Another Week Ends

1. First up, Amy Larocca over at The Cut delves into “The Wellness Epidemic,” ht CB: Paltrow […]

Will McDavid / 7.7.17

1. First up, Amy Larocca over at The Cut delves into “The Wellness Epidemic,” ht CB:

Paltrow began to describe in detail her exercise regimen with her trainer Tracy Anderson, who believes one should work out two hours a day, six days a week. Then she began providing information on a cleanse she does each January. The mission became less about revealing the trappings of the good life and more about the notion that the really good life is internal. Rich and beautiful people don’t just go to nicer places, their organs work better. They even know how to breathe better, with more oxygen per ounce. They’re not afraid to try fecal transplants, with really top-notch, vegan-only feces. Goop became less about hotels and restaurants and more about chakras and thyroids, with the implication that maybe what’s actually standing between you and your inner Gwyneth is some mysterious virus that your overextended, pharmaceutically corrupt doctor is too narrow-minded to address. . .

Four decades later, wellness is not only a word you hear every day; it’s a global industry worth billions — one that includes wellness tourism, alternative medicine, and anti-aging treatments. The competition for a hunk of that market is intense: In Manhattan, two for-profit meditation studios are vying to become the SoulCycle of meditation, and Saks Fifth Avenue has temporarily converted its second floor into a “Wellery,” where you can experience aroma and light therapy in a glass booth filled with salt, or get plugged into a meditation app during a manicure. Every giant corporation has a wellness program: yoga at Goldman Sachs, communal sleep logs at JPMorgan Chase. . .

Wellness is used to sell hotel rooms (“Stay well at Westin Hotels & Resorts, a place where together, we can rise”) and condos (Leonardo DiCaprio just sold his “wellness” condo, but Deepak Chopra still has one at the same address), and it has become a political movement, too. “Radical Self Care” seeks to heal wounds both recent (Trump) and systemic (trauma as a result of one’s race or gender), using the words of the poet Audre Lorde as a rallying cry: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” . . .

[W]hat’s perhaps most striking about wellness’s ascendancy is that it’s happening because, in our increasingly bifurcated world, even those who do have access to pretty good (and sometimes quite excellent, if quite expensive) traditional health care are left feeling, nonetheless, incredibly unwell.”

Let’s compare this to Gnosticism. An esoteric cult where a set of ever-changing secrets offer the promise of transcendence? Check. Devalutation of the body? Mixed. It affirms the physical world, but only a very small slice of it. Yesterday’s answer—say, spirulina—may be today’s derided quackery. More fundamentally, pushups & situps, morning runs, and an apple a day don’t begin to cut it. The new cures or regimens are offered, and they are almost as quickly consumed by some inveterate inward dissatisfaction which just doesn’t seem to stay at bay for very long. And sometimes we prefer to render our spiritual unrest in physical form so that we can control it and thereby cure it. I’m not a scientist, but I’ve heard more medical folks speculate about overdiagnosis of certain allergies.

What about exclusivity? The good life don’t come cheap. In fairness to Paltrow et al, we have built a world where McDonald’s is probably cheaper than a homecooked meal, and to navigate this maze of unhealthy food, sedentary entertainment, and chemical distractions requires a sort of esoteric discipline—exercise, avocados—into which, sadly, only a subset of (disproportionately privileged) Americans are initiated. But buying a wellness condo takes it into a new, and unnecessary, stratosphere. Of course, sticking with the control motif, just as a scientific age wants to render all of its problems scientifically (or pseudo-scientifically) addressable, those with money want to buy wellness. To hammers, everything kinda looks like a nail.

It seems the wellness movement has become (or always was) a truly religious phenomenon. When transcendence is taken away, you’ve got to make something spiritual, transcendent, and sacred with what you have. And that’s one reason why, just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are few aromatherapists in the Southern Baptist pews.

As a replacement for religion in general, something filling a spiritual void (—and you have to think Dawkins and the rational humanist types are positively dismayed by the Chakra-crystals among their flock—), wellness manages fairly well. It promises truth, transcendence, self-improvement, and control. It tends to simplify hard problems, and it puts us firmly in the driver’s seat.

I don’t mean to sound too cynical. As a replacement for religion in general, the wellness movement also offers some genuinely positive moral content, at least a sense for serenity, balance, a certain type of awareness, and caring for our bodies selves. But as a replacement for Christianity, it could not be more lacking. Of all the inanimate regimens and products and protocols, not one speaks to us, or moves toward us. They may enrich a certain sort of personal inwardness, but at the expense of living in an utterly apersonal world with little out there beyond new and manifold vectors for the projection of the self. The article continues:

The criticism doesn’t faze Goop. “Our job is to be skeptical of the status quo … to offer open-minded alternatives,” Goop said in a statement, insisting, “Our content isn’t meant to instill fear … We want to give people the tools to have some autonomy over their health.”

But that sort of “autonomy” should instill fear! If I really am in control, that’s bad news. Because most people fail at wellness, so either the wellness gospel should depress me, since I’ll screw it up like others, or give me a huge ego, since I can succeed where most others fail. The fact that it is these effects on followers which are generally associated with religious fundamentalism, probably isn’t coincidental. And like fundamentalism, the allure of control and transcendence is astonishingly insensitive to facts:

One of the things that’s difficult to reconcile in the wellness world is that creeping paranoia is welcome — what are you eating? What are you putting on your skin? — yet there’s an untroubled faith in so much of the cure. A loaf of bread may be considered toxic, but a willingness to plunge into the largely unregulated world of vitamins and supplements is a given. My lovely, thorough, and smart GP says every year at my annual checkup: Please tell me you’re not taking any supplements. At best, she says, you’re doing no harm, you’re just giving yourself some very expensive pee.

2. Religion hasn’t dodged the wellness trend. The WSJ this week reported on religion’s benefits, largely through the prism of the cult of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe (!). Mr. Konner fails to list the glory of God or eternal beatitude among them—which is rather like writing an article on the benefits of ice cream without discussing its taste—but the collateral benefits of religion are apparently strong, ht MM.

3. Time for some Ke$ha Kesha! And the name’s not all that’s changed. It sounds like she has suffered immensely, and has emerged on the other side in a place of grace and peace. She lands in a bit more of a new-agey place than I have, but it sounds like she’s had a remarkably challenging and deep experience. She wrote a confessional piece over at Lenny, introducing her new song, ht DH:

This song is about me finding peace in the fact that I can’t control everything — because trying to control everyone was killing me. It’s about learning to let go and realize that the universe is in control of my fate, not me.

Without further ado, let those who have ears to hear, hear!

My read is that the “you” in the song is the Old Adam, the old Kesha, and it’s a sort of plea to herself. That the speaker is the new Kesha, fighting the monkey on her back, the pigs, which have been chief figures in NT demonic symbolism. It’s also possible that someone’s been taking visual cues from Petite Meller, which never a bad thing. The colors! Anyways, everyone’s invited to post their own hot take in the comments.

4. In literature, The New Yorker wrote a fascinating review of Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom, a novelization of the early church. From what I can tell, it seems a winsome and stretching, if not entirely orthodox, picture of the early church, ht SMZ:

Carrère bears down on the fervid and slightly kooky atmosphere of the early Church. He is interested in the unlikelihood of the sect’s eventual triumph. Local Jews might well be hostile to an upstart group that espoused such beliefs as the notion that the Messiah was God made flesh, or that we will be spiritually and physically restored to eternal life in a heavenly kingdom. . .

The second great scandal of Christianity is the radical challenge it poses to conventional morality. In the tradition of Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, Carrère emphasizes the punishing sacrifice of self that Jesus’ teaching enjoins. Classical and Jewish thinking had promoted the Golden Rule—Hillel said it was the essence of the Torah—but had never said, “Love your enemies.” And not only love your enemies but also Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. This overriding command cannot be a worldly imperative; it is impossible. It is the shocking inversion of health that Nietzsche railed against, and perhaps the “hatred of humanity” with which, Tacitus says, Christian were charged. Everything natural and human is turned upside down.

From NatGeo, below

5. In social science, National Geographic published an interesting article on lying. There’s lots to like in the article, but my favorite was an examination of why certain lies get credulity:

Researchers have shown that we are especially prone to accepting lies that affirm our worldview. Memes that claim Obama was not born in the United States, deny climate change, accuse the U.S. government of masterminding the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001, and spread other “alternative facts,” as a Trump adviser called his Inauguration crowd claims, have thrived on the Internet and social media because of this vulnerability. Debunking them does not demolish their power, because people assess the evidence presented to them through a framework of preexisting beliefs and prejudices, says George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. “If a fact comes in that doesn’t fit into your frame, you’ll either not notice it, or ignore it, or ridicule it, or be puzzled by it—or attack it if it’s threatening.”

To be equal-opportunity, politically, I’ll anecdotally share that an unflattering story about a prominent conservative had gained nearly universal credibility at a top-5-ranked graduate academic program a couple years back. A student network of highly intelligent and critical thinkers (and maybe some faculty) had accepted the story and passed it on from person to person as absolutely true—and it ended up being one of those things which no one who’d ever done thirty seconds of research would believe.

It’s a subtle example of a tendency to mistruth, that we want to immediately repeat what seems to confirm our worldviews, and we want to immediately fact-check what doesn’t. And it transcends political affiliation, though the scales may weigh more heavily on one side at one time, and on the other at a different one. (Every time I’ve fact-checked an inconvenient truth and it ended up being true, I’ve felt really dumb; most times I’ve repeated a flattering fact which ended up being wrong . . . I’ve had no idea that I did.)

Even on apolitical, utterly dry/technical topics, such as scientific research, these biases pervade. I’ll refer to The New Yorker’s wonderful 2010 article on the inability of the scientific method to totally insulate research from the vagaries of the heart, with systemic biases toward, for instance, conclusions which upset the status quo: “after a new paradigm is proposed, the peer-review process is tilted toward positive results. But then, after a few years, the academic incentives shift—the paradigm has become entrenched—so that the most notable results are now those that disprove the theory.” And if that’s true of science, I’m worried for the humanities.

In terms of Christian psychological analysis, too, it’s pretty interesting that in the article’s infographic, above, more people lie to cover up past misdeeds than for any other reason. Which would make grace a potent force for truth.

Strays: Some good ruminations at The Hedgehog Review on confession, back from 2015, ht KW; the Babylon Bee wins the prize for best analysis of the James Comey hearings; Babylon Bee also nailed it “Legalists Name Daughter ‘Grace'”; and there’s some good new johnbcrist on Millennial Missionaries. And finally, some fireworks, ht CJG:

Extra: My favorite (throwback) media consumed this week: Francis Spufford’s talks from 2014 NYC: Can You Say the Creed (And Still Call Your Soul your Own)? and On Not Being C.S. Lewis.