Another Week Ends

The Original Fairytales, a Disdain for Tiebreakers, the Karen Identity Crisis, the Blessedness of Mediocrity, and (FYI) You’re Still Exhausted

Bryan J. / 8.6.21

1. Some in-house news to kick us off this week! “The Money Issue” of The Mockingbird magazine is now available for pre-order, and we are very excited to have Anne Helen Peterson as a part of this new issue. Her latest Culture Studies newsletter, titled “You’re Still Exhausted,” will give you a taste of why we are pumped to have the author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation among the contributors:

Like a lot of people, I have found myself overscheduled this summer. I’m still doing less than summers of the pre-pandemic past, which often felt like one wedding sliding straight into another without end, but it still feels like too much. Too much moving around, too much preparing, too much hosting, too much packing and unpacking and arranging while packing in concerted chunks of work in between. I’ve let things go (we are essentially eating mixed vegetable grill every night, it’s great); I’ve cancelled plans and been transparent about why. I’m trying to work less, or at least segment work more effectively. But I’m still tired.

At this point, I’m not complaining so much as in the throes of realization that I could spend a year doing pretty much nothing at all and still, with just a moderate amount of social life, find myself drained. Am I getting old? (Yes! But that’s not all of it!) Am I an introvert who’s always needed time on my own to recharge? (Absolutely, my mom has referred to my need for “Some Annie Time” since I was, oh, five years old). Am I socially awkward? (Clearly, this is part of why I’m a writer).

But I think the real problem is that life is still exhausting because the pandemic was and remains exhausting in so many invisible ways — and we still haven’t given ourselves space to even begin to recover. Instead, we’re just softly boiling over, emptying and evaporating whatever stores of energy and patience and grace remain.

This millennial who cancelled plans for this weekend feels seen. It turns out trying to cram a whole 18 months of missed social engagement into an already hectic summer is a recipe for mental and psychosomatic illness. The problem, however, goes beyond societies and structures: 

And while I’m always ready to point to the structural issues that make actual rest difficult, I also think that we, as individuals, are garbage at recognizing our need for it. It’s not that we’re anti-social, Bad Wine Moms, “unproductive,” lacking in “grit,” or just need to wash our faces. We’re just chronically under-resourced and over-burdened.

So the first step is recognizing that you, too, need rest. Don’t just want it, don’t just fantasize about it, don’t just talk about it and then deny it, but need it, require it, in order to keep going. The second step is advocating for the structures that make it possible — on a personal, professional, and societal level — so that others can ask and receive rest too.

And the third step is actually taking it. For some of you, that’s easy. But for others, addicted to the feeling of constant utility, that’s the hardest part. But your refusal helps set the impossible standards for everyone around you. You are beloved and worthy of rest. Now act like it.

We know the law “thou shalt rest” won’t necessarily move the needle for folks. The reminder that our refusal to rest sets the standard so others feel like they can’t rest, however, might be crushing enough to bring about a dose of repentance.

2. Speaking of people whose stores of energy, patience, and grace have evaporated, pray for everyone working in the service industry. It turns out we in the U.S. may be uniquely predisposed to the kind of meltdowns and tantrums that have made Karens and anti-maskers the great pandemic memes. Amanda Mull makes her case in the Atlantic:

Even before the pandemic pushed things to further extremes, the primacy of consumer identity made customer-service interactions particularly conflagratory. Being corrected by a salesperson, forgotten by a bartender, or brushed off by a flight attendant isn’t just an annoyance — for many people, it is an existential threat to their self-understanding. “How many kinds of status do most of us actually have?” Strasser, the historian, asked me. “The notion that at the restaurant, you’re better than the waiters, it becomes part of the restaurant experience,” and also part of how some patrons understand their place in the world. Compounding this sense of superiority is the fact that so many service workers are from historically marginalized groups — the workforce is disproportionately nonwhite and female.

Because consumer identities are constructed by external forces, Strasser said, they are uniquely vulnerable, and the people who hold them are uniquely insecure. If your self-perception is predicated on how you spend your money, then you have to keep spending it, especially if your overall class status has become precarious, as it has for millions of middle-class people in the past few decades. At some point, one of those transactions will be acutely unsatisfying. Those instances, instead of being minor and routine inconveniences, destabilize something inside people, Strasser told me. Although Americans at pretty much every income level have now been socialized into this behavior by the pervasiveness of consumer life, its breakdown can be a reminder of the psychological trap of middle-classness, the one that service-worker deference to consumers allows people to forget temporarily: You know, deep down, that you’re not as rich or as powerful as you’ve been made to feel by the people who want something from you. Your station in life is much more similar to that of the cashier or the receptionist than to the person who signs their paychecks.

Whenever I come to New York for the Mockingbird Conference (2022, Lord willing!), my wife and I try to come a day early to visit a favorite restaurant. Upon our return visits, the hostess greets us like this: “Mr. and Mrs. J, it’s good to see you again, welcome back. It’s been a while since your last visit to the city, how are things back home?” And look, I know it’s a computer feeding her information collected from our last visits, but c’mon! A small town rural pastor getting that kind of treatment at a Michelin Star restaurant? Mull is right to say that the issue is something class related, but not class exclusive. If consumerism is an identity, then anti-mask tantrums and Karen meltdowns resonate outside of the realm of mere inconvenience. “Existential threat,” indeed.

