Another Week Ends

A Satisfactory Answer to Mortality, the Phantom Kevin Durant, the Quiet Vigil of Mary Magdalene, and Internet Sorting.

CJ Green / 6.4.21

1. If you’ve spent some time floating about this website, you’ve likely encountered some mention of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Originally published in 1973, The Denial of Death won the Pulitzer Prize and continues to be one of the great commentaries on the ways we cope with the inevitable.

To summarize, Becker evaluated various “systems of heroics” — methods by which we try to conquer death — and found two to be the most compelling: psychoanalysis and religion. But, as Kelsey Osgood points out in the latest issue of Plough, psychoanalysis hasn’t quite fulfilled its 70s hype. She makes a case for why the other — religion — is more persuasive.

[Becker’s] preference for religion is plastered all over the text. All the thinkers he lauds and quotes liberally – Kierkegaard, William James, Otto Rank – extoll its value. … At one point, he suggests that psychology could possibly work if it became more of a “lived experience,” developed a spiritual vocabulary, or if the therapist acted more as a guru than a scientist. In other words, [therapy] could work, but only if it were structured more like religion. … Over and over, Becker says that people need something beyond themselves, that exists completely independently, some entity that gives credence to both the body that will decay and the spirit that will endure. There is only one thing that fits that description, and that is religion.

It’s fair to say that what Becker is really getting at is not that religion is the best system for processing our relationship to mortality, but that the divine reality religion points to is the only answer that satisfies. He wasn’t wrong when he said that religion can become a calcified, self-satisfying loop just as readily as manmade ideologies … But a belief grounded in expansiveness, love, and reverence, that fosters both humility and self-respect, that fixes man’s eyes on the stars and his heart – his poor, fragile, doomed human heart – that can never fail.

Becker wrote his masterwork from a neutral perspective, for a secular audience, but I’d long heard that on his deathbed (he died of cancer at age 49), he showed all his cards. Osgood confirms this, referencing his final interview, which amounts to a stirring testimony of faith:

…although [Becker] was an atheist for many years, the birth of his first child jolted him into belief in God — “seeing something pop in from the void and seeing how magnificent it was, unexpected, how much beyond our powers and our ken” – and that he felt the only valuable conversation man can have is a “vertical” one: “I think a person must address himself to God rather than to the future of mankind.” […]

I would say that the most important thing is to know that beyond the absurdity of one’s life, beyond the human viewpoint, beyond what is happening to us, there is the fact of the tremendous creative energies of the cosmos that are using us for some purposes we don’t know. To be used for divine purposes, however we may be misused, this is the thing that consoles …I think one does, or should try to, just hand over one’s life, the meaning of it, the value of it, the end of it.

2. In Osgood’s terms, death-denial crops up most prevalently in those of us “living unexamined lives of low-grade consumerism”; we may “anesthetize” with “drugs or alcohol or thoughtless copulation.”

One thing she doesn’t mention, though, is entertainment — say, sports, which you might well classify as its own zillion-dollar “system of heroics.”

“The world of sports media is basically where American men go to avoid therapy, where they can project their wounds and failings onto strangers and referees,” writes Sam Anderson in his spirited write-up of “the tall ethereal phantom” Kevin Durant. KD is no ordinary American man, however:

In a sports world defined by tough-guy posturing and bulletproof messaging, [Durant] has always come off as something else: a thinker and a searcher and a wandering soul. In interviews, he will abandon the script of jock clichés and drop right into existential dread. “I go to sleep at night, like, ‘Am I going to be alone forever?’” he once told Zach Baron of GQ. … If Michael Jordan were a Dostoyevsky character, he would be Kevin Durant. […]

“The world is bigger than my little box,” Durant told me. “I’m not going to be playing this game forever. So I can’t be expected to stay in this box.” He laughed. “Like: ‘This is the K.D. box.’ Who gives a [expletive]? It’s been billions of people on this earth. We really are small, if you look at it from a universe perspective.”

I asked Durant if he had ever been to therapy. He said no. But he told me he meditates constantly, every day. Not formally, cross-legged, like a Buddhist. He meditates just by doing normal things. Shooting a free throw, he said, is meditation. … Durant is always searching, in all the noise, for relief, simplicity, stillness.

“There’s a lot of stuff that we get distracted by, or we chasing, to make us feel a certain way,” Durant said.

3. I personally like to anesthetize myself with comedy, so let’s do that for a minute. I LOL’ed at this link, from the New Yorker. “I’m Totally Open to Anything!

