Another Week Ends

Memento Mori, Refreshed Cicadas, Sinead O’Connor, Burned Out Bodywork, Hopeful Artists, FaceTune, and Natalie Bergman

David Zahl / 5.21.21

1. First up, writing in the New York Times, Ruth Graham encouraged readers to “Meet the Nun Who Wants You to Remember You Will Die,” namely Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble of the Daughters of St. Paul. I’ve seen this article all over the place this week, for obvious reasons.

[Sister Aletheia] has made it her mission to revive the practice of memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning “Remember your death.” The concept is to intentionally think about your own death every day, as a means of appreciating the present and focusing on the future. It can seem radical in an era in which death — until very recently — has become easy to ignore.

“My life is going to end, and I have a limited amount of time,” Sister Aletheia said. “We naturally tend to think of our lives as kind of continuing and continuing … Memento mori works perfectly with what my students are facing, between the pandemic and the massive hurricanes.”

Sister Aletheia rejects any suggestion that the practice is morbid. Suffering and death are facts of life; focusing only on the “bright and shiny” is superficial and inauthentic. “We try to suppress the thought of death, or escape it, or run away from it because we think that’s where we’ll find happiness,” she said. “But it’s actually in facing the darkest realities of life that we find light in them.”

“She has such a gift for talking about really difficult things with joy,” said Christy Wilkens, a Catholic writer and mother of six outside Austin, Texas. “She’s so young and vibrant and joyful and is also reminding us all we’re going to die.” Ms. Wilkens credits memento mori with giving her the “spiritual tools” to grapple with her 9-year-old son’s serious health issues. “It has allowed me, not exactly to cope, but to surrender everything to God,” she said.

Of course, remembering your death isn’t some odd practice that’s only relevant during a pandemic. It was Paul who wrote of being “crucified with Christ,” a death before our “long sleep” that gives new life, a theology of the cross, if you will.

2. As a radical case in point, look no further than Jonathan Tjarks’ harrowing and hopeful first-person account in the Ringer, entitled “The Long Night of the Soul.”

One of the best metaphors I’ve heard for modern life is that it’s a car headed toward a cliff’s edge while billboards line both sides of the road, blocking the driver’s view. Those billboards are all the distractions that society has to offer. Netflix. Sports. Movies. Music. Everything you consume to avoid thinking about where you are ultimately headed. And those billboards cover your view until the end of the road, when suddenly the cliff approaches. Then, as your car is flying in the air, that’s when you start thinking about death and the meaning of life.

Most Americans spend so much time striving, trying to be successful, trying to climb further up the ladder. Trying to achieve. Trying to give our lives meaning. It all fades away in that moment, when all you are left to grapple with is what you really believe about life and death.

It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you have done, or how much medical care your money can buy. We all have to face that moment. It’s the only moment when every person on Earth is truly equal. We come into this world with nothing and leave it the same way…

Worrying about death does me nothing. All I can do is believe and have faith that there’s some point to all this. That God is watching after me and my family, even if it doesn’t seem like it sometimes.

I couldn’t help but think of Reductress‘s recent headline, “How I Stopped Worrying About Constantly Being Productive And Started Worrying About What Happens When We Die.” Heh.

3. Speaking of humor, this is my first exposure to Flexx but “Uh-Oh! Friend’s New Haircut Seems Like They’re Going Through Something” was clever. The Hard Times hit, uh, hard with “Cry for Help Gets Tons of Likes.” And then the Onion gave us East Coasters the brilliant and timely “‘Wow, Hope You Had A Nice 17 Years Off,’ Say Annoyed Bugs Left To Torment Humans Without Help Of Cicadas“:

In response to the brood’s reemergence after lying dormant since 2004, several area insects reportedly said, “Wow, hope you had a nice 17 years off,” to a group of periodical cicadas Tuesday, expressing annoyance over being forced during the prolonged absence to torment humans on their own. “You certainly look refreshed — that was some break, huh?” a local mosquito told the cicadas as it called over some ticks, wasps, fire ants, and brown recluse spiders that sources confirmed worked twice as hard to inflict fear and disease upon humans while the cicadas “took their sweet, sweet time doing God knows what” beneath the ground.”

4. At the risk of belaboring the issue, Jill Lepore took a deep dive into everyone’s favorite affliction with her New Yorker article “Burnout: Modern Affliction or Human Condition?” We talked about this quite a bit on the Mockingcast this week (out in a couple days), but it was refreshing to see her surface the many religious aspects:

One Swiss psychotherapist, in a history of burnout published in 2013 that begins with the usual invocation of immediate emergency — “Burnout is increasingly serious and of widespread concern” — insists that he found it in the Old Testament. Moses was burned out, in Numbers 11:14, when he complained to God, “I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me.” And so was Elijah, in 1 Kings 19, when he “went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough.”

“Every age has its signature afflictions,” the Korean-born, Berlin-based philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes in “The Burnout Society,” first published in German in 2010. Burnout, for Han, is depression and exhaustion, “the sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity,” an “achievement society,” a yes-we-can world in which nothing is impossible, a world that requires people to strive to the point of self-destruction. “It reflects a humanity waging war on itself.”

The louder the talk about burnout, it appears, the greater the number of people who say they’re burned out: harried, depleted, and disconsolate. What can explain the astonishing rise and spread of this affliction? Declining church membership comes to mind. In 1985, seventy-one per cent of Americans belonged to a house of worship, which is about what that percentage had been since the nineteen-forties; in 2020, only forty-seven per cent of Americans belonged to an institution of faith. Many of the recommended ways to address burnout — wellness, mindfulness, and meditation (“Take time each day, even five minutes, to sit still,” Elle advised) — are secularized versions of prayer, Sabbath-keeping, and worship. If burnout has been around since the Trojan War, prayer, worship, and the Sabbath are what humans invented to alleviate it.

You can suffer from marriage burnout and parent burnout and pandemic burnout partly because, although burnout is supposed to be mainly about working too much, people now talk about all sorts of things that aren’t work as if they were: you have to work on your marriage, work in your garden, work out, work harder on raising your kids, work on your relationship with God. (“Are You at Risk for Christian Burnout?” one Web site asks. You’ll know you are if you’re driving yourself too hard to become “an excellent Christian.”) Even getting a massage is “bodywork.”

Along the same lines as the aforementioned memento mori, there’s clearly something to “remembering the Sabbath,” a time reserved for, well, doing nothing. Which isn’t to suggest that rest is something that can be instrumentalized to make you more productive, as that would defeat the purpose. But it might just make life a tad more bearable.

5. Nick Cave squeaked out yet another masterpiece of the Red Hand Files, this time on the topic of hope and how/if to separate the art from the artist. I’ve written on this subject before and could not give Cave’s words a heartier amen:

I don’t think we can separate the art from the artist, nor should we need to. I think we can look at a piece of art as the transformed or redeemed aspect of an artist, and marvel at the miraculous journey that the work of art has taken to arrive at the better part of the artist’s nature. Perhaps beauty can be measured by the distance it has traveled to come into being.

That bad people make good art is a cause for hope. To be human is to transgress, of that we can be sure, yet we all have the opportunity for redemption, to rise above the more lamentable parts of our nature, to do good in spite of ourselves, to make beauty from the unbeautiful, and to have the courage to present our better selves to the world.

6. Finally, the New York Times spoke with the inimitable Sinead O’Connor, who is about to drop what sounds like a scintillating memoir on the world. As per usual, she did not disappoint:

“Child abuse is an identity crisis and fame is an identity crisis, so I went straight from one identity crisis into another,” she said. And when she tried to call attention to child abuse through her fame, she was vilified. “People would say that she’s fragile,” Geldof said. “No, no, no. Many people would have collapsed under the weight of being Sinead O’Connor, had it not been Sinead.” Instead, O’Connor felt freed. “I could just be me. Do what I love. Be imperfect. Be mad, even,” she writes in the book. “I’m not a pop star. I’m just a troubled soul who needs to scream into mikes now and then.” […]

O’Connor has seen a little bit of herself in women who came after her — in Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears. “What they did to Britney Spears was disgusting,” she said. “If you met a stranger in the street crying, you’d put your arms around her. You wouldn’t start taking photos of her, you know?” It is not lost on O’Connor that the night Spears was roundly categorized as a crazy person, she shaved her hair off. “Why were they saying she’s crazy for shaving her head?” she said. “I’m not.”

O’Connor’s ethereal sound has acquired an appealingly raw undercurrent. When she sings, on the title track, “There are two mes, the one that you see/and the real me, who I’m not supposed to be,” her pull is undeniable.

Strays:

  • In the little-l law department, file this under depressing yet urgent: the Huffington Post‘s look inside “The Facetune Epidemic.” Lord have mercy:

Multiple women said “perfect” to them looks like the Kardashian sisters, a standard so unattainable that even the Kardashians can’t meet it — at least, not the version of themselves they sell to young women on social media. Khloe Kardashian was embroiled in controversy last month after her team went into a frenzy threatening legal action to get an unretouched photo of her in a bathing suit taken offline.