3. The Olympics continue on and enough ink has been spilt over the Simone Biles saga. In other news, the complete disdain these high-jumpers have for the idea of a tie-breaker fills me with joy. “Can we have two gold?” has to be the Mbird quote of Tokyo 2021. Who cares which athlete is better when two friends could share first place? See also the haka from the gold medal New Zealand Woman’s 7’s Rugby team. Sadly, NBC won’t let us embed these amazing videos for you to watch from this post.

4. Malcolm Gladwell’s popular Revisionist History podcast just finished up their three-part series dissecting Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I’ll leave it to listeners to judge their revision of the classic film’s ending. The second part of the series, however, dives into the history of fairytale, and how the enlightenment sought to correct the “errors” of fairytales past:

Gladwell: For thousands of years, people sat around the fire and listened to storytellers. And what are the narratives that survived the evolution of centuries? Stories in which the heroes did not deserve their fate. 

Fletcher: Audiences wanted to believe that life could suddenly go from bad to good. 

Gladwell: It’s not that life could suddenly go from … that there could be a sudden twist … it’s that the twist would be unrelated to the disposition and character of the protagonist. That I didn’t have to meet a certain qualification to be eligible for this good fortune. It was bestowed on anyone.

Fletcher: Yeah. 

Gladwell: But then, in the 17th century, fairytales took a dramatic turn. The key figure was a French figure named Charles Perot. He read the fairytales that had been collected by earlier writers and loved them, wanted to share them with the world. But Perot thought they needed a little tweaking. 

Fletcher: He said “you know what? These tales are so primitive. They were written before the age of reason. They were written before the enlightenment. And reason tells us that all these instances in which good things are coming from bad … they can’t happen.  [These stories] follow this logic that’s been created by God. And I want these stories to instill [a more reason-informed view]. So I’m just gonna make these changes. I’m going to change it so that good things only happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. And so there’s no more good happening to bad. There’s only good happening to good.

Ooh! I know a story about impossible twists and good fortune befalling the undeserving … The podcast goes on to articulate how studies show kids actually prefer the older style of fairytale — fortunate twists where good happens to bad as opposed to poetic karma where good only happens to good. It turns out they are smart enough to know the former is more in line with real life.

5. In humor this week, the Olympics have inspired quite the reflection on body talk:

But the gold medal this week goes to Bryan Harvey in McSweeney’s, “Jesus Needs His Own Cinematic Universe“:

– Back to the Jesus thing, because I think he’s really at the center of all this. I don’t like the Boyhood idea. That would take over thirty years. I think the material we have is good enough to keep people interested, but I don’t know if it’s that good. Maybe we do like a Young Indiana Jones thing and call it Jesus: The Lost Years.

– Or The LOST JESUS.

– Or WWJD WHEN HE WAS JUST A BOY.

– Sure, and it’s like him doing carpentry and calling time out, and everybody just stops.

– We could make him a Jedi, but more discreet.

– Same robes, I guess.

– Project Runway crossovers.

– Oh, yeah, totally. There are definitely some women characters to be developed.

– Who’s the Black Widow in all this?

6. The last word today goes to Stephen Freeman, whose exploration of the 1984 film Amadeus becomes the jumping off point for a discussion about “the cult of excellence.” Have a mediocre weekend everyone!

The shame of mediocrity is, I think, particularly strong in modern culture, driven by the strange lies of our cultural mythology. I saw a billboard on a recent trip. It proclaimed: “Goals + Passion = Change.” Well, I suppose it does. However, the hidden message in this is that “change is possible and desirable, but that it’s your personal responsibility. The reason your passions are frustrated is because you have a lack of goals. Great people are passionate people, etc.” It’s nothing more than new packaging for the old Horatio Alger story, the American myth that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It oversimplifies life and transfers the unspoken corporate guilt of our way of life onto the individual. “Mediocrity is failure and it is my fault.” This is cultural insanity.

We live in a sea of grace, in a world in which wonder and awe suffuse the whole universe. Often, the work of grace goes unnoticed, hidden both by its ordinariness and its lack of drama. Our culture is fond of singing, “Amazing grace,” with an expectation that what constitutes the work of God will always amaze and astound. It is the stuff of great “testimonies” and the various heroes of the faith. But most of the time throughout history, there is a slow and steadfast persistence of grace that, on the one hand, sustains us in our existence, and, on the other, constantly makes the fruit of our lives exceed the quality of our work. We offer him what is mediocre, at best, and He yields back to us thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred. Indeed, we fail to understand that what some might judge to be “mediocre” is itself a work of grace. […]

We are beloved mediocrities who have been commanded to become gods (by grace). The only pathway that makes any sense in such a journey is that of the Cross. That path is one of self-emptying and patient endurance. God has not established “achieved excellence” as the manner of our salvation. Indeed, the cult of excellence, in many ways, is one of the soul-crushing myths of our age. The Mozarts of the world are seldom, if ever, the result of applied effort (Salieri is the result of applied effort). They are unpredictable wonders whose presence mocks our faith in works.

Strays:

  • For those of you following The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, we mined this gem by David Zahl out of our archives from 2009, back when Mockingbird was but a fledgling blogspot!
  • A great perspective from a 40-year veteran of homeless ministry regarding the first use of the law: “We may be tempted to do something illegal or immoral, but we don’t do it. Not necessarily because we’re just so virtuous, but because we were afraid it might screw up our life.”
  • Did you think we’d make it through a weekender without a Ted Lasso reference? Of course not: