Another Week Ends

1. In an unintentional bit of foreshadowing, yesterday’s dispatch from The Onion condensed a number of […]

David Zahl / 11.7.14

1. In an unintentional bit of foreshadowing, yesterday’s dispatch from The Onion condensed a number of today’s (anti-Gospel) themes into a succinct bit of satire: the frenetic pace of modern-day America, the exhaustion and restlessness and the humble-brag workaholism endemic to our way of life, the overvaluing of accomplishment/career and the cult of productivity, the fear of idleness and aversion to ‘being’, the compulsive, non-stop proving afforded by technology–the sum total being what we not-so-lovingly refer to as the World of Demand. The stakes were drawn afresh for me this week in an article that came across my desk from an unexpected source, Elle magazine. Glynnis MacNicol wrote a piercing account of “One Woman’s Horrifyingly Real Experience with Burnout.” She was working in media, but I know very few parents or students (or clergy!) with whom the unrelenting circumstances won’t resonate. In fact, “burnout” is a word you hear in religious circles constantly, yes, even among those who trumpet ‘inexhaustible grace’ the loudest. Messiah complexes (AKA high anthropologies/low pneumatologies) tend to be the root, and I suppose there’s no reason to think that the diagnosis wouldn’t apply more widely. It’s admittedly a lot to take in right off the bat, and maybe a tad East-Coast-Type-A-centric. But my sense is that those boundaries are expanding (or, as the case may be, dissolving), ht TB:

flintstones25A few years ago, after shooting up the career ladder as a media reporter and editor, I quite suddenly quit my very well-paying—if not dream—job at a top website. And then, for a long time afterward, I did nothing. Literally. Nothing.

When I did leave my house and venture back into my social circles to attend a cocktail party, or a book release, or a business dinner, I would tell people who inquired (and they always did. I live in New York City, where what you do comes after your name but before your real estate vitae) that I did nothing. Then I would step back and, with a sort of perverse satisfaction, watch them squirm. It turns out folks don’t really know what to do with people who are so nakedly unambitious. It was a little bit like I was inviting them to my funeral. For a long while, this little party trick was my favorite part about going out…

I am… reminded of the opening of The Flinstones and think the days of being able to “go home’ are equally as archaic. In the last ten years, the Internet has essentially become the worldwide Hotel California for anyone with a connection. Sure you can check out, you can check out all you want—there are entire movements devoted to checking out—but you can’t leave. Barring some sort of Zombie apocalypse, none of us are ever leaving the Hotel Internet ever again…

Ike-1978-The-Cinch.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeEverything is new these days. Sometimes this digital age seems strangely analogous to the unknowns of the birth control pill, an invention that has fundamentally altered the way we live, but whose long-term effects are yet to be fully understood. Of course, my case may have been an extreme one. My life for many years was about chasing the news cycle, a cycle that shifted into wild overdrive with the advent of social media. The thing is, that lifestyle is no longer so far off from what most people deal with every day: Nearly everyone in possession of a smart phone is tied to some sort of information cycle, often comprised of social media feeds and a heavy dose of work in the form of e-mails that, like the chocolates in this old clip of Lucy on an assembly line, come faster and faster no matter where they try to hide them. Add to this the non-stop highlight reel that so often makes up most of what we see of other people’s lives–even Garance Doré, who appears to be living a life most of us dream about, recently revealed that she’s not immune to the pain of the discrepancy between real life and Instagram–and keeping up with the Jones’s (or the “likes”) is proving professionally dangerous.

MacNicol’s previous column for the magazine, “Cropping Out The Sadness” is fantastic, too. Right up the Mockingalley.

2. Perhaps you’ve heard the incredible story of Sir Nicholas Winton. During WWII, he organized the rescue of over 650 children in an operation called the Czech Kindertransport. The children were bound for the Nazi death camps, but Winton got them safe passage to Britain. After the war was over, Winton didn’t announce his exploits. In fact, he didn’t tell anyone for 50 years, not even his wife Grete. Then, in 1988, Grete found a scrapbook dating to 1939 in their attic. It held all the children’s photos, a list of their names, and letters from some of their parents. It was the first time she’d learned of her husband’s story. In 1988, the BBC show “That’s Life” pulled something remarkable, and rest assured, it will make you cry (those in the know can fast forward to 11:40 mark below). Such is the response to radical acts of self-sacrifice on behalf of the powerless:

Anyway, Sir Nicholas is still alive! He just turned 105 and journeyed to Prague to receive an award. To honor the occasion, Roger Cohen wrote an editorial for The NY Times, praising “The Discretion of Nicholas Winton”, noting how extremely counter-cultural such a Matthew 6 approach has become. It hits close to home – painfully so. Clearly MacNicol’s cautionary tale is no fiction:

Such discretion is riveting to our exhibitionist age. To live today is to self-promote or perish. Social media tugs the private into the public sphere with an almost irresistible force. Be followed, be friended — or be forgotten. This imperative creates a great deal of tension and unhappiness. Most people, much of the time, have a need to be quiet and still, and feel disinclined to raise their voice. Yet they sense that if they do not, they risk being seen as losers. Device anxiety, that restless tug to the little screen, is a reflection of a spreading inability to live without 140-character public affirmation. When the device is dead, so are you.

3. On a related note, I had the pleasure of watching The Railway Man this past week, which had been recommended to me by numerous readers for its moving account of forgiveness. It depicts the true story of Eric Lomax, a British soldier who was captured during WWII and imprisoned under hellacious conditions by the Japanese. You’ll have to see it to find out what happens, but it’s the real deal, and not nearly as sentimentalized as some reviewers might have you believe. The movie-making may not quite live up to the content, but it doesn’t fall terribly short either. And Colin Firth is predictably magnificent. Also in film, Interstellar has been dividing critics, and while I sniff some Nolan backlash mixed in with the honest assessments, I would love to hear what people think thus far. Oh, and SalingerStillmanBaumbach fans take note: Listen Up Philip blew my mind. If Schwartzman doesn’t get an Oscar nod, the universe is poisoned. (The fake book covers Will mentioned a few weeks ago are adorning this post).

4. Humor: Some funny stuff out there, Skeletor’s best insults (below) being my personal favorite. But there was also Clickhole’s “7 Nihilistic Quotes That Only Brilliant, Misunderstood Young Males On The Internet Will Appreciate” and The Onion’s “Life-Changing Epiphany Wears Off On Ride Home”. Then, as a fitting and hilarious follow-up to Stephanie’s post on newborns, parents are encouraged to read this rant on Sleep Advice which went recently viral–talk about the double-bind of law! Finally, I completely thought this was a joke when someone sent it to me, but alas, Fortune’s list of “15 Phrases You’ll Never Hear Successful People Say” is for real, ht WL. Sigh.

5. Social Science Study of the Week comes to us from The Pacific Standard: “The Positive Emotional Impact of Sad Music”.

6. There’s quite a bit of value to chew on in this reflection from Morgan Guyton on Patheos, “Are We to Accept Ourselves or Despise Ourselves?”, or put differently, does Christianity promote self-loathing or self-adoration? He takes Henri Nouwen and Thomas a Kempis as his starting points for each side of the equation, respectively, ht RW:

I think there’s a big difference between the safety and warmth of self-acceptance and the arrogance and defensiveness of self-justification. If I’m constantly needing to be right in every argument and the winner of every competition, it’s a symptom of a fundamental self-hate and insecurity at my core. To despise myself in the way that Thomas a Kempis speaks is not to hate myself, but to despise my self-obsession. What I need to hate is my inability to experience the beauty I’m surrounded by in nature and other people because my only concern is how I can use things and people to feel better about myself.

As for the question itself, I prefer Francis Spufford’s formulation from the first issue of our magazine:

Ike-1982-Audit.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeParadox can be a very easy way of letting yourself off the hook of the tough stuff. I slightly fear the word “inclusive” when I see it, because a) it’s much too small for the kind of divine generosity we’re talking about here, and b) it can very often mean we are too nice to ever give ourselves a hard time about anything. It doesn’t mean we should give other people a hard time, but again, the soft and fluffy marshmallow cloud of our collective self-approval, is not what the religion is about. On the other hand it shouldn’t be about hating yourself, either, but we know that.

7. Finally, head Girl Lena Dunham is back in the headlines (did she ever leave?) with two notable bits of press this week. There’s Christ and Pop Culture’s “Lena Dunham & Jill Duggar: Baring It All for Us” which relates to the burnout question at the top of this post, and then second, a surprising if highly articulate pan of Dunham’s new memoir via James Wolcott in The New Republic. Since I haven’t read the book in question, I’ll refrain from commenting, but I did think that his description of “liberal” censoriousness was spot-on, definitely not something you read in such a left-leaning publication every day:

Gender studies / cultural studies grads, who have set up camp on the pop-cult left, can be a prickly lot, ready to pounce on any doctrinal deviation, language-code violation, or reckless disregard of intersectionality. They like their artists and entertainers to be transgressive as long as the transgression swings in the properly prescribed direction. Otherwise: the slightest mistimed or misphrased tweet, ill-chosen remark during a red carpet interview or radio appearance, or comic ploy gone astray can incur the mighty puny wrath of social media’s mosquito squadrons, the hall monitors at Salon and Slate, and Web writers prone to crises of faith in their heroes.


– Douthat’s “I Love Lena” is another good one. She’s clearly touched a nerve!

The Taylors may have some competition. NPR says that “HBO’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’ May Be The Best Depiction Of Marriage On TV”.

– A snarky but undeniably clever review of Rob Bell’s new book, The Zimzum of Love.

The Force Awakens!

– If you missed the big newsletter we sent out this week, click here.

– Finally, domestic subscribers (and monthly givers) should be receiving their copies of the new issue of the magazine today and tomorrow. Drop us a line if yours hasn’t arrived by this time next week. Anyone interested in bulk orders can contact us at Oh and we’ve discounted issue 1 and 2 over at the magazine site!

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