Another Week Ends

1. Lots of people talking about immortality this week! Wonder why that’s happening! First off, […]

Ethan Richardson / 2.10.17

1. Lots of people talking about immortality this week! Wonder why that’s happening! First off, in a pretty blatant promotion of our Food & Drink Issue, The Atlantic published a lengthy piece on the denial of death in the world of nutrition and diet. I mean, the article gets pretty close to a lot of what we’re saying throughout the issue—that food is not only a culturally and morally stratifying part of our everyday lives, it is a way for human beings to fend themselves (read: justify themselves) against the inevitable d-word. The article references the philosophy of Ernest Becker (writer of the classic Denial of Death) as a glimpse into this downright religious phenomenon:

When it comes to food, Becker said that humans “quickly saw beyond mere physical nourishment,” and that the desire for more life—not just delaying death today, but clearing the bar of mortality entirely—grew into an obsession with transforming the self into a perfected object that might achieve a sort of immorality. Diet culture and its variations, such as clean eating, are cultural structures we have built to attempt to transcend our animality.

By creating and following diets, humans not only eat to stay alive, but they fit themselves into a cultural edifice that is larger, and more permanent, than their bodies. It is a sort of immortality ritual, and rituals must be performed socially. Clean eating rarely, if ever, occurs in secret. If you haven’t evangelized about it, joined a movement around it, or been praised publicly for it, have you truly cleansed?

Also, as we’ve touched on in F&D, the nutrition craze draws interesting lines between freedom and bondage, human willpower (“My food choices can make me who I say I am”) and human powerlessness (“Just one more cupcake…”). It is especially powerful in a cultural foodie heyday, where “food porn” has never been more pleasurable and seductive, but also never been more heavily policed:

There are no such heroes to be found in a peer-reviewed paper with a large, anonymous sample, and small effect sizes, written in impenetrable statistician-ese, and hedged with disclosures about limitations. But the image of a person you can relate to on a human level, smiling out at you from the screen, standing in a before-and-after, shoulder-to-shoulder with their former, lesser, processed-food-eating self, is something else altogether. Their creation myth and redemption—how they were lost but now are found—is undeniably compelling.

There are twin motives underlying human behavior, according to Becker—the urge for heroism and the desire for atonement. At a fundamental level, people may feel a twinge of guilty for having a body, taking up space, and having appetites that devour the living things around us. They may crave expiation of this guilt, and culture provides not only the means to achieve plentiful material comfort, but also ways to sacrifice part of that comfort to achieve redemption. It is not enough for wellness gurus to simply amass the riches of health, beauty, and status—they must also deny themselves sugar, grains, and flesh. They must pay.

Excuse me, what am I reading? Creation myths? Expiation of guilt? Atonement? It all reminds me of something we talked about on the podcast this week, and something that DZ’s sermon in the issue gets at: that when we put down $8 for a bottle of juice, we’re paying for something more. What we want that $8 to grant us our greatest wish, that death would somehow elude us.

And it seemed like eternity was on The Atlantic’s docket this week. Because they also published this video about apeirophobia, or the fear of everlasting life. Not kidding. The conclusions get down to what we’re really talking about, though: the fear of death itself.

2. You thought we were done with immortality, but no. One of the features of the NYT Magazine this week is entitled, “600 Miles in a Coffin-Shaped Bus, Campaigning Against Death Itself.” It describes the “transhumanism” movement as personified by Zoltan Istvan, a man who ran for president with the modest goal of, yes, human immortality. Transhumanists believe that scientific discovery will, in the near future, counteract death. Driving across the country in a coffin-shaped bus called the “Immortality Bus,” the essay plays out like satirical fiction. But it’s real! And if you don’t think transhumanism is real, you don’t have to look far to see that a lot of big guns are involved in it. Just look up Google’s own work in life-extension, Calico Labs. But this story is worth reading in full. Just a sampling:

I agreed with practically nothing that came out of his mouth the entire time we spent together. He was as strange a person as I had ever met, and I had met a great many strange people in the year and a half I spent reporting on transhumanists. I found myself hoping that he would not be disillusioned, that he would maintain, as long as he lived, the sense of his own exemption from death. His very belief that existence was rendered meaningless by death was, I thought, precisely what seemed to afford his life a sense of purpose, a sense of direction. This, in the end, was why humans would always look for meaning and would always find it in some variety of religion. You do what you can with the strangeness of being here, for the time being.

Reading this piece, you are drawn in by the ridiculous nature of this roadtrip. A bus in the shape of a coffin, driving every which way to fight death. But the more you think about it, the more typical it seems. Aren’t we all—and aren’t all religions—hoping for exemption from the death that’s awaiting us? Thankfully, the good news of Christianity is the exemption that comes by way of death, through it and not without it.

3. An interesting read about atheists arriving at (or returning to) faith. Over at The Outline, the article focuses most of its interest in “institutional collapse,” which can mean religious revival after governmental instability (i.e. the former Soviet Union); but it can also mean that, for those who were burned by religious institutions leave the faith, only to return when they get older when those institutions resemble something akin to stability.

4. In the That’s-Really-A-Thing? Department, you can now become a “Sensitivity Reader” for a publishing company. Want to be sure your beach read will offend no one? That’s what they’re there for! While well intentioned, it’s just one more instance where the fear of offense trumps a reader’s need for offense. The article discusses one writer, Becky Albertalli, and her struggle to reach a proper sensitivity for the minority readers she was trying to write to. Just another way of showing us how infinite is the spring of righteous offense…ugh.

In one draft, Albertalli—who totaled 12 sensitivity reads for her second novel on LGBTQ, black, Korean American, anxiety, obesity, and Jewish representation issues, among others—had described a character’s older sibling, a black college student, as a “bro,” the kind of frat boy she’d gone to school with in Connecticut. “In my head, he was part of that culture,” she says. But the two women of color reading the manuscript whipped out their red pens. “Without consulting each other, they were both independently like, ‘Nope. That’s not a thing,’ ” Albertalli recalls. Historically black colleges have a wildly different conception of Greek life, with fraternity members resembling superstar athletes more than dudes doing keg stands. “So, yeah,” Albertalli (who characterizes herself as “white, chubby, Jewish, anxious”) finished sheepishly, “I definitely had to rethink that character.”

In a similar vein of heightened political sensitivities, the Guardian published this article: “Sex Doesn’t Sell Anymore: Activism Does.” And while this sounds like something maybe we should celebrate, it is more often than not another greedy stab at (very profitable) humility. In other words, the right hand definitely knows what the left is doing!

Lyft wasn’t the only company flaunting good deeds this week. In reaction to Trump’s immigration ban, Starbucks CEO wrote an open letter to staff committing to hiring 10,000 refugees and Airbnb’s Brian Chesky tweeted that it was providing free accommodation to anyone not allowed in the US. Even Uber, presumably in a bid to outdo Lyft, created a $3m fund to help drivers affected by the “wrong and unjust” ban.

Companies are now attempting to outdo each other with major acts of generosity, but there’s a catch; they’ll do good as long as they can make sure their customers know about it. There is no room for humility when a brand does a good deed. They’re always Larry David and never the anonymous donor.

Another one along those lines, but hilariously so, from McSweeney’s: “Emergency Preparedness Amongst the Liberal Elite”

5. Some other funny ones: From the Onion, a guest post by The Buddha himself: “If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Probably Have A Few Possessions.”

And from the Bee: “Scientists Still Unable to Locate Mankind’s Innate Goodness.”

6. Let’s close with one that’ll make you cry. From the L.A. Times, this one is the story of a saint named Mohamed Bzeek, who is a foster father for children with terminal illnesses. When other foster parents will not take these children, Mohamed takes them. Talk about a real-life parable.

By the mid-1990s, the Bzeeks decided to specifically care for terminally ill children who had do-not-resuscitate orders because no one else would take them in. There was the boy with short-gut syndrome who was admitted to the hospital 167 times in his eight-year life. He could never eat solid food, but the Bzeeks would sit him at the dinner table, with his own empty plate and spoon, so he could sit with them as a family. There was the girl with the same brain condition as Bzeek’s current foster daughter, who lived for eight days after they brought her home. She was so tiny that when she died a doll maker made an outfit for her funeral. Bzeek carried her coffin in his hands like a shoe box.

“The key is, you have to love them like your own,” Bzeek said recently. “I know they are sick. I know they are going to die. I do my best as a human being and leave the rest to God.”

Mohamed is currently taking care of his only natural son (who is also physically disabled), and one foster child, a girl.

Other than trips to the hospital and Friday prayers at the mosque — when the day nurse watches her — Bzeek rarely leaves the house. To avoid choking, the girl sleeps sitting up. Bzeek sleeps on a second couch next to hers. He doesn’t sleep much.


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What We Know About Stranger Things, Season 2

Ryan Adams Learns Empathy From a Heckler

Cannot WAIT for this George Saunders Novel

The Theology Behind The Exorcist

Also, this show looks (and sounds!) pretty awesome:

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