Have you thought about what we should read next for our book club? I’m totally open. My one request is that we not read fiction, because I’d rather learn about the real world. I should probably add that I don’t do memoirs (too self-indulgent), biographies (too boring), or books about Broadway (I’ve read them all already). I’m super open to reading about London’s West End, though. But you pick and let me know!

Also I’m pretty sure Paul was not at the Last Supper, but he seems to have attended the Last Supp-her:

Also, also: this one is clever: How to Restart Your Social Media Accounts After You Take the Moral High Ground and Quit. Heads up, it’s not so easy.

4. The preceding link is a joke, but of course some criticisms of social media are no laughing matter! One such criticism is that online networks sort users into rabbit holes, according to their different beliefs and perspectives, what Karen Swallow Prior calls “syncretism.” At first it seems good — you can virtually commune with likeminded individuals — but it becomes risky when it amounts to social partitioning:

For example, because of the Internet, a person who loves The Lord of the Rings, seeks to explore polyamory, is enrolled in seminary, and eats gluten-free can easily find communities for each of these interests — and, most likely, even a group that shares all of these interests.

But this phenomenon of communities around shared interests is a double-edged sword because, as  [Tara Isabella] Burton explains [in her book Strange Rites],

“…the Internet provides highly specialized alternative communities, allowing people to find friends or partners who aren’t merely like-minded, but almost identically minded. It disincentivizes compromise and conformity, even as it promises the bespoke ideal: people who think and feel and act just like you” (60-61).

Such hyper individualism, further cemented in pools of people just like you, leads inevitably to the polarization that has characterized the past few years.

A similar problem was brought up by Daniel Dorman, writing at Convivium. Where Prior sees “syncretism,” Dorman sees  “interpretive communities,” groups whose insularity is so essential that they begin to believe others are incapable of understanding them.

… it has become the assumption that any identifiable socio-political-ethnic group becomes its own ‘interpretive community.’ Contemporary political discourse operates under the assumption that people of varying socio-political-ethnic ‘communities’ simply cannot understand each other.

To assume that someone from a different gender, race, sexual orientation (or any other secondary characteristic) cannot understand you or meaningfully sympathize with you, is to contest their capacity for rationality. It is to dismiss their humanity. Our contemporary emphasis on interpretive communities is undemocratic. It undermines the democratic principle that assumes all voices are valuable because all voices are comprehensible.

Prior implies that the solution will be “revived congregations that are politically, racially and economically diverse.” Dunno how likely we are to see such a revival any time soon, TBH. I do, however, think it’s worth mentioning (and/or praising God) that Mockingbird is pretty close to — though not perfectly — the prescribed vision. For example, we often field questions about the organization’s politics, and the honest answer is, it depends who you’re asking; our contributors come here with different backgrounds and opinions. My guess is that maybe you can only have such a community when its founding principle is grace.

But I welcome different opinions on the matter! (Winky face.)

5. Now for the requisite mention of Nick Cave. You might know that we reference his Red Hand Files constantly, especially in these week-end columns. The musician is particularly poignant when it comes to themes of creativity, grief, and hardship. (This week, Mockingbird contributor Brad Gray brought the Files to 1517, interweaving Cave’s insights with his own, re: suffering.)

In a recent entry, Cave responds to a man whose cousin died tragically at age 49; his aunt has been suffering immensely, closing out her family in the process. Cave’s response is one to remember, so I’ll close with it.

In my experience, there is a special place reserved for mothers who have lost their sons.  Theirs is a singular and complex order of torture, unlike any other grief, and the fundamental need to lock oneself away from the world is natural, perhaps necessary. It is a form of self-imposed entombment, adjacent to eternity, where they can better be with the one they have lost. Aunt Marnie is spending time with the retreating image of her departed son and perhaps there is no room for you at this moment. Perhaps now is not the time she needs you, but you can be sure, in time, she will.

I am reminded, yet again, of Mary Magdalene’s vigil at the mouth of Jesus’ tomb. After Jesus had been laid to rest, the stone had been rolled across the entrance of the cave, and the twelve apostles had fled, Mary Magdalene remained ‘standing there in front of the tomb.’ This silent, helpless vigil is, for me, the single most moving moment of the New Testament. This is where you stand now, Ian, having lost not only your cousin, but your beloved Aunt Marnie too.

Eventually, your aunt will come back to you. … She will look around to see who is there… to remain steadfast on the borders of another’s grief may be the greatest, most holy act of love one can perform.


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Images sourced from @elegant_episcopal_memes