Another Week Ends

1. This week’s first article might give you déjà vu — it’s just the newest […]

CJ Green / 5.29.20

1. This week’s first article might give you déjà vu — it’s just the newest in an ever fattening file on the cult of productivity. With the force of an altogether wilder God, this pandemic has slammed the idol of work. For Vox, Sam Blum interviews a series of people who have found unexpected liberation amidst the shutdown. One woman celebrates more time with her children; another is surprised to find that, without a job, “you’re still a person. You still exist outside of the job.” Needless to say, each admission comes somewhat sheepishly — there is widespread suffering, no doubt — yet the relief many people feel is also undeniable:

In [one woman’s] field, “being overbooked and busy was really glorified,” she says. “I didn’t realize until now how unhealthy that was. We really link success with being exhausted with work.” […] Now that work is no longer the defining force of her life, she’s taken to cooking for a local charity, but she’s also asking bigger, existential questions: “What are my hobbies? What makes me happy? What are my interests outside of my job now that I don’t have it anymore?”

…in recent years more than ever, work is heralded as a way of life, and productivity is the measure by which we prove we’re living it to the fullest. As we’re forced to work from home, or laid off from the workforce and collecting unemployment, America is still a nation obsessed with productivity. Readers are barraged with an endless stream of purported guides to remaining productive in isolation, or, by contrast, how to fight the pressure to perform and relish idleness. And workers such as Connolly and Rudnick are finding themselves aligned with strivers across the country who are grasping for a sense of meaning and identity in the face of vanishing employment and fleeting work demands.

“Productivity is the currency by which we measure our own self-worth,” Anat Keinan, an associate professor of marketing at Boston University, told Vox in an email. “We know it is impossible to maintain a normal level of work productivity during these times, but for some reason we feel like a failure when we are unable to productively accomplish all [our] goals.” […] Some of our most venerated historical figures were also productivity hawks; Ben Franklin’s daily schedule was as regimented as any modern-day CEO’s, while Shakespeare famously wrote King Lear in a fit of uber-productivity while quarantining during the Great Plague.

2. Earlier this month, Stephen Freeman picked up the thread, investigating productivity anxiety from a religious view. If, above, Blum identified unemployment-related “meaninglessness,” Freeman sources it in an absence of personal utility — a sense of uselessness. And why should we desire to be used?

That the absence of utility is a term of abuse is a profound comment on our time. Stressed, anxious, and sick from the fatigue of life, we find ourselves required to give justification for our leisure. I am “charging my batteries,” we say, giving work the ultimate priority. We only rest in order to work harder.

There are many useless things that mark our lives: beauty, rest, joy. Indeed, it would seem that many of the things that we value most are, for the greater part, quite useless. What is it, to be useful?

The useful thing (or person) gains its value from something other than itself. It is a tool. I value the tool because it allows me to do something else. In many cases, when the usefulness of the tool is expired, it is simply thrown away. … Our sea of trash is a testament to the ethic of utility.

“You only want to use me.” This statement, on the lips of a lover or a friend, is a fearful indictment. We want to be loved for ourselves, not for what we can do, much less as an end to something else. We want to be loved as useless beings.

Freeman brings home his point by reminding us of God’s ancient Sabbath command and what this tells us of God’s character.

What we learn is that this Law of uselessness — the refusal to maximize our own power and efficiency — goes to the very heart of what it means to exist in the image and likeness of God.

3. For this week’s humor, we have McSweeney’s to thank: here is How to Successfully Lie Through Your Pre-K Parent-Teacher Zoom Conference.

“Haha, we are all a little shaggy around here! Hahaha!” Finish by laughing like a human being would. You need to practice this.

There is also, from the New Yorker, Goodnight Zoom(!).

4. CNN reports that “picky eating” is “linked to demanding parents.” I imagine The Mockingcast parentals will have much to say about this, but what seems obvious enough is that the law increases the trespass. Sandee LaMotte explains it this way:

Frustrated with your child’s picky eating? If you’re trying to fix the problem by becoming the food police, you’re probably making your child’s habit of picky eating worse, according to a new study that followed more than 300 parent-and-child pairs for five years. […]

“Eating is one of the few domains kids can exert some control over,” said senior author Dr. Megan Pesch. Lower levels of picky eating in children were associated with parents imposing few restrictions on foods and a lack of pressure to eat.

Proceed to the article for a list of tips n’ tricks, all of which are probably easier said than done.

Of course, no child’s behavior, eating or otherwise, is entirely a result of their parent’s choices. But if you’re in a dinner-table gridlock, the following may sound like sweet relief:

Giving up the power struggle over food may actually cut your child’s picky eating behavior.

5. Which brings us to the mysterious case of “who is a wine mom?” And what is a wine mom? It turns out that she contains multitudes. According to Ashley Fetters at the Atlantic, the “wine mom” is “a shape-shifting, multifaceted idea.” Perpetually swilling, exhausted, over-burdened by expectations. Depending on your vantage point, this fraught meme may serve as a banner of relief or a vehicle for judgment — it’s always easy to judge someone who is enjoying her forgiveness, or, in more secular terms, giving herself a break:

Certainly, anyone drinking to self-medicate or developing an alcohol addiction is a cause for concern. But the concern over mothers drinking has historically been especially fraught. Throughout modern history, it’s been “more culturally problematic for women to be drunk than men, because it’s a violation of all sorts of notions of femininity,” Jacobson said. On top of that, mothering is known universally to be a hugely important job, one that doesn’t end every day at 5 p.m. or offer any time off. “Moms are never off the clock,” Jacobson said, which means any drinking a mother does could, to a critical eye, be seen as drinking on the job.

wine-mom memes could be understood as a tacit rejection of the recently idealized notion of momhood, the “supermom who can do it all”—but perhaps the existence of that standard in the first place is what makes mothering more stressful.

Additionally, the support systems that parents could count on in past generations for help have essentially disintegrated. […] Grandparents in the U.S. are less likely than grandparents in countries such as Germany and Italy to regularly help out with child care, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew suggests that this may be in part because American grandparents are more likely to still be working full-time jobs themselves.

6. Also in the Atlantic, Peter Wehner wrote a lengthy interview with/profile on Jonathan Haidt. Haidt has long discussed the widening chasm of American political identity. In this latest piece, he likens politics to medieval religious warfare:

I need to read up on how the religious wars ended in Europe, but my second- or thirdhand understanding is that it wasn’t that Europeans reached some profoundly enlightened view; they just got exhausted, and they realized, you know, we’ve got to stop this. And so that is actually my main source of hope, that things are so bad now and the fact that we can’t even confront a pandemic because of our polarization. We can’t share facts, we can’t share strategies, we can’t coordinate behavior because of our polarization. I think this will become increasingly clear.

Haidt explains how, in 1993, he traveled to India, studied conservative Christianity there, and discovered it was not “a force hostile to me as an atheist, a cosmopolitan, and a Jew, but [it was] a moral community striving for certain virtues — and I could understand those virtues and I could respect those virtues.”

Haidt has been invited to speak to various Christian organizations [raises hand] and universities and has “found a point of commonality.” “I’m always up front that I’m an atheist,” he explained, “but I say to them: I agree with you that there is a God-shaped hole in everyone’s heart.” That line reflects the sentiments expressed by Saint Augustine, and Blaise Pascal in his Pensées. “You and I disagree on how it got there. … I believe it got there by evolution, it got there naturally, and it is effectively filled by God for most people. It can be filled by other things. But I think it needs to be filled by something … . A society that has no sense of the sacred is one in which you’ll have a lot of anomie, normlessness, loneliness, hopelessness.”

7. In terms of cultivating purpose and meaning, writer Scott Beauchamp penned an insightful essay on the things our culture has forgotten that make us human. One such thing is sacrifice:

Something has fundamentally changed in the way that we make and understand meaning. Something vital has been forgotten. As Calasso describes it in The Unnamable Present, “It is as though, after millennia, imagination had been stripped of its capacity to look beyond society in search of something that gives meaning to what is going on within society.” Forgetting the negligible, the extraneous spark of life which cannot be dealt with through thought alone, the world deifies itself. And so “society appears condemned to a new and elusive superstition: the superstition of itself.” And so theology and myth become politics. And sacrifice becomes experimentation. […]

There is always a remnant to understanding, the smudge left behind by human intellect. The Vedics called this “life” and honored it with ritual and verse. Calasso calls it “meaning” and stalks its blood trail across thousands of pages of text. It is a miracle, by any term. Gratuitous like grace.

8. Lastly it would be careless not to mention this week’s major headline; that is, the disturbing death of George Floyd and the ensuing chaos in Minneapolis. Our staff is rattled by the news and sends sincere thoughts and prayers to all involved. In play are many dimensions, few of which I feel equipped to address here; but I will share this sobering diagnosis from Jelani Cobb at the New Yorker, which serves, if nothing else, as a reminder of the double-bind of online communication:

There is more to be said about the burgeoning genre of videos capturing the deaths of black Americans, and the complex combination of revulsion and compulsion that accompanies their viewing. They are the macabre documentary of current events, but the question remains about whether they do more to humanize or to objectify the unwilling figures at the center of their narratives. Death is too intimate a phenomenon to not be distorted by a mass audience. Yesterday, very few of us knew who George Floyd was, what he cared about, how he lived his life. Today, we know him no better save for the grim way in which that life met its end.

Christianity Today was among several outlets to provide a fuller picture of the man. Their tribute, published yesterday, describes a Christian who was actively engaged in ministry: “he lent a helping hand as the church put on services, three-on-three basketball tournaments, barbecues, and community baptisms”; and “[t]here are things that Floyd did for us that we’ll never know until the other side of eternity.” Kate Shellnut continues:

The viral video of Floyd pinned to the pavement by a Minnesota police officer joins a devastating canon of cell phone footage depicting police using force against black men. […] Despite their innocence, their faith, their good deeds, [Floyd’s friends in ministry] have their own stories of being suspected, humiliated, and threatened by authorities, Lillard told CT.

And now they’re put in the position of rightly remembering a man they knew as a gentle giant, an inspiration to his neighborhood, and a positive force for change. But they also say that shouldn’t matter. He was a fellow image-bearer, and that should have been enough to keep him from the aggressive treatment they saw in the viral clip. Floyd’s family and supporters say the officers involved—who were fired from the department—should face murder charges.

Pastor Ngwolo is still trying to process the news, but one theme he keeps coming back to is the shedding of innocent blood. After Cain’s superiority and animosity drove him to kill Abel, Scripture tells us, “The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground’” (Gen. 4:10).

“If you fast-forward 2,000 years, there’s another innocent sufferer whose blood spoke of better things than Abel’s. … Jesus’ blood says he can redeem us through these dark and perilous times,” Ngwolo said. “I have hope because just like Abel is a Christ figure, I see my brother [Floyd] as a Christ figure as well, pointing us to a greater reality. God does hear us. He hears his cry even from the ground now. Vengeance will either happen on the cross or will happen on Judgment Day.”


Featured image by Jim West/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock.