Another Week Ends

Aging Presidents, Reusable Grocery Bags, the Soul of Pixar, Zero-Sum Happiness, Bad Good Books, Bomb Threats, and the Joy of Being Cancelled

Bryan J. / 11.8.19

1. There’s much ado about cancel culture going around the web these past two weeks. The New York Times has a pair of profiles on the new morality forming in certain circles of left-leaning activism, though to observe it on the political left is not to say that it doesn’t happen everywhere else, including the political right. To my estimation, cancel culture isn’t so much a political phenomenon as much as a youth phenomenon, which you can read more about in Tales from the Teenage Cancel Culture, a profile of the cancelled and the cancelers in a high school setting. But the deeper story  comes from this week’s follow-up profile, Those People We Tried to Cancel? They’re All Hanging Out Together. The profile of a number of cancelled writers and personalities concludes with this uniform agreement: being cancelled ain’t all that bad.

“There have been attempts to cancel me, but I cannot be canceled, because I refuse to be canceled,” Ms. Herzog said

“I’ve certainly lost a lot of friends and had a lot of abuse online and damage to my reputation and livelihood,” Mr. Doyle said, “but that’s not the same thing as being canceled. I’m still able to do the work I want to do. If you retreat away, it makes you the victim. We don’t want to be considered victims.”

“They can’t cancel you if you don’t care,” Ms. Phetasy said.

“My cancellation, if you want to call it that, has been the greatest thing to ever happen to me,” Mr. Rubin said.

“SJWs don’t have friends, they have allies,” Ms. Smith said. “And your allies leave as soon as you’re not speaking the ideology anymore.”

Ms. Murphy describes her cancellation as “a gift.”

As Ms. Herzog has begun to advise other people through their cancellations, her advice to them is to embrace being canceled.

“It’s deeply painful, but it can be positive in many ways,” she said. “Before this happened, I was much more dogmatic, I was more of a purist. I’m smarter, I’m more skeptical, I’m more empathetic, and I’m much less quick to judge than I was before. And I’m much less sure of my own correctness.”

“Which is why I hope everyone is canceled,” she said.

Ignore the SJW acronym for now. For those in religious circles, particularly the more politically active parts of American religion, this is not news, and our #Seculosity alarms are at defcon 5. The youth today call it cancel culture, but we used to call it excommunication, or shunning. There’s no difference in practice. I once met an Episcopalian minister in inner city Philadelphia who had to excommunicate a parishioner. His parish had a strong AA and NA recovery focus, and this parishioner was trying to sell drugs in the narthex as people exited Sunday services. (You know it’s bad when the Episcopalians have to excommunicate someone!) But in every Christian tradition, the excommunicated can be restored to fellowship. Time will tell if the cancelled can be reconciled, or if they will even want to be. Stay tuned: our intrepid #Mockingcast trio will be tackling the topic on the next episode.

2. Speaking of things the left and right have in common, lots of folks sent along the trailer for Soul this week. Between Up, Coco, and Soul, Pixar is cornering the market of kids’ movies about death. Color us excited.

3. When did happiness become a zero-sum game? Historian Cody Delistraty does a historical deep dive to figure out how we arrived at the head-scratching need to be happier than everyone else around us. Darwin, Hobbes, and Huxley make appearances. So does, tellingly, the Protestant Work Ethic:

This imperative to avoid being – even appearing – unhappy has led to a culture that rewards a performative happiness, in which people curate public-facing lives, via Instagram and its kin, composed of a string of ‘peak experiences’ – and nothing else. Sadness and disappointment are rejected, even neutral or mundane life experiences get airbrushed out of the frame. It’s as though appearing unhappy implies some kind of Protestant moral fault: as if you didn’t work hard enough or believe sufficiently in yourself.

Happiness has, of course, not always been conceived of this way. The Epicurean outlook on happiness – which Thomas Jefferson was thinking of when he enjoined Americans to cherish ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence – is exceedingly simple and different. As Epicurus saw it, happiness is merely the lack of aponia – physical pain – and ataraxia – mental disturbance. It was not about the pursuit of material gain, or notching up gratifying experiences, but instead was a happiness that lent itself to a constant gratefulness. So long as we are not in mental or physical pain, we can, within this understanding of happiness, be contented.

One can see this understanding of happiness across the foundations of the Western world, as in the Jewish prayer of asher yatzar, in which each morning, after going to the bathroom, one says thanks for being able to achieve even this most basic task under one’s own power. Happiness, in the Epicurean sense, is as simple as being able to go pee…

Not all happiness movements retain as close a relation to Epicurean ideas. Positive psychology, for instance, became voguish after Martin Seligman chose happiness as his core theme in 1998, after becoming president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Seligman proposed that happiness came from having and searching for positive emotions, a sense of community and existential meaning. He believed that humans tend to ‘learn’ unhappiness in choosing not to escape unpleasant situations even when we can. On this view, happiness is something we must constantly teach ourselves: it is something we work towards.

From here, it’s only a small leap to today’s widespread understanding of happiness as the pursuit and purchase of peak experience. Prescription antidepressants are consumed at record levels, self-help books crowd the shelves, and multiple therapies compete to shift us out of negative mindsets so that we might flourish. All of this is work, but of a particular variety, in which every moment is optimised in order to achieve peak happiness, no matter how fleeting, at the same time as unhappiness is actively pushed away.

The diagnosis is better than the proffered solution, which is essentially to quantify the benefits of sadness and be a little more like the French. What Delistraty adds to our ongoing conversation about the happiness problem is his observation that unhappiness linked with the Protestant Work Ethic creates a unique well of dissatisfaction. Works righteousness for happiness, as it turns out, is quite the recipe for unhappiness, and mental illness.

4. Let’s keep the deep reflections on the overlap of philosophy and bodily elimination going. Here’s a piece of incarnational parenting wisdom worth consideration from a scatologically themed parenting article: Why Are Kids So Obsessed With Poop Jokes. If your kiddo loves to make grown ups squirm with derriere- or feces-themed conversation in public, there is hope for you!

Maya Coleman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who works with preschool- and kindergarten-age children, has another suggestion, something she’s employed successfully with her own daughter and her young patients. She calls it “Butt Talk Time.”

It works like this: For five minutes every day, anything is game. Kids are encouraged to say anything, no matter how dirty or gross, and parents should support it with laughter and play. If the joke is funny, laugh. If your kid calls you a poopy face, you might feign shock and say, “What? I thought I was a delicate flower.” The effect is to reduce the emotional charge of the words.

“Often there are uncomfortable feelings there,” Dr. Coleman said. “And getting them to laugh really allows those tensions to dissipate so they feel less compelled to get them out at other times.”

And here’s the best part. When bathroom humor comes up in socially unacceptable situations, this gives parents a place to redirect it.

“I’d say to my daughter, ‘Oops, we need to save that for Butt Talk Time,’” Dr. Coleman said. “We could mark it and pack it away. And it would allow her to deal with that urge.”

Not long ago, we tried it with our kids after breakfast. We set the timer for five minutes, and it went pretty much as you’d expect. Our son trotted out all the grossest words he knew, and we laughed and teased each other. We talked about various animals pooping and took turns making fart noises. And as the five minutes came to an end, he asked us to guess what he was thinking about. “Poop?” No. “Penguin poop?” No. “Butts?”

“No, no, no,” he said, and then paused for effect: “Zombies.”

5. Now for the humor — the below news report from last February has been, er, blowing up our inboxes this week. Also, The Myth of Super Mario by Albert Camus, and God’s editorial in America’s Favorite News Source, I Have to Admit, I Spoil Dax Shepard explains a lot.

6. We could have put Brandy Jensons’s snarky rejoinder, Please, I am begging you, stop telling me which good books are actually bad in this week’s humor category. The two circles in the Venn diagram of “funny” and “true” overlap pretty dramatically here. Expletives abound, but follow along for a key insight into the ever-present conversation stopper, “What about the children?”

“But this isn’t about college-level courses, necessarily, it is about instilling a love of reading in children by not forcing them to read Salinger,” you might interject, wrongly. Perhaps it is truly the case, as people seem to argue, that one could cultivate a childhood love of books only to have that cruelly stripped away by a boring syllabus, but I hardly think the most pressing concern with our public education system is what we are forcing kids to read. I’m sorry you had a mean teacher and not one of the ones who tells you that pop music lyrics are poetry, but if it makes you feel any better she or he is probably living in penury now, if they are still alive at all.

Besides which, like most arguments among adults that pretend to be about what is good for children, it is no such thing. Social media has proven exceptionally good at providing people permission to do exactly what they wanted to do anyways — bailing on your friends is self-care, not answering the phone when your grandmother calls is taking a firm stand against her complicity as a boomer in the climate crisis, etc. — and this is an extension of that logic. Rather than living with that twinge of recognizing our mortality that comes with thinking there are too many books and not enough time to read even all of the ones everyone says are good, you can dismiss entire swaths of a library by calling them overrated. This is understandable to me, a person who has not read Infinite Jest sort of because David Foster Wallace was bad to women but mainly because it is very, very long.

