Another Week Ends

Last Chances and Good Fridays

David Zahl / 4.2.21

The caption above has been running through my head since I first saw it a couple weeks ago. It hits home especially on Good Friday.

What have we learned about ourselves this past year that we’d rather forget? Maybe some things we didn’t know last April, or didn’t know in quite the same way?

The lessons about myself I’d like to remember come to mind with ease: I’ve learned that I have a remarkable propensity for misplacing phone chargers. Buying extra whenever they’re on sale is a good idea.

I’ve learned that outdoor exercise is essential to my mental health, and that friendship is as important as it is de-prioritized for men my age. I’ve learned that teaching elementary-aged kids is a vocation I could not admire more in others.

These are only half-serious, but perhaps a good lead-up to Lotte Jeffs’s fantastic article in Elle, “A Life More Ordinary,” which profiles “a new rebel army […] seeking a smaller, happier, less performative existence.” After losing a high-profile job in marketing, Jeffs has come to appreciate life on the other side of performancism, and discovered a surprising number of peers who feel similarly.

She couches what she’s learned in terms of the urging she’d absorbed during childhood, i.e., that the only life worth living is an extraordinary one. In her view, the pandemic has schooled many of us (most?) in the pitfalls of ambition (and the glories of mediocrity):

It turned out the ‘unexceptional’ life I’d been running away from wasn’t so tragic after all. I felt happier and freer than I had in a long time. Yes, it was an ongoing battle with my inner monologue — I wasn’t failing, I wasn’t betraying feminism. But to my surprise, I didn’t burn with envy when I saw peers getting jobs I would normally have gone for, and with that came a rush of relief. By pressing pause on my relentless ambition, I realised that I didn’t need to win any more: I just wanted to enjoy the game …

She laughs at herself: ‘You know, I find myself having to constantly fight the urge to create another narrative around it, to announce on social media, “This is the new me!” just to show people I’ve made the “right” decision. But actually when you give up trying to prove to the world how great what you do is, you stop boxing yourself in to your own life choices — you have more freedom to give things a go and discover what you actually enjoy.’

Besides, if this year has taught us anything, it’s that ‘success’ can be fleeting. Our expectations of what extraordinary looks like are altering, too. Never before has the work of nurses, carers and cleaners been held in such stark relief to the ‘influencers’ escaping reality to party in Dubai. Maybe the illusion of self-importance is finally being exposed.

It’s not that we actually want to be, say, Beyoncé or Elon Musk, but we feel we have to be the Beyoncé of our own lives; the peak versions of ourselves … We are at the vanguard of a backlash to our hyper performative, endlessly ‘on’, ‘110%’ culture and many of us are starting to aspire to something shudderingly average instead.

Sounds nice, and I sure hope/pray it is so — for all of us! — as the world needs more people like Franny Glass. The cynic in me suspects, however, that this is one lesson we’ll forget once ‘business as usual’ resumes. It’s a lot easier to see through the frivolity of people partying in Dubai when restrictions prevent you for going there and join in even if you could.

Another way to articulate what Jeffs has uncovered would be that much of what we’re told to go after in life does not lead to the accrual of much worth having. Our instincts about what will make us happy are skewed — a million miles away from the upside-down kingdom we see manifested on Good Friday, which has a tenuous relationship to “happiness” as it is.

[As a side note, perhaps this is what Robert Duvall meant when his character in Tender Mercies says, “I don’t trust happiness. I never did, I never will.” The AV Club posted a tremendous appreciation of that tremendous film this past week.]

Something else we as a culture appear to have learned during quarantine is that we’re all burned out. The term “burnout” is pretty much everywhere these days, ranging in reference from Zoom meetings to parental frustrations to health-worker nervous breakdowns. It’s become so ubiquitous in fact that we’re starting to burn out on … burnout.

