Another Week Ends

Erotic Danger, Technology Addiction, A Moral Compass, DeathTok, Anjanette Young, and Gerhard Forde

CJ Green / 2.18.22

1. There is a great, if somewhat discomforting film called Shiva Baby, which came out last year. It follows Danielle, a young woman with a checkered romantic past who insists that having multiple partners has made her feel “powerful.” But when she winds up at a funeral, where her various lovers have also happened to gather, her illusions of empowerment are revealed to be just that — illusions. Her anxiety surges with every inevitable confrontation. It becomes clear that over the very same things she has been trying to exert power, she is in many ways powerless.

The film brilliantly depicts specific unhinged elements of the modern age — a time, as Agnes Callard has written, “of great romantic freedom, though we have not yet reckoned with the price. As we eliminate the social norms that guide our expectations of romance, we also liberate a monster within us. The name of that monster is Eros.”

That comes from a remarkable essay published this week in Harper’s, in which Callard suggests that erotic love may not always be as benign as we have been led to believe. She quotes some folks you may be familiar with:

“Eros, honored without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon,” warns C. S. Lewis, “mercilessly chaining together two mutual tormentors, each raw all over with the poison of hate-in-love.” Writing in 1960, he voices his worry that the dangers of eros have come to be underappreciated: “Read Anna Karenina, and do not fancy that such things happen only in Russia.” Not only in Russia, and not only in the nineteenth century. In Virgil on Dido, Goethe on Werther, Flaubert on Emma Bovary, Proust on Swann, and Brontë on Heathcliff, we have tales of love as a sickness of the soul. […]

In general, we tend to believe that people seek associations that benefit them. Eros refutes this optimism: sometimes people choose to lock themselves into dyads of exploitative misery. The erotic crisis is intellectual: you have lost the ability to think for yourself. You would do anything to get your mind back, if only you could think of a way.

In Shiva Baby, Danielle lurchingly argues that maintaining a romantic relationship is “just so hard in my generation,” because “there are so many unconventional ways of meeting people … like apps.” She’s admitting, indirectly, to her use of a “sugar daddy app” to make money — a secret that only she and her phone know and from which the rest of her life is unraveling. I think that any apt description of the eros monster should include some variation on this theme: the degree to which the monster is fed by use and misuse of the internet. As Callard says, “the internet makes it possible to be constantly and privately available to those far beyond our immediate community.”

2. Having said all that, I am more and more of the mind that our understanding of technology is a question of anthropology: what are humans capable of handling? The draw of the internet seems far more powerful than our capacity to manage it, and anything hedging on that point that feels, to me, limply optimistic. The author Johann Hari would probably agree.

In sync with the release of his book Stolen Focus, Hari reveals to the New York Times that in order to do anything that requires his attention, he has to physically remove his phone from his presence: “I have a time-locking container, which I put my phone in for four hours a day when I write.” Likewise, whenever he watches a movie … away with the phone. These types of solutions sound a lot like law, but I think that under the tidal pressure to keep scrolling, to check one more email, to google one more fact, a locked box might, for a couple hours, feel like grace.

In the same interview, the Times asks whether Hari might be overstating his concerns:

​​There are people who argue that worrying about the influence of Big Tech on our attention is just the latest moral panic, akin to the outrage that greeted the printing press. How do you respond when you hear that argument?

I used to believe that this was the case. But I think the evidence is really overwhelming — and I think most people can see it. It’s also urgent because many of the factors that are invading our attention are poised to hugely accelerate. Think about how much more addictive TikTok is than Facebook. There has to be a movement on the other side, of all of us who say: “No, you don’t get to do this to us. We want to have a life where we can think deeply. We want to have a life where we can read books. We want to have a life where our children can hold conversations.”

“I think most people can see it” aligns with the doctrine of the bound will. ’Nough said.

