Another Week Ends

Sad Liberals, Hypocritical Humanities, Merciful Hobbits, Gracious Liquids, and Combat Juggling

David Zahl / 3.10.23

1. I woke up this morning to a text from a friend, informing me that his teenager had just been put on mental health leave from the prestigious arts school that he’s been attending. A teacher himself, my buddy sounded concerned but not surprised. “How can teenagers not struggle in this current moment — Covid, smartphones, the world cracking while surrounded by other anxious, driven, overworked kids — it’s a lot,” he wrote. Great dad.

As you are likely aware, the U.S. is now 11 years into the largest epidemic of adolescent mental illness ever recorded. What made news this past week is the discovery, within the latest CDC report, of what appears to be a strong correlation between emotional suffering and gender/politics. More specifically, girls who identify as politically progressive, and to a lesser extent boys, suffer from worse mental health than their conservative counterparts. This trend predates the pandemic (and the 2016 election), beginning all the way back in 2012.

Writing in his brand new substack(!), After Babel, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt followed up on earlier articles by Jill Filipovic, Matt Yglesias, and Zach Goldberg, breaking down the survey data in some fascinating ways. For example, he found statistical support for the theory put forth by his colleague Greg Lukianoff, that the messaging at the center of liberal enclaves functions as a kind of reverse Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT). Meaning, something ideological is encouraging/shaping mindsets that psychologists have found to be predictive for clinical depression. Haidt writes:

In CBT you learn to recognize when your ruminations and automatic thinking patterns exemplify one or more of about a dozen “cognitive distortions,” such as catastrophizing, black-and-white thinking, fortune telling, or emotional reasoning. Thinking in these ways causes depression, as well as being a symptom of depression. Breaking out of these painful distortions is a cure for depression. […]

Yglesias wrote that “part of helping people get out of their trap is teaching them not to catastrophize.” He then described an essay by progressive journalist Jill Filipovic that argued, in Yglesias’s words, that “progressive institutional leaders have specifically taught young progressives that catastrophizing is a good way to get what they want.

[Haidt, quoting Filipovic:] “I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are “deeply problematic” or even violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life — to mix metaphors, that they captain their own ship, not that they are simply being tossed around by an uncontrollable ocean — are vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt, and a sense that life simply happens to them and they have no control over their response.

Furthermore, most of the young people in the progressive institutions that Filipovic mentioned are women, and that has become even more true since 2014 when, according to Gallup data, young women began to move to the left while young men did not move either way. As Gen Z women became more progressive and more involved in political activism in the 2010s, it seems to have changed them psychologically. It wasn’t just that their locus of control shifted toward external — that happened to all subsets of Gen Z. Rather, young liberals (including young men) seem to have taken into themselves the specific depressive cognitions and distorted ways of thinking that CBT is designed to expunge.

While long and fairly technical, I commend the entire newsletter to you, as Haidt turns over plenty of other relevant stones. I’ll be very interested to see how he loops the decline in unstructured play into the overall diagnosis.

But to zoom out a bit, what Haidt and others are recognizing is the way that beliefs about the world and oneself can generate varying conditions for mental health. This is not unlike what people have been saying about good and bad churches for centuries now, no? I’ve got some thoughts about how a low anthropology might relate to our perceived locus of control, but I’ll save them for a later post. For now, here are more young people enacting metaphors:

2. After absorbing Haidt’s findings, you can’t blame a guy for scanning the horizon for signs of life. And behold — Nick Cave to the rescue! In conversation with … Rowan Williams? That’s right. The Times of London ran a big feature on the meeting of the eyebrows last week, and it did not disappoint. The former Archbishop of Canterbury gives Cave’s new book, Faith, Hope and Carnage, the highest praise, saying, “I could think of few books that had brought home more completely the way in which grief and creativity work together. The book also reveals the way in which faith, without ever giving a plain, comforting answer, offers resources to look at what is terrible without despair or evasion.” Amen to that.

For his own part, Cave characterizes the book as “a chance to say what no one had really given him the chance to say”, namely, to compile his various thoughts and reflections on religion. Mid-way through their discussion, Cave discloses having returned to church, proper, since its publication:

Cave says he has moved on from thinking of religious belief and practice as just something “useful” — “the idea that it’s OK to believe because it’s good for you”. I tell him about a comment an old student of mine once made, that church is where you put the things that won’t go anywhere else, and he responds enthusiastically. “It’s words like worship, gratitude, devotion, grace — these words make many people feel deeply uncomfortable, but they are at the heart of it all.” […]

That’s what the Red Hand Files exist for — making room for the lost life, “bringing in all the spirits of the ones you’ve lost.” Isn’t that, he asks, what the church is there for as well? The communion of saints, the whole company of Heaven?

Speaking of Faith, Hope and Carnage, it’s the subject of the first session of our new Mbird Virtual Book Club. I’ll be leading that one myself, on March 26th. You can sign up here.

3. Just when I thought the promotional cycle for #LowAnthropology was winding down, along come three of the best items on the book yet — and from pretty widespread locations on the socio-religious landscape. First up, the book (and yours truly) were featured on the first season of wonderful new The Cartographers podcast with Ashley and Bryce Hales. Ashley is an accomplished writer herself, and the work that she and Bryce are doing at the Willowbrae Institute resonates with our own in a lot very cool ways. Speaking of somewhat adjacent organizations, I also had the pleasure of sitting down with The Rev. Zac Koons to discuss the ins and outs for the Living Church podcast. He posed some great questions that I had yet to be asked, and we got to laugh a lot. Lastly, Christian Century published a longer review, courtesy of Matthew Stuhlmuller, and the sympathy/thoughtfulness bowled me over. He’s also the first to pick up the Politics chapter in a constructive way. And fwiw, “realistic” probably is a more accurate word. A worse title, though? In any case, thank you, Matthew.

4. More of this next one please. I’m talking about Ross Douthat’s column “I’m What’s Wrong with the Humanities,” which reckons with the lengthy ‘obituary for the English Major’ that Nathan Heller published in the New Yorker recently. Ross goes full log-in-own-eye mode and it’s just so refreshing to read a ‘take’ that doesn’t blame the students (or the universities) themselves. If the humanities are dead, my friends, we all killed them.

“The answer to the question, ‘What is wrong?’ is, or should be, ‘I am wrong,’” G.K. Chesterton once wrote. And any response to the question of what’s happened to the humanities has to include the same answer. The Harvard undergraduates who can’t parse a complex sentence from the American Renaissance are part of the problem. But so is the Harvard-educated newspaper columnist and self-styled cultural conservative who regularly unburdens himself of deep thoughts on pop TV but hasn’t read a complete 19th‌-century novel for his own private enjoyment in — well, let’s just say it’s been a while.

I resemble other characters in the Heller piece as well. The academic who describes how he’s traded novel reading for website browsing? Me. The peers that academic describes who “think of themselves as cultured” but “cannot! Stop! Themselves!” from busting out the iPhone, even at a live performance? Me again.

… The humanities need to be proudly reactionary in some way, to push consciously against the digital order in some fashion, to self-consciously separate and make a virtue of that separation … it would involve embracing an identity as the modern multiversity’s internal exiles — refusing any resentment of lavishly funded STEM buildings because that funding is corruption and your own calling is more esoteric and monastic, declining any claim to political relevance because what you’re offering is above and before the practical business of the world.

5. Not sure Douthat meant to throw down a (Numenorean) gauntlet with his piece, but if he did, well, Alan Jacobs sure picked it up with this item. Jacobs has been going back and forth with his friend Adam Roberts as Roberts re-reads/blogs Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, commenting on a few places where he finds Roberts’ commentary lacking. In a response entitled “The Sovereignty of Mercy,” Alan demonstrates once again why some of us consider him to be the Gandalf of the Humanities, or at least its Radagast:

When I teach The Lord of the Rings I take my students through the book’s oddly pervasive use, in certain circumstances, of the passive voice. Gandalf  tells Frodo that he and Bilbo were meant to find the Ring; Frodo asks, “Why was I chosen?” — by whom, we wonder; Elrond tells the council gathered at Rivendell that they were called there (“though I did not call you.”) There are many more examples. Says Gandalf, “Behind that” — Bilbo’s finding of the Ring — “there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker.” But what? No one seems to know, though perhaps Gandalf does know and is reluctant (or forbidden) to say. But whatever it is, it seems to whisper of the sovereignty of mercy above that of legal decree. It shows us a world in which penalties of death are declared, but are then abrogated by the wise and kind. A world in which Schmitt’s “state of exception” is indeed instituted, but not by the power-hungry — rather, by the merciful, no matter what it costs them.

6. Before we move on from books, Parul Seghal took to the New Yorker to review the new one from Jenny “How to Do Nothing” Odell, Saving Time. Time has emerged as a writing topic du jour, and Odell’s book sounds like an interesting (if oddly rushed?) treatment thereof. What stuck out to me, however, were Seghal’s stray observations, which included a shout-out to Mbird fave Oliver Burkeman:

In his novel “Slowness,” Milan Kundera describes “a secret bond” between slowness and remembering, and, conversely, between speed and forgetting. A man walking down the street tries to recall something; without realizing it, he slows down. Another man, recalling an unpleasant episode, begins to walk faster, as if creating distance from the memory, trying to outpace it.

