Another Week Ends

Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, which features an interview […]

CJ Green / 5.6.16

Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, which features an interview with author/theologian John Newton.

1. Let’s start with this weird and beautiful story from The Washington Post: “The key to these ancient riddles may lie in a father’s love for his dead son.” For a hundred years, archaeologists have been trying to make sense of an extensive series of ancient Swedish runes which bear the dedication: “In memory of Vämod stand these runes. And Varinn wrote them, the father, in memory of his dead son.” Although many of the riddles that follow seem completely unrelated to this mysterious father/son relationship, archaeologist Per Holmberg theorizes that the entire relic is an ode to the timeless and enduring power of love.

In other words, the stone is a celebration of how words can make someone immortal. A straightforward history of any sort would have placed Vämod [the son] and his whole world squarely in the past. But Varinn’s riddles have held researchers in their thrall for more than a century — and, since Holmberg’s theory is likely to be challenged, probably for many more years to come.

“In Swedish, we have the phrase ‘eternity machine,’ ” Holmberg mused. It’s something akin to da Vinci’s and Tesla’s dream of perpetual motion — a hypothetical machine that would work indefinitely, driven by a power entirely its own.

“This written text is like an eternity machine,” he continued. “It keeps us reading. It keeps us commemorating.”

2. This week The Wall Street Journal was asking why some people have “extraordinary success” and others don’t.

The answer is “grit,” which [Angela Duckworth] defines as a combination of passion and perseverance in the pursuit of a long-term goal… [Duckworth’s book] tells the stories of many gritty exemplars, from New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, who submitted some 2,000 drawings to the magazine before one was accepted, to actor Will Smith, who explains his success as follows: “The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is: I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. . . . If we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die.”

I mean, I did like I, Robot, but would I be willing to die for it? While ‘grit’ might be over-esteemed in some perspectives, in others it certainly is not. Over at The Atlantic, Jerry Useem pointed out that musicians, for example, find more promise in “natural” musicians versus “strivers.” It makes us uncomfortable to see people working so hard, or ‘selling their souls’ as the idiom goes, to a task and not receive glory for it. Maybe strivers are annoying or threatening, perhaps reminding us that we could be working equally as hard; either way, barring awards of any kind, “the striver” is never as good-looking as “the natural.” In his article, Useem writes:

Duckworth’s basic admonition, “Embrace challenge,” needs a qualifier: Do it in private. Grit may be essential. But it is not attractive.

This can make for confusing career advice. “Try hard enough and you can do just about anything, as long as you don’t seem to be trying very hard” is not the stuff of school murals. 

Nevertheless, it seems to be the prevailing unspoken mantra for strivers everywhere. I can only imagine the amount of anxiety hidden away in private corners of the world. Useem continues:

As a direct countermeasure, Duckworth told me, she started changing her interactions with the dozen young researchers who work in her lab. They needed to see the rejection letters she received from peer-reviewed publications, she decided, and so she started circulating each one as it came in: pages upon pages of sometimes savage attacks of the sort professors regularly deal one another, anonymously, by way of saying an article is unfit for publication. This is not something she would have done, Duckworth quickly noted, at a less secure moment in her career. But getting a MacArthur genius grant (as Duckworth did, in 2013) allows you to, among other things, hold your failure up to others and say, in effect, this is what success looks like.

3. I guess it’s spring. The Babylon Bee has really been buzzing lately! The founder spoke with Christianity Today and had some wonderful things to say, but before we get to that, let’s highlight a few recent favorites. From last week, “Man Of God Perfects The Side Hug™“:

“I think I finally have it down,” the 34-year-old deacon told reporters Wednesday. “I’ve been a Side-Hugging™ brother for years, but I feel I often made things awkward.”

And from this week, “Man Feeds The Hungry At All Times, Uses Food If Necessary.”

“All these years I’ve been trying to feed starving people with food,” Gammage explained to reporters. “Now I recoil in shame at my audacity.”

