Another Week Ends

1. I recently had a conversation with an elderly woman who became supremely concerned over […]

CJ Green / 6.30.17

1. I recently had a conversation with an elderly woman who became supremely concerned over whether or not I would work on the 4th of July. “Surely you’ll take off a federal holiday,” she intoned. I admitted that I probably would but hadn’t made any plans yet. That wasn’t enough to defuse the tizzy that followed, an agonized cascade of complaints about workaholism, how young people these days are married to their jobs. “I get it,” she lamented; “there are ladders to climb, there’s money to save. But is work all there is?”

This week, B.D. McClay asked a similar question in her excellent article for Comment, “I Was Told There Would Be More” (ht RS). What now drives working adults, McClay argues, is the fear of being unsuccessful, a loser:

My peers know they are expected to do whatever it takes to be a desirable employee—move anywhere at any time, do anything, stay available, work as long as possible—but they also know that even as they hollow out their lives to accommodate the demands of the workplace, they can’t expect much. What’s crucial is taking the advantage that you can—by being, for instance, the woman who never needs to take maternity leave (if it’s even available); or the man who never has to leave early to take care of his kids; or by never being sick, disabled, or needy. They understand they live in a world in which the worst thing one can ever be is vulnerable. What they have total contempt for, deep in their bones, is the loser.

In a thrilling twist fit for sci-fi, McClay then examines what would happen if the job market were subsumed by robots, leaving humankind without work and, most tragically, devoid of identity. Now—from my imperious position in the blogger’s chair—I can neither affirm nor reject the claim that we are headed toward a “post-work future.” Sounds dubious to me, but who am I. I will say, however, that her inquiry works best as a thought experiment: Imagine we are replaced by robots in the job market…what then will it mean to be an adult when work is taken away? How much do I define myself by my ability to stay off my parents’ couch?

In thinking this through, McClay cites philosopher William James, author of among other things The Varieties of Religious Experience:

But though James often celebrates a certain kind of willfulness—choosing to believe, choosing to live, choosing to do the hard thing—he disdained, at the same time, what he called “the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS.” His desire was for people to stop being so afraid of losing status that they were unwilling to live. His disdain is aimed entirely at the wealthy, who are too frightened of losing what they have to take a risk, build a life, or have a family. And if he were writing now, he might take on a different kind of fear—not of poverty, but of this future without work. What is your adulthood, he might ask, if it can’t exist without this prop? Don’t you know that there are many people who have never been able to be self-reliant, to work? Can’t you live if this is taken away?

Suppose adulthood were not synonymous with independence, not synonymous with working, not synonymous with grit or with achievement. Suppose adulthood is instead about accepting dependence, that you can’t take care of everything on your own, that you have limits; suppose the story we need is not the one about the worker who always says yes, but the person who is willing to say no—to the boss, to the job, to work.

As DZ wrote in his post, What I Didn’t Do on My Summer Vacation, “When there is no distinction between what we do and who we are, ‘not doing’ is tantamount to ‘not being,’ i.e., if we’re not working or achieving, we’re dead, and nothing is scarier than that.” McClay anticipates a “post-work” future, but given that we are so tied to our work, perhaps—even with the robots—we may never quite be able to give it up: work seems inextricable from our very being; and the occasion of rest marks something more divine, grace.

2. Such themes—rest, vulnerability, finding identity in something besides work—are all interwoven in Mary Wakefield’s endearingly honest interview with Jean Vanier, who is known for establishing L’Arche communities, sanctuaries for people with intellectual disabilities. This, from the most recent issue of The Spectator:

The L’Arche communities are peaceful places, but they’re a puzzle for the West. We all talk great game on equality but the truth is most of us think: ‘I’d rather be dead than very disabled.’ Witness the hundreds of poor babies with Down’s syndrome aborted each year. So how can these men and women at L’Arche be living better lives than our own?

Vanier explained: ‘Look, there are two realities, two cultures. There is a culture of power and there is a culture of relationships. The men and women I live with see that it is good to be together and we don’t have to solve all the problems of the world when we are together. They teach me to lighten up.’ […]

According to the philosophy of L’Arche, men and women with learning disabilities — loving and guileless — teach us how to live. But, says Vanier, they have another lesson for us too — they also teach us the mystery of living with loss. This I find unnerving. What is the mystery of loss?

