Another Week Ends

Performative Work, Pentecostal Future, Existential Apps, Lonely Mid-Life, and the God Who Sees Us.

Todd Brewer / 1.14.22

1. Leading off this week is an article that’s almost revelatory in its diagnosis. The increasing shift to more virtual workspaces has given rise to what Philip Coggan calls “performative work.” Looking busy, whether you are or not, to justify your salary.

The simple act of logging on is now public. Green dots by your name on messaging channels are the virtual equivalents of jackets left on chairs and monitors turned on. Calendars are now frequently shared: empty ones look lazy; full ones appear virtuous.

Communication is more likely to happen on open messaging channels, where everyone can see who is contributing and who is not. Emails can be performative, too — scheduled for the early morning or the weekend, or the early morning on the weekend, to convey Stakhanovite effort. Repeated noises like Slack’s knock-brush provide a soundtrack of busyness.

Meetings, the office’s answer to the theatre, have proliferated. They are harder to avoid now that invitations must be responded to and diaries are public. Even if you don’t say anything, cameras make meetings into a miming performance: an attentive expression and occasional nodding now count as a form of work. The chat function is a new way to project yourself. Satya Nadella, the boss of Microsoft, says that comments in chat help him to meet colleagues he would not otherwise hear from. Maybe so, but that is an irresistible incentive to pose questions that do not need answering and offer observations that are not worth making. […]

Theatre has always been an important part of the workplace. Open communication is a prerequisite of successful remote working. But the prevalence of performative work is bad news — not just for the George Costanzas of the world, who can no longer truly tune out, but also for employees who have to catch up on actual tasks once the show is over. By extension it is also bad for productivity. Why, then, does it persist?

One answer lies in the natural desire of employees to demonstrate how hard they are working, like bowerbirds with a keyboard. Another lies in managers’ need to see what everyone is up to. And a third is hinted at in recent research, from academics at two French business schools, which found that white-collar professionals are drawn to a level of “optimal busyness”, which neither overwhelms them nor leaves them with much time to think. Rushing from meeting to meeting, triaging emails and hitting a succession of small deadlines can deliver a buzz, even if nothing much is actually being achieved. The performance is what counts.

This illusion of greater transparency makes for new venues of judgment (and righteousness). And wherever there is law, the increase of trespass is sure to follow. Coggan writes with a healthy dose of realism, understanding that we might be inclined to game the system, like scheduling an email to send during a nap … for example. But the transparency of online work also reveals the sometimes not-so-subtle expectation it can create to be working more. Perhaps that coworker isn’t virtue-signaling their dedication and you’re actually falling behind? When the boss edits files at 11:06 p.m., it creates the expectation that you should do the same.

2. When it comes to the issue of religious decline, Americans will frequently draw comparisons between themselves and Europe, where, we tend to think, the trend toward secularization is a few decades ahead. There are all kinds of reasons why we assume the countries across the Atlantic might be vanguards (or harbingers) of our own future, but ideas of progress and the allure of the “old country” certainly have something to do with it. But perhaps a better analog could be found in Latin America, where in many places the “establishment” religion of Catholicism has lost considerable ground to Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. Outlined in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the parallels feel strikingly similar:

Critics inside and outside the Catholic Church also point to its failures to satisfy the religious and social demands of many people, especially among the poor. Latin Americans often describe the Catholic Church as out of touch with the everyday struggles of its congregation.

The rise of liberation theology in the 1960s and ’70s, a time when the Catholic Church in Latin America increasingly stressed its mission as one of social justice, in some cases drawing on Marxist ideas, failed to counter the appeal of Protestant faiths. Or, in the words of a now-legendary quip, variously attributed to Catholic and Protestant sources: “The Catholic Church opted for the poor and the poor opted for the Pentecostals.” […]

Pentecostalism’s loose organizational structure has helped it make inroads into Latin America’s poorest neighborhoods, where churches offer material as well as spiritual help. Lay-led churches with flocks as small as a few dozen families organize donations of rice and beans for hungry families, fund soccer clubs for young boys to lure them away from drug gangs and organize private healthcare as an alternative to Brazil’s failing public hospitals.