And from: “Jesus Was A Socialist Deconstructionist Feminist, Claims Socialist Deconstructionist Feminist Scholar“:

Schraph, age 47, was amazed to find in his textual examinations that the Jesus he found virtually mirrored the things he himself believes about society. “When I strip away the things that obviously could not have been said by the Jesus of history, the Christ figure is practically an avatar of my own mind.”

In an interview with CT, the founder of the Bee, Adam Ford, said:

Satire acts like an overhead projector, taking something that people usually ignore and projecting it up on the wall for everyone to see. It forces us to look at things we wouldn’t normally look at and makes us ask if we’re okay with them. And sometimes it just makes us laugh. That’s all healthy stuff…. Humor can help everything.

When asked how Christians can use satire, Ford said:

By holding up the truth and letting it do the work. Satire is just a way to articulate ideas. We use it to illustrate the truth, and the truth always affects people.

And isn’t it funny that the truth, especially about Christians, is so funny.

4. This week, The Atlantic‘s Joe Pinsker wrote an article entitled, “Why So Many Smart People Aren’t Happy.” Research shows, he explains, that the ingredients for “daily satisfaction” include maintaining meaningful relationships, being good at work, and having the freedom to make independent choices–but not necessarily being more accomplished, either financially or academically. In fact, in some ways, these things may prove counter-productive to happiness.

Pinsker spoke with Raghunathan, the author of a new self-help book, which advocates for a mindset of “abundance” rather than competition. From a theological perspective, Raghunathan examines the law:

If you take the need for mastery—the need for competence—there are two broad approaches that one can take to becoming very good at something. One approach is to engage in what people call social comparisons. That is, wanting to be the best at doing something: “I want to be the best professor there is,” or something like that.

There are many problems with that, but one big problem with that is that it’s very difficult to assess. What are the yardsticks for judging somebody on a particular dimension? What are the yardsticks for being the best professor? Is it about research, teaching? Even if you take only teaching, is it the ratings you get from students, or is it the content that you deliver in class, or the number of students who pass an exam or take a test and do really well in it? So it gets very difficult to judge, because these yardsticks become increasingly ambiguous as a field becomes narrower or more technical.

So what happens in general is that people tend to gravitate toward less ambiguous—even if they’re not so relevant—yardsticks. People judge the best professors by the number of awards they get, or the salary that they get, or the kind of school that they are in, which might on the face of it seem like it’s a good yardstick for judging how good somebody is, but at the same time it’s not really relevant to the particular field.

And those yardsticks are ones that we adapt to really quickly. So if you get a huge raise this month, you might be happy for a month, two months, maybe six months. But after that, you’re going to get used to it and you’re going to want another big bump. And you’ll want to keep getting those in order to sustain your happiness levels. In most people you can see that that’s not a very sustainable source of happiness.

5. For a similar analysis of the law, Slate posted an article entitled, “What ‘Addiction’ Really Means,” which is interesting because, first of all, it’s about Prince’s death, and second of all because it takes a detailed look at the difference between “physical dependence” and “addiction.” The article argues that restricting painkillers, in attempt to prevent addiction to them, would only lead to greater risk for those suffering chronic pain, because they would seek out alternative options; addicts, on the other hand, would be no better off, either. In other words, the law isn’t, in the end, a solution.

Partly owing to the stigma around painkillers, those who suffer chronic pain that is effectively treated with opiates may be reduced to “doctor shopping” in an endless quest for adequate treatment. They may find a skilled professional schooled in pain management; more likely, they will find a “scrip doctor,” an unscrupulous physician who makes his living writing opiate prescriptions. Even worse, they may be driven into the illicit market where heroin and fentanyl, a particularly dangerous opiate, are available, often for less than the cost of prescription drugs…But one thing is certain: No addict will be saved by rules that inflict pain on others.