‘We all live with loss,’ said Vanier. ‘It’s inevitable. We begin, most of us, by being loved totally when we’re born — then we enter into a world of loss, a mystery of loss. Every time you lose a job, or something precious, or there’s death, there’s loss. We cannot live without this movement of loss and gain. But some people are so frightened of loss, they are just scared stiff of loss.’

He laughed. I didn’t. I thought of a life spent acquiring and keeping safe: a husband, the baby, a house, the great stream of packages from Amazon. The possibilities for loss give me vertigo.

‘You can’t escape it,’ said Jean Vanier, gently. ‘In the end, you even lose what you feel is yourself. We all do. There’s a beauty in that. There’s a beauty even in something like Alzheimer’s, because it is a cry. It’s not a disaster, it’s a cry for a one-to-one.’

Wakefield goes on to question Vanier’s use of the word ‘beauty’ here. Can catastrophe, she asks, really be skewed as beauty? A fair question, to be sure, but Vanier’s view does seem to reflect how God sees the world—that what may seem ugly to the world is beautiful to him.

3. Re: the ongoing conversation about mental health and how Christians should deal with it, Fr. Stephen Freeman, over at Ancient Faith, wrote a wonderful article about his own experiences: “A Priest’s Thoughts on Depression, Anxiety, the Soul, Your Body and Your Brain.”

Somewhat problematic, I think, is the not infrequent distinction made between anxiety and depression as physical/medical problems and as so-called “spiritual” problems. There is no such distinction. We do not have “spiritual” problems that are not also physical problems, simply because we do not exist as some sort of divisible creatures. We could say that the whole thing is spiritual (including medicine). We do not have a “spiritual” life that is not connected with our body. We are human beings. Among the most torturous things I endured in my first year of suffering was having a group of well-meaning Christians gathered around me to cast out the demons, some of them convinced that there was some “unconfessed sin” in my life. I’m fortunate that my belief in God survived…

Modern research in Affect Theory has identified shame as the “master emotion,” and as a primary root of anxiety and depression. Of course, we live in a culture that, though riddled with shame, often treats it as a taboo topic. This is especially true for men. A book I read several years ago on male depression was aptly named, The Problem Men Never Discuss. If depression is taboo, shame is more so. The desert fathers attacked the Noonday Devil at its very roots, discovering that the “way up is the way down.” Following the path of Christ in His voluntary acceptance of the shame of the Cross, they discovered the freedom that comes when the very deepest of all wounds is healed. In that healing, they found true peace, the ability to love and forgive, and the place of the deep heart.

Freeman goes on to describe the distinction between medication and treatment, that medication is a means of coping but not necessarily “curing.” The Cure, he suggests, will address something much deeper, not simply tempering the symptoms. That’s not to say medication should be taboo or disregarded, he insists. “I shudder when I hear someone describe medication as a ‘crutch.’ I’ve heard the same thing said of religion. Given how crippled we are, it makes little sense to despise crutches.

4. Over at Commonweal, Anthony Domestico interviewed Francis Spufford, a Mockingbird-fave, about his new novel Golden Hill (ht SZ). (You can read our 2013 interview with Spufford here.) It’s a fun interview for sure, and towards the end Spufford discusses the narrative essence of Christianity, touching on, importantly, a theology of the cross:

I think of myself as a writer who happens to be a Christian, not a “Christian writer.” But an incarnational religion is a narrative one. We have Christ’s presence in story as well as in sacrament.

