Another Week Ends

1. What says entrepreneurship like the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church? The subject of […]

Ethan Richardson / 7.20.18

1. What says entrepreneurship like the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church? The subject of this season of Start Up, the popular podcast from the guys at Gimlet Media, is “church planting,” specifically one church plant in Philadelphia, its lead pastor, and the difficulties of getting such a church to self-sufficiency in a certain amount of time, both organizationally and personally. And while the potential for ridicule is rife with such a context, so far, the first three episodes have been wildly sympathetic to the cause, even compassionate to “the call” which drove it. This week’s episode in particular explores the difficult line any entrepreneur must draw between what is ambitious and what simply lies beyond one’s locus of control–but how that particular contrast is difficult in the realm of faith, because everything is seemingly dependent upon God. Is success from God? Is failure from a lack of hustle, or is it ordained? And is it possible that being a “good entrepreneur,” a good salesman, might also make you a “bad Christian?” These are the questions they explore, with a surprising amount of finesse.

This episode, “The Paradox,” follows the pastor AJ and his wife Leah (both exceedingly likeable) through their first Easter Sunday with the church, where they have packaged free dinners to give away to folks in the neighborhood. With this investment comes a lot of questions for AJ and Leah about what exactly they’re hoping for, and whether or not such a marketing move is really just a gimmick, not faith. At one point Leah remarks that “I think I need this church to do something for me that it just cannot do. I need a win.”

“I was talking to God, praying a little bit, and I realized how quickly and crazily these last few months have been. I can see myself going like that for years or decades and maybe waking up in 20 years and realizing I’ve been working and producing and treating my role as a pastor just like someone who works in a corporation or something like that. I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle, having goals the way the world defines success, creating a church using my own strength.”

2. Lots of talk about perfectionism this week, especially as it relates to mental health. The Guardian’s article on the “Intolerable Rise of Perfectionism” samples a number of young adults who have become almost literally paralyzed by perfectionism, spending hours and hours in a library to write a paper and leaving with 10 words written. Perfectionism has links to obsessive compulsive tendencies as well as depression, which the article describes, but its the sufferers’ descriptions of this trait that is so relevant to understandings of “the bondage of the will.”

“Every day feels suboptimal,” he says. Nicol knows that one of the reasons he excels – not a word he would choose – in chemistry is his ability “to pick things apart conceptually”. Applied to his own behaviour, though, his talent turns against him. A merciless “mental punishment” ensues. On one hand, Nicol is philosophical about the elusiveness of perfection. “The chaotic nature of our world means that it’s going to be extremely transient and even if you attain it for a moment, if you’re a striving kind of person, you’ll want the next thing,” he says. On the other, he castigates himself for falling short. “There is no excuse. If I slept for two hours the night before, I still berate myself for not being able to work, even if my brain feels like treacle.” Nicol battles “the mental difficulties” of perfectionism, “the cyclical nature of ‘You’re terrible!’”.

Another form of perfectionism, the perfectionism of “effortlessness,” is brought to us this week by none other than McSweeney’s: “MEDICAL REPORT: WOMAN HOSPITALIZED AFTER ATTEMPTING EFFORTLESS LIFESTYLE.”

Patient reported initiating her effortless lifestyle with classic gateway forays — using only tinted moisturizer and Vaseline to look fresh, rested, and ready for anything, then “throwing together” an impromptu eleven-person dinner party featuring a charming éclade de moules, followed by champagne sorbet in mismatched gold leaf goblets from her fiancé’s grandmother. “I shopped for all the ingredients at the Farmer’s Market on the way home from work, then showered, jumped into a paisley caftan and entertained until 3 AM without ever going to the bathroom. It was all soooo easy.”

3. In the virtue signaling department, we’ve talked a little bit about the aspirational community of WeWork, but that was before they announced they would not be covering people’s meat expenditures. No sir. Meat, like guns and illegal substances, might be acceptable on your free time, but the boss is not going to support it on site. While the article did not mention that the MOST environmentally friendly option is childlessness, the CEO of WeWork announced its new policy under the guise of ecological responsibility. Bloomberg reports a different take, that this is virtue signaling in the age of the “meaning economy.” Makes you wonder how enforcement is going to happen…

Nothing says “We’re a tribe” like food taboos. Dietary restrictions establish boundaries and define identity. Think of kosher food and Jews, halal meat and Muslims, vegetarianism and Brahmins — or the cultural differences between completely secular vegans and paleo diet devotees.

