Another Week Ends

1. As the Olympics wind down (and Morrissey gets his London back), we would do […]

David Zahl / 8.10.12

1. As the Olympics wind down (and Morrissey gets his London back), we would do well to read Heather Havrilesky’s jaw-droppingly insightful piece “The Loneliness of the Person Watching the Long Distance Runner” that appeared in the NY Times Magazine last week. She absolutely nails the religiosity at the heart of much contemporary athleticism. And she even touches on how we instrumentalize suffering in a distinctly theology-of-glory-like way, i.e. as a means of self-salvation. Which is a bit ironic, since as far as cultural commentators are concerned, I consider Havrilesky a gold-medalist:

If the ’70s and ’80s were marked by a heightened appreciation for hedonism, then the ’00s and ’10s have cultivated our fascination with masochism. Most of the activities that are considered pure and noble today have a hint of self-abnegation to them, if not an outright embrace of pain and agony. There’s a religiosity to the ways that elite athletes are celebrated that echoes our embrace of natural childbirth or fasting, revealing a shared belief that pushing your body to extremes bestows a higher consciousness that’s impossible to achieve through other means.

With its “Just Do It” slogan, Nike (and its ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy) recast exercise not as a casual activity but something at once grittier and more spiritually uplifting, a fundamental prerequisite for living the good life. Lance Armstrong took Nike’s religion to the next level, achieving prophet status in part by proclaiming his belief in the catharsis of suffering. In his book “It’s Not About the Bike,” Armstrong writes that he’s “into pain” because it’s “self-revelatory.”…Hard-core masochists serve as our John the Baptists, preaching the glory of self-denial. Given the backdrop of fast food, megaplexes, giant TVs and triple Frappucinos, it makes sense that we glorify the selfless, barefoot, bean-eating runner. But does this fixation on suffering mark an advance from our indulgent days? Or would Timothy Leary say that after years of exposure to “the carnival of televised athletic and political spectacles,” our culture has transformed the spiritual path into a (literal) treadmill?

It’s common, in fact, to find the merciless tedium of elite athletes’ workouts exalted as if they were direct routes to enlightenment. We’ve always been fixated on individuals who exemplify extreme, borderline masochistic virtue, but these days, instead of marveling at the self-control and resolve of Catholic nuns reciting hours of Hail Marys or Buddhist monks meditating in caves for months, we rave about the guy who conquered K2 without oxygen or the woman who completed the Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 150-mile race through the Moroccan desert. These athletes now belong to a new kind of holy order, reminding mere mortals that, through absolute faith and belief in your abilities (and, oh, yeah, nonstop arduous workouts), you can rise to unimaginable heights of physical mastery.

2. A follow-up to our recent post about overparenting, The NY Times ran an op-ed by Madeline Levine last week (author of the book in question) entitled “Raising Successful Children.” As you might expect, a number of the insights strongly echo Dorothy Martyn’s Beyond Deserving school of thought, which advocates loving non-interference, points out how over-affirmation can be just as damaging to a child as over-condemnation (both being forms of “deserving”), and understands how (a certain type of) control produces the opposite of what it intends. In fact, the theological categories virtually jump off the page. Levine even goes so far as to make a distinction between “uses” of the Law, with “behavioral control” equating to the First Use and “psychological control” a pretty apt synonym for the second. Needless to say, even if parents like myself are likely to hear the whole entire thing as Law/Should (and there is plenty of exhortation here), that doesn’t make her diagnosis/prognosis less descriptively true.

There is an important distinction between good and bad parental involvement. For example, a young child doesn’t want to sit and do his math homework. Good parents insist on compliance, not because they need their child to be a perfect student but because the child needs to learn the fundamentals of math and develop a good work ethic. Compare this with the parent who spends weeks “helping” his or her child fill out college applications with the clear expectation that if they both work hard enough, a “gotta get into” school is a certainty. (While most of my parent patients have graduated from college, it is always a telltale sign of overparenting when they talk about how “we’re applying to Columbia.”)

In both situations parents are using control, in the first case behavioral (sit down, do your math) and in the second psychological (“we’re applying.”) It is psychological control that carries with it a textbook’s worth of damage to a child’s developing identity. If pushing, direction, motivation and reward always come from the outside, the child never has the opportunity to craft an inside.

In somewhat related news, a tool that allows users to automatically filter out pictures of other people’s babies from their Facebook feeds hit the web this week–“”–and the response has been quite telling. This article in The Times, for example, is overflowing with tidbits about judgment and identity.

