I would start envisioning the possible ways I could commit suicide with the least physical pain. (Wasn’t there a UFO group that all killed themselves using apple sauce in combination with something? I tried to find out the recipe.)

There is hope for potential suicides. I’m talking about right now, before we do it. It is in the same place that all hope seems to come from. The hope is mercy. God forgives us for having normal thoughts! And suicide, I submit, is a normal thought. Freud thought that the only absolute drives in humans are the drive for sex and the drive for death. The thought of suicide seems to come with the gift of life…

Life is tragic. Suicide is a serious option. Lots of people have been doing it for a very long time. We just didn’t talk about it much. Now even more people are doing it, and we are, a little, talking about it. It is OK–it is normal–to have the thought. And the moment you know that God forgives you the thought and that He can handle the thought, its impulsive hypnotic grip on you begins to loosen. And you find yourself saying—and more important, feeling—like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind: “Tomorrow is another day.”

One other significant resource worth mentioning is Modern Reformation’s recent issue on Faith and Mental Illness, Michael Horton’s lead article being something of a must-read.

4. Writer Dani Shapiro made some relevant observations in the New Yorker about the difference between memoir and status updates. Reading between the lines, much of it boils down to the distance required to have even the remotest shot at not overdoing the self-justification, ht RW:

I’ve been doing this work long enough to know that our feelings—that vast range of fear, joy, grief, sorrow, rage, you name it—are incoherent in the immediacy of the moment. It is only with distance that we are able to turn our powers of observation on ourselves, thus fashioning stories in which we are characters. There is no immediate gratification in this. No great digital crowd is “liking” what we do. We don’t experience the Pavlovian, addictive click and response of posting something that momentarily relieves the pressure inside of us, then being showered with emoticons. The gratification we memoirists do experience is infinitely deeper and more bittersweet. It is the complicated, abiding pleasure, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, of finding the universal thread that connects us to the rest of humanity, and, by doing so, turns our small, personal sorrows and individual tragedies into art.

5. On the social science front, writing for The New Statesman, Noreena Hertz corralled a fascinating number of recent studies about irrationality, looking at how hunger, sleep, lust, language, and other factors affect our reasoning. Bottom line, if you’re about to make an important decision, take a nap, eat some breakfast, put on some red clothing (no black stripes!) and avoid Victoria’s Secret at all costs.

6. In music, two of my personal favorite paragons of what a rock n roll conversion can look like (i.e. musicians who kept their teeth, post-Jesus), The Smoking Popes’ Josh Caterer and Superdrag’s John Davis, both have new music in the offing. Davis is coming out in mid-September with new material under the name The Lees of Memory, and the first couple of singles sound amazing. The influence of My Bloody Valentine is pronounced. Embarrassingly enough, it took me until now to discover that Josh Caterer has quietly been putting out worship EPs on iTunes this past year. Contemporary worship music is obviously an acquired taste, but if you have the inclination even remotely, all of the new songs are pretty great. If I had to choose a favorite track or three, they’d be “I Have Been Set Free”, “Glorious Grace”, and “O Love of My Redeemer” (plus “Conroy the Gingerbread Boy”). Spread the word. These two guys should be far better known than they currently are. Oh and I came across a video of Caterer’s testimony the other day, which ends with an acoustic performance of “I Know You Love Me”, and it made me fall in love with the dude all over again:

7. In TV, another fairly excellent episode this week of The Leftovers, a show which has, despite some early leanings to the contrary, become genuinely good. Reminiscent of The Sopranos‘ Emmy-winning “Employee of the Month”, this week’s episode used a somewhat implausible pretext to create one of the show’s strongest scenes of dialogue, with a couple of difficult moral choices thrown in. We got some insight, too, into the Guilty Remnant. Patti’s statement of their purpose sounds like theology of the cross almost overdone, which (I confess) we didn’t know was possible. Everyone is moving on in some form or another, but the GR doesn’t want moving on, and it doesn’t even seem to want answers. Even answers can distract from suffering, so the Remnant is stripping itself of anything which could impair their quest to understand simply that it happened, and to force others to do the same. Into the moving on / reckoning with suffering tension comes the Chief, not incidentally the agent of the (l)aw, whose job echoes his personal quest to keep his family together, maintain sanity, and (mostly) keep control. He’s increasingly failing at all three, and it wasn’t a surprise when his daughter, alienated by others’ moving on and finding happiness, makes a move toward the GR.

Incidentally, after hearing Patti explain their philosophy to the Chief, the Reverend’s the only one who can really stand up to the GR. He advocates engagement rather than disengagement, embodied life-in-the-world rather than contemplative retreat away from it. In short, the GR smoke to indicate their lack of concern for the body; the Reverend cares, meticulously and painstakingly, for his mostly-braindead wife. Next week, it looks like the GR’s “violent grace” may get too violent to be called grace, and we hope that the Reverend’s particular brand of not moving on is fleshed out as articulately and poignantly as Patti’s was this past episode.

8. Humor-wise, the “Sad Dads at One Direction” photo essay at Nashville scene is priceless, ht MS.


9. Finally, cowabunga! The NY Times explored “Why We Love Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and there’s something rather touching about their conclusion:

For the Turtles, he said, “teenage” and “mutant” are inextricably linked — their mutant status “is about the adolescent aspect of growing up, being a kid, and it’s all about that self-consciousness.” And, he said, “it’s not an accident that the X-Men were teenagers” and that their powers, at least in the earlier comic books, tended to manifest at puberty. In a way, he said, “adolescence is mutation.”

“That process of individuation that we all go through in adolescence,” he explained, “it’s a struggle — and what if somebody were to say to you, ‘I can combine your self-loathing, your self-consciousness, and your self-aggrandizement all in one encapsulated character’?”

Stray Notes:

– I was touched to see Ronald Sauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, pen a stirring column for The NY Times, asking “Who Will Stand Up for the Christians?”. The subtext may be transparent, but still.

– While we’re being controversial, Elyse Fitzpatrick threaded the needle rather deftly on the subject of ‘baptism by ice bucket’.

– Our friends at Christ in Pop Culture are featuring some Mbird resources this month as part of their membership offerings. Take a look!

– We’re trying to figure out how to expand our Facebook platform in a non-irritating way and we sure would appreciate your help. The page is here, and there’s a wall where you can post suggestions or whatnot.