“Any food taboo, acknowledged by a particular group of people as part of its ways, aids in the cohesion of this group, helps that particular group maintain its identity in the face of others, and therefore creates a feeling of ‘belonging,’” observes ethnobiologist Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow in a much-cited paper. Think of the ban as team building. Of course, group cohesion also fosters exclusion. For all the lip service to diversity, corporate tribalism enforces legally acceptable homogeneity.

Quartz, too, got into the moral righteousness game, too, in this piece on the impossibility of ethical perfection. They are really saying what CJ said so wonderfully earlier this week, that everyone is complicit in sin.

And while we’re on the subject of “signaling,” a term that has been used by economists to describe consumer behavior specifically and then all human behavior period, this New Yorker piece describes how such catchy terms, that we often read about in think-pieces of all stripes, are guilty of “intellectual overextension.” They have a point, and they are insightful, but they’re also not the point, the explanation of everything. Oftentimes, what such profitable taglines are really after is a way to distance a more complex–more painful–truth:

…professionals use the language of economics as a tool for dissociating—for switching off their feelings. He gave an example: he and some colleagues had been sitting at a meeting analyzing a company’s balance sheet. They were discussing the business’s “churn,” meaning the rate at which it lost customers and had to acquire new ones, and the resulting effect on profitability. He said that in the middle of the discussion he had a sudden moment of clarity, and had to get up and walk out. The business under discussion was a chain of retirement and nursing homes. “Churn” in this context meant the death of its residents. They were sitting around the table, talking about death. That, he said, was what the language was for: to let you talk about human realities without feeling their impact—to ignore death.

4. I never saw Armando Iannucci’s 2017 film, The Death of Stalin, but I’m sad I missed it. This article is not really about the film, though, so much as it about the villainization of weakness in light of recent sexual misconduct allegations in unlikely places, including the head of Shambhala International, the leading Buddhist organization in the West. What the writer Kevin D. Williamson argues is that weak men are the only kind of men there are. This is the message of Christianity.

Christianity is a fortunate religion in the sense that the endless moral failings of its leaders (and followers) keeps illustrating, generation after generation, the fundamental facts of the creed. The creeds based on human perfectibility, which is the romantic notion at the heart of all utopian thinking, have as their main problem the countervailing example of everybody you’ve ever met and ever will.

It is tempting to make like the Pharisee rather than the publican and say: “God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” It is unpleasant to meditate on the truth at the center of Christianity, and perhaps at the center of all wisdom: I am like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous. (I have never been guilty of collecting taxes.) We must sympathize with the victims and care for them, but we must also identify with the malefactors, who are made of the same stuff as we are, cut from the same crooked timber. In the black comedy of The Death of Stalin, we see men — extraordinarily powerful men — who mainly are acting not out of malice or inherent wickedness but out of terror…Would you be so brave with your wife and children being held in another cell? Or would you beg, connive, lie, simper, degrade yourself, and, if necessary, murder to keep yourself and your loved ones away from those gunshots? Can you ever really trust a weak man? Is there another kind?

5. And finally, for the gardeners out there, who also happen to be artists, take it from Brian Eno, who argues that creative pursuits are more about surrender and less about control than we may like to think, more like gardening and less like architecture (ht AJ). 

And essentially the idea there is that one is making a kind of music in the way that one might make a garden.  One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life.  And that life isn’t necessarily exactly what you’d envisaged for them. It’s characteristic of the kind of work that I do that I’m really not aware of how the final result is going to look or sound.  So in fact, I’m deliberately constructing systems that will put me in the same position as any other member of the audience. I want to be surprised by it as well. And indeed, I often am.

What this means, really, is a rethinking of one’s own position as a creator.  You stop thinking of yourself as me, the controller, you the audience, and you start thinking of all of us as the audience, all of us as people enjoying the garden together.  Gardener included. So there’s something in the notes to this thing that says something about the difference between order and disorder. It’s in the preface to the little catalog we have.  Which I take issue with, actually, because I think it isn’t the difference between order and disorder, it’s the difference between one understanding of order and how it comes into being, and a newer understanding of how order comes into being.

P.S. No new Mockingcast this week, as the hosts are on vacation – look for a new one next Friday (and the Friday after that!).