In truth, every pleasure worth its name — music, sex, drugs, novel-reading — derives its particular rush from how it alters our sense of time, how it crumples it up or extends it into something long, lush, and strange […]

Our struggle to behave responsibly and sanely with time—often labelled “distraction” — isn’t merely a matter of being manipulated. “We mustn’t let Silicon Valley off the hook, but we should be honest: much of the time, we give in to distraction willingly,” Oliver Burkeman writes in his recent book “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.” “Something in us wants to be distracted, whether by our digital devices or anything else — to not spend our lives on what we thought we cared about the most.” Burkeman’s point is that our minds wander as a reprieve from difficulty, sensing our limits.

7. In Humor, with the possible exception of Combat Juggling (see further up), nothing made me laugh harder than the Grandma the Clown skit from the infamous Dana Carvey Show, which I came across via the hilarious Hulu documentary about the same. Did not know that show gave both Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell their starts! Elsewhere, Reductress elicited a smile with “Uh Oh! Person You Hate Showing Evidence of Change.” There are some good jokes in New Yorker’sSupport Group for Former Trendy Foods.” But the escalation of this one from Points in Case made me laugh hardest, “These Anonymous Quotes That I Posted Online Have Nothing to Do With You, Steven.”

8. Finally, and along devotional lines, Isaac Villegas penned a touching remembrance of his own baptism for Christian Century,  “The Testimony of Water.” I’ve heard Episcopalians talk about ‘living into our baptismal covenant’ and Lutherans encourage me to ‘remember my baptism’ for years, but in all honesty, those exhortations have always left me a little dry, pun intended. But I suspect Villegas’s piece gets at what some of what they were trying to convey, albeit from a fresh angle. I love how it moves from the personal to the cosmic and back again. PtL:

God’s grace is as diffuse as the waters, rippling within the cellular life of our world. All of life is graced — every person, every community, every creature. We can’t extract ourselves from water, and we can’t separate ourselves from God’s care. To remember our baptism is to recognize, again and again, that we are as reliant on grace as our bodies are on water.

Baptism is a material acknowledgment — a sacramental proclamation — of our fundamental dependence on the one the Eastern churches call Christ Pantokrator, the sustainer of the world. From the font flows a spirituality of yieldedness — Gelassenheit, as the 16th-century Anabaptists preached — to the movement of the Spirit, a daily awareness of the presence of God’s grace in the world. “Although you only receive the sacrament of baptism once,” said Martin Luther, “you are continually baptized anew.”

Our baptismal waters live with us — around us and in us. The testimony of water reminds us of God’s grace and of the people who’ve shared it with us. Papi with me in the pool — and el Espíritu Santo, a companion to all of us, a presence as common and ubiquitous as water.


  • If you can get past the clickbait title, this follow-up to the Fleishman discourse on Slate sounds like it was written by my friend, the good Rev Condon. “A life like this is what happens when you have no value system of your own: you become incapable of operating on any basis other than envy and status-seeking. Yes, these are privileged women. But these women are also life’s terminal losers. There was the constant sense, in both the documentary and the Cut’s piece, of a group of people performing frantically for an audience that doesn’t exist.”
  • Along similar lines, the Wall Street Journal published a sermon-illustration-laden article “Is This Is? When Success Isn’t Satisfying,” touching on the allure of hedonic treadmills and imposter traps in the process. Shout it from the rooftops, Ms Feintzeig.
  • An Apology Refresher” appeared in Vox, which contains more than a handful of nuggets for the contrite. While we’re at it, probably wise to skim PsychCentral’s Top 12 Non-Apologies, too.
  • Dr Simeon ‘Squirmeon’ Zahl was in Alabama this past week, speaking up a storm, and much as I like to root against him, dagnabit if the guy didn’t deliver the goods! “Having a Soul in a Secular Age,” which we’ve posted on Talkingbird, is just one highlight among many.
  • New Mcast is in the bag and coming next week. Weds most likely.
  • Josh White’s new book is out, and it’s awesome! Highly recommended.
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2 responses to “March 4-10”

  1. Robert F says:

    “I’ve got some thoughts about how a low anthropology might relate to our perceived locus of control, but I’ll save them for a later post.”

    I’ll be interested in how you square low anthropology — a central perspective of this entire blog — with the idea that feeling in control of one’s own life is a primary aspect of mental health.

  2. David Miller says:

    The bit about Providence and Election in LOTR is of course also the main thrust of Fleming Rutledge’s book, btw!

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