Another Week Ends

1. Let’s start this round-up with a beautiful story from an unlikely source. Last week, The […]

CJ Green / 9.22.17

1. Let’s start this round-up with a beautiful story from an unlikely source. Last week, The Wall Street Journal published an incredible exposition on forgiveness, “The Challenge of Jewish Repentance,” by Jonathan Sacks. Beginning with Genesis, Sacks describes how Jewish history has always revolved around the general wheel of transgression and forgiveness, disobedience and mercy.

With Rosh Hashanah having begun Wednesday evening, Sacks explains how, during the Ten Days of Repentance, Jews are put “on trial for [their] lives.” Focused on the confession of sins, it marks a time to marvel at the God “whose property is always to have mercy”:

As the religion writer Jack Miles once pointed out, you can see the difference in the contrast between Sophocles and Shakespeare. For Sophocles, Oedipus must battle against blind, inexorable fate. For Shakespeare, writing in a monotheistic age, the drama of “Hamlet” lies within, between “the native hue of resolution” and “the pale cast of thought.”

The trouble is, of course, that faced with choice, we often make the wrong one. Given a second chance, Adam and Eve would probably pass on the fruit. Cain might work a little harder on his anger management. And there is a straight line from these biblical episodes to the destruction left by Homo sapiens: war, murder, human devastation and environmental destruction.

That is still our world today. The key fact about us, according to the Bible, is that uniquely in an otherwise law-governed universe, we are able to break the law—a power that we too often relish exercising.

This raises an acute theological dilemma. How are we to reconcile God’s high hopes for humanity with our shabby and threadbare moral record? The short answer is forgiveness. […]

Meaning comes not from systems of thought but from stories, and the Jewish story is among the most unusual of all. It tells us that God sought to make us His partners in the work of creation, but we repeatedly disappointed Him. Yet He never gives up. He forgives us time and again. The real religious mystery for Judaism is not our faith in God but God’s faith in us.

True enough, the structure is cyclical: God’s people break the Law, God acts surprised and angry, and then he forgives them—rescues them from Egypt, rescues them from Babylon. This is the heart of the matter—not that we eventually learn to be good people, but that God, in his mercy, redeems bad ones.

2. There may be no quicker way to show that need for forgiveness than by looking at our relationships. Psychologist Eli Finkel’s new book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage, has sparked a lot of discussion on the interwebs. Of course, anything subtitled “How the Best Marriages Work” is guaranteed to raise some eyebrows. Two responses in particular I want to highlight here.

First, from Julie Beck, who wrote previously about the exhausting trajectory of modern romance. Here, she argues that the gist of Finkel’s analysis comes down to American individualism. Much of our current relational stress, she says, arises from our obsession over numero uno:

…the self is now seen as a “value base”—that is, a good so self-evident that it doesn’t even need to be questioned. Just as a devout Christian would not question the importance of God’s will, a modern Westerner would likely not question the importance of being “true to yourself.” […]

Modern Americans are freer than ever to spend their time finding the right person, the one who will improve their lives. And they’re freer than ever to leave. Not just in the sense of “you can get divorced now,” but cultural norms have created an environment where it’s easy to feel like if something doesn’t work out right away, you should pull out your phone and look for other options. Where high expectations are often disappointed. Where, after enough letdowns, people may lose faith in finding the kind of fulfillment they seek outside of themselves. Where they wander through the mating market, halfheartedly picking up the bruised wares, then putting them back in the bin when they’re not shiny enough.

Likewise, in his most recent op-ed for the Times, “When Life Asks for Everything,” David Brooks takes a similar approach, viewing modern relationships through two “models of human development”: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and what he calls “the Four Kinds of Happiness” model; the first model, he argues, is more individualistic and the one by which we currently strive to abide:

In [Maslow’s] conception, a marriage exists to support the individual self-actualization of each of the partners. In a marriage, the psychologist Otto Rank wrote, “one individual is helping the other to develop and grow, without infringing too much on the other’s personality.” You should choose the spouse who will help you elicit the best version of yourself. Spouses coach each other as each seeks to realize his or her most authentic self.

“Increasingly,” Finkel writes, “Americans view this definition as a crucial component of the marital relationship.”

Now I confess, this strikes me as a cold and detached conception of marriage. If you go into marriage seeking self-actualization, you will always feel frustrated because marriage, and especially parenting, will constantly be dragging you away from the goals of self.

In the Four Happiness frame, by contrast, marriage can be a school in joy. You might go into marriage in a fit of passion, but, if all works out, pretty soon you’re chopping vegetables side by side in the kitchen, chasing a naked toddler as he careens giddily down the hall after bath-time, staying up nights anxiously waiting for your absent teenager, and every once in a while looking out over a picnic table at the whole crew on some summer evening, feeling a wave of gratitude sweep over you, and experiencing a joy that is greater than anything you could feel as a “self.”

And it all happens precisely because the self melded into a single unit called the marriage. Your identity changed. The distinction between giving and receiving, altruism and selfishness faded away because in giving to the unit you are giving to a piece of yourself.

Certainly this latter model better represents surrender, and the former, endless chasing. And while it’s helpful to identify which model we may be currently captive to, for most of us, the answer is probably a little bit of both. With refreshing honesty, Brooks writes that in any case “none of us lives up to our ideals in marriage or anything else.”

More importantly, between Beck’s coverage and Brooks’, and Adam Morton’s recent post (see: “Jim Carrey believes we don’t matter”), there’s something undeniably stinky about stalwart individualism. All of these articles whisper something along the lines of “I, alone, am not enough.”

3. But now, for a laugh: how did we miss this one from Mallory Ortberg, from over the summer? Better late than never, I suppose: “Things I Have Yelled at My Television, Which Cannot Hear Me, While Watching Grantchester.” This, from the intro:

The last time I was a houseguest I was with Nicole in Utah, and we watched the entire first season of Grantchester, which is one of those fiddly British murder mystery shows that seems profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of coziness and where every other line feels like it ought to be, “Hey, let’s just sit tight until the 1970s, yeah?” I found myself in a constant state of incomprehensible fury against the handsome male protagonist, which is unusual for me; handsome light-haired men normally send me into a state of extreme docility and relaxation, like a dog getting its ears scritched. I’ve never hated anyone like I hated this dude, and it was 100% due to the fact that he is a bad vicar who neglects his pastoral duties in favor of solving crimes and trying to develop a drinking problem. I know that everyone in the UK is mostly embarrassed about having a religion, but still, if you’re going to wear your collar backwards, then you have to set aside your sexy lake duckings and fraught dinner parties for CONTEMPLATION and OFFERING CONSOLATION TO THE BEREAVED. I have no issue with, like, a rich lady who neglects her social duties in favor of solving crimes, or whatever, but every once in a while my Protestant upbringing rears up and surprises me and I found myself yelling at the screen every five minutes.

4. On a more serious note, ESPN’s profile of Seahawks running back Eddie Lacy details his problems with self-image and weight—which left him, tragically, as a cheeseburger-eating meme.

It’s a moving article. Note the lack of forced optimism throughout, especially towards the end. While taking seriously the challenges of weight loss and Internet bullying, the piece also shows that the bad things in our lives, the very issues we [continue to] deal with, may be the very things that bring about some ultimate good:

In this era of social media, once you become a meme, it doesn’t really go away. The internet never forgets. Lacy is mostly at peace with that. He posted his Beachbody workouts on Twitter and Instagram this past offseason, knowing he’d be mocked. (He was.) He does find snippets of encouragement in the handful of positive comments: “Every one of those gave me a little more courage,” Lacy says.

Even after a promising preseason, the trolls returned en masse on his Instagram after a disappointing performance (five carries for just 3 yards) against his former team in Seattle’s first game: Eddie Lacy needs to go vegan like yesterday! Maybe you shoulda put the Eddie Burgers from A&W down and you’d still be on the Packers’ roster. And they swarmed on Twitter after he was a healthy scratch in Week 2: Eddie Lacy getting millions to be a lazy fat f—.

If he’s being honest, though, there is a part of him that kind of likes being big.

Sometimes Lacy likes to imagine there is a kid out there following his career, maybe someone who is a little thick around the waist and not blessed with great metabolism but who has quick feet and great balance. Someone wants to make that kid a lineman, but he wants to stay at running back. Maybe he lives in a trailer, feeling lost and displaced, but he stares up at the stars on his ceiling at night, dreaming of the unlikely but not impossible.

There’s something incarnational about this, that what Lacy has to offer are his own issues, that he won’t inspire as a conquerer but as a still-struggling empathizer.

5. Over at Aeon, neuropsychology professor Chris Frith wrote about agency—arguing (nothing new in neuropsych) that our “sense of agency” is largely “illusory.” He then suggests that “agency” may serve to help us justify our actions, to help maintain responsibility and accountability in society.

We humans like to think of ourselves as mindful creatures. We have a vivid awareness of our subjective experience and a sense that we can choose how to act – in other words, that our conscious states are what cause our behaviour. Afterwards, if we want to, we might explain what we’ve done and why. But the way we justify our actions is fundamentally different from deciding what to do in the first place.

Or is it? Most of the time our perception of conscious control is an illusion. Many neuroscientific and psychological studies confirm that the brain’s ‘automatic pilot’ is usually in the driving seat, with little or no need for ‘us’ to be aware of what’s going on. Strangely, though, in these situations we retain an intense feeling that we’re in control of what we’re doing, what can be called a sense of agency. […]

Contrary to what many people believe, I think agency is only relevant to what happens after we act – when we try to justify and explain ourselves to each other. […]

A consensus need not be accurate to be attractive or useful, of course. For a long time everyone agreed that the Sun went round the Earth. Perhaps our sense of agency is a similar trick: it might not be ‘true’, but it maintains social cohesion by creating a shared basis for morality. It helps us understand why people act as they do – and, as a result, makes it is easier to predict people’s behaviour.

6. Finally, this: in a humorous little anecdote, the Jim Carrey story continues:

Jim Carrey. “Electric Jesus.”

I do think that Jesus was a great soul and an amazing teacher, and in that way god, as we all are. I’m not really about the historical person as much as I am the energy behind the person, but he’s constantly coming up in my head. I definitely remember the first time he came up in my work: It was in art class, grade three or four, and because I was in Catholic school, I decided to draw a really beautiful picture of him. I was so proud of it, and I couldn’t wait to bring it home and show my parents, because I’d show them all my art and they’d flip out and throw me the metaphorical dog bone and tell me how special I was. But on the way out of the school yard, some bully got in front of me, and this gang started picking on me for it, saying, ‘You drew a picture of the lord.’ A fight started, and I just remember seeing the picture float through the air between bodies and a mud puddle, because it had been raining, face down. And then I became like a whirling dervish and just started punching faces, any face that I could find. I lost my mind. It was like somebody killed my baby. I don’t remember what happened exactly—all I know is I punched a lot of people that day. [Laughs.] Maybe not the reaction you want, and not the reaction Jesus would have wanted, but it just took over. There was love in that picture, and someone was ruining my art, and I couldn’t have it. I’m a different person now, though—it would still hurt, but I wouldn’t punch them in the face.



One response to “Another Week Ends: Stories of Forgiveness, Electric Jesus, Selfish Marriages, Bad Vicars, Exhausted Chefs, and Discount Books”

  1. Sean says:

    Appreciated. Thx, CJ.

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