Another Week Ends

Impostor Syndrome, Fleishman Is in Trouble, the Church of Big Pharma, and the God Who Justifies the Ungodly

Todd Brewer / 2.10.23

1. Kicking off this week with a bit of an oddball article from Wired, in which Paul Ford describes what happened when he switched his weight loss meds and found a miracle cure. Decades of struggle with an insatiable desire for food, gone in an instant. But his reflection on the experience is less of an advertisement as it is a probing of human nature amid advances in pharmacology:

There’s no API or software to download, but this is nonetheless a technology that will reorder society. I have been the living embodiment of the deadly sin of gluttony, judged as greedy and weak since I was 10 years old — and now the sin is washed away. Baptism by injection. But I have no more virtue than I did a few months ago. I just prefer broccoli to gloopy chicken. Is this who I am?

How long is it before there’s an injection for your appetites, your vices? Maybe they’re not as visible as mine. Would you self-administer a weekly anti-avarice shot? Can Big Pharma cure your sloth, lust, wrath, envy, pride?

On this front, the parallels between Ford’s weight loss drug and every other drug are almost obvious (whether they be coffee, THC, or any fill-in-the-blank name brand you know from watching Hulu). The alluring promise that frailty is simply a matter of chemistry. Debatably more interesting, I think, is what happens to Ford himself after the one signal pathway is silenced — his brain averts its gaze elsewhere:

Where before my brain had been screaming, screaming, at air-raid volume — there was sudden silence. It was confusing. […]

“I urgently need,” I thought, “an analog synthesizer.” Something to fill the silence where food used to be. Every night for weeks I spent four, five hours twisting Moog knobs. Not making music. Just droning, looping, and beep-booping. I needed something to obsess over, to watch YouTube videos about. I needed something to fail at every night to feel normal. 

If you switch registers a smidge, Ford’s story reads like analogy for sobriety or even sanctification narratives. Like a cruel game of whack-a-mole, his obsession over food transmutes into a musical obsession just as spiritual disciplines or sobriety can often accentuate other vices. The church of big pharma might provide a kind of cure, but there is no panacea for human nature.

2. On the subject of human nature, Mbird-favorite Leslie Jamison examines the commonly used term, “impostor’s syndrome,” or the fear of being exposed as a fraud. As Jamison outlines, the term has been criticized by women and minorities as a “white woman’s problem” because it assumes the world has high expectations for you. Those of whom little is expected, who have to fight for respectability, fail to find any resonance by the term. Jamison sympathizes with the rebuttal, but nevertheless insists that the phenomenon of feeling inadequate is still pretty universal.

Identifying impostor feelings does not necessitate denying the forces that produced them. It can, in fact, demand the opposite: understanding that the damage from these external forces often becomes part of the internal weave of the self. […]

If we reclaim the impostor phenomenon from the false category of “syndrome,” then we can allow it to do the work it does best, which is to depict a particular texture of interior experience: the fear of being exposed as inadequate. As a concept, it is most useful in its particular nuances — not as a vague synonym for insecurity or self-doubt but as a way to describe the more specific delusion of being a fraud who has successfully deceived some external audience. Understood like this, it becomes an experience not diluted but defined by its ubiquity. It names the gap that persists between the internal experiences of selfhood — multiple, contradictory, incoherent, striated with shame and desire — and the imperative to present a more coherent, composed, continuous self to the world.

Impostor feelings often arise most acutely from threshold-crossing — from one social class to another, one culture to another, one vocation to another — something akin to what Pierre Bourdieu called the “split habitus,” the self dwelling in two worlds at once. The college library and the sawmill. The fancy parties and the pig farm. […]

The impostor phenomenon, as a concept, effectively functions as an emotional filing cabinet organizing a variety of fraught feelings that we can experience as we try to reconcile three aspects of our personhood: how we experience ourselves, how we present ourselves to the world, and how the world reflects that self back to us. The phenomenon names an unspoken, ongoing crisis arising from the gaps between these various versions of the self, and designates not a syndrome but an inescapable part of being alive.

Perhaps not everyone feels like an impostor in their career because their self-valuation matches or exceeds expectations. Even still, career isn’t the only place where the weeds of inadequacy can sprout. The yoke of righteousness is a heavy one for any to bear.

