Another Week Ends

1. First up, the viral op-ed in the New York Times about “leaning out.” Author […]

CJ Green / 10.18.19

1. First up, the viral op-ed in the New York Times about “leaning out.” Author Ruth Whipmann responds to popular imperatives for people—especially women—to be more assertive, aggressive, what-have-you. Beneath these may be a motive to empower, but they’re coming, after all, in the form of demand. You know, the law. More expectations to be…more.

Take apologizing, the patient zero of the assertiveness movement. Women do too much of it, according to countless op-ed essays, books, apps and shampoo ads. There’s even a Gmail plug-in that is supposed to help us quit this apparently self-destructive habit by policing our emails for signs of excessive contrition, underlining anything of an overly apologetic nature in angry red wiggles.

The various anti-apologizing tracts often quote a 2010 study showing that the reason women say they are sorry more often than men is that we have a “lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.” This is almost exclusively framed as an example of female deficiency. But really, isn’t a person with a “high threshold of what constitutes offensive behavior” just a fancy name for a jerk?

Rarely in the course of this anti-apologizing crusade do we ever stop to consider the social and moral value of apologies and the cost of obliterating them from our interactions. Apologizing is a highly symbolic and socially efficient way to take responsibility for our actions, to right a wrong and clear space for another person’s feelings. It’s a routine means of injecting self-examination and moral reflection into daily life.

Indeed, many of our problems with male entitlement and toxic behavior both in the workplace and elsewhere could well be traced back to a fundamental unwillingness among men to apologize, or even perceive that they have anything to apologize for. Certainly many emails I have received from men over the years would have benefited from a Gmail plug-in pointing out the apology-shaped hole. The energy we spend getting women to stop apologizing might be better spent encouraging men to start.

A good apology is toast where power—keeping, gaining, balancing—is top priority. And at times, it may be fair to be suspicious of taking too much responsibility for a given situation. Yet even as apologies require some giving up, or letting go, they can also mean serious progress: as Dr. Harriet Lerner once wrote, apologies are “central to health, both physical and emotional. ‘I’m sorry’ are the two most healing words in the English language.” That goes, I believe, for all genders.

2. In the “secular religion” folder, file this concise but perceptive piece by Hal Hodson. A correspondent for The Economist, Hodson moved to Silicon Valley to cover technology there. What he discovered was more…ecclesiastical. For housing, he joined a communal space with 16 others who worked various tech-related jobs, and oddities ensued. For example, at #chilltimes, or dinner parties, “which tended to happen spontaneously,” drinking was discouraged. It reads like a satire:

I brought a case of beer, which seemed to offend the zest for self-improvement that defined the commune. Sleep, and getting enough of it, was the topic du jour. Entire dinners were spent discussing the finer points of sleep tracking, which monitoring gadgets worked best (the Oura Ring was popular); how best to optimise a bedtime schedule; what to eat; what not to drink. I felt like a Neanderthal, supping beer and interjecting to add that surely it was important to enjoy yourself now and again. This sat oddly with a group that was on a different path towards self-actualisation. Alcohol disrupts sleep, it turns out.

All this might easily remind a reader of his days in a fellowship of very convinced Christians. Hodson continues, “My scepticism was sometimes a problem too…The entire San Francisco tech world seemed deeply convinced of the good they were creating in the world.” By now you can probably guess where this is going:

I didn’t doubt the optimism and zeal with which many of these individuals worked towards technical solutions. I actually find it invigorating that, in the tech circles of San Francisco, people have the habit of telling you about their big idea within minutes of meeting you. But I found many techies that I encountered intolerant of criticism, with a commensurate lack of self-awareness. Silicon Valley is a place where belief seems to override self-reflection, and where too few people consider the potential downsides of the whizzy services they are concocting in their bedrooms and co-working spaces. Perhaps that’s just what you need to pursue something new. To confront true believers with these doubts is to face a barrage of increasingly fiery rebuttals, as though to question the system in which people worked was also to undermine the moral fibre of the individuals within it. In a society where God is definitively dead, and the age of Aquarius now seems twee, a belief in the power afforded by manipulating the internet and personal computation has risen to near religious levels.