3. As upsetting as Hari’s diagnosis may seem, I encountered a similar outlook in Madeline Levine’s excellent new book Ready or Not; personally I found Levine’s solutions more convincing. Levine is a psychologist whose work we’ve cited before, and I had the pleasure of interviewing her for our upcoming magazine on Success & Failure. In Ready or Not, Levine challenges our definition of “successful” parenting, arguing that parents need to be less focused on children’s grades and more keyed into their level of resilience in the throes of overwhelming technological changes. This comes from the book’s first chapter:

Technology is at the root of much of [our] isolation, and the reasons are complicated. There are aspects of tech, such as gaming, that provide lively community, and the Internet offers plenty of options for learning, creativity, and political action. … [But] For teenagers, especially 12-to-15-year-olds, the only thing that matters is what their friends think. All the traditional horrors of being fourteen are still true: Do you sit with the popular kids? Is your girlfriend going to steal your boyfriend? Do you have a zit? You call those boobs? But instead of being segmented into specific and predictable parts of the day — lunch, the walk home from school, a phone call or two, a whispered taunt when the teacher’s back is turned — opportunities for humiliation are now constant, thanks to texts and social media.

When a single swipe or tweet can destroy a reputation or alter a set of data, when “bad actors” and unrestrained technology can threaten our country and our world, we must be certain that our children can face these challenges armed with a well-developed moral compass.

Levine’s long-term prescription is not — at least not only — to leave your phone in a lock-box four hours a day. She looks to the importance of “the moral compass,” of engendering values, which she says are “cultivated and reinforced in our local communities.” That may even include, as she makes clear, religious communities. Levine writes toward the end of her book that one of her regrets is not spending more time at her synagogue when she was a young parent:

It would have given me a community of people who lived close by. It would have provided a break from both parenting and reading endless technical psychology books and journals. It would have enabled me to participate in the social justice activism in which the congregation was involved. And it would have given me the opportunity to connect with men and women over issues that didn’t necessarily relate to children or even religion. Today, I’m increasingly immersed in those pursuits. It’s too bad I waited so long.

Agnes Callard, for her part, indicates toward the end of her Harper’s piece that the enemy of the eros monster is convention — “politeness,” aka meeting social expectations, aka “doing the done thing.” I can’t help but see a similarity between her conclusions and Levine’s. Callard writes:

Throughout my life, I have tended to chafe at pressures to conform to societal expectations. But … When you can’t be yourself — when your self isn’t anyone worth being — it is a relief to discover the option of being no one in particular.

4. That reminds me of this great headline from the Onion: “Societal Pressures to Conform Doing Nothing But Favors for Area Man.” I also really chuckled at the following, from Reductress: “Woman Blocks Out Hour of Day for Yearning.”

When asked whether she gets bored of yearning for 60 minutes a day, Wilson replied with a resounding no.

“Yearning itself is a broad category. It’s not just romantic: I mean, I yearn for another life, for the end of winter, for a new Marvel movie, the possibilities are endless,” she said. “Yesterday I yearned for the Verizon guy to actually arrive between the hours of 10 and 12 as promised.”

Wilson has tried other strategies, but none have been as effective as the hour-long yearn.

But perhaps this week’s most incisive humor link comes courtesy of Nicole Rose Whitaker at the New Yorker: “Your Personality Explained by Your Household Habits.” Wheeew.

Also this is pretty sweet:

5. As with such links as above, humor continues to be one gleaming silver lining in the social media age. Another example might be…DeathTok. Writing in the Atlantic, Jessica Lucas defines DeathTok as a niche section of TikTok “where skits about end-of-life care, funeral arrangements, and death-worker mishaps bring comfort to those suffering through grief and loss, and clarity to those who are curious about an oft-avoided topic.” Lucas writes:

Our inability to plainly discuss death and its circumstances stems, in part, from the American ethos of self-reliance, according to Cole Imperi, a well-known author and speaker on the subject of death and thanatology. “We value the story of somebody coming to the U.S with $5 in their pocket and they make it … needing nobody,” she told me over Zoom. The end of life, Imperi explained, sits in direct opposition to this philosophy: As people age and approach death, they rely on others for help. The fear of lost autonomy (be it one’s own or a relative’s) makes planning for, grieving, and processing death hard for many Americans. “We don’t have a lot of practice with knowing how to talk about something that’s painful, scary, or difficult all the way through,” Imperi said. She believes that the humor DeathTok offers can be a useful tool for pushing through this discomfort. “Having humor is critically important when it comes to death and dying,” she said. “Humor is necessary. Humor helps us heal.”

