Another Week Ends

The Pleasures of Suffering, the Cancellation of Alison Roman, the Immortal Anne Boleyn, and the Childless at Christmas

CJ Green / 12.17.21

1. Is a good life painful? That’s the question psychologist Paul Bloom tackles in his new book The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for MeaningAt Vox, Sean Illing interviews Bloom about the book, asking what could be wrong with a brazen pursuit of pleasure/the avoidance of pain as much as possible? Bloom responds:

[M]y favorite way to think about this … is a famous thought experiment by the philosopher Robert Nozick, who imagines an experience machine, which now everyone knows as the Matrix. They plug you in, and you’re in paradise … you are living a life of immense satisfaction, and challenge, and accomplishment, and carnal joy, and deep respect and everything; the best life possible.

But you’re on a table hooked up to some wires, and that’s you for the rest of your life. And then the question is, would you want to be strapped into the machine? … Some people rank pleasure pretty highly and say, “Yeah, sure. Strap me in.” […]

A lot of people say no, however, including Nozick, and me, and maybe you. … Because I have people I love who I want to be with, and I want to take care of them, not just think I’m with them and take care of them. I’d be abandoning all sorts of friends and family. And yes, while I’m in the machine, I won’t know I’m abandoning them, but I’m abandoning them nonetheless, and that’s wrong. And so, all sorts of other non-hedonistic motivations lead me to say, “I’m going to take my real life.”

Bloom’s anti-hedonism argument points toward the things that matter beyond self-will and pleasure. Pain, he argues, may signify something worthwhile — say, love or parenthood, where hardship is inherent. Whereas pure pleasure may be more akin to hell, as Illing says here:

I just watched an episode of The Twilight Zone that explores this in a way only that show could. It’s about a gangster who dies and wakes up in a place that has all the markings of heaven — or at least what a guy like that would imagine as heaven. He has all the sex and money and power he wants. He loves it at first. But then he grows bored and aimless and starts to hate it. So he asks his guide if he can go to hell instead, and that’s when he learns he’s already there.

But I don’t know. Is pain required to live a good life? I think Christians, at least, can afford to answer in a weirder, slightly less respectable way. Even though Paul says that suffering can be useful, Christianity ultimately promises that we will one day live where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” The good life, it seems to me, would be lived in a world without pain. That such a place feels to us like hell, I think demonstrates “fallenness” — we have become so removed from paradise that even our wildest imaginations contradict it.

Illing follows up with another incisive question: “Do you think most people are confused about what makes them happy?” Bloom answers:

I think to some extent people are mistaken … we tend to overstate the value of certain possessions. They do make us happy, but we quickly burn out. … And honestly … I would have a recurring fantasy of living in some sort of penthouse apartment in New York. But the truth is that’s not the kind of thing that makes a person happy. They sit in this beautiful penthouse and then they want a friend to share it with, they want people to hang out with.

2. I was entranced by the woeful tale of Alison Roman, as told by Lauren Collins in a recent New Yorker profile. Roman is a mid-thirties foodie influencer, with an acerbic, charismatic personality. If you’ve heard of her, maybe you’ve tried cooking her famous shallot pasta, which was listed as the New York Times‘ most popular recipe of 2020. More likely, you’ve heard of her “cancellation.”

“The shallot lady is about to get caught up in something,” the comedian and actor Brittani Nichols tweeted, on May 8th [2020]. “There’s simply no way a white woman can survive this kind of attention.”

I think that is a pretty funny joke that also perfectly establishes the dynamic here—the law, which condemns us all of our unrighteousness; in this case, a celebrity figure with a certain appearance/lifestyle navigating a matrix of online media scrutiny. Sure enough, Roman fell short, and then fell further short, criticizing Asian celebrities Marie Condo and Chrissy Tiegen in a single interview (which she thought “went well”!!). Outrage ensued.

The gift of Collins’ long-form profile is that it shows there is more to a person than their most circulated news on the Twitter. She details Roman’s personal history, personality, etc., until you can’t help warming to her.