But it’s also difficult to ignore how the popularity of “impostor syndrome” arose simultaneously with the “self-esteem crisis” — particularly how a diagnosis of the former (“Oh, that’s just impostor syndrome”) does little to alleviate the later. But perhaps “self-worth” has always been a mirage? A rigged game play by novices who don’t know the rules. What if, and this is probably going to sound crazy, it doesn’t matter one iota what we think of ourselves because whatever worth we have is traded in a divine currency. I know, crazy … but also true.

3. Staying for a bit on the lifestyles of the middle and upper middle class, the FX show Fleishman Is in Trouble has hit audience squarely between the eyes. The show (and book) contrasts the lives of two characters: Rachel, the upwardly mobile Upper East Side mom of two, and Libby, the stay at home mom in the New Jersey suburbs. Rachel crumbles under the weight of expectations. Libby mourns the life she never had. Together, they represent two forks of the same path.

Long after people have shut up about the second season of The White LotusFleishman persists among this specific group of women who are both well off and strung out. Late last month, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that Rachel, in comparison with her ex-husband, Toby, “is much more in tune with the deeper and darker ethos of meritocracy: the abiding insecurity that comes with being trained for constant competition and then raised to a position where you’re incredibly privileged and yet your social milieu makes you feel like you’re running and running just to stay in place.” […]

Watching Fleishman myself, I couldn’t help but think how the show aired at a moment of peak exhaustion for women — even privileged women, who have it so much better than most. The story takes place in 2016, but it finds us roughly seven years later, battered from parenting and working in a pandemic. Rachel and Libby are the manifestation of different struggles women face and impossible expectations, but a core similarity is that they are fucking tired.

While some writers have little time for Fleishman and “miserable rich New Yorkers who are trapped in the hell of their own insatiable ambitions,” I think the show’s characters and its disciples should be viewed with a far more merciful gaze. Because while the aforementioned article does have a knack for airing the kind of $300k/year grievances that 97% of America wish they had, I’d wager the discontent of Libby and Rachel is far more common. Who among us doesn’t wish their life had turned out differently or regret things done and left undone? Libby stepped off the ladder, but still regrets it; Rachel stayed on and hates that she did. Meritocracy is a game with no winners.

4. Fleishman isn’t just about those trapped by career aspirations, of course. It’s also a show about divorce. Which brings me to the next article by Stephen Adubato in Plough, “The Myth of a Good Divorce.” But before diving into an obviously heated (and deeply personal) subject that few dare to touch with a ten foot pole, it’s worth stating at the outset that any marriage these days that happily survives “till death do you part” can be counted as a miracle. And that divorce reflects the reality of living in a fallen world, a sometimes necessary bad outcome among worse alternatives.

That being said, “bad outcome among worse alternatives” is rarely the rationale used by those in the thick of it. Divorce, instead, often trades in the economy of justification, i.e. self-justification for a priori choices. And nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the impact of divorce upon children, where even the clinical research suffers from narrativization and after-the-fact rationale. Here’s Adubato, comparing the research of Constance Ahrons with that of Elizabeth Marquardt:

Dr. Ahrons starts the book [titled, The Good Divorce] lamenting the unavailability of no-fault back when she divorced her husband in 1965. If only she knew back then that it was possible to have a “good divorce,” in which “a family with children remains a family,” things would have turned out less dramatic than they did for herself, her ex, and her children. […]

After learning to live in a healthier relationship with her ex, she paints a picture of the scene at her daughter’s wedding, in which she saw “two proud and happy parents walking their daughter down the aisle.” […] Such are the attempts to control the narrative handed to children of divorce. Some divorces, Ahrons insists, just “happen” for bourgeois reasons like no longer “feeling the same way anymore” or happening upon “incompatibility.” Divorce can even be good for children, and they will “turn out fine” when they grow up, provided the parents behave properly and use the correct terminology. […]

[According to Marquardt, this good divorce narrative] privileges an “adult-centered vision that does not reflect [their children’s] true experiences” after the divorce. She concedes that “while a ‘good divorce’ is better than a bad divorce, it is still not good.” The willingness of the parents to live amicably in the aftermath does not “diminish the radical restructuring of the child’s universe.”