Writing for the New Republic, Jon Malesic traces how this very real phenomenon has, in a culture of #seculosity, become a measure of enoughness in itself:

In the last few years, burnout has become an important keyword for understanding our misery at work and frustration with the rest of our lives. … But there is also a deeper, more insidious side to our eagerness to claim burnout. Saying you’re burned out is a subtle form of self-praise. If you’re burned out, then you must have been a roaring blaze of productivity to begin with, an ideal worker in a culture that values work practically above all else. In the religion of work, the burnout is a martyr. … We complain that work is crushing our bodies and souls, but we also love it. The pain is how we validate our lives. On some level, we want to burn out.

Only those who are extraordinarily committed burn out, after all, so wear it like a badge of honor. Sigh. Then again, just because all of us feel burned out doesn’t mean we’re lying.

One place to bring your burnout, of course, is church. At least any other year it would be. In theory church is a place to step off the treadmill and regain perspective (and be absolved!). Andrew Sullivan reflected this week on what he’s missed by not attending mass all year, heaping on a hefty dose of #rhymeswithvelocity in the process:

Jean Cocteau once described smoking opium as an interlude in the rush of existence. ‘Everything one achieves in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death,’ he wrote. ‘To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving.’ I feel the same way about religion. It is about removing oneself from life while still living it: a pause, a grace-note, a moment when nothing is getting done. It is good to get out of the addled brain for a while, to live in the soul and the body alone. And I wish I were better able to convey how life-giving this is. Maybe it’s primarily a relief for those of us who live in our heads too much, who live very online lives, or who use words of our own all the time. But … when this space disappears in a society, you can see people find ways to replicate it elsewhere.

Somewhere Karl Marx is smiling. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how/if people “go back” to church after such a long lay-off, or if we’ve come to prefer our current, er, opiates.

These may be roads we’ve traveled down before, but the pandemic has laid a fresh layer of asphalt. While I spy some signs of quarantine-induced spiritual renewal, my sense is that the pandemic has only accelerated the proliferation of new seculosities. I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

But what about the lessons we’re eager to forget? What unpleasantness has quarantine revealed about us that we, like the young woman in the cartoon, would just as soon shove back under the carpet?

This is Good Friday, so I feel some license to get heavy: I’ve learned that I take pretty much everything for granted. People, places, things, the whole shebang.

Sarah joked the other day on The Mockingcast that she’s sick of being confronted with new things she didn’t know she was taking for granted. Well, amen. I could act like I’m grateful for the constant reminders of how grateful I should be, but the truth is, I resent the process and am appalled by the speed with which I cordon myself off from it.

What else? I’ve learned that some of what I’d mistaken for healing from past wounds was more like a local anesthetic. Chalk it up to the numbing powers of distraction, I guess. Dismounting the treadmill forces a person to confront what they’re using busyness to avoid, and that process, again, is not a pleasant one.

I don’t know what it is for you; it could be the truth about your job, or your marriage, or one of your children, or even your faith. Everyone has something they’re carrying, some hurt that will not go away, some regret that eats at them. The burden of the past is overwhelming, both individually and collectively, and it can rear its head when you least expect.

For instance, that rejection from fifteen years ago you thought was ancient history? Turns out you’d just buried it behind a wall of rationalization, and a single song, played at the right time, can bring the emotions back in an instant. Happens all the time.

These sorts of regressions get in the way of the “narratives” (that word!) we hold dear, so we’d much rather forget, thankyouverymuch. God bless the therapists of the world — many of whom are doubtlessly, you know

Of course, we also do this in other, more macroscopic ways. Perhaps our non-stop consumption of news is really just a blindfold to the fact that we’re desperate for our preconceived notions/certainties to be confirmed, a proclivity that feeds on itself by creating uglier and uglier headlines to consume (while someone far away profits from our rage).

Because that’s the ultimate lesson from quarantine I’d like to remember (but know I’ll forget): We are all hanging by a thread. When the curtain is pulled back, everyone is more anxious and afraid and weighed down than they let on. Even the billionaire entrepreneur and the couple in love are in pain. The chief reason we believe the family across the street is so functional is that we don’t know them very well.

On Good Friday we remember that the world is only as sick as our own hearts. And those tests all came back positive, not just yours.