I’m reminded of Caroline Henley’s excellent article “Depraved Puppetry: Is There Any Good News in Dark Humor?,” published in The Mockingbird magazine. She writes that “there’s no denying the connection between tragedy and comedy. And so what is dark humor if not a deep cry of anger, frustration, and sadness?”

6. The amount of faith in this next link left me stunned. You may have followed the upsetting story of Anjanette Young, a hospital social worker whose apartment was wrongfully raided by Chicago Police in 2019. She was handcuffed naked and generally humiliated in what eventually became a national story about police-related injustice. This week Christianity Today released a powerful testimony written by Young herself, in which she describes the harrowing experience as part of “a long path toward redemption.”

After all that, I’m focusing on the healing process. I read my Bible and I pray often. I go to therapy and I go to church. My pastor often tells me I need to find a way to forgive everyone involved. My therapist often tells me I need to get to a place of acceptance. I am far from both and still struggling with anger and hurt. And yet: I have greater clarity about who am I and where I sit in God’s greater story. […]

Why did I have this experience of being humiliated by the 12 men who stood in front of my naked body? Because my silent tears are a part of a larger plan — one that will have a loud, thunderous outcome.

Who is Anjanette Young? She is a woman of God who has learned to see all of life’s experiences through a spiritual lens, knowing that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.

7. I’ll conclude this week with a stirring sermon by the late theologian Gerhard Forde published over at 1517. The following is part of a series of previously unpublished Forde sermons surfaced by Lutheran Quarterly.

Today we live in a world where we frequently hear the language of rejection. We hear a lot of talk about the absence of God and the loss of spiritual and moral values. We read often in the literature of our time about the emptiness and arid meaninglessness of human existence. And all of this is no doubt true and serious enough. …

Now, the question isn’t what we’re going to do about it. The question is, what did God do about it? Did he attempt to force himself upon us? Did he come bustling into our world with another tiresome plan for moral improvement? Did he come armed with just one more religious do-it-yourself kit? No! Wonder-of-wonders, he did nothing. Rather, it’s as if he arrives and says, “If you want to get rid of me, go ahead – and see where it gets you!”

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said, Christ lets us push him out of our world and onto the cross. And why? Because he knows that’s the only way he can help us. This is the only way he can melt our hardened hearts. It’s the only way he can create this thing called faith.

Strays:

  • Falling in the Right Direction: “A debilitating accident reacquainted me with my own weakness and limitation, and the power of a disabled God.” I encountered this link after I was finished writing this column, but folks, this is the good stuff you come here for.
  • Anne Helen Petersen’s “This Party Sucks, Why Haven’t We Left.” Petersen figures people only stay on Facebook because even if it’s not a great party, there doesn’t seem to be a better one elsewhere. See also: editors trying to get a comments section back on this website. See also: our New York conference, which is an actual, not virtual, party.
  • The Dark Side of Saying Work Is “Like a Family”
  • Min Jin Lee reads the Bible…everyday? What! “I’m overhearing the thoughts of God. There is this existential idea, which I appreciate, of listening to an author think, and, in this case, the author who inspired the men who wrote the Bible… I also pray. I pray for inspiration.” I guess I have to read Pachinko now.

COMMENTS


One response to “February 12-18”

  1. […] your ordinariness might not condemn you after all, but set you free. Or, in the words of Agnes Callard, “It is a relief to discover the option of being no one in particular.” Amid the […]

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