We Are All Sad Ben Affleck on a Beach with a Back Tattoo

When I first clicked through to the New Yorker piece, “The Great Sadness of Ben […]

Carrie Willard / 5.22.18

When I first clicked through to the New Yorker piece, “The Great Sadness of Ben Affleck,” I’ll admit that it felt a little bit like seeing the sad ex-boyfriend of a close friend. The momentary thrill of schadenfreude: “you’ve done her wrong, and look at how that worked out for you.” Ben Affleck is not looking so great these days, and I feel a pang of satisfaction on behalf of his ex-wife, Jennifer Garner.

To be clear, Jennifer Garner is not my close friend, but she feels like a girlfriend to so many of us who came of age in the 1990s. Even if we weren’t into Alias, we watched 13 Going on 30 with knowing recognition. I was pregnant with my first baby when Garner broke our hearts as the prospective adoptive mother in Juno. We all loved her when she told Ellen DeGeneres that her “baby bump” (rumored by paparazzi to be a fourth pregnancy) was really just leftover tummy from her first three babies, and it wasn’t going anywhere, so get used to it. She’s even charming in Capital One ads, dammit, and we want to be her friend.

Garner and Affleck ended their ten-year marriage a few years ago. He may or may not have cheated on her, and then he dated the nanny. Shortly after their split, Affleck evidently got a giant back tattoo of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Garner was not amused. Affleck claimed the tattoo was temporary two years ago, but apparently it’s still there. Awkward. Thanks to the New Yorker article, I’m now more familiar with Affleck’s back skin than I am with my own.

The New Yorker article says about the post-Garner Affleck:

Since the split, Affleck has been photographed more than once by the paparazzi, looking despondent. The resulting pictures have become reliable meme-fodder. A series of images of Affleck vaping in his car, his eyes shut in seeming resignation, made the rounds; so did another picture, of the actor smoking a cigarette, his face a mask of exhaustion. One prankster overlaid an interview he gave alongside the actor Henry Cavill about their movie, “Batman v Superman,” in which he sat silently as Cavill spoke animatedly beside him, with Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence,” and this became “Sad Affleck,” a popular YouTube video. Affleck’s was the kind of middle-aged-white-male sadness that the Internet loves to mock—a mocking that depends, simultaneously, on a complete rejection of this sadness, as well as a hedging identification with it. These depressed-Affleck images can arouse both amusement and a sense of poignancy, a touch of Schadenfreude as well as something like sympathy. “Same,” we might post on our social-media feeds, alongside a sad Ben picture, with the quick meanness of the Internet that tends to flatten a person’s story to a caricature, even if it is motivated by all the right reasons in the world.

Last Saturday, almost exactly two years after Affleck denied its existence, the back tattoo returned to haunt the headlines, itself a phoenix rising from the ashes of gossip rags past. Affleck was on the beach in Honolulu, shooting the Netflix action movie “Triple Frontier.” As his younger co-stars, the actors Garrett Hedlund and Charlie Hunnam, wrestled in the surf like purebred puppies, Affleck, who is forty-five, was photographed wading into the ocean carrying a small red life preserver, running in the shallow waters, and towelling off on the beach. The tattoo—so gargantuan that the bird’s tail found itself dipping below the waistband of Affleck’s blue swim trunks—was plainly visible. In one image, the actor stands alone, looking off into the middle distance. His gut is pooching outward in a way that, in a more enlightened country like, say, France, would perhaps be considered virile, not unlike the lusty Gérard Depardieu in his prime but, in fitness-fascist America, tends to read as Homer Simpsonesque. A blue-gray towel is wrapped protectively around his midsection—recalling a shy teen at the local pool. Staring at the water before him, his gaze obscure and empty, Affleck is a defeated Roman senator, or, perhaps, the most anti-Romantic version imaginable of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 “Wanderer in the Sea of Fog.” The image suggests not just the fall of Affleck but the coming fall of man. There is something about this exhausted father that reflexively induces panic. We’ve been living in a world run by Afflecks for so long, will we even know ourselves when they’re gone?

Oof. Poor Ben Affleck? The schadenfreude on behalf of Garner feels cheap now. I have neither a back tattoo nor an ex-girlfriend/nanny, but I feel like I have more in common with this saggy sad sack on the beach than I do with his beautiful ex-wife. His 45-year-old-ness is showing, and we want to look away because it reminds us of our own march toward an older age and a saggier self-esteem. His marital missteps (if they’re even true) remind me of my own sinfulness, and I want nothing more than to wrap a pathetic blue towel over all of it, like Affleck does in the photo.

Affleck responded to the New Yorker piece in a tweet. He’s just fine. But what about the rest of us?

Just as no amount of sad blue towel draping is enough to hide the back tattoo (which may or may not have been a mistake, but is almost certainly not temporary), no amount of my own justification can hide my sin. My dark moments would make for some disturbing memes. I can try to hide it from the world, or say it’s just a temporary situation, or not say anything at all, but God sees it, and sees me. God sees me and wraps the blanket of Jesus’ sanctification around me, and forgives me for all of the temporary and permanent conditions of my soul, which are so much more numerous than one bad back tattoo.

I think the New Yorker got it mostly right, but I think that sad Ben Affleck “reflexively induces panic” not because “we’ve been living in a world run by Afflecks for so long,” but because we are all afraid of being exposed as sad, exhausted Ben Affleck ourselves.

The New Yorker article ends on a sad, heavy note, but neither the New Yorker (nor I, thank God) have the last word. Bring it home, Paul:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Neither back tattoos nor nanny affairs nor sad, vacant looks on the beach can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.