What I am finding is that the gospel, as a narrative, seems to function as a kind of attractor for me while I am telling stories. Without deliberately alluding to it, or meaning consciously to create any kind of counterpart of it, I seem to keep tracing around it, to keep drawing out partial, wandering, approximate, sometimes parodic or borderline-blasphemous outlines of its shape. Give me a story about a stranger who comes to town and instantly there, nearby, is the possibility that he may be a sin-eater or scapegoat, in some kind of redemptive relation to the ills, individual and shared, of the place he comes to. Give me a comedy of human fallibility, and I start to wonder whether the wisdom of God may be at work in it as well as the foolishness of man; but I also find myself reaching for some of the black paste of tragedy to stir in, because of the Christian story’s insistence on the mortal stakes for which we human idiots play. Conversely, give me a tragedy, and I seem to start tilting it towards laughter, because of the awareness that Easter Sunday follows Good Friday. It’s a tragi-comic religion, Christianity, hopelessly mixed in genre—the only one I know that ends with a death sentence and then a wedding.

5. Circling back to the work-and-play theme once more, this week Quartz published an article by Tracy Chou, a “leading Silicon Valley engineer” who examined the importance of humanities in technology development. She tells of a time early in her career when, while working for the question-and-answer site Quora, engineering questions suddenly became humanities questions:

We pondered the philosophical question—also very relevant to our product—of whether people were by default good or bad. If people were mostly good, then we would design the product around the idea that we could trust users, with controls for rolling back the actions of bad actors in the exceptional cases. If they were by default bad, it would be better to put all user contributions and edits through approvals queues for moderator review.

(Interesting question, Tracy. Here’s what we think.)

Ruefully—and with some embarrassment at my younger self’s condescending attitude toward the humanities—I now wish that I had strived for a proper liberal arts education. That I’d learned how to think critically about the world we live in and how to engage with it. That I’d absorbed lessons about how to identify and interrogate privilege, power structures, structural inequality, and injustice. That I’d had opportunities to debate my peers and develop informed opinions on philosophy and morality. And even more than all of that, I wish I’d even realized that these were worthwhile thoughts to fill my mind with—that all of my engineering work would be contextualized by such subjects.

There’s certainly something to this, perhaps mainly that questions of “what is man” and “what is God” are ultimate ones, which follow us no matter what our field. And although I do appreciate Chou’s epiphany, I can’t help but see this increasingly popular appraisal of the humanities as yet another way to speed up the hamster wheel of optimization. True as it is that the humanities will prove useful to engineers, that does not fundamentally determine the humanities’ value. The humanities by definition resist empiricism and number-crunching; and perhaps worth cannot always be reduced to metrics, to what we can measure.

A similar theme is addressed in this recent article from Aeon, “The key to jobs in the future is not college but compassion.”

6. For The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf analyzed a recent study by the University of Chicago, which discovered that when likeminded individuals discuss their opinions, they only become more extreme. Not much of a surprise there—it’s evidence of the way we are naturally turned in on ourselves, that we look to our reflections for saving (incurvatus in se).

When, for example, so much of our lives exist on social media, most of us are only speaking to ourselves, or to people with similar viewpoints. As has been pointed out before, in November, many Americans had little-to-no acquaintances voting for the other party; and if they did, they likely had long-since blocked them on Facebook (or so I’d speculate, from personal experience).

There are Americans who wonder why this big, diverse country should try to stay together. Wouldn’t it be better, they argue, for cosmopolitan cities and coastal Blue States to go one way, while Red America goes another way, with both jurisdictions moving closer to the culture a majority of their members prefer?

On college campuses, too, there are those who wish that there was less diversity of viewpoint and belief, and seek to “train” everyone in the views that they regard to be settled and enlightened. And almost all of us belong to at least one social network where our feeds are disproportionately composed of content produced by people who are a lot like us.

But for all the benefits of agreement, solidarity, and spending time with like-minded people, there is compelling evidence of a big cost: the likeminded make us more confident that we know everything and more set and extreme in our views. And that makes groups of like-minded people more prone to groupthink, more vulnerable to fallacies, and less circumspect and moderate in irreversible decisions they make.

Conversely, if we can harness the strengths of viewpoint diversity, our collectives can reach better decisions. We can, in fact, be better off together than we would be apart.

Funny, though, how humans gravitate toward social echo-chambers; partly, sure, it’s because we like hearing what we like to hear. But also, perhaps, it’s because we’re so innately forgetful. We hear a bit of good news and then go right on acting as if we’d never heard it. There are some messages that we may just need to hear over and over.