Another Week Ends

1. Obviously the most important article of the week is “Jerry from Cheer Mat-Talks You […]

CJ Green / 3.13.20

1. Obviously the most important article of the week is “Jerry from Cheer Mat-Talks You Through the Coronavirus Outbreak”: “Yes! Sanitize those hands, girl! … DO! NOT! LEAVE! THE! HOUSE! You got this!!”

2. In second place is David Brooks’ latest op-ed, which notes that pandemics kill compassion. Skimming through various plagues of yore, Brooks urges us to be mindful of how emotional/moral failings tend to occur alongside physical ones:

In “The Decameron,” Giovanni Boccaccio writes about what happened during the plague that hit Florence in 1348: “Tedious were it to recount how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbors was scarce found any that shewed fellow-feeling for another, how kinfolk held aloof, and never met … nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate.”

There is no doubt that this is a disease strengthened by community. But perhaps we only realize how much we need our community after being forcibly cut off from it, as Bill McKibben describes in the New Yorker. Inevitably, Brooks continues, shame also makes an appearance, re: what should have been done, what should be done; how we/you/they have failed.

One of the puzzling features of the 1918 pandemic… [was that] when it was over, people didn’t talk about it. There were very few books or plays written about it. Roughly 675,000 Americans lost their lives to the flu, compared with 53,000 in battle in World War I, and yet it left almost no conscious cultural mark.

Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become. It was a shameful memory and therefore suppressed. In her 1976 dissertation, “A Cruel Wind,” Dorothy Ann Pettit argues that the 1918 flu pandemic contributed to a kind of spiritual torpor afterward. People emerged from it physically and spiritually fatigued. The flu, Pettit writes, had a sobering and disillusioning effect on the national spirit.

For spiritual fortification amidst all this, I’d recommend a few Mockingbird posts on the topic. The gist is that we need not deny what is real, and that it is particularly helpful to remember what is — including the grace and care of God at all times.

3. Speaking of that care: this week a major report from the New York Times resoundingly affirmed the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous. When it comes to evaluating this program scientifically, challenges arise, the most obvious being its spiritual foundations. Too, it depends on who is participating in the study, how desperate/resistant they are, what their particulars are, etc.

Despite these challenges, some high-quality randomized trials of Alcoholics Anonymous have been conducted in recent years. One, published in the journal Addiction, found that those who were randomly assigned to a 12-step-based directive A.A. approach, and were supported in their participation, attended more meetings and exhibited a greater degree of abstinence, compared with those in the other treatment groups. Likewise, other randomized studies found that greater Alcoholics Anonymous participation is associated with greater alcohol abstinence. …

A.A. meetings are ubiquitous and frequent, with no appointment needed — you just show up. The bonds formed from the shared challenge of addiction — building trust and confidence in a group setting — may be a key ingredient to help people stay on the road to recovery.

A further stat chagrins ‘cognitive behavioral treatment,’ implying that it is more expensive and generally less effective than A.A. when aiming to treat similar symptoms. Meanwhile: “The fact that A.A. is free and so widely available is also good news. …It’s the closest thing in public health we have to a free lunch.”

4. A huge part of the aforementioned success is attributed to “peer connections.” During an age of declining institutions and inclining loneliness, this is no small thing. This week, the Atlantic continued their coverage of the disconnection epidemic:

Research has shown that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A lack of social relationships is an enormous risk factor for death, increasing the likelihood of mortality by 26 percent. A major study found that, when compared with people with weak social ties, people who enjoyed meaningful relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over time.

John Cacioppo, a neuroscience professor at the University of Chicago and the world’s leading expert on loneliness, discovered the deleterious effects of social isolation at the cellular level. “We found that loneliness somehow penetrated the deepest recesses of the cell to alter the way genes were being expressed” […]

Following the announcement of Crouch’s appointment, Aedy set up a hotline for young people interested in contacting the new minister for loneliness. Within 24 hours, the mailbox was full. “Nothing could prepare us for how emotive the voicemails were,” Aedy said. “On the first night we received them, we stayed up until 3 a.m. listening, sometimes in tears.” Many callers ended their message by thanking the listener for the opportunity to share their feelings, which they said provided a sense of catharsis.

