Another Week Ends

1. A new book out by Will Storr looks at the history of the self-esteem, […]

1. A new book out by Will Storr looks at the history of the self-esteem, and its rapid growth in the technological age. Storr’s book, Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, focuses much of its history on the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA, and places like it, which flourished in the 70s alongside the Human Potential Movement, and went mainstream in the 80s and 90s, focused on the real benefits stemming from a positive self-image. Storr uncovers the origin story of this movement, and its less-than-credible correlations between well-being and a positive self-image. A California task force promoted a study that confirmed what the Human Potential Movement believed, namely, that self-esteem was important for success in life. But the findings were later found out to be misrepresentative.

There was always a dark side to the Human Potential Movement. If a positive attitude and a sense of self-worth are what matters for success, then failure is always your own fault…The “lie at the heart of the age of perfectionism,” according to Storr, is that “we can be anything we want to be.”

This observation is just the tip of a very large iceberg, far as we are concerned. Positive self-regard, much as it is blipped and bannered by the Oprahs and the Osteens, isn’t just a potential hazard when failures hit (because they do). Perfectionism and positivity are also, very often, the manifestations of deeper-seated fears of an opposing flavor: that we are not perfectable and that we are not in control.

Storr’s line above, that human potential means failures are on you, helps us understand what could possibly be hopeful about pessimism. Pessimism, in your relationships and in your own self-assessment, provides an immense amount of relief from the inevitable failures in your path. It also allows for honesty, for the relief that comes in airing out the truth. You no longer have to fudge the numbers about how your self-esteem is helping you win.

If you’re not buying it, though, and you still feel that ego boosts are the way forward, look no further than yoga. Quartz reported that, contrary to yoga’s intended practice of ego depletion (via Buddhist notions of surrender/silence), a study found that modern yoga practice actually bolsters one’s own sense of self-worth:

Though yoga and meditation were originally intended as ways to calm the ego, many non-Buddhist practitioners do these activities with an eye to self-improvement or calming personal anxieties…The notion that yoga can feed rather than diminish the ego won’t be surprising to those who’ve met holier-than-thou yoga devotees clad in designer athlesiure. But the psychological study didn’t examine whether Buddhist teachings themselves influenced this ego boost.

2. The new movie from Paul Schrader, First Reformed, has been getting rave reviews, and there’s two interviews this week–one with conference speaker Alissa Wilkinson, another with A.O. Scott–that spell out a little more what Schrader is getting at in the film. Ethan Hawke plays a Bergmanian knight of faith, Rev. Toller, a pastor in crisis, who is trying to answer, throughout the film, “Can God forgive?”

As a pastor, he’s a charity case. They have this little church, and this is a job that nobody wants, probably it doesn’t pay dirt. When someone actually wants his help, the first thing he tries to do is pass them on to the bigger organization. I don’t think Toller stands in any Christian tradition other than the existential one — this notion of Albert Camus’s: I don’t believe, I choose to believe.

Scott asks him about a particular element wherein the audience follows Hawke’s character into the depths of some seriously extremist thinking. Schrader describes how he gets the audience to see (and even root for) something they would objectively find disturbing elsewhere. The movie, Schrader says,

…is the world is only as our protagonist perceives it. You see no other reality. There’s never a scene that he’s not in. So now you’re seeing his life, you’re being filled up with his thoughts and after about 45 minutes or so, you’ve identified. How could you not identify? Then, often slowly, you have to go off the rails a little bit, a little bit, a little bit. The first few times it doesn’t bother you, but then all of a sudden [you’re] saying whoa, I’m identified with somebody that I don’t think is worthy of identification. What do I do about that?

3. Two amazing sports stories, the first from the World Cup. I had no idea about this, but apparently Japan’s fans are famous for one unlikely, completely disarming post-game stadium ritual. Once the match is over, the “Samurai Blue” pull out plastic bags they brought with them, and begin picking up the trash… (ht CB)

This is my favourite moment of the World Cup so far; Japan fans picking up litter after their victory vs Columbia. The lessons in life we can take from the game. Why I support ???????? #class#respect#WorldCup

— Christopher McKaig (@Coachmckaig) June 19, 2018

Second is this story from the BBC about British cyclist Molly Weaver, who was hit by a car on a routine ride last year. After breaking several bones and making a heroic (and heroically quick) physical recovery, it was only once she was back on her bike, competing again, that she came to terms with a debilitating perfectionism (and depression) that she hadn’t noticed or expressed before. Brings to life the perils of self-help and positivity I mentioned above.

