Another Week Ends

Time Optimization, Therapy Freedom, Lonely Parents, and the Gathering of Thought Criminals

1. This morning while putting this together, I learned that the prominent writer and pastor Tim Keller had passed away. The header text of his obituary at Christianity Today distills the message of hope which he preached to thousands of New Yorkers over four decades, and across dozens of books: “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” No doubt there are countless converts and clergy whose vocations are the result of his steady ministry to sinners.

The spiritual landscape of my faith over the last eighteen years is, in so many ways, indebted to his commitment to the city in which my faith took hold. My alma mater wouldn’t exist without his missiology, my former parish wouldn’t exist without Redeemer’s commitment to church planting, nor would my first job at a midtown arts non-profit founded by a Japanese painter named Mako Fujimura, whose early days of faith were nurtured by Keller.

A quick search of Keller’s name on our website yields dozens of entries, because as Todd Brewer wrote for Mbird today: “To anyone willing to listen, Keller gave them Jesus.”

2. The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to therapy: somatic, psychoanalytic, talk, and art therapies, along with an analysis of booming businesses like Talk Space and BetterHelp. But Carina del Valle Schorske says she had to give up on therapy entirely in order to be ready for it. A traumatic sexual assault while she was a college student triggered a cascading series of depressive periods. To salve that wound, she elected the most rigorous treatment she could find — four sessions a week with “Dr. S.” In the article, Schorske describes her reasons for seeing a psychoanalyst as “a good girl’s form or rebellion”:

For my whole life, both my parents have been involved in spiritual communities that emphasize collective devotion and mystical experience over and above self-examination. The ego was something to be transcended rather than indulged. In choosing analysis, I was doubling down on my atheistic position; I was asserting my own sensibility. I liked that Freud didn’t promise more than I believed any man or god could deliver; instead, we were in the territory of healing without cure, revolution without utopia. I liked the permission to play among dreams, wishes and accidents of language. But I also liked — and this has been harder to admit — feeling as if this particular kind of help revealed me to be a sophisticated, creative person; that it somehow dignified the mess I dragged from door to door.

I should have recognized this feeling as a telltale symptom. Even though I’d been careful to choose the medicine myself, I was still relating to my treatment as if it were a professional-development program. I wanted to prove that I could succeed at transformation; which, of course, implied that it was possible to fail.

After much therapy with Dr. S., some of it vexing and without obvious results, eventually she determined that she was ready to move away from the patient-doctor relationship into something more autonomous, even primitive, she says. What made her relationship with her analyst distinct from the other relationships in her life was the freedom granted her to abandon treatment at anytime without fear of recrimination.

It must be strange, for the analyst, to exercise so little control over her patients: After years of tenderness, we might walk out the door without looking back. And yet, it is precisely this conscious renunciation of control that makes the analyst different from the other people in our lives, potentially transformatively so.

Though she left, she didn’t stay gone long. The freedom to leave, to live, fall in love, pursue a career and hobbies, whilst abiding with the knowledge that — like a prodigal — she could return at anytime, is what eventually led her to come back to therapy with Dr. S., who she’s been seeing regularly for over six years. When asked publicly about her ongoing treatment with Dr. S., she calls their relationship “one of the most reliable — and mysterious — in my life,” but that has less to do with the results she can enumerate and more to do with the fact that the relationship exists outside the realm of utility.

It has become a refuge from the pervasive demand that I use my time productively, or render my life as a progress narrative for search committees, potential partners or the pages of a magazine. In analysis, I’m allowed to be uncertain and without the right words.

What intrigued me about Schorske’s reflection on her relationship with her analyst is what it says about obligation, and learning to want what we need. Therapy with Dr. S., for her, and living a life of surrender to God, for me, isn’t about living without desire, nor is it about living without freedom to come and go, but about residing outside the grip of our own control, and without self-contrived, measurable ends in mind. In giving up her expectation for what the sessions — expensive as they are — were meant to yield, Schorske encountered a transformative relationship of rest and acceptance, a place wherein she wants to abide.

3. Parenting is an increasingly lonely business, says Jessie Munton at The Point:

It isn’t hard to find reasons for that: the change in priorities that comes along with parenting can disrupt established relationships. It’s hard to see other people, to maintain old friendships or activities whilst working around the needs of a small baby. But there is a loneliness that’s more intrinsic to the task than these explanations allow for […]

The puzzling aspect of the loneliness of parenthood is that it is compatible with the constant company of the baby. Why is the company of an infant unable to assuage this loneliness? To be sure, we could list things the baby cannot do that another adult could: make tea, help with chores, laugh at your jokes, ask questions, compliment your outfit. But the problem goes deeper than that.

Last year, The Guardian reported a 2018 study by the British Red Cross which found that more than eight in ten mothers (83%) under the age of thirty had feelings of loneliness some of the time, while 43% said they felt lonely all the time. Another survey found that 90% of new mothers felt lonely since giving birth, with over half (54%) feeling they had no friends. These sad statistics are often attributed to the disappearance of the “village” who used to raise each other’s kids. And the isolated nature of contemporary households is exacerbated by decline of local parishes and civic groups, along with diminished social services and “third spaces.” Part of the loneliness of parenting is that the idea is still relatively taboo. Who wants to admit that their infant is boring company?

But Munton thinks there are other under-interpreted reasons for parental loneliness, most of which are timeless, philosophical, and far more intrinsic to the role. Enter Hegel’s master-slave dialectic — the idea that we need others to constitute us as people — which presents itself at a few points in Hegel’s writing, most famously in the Phenomenology of Spirit and then again in the Philosophy of Mind. I know, it seems extreme, but hear her out!

I recognized some version of that claim from school, when it could feel like you didn’t really exist at all if your peers didn’t acknowledge you, and seek in turn for you to acknowledge them. The trouble is that, like the playground bully, we have in us the urge to dominate those around us who could give us that recognition — to obliterate their otherness and subdue the risks it poses to us by integrating them into ourselves, by violent domination or by consumption. Domination looks like a tempting shortcut to having others recognize us as people, but it’s doomed to fail, because it destroys the possibility of true recognition between acknowledged equals. … As the playground bully knows, it’s lonely at the top.

About how this dynamic bears itself out in parenthood, she goes on to say:

Now grappling with the loneliness of parenthood, I saw a version of the dynamic in my relationship with my children. One of the peculiarities of a relationship with a baby is that it is a relationship devoid of recognition. Both mother and child need to develop the capacity to recognize the other. But doing so is a developmental achievement, and one that involves risk on both sides, risks it can be tempting to subsume by treating the other as an extension of ourselves.

Through a thousand daily frustrations my children and I tell each other that our wills are separate. The business of being distinct people brings with it its own forms of loneliness. But it’s a loneliness that’s a precondition for the possibility of recognition — a loneliness that can drive us forward in the constantly shifting project of knowing and being known.

The space between mother and child, husband and wife, and the best of friends might be the most charged and mysterious space of all, even if it does leave us feeling lonely, because with it comes the potential for recognition. It reminds me of what Henri Nouwen says in Out of Solitude:

A life without a lonely place, that is, a life without a quiet center, easily becomes destructive. When we cling to the results of our actions as our only way of self-identification, then we become possessive and defensive and tend to look at our fellow human human beings more as enemies to be kept at a distance than a friends with whom we share the gifts of life.

4. The Dean of the Cathedral in San Francisco once remarked, “We live in an age in which everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven.” This line always pops into my mind when people are batting around conversation about cancel culture. The average New Yorker has so little scaffolding, so few limitations on what we ought and ought not to do, that when we misstep — sometimes horrifically, I’m not minimizing that — it can be shocking to experience the consequences, the backlash, the vitriol — cancellation.

Lots of people think that concerns about cancel culture are overblown, if cancel culture even exists at all. For others, it is a viewed as a threat to academic freedom on university campuses, free speech, and democracy. As part of her reporting on the “cancelled,” Emma Green, staff writer at the New Yorker, recently joined a monthly New York City hangout, called the Gathering of Thought Criminals, where fired university professors and controversial TikTokers get together to have discussions they feel they can’t have anywhere else. I wish I could say this was a fringe group of the worst offenders, but the group numbers over two hundred people.

There are two rules. The first is that you have to be willing to break bread with people who have been socially ostracized, or, as the attendees would say, “cancelled” — whether they’ve lost a job, lost friends, or simply feel persecuted for holding unpopular opinions. Some people on the guest list are notorious: élite professors who have deviated from campus consensus or who have broken university rules, and journalists who have made a name for them selves amid public backlash (or who have weathered it quietly). Others are relative nobodies, people who for one reason or another have become exasperated with what they see as rampant censorious thinking in our culture.

The second rule of the gatherings is that Pamela has to like you. Pamela is Pamela Paresky, the gathering’s organizer, a fifty-six-year-old psychologist who lives in Chelsea.

I’ll admit that it’s very hard for me to have sympathy for anyone who sees drinking martinis with private equity financiers, moonlit East River cruises, or sing alongs at Marie’s Crisis as “political homelessness,” as Nick Gillepsie, editor-at-large of Reason, and one of the group’s members put it. I’m sure some of the Thought Criminals hold opinions I deplore, and in general, I have an aversion to groups that gather to revel in their shared persecution. (The church does this a lot! And it drives me crazy!) But that doesn’t change the fact that this marginalized group exists because forgiveness is so rarely extended these days.

“Forgiveness is just a difficult and harrowing process. It is emotionally taxing to engage a person who has wronged you in a process of transformation towards forgiveness and reconciliation,” Elizabeth Bruenig said in a recent lecture. Modeling this posture at a societal level requires a commitment to mercifulness as an ideal, something I fear we’ve lost amid our delusions of self-sufficiency.

The end of Green’s profile of the group is a gut punch:

A few days after the Olive Tree evening, Pamela Paresky texted me. “No one who comes to our gatherings is an actual criminal,” she said. But don’t “even criminals deserve to be loved by someone?”

5. Forgiveness, loneliness, desire and autonomy, all so heavy, and it’s Friday after all. Why not mix things up by reminding you that, as it turns out, everything in your house is toxic?

Elsewhere, the Onion went Babylon Bee with this one:

Asserting that the correlations were there if you just paid attention, local conspiracy theorist Paul McLaughlin was reportedly convinced Wednesday that the entire universe was connected with God’s abundant love.

At McSweeney’s Holly Theisen-Jones lists the pros & cons of famed diets, but the instruction section is where the laughs are at:

Noom Instructions: Pay seventy dollars a month to count calories in an app and receive daily reminders that celery is less calorie dense than cake frosting.

French Women Don’t Get Fat Instructions: Eat minuscule portions of your favorite foods with a vintage seafood fork. Serve poached pears at dinner parties. Start wearing scarves and smoking a pack of cigarettes a day; hiss at fat people.

6.What If Instead of Trying to Manage Your Time, You Set It Free?” In her newest book, Saving Time, writer and artist Jenny Odell argues that our standard ways of thinking about time are leaving us exhausted and confused — that the idea of optimizing time to achieve a work-life balance is a fool’s errand. Anyone who wants to chip away an instrumental view of time (investment vs. return) and scrub the soapbox of “productivity bros” is a worker-class hero in my book, because I tend to air in the efficiency-maximizing direction, to my detriment.

My skepticism is more about that rhetoric and way of thinking of time as being offered as a solution to someone who doesn’t have control of their time — that if they controlled their time in this gridlike way, they could succeed in life. I think that person has the potential to use that way of thinking very self-punitively […]

Even if you get better at having your time be protected, that doesn’t answer the question of what you want to use your time for and what your values are.

For Odell, the way a person evaluates the goodness of how their time is spent directly correlates to their values. Why become hyper-efficient if it leaves you feeling like there is less meaning in your life? Why outsource all of your drudgery if there is some satisfaction — maybe even sanctification — in the mud?

The closest thing that I have to an answer is that I want to be in contact with things, people, contexts that make me feel alive. I have a specific definition of alive, which is I want to feel like I am being changed. Someone who’s completely habitual, is set in their ways of thinking and doing, that type of person is liable to see days in a calendar as being pieces of material that you use to achieve your goals. There’s all kinds of degrees between that and someone who’s so completely open to every moment that they’re dysfunctional or something, but I want to live closer to that second pole. I think about things that are enlivening to me, and they tend to be encounters, conversations.

Experiences that are impossible to quantify or measure — which leave us changed in unremarkable ways when segmented into hourlong blocks — when accumulated, make a life.


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One response to “May 13-19”

  1. […] and furious, as well they should, and there’s not much I could say that Stephanie, Todd, Jeb, Meaghan or a hundred others haven’t already said. But I did want to add my voice to those expressing […]

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