By the end of the month I was yearning for a quieter life. One thing about communal living is that having space and time to yourself can be tricky, unless you are willing to confine yourself to your bedroom.

Does this explain why so many exvangelicals want to become mystics?

Anyone familiar with the above vocabulary might also appreciate this humorous report from The Hard Times: Man Referring to Old Church Youth Group as “Scene He Grew Up In.” Also funny is QUIZ: Are You Even Good Enough to Have Imposter Syndrome?

3. But my favorite from the realm of tech+spirituality was Jia Tolentino’s comment on the prevalence of “cursed energy.” If you haven’t had the privilege to encounter this strange/gross online subculture, it is basically endless surreal photoshops and disgusting videos, feeding through Twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere, all tagged “cursed” with giddy irony. A golden retriever with human teeth, American cheese on a Pop-Tart: why do these things exist? can always be countered by why shouldn’t they? The freedom of the Internet cannot help but be mixed up with an occasional delight for the perverse—or, the “cursed.”

If the Internet demonstrates what we’d like to receive on demand—attention, Thai food, episodes of old sitcoms—one of those things, clearly, is excessively bad vibes. […] I disliked the feeling of alarmed detachment that freaky online images provoked in me, but I craved it, too. […]

It’s not just creepy images: the word has acquired new valences, has come to signify increasingly generalized feelings of anxiety and malaise. “The way I use ‘cursed’ has a connotation of being trapped, i.e. a sort of Greek Mythology Ironic Eternal Punishment vibe,” Alex Pareene, a writer for The New Republic, told me. We must be cursed, one would think, to spend so much of our day walking around with our eyes glued to a device that provokes bad feelings.

Who wants to spend their limited time on Earth staring at a screen, answering emails, squinting at cell phones? And who can help it. Perhaps cursed is exactly the word to describe our present condition. Tolentino connects all of this to pervasive instability: “The cursedness that has come to be incessantly invoked online…may be connected to a sense that the very relationship between direct cause and effect has grown weaker.” In other words, the absurdity of the world, and of our human species, has only become more apparent, perhaps due to the indifferent transparency of life online.

4. This next one comes from musician Nick Cave. If this is the first time you’re hearing of his blog Red Hand Files, here’s your sign. Asked, “Why do you write?” he recently responded with comments on uncertainty, divinity, and conviction. (This is not the first time Cave has written something powerful and thought-provoking and insightful.) He says:

One of the reasons I write is because it allows me the freedom to move beyond the declared world into the uncanny and unfamiliar world. As a songwriter I have made a commitment to uncertainty and to embrace that which I do not know, because I feel this is where true meaning exists. It allows me to write songs that have within them the spirit of enquiry and reciprocity. It leaves me open to chance, a sense of open-ended potentiality, and fills me with a devotion to the mystery of the world with its deep oceans and dark forests. This notion of uncertainty, of doubt, contains an enormous amount of creative power and is always accompanied by a state of yearning for something beyond certitude, beyond comprehension. My songs are essentially religious songs in that they hold within them a condition of longing for some approximation of Godliness…

I feel my songs are conversations with the divine that might, in the end, be simply the babblings of a madman talking to himself. It is this thrilling uncertainty, this absurdity, from which all of my songs flow, and more than that, it is the way I live my life… living in a state of enquiry, neutrality and uncertainty, beyond dogma and grand conviction, is good for the business of songwriting, and for my life in general. This is the reason I tend to become uncomfortable around all ideologies that brand themselves as ‘the truth’ or ‘the way’. This not only includes most religions, but also atheism, radical bi-partisan politics or any system of thought, including ‘woke’ culture, that finds its energy in self-righteous belief and the suppression of contrary systems of thought. Regardless of the virtuous intentions of many woke issues, it is its lack of humility and the paternalistic and doctrinal sureness of its claims that repel me… [see: Ruth Whipmann, item no. 1]

This is not to suggest we should not have our convictions or, indeed, that we should not be angry with the state of the world, or that we should not fight in order to correct the injustices committed against it. Conviction and anger can be the most powerful expressions of universal love.

Not unrelated is this excerpt from Doug Murray’s latest book The Madness of the Crowds: “We all know the glee at watching someone fall from grace; the righteous feeling that can come with joining in the punishment of a transgressor.” Re: schadenfreude + shame.

5. In the no-surprise category, Alex Williams wonders Why Don’t Rich People Stop Working? It’s a question raised more and more frequently, not just about the rich but everyone, especially as automation looms. And the answer is the fairly evident fear of insignificance…irrelevance…having to think about existence at all… You don’t have to be a billionaire to relate, a little:

“People say, ‘Why don’t you develop a hobby, or do philanthropy?’” Mr. García Martínez said. “But for many, they simply can’t stop doing it. They derive transcendent meaning from capitalism. Without their money, what else would they have?” […]

“All they have is money… So they go out and buy a house and a fancy car, and that feels good for a short while, then they buy a second house and a fancier car. Because all they have is what they earn. They’re defined by it.”

Money apparently makes the “superrich” anxious and lonely. Elsewhere, it is revealed that “the bigger they get, the lonelier they are, because they do not belong.” And yet who feels belonging, all of the time? Despite Williams’ repeated use of “they” and “the one percent” — to reassure us that “rich people” are not “most people,” ie, us — you might become suspicious that no amount of money can change the human condition.

6. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervously excited about the new adaptation of His Dark Materials, coming to HBO in early November. I mean, proceed with caution if you’re not yet familiar with this opposite-of-Narnia oft-banned children’s series involving warring polar bears? Engaging, to say the least; faith producing, certainly not. But a sympathetic take on the franchise and its author was offered by James Parker in a recent piece for The Atlantic, Philip Pullman’s Problem With God, some of which I’ve excerpted below. Parker disentangles the various strands of Pullman’s religious objection:

Storytelling, for Pullman, is a way into our world—not out of it. He loves folktales and fairy tales for their clarity and everydayness; he loves William Blake; he loves what we might call the Luciferian or deity-defying side of John Milton. He even, in a cranky and rather beautiful way, loves Jesus. (We’ll come back to that.) But he hates the bloody Church. […]

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman’s 2010 counterfactual retelling of the events of the Gospels, is for me a more fiercely imaginative encounter with Christianity, and a fairer fight. Here’s Jesus, and Jesus is okay—more than okay; he’s a rebel and a trickster and an overturner, in love with the people, a proper republican in the Pullman sense of the word: instinctively fraternal and anti-institutional, spreading his rough-and-ready enlightenments across the horizontal axis… Jesus’s words are hugely powerful, rendered by Pullman as if in a first-class idiomatic translation: “Those who look at poverty and hunger without concern, and turn away with a laugh on their lips, will be cursed; they will have plenty to mourn about; they will weep for ever.”

But then there’s Jesus’s creepy, truth-twisting brother, Christ. Christ is in thrall to a dodgy stranger who can see into the future. Christ follows Jesus around taking notes, fiddling with the facts where necessary, laying the fake-news groundwork for what will come, what must come, after Jesus has been dispatched by the authorities…

By the end of his ministry, Pullman’s Jesus is an atheist. “Lord, if I thought you were listening,” he says during the Agony in the Garden, his sweating-blood conversation with an empty heaven, “I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest.” What a lovely, biblical irony—that Pullman’s Jesus-without-God should be wielding, at the last moment, the genuine dynamite of the Gospel.

7. Lest I seem too atheist, I will end this week with a prayer. Villanova chaplain Paul F. Morrissey contributed a beautiful reflection to Commonweal, the story of his meeting with a murderer to pray with him, in prison. In response, the prisoner offers a momentary “sign of life.” The interaction spurs Morrissey to pray the following:

That night, I prayed before the crucifix. “Oh, Lord, thank you for being within Peter. For being in his mother’s pain and love, for taking on the crucifixion of insanity, murder, total estrangement—the kind of horror that would make death seem a blessing.” I said through tears,  “As the world fights in fear of each other, and wonders where you are, I give you thanks that you have brought me here—to gaze at you across the padded cell, to realize your unbounded love for all of us.”