Another Week Ends

Taylor Swift Wellness, Falsehood Fatigue, the Tyranny of the Political, and Settling for Love

Todd Brewer / 8.18.23

1. A friend of mine recently scored four nosebleed tickets to Taylor Swift’s “The Eras” tour — the elation! — before then turning around and selling two of them for $3,000 dollars. You read that correctly: the going rate for a terrible seat to the hottest ticket in town was $1,500 apiece. Aside from the mystery over who could afford such an extravagance, the better question is why so many people paid so much to see Taylor Swift? According to a recent article by Rina Raphael, the answer seems to have a lot to do with wellness and self-care.

More and more, college kids told me things like “listening to Taylor on Spotify is my wellness,” versus, say, expensive green juices or fitness accessories. Online, fans post roundups like “Taylor Swift’s Top 10 Songs For Healing.”

It got me thinking about the role Taylor plays in American women’s lives, and how her unique qualities — not just her music — are providing wellness services.

How does an artist become more than a talented rich girl with a microphone? Raphael offers four guesses, but I think Swift’s relatability and online community offer the most compelling case:

There’s a certain type of millennial drawn to Taylor: ambitious, hard-working, and driven, but also very sensitive. Many exclaim with awe, “Taylor works so hard!” and in the same breath, “I feel so bad for her. Another breakup.” Forever unlucky in love, they bemoan. Taylor, per her lyrics, is both “bejeweled” and the “antihero”; holding space for the dichotomy we all battle. However successful she is, there’s also a sense she’s still searching for stability, still trying to figure it out. 

That’s how a lot of millennials feel.

Taylor constantly addresses the small and big heartbreaks, the ongoing letdowns we experience in relationships. For women who waded through “hookup culture” and exhausting dating apps, where sex and dating are treated so casually, it’s reassuring to have someone validate what you feel: Actually, this hurts a lot. It’s not casual. 

It’s a far cry from the more empowering image of Beyonce, who can be seen smashing the car windows of men who wronged her. Swift has elements of that (Reputation album), but she allows for far more room to wallow and process ambivalent feelings.

Fans connect to that vulnerability. It’s why, per the New York Times, psychiatrists report an uptick in patients expressing themselves through Taylor Swift music. She is legitimately satisfying an emotional need. […]

For a growing number of American women who don’t necessarily feel like they belong to something — like, say, a church back in the day — being part of this cultural phenomenon offers a sense of grounding and kinship. It’s a shared experiences, a tribe. They want to feel included in something bigger than themselves.

And what’s bigger than Taylor?

Alongside Raphael’s point about vulnerability, I’d add one more: Swift’s undeniable success. Because as relatable as she is, her superstardom imbues the struggles she sings about with an upspoken happy ending. That if the awkward, farmgirl teenager could one day rule the world, then perhaps the suffering of today might be the beginnings of one’s own superhero origin story. Pairing vulnerability with success in this way can provide more than catharsis. It gives hope.

To read more from Rina Raphael on all things wellness, check out her recent NYC Conference talk and her Mbird magazine article!

Elsewhere in music news … what on earth?!? The original demo of Green Day’s “Basket Case” was all about falling hopelessly in love?

2. Speaking of love … this next one by Rob Henderson is all about love, or the lack thereof, in current dating trends (particularly for women). Because if, as one study found, that married people are, on average, 30 percentage points happier than unmarried Americans, then there’s a lot at stake when one swipes left or right. Henderson lays out a gaggle of unexpected statistics on the self-selective narrowing of the dating pool that cumulatively suggest something bleak. As dating has become hyper-optimized toward one’s desires, it’s had the not-so paradoxical effect of making relationships harder. His solution? Stop swiping and settle down:

Previous generations didn’t have many options, so they stuck together through hard times and made it work. Now, abundance (or its illusion on dating apps) has led people to feel less satisfied. People are now more anxious about making a choice and less certain that the one they made was correct.

One classic study found that consumers were more likely to buy a jam when they were presented with six flavors compared to 30. And among those who did make a purchase, the people presented with fewer flavors were more satisfied with their choice.

These two factors — demanding more of your partner and understanding that abundance is not always favorable or desirable — should be a lesson that will guide us toward healthier and more fulfilling relationships. Shutting off the dating apps and reducing our choices will actually give us a greater appetite for love.