A selection of these voicemails is heard in Disconnected. The testimonies are intimate and disarmingly honest. “It would have been difficult to get such revealing interviews in person or on camera,” Aedy said. It’s comforting to call an anonymous hotline, where “no one is there to respond or judge—as if you were stepping into a confession box.”

Anonymity allows a suffering person to focus on “principles over personalities” — as David Colman has said, you can “shed the weight of being yourself” even as you get honest about what’s really going on.

That said, there is at least one difference between a voicemail box and a confessional. In the confessional, someone will respond. A voice outside of your own head will pronounce your sins absolved. They will say, “Go in peace.”

5. This one may be a no-brainer for many, but as it turns out “the weight of being oneself” is particularly heavy. A fresh report from the Scientific American suggests that “In order to reap the many of the benefits of feeling authentic, you may have to betray your true nature.”

Jennifer Beer, author of the report, gives the example of an introverted party guest who, by saying nothing all night, is being authentic; but they may not feel that sense of windswept empowerment that we have come to associate with the term.

…research finds that people report feeling most authentic when their behavior confirms to a specific pattern of qualities: namely, when they are extroverted, emotionally stable, conscientious, intellectual and agreeable. That is, we feel most authentic when we act like a cross between the perfect party guest and the perfect co-worker.…

We want to believe that authenticity will bring us benefits. It’s not surprising that businesses such as Microsoft, BlueCross BlueShield, and Gap have worked with consultants to leverage authenticity in the workplace. However, until we learn more about whether being authentic reaps the same benefits as feeling authentic, we are left with a tough decision between loyalty to our true selves and conformity to social convention.

6. At Commonweal, Phil Klay recently wrote a compelling review of “enfant terrible” Michel Houellebecq’s Serotonin, which has been roundly criticized and also admired. Klay describes the book as exemplifying “the modern fetish for believing that he who approaches life the most cynically is the most honest.”

The narrator wields the tools of the modern, rationalist outlook to reduce every person, action, ethic, or form of community to its most deflating aspect, generally using the glib language of pop science or psychoanalysis. Thus, an existential crisis is reduced to “a more biological one: what was the point saving a defeated old male?” Prospective child murder is justified as “the first action of a male mammal when he conquers a female.” […] And most importantly, as signified by the title, the mind is reduced to chemicals in the brain.

This cynical knowingness, elevated here to a high pitch, quickly reaches absurdity…

Florent, always looking for the true, and therefore nasty, explanation, always wielding his magnificent learning as a weapon against his fellow man, ultimately suggests this approach has less to do with uncovering the real than with flattering oneself with superior knowledge while actually being untethered to facts and uninterested in people. More than anything, it is this inability to see beyond the crudest explanation for pleasure, joy, and community, that is destroying the narrator.

Haven’t read the book, but I think I know the type. In my experience, cynicism can be a magnificent/natural force of correction amid the legalistic preoccupation with showing off one’s virtue—when we know none of us are virtuous. Notably, as my colleague Kendall has pointed out, “‘deconstruction,’ ultimately derives its name from Luther quoting Paul quoting Isaiah.” The Houellebecqs of the literary scene may be obnoxious in their own right, but they are not completely wrong, all of the time. Which could explain why their reviewers are typically disgusted but also enthralled. You usually finish a novel like this. It makes you question why any human is worth saving and forces you to admit that it’s not because of their actions or good qualities. (See also: season 4, episode 7 of The Good Place.)

Florent is dying for a lack of love. “I needed love, and love in a very precise form,” he says, before descending yet again into flamboyant crudeness. But though the fixation here is on profane love (often, the most profane) throughout the novel there are hints that perhaps the real issue is of love of a more sacred kind.…

No surprise, then, why Houellebecq is so popular with certain types of religious readers. He presents the image of a godless man in a secular society in a way most flattering to the believer. His characters are pathetic, unhappy, gross, oversaturated with joyless sex, and so obviously in need not only of love but of grace. And he aggressively denies any of the normal outlets for transcendence available to the nonbeliever.