At her best, Roman is the loose, whistle-twirling swim instructor of the kitchen, urging you to jump on in, the water’s fine! Her audience is made up of home cooks of all levels, but she is especially sympathetic to the misgivings of beginners. She tends to work with ingredients that are readily available, validating omissions and substitutions, respecting budgets, and keeping the dishwashing burden light. Attempting shrimp cocktail at home? Don’t bother deveining. Brining a chicken? Use a ziplock and whatever pickle brine, buttermilk, or beer you’ve got in the fridge.

Roman typifies a narrow demographic while appealing to a wide audience—her own cohort; younger people, who aspire to her sophistication; older people, who’d like to recapture their quasi-bohemian youth. At her place, it’s nighttime, the plates don’t match, your phone’s on the table, and the candle’s burning down to a nub. Her high-spirited, offhand quality makes you feel that the most important element to any meal is gameness.

On the one hand, her scandal is — importantly — about race and class; on another, though, it’s about the universal quandary all of us face: justification. The profile is called “Alison Roman Just Can’t Help Herself,” and there’s a double meaning there: not only can she not stop crossing lines, but she has “no power in herself to help herself” — to paraphrase the Book of Common Prayer.

“I have this façade that everything’s O.K., but sometimes I feel like if you blow on it, it’ll all fall down,” she said. “I just have to accept the fact that, regardless of what I said, there would still be people who would be, like, ‘You’re an ignorant white lady.’ ” …

Last year, at the urging of her therapist, Roman took an Enneagram personality test. She found out that she’s a Type Four, the Individualist, an “expressive, dramatic, self-absorbed, and temperamental” profile to which she strongly relates. “I’m so at odds with myself constantly,” she told me. “I’m, like, ‘When will it be enough, what will be enough, what will make me feel secure?’ I have these issues with friendships and romantic relationships, the feeling that love is finite, the feeling that attention is finite, the feeling that there are only so many people that can share a space, and that I’m fighting for it all. It’s psychotic….’ ”

Collins’ essay ends, brilliantly, with Joni Mitchell playing in the background:

The way I see it, he said / You just can’t win it / Everybody’s in it for their own gain / You can’t please ’em all.

3. At Jezebel, “Anne Boleyn super-fan” Kylie Cheung notices Henry VIII’s second wife is “everywhere”: Anne Boleyn has “lived a thousand lives since her death, in varying historical texts and fictional works, each shaped by their era’s religious beliefs and attitudes about gender and sexuality.” For example, AB makes a critical, much-buzzed-about appearance in Spencer, and is the titular figure of a new AMC+ show; I myself became a fan while reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series.

More and more historians are in agreement that Anne was infinitely more than a king’s particularly bitchy mistress-turned-wife, executed for “failing” to birth a male heir. She was an ardent religious reformist who helped usher in the English Reformation that established the Church of England, and she went head-to-head with Cromwell at his most powerful as she advocated for redistributing the confiscated wealth of Catholic monasteries.

As Anne reenters the popular imagination yet again, it’s not to take part in any sort of Tudor “cat fight,” but to draw on her own fatal misfortunes in order to possibly save another woman’s life in Spencer. In Anne Boleyn, Turner-Smith’s Anne is a doting mother to the future Elizabeth I; per some historical accounts, she insisted on going against the grain and breastfeeding her infant daughter herself.

Though Cheung argues modern interpretations of Boleyn show “progress” in our understanding of the figure, and women generally, I’m a bit less sure. The AMC show seems cool, but in becoming salvific, the infamously slippery AB seems to be once again adopting whatever personality the era demands of her.

4. Humor: Jesus Christ Applies for a Job as Vice President of Student Success. (“It does appear you are searching for an actual miracle worker.”) There’s also: Things to Never Say When Explaining Death to a Child. And: Retouch Your Way to Success.

5. Really enjoyed a recent post by L. M. Sacasas, on the trickery of trying to optimize rest. In streamlining even relaxation (cf. “recharging the batteries”), we make it harder, if not impossible, to actually rest. According to Sacasas, the “imperative to optimize everything” is “tyrannical.”

…the human being qua human being becomes an impediment, a liability to the functioning of the system. He or she must become mechanical in their performance in order to fit the needs of the system, be it a warehouse floor or a byzantine bureaucracy. It’s the Taylorite fantasy of scientific management now abetted by a vastly superior technical apparatus. The logic, of course, finally suggests the elimination of the human element. When we design systems that work best the more machine-like we become, we shouldn’t be surprised when the machines ultimately render us superfluous.

