Another Week Ends

1. How confident are you? Over at The New York Times, David Brooks surveyed his […]

Will McDavid / 5.3.13

1. How confident are you? Over at The New York Times, David Brooks surveyed his readers to get a sense for self-confidence, lack thereof, and the ways males and females experience confidence differently. While the word itself is a bit vague and murky, and Brooks found few trends in the survey data, the individual responses are definitely worth a look:

Jason-as-Nick-in-Freaks-and-Geeks-jason-segel-8627143-1200-1800But it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends. The essays were highly idiosyncratic, and I don’t want to impose a false order on them that isn’t there. Let me just string together some of the interesting points people made.

Many men wrote to say that the real crisis these days is male underconfidence. Here’s a law student from Chicago: “I firmly believe one of the unintended consequences of the feminist revolution has been that men in my generation are raised without a strong self-identity, and, in essence, grow up to be little more than boys looking for mothers.”

A few women wrote that family dynamics were the sources of their underconfidence. One 58-year-old mom wrote that mothers “might as well have had, as a friend of mine puts it, ‘our vocal cords cut.’ We want to talk in nice voices and stay calm and sit down and have a heart-to-heart. Our children want the five-minute version — direct, to the point. They come back at anything we say with smart remarks that knock the wind out of our sails.”

More women wrote about conflicts with other women than about conflicts with men. One retired Army officer wrote, “Girls and women are highly critical of any other girl or woman who exhibits confidence. Men, on the whole, do not ‘shut down’ women who are intelligent and confident, but women do.”

…One of the calmest letters came from Carol Collier, who works at Covenant College. She wrote: “As a believer in Jesus Christ, I see myself as redeemed, forgiven and covered in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. I believe that this is how God sees me, all the time and without exception. I believe that his smile and delight in me is unwavering. This view of myself is quite simple yet with profound implications. It allows me to accept criticism without self-condemnation and to accept affirmations without exalting myself. This is the ideal view of myself that I am always working at. It is a struggle, but a good one.”

Hmmmm…. the last response is interesting. I’m confident! Help my underconfidence! Or perhaps that’s over-psychologizing things…

2. Speaking of confidence, in college Kate Middleton would’ve demolished yours, reported one of her college classmate’s mothers, a story Gawker commented on ruthlessly. It’s a wonderful example of the Law mechanics of identity and of parenting and, apart from that, a guilty pleasure for followers of the Middleton-sphere, ht TB:

kmThe mother, who has chosen to remain anonymous because some of the truth bombs she’s lobbing hit hard—“It was unthinkable that they would resort to a marker pen on labels,” she adds, in her meditation on labels sewn inside Kate Middleton’s clothing almost twenty years ago…

Maddening… A true test of a mother’s strength.

“[The girls had] the smartest tennis rackets, that kind of thing.”

The sleepiest bookbags. The most charming rulers. That kind of thing. But if you thought the “~* K A T I E M. *~” label sewn onto Kate Middleton’s crewneck sweatshirt was intimidating, buckle up quick before you hear tell of the “huge” picnics the Middleton children would throw in celebration of sport.

“There were huge picnics at sports day.”

Flashy finger food bacchanals. Potato salad for days. Two kinds of potato chips (plain/barbecue). A giant pancake that covered the school

“It made other families feel rather hopeless.”

…Their mothers weren’t thoughtful enough.

Ha! Gawker’s point, of course, is how ridiculous it is that one presumably wealthy, socialite mother would be totally deconstructed by Middleton’s slightly more put-together aura. And while Gawker’s right to criticize the narcissism of small differences here, and the juicy story is humorously underwhelming, everyone probably has some area of life in which slight, comparison-born insecurities are just as disconcerting – we’re laughing, to some extent, at ourselves.

3. And in response to Middleton-esque success stories, The Onion not-so-encouragingly reports: “New Study Finds Nothing That Will Actually Convince You To Change Your Lifestyle So Just Forget It”. It’s hilarious, probably true, and worth posting in its entirety:

CHICAGO—Though it contains several significant discoveries with a direct bearing on human health, a comprehensive study published this week in The Journal Of The American Medical Association has found no data that will in fact convince you to change your lifestyle in any way, so what’s the point of even telling you about it? “Rigorous, controlled study of hundreds of volunteers has revealed a dramatic trend toward nothing that will make you take better care of yourself, or alter your behavior in a meaningful sense, thus leading us to conclude we’re all wasting our time here,” said study author Dr. Janice Carlisle, who added that 85 percent of Americans probably tuned out the second they heard the word “study” anyway, because isn’t that just how people [really] are. “Well-established scientific facts about long-term health meant nothing to you last year, and they’ll mean nothing to you this year or any year after until you die, so forget it. Just do what you want.” Carlisle added that the new research might also help explain the role a sedentary lifestyle plays in—look, no one has even read past the first sentence of this news story, so there’s really no reason to go into it, now is there?


4. But on a happier note, there’s a wonderful mini-essay by D.H. Lawrence on “Hymns in a Man’s Life”, written in the year before he died, filled with religious sentiment despite Lawrence’s professed skepticism, ht SMZ:

Nothing is more difficult than to determine what a child takes in, and does not take in, of its environment and teaching. This fact is brought home to me by the hymns which I learned as a child, and never forgot. They mean to me almost more than the finest poetry, and they have for me a more permanent value, somehow or other.

It is almost shameful to confess that the poems which have meant the most to me, like Wordsworth’s Ode to Immortality and Keats’s Odes, and pieces of Macbeth or As You Like It orMidsummer Night’s Dream, and Goethe’s lyrics, such as Uber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh, and Verlaine’s Aynte poussela porte qui clancelle — all these lovely poems which after all give the ultimate shape to one’s life; all these lovely poems woven deep into a man’s consciousness, are still not woven so deep in me as the rather banal Nonconformist hymns that penetrated through and through my childhood…

To me the word Galilee has a wonderful sound. The Lake of Galilee! I don’t want to know where it is. I never want to go to Palestine. Galilee is one of those lovely, glamorous worlds, not places, that exist in the golden haze of a child’s half-formed imagination. And in my man’s imagination it is just the same. It has been left untouched. With regard to the hymns that had such a profound influence on my childish consciousness, there has been no crystallising out, no dwindling into actuality, no hardening into commonplace. They are the same to my Man’s experience as they were to me nearly forty years ago. When all comes to all, the most precious element of life is wonder.


Even the real scientist works in the sense of wonder. The pity is, when he comes out of the laboratory he puts aside his wonder along with his apparatus, and tries to make it perfectly didactic. Science in its true condition of wonder is as religious as any religion. But didactic science is as dead and boring as dogmatic religion. Both are wonderless and productive of boredom, endless boredom.

Now we come back to the hymns. They live and glisten in the depths of the man’s consciousness in undimmed wonder, because they have not been subjected to any criticism or analysis. By the time I was sixteen I had criticised and got over the Christian dogma.

…but something about the hymns stuck, something decidedly non-didactic, but instead filled with wonder. At the 2013 New York Conference, Sally-Lloyd Jones told a heart-wrenching story about a little girl who had been physically getting closer and closer to the Jesus Storybook Bible while Sally was giving a reading of the Abraham/Isaac/Mount Moriah/sacrifice story and, after finishing, filled an awkward silence by asking the children what it would look like for them to ‘give God everything like Abraham did.’ The girl, who had been transfixed, shut down – physically slumped. While Lawrence’s “didactic” element or “application” of Bible lessons to kids might fall flat, there’s an element of wonder present which Christianity can access – but the wonder (perhaps graciously) is given pre-criticism, pre-analysis (pre-predication, etc, etc).


5. And speaking of childlike-ness, in entertainment The AV Club posted a great lighthearted summer 2013 movie roundup: “Inner child vs. outer adult: Our conflicted guide to the summer movie season“:

Years of boredom, disappointment, and CGI-induced migraines have taught us to fear and distrust this annual four-month gauntlet of studio excess. (Fool us once, Hollywood, shame on you. Fool us every summer since 1975…) And yet, from somewhere deep within, a dissenting voice cries out: “Why yes, I do want to see giant, remote-controlled robots beat the snot out of extraterrestrial monsters.” This is the pesky specter of our 11-year-old selves, back again to remind each of us that space battles are always cool, superhero fights never get old, and there’s no such thing as too many movies about Vin Diesel living his life a quarter-mile at a time.

The eternal, internal battle rages on below, where we’ve looked ahead to the biggest movies of May and June, from the perspective of both our easily excitable inner child and our hopelessly jaded outer adult…

They especially nailed the expectations for del Toro’s upcoming Pacific Rim:

468px-Pacrim007-4_3_rx812_c1080x810What it promises: Gigantic aliens invade Earth and start smashing things, so mankind, having grown up on Voltron and other, similar entertainments, naturally responds by inventing giant remote-controlled robots, capable of fighting on the aliens’ scale. Guillermo Del Toro (the Hellboy movies, Pan’s Labyrinth) directs.
Why our inner child is excited: Guillermo Del Toro! Giant robots! Ron Perlman! Idris Elba playing a character named Stacker Pentecost! But mostly, giant robots totally whaling on giant aliens whoa!
Why our outer adult is dreading it: Our outer adult is bound, gagged, and secured in a closet, lest it speak up and spoil anything about this. Certainly it isn’t allowed to mention that the last feature for co-screenwriter and story originator Travis Beacham was 2010’s Clash Of The Titans.

Humor aside, the tension between snobby moviegoer veneer and naive enthusiasm about giant, alien-fighting robots is something we’d do well to remember – the inner children perhaps say a lot more about us than we’d like to think. This blogger, at least, has been totally sold by the implausible “Stacker Pentecost.”

6. The NY Times ran a fascinating interview with Christian Wiman a few weeks ago, which serves as yet another testament to the most thoughtful and articulate Christian voices around. (Incidentally, we are co-hosting an evening with him in Charlottesville on May 15th – details here). And if the Times interview isn’t a plug, I don’t know what is:

wimanQ. You returned to the faith you were raised in, and you point out that this generates suspicion in people, including yourself. What’s suspicious about it?

A. People think it’s all psychological. You’re terrified because your world is falling apart and you want to stand in one still place. The past seems like a still place (what an illusion!), and so, according to the skeptics, you try to recreate the security you once felt. In fact, there is no way to return to the faith of your childhood. As I say in my book, if you believe at 50 what you believed at 15, then you have not lived….

Q. Why is it important to you to be a Christian specifically rather than an adherent of another faith, or of various faiths?

A. It wasn’t important to me until I reached a crisis in my life. I floated along like so many modern people, alert to a sense of otherness in some of my experiences but unwilling to give it a name. I’m a Christian because it’s the language I know. I’m a Christian because the doctrine of the incarnation expresses a truth that I intuit with every cell of my being. I’m a Christian because a god that does not suffer with us, a god that is not suffering with us right now, is either hopelessly remote or mercilessly cruel. I’m a Christian because, as my grandfather used to say, at some point you gotta fish or cut bait.

Q. Pivoting off something Howe wrote, you say “there must be a shattering experience” in order to “build a vocabulary of faith.” You’ve had a shattering experience, with your health, but many haven’t. How should they build the same vocabulary, or can they?

A. Everyone has shattering experiences. It may be falling in love or having a child. It may be the death of someone you love or thwarted ambition. It may be just some tiny crack in consciousness that deepens so slowly over the years that, by the time you notice it, it only takes a spilled drink or missed flight to tear it — and you — wide open. One way to look at this is: no one is spared. Another way: everyone is gifted.

7. In their latest issue, n+1 complains about”Too Much Sociology” in a thoughtful piece looking at a sometimes-annoying trend in “cultural criticism.” I have to admit I have difficulty making head or tail of it, but there’s clearly something there:

481010_10152629928795472_863091081_nFew things are less contested today than the idea that art mostly expresses class and status hierarchies, and only secondarily might have snippets of aesthetic value….

This spread of sociological thinking has led to sociological living — ways of thinking and seeing that are constructed in order to carry out, yet somehow escape, the relentless demystification sociology requires. Seeing art as a product, mere stuff, rather than a work, has become a sign of a good liberal (as opposed to bad elitist) state of mind. This is why you must support upper-middlebrow Terrence Malick one day, and the next spuriously shock everyone with a loud defense ofTransformers: Dark of the Moon….

It seems there’s no way out of sociology; nevertheless sociology cannot provide us with internal reasons for its ever-rising prestige. Surely we want to be able to say that the sociology of culture is valuable because it’s true or insightful. However, a culture that blithely accepts a sociological account of itself is one that appears to have foundered in the straits that have always bedeviled sociology: the attempt to negotiate the relations between structure and subject, or society and agent. How to account for human freedom and also the determining power of the social world? Can we no longer really provide good-faith reasons for our cultural preferences, reasons rooted in private and idiosyncratic experience but articulated in a common language, and therefore also capable of noncoerced, voluntary change?

Bonus: The Atlantic reports that Really, It’s OK to Ignore Game of Thrones and Mad Men and casts aspersions on psychiatry’s DSM, the CDC reports a sharp rise in suicide ratesThe New Yorker‘s Adam Kirsch reviews Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, and Jewish Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson, with sympathy and wit, requests that we stop bashing Christians, ht SMZ:


And finally, for those with eyes to see, let them see, ht JAZ:


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2 responses to “Another Week Ends: Underconfidence, Kate Middleton’s Picnics, Unreported Medical Advice, D.H. Lawrence’s Christian Wonder, the Double-Bind of Summer Movies, More Christian Wiman, and (Way) Too Much Sociology”

  1. Great stuff as usual! I just wanted to give a shout-out to this article on Parks and Rec by Matt Zoller Seitz. It’s wonderful:

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