Of course cynicism is also intoxicatingly appealing and easy to OD on. For various reasons. As a consumer of art, you might be motivated by either love or death—passion or destruction. But only through death comes resurrection.

8. I’ll wrap up with a stirring entry from the Rev. Paul Walker’s Almost Daily Devotional:

“The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.” (Genesis 12:1-4)

In this reading from the 2nd Sunday in Lent, God tells Abram to leave. Leave all that is comforting and familiar. And what’s more, He doesn’t tell Abram where he is going! He is just told to go. God says he will show Abram where he is going after departs.

With the global pandemic upon us, we, like Abram, are heading into a future that we cannot see. We go, like Abram, with bald trust in God. But, friends, that is enough, and in fact all we really need. That is because God is good. He is trustworthy, and He will be there in the land to which He leads us. As Jesus tells His disciples as He prepares to leave them to ascend to the Father, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

“Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name, and finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP p. 832)


  • In other news (from Italy): Last Wednesday, for a few hours, “ready-to-be-bottled wine” leaked into water pipes and poured from faucets and shower heads in Castelvetro, Italy: “Fabrizio Amorotti, commercial manager at Cantina Settecani, said the malfunction ‘was appreciated by many. Some clients in the areas called us to warn us about it, and to share they were bottling the wine!’” (Brought no health concerns apparently.)
  • Maria Farrell dishes on “the prodigal tech bro.” This is her term for real-life archetype of tech titans who “suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants.” An example: the ex-Googler who makes a book deal about why tech is addictive.
  • Hilary Mantel’s third and final Thomas Cromwell book was released this week to acclaim.
  • No, crystals will not cure COVID-19.
  • Humor from the Hard Times: Anxious Woman Weighs All Possible Outcomes Before Ultimately Doing Nothing.
  • For all those curious about upcoming Mockingbird conferences, stay tuned. We’ll have more information Monday. Expect some changes as well as some exciting new plans for the Spring.
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5 responses to “Another Week Ends: COVID-19, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Prodigal Tech Bro, [In]Authenticity, Michel Houellebecq, New Killers, and a Future We Cannot See”

  1. Sam says:

    Re: item 6, I believe you are confusing cynicism with scepticism. In my experience the former is entirely corrosive and always damaging, while the latter is a helpful corrective when applied in measured doses.

    • CJ Green says:

      Thanks for the comment, Sam. I can see what you’re saying, but based on the little I have read of Houellebecq, I would classify his work as cynical, not skeptical

      • Sam says:

        Thanks for replying. I should have noted that I was referring to your comment (not Houellebecq): “In my experience, cynicism can be a magnificent/natural force of correction”. May argument is that it can’t. Moderate scepticism can. The two look similar but cynicism does too much damage to the person to make any correction fruitful.

        Not going to press the point though. Just sharing what has been a helpful distinction in my life.

        • CJ Green says:

          Well, it’s an interesting question. I admit that I’m wading into abstract territory here. But for clarity, I was referring to Houellebecq’s cynicism in my original remark, along with that of other cynical writers whose work I have found useful/illuminating. If Houellebecq for example is creating pathetic characters, it’s because people *can* be pathetic — we just don’t like to read about that very often. I’d say that’s a fruitful correction, artistically, but one which many of us will find upsetting.

          But even in terms of a spiritual posture, I’d probably disagree with you. It seems to me that regarding cynicism as a boogieman can be equally damaging. In certain environments, where expectations and anthropology are far too high, cynicism will be an unavoidable part of the fallout. The question is, what can this teach us? I would add that, ideally, this isn’t a permanent disposition but that, with God’s help, the cynical among us can recognize their need for softening love and grace, and even appreciate life as a gift. I concede, it’s exhausting/miserable otherwise (especially for friends of the cynic!!).

          Anyway. Happy to disagree, unless you have further thoughts. But thanks for engaging thoughtfully

  2. Sarah says:

    Thank you for mat-talking from Jerry. This is what I needed.

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