Another Week Ends

Real Life Ted Lassos, Sanctimonious Aspirations, Inter-Dependence, Spiritual Concierges, and the Gospel According to Corduroy

Bryan J. / 7.16.21

1. I need a German compound word for an experience that is equal parts frustration and validation. Maybe you understand what I’m talking about: in just about every media outlet, you can find profiles of new spiritual practices filling America’s post-church void. Reading these profiles fills me with a unique mix of second hand embarrassment and Christian consolation. It’s kind of like a loving parent watching their teen navigate the early pitfalls of dating: the two preeminent emotions are sympathy for the struggle but gratitude to have those years behind us.

It’s the feeling I experienced while learning this week that spiritual concierge programs are the new hot-ticket item in high-end real estate development:

Looking to woo buyers and renters who are open to the, well, woo-woo, several new developments around the country are offering meditation, healers, shaman and spiritual concierge programs — taking wellness offerings several steps beyond on-site yoga and Pilates. In an age of self-care and mental health awareness, developers are hoping the offerings will appeal to those who have embraced spirituality as part of a wellness lifestyle. But will they scare away buyers and renters on a more traditional journey?

At Gardenhouse at 8600 Wilshire in Beverly Hills, there will be monthly spiritual experiences on-site tied to lunar cycles. A cacao ceremony — that’s a shaman-lead “healing” that involves blessing and then drinking a traditional bitter chocolate, intention setting and dancing or movement — is on the menu. There is also a “full moon intention ceremony,” where participants verbalize and write down things they would like to let go of in journals (crystals, visualization and sage burning can also be involved). The events will take place in the building’s atrium, an architectural open-air space with black Venetian plaster walls and a huge fountain with a reflecting pool.

As anyone experienced with actual, practical, useful spirituality knows, it doesn’t work like this. It’s remarkably cruel to reduce spirituality to the level of restaurant reservations and show tickets, as if a phone call to the front desk could bring about the end of an existential crisis. I think this trend, if it becomes a trend and not just a funny one-off, says more about the “hole” being filled rather than the practices filling the hole. And at $50,000 annually in condo rent alongside HOA dues and class fees, the “God shaped hole in one’s heart” is quite the expanse to be filled.

2. If the spiritual concierge is both secular and absurd, it’s essays like Adam Grant’s exploration of “collective effervescence” that offer something both secular and sublime:

As some countries start to reopen, collective effervescence will happen naturally — and it already is. There will be fewer Zoombies roaming the internet in their pajama bottoms, reaching out listlessly through their computer screens. Some of us have already started feeling the thrill of creative collisions at work and the rush of a real vacation. But getting out of the house doesn’t guarantee that we’ll pursue happiness the best way.

Psychologists find that in cultures where people pursue happiness individually, they may actually become lonelier. But in cultures where they pursue happiness socially — through connecting, caring and contributing — people appear to be more likely to gain well-being.

The return to normalcy in the United States, or something like it, is a time to rethink our understanding of mental health and well-being. We should think of flourishing less as personal euphoria and more as collective effervescence. … The Declaration of Independence promised Americans unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If we want that pursuit to bring us bliss, it may be time to create a Declaration of Interdependence. You can feel depressed and anxious alone, but it’s rare to laugh alone or love alone. Joy shared is joy sustained.

It may be a tad bit reductive, but Adam Grant’s Declaration of Inter-dependence strikes the same chord as David Zahl’s post from earlier this week: it’s all about church. Good ol,’ in-person, bad coffee, warts and all church. Grant is absolutely right: “You can feel depressed and anxious alone, but it’s rare to laugh alone or love alone.” There’s power in the pews, people, beyond what any spiritual concierge may find for you.

3. Fair warning: the second season of Ted Lasso is coming this month. And if the early reviews are accurate, we’re gonna talk about it here at Mbird quite a bit over the new season. We certainly aren’t the only ones talking about it, though. Something about the titular coach and his relentlessly positive coaching style has captured the hearts of professional sports coaches too. According to the Wall Street Journal, Ted Lasso is now “required watching,” for pro sports staff:

The model for modern coaches evolving from Lombardi to Lasso is a reflection of the shifting power dynamics in sports and how much has changed in management strategies over the past decade. Not every coach is relentlessly cheerful or comes to the office with freshly baked cookies for his boss. But it’s hard to look around the business world and not see hints of Jason Sudeikis’s character.

“I think it used to be an accepted leadership tactic to essentially abuse people,” said Brendan Hunt, one of the show’s creators and writers who also plays Coach Beard, Lasso’s sidekick. “I’m sure there are people who are, like, Now we’re soft. We’re not soft. We’re just not morons. We see better ways to get the best out of people. Humiliating them in front of their peers is probably not high on the list.

Tyranny is out. Empathy is in. Coaches are getting the most of players by relating to them, not dictating to them, while keeping them accountable without coddling them. They are behaving more like Ted Lasso  Art imitates life. Life is now imitating art.

The article highlights a number of big name coaches who were implementing Ted Lasso coaching mechanisms in their locker rooms. Locker rooms everywhere are talking about goldfish after hard losses and slapping posters of the word “believe” before warmups. Everyone, it seems, wants to be coached by a Ted, which I take to be a glimpse into the human heart’s desire for unconditional love and support. Especially after the (predictable) unchecked racism following England’s loss in the Euro last week.

4. Over at the Hedgehog Review, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett explores the overlap between elite aspirational lifestyles, moral condemnation, and political divisiveness in a way that I found almost revelatory. Here’s her conclusion after a long-read buildup of definitions, statistics, and cultural analysis:

When we talk about a divide in this country and the rise of an anti-intellectual movement that questions science, rationality, and meritocracy, we need to acknowledge the role of the aspirational class and its culturally embedded, implicit sanctimony. Anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism can also be weapons against condescension, double standards, and lack of choices. Moral superiority and cancel culture only further alienate the people already excluded from meritocracy and elite cultural capital.

Nor is it even certain that postmillennial children of the aspirational class are themselves that secure in or happy with the meritocratic game. More and more of those who have dutifully punched all the tickets, passed all the tests, and received all the degrees find themselves part of a surplus knowledge class, working in marginal or gig jobs and earning barely enough to afford those urban rents or pay off those student loans for tuitions that even their affluent parents couldn’t entirely foot. And it is not just a matter of economics. The aspirationals’ endless pursuit of better can produce psychic restlessness and doubts beneath the façade of confidence and accomplishment.

“Sanctimony” is the word that stands out here, and let’s pause for a moment to clarify also that the aspiration class has no monopoly on the attitude (see the Moral Majority of the 80’s and 90’s). The law always kills any chance of a relationship, and if Adam Grant is right that relationships are what makes us happy, we shouldn’t be surprised that it is ultimately a moral attitude that is politically divisive. Currid-Halkett speculates aloud: what if we could hold on to deeply held moral convictions without a sense of self-righteousness?

5. If the spiritual concierge article above wasn’t humor enough for you, Reductress explains, “Why I Gave up Meditation in Favor of Self-Care That Costs Money“:

Eating wood-fired bagels with lox that cost $18 every morning has also been extremely helpful in my own personal self-care journey. I love the capers, and I also love that I get to insert my little credit card chip into a machine and then possess something I previously did not. This part of my day is also cemented in my morning routine because I can’t take my Instagram vitamins on an empty stomach.

Also, “AITA: Reddit Posts by Movie Parents” is a funny read for those familiar with Reddit’s famous “Am I The [A-hole]” forum:

I (43/m) am a writer. I used to be a teacher, but I got fired. I’ll be honest — it was a drinking problem, but I’ve been sober for a while now. Still, a guy’s got to make some money and I need time to write. I love my son (5/m) but having a little kid makes it impossible to focus on my novel. I thought I’d found a good solution for all our issues by becoming a winter caretaker at an isolated hotel. But my family’s over my “dad jokes.” Apparently, they just don’t think my Johnny Carson impersonation is funny. Plus, the ghosts at the hotel say I need to kill my son (5/m) and my wife (31/f) and I think I’m going to do it. AITA for just trying to hit my daily word count goal?

6 & 7. Two final devotional notes to end on a high note. Over at 1517, a reminder of “The Gospel According to Corduroy“:

As the store opens, in bursts a little girl with a big smile on her face. Her name is Lisa, and she wants Corduroy more than anything—missing button and all. She opens her purse, pays the price, and rushes home with the imperfect bear in her arms. Lisa couldn’t be more pleased with her purchase. And there, in the security of a new home where he is unconditionally loved and accepted, Corduroy finally receives a new button, which Lisa sews on herself. “I like you the way you are,” Lisa says, “but you’ll be more comfortable with your shoulder strap fastened.” In the end, the one-buttoned bib-overalled bear discovers the beautiful truth that he is loved in spite of himself and that this state of loveliness is attained not through his own efforts but through the merciful actions of another who pays the price to make him whole and make him her own.

Amen. And amen to Alan Jacobs’s reflection on the temptation to avoid the embarrassment of Jesus. Isn’t that, after all, the perfect explanation for why we turn to sanctimonious politics, spiritual concierges, racist sports taunts, Reddit morality threads, and Instagram churches?  Each is, in its own way, an attempt to avoid the “strangeness” of “the swell figure from the east,” who rescues like Corduroy’s Lisa and loves like Ted Lasso.

As for me, Jesus is the only reason I am in this game, half-hearted and inconstant a Christian as I am. I hang on to this one figure with desperation. When all else fails to console, he consoles me. In his famous Divinity School address, Emerson described, with a fastidious moue of distaste, “Historical Christianity” as a movement that “has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” May all the Emersons of the world say that about me! God forbid that I should fail to give them cause to say it!

I am drawn magnetically to the Jesus depicted in the canonical Gospels because it seems manifest to me that he is not someone any of us would have invented. (The contrast with the later narratives of his life, especially the Gnostic-inflected ones, is striking: The extravagantly thaumaturgic Jesus depicted therein is precisely the kind of figure a pinwheel-eyed enthusiast of mysteries would invent.) Given the uncompromising strangeness of the canonical Jesus — his oscillation between a prophetic fierceness that rattles us all and an infinite tenderness that may be in its own way even more disconcerting — I find myself warmly endorsing Auden’s statement: “I believe because He fulfills none of my dreams, because He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image.” Which is followed by the real zinger:

Thus, if a Christian is asked: “Why Jesus and not Socrates or Buddha or Confucius or Mahomet?”  perhaps all he can say is: “None of the others arouse all sides of my being to cry ‘Crucify Him’.” 

Strays:

  • Speaking of divinity school addresses, Cornell West posted a copy of his resignation letter from Harvard Divinity School this week. Between the usual drama found in most academic departments, I was struck by the note that his academic successes received hearty institutional congratulations, but the death of his mother received few institutional condolences, which did not go unnoticed. Academic and theological politics aside, the takeaway, I think, is that the relational is of ultimate importance.
  • A vision for post-pandemic freedom for kiddos that looks a lot like growing up in the 80’s, with a bit more structure and a little less, um, neglect.
  • One of the best stories ever composed of perfection and utility, the quest for the world record for the arcade game Donkey Kong, summarized.
  • Heaven is a Concert Hall
  • If birding is a hobby of yours, then the Autobahn Photography Awards is a must.