What I particularly liked was that, in describing the “inhumane conditions” of our world today, Sacasas doesn’t ignore our part in it. We are very much working against ourselves, he observes with refreshing honesty.

There are two key points. First, our exhaustion…is a consequence of the part we play in a techno-social milieu whose rhythms, scale, pace, and demands are not conducive to our well-being, to say nothing of the well-being of other creatures and the planet we share. Second, the remedies to which we often turn may themselves be counterproductive because their function is not to alter the larger system which has yielded a state of chronic exhaustion but rather to keep us functioning within it. Moreover, not only do the remedies fail to address the root of the problem, but there’s also a tendency to carry into our efforts to find rest the very same spirit which animates the system that left us tired and burnt out. Rest takes on the character of a project to be completed or an experience to be consumed. In neither case do we ultimately find any sort of meaningful and enduring relief or renewal.

6. It’s almost Christmas, yet for many “Joy to the World” can ring strangely hollow. The next few links deal with hardship around the holidays. First, Ruth Jackson inquires: what “use” is the baby in the manger, when people continue to suffer?

First, she writes, the defenselessness of Christ is striking.

The fact that God chose to reveal himself as a vulnerable baby surrounded by animal waste and a rag tag gathering of weirdos, rather than an omnipotent warlord or malevolent supervillain, may be a comfort to us this Christmas. But what use is this fragile child in alleviating our pain?

The crying baby isn’t the end of the story. … Revelation 21:4 epitomises this future hope: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” The God who weeps is portrayed here as so tender that his own hand will wipe the tears from our eyes.

7. Meanwhile, at Religion News Service, Karen Swallow Prior illuminates a different type of difficulty: the celebration of Christmas without children. Many of our visible Christmas traditions, she writes, are either for or about children, often leaving the childless isolated. She wonders how she and other childless people should fit into yearly traditions.

Family-centered traditions are rich and beautiful. After all, God is the one who created the family unit. Still, it can be hard for those without families near or with families broken beyond repair or without families at all, who must find other ways to bring the true meaning of Christmas to hearth, heart and home. […]

But some holiday traditions offer particular challenges to those who aren’t part of a nuclear family at Christmas, challenges the rest of us might not even imagine. For example, when everyone else is sending out annual Christmas photos of a growing family, does the single person want to reciprocate with her own solo photo shoot? […]

Traditions give birth to our sense of the past. It is this sense of — and, along with it, a longing for — the past that is the source of nostalgia. Nostalgia — whether for Christmases long gone, for a childhood outgrown or for dreams (like children) that never came to be — is a bittersweet reminder that this earthly place, filled with cherished traditions, treasured memories and painful disappointments — is not our permanent home. Yet, even so, the marvel of it all is that the God of the universe took on flesh, came here as a child and dwelt among us in this temporary home.

He is the gift that transcends all family ties and time-bound traditions. And, as one friend who experienced years of infertility and pregnancy recently reminded me, Scripture says it is “unto us a child is born.”

Because this child is for all of us, no one needs to feel childless at Christmas. But it can take the family of true community to help us unwrap the gift.

8. Lastly, I loved this paragraph from one of Fleming Rutledge’s Christmas Eve sermons, recently posted to her site:

Years ago when I served at a church in New York City, I used to hang around with some urbane literary types, most of them disdainful of religion. I have never forgotten one conversation I had. The man in question, knowing I was a priest of the church, made a confession to me. He told me very sheepishly that he had done something behind his wife’s back. Apparently she had long since banished every hint of religion from their household. She held Christian faith in contempt, as a relic of a superstitious and unenlightened era. Church, of course, was out of the question. Her husband told me that he found himself so longing to hear the story from St. Luke that he smuggled a small King James Bible into the bathroom, locked the door, and read it to himself. That’s a true story. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Do you think that his wife would have required him to take “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” into the bathroom? Or “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”? Or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? It’s something to think about, isn’t it? The only Christmas story that has something transcendent about it is Luke’s. That’s why it continues to have a hold on people. God is in this story. Something greater than the birth of a baby is here. This is a story about something mysterious, something ultimate.

Strays: