Another Week Ends

Goblin Mode, Grumpiness, Oppressive Moral Clarity, Blaming Mental Health, and Learning From Bad People

Todd Brewer / 3.18.22

1. The carefully curated, instagram-worthy, aesthetic we are all familiar with is a difficult one to pull off. Robot vacuums can only so much. Which is probably why “goblin mode” has been trending of late. Instead of relentless self-care, goblins do the opposite — think Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski. As told in the Guardian’s,Slobbing Out and Giving Up“:

“Goblin mode is like when you wake up at 2am and shuffle into the kitchen wearing nothing but a long T-shirt to make a weird snack, like melted cheese on saltines,” he said. “It’s about a complete lack of aesthetic. Because why would a goblin care what they look like? Why would a goblin care about presentation?” […]

“Goblin mode is kind of the opposite of trying to better yourself,” says Juniper, who declined to share her last name. “I think that’s the kind of energy that we’re giving going into 2022 — everyone’s just kind of wild and insane right now.” […]

The trend represents a direct departure from the hyper-curated “cottagecore” influence of early pandemic days, a standout trend of 2020 that included pastel colors, bucolic scenery and the showcasing of wholesome homemaking skills such as baking and embroidery. Cottagecore thrived under the wistful ethos of making the best of what many people assumed would be only a few boring weeks at home in 2020.

But as the pandemic wears on endlessly, and the chaos of current events worsens, people feel cheated by the system and have rejected such goals. Peter Hayes, a Bay Area tech worker who says he and his friends have jokingly called themselves goblins, said the term has taken off as the pandemic eliminated the need to keep up appearances.

“At home there’s no social pressure to follow norms, so you sort of lose the habit,” he says. “There’s also a feeling that we’re all [screwed], so why bother?

The pushback against perfection was bound to happen eventually, I guess. I imagine college freshman dorms are full of goblins. But call me suspicious over whether self-neglect is an improvement over self-care. The rejection of an oppressive expectation still doesn’t seem much like freedom to me. Neither influencer nor goblin amounts to anything, but new creation?

2. Why bother if we’re all screwed? Instead of “goblin mode,” the next article this week reminded me of a piece David Zahl wrote a couple of years back on embracing the world without growing cynical. Writing on his website Snakes and Ladders, Alan Jacobs puts his finger on a particular kind of angst, one that arises from seeing the world make the same mistakes over and over again. Jacobs recognizes how debates over the latest controversies are just repackaged versions of what’s happened already, many decades ago:

Take for instance the debates over the last few years in the academy about whiteness, representation, cultural appropriation, the Western canon, the classroom as a venue for social justice, etc. etc. These are precisely the arguments that roiled the academic humanities in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The vocabulary can differ slightly, but otherwise we who were alive and alert then know the script. Heck, the arguments of thirty years ago often echoed arguments of a quarter-century earlier, those that arose in the student-protest era of the late Sixties and early Seventies. […]

the overall terms of engagement are remarkably similar, and that’s frustrating for an older person, for the same reason (ironically enough) that it’s frustrating to hear grandpa tell the same story over and over again. It’s a maddening repetition — the first time as farce and the second as farcier.

And then you reflect that not only has no one learned anything from the previous instantiation of these debates, most of the people shouting at each other today don’t even know that the debates took place. They’re mouthing the words of their predecessors — in some cases they’re even mouthing the words of their earlier selves — but the relentless presentism of our social media environment creates what I have called the Ministry of Amnesia. You can’t learn from the past if you don’t know what happened in it. So yeah, I’m gradually turning into a grumpy old man. Because nobody learns anything.

“It’s the repetition,” Jacobs notes, “that kills you.” Seeing the cycle of ignorance, what is one to do? What to do with this grumpiness? The solution has everything to do with Jesus’ crazy alternative: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

if I can shame and silence my neighbor with a Bible verse but have not love, I am no better than a clanging cymbal. […] It’s a hard path to walk, this Way of avoiding both indifference and “the conscious impotence of rage / At human folly.” But the hard path is the only real Way. (All the others circle back on themselves.) So I try every day to follow it. I don’t think I could manage even that if I did not have an Advocate to accompany me, to encourage me, and to guide me.

When I look at Holbein’s portrait of [Thomas] More, I don’t think about the historical role More played in attempting to suppress the Protestant Reformation. I don’t even think about his fictional counterparts in Mr. Bolt’s play or Ms. Mantel’s novels.

What I think about is an idea that first came to me as I sat in a high school auditorium contemplating a man who could more easily give up his life than his own understanding of himself. As I sat in the dark, I suddenly recognized that the world I was entering would profoundly test my understanding of myself, too. I needed to figure out where I could bend, where I could grow and where I must stand firm on trembling ground.

We don’t give … Thomas More a pass for persecuting Protestants. But part of living comfortably in a complicated world means recognizing the complexity of human beings — their inscrutability, their ever-changing priorities, above all their capacity for self-contradiction. Much as we might prefer it to be otherwise, it is possible for a person to do unforgivable things and also things that are remarkably beautiful and good. We do human wisdom a great disservice when we expect it to be perfectly embodied in a flawed human being. […]

When someone tells me that a book should no longer be read — or a film should no longer be screened or a painting hung or a play performed — because of some problematic history attached to the work or its creator, I think of the girl I was in 1980, discovering a truth I desperately needed to find, in just that moment, from a story that might or might not be true about a human being who might or might not be good. A human being who, I know now, was almost certainly both.

