Another Week Ends

Vacation Transformations, Virtuous Hope, Angry Young Men, AI Speeches, and Choice vs. Gift

Bryan J. / 6.30.23

1. We’re in the thick of midsummer this week, which means many of us have taken our vacations and returned from our travels already. For a number of reasons, this will be the first year in a long time that my family is staying home for the summer. You know what they say: when you have young kids, you don’t go on vacations — you go on trips. Still, to tell people we’re not traveling this summer feels like an assault on their happy vibes, a bubble piercing reality that afflicts the thin veneer of respectability a well-traveled person can accrue.

In the New Yorker, Agnes Callard comes to my rescue. The noted contrarian pulls together a handful of famous thinkers to assemble a minority voice, arguing that travel has absolutely no intrinsic virtue or value, and we are foolish to pretend otherwise:

The single most important fact about tourism is this: we already know what we will be like when we return. A vacation is not like immigrating to a foreign country, or matriculating at a university, or starting a new job, or falling in love. We embark on those pursuits with the trepidation of one who enters a tunnel not knowing who she will be when she walks out. The traveller departs confident that she will come back with the same basic interests, political beliefs, and living arrangements. Travel is a boomerang. It drops you right where you started.

If you think that this doesn’t apply to you — that your own travels are magical and profound, with effects that deepen your values, expand your horizons, render you a true citizen of the globe, and so on — note that this phenomenon can’t be assessed first-personally. Pessoa, Chesterton, Percy, and Emerson were all aware that travellers tell themselves they’ve changed, but you can’t rely on introspection to detect a delusion. So cast your mind, instead, to any friends who are soon to set off on summer adventures. In what condition do you expect to find them when they return? They may speak of their travel as though it were transformative, a “once in a lifetime” experience, but will you be able to notice a difference in their behavior, their beliefs, their moral compass? Will there be any difference at all?

Travel is fun, so it is not mysterious that we like it. What is mysterious is why we imbue it with a vast significance, an aura of virtue. If a vacation is merely the pursuit of unchanging change, an embrace of nothing, why insist on its meaning?

One is forced to conclude that maybe it isn’t so easy to do nothing — and this suggests a solution to the puzzle. Imagine how your life would look if you discovered that you would never again travel. If you aren’t planning a major life change, the prospect looms, terrifyingly, as “More and more of this, and then I die.” Travel splits this expanse of time into the chunk that happens before the trip, and the chunk that happens after it, obscuring from view the certainty of annihilation. And it does so in the cleverest possible way: by giving you a foretaste of it. You don’t like to think about the fact that someday you will do nothing and be nobody. You will only allow yourself to preview this experience when you can disguise it in a narrative about how you are doing many exciting and edifying things: you are experiencing, you are connecting, you are being transformed, and you have the trinkets and photos to prove it.

The only thing more foolish than making travel into a virtue may be reassigning that virtue to staying put, especially if the “more of this” Callard imagines is just as vapid and devoid of value. But if you disagree with Callard, I hear that there are some spots open on the next trip with Romano Tours, who reminds us that “you’re still going to be you on vacation.”

2. Speaking of virtues, over at Aeon, Michael Lamb brings “the big mind” to bear on the problems of the day. St. Augustine of Hippo, he argues, helps us navigate the complex challenges of our time by defining hope as a virtue and not an emotion. If hope is a virtue, then not only is it preserved against the fickleness of our emotional state, but, as Lamb articulates below, it helps us identify unhelpful vices:

The virtue of hope helps human beings to resist two vices of disorder: presumption and despair. Presumption characterises those whose feelings of hope are perverse, excessive or false. Those with the vice of presumption hope for the wrong objects, or in the wrong people, or too much for, or in, the right ones. In some cases, optimism can reflect the vice of presumption more than the virtue of hope.

By contrast, pessimism can often express hope’s corresponding vice of deficiency — despair. While despair, like hope, is a natural emotion that can be justified in some situations, it becomes a vice when it reflects a more habitual failure to hope sufficiently for goods that are actually possible to attain. This vice causes us to give up all hope, which can lead us to withdraw from the pursuit of difficult goods or, out of desperation, cause harm to ourselves or others. Augustine compares those in despair to Roman gladiators destined to die in the arena. Because they have ‘no hope of being spared’, they are either ‘looking for a way to die’ or ‘do not hesitate to commit a foul’, using violent force without constraint. For Augustine, both vices can cause complacency or complicity. If we presume that attaining an object is certain, or despair that it is impossible, we will not work to attain what we hope for. We need the virtue of hope to act in the face of the difficulties, dangers and delays that accompany our objects of hope.

Those with power and privilege, for example, may be more tempted toward presumption, falsely assuming that some future goods are likely or certain, that they don’t depend on others to achieve them, or that they can use their power or privilege to pursue their aims without limit or constraint. Their presumption may fuel a lust for glory and domination.

By contrast, a lack of power or privilege can create temptations toward despair. When those in such positions experience the effects of powerlessness, injustice and domination, they can often feel — rightly — that those who deny them power or voice make achieving their objects of hope harder. These people must resist the vice of despair. If they care about justice, equality or peace but despair about achieving them, then they might give up, and the problems they face will become only more entrenched. As one Augustinian prophet of hope, Martin Luther King, Jr, said in 1967: ‘Today’s despair is a poor chisel to carve out tomorrow’s justice.’

Not only does Augustine have theological advice, argues Lamb, but the famed rhetorician has advice on communication as well. How we communicate can inspire hope, presumption or despair, and readers would do well to hear the law/gospel overtones in Lamb’s explanation:

Consider a passage from The City of God often taken as a primary expression of Augustine’s ‘pessimism’. In Book 22.22-23, Augustine offers a scathing analysis of the ‘many and grave evils’ that affect earthly life, from ‘diseases’ and ‘disturbances’ to ‘deceptions’ and ‘wars’. Ultimately, he concludes: ‘This is a state of life so miserable that it is like a hell on earth.’ Many interpreters take this verdict as confirmation of Augustine’s pessimism, but they ignore the next chapter of The City of God, where he offers a lengthy list of earthly goods. ‘Who could give a complete account of all these [good] things?’ Augustine asks. ‘If I had chosen to deal with each one of them in turn … what a time it would take!’

In this passage, Augustine employs the ancient rhetorical devices of ‘vivid description’ and ‘antitheses’, oppositions that set good and evil ‘side by side’ to make a contrast more vivid and enhance audiences’ awareness. Here, Augustine performs what the rhetoric scholar Kenneth Burke characterises in The Philosophy of Literary Form (1974) as a ‘structure of encouragement’, a form of social critique that takes readers ‘into hell, but also out again’. Augustine takes his readers into a ‘hell on earth’ to highlight the realities of evil and thereby challenge their presumptions about the world. But he also recognises that describing evils so vividly might leave readers in despair. So he highlights the world’s goodness in the next chapter to take readers out of hell and supply grounds for hope. In this way, Augustine enacts what Jeffrey Stout in Blessed Are the Organized (2010) describes as the ‘delicate task of the social critic’: ‘to adopt a perspective that makes the dangers of our situation visible without simultaneously disabling the hope of reforming it.’

3. This next one is a hot potato. Its headline alone goes against our editorial standards for profanity, and its subject matter is a hard-R. Nonetheless, we’re going to pass it along because it’s a plea for mercy for a community that rarely receives it. Over at Tablet Mag, William Deresiewicz challenges Marc Maron’s dismissal of a certain class of angry young sexually frustrated nerds who commiserate and spread misery together online. I found his comparison between sex-objects and success-objects especially helpful:

Women are sex objects, goes the cliché, and men are success objects. But success requires many years to achieve, if you ever achieve it at all. Young men, in that respect, are much like older women: Society has little use for them, barely deigns to notice them. I’m not talking about the advertising industry, or the entertainment industry; I’m talking about the day-to-day experience of living in the world. Young women often have a lot of social power, whereas, except for the fortunate few — the born rich, the strikingly handsome, the 6-foot-3—young men have none…

Do I sound bitter? I’m channeling my younger self. It’s all worked out for me, I have no complaints, but I am intensely aware that it could have gone a different way. Turn this dial a click to the left, turn that one a click to the right—a little less privilege, a little more emotional instability — and I could have turned into a hate nerd myself. I suspect that a lot of men sense that. What does it feel like to be a young man? It feels like you are Kafka’s cockroach, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. It feels like you were drawn by Harvey Pekar or R. Crumb. You are an Untermensch, a particle, a stew of envies and resentments, a festering sore …

Their behavior is disgusting, it is inexcusable, but what do we think is going to make them stop? Telling them to comb their hair, to put down the Xbox, to get a life? Reminding them that they’re unlovable and worthless? They know that already; that is precisely the problem. Hate breeds hate. Revenge is not justice. The hate nerds are human, no less than you and me. We need to treat them like it.

When Deresiewicz says he suspects most men can see themselves as a hate nerd, I agree with him. I, too, could see myself becoming a hate nerd, spending my free hours on a screen channeling my rage at the unfairness of life into misogynistic tirades about the latest Star Wars heroine. Alas! As Kenny Rogers sang, “love lifted me,” and it seems like the only thing that will lift up the hate nerds, too.

On a related note, Nicholas Kristof wrote a kindhearted note about the Biden family last week, specifically the president’s son Hunter and his battle with addiction. While some of the family’s interactions have drawn political scrutiny, I was not aware of the unconditional love being shown to a prodigal son behind the scenes. A real life example of “love lifted me” if I’ve ever read one. And Kristof’s exhortation to invest in addiction treatment with the same fervor as cancer treatment rings true to anyone who’s officiated an opioid funeral.

4. In humor this week, Emily Holi wonders: “Boutique Spa Services Marketed To Women Or Medieval Torture Techniques?” Also, “Man Noticing Influx of Goldendoodles in Neighborhood Starts Preparing for Rent Increase” and “What Your Favorite Game Night Game Says About You.

Slate does its own tongue-and-cheek review of Fall Out Boy’s update to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” But I felt especially called out by Reductress this week, who shares: “I Realized My Impostor Syndrome Was Just a Healthy Sense of Humility.”

The realization hit me hard. My fear that I didn’t deserve my promotion to manager last year wasn’t impostor syndrome at all, it was just a valid recognition of my lackluster management skills.

Once I came to this correct measurement of my own abilities, my world came crashing down.

How was I supposed to accept this as the truth? I don’t have impostor syndrome? I just am an average worker with a reasonable and grounded understanding of their capabilities and achievements? That couldn’t be right.

So, when I forgot to send a few emails last week and I thought, “Wow, I’m really letting some things fall through the cracks today,” that wasn’t impostor syndrome clouding my view of reality, but rather an accurate assessment of my performance and an honest acknowledgement that I don’t always have everything together? I’m just a human who makes mistakes and is sometimes good at my job and sometimes bad? I’m doing the best I can and that doesn’t mean I’m perfect or exceptional but also not a complete waste of space?

Also: the Barbie/Oppenheimer double feature coming this July is one of the best memes this year. Get your tickets before they sell out!

5. Another day, another handwringing question about AI. Over at Wired, an anxious Best Man asks Meghan O’Gieblyn whether he should use the technology to help compose his traditional wedding toast for the groom. Wisely, O’Gieblyn points him away from digital assistance. The very act of struggling to write the speech, she says, imbues it with the love and significance that makes it a gift:

You’re certainly not alone in realizing that some onerous creative or emotive task can be completed relatively painlessly with AI. The same thought has undoubtedly occurred to the tongue-tied Tinder user who discovers that he can enlist a digital Cyrano to pen his opening lines to a prospective date; or to the exhausted mother who recognizes that she has at her fingertips a tireless Scheherazade that can produce an infinite scroll of bedtime stories for her children; or to the overworked son who realizes that he can generate, in seconds, a personalized  poem for his father’s retirement party.

Creatively expressing our feelings to others is time-consuming, uncompensated, and emotionally taxing — that is, at any rate, the message implicit in some of the marketing of large language models. When Microsoft, for instance, introduced its AI Copilot products in March, it imagined a mother using the software to generate a speech for her daughter’s high school graduation.

It’s not that there are certain realms of human experience that are intrinsically too sacred to automate, which seems to be what you’re getting at when you ask whether using AI for your speech would make you the “worst man.” On the contrary, it may be that human intimacy blooms in precisely those pockets of life that have not yet been widely exploited by commercial or mechanical forces. Perhaps our very notion of meaningful human connection depends on our refusal to relinquish such  emotional work.

In the end, it’s the effort we put into a task that determines its subjective significance. If you decide to hand over the speechwriting work to a machine, then you are essentially confirming that it is meaningless boilerplate. If, on the other hand, you decide to write the toast yourself, you will undoubtedly come to see this work — and the end product — as important, if only because your actions have reinforced your belief that it is worthy of your time and attention. Maybe the speech won’t achieve a toast-masterish polish or a Hallmark card’s concision, but your words may lead you to your own emotions, which, for the time being, we aren’t so eager to automate.

The reference to Cyrano de Bergerac, a story of misplaced credit masking true love, is the best metaphor for the limits of AI that I have come across. “I wish to be loved for myself, or not at all!” proclaims Christian to Cyrano, his love letter ghost writer, an intelligence that is not artificial but a substitute none the less. The result, of course, is that Christian’s substitute becomes the true object of Roxane’s affection. Those who substitute AI for meaningful connection will not find the affections they seek, and will not be loved for themselves.

6. For your viewing pleasure: a thoughtful reflection on prayer and public life from Dr. Amy Orr-Ewing at the UK’s National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast. Enjoy the whole service or skip to the 37 min mark to hit the high notes. Of special note: Orr-Ewing’s observation that every MP in the room has experienced untold levels of harassment and public shame, all in the name of justice.

7. We’ll give the last word this week to Hannah Anderson at Christianity Today. Last week, we featured Richard Beck’s, erhm, deconstruction of the exvangelical deconstruction narrative and Anderson does an admirable job of describing a healthier version of this phenomenon (thankfully, using neither of those buzzwords). When American Christians base our faith journeys on our personal choices, it’s hard to differentiate our faith journeys from our personal identity. And as long as our personal identity is involved, the task of personal spiritual reflection carries with it an intense risk. The solution, according to Anderson, is to lean a little more on Providence, and trust that there’s a God at work beyond our choices:

Even as we Christian leaders decry church shopping as consumeristic, we still teach people to practice it. We teach them that the richness and realness of their spiritual lives correspond with their choices. In doing so, we’ve all but guaranteed that their Christian walks become a never-ending search for the next true thing. Having begun by choice, they are made perfect by choice.

In an even stranger irony, the churches we choose to associate with can become a way to project our identities into the world. Our own religious biographies get reduced to linear sets of decisions that explain our current spiritual state. To riff on Robert Frost, we came to a fork in the road, and whatever path we chose made all the difference.

But as I reflect on my own journey, I doubt the role that personal choice played in it — not because I lacked agency but because Providence delivered my choices to me as a closed set. They were limited by knowledge and what was possible at a given moment in time. (If one doesn’t live near a Lutheran church, for example, the odds of converting to Lutheranism are drastically reduced.)

Instead of reflecting on my past through the lens of what I chose, I’m thinking more about what was given to me. Along with Nouwen, I’m conceiving of my faith as “the acceptance of centuries-old traditions [rather than] an attitude which grows from within.” This framework has freed me to see my spiritual story with a detachment that allows me to evaluate it more honestly. Since my path is no longer a statement about myself, I can weigh and consider it. I can honor the good, true, and beautiful while rejecting the bad and ugly.

In my own faith life, accepting the givenness of my past spiritual journey has allowed me to make peace with its winding contours and move into the future with confidence. By relinquishing control over my past, I simultaneously relinquish control over my future. And because I didn’t cut the path I’ve taken to this point, I’m free to follow wherever God is leading me now.


And finally, if you haven’t already, check out the upcoming “Mercy Issue” of The Mockingbird magazine.

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One response to “June 24-30”

  1. Pierre says:

    Re: Item #5
    A long-time colleague of mine retired a few months ago, and we had a little send-off for him during a staff meeting (among several farewell events). When it was his turn to say something, he told us he asked ChatGPT to write “a speech in the style of {him} on the occasion of his retirement from {our organization}.” On the one hand, it was sort of consistent with his style and personality to have done that, and so it was a piece of whimsy in that respect. But I also felt strangely unmoved by the words themselves, and a little hollow inside. To that end, I think O’Gieblyn is right on the nose: “If you decide to hand over the speechwriting work to a machine, then you are essentially confirming that it is meaningless boilerplate.” It reduced what could’ve been a mostly heartfelt moment into auto-completed pabulum, and I felt disappointed.

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