3. In social science, a pair of winners this week. First, Slate reported on a study that revealed how “paranoid people are right to be paranoid.” And then Robert Wright posed the question on The Atlantic, “Does Wisdom Bring Happiness (or Vice Versa)?” The research he references is a semantic quagmire to say the least (clue: wisdom and intelligence are not linked) but if you can suspend some disbelief, there are a couple of moderately interesting findings, especially in terms of how wisdom relates to aging. The Onion parodies the whole shebang rather brilliantly with their “Study: Pretending Everything’s Okay Works.”

4. In music, September is shaping up to be a mammoth month, and not just because Bad is being reissued with a gazillion unreleased tracks. On Sept 11th, everyone’s favorite English gospel-folk quartet Mumford and Sons is releasing their much-anticipated follow-up to 2010’s Sigh No More, and in anticipation, if you’ve never read Christian Scharen’s “A Deliberately Spiritual Thing,” in which he traces the Vineyard roots of the group, do so now! Next, if you enjoyed our little post on Gregg Allman earlier this week, Slate brings our attention to the best rock-memoir no one’s ever read, namely, the one Elvis Costello penned in the liner notes of the now out-of-print Rhino reissues of his records. Being one of the lucky few who’s had the pleasure, I strongly agree with their assessment. Third, David Remnick’s profile of Bruce Springsteen for The New Yorker got some serious flack from The New Republic of all places for perceived fannishness and over-adulation. Over at The Dish, Matthew Sitman (who’ll be speaking at our Fall Conference next month!), set the record straight. On the other side of the musical spectrum, a new mix by our very own DJ JAZ appeared today entitled Upbeat Summer:

Finally, every tidbit that leaks about Bob Dylan’s new record makes it sound even more awesome. Rolling Stone quotes Dylan as saying:

“I wanted to make something more religious,” he says. “I just didn’t have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do. That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off 10 times with the same thread – than it does with a record like I ended up with.”

Is Dylan’s Tempest intended as a last work by the now 71-year-old artist? Dylan is dismissive of the suggestion. “Shakespeare’s last play was called The Tempest. It wasn’t called just plain Tempest. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It’s two different titles.”

5. The New York Review of Books ran an enlightening and highly entertaining write-up of the new Edward Gorey exhibit at Columbia University. I was particularly struck by Edmund Wilson’s description of Gorey’s style: “equally amusing and sombre, nostalgic at the same time as claustrophobic, at the same time poetic and poisoned.” Personally, I’m waiting for all of the covers Gorey did for John Bellairs in the 80s to be collected and reprinted. The Chessmen of Doom!

6. Filmmaker Errol Morris served up a couple of incredible (and quite sneaky) columns this week about the power of fonts in The NY Times. Don’t be surprised if all of our future publications use Baskerville.

7. Over at The Internet Monk, our friend Chaplain Mike has been on something of a profundity bender recently. His “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid” on the insidiousness of religious self-righteousness is a great and important read, ht MV. In reference to his faith, he writes:

“…the more I grow in knowledge, the more I become integrated into the Christian community, the more my lifestyle conforms to the expectations of my particular Christian group, the more separated I get from “the world” and its ways, the more I learn to act, speak, dress, and think like a Christian, the more my capacity for self-righteousness increases.”

8. Finally, I’m sure you’re all sick to death of hearing about Chick-Fil-A, but if you haven’t watched Stephen Colbert’s remarkable take on the controversy, it’s very much worth your time. Just be sure to watch to the end:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive



P.S. THIS JUST IN: PZ”S PODCAST IS BACK UP AND RUNNING! Click here to go to the new page on iTunes. Even if you’ve subscribed in the past, you will need to re-subscribe. Right now only the two most recent episodes are up–the archives should be restored sometime next week–but if you haven’t gotten a chance to hear “The Two Geralds”, do yourself a favor. I know I’m biased, but it may be my favorite of all 114.

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2 responses to “Another Week Ends: Monastic (Olympic) Masochism, Successful Children, Justified Paranoia, Mumford and Sons, Edward Gorey, Creedal Colbert and the Return of PZ’s Podcast”

  1. honeybee says:

    I can’t tell you how much I love the “Another Week Ends” feature at Mockingbird.
    Thanks, David, for consistently pulling out such great stuff.

  2. “Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that’s what makes it so boring.”

    – Edward Gorey

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