This is not the depressing message it appears to be. It is the prelude to charity and other-focus. As Alain de Botton writes, “Kindness is built out of a constantly renewed and gently resigned awareness that weakness-free people do not exist.”

I’d go further. I’d say that salvation begins with the confession that weakness-free people do not exist, of which you are one.

On Good Friday, that weakness manifested as fear for some, as anger and blame for others, as indifference for others, as self-righteousness for still others. The Israelites in Jerusalem forgot all the lessons of God’s faithfulness they were supposed to have gleaned during their long history. Every one of Jesus’s disciples went blank when it counted.

The only one whose knees didn’t buckle — or break — was Christ himself.

This is the day when human nature met God’s nature. When scorn was repaid with love, and cruelty with charity.

Which brings me to the most hopeful bit of television I’ve seen all year. Yes, even more than Ted Lasso, since this is non-fictional. I’m referring to the new season of Last Chance U, a docu-series on the 2019-20 season of the East LA Huskies, a junior college program coached by a man named John Mosley.

Early on in the season you realize that the title of the show is no misnomer. Places like East LA are where players come when they’ve got two strikes against them. Maybe they’ve been in trouble with the law, maybe they’ve failed too many classes, maybe they got kicked out of a Division-1 program. Whatever the case, this is their final window, and it’s closing fast.

Coach Mosley knows this. He knows that East LA is these young men’s last opportunity, not just to play but to receive … charity. By that I don’t mean financial assistance, though big school scholarships are what all the guys are chasing. I mean charity in the sense of “offering someone something that they may not entirely deserve and that it is a long way beyond the call of duty for us to provide.”

The type of charity that Mosley offers these young men is charity of interpretation, or what de Botton calls “an uncommonly generous assessment of our idiocy, weakness, eccentricity or deceit.” The coach explains that this charity is born out of a combination of faith in God and his own experience as a young “hooper” from a bad neighborhood.

To say that Coach Mosley takes a generous view of his players’ indignities is an understatement. In pretty much every case, suffering has hardened these guys, made them into what the assistant terms “lovable a**holes.” A few act in reprehensible ways, even toward their coaches. But Mosley nonetheless sees himself in each and every one of them: a young man up against a lot, both internally and externally, with no one to help.

We then watch as Coach yells at his players in increasingly histrionic fashion, cajoling and urging them to give more, be more, work harder. How bad do they want it?!

Yet what he’s actually doing is something different. Coach Mosley is conveying that he believes in these young men even when they don’t believe in themselves. He is committed to them, even if they’re not committed to him (or themselves).

The yelling is an expression of, well, love. Mosley will not give up on them as so many others have. What could easily be received as “law” is actually grace in practice.

Which is not to say that he’s all fearsome pep talks and inventive non-curse words. In one particularly vivid scene, a talented center named Joe Hampton has walked off the court and thrown another in a series of public tantrums, tossing a chair and cursing at the referees. He has humiliated his teammates and his coach. This is the sort of behavior that would not be tolerated at most schools. But ELAC is the last stop on the bus, so there’s nowhere else to go.

The camera then flashes to an interview with Coach Mosley, who says, “These guys need love the most when they deserve it least.” We then watch as he devotes 45 minutes of precious time and attention to Hampton alone. It’s a turning point — one that I doubt either man will soon forget.

I suppose you could say that Good Friday was something of a last chance. It was the last chance to show the son of God the charity he showered on so many others. The last chance not to take God’s grace for granted — for the human race to be something other than vindictive and scared. The last chance to press pause on self-aggrandizement and remember the hard-learned lessons suffering has taught. The last chance to avoid eternal quarantine.

We blew it, though. Burned out. Fade to black.

Perhaps to be alive is to sit in the strange, uncomfortable hangover of Holy Saturday, wondering if that last chance was indeed ours to blow. To wonder if the sickness we carry is something God can not only contract but redeem. To listen for the rumblings, however distant, of Easter morning and the coming again of the one whose memory when it comes to our transgressions, I’m told, is shoddy at best.

Go Huskies!