On a separate note, the article also suggested that, in Prince’s case, performing led to suffering:

Many of Prince’s friends and acquaintances, including his longtime collaborator Sheila E., have attested to the physical pain and discomfort he suffered in his later years, owing to decades of strenuous performing.

6. More humor comes from The New York Times in an article entitled, “Read This Story Without Distraction (Can You?),” which discusses the new trend of “monotasking.”

Not the same as mindfulness, which focuses on emotional awareness, monotasking is a 21st-century term for what your high school English teacher probably just called “paying attention.” […]

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist, lecturer at Stanford and the author of “The Willpower Instinct,” believes that monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced.” She said: “It’s an important ability and a form of self-awareness as opposed to a cognitive limitation.”

This is great news for the self-identified monotaskers out there.

Jon Pack, a 42-year-old photographer in Brooklyn, was happy to hear that his single-minded manner might be undergoing a rebrand. “When I was looking for jobs and interviewing, they’d always want me to say, ‘I’m a great multitasker,’ ” he said. “And I wouldn’t. My inability to multitask was seen as a negative. Now I can just say, ‘I am a monotasker. I am someone who works best when I focus on one thing at a time.’”

Apparently multitasking wears out our brains and leaves us less productive by the end of the day.

As much as people would like to believe otherwise, humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks, which, especially for those who work online, Ms. Zomorodi said, can happen upward of 400 times a day, according to a 2016 University of California, Irvine study. “That’s why you feel tired at the end of the day,” she said. “You’ve used them all up.”

The term “brain dead” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

A good sign you’ve task-switched yourself into a stupor: mindlessly scrolling Facebook at the end of the night or, as in Ms. Zomorodi’s case, looking at couches on Pinterest. “I just stuff my brain full of them because I can’t manage to do anything else,” she said. “The sad thing is that I don’t get any closer to deciding which one I like.”

7. In contrast with The Babylon Bee above, apparently this isn’t satire. From The Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Samuel gives us her ten commandments for how to raise the next Mark Zuckerberg, or, how to become someone whose name WordPress will autocorrect. Much of what she writes is probably true, but that doesn’t mean it’s not crazy. She encourages us to allow our kids to spend as much time in front of a screen as possible.

Even the children who aren’t allowed much screen time will eventually end up in a work world in which technology will be a huge part of their daily lives. When they get there, do you want them to hammer away on software someone else wrote, as a wage slave for somebody else’s business? Or do you want them to be the person who wrote the software—or even the person who owns the business?

Is this parental love or manipulation, or both? It seems obvious that parents who want to see their kids become “successful” might be seeking a way to make themselves successful through their kids. Ah, another ladder.

8. I am personally very excited to hear that Radiohead put out a new song this week, and I have to say that it is a little bit spooky! It was released on Tuesday to raving reviews, and it seems to pack quite a political punch, illustrating the human tendency to destroy what we fear or what we do not understand–namely, outsiders. I might add that, in the video, the inspector/”witch”/outsider, after burning in the “wicker man,” miraculously survives.


  • Check out this beautiful sermon from Martin Luther at CHF.
  • We can’t overlook “May the 4th be with you” day!
  • And Philly Jesus is free at last! This week, the itinerant preacher was arrested for disorderly conduct and trespassing: “Behind bars he says he was served a cheese sandwich and given some small bottle of water. ‘But I changed ’em into wine,’ he said.”
  • Whit Stillman, one of Mockingbird’s favorite filmmakers, discusses his new movie, Love & Friendship, here.

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One response to “Another Week Ends: Ancient Riddles, Death by Treadmill, Buzzing Bees, Sad Smartypantses, Physical Dependence, the Rise of the Monotaskers, and How to Burn a Witch According to Radiohead”

  1. Ken says:

    Apparently multitasking wears out our brains and leaves us less productive by the end of the day.

    True, but as Ray Magliozzi of Click and Clack puts it, when you’re getting old (and who more or less isn’t?) “you’re running out of time, so you have to do everything at once!”

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