Another Week Ends

1. This week, The New York Times’ Henry Alford tackled the world of anti-self-help self-help in his piece, “I’m […]

CJ Green / 3.17.17

1. This week, The New York Times’ Henry Alford tackled the world of anti-self-help self-help in his piece, “I’m Not O.K. Neither Are You. Who Cares?” In it, he unpacks not only the rising tide of “anti-self-help books” but also their eye-catching common denominator: the F word. Given that word’s increasing popularity, I guess it’s no surprise that many could go for a hardcover lesson in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, or The Life Changing Magic of Not [doing the same]But, as Alford makes clear, these books are not as contrarian as they’d hope to appear. If self-help is the popular religion of the day, then this is atheism: against religion…but still, in it’s own way, religious. No matter how it’s packaged, anti-self-help often falls into many of the same advicey traps as its progenitors.

One of the more thoughtful books Alford cites is Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, by Svend Brinkmann:

Some of Mr. Brinkmann’s prompts, such as contemplating your own mortality daily, are comically doomy. In “Sack Your Coach,” a chapter about severing the ties with your therapist, he writes: “Consider sacking your coach and making friends with him instead. Perhaps buy the coach a ticket to a museum, and ask what lessons life has to offer if you direct your gaze outward instead of inward.”­

In the chapter “Dwell on the Past,” he writes: “When someone presents plans for innovation and ‘visions’ for the future, tell them that everything was better in the old days. Explain to them that the idea of ‘progress’ is only a few hundred years old — and is, in fact, destructive.”

O, to have a camera to capture earnest Brinkmann adherents as they respond to their office manager’s explanation of new petty-cash accounting procedures with, “You know, the idea of progress is only a few hundred years old.” This reality-based Bravo series practically writes itself. Or what about a coffee-table book comprising photos of the moment when therapists are terminated by their patients and handed tickets to a Seurat show?

Far be it from me to poo-poo something that might prove useful—we may yet have plenty to learn from Brinkmann and others of his ilk. Because what he’s saying is true: we do have limitations. And we can’t always help ourselves, but that doesn’t by extension mean we don’t need help. We do, and desperately. Whether from therapy, medication, or three cups of coffee by 9am, the most sure form of help will come from outside ourselves.

2. On the other hand, anti-self-help has the shining ability to diagnose—and playfully call out—the limitations of the self. Funny enough, the author of The Subtle Art (mentioned above) is the author of this next article. (I recognized him when he wrote that he f*cking needed a pina colada!!) Mark Manson is onto something here. In his article—the title of which you’d have a hard time reading to a cancer patient—“You’re probably searching for a better life, but what if you already have that?”, Manson identifies the unhealthiness of a life lived on a ladder:

“What if there is no ‘next level?’ What if it’s just an idea you made up in your head? What if you’re already there and not only are you not recognizing it, but by constantly pursuing something more, you’re preventing yourself from appreciating it and enjoying where you are now?”…

There’s a famous concept in sports known as the “Disease of More.” It was originally coined by Pat Riley, a hall of fame coach who has led six teams to NBA championships (and won one as a player himself). Riley said that the Disease of More explains why teams who win championships are often ultimately dethroned, not by other, better teams, but by forces from within the organization itself. Riley said the 1980 Lakers didn’t get back to the finals the next year because everyone became too focused on themselves.

The players, like most people, want more. At first, that “more” was winning the championship. But once players have that championship, it’s no longer enough. The “more” becomes other things — more money, more TV commercials, more endorsements and accolades, more playing time, more plays called for them, more media attention, etc.

As a result, what was once a cohesive group of hardworking men begins to fray. Egos get involved. Gatorade bottles are thrown. And the psychological composition of the team changes — what was once a perfect chemistry of bodies and minds becomes a toxic, atomized mess. Players feel entitled to ignore the small, unsexy tasks that actually win championships, believing that they’ve earned the right to not do it anymore. And as a result, what was the most talented team, ends up failing.

We do this in our personal lives, but also in our spiritual lives. I’m reminded of DZ’s sermon, “The Tyranny of Morre” (the second R because…why not add something extra?) Not only do we add more to our expectations for ourselves but also to the Gospel: we take the irreligion of the cross—the foolishness of Christ and him crucified—and make a ‘how-to’ framework.

3. Speaking of too much ego, the best long-read for the weekend is all about human consciousness. Or, in biblical terms, mankind’s knowledge of good and evil. This, from The Baffler: “The God in the Machine,” by Tom Whyman.

Several layers in this piece: first, note the story about Cornwall and how the downfall of its mining industry has led to the almost religious reverence of a large puppet. Uhh…?

Next, Whyman concludes that sophisticated robots are essentially prelapsarian—pre-Genesis 3, free of self-reflection—and that humans will become disposable in a society where robots do all the work. (“Why should the obsolete expect to live in conditions of opulence? It would be far more realistic to expect the abattoir.”)

It’s not as doom-and-gloom as it might at first seem, but for skimmers here’s the last paragraph, which offers a scintillating critique of the Icarian quest for automation:

Yes, reflective consciousness can cause us all sorts of problems. It can make us clumsy and anxious—it is the source, that is to say, of our peculiar gracelessness. But it is also the most crucial thing, the very founding principle that makes it possible for our world to seem vibrant, important, beautiful, and valuable. Our capacity for self-reflection is what makes it possible for us to imagine that our world might amount to something more than the drudgery of merely being factually there, merely happening to be physically alive or in motion; it is the source, if nothing else, of human creativity.