“I think I was setting myself up for failure. Every setback chipped away at who I was, and it eventually caught up with me.”

In sport, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that weaknesses must be hidden and not talked about. It’s a pressure that can take its toll on athletes, and ultimately undermine their performance. Yet only one of the professional teams Weaver has raced for has had a sports psychologist – something she says is a “fundamental problem with the industry…Externally, there is almost this narrative that you want to see played out, and that you know other people want to see play out. You want to be that person for them,” Weaver says. “But you can’t necessarily be that person – life isn’t perfect. You really feel that you have to lie your way through it, hide it and not let anyone see it.

4. So funny, and so true: “Upon the Altar of IKEA.” A sampling:

But most importantly, it is an altar upon which couples may lay their marriage to determine whether it is fit to continue. IKEA is like Anubis’ scales in the afterlife, weighing your hearts against the feather of truth to see if you will exit this strange temple together with a new sofa, or separately with a set of new silverware in one hand and some first-Tinder-date-enhancing tea lights in the other.

No one knows how IKEA came to wield this dread power, but everyone understands it instinctively as they walk through its mystifying tableaux of a cheerful and orderly life that you cannot seem to build, no matter how many umlauts you buy and assemble. Everyone has felt the existential dread of rounding the corner and finding the very same futon you’ve been fighting about for months, the ugly chair that was a gift from your mother in law that you are not allowed to disparage, or the crib that neither of you wants to look at, much less discuss.

And this one, too, while we’re on the topic of Millennials: How to Tell Your Friends You Met Your Partner In Real Life

5. AND! Speaking of which! Over at The Ringer, Lindsay Zoladz takes a cumulative look at the Aging Millennials, that amorphous, now-graying cohort of tech-indulgent man- and woman-children. With an air of defensiveness that I think is earned, Zoladz, and two writers whose books she’s reviewed, make the case that Millennials are not as entitled as everyone makes them out to be. In fact, only half of us believe we’re going to receive any social security funds as we get older.

Maybe we’ve been so distracted by our millennial-pink aesthetics and avocado punch lines because it’s too depressing to think of what defines us on a deeper level. Uncertainty. Collapse. The feeling that we’re cosmically screwed.

6. A review of two compelling books that might’ve sounded like self-help if what they were prescribing weren’t so the opposite of “achievement.” Rebecca Foster discusses two books invested in the art of wasting time. One of these books, written by Patricia Hampl, comes in light of the author losing her husband, and the change his death brought to her sense of time. Foster says this as a common thread described by writers:

Rebecca Loncraine, who died of recurrent breast cancer in September 2016, found that time lived in the shadow of death decelerated in agonizing but revelatory ways. In her posthumous memoir about taking flying lessons after her treatment, Skybound: A Journey in Flight (2018), she reflects, “Illness totally blew apart my previous sense of time […] Moments waiting silently for the results of a scan seemed like a painful forever, and each long, slow day crawling through the side effects of chemotherapy was a giant frozen clock face. But I could take advantage of this slowing down, too” — to sit by the fire with her parents, watch the dog sleep, and spy on bird behavior out the window. Such “ordinary things were transformed by my focused attention into moments of wonder, inside which I found enormous resilience.”

It seems ironic that these writers, who literally had no time to waste — the title of the late Ursula K. Le Guin’s final essay collection, No Time to Spare (2017), also comes to mind — would find such benefits to languorous spells. But in his new book, In Praise of Wasting Time (2018), the novelist, physicist, and MIT humanities professor Alan Lightman agrees that it is only with such unstructured time that we can rediscover our true identity and recover our carefree childhood creativity. This work-as-play model goes completely against the modern idea that time is money and every minute of life must be devoted to a project.

7. Let’s end on a high note, people! While you’re mowing the grass, don’t miss the new episode of the Mockingcast, wherein DZ, Sarah, and guest host Aaron Zimmerman talk Hollywood evangelists, suicidal men, and detained children. Also, Aaron gets a new office. Have a great weekend.

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One response to “Another Week Ends: First Reformed, Millennial Gray, Self-Improvement B.S., Getting Back On the Bike (and Off Again), and World Cup Generosity”

  1. Sean says:


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