Another Week Ends

Bible Jokes, Parenting Mood Swings, Happiness Studies, and Finding Christ in Hell

Meaghan Ritchey / 1.20.23

1. Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been investigating what makes people flourish. The simple and profound conclusion: “Good relationships lead to health and happiness.” But these days, people are feeling unmoored and out to sea when it comes to family and friendship. The most devastating and lingering effect of the pandemic, it seems, is “habitual loneliness, in which relationships were severed and never reestablished. Many people — perhaps including you — are still wandering alone, without the company of friends and loved ones to help rebuild their life,” suggests Arthur Brooks in the Atlantic. The statistics compiled by the Harvard study are sobering:

Americans in 2018 spent 11 hours every day on solitary activities such as watching television and listening to the radio. Spending 58 days over 29 years with a friend is infinitesimal compared with the 4,851 days that Americans will spend interacting with media during that same time period. Distractions are hard to avoid. […]

Research has found that, for older adults, loneliness is far more dangerous than obesity. Ongoing loneliness raises a person’s odds of death by 26 percent in any given year. A study in the U.K., the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, recently reported on the connections between loneliness and poorer health and self-care in young adults. This ongoing study includes more than 2,200 people born in England and Wales in 1994 and 1995. When they were 18, the researchers asked them how lonely they were. Those who reported being lonelier had a greater chance of facing mental-health issues, partaking in unsafe physical-health behaviors, and coping with stress in negative ways. Add to this the fact that a tide of loneliness is flooding through modern societies, and we have a serious problem.

2. One such place people experience regular closeness in mind, body, and spirit: church pews. If, like me, altar guild hangout sessions are a highlight of your week, it’s easy to become discouraged by shrinking congregations and boarded up church buildings. Writing in the Atlantic this week, Wendy Cage and Elan Babchuk note the integral role churches have in one’s wellbeing and simultaneously assure us that American religion isn’t dead.

Most Americans no longer orient their lives around houses of worship. And that loss is about more than just missing out on prayer services. It means that when people move to a new city, they have to work much harder to find new friends than previous generations did. When someone falls ill, they might not have a cadre of their fellow faithful to offer home-cooked meals and prayers for healing. This reorientation away from houses of worship is one of the factors that has led to the decline of a sense of community, the rise of social isolation, and the corresponding negative effects on public health, especially for older adults.

Religion has historically done four main “jobs.” First, it provides a framework for meaning-making, whether helping our ancient ancestors explain why it rained when it rained, or helping us today make sense of why bad things happen to good people. Second, religion offers rituals that enable us to mark time, process loss, and celebrate joys — from births to coming of age to family formation to death. Third, it creates and supports communities, allowing each of us to find a place of belonging. And finally, fueled by each of the first three, religion inspires us to take prophetic action — to partake in building a world that is more just, more kind, and more loving. Through the pursuit of these four jobs, religious folks might also experience a sense of wonder, discover some new truth about themselves or the world, or even have an encounter with the divine. […]

But the old metrics of success — attendance and affiliation, or, more colloquially, “butts, budgets, and buildings” — may no longer capture the state of American religion. Although participation in traditional religious settings (churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, etc.) is in decline, signs of life are popping up elsewhere: in conversations with chaplains, in communities started online that end up forming in-person bonds as well, in social-justice groups rooted in shared faith.

3. Signs of life are popping up elsewhere. In Harper’s, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq explains that, while all of the opponents of euthanasia he knows are fervent Christians, he — an agnostic — likewise opposes assisted suicide:

For Immanuel Kant, human dignity clearly prohibited suicide. But it took an enormous intellectual effort for Kant to disentangle human dignity and the moral law from metaphysics (in other words, from Christianity). Who can take the measure of that effort today? Dignity has become a meaningless word, a joke in poor taste. I even have the impression that for my contemporaries the idea of a moral law has become rather obscure.

Little by little, and without anyone’s objecting — or even seeming to notice — our civil law has moved away from the moral law whose fulfillment should be its sole purpose. It is difficult and exhausting to live in a country where the laws are held in contempt, whether they sanction acts that have nothing to do with morality or condone acts that are morally abject. But it’s even worse to live among people whom one begins to disdain for their submission to these laws they hold in contempt as well as for their greediness in demanding new ones. 

In nearly every country, historical era, religion, civilization, and culture, agony has been deemed a crucial aspect of our existence. Whether you believe in the existence of a creator who will call you to account or not, this is the moment of farewell — a last chance to see certain people, to tell them what you may never have said before, and to hear what they may have to say to you. To cut short these death throes is both impious (for those who believe) and immoral (for anyone). This is the consensus of the civilizations, religions, and cultures that have gone before us, and this is what so-called progressivism is preparing to destroy.

It’s taken some time, but the debate over euthanasia has slowly moved from the philosophy classroom exercise to a matter of public policy, with Canadian politicians and voters debating this in the public square as we speak. But beyond the more pastoral scenarios envisioned by the philosopher, one might note how easily the mere facilitation of death can becomes the promotion of it (particularly by those who have all the financial incentives on their side).

4. The Parenting Pendulum” is Burke Nixon’s review of Raising Raffi: The First Five Years by Keith Gessen. Nearing forty, Gessen assumed he would have kids, but couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be a parent, or what kind of parent he would be. Then came Raffi, who Gessen describes as “a child as real and complex and demanding of his parents’ energy as he was singularly magical.” Essay by essay, Gessen gets at the extremes of parenthood: joy and exasperation, tenderness and impatience, enthusiasm and exhaustion.

To be a dad, and a parent in general, is to find yourself at the mercy of an emotional pendulum that swings more suddenly and more frequently than in your daily non-parenting life. You are forever reacting to the little person or people you love — and reacting to their reactions, and reacting to your own reactions — moving back and forth between joy and exasperation, between tenderness and impatience, between enthusiasm and exhaustion, between the cool water and the concrete wall. […]

Gessen wants to be a kind, compassionate father — more than once, Raffi tells him that he’s “not nice” — but he also wants Raffi to actually listen. He wants Raffi not to hit or scratch. He wants Raffi to eat his dinner. He wants Raffi not to yank on his infant brother’s head. He wants Raffi not to pick up a glass of water at dinner and douse his father with it. But Raffi, being a child, sometimes willfully refuses. Gessen doesn’t want to yell, doesn’t want to spank, doesn’t want to endlessly badger his child, but he also doesn’t want Raffi to continue to do these things. So what should a nice but extremely frustrated parent do in such moments?”

Through humorous personal stories of swimming pools, trampolines, bloody noses, and bruised egos, Nixon lauds Gessen’s willingness to reflect on the limited knowledge that most people have when they become parents. Perhaps you can relate? Romans 7:15-20 (What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do … ) could’ve been penned by any parent trying to get their kids out the door to school and any kid who, overcome with jealousy, snatches another’s toy from on the playground.

Parenting is hard; impossible, even. The good news here isn’t that the parenting pendulum won’t stop swinging when your kid turns eighteen, but in recognizing the impossibility of it all in the moment, making the emotional swings a little less volatile. And for all the fathers and sons whose childhoods are far from perfect, whose tempers are short, whose expectations are never being met as they imagined, there’ll always be at least one Father whose patience exceeds our own.

5. I’m ready for some comic relief, you? First up, Atsuko Okatsuka thinks we should bring comedy into church. She’s even got some Bible-friendly jokes:

To the Goodbye to All That leaving NYC-essay genre, this Reductress article says, “Come off it!”

“Being edgy in the city is impossible … Now, I don’t even have to try and I’m the edgiest person in town! In fact, I’ve actually been able to tone down my own edginess and relax a bit more, while still being perceived as the most unhinged person in my town. It’s been great for my ego, while also playing an active role in disintegrating every other facet of my life I’d been trying to build up prior. I’m living the dream and I’m at a creative standstill. Such are the compromises of life!”

Following the box office trend of major franchise sequels, maybe you heard that Mel Gibson and Jim Caviezel are making a sequel to the Passion of the Christ? Why wouldn’t you follow the character arc of a super hero being raised from the dead?

And this Quiz: God or the Internet? is too true.

6. The last word today comes to us from Christian Wiman. “White Buffalo,” from his forthcoming memoir, is a sort of excruciatingly specific reflection on the death of his father, his sister’s attempted suicides fueled by drug addiction, and the attendant agonies of grace that stave off despair and make room for the miraculous to intrude on one’s work and life.

I should have realized that a person who can find Christ in hell, as my sister did in that prison, who can see Christ working in hell and love this work even as that balm is withheld from her, is not a person whose soul is dead. Why must I learn the same lessons over and over again?

We were almost finished with dinner when my sister asked me the same question she’d asked when we’d visited her in prison: what it was like to live with death all the time, how one made it through one’s days. … I said no one lives with death all the time any more than one lives with God all the time. I said it goes away, that terror (that joy), when it isn’t actually burning in your bones. I said some other useless shit. As with her question to me in the prison, I couldn’t understand that she was asking not out of curiosity but risking a real despair and an immediate need. Somewhere in the ruins of her life (“ash” is how I callously describe it above) there was a spark still burning — and seeking help. […]

And yet, for all the active attentiveness and readiness it requires, perhaps hope, in the end, is like joy — not willed but given. By God directly sometimes, as came to my sister when she touched my father’s death and turned decisively toward life. By God indirectly sometimes, as has come to me as I have finally faced this essay and the sin that lay at the center of it: a willed death of hope in the face of a fragile but furious will to live.”


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