Another Week Ends

Post Apocalyptic Grace, Everyday Forgiveness, Diseased Mercy, Languishing Elites and The Painter & The Thief

David Zahl / 4.30.21

It’s not often that comic books make you cry. But that’s what happened the other day when I read Daniel Warren Johnson’s acclaimed post-apocalyptic graphic novel Extremity. Now, I know it’s niche niche niche, but before you scroll downward, hear me out.

Extremity tells the story of a war-torn landscape in which two rival tribes attack one another out of grievance. Basically, the leader of each troop is looking to make the other pay for harm that befell one of their own loved ones. The first volume is violent, beautiful, and nihilistic. Think Mad Max in four colors.

But the second volume is different. It opens as a small group of militants stumble into a hidden colony, full of survivors of both factions, but living together in peace. Baffled by the serenity, the group mows down citizens as they hunt for their rivals, who they’re convinced are hiding inside. The group is ultimately captured, though, and brought before the colony’s tribunal. You can see the dread on their faces. They know to expect no quarter.

Before the verdict is handed down, however, the name of every person killed is read by their family members, who also share a few words in tribute.

The colony leader, an elderly lady, then explains that this colony survives because it has abandoned the way of retribution for the way of love. At which point she bares her shoulders and allows each and every name of the fallen to be carved on her body. It’s gruesome, but the aggressors are completely undone, and for the first time in the story, hope and possibility dawn. Each side can see a way forward, beyond the closed circle of revenge.

When that leader is later laid to rest, it’s revealed that no inch of her body is not occupied by a some person’s name. Her scars are a testament that true love hurts. But it’s precisely that kind of love — the costly kind — that has actual power. Such that no amount of guns or fists could muster.

This is 1 John 4:10 for those who follow the lectionary.

The story may sound fanciful, but it resonated beyond those panels the next day when I read Elizabeth Bruenig’s stirring column in the New York Times, “Chauvin Was Convicted. Something Is Still Very Wrong.” She ruminates on the relief the verdict affected in many corners of the country while wondering about how we cope with less newsworthy infractions. The day-to-day stuff that may seem minor but accumulates over time. Her answer, come to find out, moves beyond notions of deserving into the realm of you-know-what:

As we emerge from a string of calamities with the benefit of what we’ve learned, a question worth considering is what we can do about the fact of these interpersonal damages, the sort — a rude remark, a thoughtless comment in company, a revealing gesture — that can’t be adjudicated in court but aren’t meaningless, either; the kind we simply want never to have happened, and short of that, not to happen again. What can be done about all of that suffering?

In one sense, the answer is nothing. Pain lasts, grief lasts, anger lasts. The life you had before loss is never returned to you. There’s a hole in the world, one of the many regrettable results of our human tendency to hurt one another. I look inside myself, where all of those emotions bored holes through my soul. What did I do, when did it stop?

Forgiveness doesn’t feel particularly triumphant. It’s a gift no one wants to be in the position to give; it releases a wrongdoer from moral debt — for their own good and the common good, not for the sake of the wronged. And it provides a place for those emotions that circle, vulturelike, around one’s thoughts to finally come to rest, no longer nourished by attention. It’s a strange and wanting gift for a strange and wanting world, and I would never admonish anyone for declining to extend it. God knows, I’ve failed in the practice as often as I’ve succeeded.

But I want to live in a world where it is possible to forgive and to be forgiven. In fact, I think it’s necessary. And I think it emerges not from a place of moral victory, but from the realization of human brokenness, the recognition of things lost that can’t be regained, and the emptiness that holds their place. It’s from these gaps that beautiful things sometimes grow.

Bruenig wasn’t the only one writing about the awkward necessity of forgiveness this past week. Eve Tushnet touched on the topic in her 5 Things the Disease Model Gets Wrong About Addiction. I’m not sure I’m on board with everything that comes before it, but the final item is for the ages:

[The disease model of addiction] isn’t mercy. If someone genuinely did not choose to do wrong then compassion for that person isn’t mercy — it’s justice. And conversely, if you can only have compassion on someone if you believe she did not choose her misdeeds, then you’ve defined mercy out of existence. You’re not forgiving — you’re saying there was never anything to forgive.

And I think this narrative, in which addiction destroys the will, exists precisely because we don’t trust others to have mercy on us or on those we love. A lot of people get jumpy when conservatives start talking about “personal responsibility” not because they think it’s awesome to be a self-centered overgrown infant, but because they think “personal responsibility” is code for a) conflating all forms of personal failure—mistakes, bad luck, a bad hand dealt at birth, inability to overcome massive societal injustice, misunderstandings, petty idiocy, and grave sin; and then b) punishing personal failure with contempt and cruelty.

Adam Smith had this cute little tagline, which I admit I am taking out of context, “Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.” Now first of all, mercy to the guilty is the only kind of mercy there is, see above for details. But we might also add, “Cruelty to the guilty creates pressure to declare everybody innocent.”

This follow-up from Alan Jacobs, detailing how forgiveness plays out in the MCU series The Falcon and the Winter Solider, picks up on similar themes. I’m also reminded of our post on Accidental Killers and Cities of Refuge, which teased out the key difference between empathy and forgiveness.

Next, checking in on our mental health, I was heartened to read the Economist headline that, contra the prevailing narrative, suicide has actually become rarer during the pandemic. Alas, then I spied the stats for the US, which are nevertheless staggering. Lord have mercy.

Related but (slightly) lighter in tone, Adam Grant’s piece on the blah feeling pervading the country at present, what he terms Languishing, gave me some helpful language for what I’m seeing in others and myself:

[It’s not] depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing. Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.

In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill-being: You feel despondent, drained and worthless.

Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work.

On a considerably more upbeat note, what a powerful testimony from Lutheran pastor and memoirist Katie Langston. Langston grew up in what sounds like a strict Latter-Day Saints household:

Ultimately, the thing I couldn’t reconcile in Mormonism was its emphasis on needing to qualify for God’s love. I spent a long time trying to. The fact that the temple is held out as a place where you receive the ordinances that are required for exaltation, but that access to that is gated with a standardized checklist of questions, was impossible to reconcile with the God of grace I had encountered.

The whole interview is very much worth reading, as I imagine her book Sealed: An Unintended Journey Into the Heart of Grace must be as well. If Langston’s characterization of Mormonism holds water — and I believe it does — it would add credence to those who would describe that religion as essentially American in its emphasis on mastery. Catholic writer Audrey Pollnow brought out some of those same dynamics in a newsletter on Obstacles to Elite Religion (responding to Ross Douthat’s recent NY Times editorial on the subject). She said the following:

I’ll add a third reason [why elites are unlikely to get (authentically Christian) religion]: religion undermines the sense of mastery — the experience of earned and earn-able distinction — which is central to the identity of many American elites.

To the extent that America is meritocratic, elites are winners in a system that divides people up on the basis of real (though only quite partial) virtues: they’re usually clever, ambitious, organized, competent. They find meaning and a sense of identity in doing interesting work, work that makes a difference, work that puts their faculties and training to use. Also, it’s important to them that they’re the people who “get it.”

It’s hard for such people to “get” a religion like Christianity, because it doesn’t offer the sense of mastery which they’re used to; in fact, it usually undermines it in a pretty shocking way. Most people who become Christian, who try to follow the commandments of the Church, find that it’s really difficult, and not in the “good difficult” sense that elites love—the hard workout, the challenging job—but difficult because it involves repeated failures, failures which may continue for your entire earthly life. This is a “life project” where you don’t get to view yourself as the hero; instead, it requires that you accept you’re going to be the “difficult person” in the relationship, that, on net, you’ll be a recipient of forgiveness more than you get to be the person who generously offers it to those who are less fortunate/able/virtuous.

Sounds about right to me, #leagueoftheguilty. In humor, “Mama Celeste Canonized as Patron Saint of Giving Up” made me laugh. As did “I’m a Short Afternoon Walk and You’re Putting Way Too Much Pressure on Me.” On that note, I hope you have a positively non-languishing weekend.