According to the 2014 Pew survey, the most popular reason given by former Catholics in Latin America for embracing some form of Protestantism was to have a more personal connection with God, cited by 81% of respondents. Nearly six in 10 said they left Catholicism because they found “a church that helps members more.” […]

The Rev. Martín Lasarte, a Uruguayan priest appointed by Pope Francis to the 2019 Vatican synod on Latin America’s Amazon region, believes the liberation theology movement has often placed political and social issues above the religious experience. In such cases, “it lacks the existential sense of the joy of living the Gospel, this personal encounter that so many Pentecostal churches give to the person,”

Endeavoring to predict the future by comparing countries separated by thousands of miles is as perilous as it sounds (see also this article), but the lesson of Latin American countries is at least instructive. Attentiveness to social reality to the detriment of issues closer to home is a recipe for disaster. More broadly, it’s worth asking what Christianity is best equipped to do—from where does its vitality derive? The gospel is good news for you, as personal as the God it proclaims.

3. Reflecting what many people implicitly know, Katharine Smyth wrote in the Atlantic about “Why Making Friends in Midlife Is So Hard.” But it’s also the kind of thing that bears repeating, if only because loneliness is part of what makes early-middle age so obviously difficult (particularly nowadays). The data she cites is eye-opening:

According to “The Friendship Report,” a global study commissioned by Snapchat in 2019, the average age at which we meet our best friends is 21 — a stage when we’re not only bonding over formative new experiences such as first love and first heartbreak, but also growing more discerning about whom we befriend. Even more important, young adulthood is a time when many of us have time. The average American spends just 41 minutes a day socializing, but Jeffrey A. Hall, a communication-studies professor at the University of Kansas, estimates that it typically takes more than 200 hours, ideally over six weeks, for a stranger to grow into a close friend. As we get older, the space we used to fill with laughter, gossip, and staying up until the sky grew light can get consumed by more “adult” concerns, such as marriage, procreation, and fully developed careers — and we tend to end up with less of ourselves to give.

Smyth tells of her many failed attempts to make new friends after moving to a new city (I hope she changed people’s names!), likening the process to non-romantic dating. She even goes on Bumble in her search. If finding friends depends on, in her words, “chemistry and common interests, but also on a shared vision of what your new relationship could provide.” I instantly thought of church (good ones at least) and the instant lifeline of friendship a church can offer.

But I also wonder whether viewing friendship as an add-on to other life commitments is part of the problem. Moving for a new job might be worthwhile in the long run, but the loss of friendship isn’t always accounted for in the decision-making process. And those of us in our 30s and beyond who have “adult concerns” and “less of ourselves to give” might be better off being a little less adult.

4. We’ve written about the show Search Party on the website before. After the recent series finale, the AV Club talked with Alia Shawkat, who dropped this incredible insight on the meaning of the show and the very low-anthropology aim of its social commentary:

The writers did such a great job of showing “And this is what the story has always been.” As much as Dory has done to escape her past, the reality of what the beginning seed is — of someone looking for somebody and trying to help, but it going awry — is ultimately the ethos of the show. It’s a generational comment of how we’re trying to help, we think we’re helping, but we’re trapped in a mirror image of ourselves. We’re actually not doing anything. It’s dark, but the ending is beautiful in that way.

5. “Can Being Reminded of My Death Improve My Life?” — that’s the question posed to Wired‘s advice columnist. A number of phone apps now provide regular reminders of our mortality, complete with all the existential quotes you need to stare at the abyss unfazed. If that sounds like a technological seculosity, you’d be 100% right. So … does it help? The answer given is more than surprising:

In the end, death apps are less a wake-up call than another false comfort, one that reflexively defers to the favored religion of our age — information. Given that we routinely rely on apps to predict the future, providing stats about what the weather will be like tomorrow or whether our favorite restaurant will be busy, it may seem natural to believe that they can also prepare us for the great unknown. But death remains the only landscape without an IP address, the one locale that you cannot research, the “undiscovered country” that remains absent from Google Earth. I suspect your anxiety stems in part from your awareness that the app, on its own, is not really addressing the heart of your fear. Surely you know, on some deeper level, that death can’t be predicted or controlled. […]

If you remain intent on contending with your mortality, the best solution I can think of is simply to wait— if not for death itself, then for more life experience. I find it telling, and not particularly surprising, that most WeCroak users report being in their twenties and thirties, the decades of modern adulthood when death still seems abstract and far off. I am willing to bet, in fact, that you are in that age category yourself. Soon enough — sooner than you think — your body will start to break down. More and more of your peers will die. The milestones of middle age will prompt you to tally a dark arithmetic, weighing the years spent against the years that remain as you begin to comprehend, perhaps for the first time, the inflexible nature of time.

6. In humor, while app reminders of your mortality aren’t enough of a stressor, the New Yorker has “New Apps to Optimize Your Anxiety“:

Ex-plore Page

Thanks to this app, you’ll never have to waste hours Googling your exes again. Fill out a simple questionnaire, and Ex-plore Page will create a custom feed of photos sourced directly from the social-media accounts of your former flames and their new partners, who are hotter and better than you.

If you’ve found yourself sharing bingo grids of green, yellow, and grey boxes, McSweeney’sPlease, World, In a Time of Infinite Darkness, Just Let Us Have Wordle” is for you.

But my hands-down favorite this week was Reductress‘ all-too-true, “Woman’s Spirit Crushed By Honest Feedback She Requested“:

Pausing at the conference room door, McDermott asked her boss, Jeorgia Harris, what she really thought of the project she just presented, being so bold as to use terms like “I love constructive criticism” and “I can handle it.”

Instead of the anticipated compliments, Harris told McDermott that she expected more progress to have been made on the Watson project.

“I mean, what the f*ck?” says McDermott. “You’re supposed to say something nice! Everyone knows ‘constructive criticism’ is code for ‘compliment’ followed by something vague I can improve upon but never really fix!

“Later my boss told me that I seem more confident speaking in meetings recently,” McDermott adds. “But I do wonder if that’s because she saw me tearing up in my cubicle after we spoke.”

Harris weighed in on the developing story.

“I do think she seemed more confident in speaking,” Harris says. “But I wish that confidence was a bit less fragile because since I gave her the bit of constructive criticism she explicitly asked for, she’s been playing Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘Hurt’ out loud on her work computer. It’s distracting.

7. To close this week, I’ll leave you with Chad Bird’s splendid article at 1517: “For Those Who Feel Unseen.”

On Monday, a woman laid her baby girl to rest. Tiny coffin. A ragged gash in her maternal soul. Now every inch forward is a mile of numbness. And, God, where is he?

On Tuesday, a couple signed divorce papers. A God-joined and man-destroyed union. Separate beds, separate homes, shared fears of a future pregnant with monstrous uncertainties.

On Wednesday, a man got to work, did his job, clocked out, and drove home, convinced that if he were simply to vanish from the earth tonight, in a year not a single person would ever give him even a moment’s remembrance.

On Thursday, a mother spent morning to nightfall cooking and cleaning and correcting the three young children in her care, all the while wondering if, in the grand scheme of things, she made any real difference to the Creator of the universe.

On Friday, when the worker wheeled him into the main room in front of the television, he stared through cloudy blue eyes at the bent and haggard bodies of his compatriots in this house of aging, where daily, if not hourly, he asked the Lord why he didn’t just take him home already.

Early Saturday morning, when she stumbled home from the party in darkness, her mind a blur from the miasma of drugs and a hook-up with some stranger, she fell into bed with just enough consciousness left to silently scream to the heavens her unspoken lament for a life she wouldn’t be ashamed of.

On Sunday, after the pastor got home from church, he slumped into his recliner, thinking about what a wasted life he was leading, shepherding a congregation that was hemorrhaging members and seemed hellbent on dying the slow death of attrition. And lifting his eyes to heaven, he shook his head and said, “I’m beginning to think that you don’t even care.”

El Roi, the God who sees, the God who looks after me, the God named Jesus the Christ.

Monday through Sunday, when his children are in loss, shame, confusion, and doubt, Jesus El Roi never closes his eyes. He looks and he sees. More than that, he sits with the suffering and holds the trembling soul. There is not a bone in the body that doesn’t care.


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