Another Week Ends

April Foolishness, Realistic Affirmations, TikTok Mobs, Harsh “Gentle” Parenting, and Ignorant Angels

CJ Green / 4.1.22

1. “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” says the fairy Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, referring to the manipulable, self-serious humans in the play. Today, most of the commentary I’ve encountered about April Fool’s Day has been less funny, and more cautionary — about the importance of fact-checking before sharing phony headlines. Certainly a concern, but I’ve come to wonder whether the chance to be fooled isn’t a kind of gift, on a personal level at least. I’m reminded of the following quote from Mockingbird’s short classic, Law & Gospel:

Humor is a way of uncoupling the truth from its sting. It is a way of including oneself on the wrong side of the righteousness equation. It is a delightful willingness to be wrong, because you can afford to be. It also allows us the privilege to find humor in things around us that might have offended or wounded us before.

NPR noted today that no one knows the precise origins of April Fool’s Day. At least three European nations claim to have started it, funny enough. But wherever it comes from, “April 1 has come to represent a day of joy and comedy as we move out of the darkness of winter and into the spring.”

2. With that in mind, here’s some humor for you. First, I loved this list of “Some Realistic Affirmations”: “Everybody is uniquely made, which is why my feet are like this.” These next two are also gems: “Mom Threatening Your Title as Your Own Number-One Critic”: “In a developing story out of Orlando, FL, your mom Helena Lee is reportedly getting so good at finding fault with you that she is threatening to overtake your long-held position as your own number-one critic in life.”

And, “In the Metaverse You Can Do Anything! Except Stop Being Depressed”: “Between fostering corporate culture for remote workers and offering exciting possibilities for real-time collaboration, the metaverse means your workday will never be the same, apart from the persistent nagging feeling that sure, it might pay the bills, but what are you really doing with your life?”

3. That last link relates to the following, from Wired: Manvir Singh’s “It’s Easy to Blame Mental Health Issues on Tech. But Is It Fair?” It’s a fascinating piece about the timelessness of depression, which, Singh reports, is prevalent even within a remote community of Amazonians who have very little modern technology at their disposal. Singh concludes:

The impulse to blame anxiety and depression on technology isn’t surprising. It taps into familiar fables of an Edenic past. And it blames modern problems on the exciting, eye-catching, sometimes scary innovations that regularly reconfigure society. But if our goal is to create a happier, healthier society, we benefit not from waving the banner of a fetishized past but from embracing technology and harnessing its therapeutic powers.

It’s true that “fetishizing” the past is something humans are prone to. However, my personal theory is that for most of us this vague injunction to “embrace technology” would be justification to keep staring at our phones when maybe it’s time to, I don’t know, do something else.

4. To quote one Jane Anderson Grizzle, “As an older millennial, I cannot imagine how to access TikTok.” We could probably figure it out, but even then, would we want to? As with every other social media platform, TikTok, which was once praised by a 50-year-old TV critic as offering “nothing but singalongs and leaps,” is now kindling more concern than admiration. At the Atlantic Kaitlyn Tiffany describes the problem of “TikTok mobs” that, due to the app’s central, all-powerful algorithm, only generate more TikTok mobs. She writes that on TikTok,

As soon as content about some specific thing — or some specific person — trends, more content of that type will be produced.

What the mob wants the mob gets. I bring this up, not to be crotchety about newfangled trends (tho’ I am) but to establish that, more often than should be comfortable, we do not want more of what we want. Unless, of course, that thing is Only Murders in the Building:

5. At the New Yorker, what begins as a takedown of a particular yet very popular parenting philosophy becomes a surprisingly deep investigation of the human condition in general, in Jessica Winter’s essay, “The Harsh Realm of ‘Gentle’ Parenting.”

Gentle parenting sounds great — it entails curiosity, kindness, non-judgmental openness, forgiveness — but it also hinges on an unspoken assumption: that if you parent as gently as possible, you can make your child good, and that goodness itself is a product of parents’ choices.

One of the major themes in … gentle-parenting discourse generally, is that children don’t defy for the sake of defiance, but that their challenging behavior is a physiological response to stress and should be seen as essentially adaptive. The assumption unto itself is questionable: if little Timmy is on the front lawn tossing gardening implements at traffic, his motivations are probably obscurer than stress. This is one of the most confounding dilemmas of parenting, especially as kids exit the toddler stage: that sometimes a child tests or destroys boundaries for the thrill of it. Under the gentle-parenting schema, a child’s every act must be seen through a lens of anxiety and threat-detection—which heightens the parent’s dual role of child psychologist and emotional-security guard.