Proponents of the “good” divorce, she argues, tend to place too much emphasis on external factors in the lives of children of divorce: Do they find jobs, stay out of trouble, and form meaningful relationships with others? She acknowledges that she, like many other children of divorce, “appear to be fine” in the aftermath. She has friends, a husband, children, and a successful career. But, she insists, “our society must do more than ask whether divorce causes clear and lasting damage to some children. It should also ask probing questions about how divorce shapes the lives of many children who experience it.” […]

Marquardt’s research indicates that, overall, children of a loveless marriage with low conflict (minimal arguing, no abuse) find themselves to be more emotionally grounded than children of a good divorce. As much as our society, with its affinity for sentimentality and utilitarianism, may try to deny it, a loveless marriage causes less damage to a child than does divorce.

Which isn’t to say that one must or must not get a divorce (and the article acknowledges several justifiable scenarios, like violence or substance abuse), but it at least illustrates how easily desire can tip the moral scales. Take is away, Al …

5. Ok, if you’re still with me, it’s definitely time for a pick-me-up. On the lighter side this week, NewsThump skewers careerism with “Company HR Department Accused of Radicalising Young Recruits“: “It’s about time someone was made to pay for corrupting these young minds into believing that sitting behind a desk is the way to eternal happiness.” Ooof. And Reductress’ “How to Be More Assertive Even Though That’s Literally So Mean of You” is 100% true.

Finally, the New Yorker’sNew You Shopping Spree” offers up some purchases guaranteed to make you into a better person. Or not.

It’s the terrain of the notebook’s cover, textured and thick, that signals it will contain thoughts of the world-changing, fortune-generating variety. The person with such a notebook fears not for the state of our planet. And, yes, it’s the sharp nib of a fountain pen, famed for its ease dancing over pages, that will help unlock New You’s brilliance. […]

It’s the age of the whiskey, with its wondrous layers of flavors circling each other like rings of the charred, oak barrel in which it was stored, that conveys that its drinker is deeply connected to the old world and the new. Alive and well deep into the future, New You drinks this elixir and is basically immortal.

6. A quick-hitter in this next one, but I found this paragraph in Merve Emre’s “Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism” explained so much of the self-important angst that pervades many contemporary debates.

Today, in academe, one looks around with dismay at what a century of professionalization has wrought—the mastery, yes, but also the bureaucratic pettiness, the clumsily concealed resentment, the quickness to take offense, and the piety, oh, the piety! The contemporary literary scholar, Guillory tells us, is marked by an inflated sense of the urgency and importance of his work. This professional narcissism is the flip side of an insecurity about his work’s social value, an anxiety that scholarly work, no matter how thoughtful, stylish, or genuinely interesting, has no discernible effect on the political problems that preoccupy him. On some level, he knows that this “form of political surrogacy,” as Guillory provocatively describes it, is not enough to achieve the cultural centrality that great critics of the nineteenth century enjoyed. But that does not stop him from grasping for it.

7. And finally, on the more theological side this week, I found Wesley Hill’s article on the book of Esther and the church in secular times to be quite profound. Amid all the hand-wringing over the church’s loss of social status, Esther is commonly pointed to a model of faithful obedience in a pluralistic age. God might seem absence, but he’s invisibly moving nonetheless. Hill, by contrast, sees something far better:

It could be that what we have in Esther isn’t just a theology of divine providence and protection but also something like a doctrine of “the justification of the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5), God’s commitment to stand by God’s people when they’re at their covenant-keeping worst and see them through anyway. In this way, there may be more theology, not less, in what Dunne calls this most “secular” of biblical books. God not only intervenes; God intervenes precisely at the point when no human virtue or piety would compel him to do so, where the only hope is the sheer divine intention to bless, save, and protect, regardless of whether it’s acknowledged by the saved ones at all.

Samuel Wells, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, has said provocatively that the Book of Esther “provides the most explicit foreshadowing of Christ in the whole of the Old Testament.” That may be a bit of homiletical exaggeration, but then again it may not. If Jesus the Jew isn’t just the human one who stands in the breach to rescue his people Israel and the rest of the nations from certain destruction — if he is also the embodiment of God’s own faithfulness despite all human indifference and rejection — then Esther may be one of the best windows onto the meaning of the gospel that we have.


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One response to “February 4-10”

  1. […] you can get past the clickbait title, this follow-up to the Fleishman discourse on Slate sounds like it was written by my friend, the good Rev Condon. “A life like this is […]

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