Proclaiming that any book you have been told you should read is probably overrated, because the whole canon is stuffed to the gills with turgid prose by horrible people, is a very convenient way of giving yourself permission to skip them. Funny, then, that the most ardent Canon Arguers tend to be the sort of people who use that awful “let people enjoy things” cartoon.

Are some canonical books undeserving of wide acclaim? Yes, certainly, I have read many and thought to myself “really?” But that is not a good enough reason to continue having this argument every few months, without any hope of resolution, forever. In the time it takes you to type “Middlemarch is boring” that many times you could actually read Middlemarch, which is [exceedingly] excellent.

In the same snarky cultural observation vein, see also Why Do Grocery Bags Drive People Crazy, penned by a former Whole Foods health foods store employee. Regarding the moral quagmire of bringing one’s own grocery bags with them to the store: “This was a job for a therapist or a priest; I was just a burnt-out cashier, with neither the financial motivations of the former, nor the afterlife rewards of the latter.”

7. Another article up on this week’s #Mockingcast, 71-year-old Arthur Krystal pens a moving reflection on aging in The New Yorker. After a thorough review of the new literature being written on aging, Krystal despairs that the cheeriness of these books purposefully ignore the hard realities of aging.

One would, of course, like to approach old age with grace and fortitude, but old age makes it difficult. Those who feel that it’s a welcome respite from the passions, anxieties, and troubles of youth or middle age are either very lucky or toweringly reasonable. Why rail against the inevitable—what good will it do? None at all. Complaining is both pointless and unseemly. Existence itself may be pointless and unseemly. No wonder we wonder at the meaning of it all. “At first we want life to be romantic; later, to be bearable; finally, to be understandable,” Louise Bogan wrote. Professor Small would agree, and though I am a fan of her book, I have my doubts about whether the piling on of years really does add to our understanding of life. Doesn’t Regan say of her raging royal father, “Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself”? The years may broaden experience and tint perspective, but is wisdom or contentment certain to follow?

A contented old age probably depends on what we were like before we became old. Vain, self-centered people will likely find aging less tolerable than those who seek meaning in life by helping others. And those fortunate enough to have lived a full and productive life may exit without undue regret. But if you’re someone who—oh, for the sake of argument—is unpleasantly surprised that people in their forties or fifties give you a seat on the bus, or that your doctors are forty years younger than you are, you just might resent time’s insistent drumbeat. Sure, there’s life in the old boy yet, but certain restrictions apply. The body—tired, aching, shrinking—now quite often embarrasses us. Many older men have to pee right after they pee, and many older women pee whenever they sneeze. Pipher and company might simply say “Gesundheit” and urge us on. Life, they insist, doesn’t necessarily get worse after seventy or eighty. But it does, you know. I don’t care how many seniors are loosening their bedsprings every night; something is missing.

8. Compare Arthur Krystal’s essay with the headlines this week about an aging former president. A number of news services reported that former president Jimmy Carter is “absolutely and completely at ease” with death. The cheekiness in me wonders if the newsworthiness of the headline stems from the serenity that President Carter has in his old age, or whether the headline’s true newsworthiness comes from the fact that there exists someone who is at ease with dying, which is a blessed thing indeed. I mean, shouldn’t all Christians technically be at ease with the prospect of, you know, the gift of eternity without suffering? Still, Carter’s humility is a thing of news and note. Here are the thoughts he shared this week, reflecting on a cancer diagnosis in 2015:

“I assumed, naturally, that I was going to die very quickly,” Carter said during a church service in Plains, Georgia. “I obviously prayed about it. I didn’t ask God to let me live, but I asked God to give me a proper attitude toward death. And I found that I was absolutely and completely at ease with death.”… “It didn’t really matter to me whether I died or lived. Except I was going to miss my family, and miss the work at the Carter Center and miss teaching your Sunday school service sometimes and so forth. All those delightful things,” the 39th president added, smiling.

If you’re counting, that’s four finds this week that have to do with toilet related matters. You’re welcome. Enjoy your cancellations, your slow march toward death, and the Pixar movies, and the good/bad books you get to consume in between. Here’s a video of Jimmy Carter joining Willie Nelson on stage to sing Amazing Grace. Happy Friday!


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