It is also the part of us that allows us to see our deplorable circumstances and to ask for help.

Thus, we must always grapple with reflective consciousness—and indeed, through its various divagations, no matter how provisionally self-undermining, clumsy, or exasperating it may otherwise seem. Trying to solve the problems triggered by reflective consciousness by eliminating it would be like trying to fix a leak in your roof by burning down the house. Tech gurus often say their innovations are making the world “smarter.” But in seeking to remove the human element of labor from the world, the heralds of automation are only spreading an idiot gospel.

When it comes to the question of felix culpa—the fortunate fall—I tend to return to Paradise Lost, if only for the wordplay there: “Man shall not quite be lost, but sav’d who will,/ Yet not of will in him, but grace in me/ Freely voutsaft” (III.173-175). In other words, a reflective consciousness—though the cost is suffering—also brings us to our knees, where we may begin to understand the mercy given.

4. In the pop-psych arena, psychologists in London recently found that 98% of British people think they are among the nicest 50% of the population: “…more than half of participants who rated themselves as the second-highest level of nice scored below the sample average on agreeableness—so people think they’re nicer than they really may be.” (!)

5. One of The New Yorker’s recent Persons of Interest is a man who has figured out life. Anthony Kronman, ex-dean from Yale, recently published eleven hundred pages of his personal religious theories entitled, “Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan.” Drawing on an assortment of religious and literary thinkers, Kronman concludes that “the world [is] divine, along with everything and everyone in it.” Seems like a Yale dean’s appropriation of Vedanta—but is not to be discarded quickly: it’s a surprisingly personal journey. Look closely:

Kronman’s mother died in 2014, at the age of ninety-six. In the epilogue to his “Confessions,” he quotes her last words: “The world comes back.” To him, they capture the cyclical shape of life. In many religions, the soul ascends to an eternal afterlife. In Kronman’s pagan view, it’s the universe that’s eternal; when we die, we return to it. Life is a brief opportunity to look around and see where we are going. There is a sharpness to Kronman’s theories about wonder and contentment—even, sometimes, a sense of frustration. One of his conclusions, he told me, is that “life is inherently disappointing.” The problem is that we’re trapped in “the register of time”: “We’re finite beings with an infinite appetite,” he said, “and with an appetite for the infinite.” William Blake wrote that it was possible “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,” to “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.” Kronman only half agrees. “Our encounter with eternity is brief. Death comes all too soon,” he writes. “Eternity . . . is an ocean, and our minds and hearts small cups. There is no way to comprehend it completely, in a moment of contemplative or mystical bliss.”

All religion, including Kronman’s it seems, gestures against death.

6. In this week’s Atlantic, Peter Beinart argues that ‘religion’ is as alive (and devastating) as ever—even though church pews are emptier than ever: “Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation.” This holds true for liberals, too:

Black Lives Matter activists may be justified in spurning an insufficiently militant [black] Church. But when you combine their post-Christian perspective with the post-Christian perspective growing inside the GOP, it’s easy to imagine American politics becoming more and more vicious… For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.

Beinart wrestles with the question of why. But to the Bible-reader (and don’t let my inner pharisee go unchecked), the why is painfully obvious. While ‘religion’ may follow us and manifest itself in fevered politics and culture wars, the gospel tells the story of a loving God who died for the ungodly. In particular, we hear the story of Jesus choosing the unlovely Zacchaeus out of a crowd. As Scott said so brilliantly in his recent post, the lines we like to draw are the ones the Gospel likes to erase:

…the line between what we love and hate, what comforts us and kills us, what divides us and unites us…it’s all so incredibly fuzzy. Gray is neither slimming nor soothing, but it’s descriptive of where we live, whether we like it or not. But oftentimes we can’t handle the ambiguity and ambivalence that surrounds the gray and we go back to painting in black and white. The black-and-white bifurcated approach to humanity leads all too often, in the words of Miroslav Volf, to excluding “the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.” Very often those from whom we are estranged, who are the objects our our exclusion, are much more like us than we’d like to admit.

7. Aeon published an article to settle our inner scientists. In “Minding Matter,” physicist Adam Frank reminds us that not everything can be quantified:

When I was a young physics student I once asked a professor: ‘What’s an electron?’ His answer stunned me. ‘An electron,’ he said, ‘is that to which we attribute the properties of the electron.’… Like most physicists, I learned how to ignore the weirdness of quantum physics. ‘Shut up and calculate!’ (the dictum of the American physicist David Mermin) works fine if you are trying to get 100 per cent on your Advanced Quantum Theory homework or building a laser. But behind quantum mechanics’ unequaled calculational precision lie profound, stubbornly persistent questions about what those quantum rules imply about the nature of reality – including our place in it…

Everyone, on all sides, is in the same boat. There can be no appeal to the authority of ‘what quantum mechanics says’, because quantum mechanics doesn’t say much of anything with regard to its own interpretation.

Rather than trying to sweep away the mystery of mind by attributing it to the mechanisms of matter, we must grapple with the intertwined nature of the two.