Of course, this advice makes a whole lot more sense if one understands love to be self-giving for the benefit of another, as opposed to something like self-fulfillment. Because that happily ever after, at least as far as Christianity is concern, looks a whole lot like death and resurrection.

3. In an interesting piece of science writing this week, Nautilus looks at what happens to our brains when we don’t tell the truth. It turns out that the more you lie, the more truthful it seems. Because while a lie might initially appear to the brain as a lie — the force mustered to fabricate a memory sets off your brain’s alarm bells that an intruder is present — over time its “source-monitoring framework” fatigues with each fib.

Chrobak said that if a lie or fabrication provides an explanation for something, it’s more likely to become confused with what’s true. “People are causal monsters,” he told me. “We love knowing why things happen,” and if we don’t have an explanation for something, we “like to fill in the gaps.” The pressing human need to fill those gaps, Chrobak said, might also pertain to beliefs we hold about ourselves. […]

Another important factor underlying this effect is repetition. “If I tell the lie to multiple people,” True explained, “I’m rehearsing the lie.” And rehearsing a lie seems to enhance it. “The more you repeat something,” Chrobak said, “the more you actively imagine it, the more detailed and vivid it becomes,” which further exploits the brain’s tendency to conflate detail with veracity.

What’s at stake here is more than a scientific explanation for the pathological liar in your life. This process is at work in every self-rationalization and self-justification we tell ourselves. If falsehood fatigue could explain how people can fall down the rabbit hole of online echo chambers, it’s also a glowing advertisement for a daily/weekly reminder that we cannot trust ourselves, that the devices and desires of our heart — what we believe to be true about ourselves — are all plagued by faulty wiring. Regularly confessing one’s frailty in this regard might just reset the brain’s falsehood fatigue and bring you closer to the Truth that sets you free.

4. In a wide-ranging essay for the Atlantic, David Brooks offers his diagnosis for what ails American culture. Beyond the usual narratives attributing the rise in hatred, despair, and anxiety to either social media, demographic shifts, economic inequality, or the loss of IRL community, Brooks sees another common denominator: moral decline. He contends: “We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein.”

Now, if that sounds to you like a preacher decrying that society has gone to hell in a handbasket, you’re not entirely wrong. But Brooks goes further. Alongside changing mores arose a belief in the essential goodness of people. The combination of the two produces a culture whose highest moral aspiration consists in the flimsy wisdom, “you do you,” or what philosopher Charles Taylor termed the “ethics of authenticity.” A kind of pseudo-ethic, Brooks believes, has led to societal disaster:

Expecting people to build a satisfying moral and spiritual life on their own by looking within themselves is asking too much. A culture that leaves people morally naked and alone leaves them without the skills to be decent to one another. Social trust falls partly because more people are untrustworthy. That creates crowds of what psychologists call “vulnerable narcissists.” We all know grandiose narcissists — people who revere themselves as the center of the universe. Vulnerable narcissists are the more common figures in our day — people who are also addicted to thinking about themselves, but who often feel anxious, insecure, avoidant.

Set adrift into the vast expanse of amorality, where do people turn? Where within modern society can one find a moral compass that imbues life with meaning? For Brooks, the overwhelming choice made is politics, which, like any idol, consumes everything it touches.

If you put people in a moral vacuum, they will seek to fill it with the closest thing at hand. Over the past several years, people have sought to fill the moral vacuum with politics and tribalism. American society has become hyper-politicized.

According to research by Ryan Streeter, the director of domestic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, lonely young people are seven times more likely to say they are active in politics than young people who aren’t lonely. For people who feel disrespected, unseen, and alone, politics is a seductive form of social therapy. It offers them a comprehensible moral landscape: The line between good and evil runs not down the middle of every human heart, but between groups. Life is a struggle between us, the forces of good, and them, the forces of evil. […]

If you are asking politics to be the reigning source of meaning in your life, you are asking more of politics than it can bear. Seeking to escape sadness, loneliness, and anomie through politics serves only to drop you into a world marked by fear and rage, by a sadistic striving for domination. Sure, you’ve left the moral vacuum — but you’ve landed in the pulverizing destructiveness of moral war.

The tyranny of politics is so strong that all of life, whether it be where you shop, or sports, or church, bends its knee to the political. Indeed, to be apolitical — or worse, nonpartisan — is to be something of a moral pariah, ceding ground to the dominance of that evil political faction one must struggle against. Even within my own field of New Testament studies, political salience is often synonymous with relevance and cultural impact, leaving behind older questions of moral formation altogether. And so we fight poxy modern political battles via ancient texts, with the very same outrage, exaggeration, and censorship seen everywhere. But if life is more than legislation, if the loneliness that drives one to moral war cannot be healed by fisticuffs, then perhaps the revolutionary message of Christianity can still be found by the walking wounded of the world.

5. Right on cue, the New Yorker humor asks, “What Will Become Polarized Next?” and the last one is 1000% true. Closer home, Reductress reports that “Woman Overthought a Compliment Until It Became an Insult.” Elsewhere, in NewsThump Mother-in-law strikes first blow with Christmas dinner invite in mid-August” is all too true and all too hilarious. But the bucket of cold water they pour over those lucky seniors who get into their dream university knocks it out of the park. “Delighted A-Level student’s grades set him on path to well-paid, soul-destroying job that will never make him happy“:

Simon Williams, 18, received two As and a B and will go on to study English and Journalism at York University before leaving with a respectable 2:1.

“Then it’s off into a boring yet lucrative sales job which bears little relevance to my degree or my dreams,” beamed the bright-eyed, doomed young man.

“I’ll be on around sixty grand a year, which will be nice, but I’ll never have time to enjoy it and the job will involve being nice to people I hate, constant pressure to meet sales targets and pretending to laugh at the terrible jokes of older men whose business I need in order to eat.

“I’ll have the occasional thought of quitting in order to pursue a career that the current, optimistic me would actually enjoy before realising I’m in a wage-trap, and that none of the jobs I would enjoy pay very well at all.

“Then I’ll have a bit of a cry before pulling myself together for a presentation about something to do with machine parts that I don’t really understand or care about, but have learned to bluff my way through.

“Then I’ll go home and drink myself to sleep before the whole miserable cycle continues the next day until I either retire or die.

“I’m very lucky.”

6. Over at Seen and Unseen, they’ve been going through a series of articles on the Seven Deadly Sins, and their most recent entry on Pride, by a politician turned priest, is excellent. But my favorite thus far as been James Mumford’s writing on the sin of wrath, which fittingly turns to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to find both wisdom and love.

I used naively to assume murderers are all monsters, sadistic sociopaths straight of Silence of the Lambs or Primal Fear. Today I realize that the difference between me and most murderers – those poor bastards eking out their life sentences out of sight and out of mind in our maximum-security prisons – comes down to one thing. Not character. Luck. I’ve been lucky enough to lose most of my fights. 

Yet hidden away in Jesus’s warning is a profound revelation. τῶ ἀδελφῶ αὐτοῦ. It’s there in the Greek. ‘Everyone who becomes angry with his brother’. … What is forgotten in fits of rage? Anger forgets that its object is no mere object, no mere thing, no mere item. I forget that the intended target of my wrath is in fact my brother. In anger you lose sight of the face. You become blind to the stranger’s reality, to what remains true about him, to his persistent identity whatever he has done. You forget that he is still related to you in the most intimate way. That this guy on the tube, or this person who has hurt you, or this person who bears ill-will towards youremains a someone, not a something. Remains a person. Remains a creature of the God who loves in freedom. Flesh and blood like I am. But spirit too … destined, like I am, to be united to Christ. […]

My prayer, therefore, is not just that I become increasingly sensitive to my own internal state or what it is in in my own present or past that predisposes me to anger. My prayer is that I learn to apprehend more vividly the identity and destiny of the person with whom I am here and now entangled, enmeshed, at odds. That I can perceive him as my brother, however momentarily estranged from me he is, one who belongs to the same family. Who, as he smirks and scowls and menaces me – also bears the weight of glory. Dealing with anger requires what Simone Weil, and after her Iris Murdoch, call ‘attention’. As Murdoch puts it in The Sovereignty of Good (1970): ‘It is in the capacity to love, that is to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists’. Anger management is about being liberated from fantasy – the fantasy that my adversary is a mere mortal. Christ’s call to peace – to see the object of my anger as my brother – is ultimately a call for a reality check.


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