4. After viewing dozens of articles this week about American corporations pulling out of Russia, lists of products to boycott, and Russians being fired from sponsorships and jobs, this next article from First Things gave me pause. When everyone everywhere has agreed (rightly, in my view) that the war in Ukraine is unjust, the mob mentality of it all may lead to some unsavory and retrospectively shameful outcomes. As told in “The Cancellation of Russian Culture,” the kind of moral clarity we might see on this issue is dangerous:

If Russian history teaches anything, it is that such “moral clarity” has no limits. If all right is on one side, then anything — literally anything — one says or does is justified. Indeed, to stop short of the most extreme measures is to indulge evil, which means risking the charge of complicity. When Stalin sent local officials quotas of people to be arrested, they responded by demanding still higher quotas. It was the safest thing to do to prove one’s loyalty. No one ever secured his position by calling for less severity to enemies. When everything is black and white, sooner or later everyone is at risk.

“If only it were so simple!” reflected Alexander Solzhenitsyn about such thinking. If only it were a matter of good people always doing good things confronting evil people and those directly or indirectly aiding them. Such thinking is not only profoundly dangerous, it also fundamentally misunderstands the very nature of moral judgment. The more serious the question, the more, not less, care should be taken in addressing it. And we must never forget, as Solzhenitsyn frequently observed, that “the line dividing good from evil” runs not between one people or one class and another. Rather, it “cuts through every human heart.” 

I hesitated to bring attention to this article, for fear that it might be wrongly dismissed as pro-Russia propaganda, but such fear actually proves the author’s point. Righteousness is perhaps the most dangerous weapon for sinners to wield.

5. In humor this week, the Onion’sMother Of Bride Going Hog-Wild With Short Blessing She Allowed To Give During Secular Wedding” reminded me of more than one wedding I’ve attended. And Reductress has some grade-A, low-anthropology humor with “Wow! This Woman Has Been Thinking About Giving Back to Her Community Her Entire Adult Life.”

But this one from the Hard Times is hilariously true: “Viewing of Latest Pixar Movie Again Ends with Child Comforting Crying, Hysterical Parent

“Oh boy, not a anothaw one,” explained the 4-year-old through her adorable speech impediment. “Last summer when we watched Toy Story 3 I was up all night with Momma and Dadda as they just cwied and cwied about Andy saying goodbye to his toys. I just don’t get the big deal. They know the toys don’t disappear when the movie’s over, right? As someone that recently mastered object permanence, I twied to explain that to them, but they kept sobbing.”

Lana’s mom Carys Findlay offered her adult perspective on the 3D animated films.

“It’s nice that there’s sophisticated kid’s entertainment nowadays, unlike the low-rent Hulk Hogan vehicles and glorified toy commercials of my childhood. But our Lana is too young to get the deep emotional wounds these movies reopen. For her, ‘Inside Out’ is just funny, talking inanimate objects and bright, flashing colors. For me and my husband it’s existential dread, mental illness, and reminders of our mortality,” said the young child’s mother.

6. In the New York Magazine’s advice column, “Dear Papi,” a reader with bipolar asked its author, J.P. Brammer, what many people with mental illness have probably often wondered: where is the line between themselves and their mental health? Where does culpability fall? The reader wants to make a firm distinction between themselves and their illness, but feels conflicted about it:

The selfish part of me wants to blame everything bad about myself on the bipolar. But nowadays, giving the excuse of mental illness feels like a cop-out, like I’m pushing the blame onto something that can’t be punished. I’m having trouble determining what’s me and what’s my illness, what I can change and what I can’t. It could be the case that the world is filled with bad people and I’m just one of them.

Brammer writes of his own borderline personality disorder and responded with both care and wisdom:

I was given [in the diagnosis] a useful vocabulary for describing what had previously been impossible to describe. I was given access to tools to help me deal with the turbulence that sometimes rocked my brain. It became a lot easier to stay on my feet on those occasions when the ground would suddenly shift, when the world around me would arrange itself into claws and fangs and strangers. I fell less often. I ran away less often. In all likelihood, getting professional help saved my life.

But ours is not a world of pure reason. It’s not as simple as identifying the problem and then solving it, as it seems you’re already aware. I think in my case, I clung to pathology, was eager to incorporate borderline into my identity, because I thought that was the trick. I thought that naming the thing was the same as understanding the thing, that life was a matter of symptoms and diagnoses. This turned out not to be the case. I was still left with questions.

Who are you, who am I, without our disorders? What qualifies as a disorder in the first place? Even if this disorder were completely distinct from me, if it were an invader, a foreign object, a disruptor of my true self, then wouldn’t I still find “me” in how I dealt with it? How I grew around it, how I survived it, how I shifted and adapted and negotiated with it? I’m not so sure we can disentangle any part of ourselves from the greater whole, that we can remove any one variable in the endlessly complex equation of ourselves without arriving at a totally different conclusion — at “someone else.”

I think that complexity scares people, BB. I think it drives people to atomize themselves, to find every last micro facet of their identity so that they can have some rules, some answers. Here is the language we use. Here is how we define ourselves. Here is the good, and over there is the bad. These are temporary seawalls against the chaos of reality. They are serviceable answers we can temporarily call the truth. […]

Can you separate yourself from your mental illness? No. Are you more than your mental illness? Incalculably so. You are more than a collection of symptoms waiting to be pathologized.

This back and forth between illness and identity —  the origin of one’s actions, their negative outcomes, and who we are through it all — mirrors for me the discussion the apostle Paul had in Romans 7. He found himself divided, at war within himself, caught between who he wants to be and who he is. Managing such a conflict is one thing, but who will rescue us from this body of death?


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