No matter your chosen “method,” parenting (especially at its most crucial moments) is rarely methodical, and it’s certainly arduous. But today we’ve become quick to attribute all of our own shortcomings to our parents’ shortcomings or our environment’s shortcomings. The underlying assumption seems to be that if your child acts out, as Winter puts it, “it’s all your fault, but that means you’re in control and you can fix it.”

This, it turns out, is not so gentle. It’s a wolf in a sheep-patterned onesie, say. Even the gentlest of approaches becomes “doctrinaire,” made all the more so by the proliferation of books, podcasts, Instagram posts, TikToks, Facebook comment threads, and e-newsletters espousing The Way.

The essential enigma of parenting, though, is that you are responsible for your children and yet you can’t possibly be responsible for them. They are clay in your hands; they are the rocks that break your hands.

6. On another note, I’ve developed a suspicion about suspicion about memoirists — the idea that some people “don’t have anything to say,” or that a person’s experience couldn’t possibly be interesting until “something happens” to them. Along these lines, a compelling review of Sherry Turkle’s new memoir, The Empathy Diaries, begins with this:

It’s remarkable how little we actually know about other people’s lives. We see our neighbors across the hall or across the street, smile and share pleasantries, but what do we know about what really goes on inside their homes or their minds? We can work or learn or worship alongside someone for years and never learn about that person’s complex past or deepest passions. Everywhere we go, we’re surrounded by people whose lives are hidden from us. 

And, of course, we keep our own lives hidden, too. We don’t go around sharing our fears and flaws. We don’t publicize our most private conversations. We hide our insecurities and complicated backstories — which makes it all the more meaningful when we do share the details of our lives with someone else, or when someone shares those details with us. Such encounters can feel sacred.

(For my money, one of the great memoirists I’ve been reading lately is Stephanie Phillips. Her recent “Crisis of Grace” blew me away.) As for Turkle’s book, reviewer Burke Nixon, writing for Commonweal, continues that, “As much as empathy itself, Turkle explores [its] curious and devastating absence. … she argues that we dehumanize others and ourselves when we begin to think of human lives as data and the mind as a machine.”

7. If you’re needing something contemplative, do check out this seasonal reflection by Irena Tippett, published at ArtWay; it’s both sobering and enlivening. Inspired by Georges de La Tour’s 17th-century painting, “The Penitent Magdalen” (aka “Madeleine aux deux flammes”), Tippett writes:

There are few women as iconic as Mary Magdalene. Her reputed wealth and beauty combined with her humble and penitent heart attract both saint and sinner. She is the woman in red in Crucifixion scenes and she is the first to behold the Risen Lord early on Easter morning. For this reason Mary is a natural subject for artists exploring the full range of womanhood from sensuousness to quiet godly beauty. […]

Who better than Mary Magdalene to demonstrate in her person the thing we all long for in our heart of hearts? By the seventeenth century her persona had grown to incorporate the stories of many penitent women: Mary the sister of Lazarus who evangelized Provence; Mary the sinner who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears; Mary who anointed her Lord for his burial; Mary who beheld her Lord’s death and was first to behold his resurrection. The gathering of all these women into the person of the Magdalen is a monumental tribute to the Lord who says to those who turn to him ‘Your sins are forgiven.”

8. On her substack Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote a stunning post about the ignorance behind good works — moments in life when we say or do something that means the world to others but of which we ourselves take no notice. Below, find an excerpt from her conclusion, but I’d also recommend reading the intro, because it’s specific and moving.

I think we are perhaps at our most angelic, not when we are convinced of our goodness, but when we are entirely ignorant of it.

We meditate and pray and journal thinking we are achieving something, but maybe our “spiritual practices” are less the way in which we become good, and more the way in which God distracts us long enough for God to actually get something done in our lives without our egos realizing what is happening and trying to be like, “I’ll take it from here.”  I just think that I get tricked into shit a lot more than I realize. The Holy Spirit is like that. As I’ve said before, she’s super manipulative and has really bad boundaries.

So we just keep doing the things that distract us long enough for her to move us into doing something beautiful without even realizing that’s what’s going on — long enough for the healing in her wings to gently brush up against us in shared chicken dinners and off-hand compliments.

Strays:

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