Another Week Ends

Dating the Wrong Person, Non-Judgmental Psychology, Sacred Food, and the God Who Hides

Todd Brewer / 5.13.22

1. One of the upsides of big tech now having a hand in who we might date or marry is that they are gathering an enormous amount of data on us that can be used for research. That probably may not sound like much of a benefit to anyone concerned about online privacy, particularly in such a deeply personal arena of life. But I’d argue the opposite for the very same reason: because who we date is so personal, it’s more deeply prone to self-deception in ways that can be uncovered by the use of big data. Which is a long-winded way of saying that Wired’s article this week “People Are Dating All Wrong, According to Data Science” got my attention.

It turns out that that list — the qualities that are most valued in the dating market, according to Big Data from online dating sites — almost perfectly overlaps with the list of traits in a partner that don’t correlate with long-term relationship happiness, according to the large dataset Joel and her coauthors analyzed.

Consider, say, conventional attractiveness. Beauty, you will recall, is the single most valued trait in the dating market; … But Joel and her coauthors found, in their study of more than 11,000 long-term couples, that the conventional attractiveness of one’s partner does not predict romantic happiness. Similarly, tall men, men with sexy occupations, and people of certain races are valued tremendously in the dating market. But ask thousands of long-term couples and there is no evidence that people who succeeded in pairing off with mates with these desired traits are any happier in their relationship.

If I had to sum up, in one sentence, the most important finding in the field of relationship science, thanks to these Big Data studies, it would be something like this (call it the First Law of Love): In the dating market, people compete ferociously for mates with qualities that do not increase one’s chances of romantic happiness.

The conflict between what we want and will actually be good for us is nothing new, but it’s at least nice to find hard data that confirms how inadequate people are at making important life choices. Though the adage, “the heart wants what it wants,” is true, merely desiring something/someone is not a sufficient personal barometer or justification. Of course, knowing our desires can lead us astray won’t move the needle to actually changing those desires. But it just might create the kind of self-suspicion necessary to avoid an iceberg or two.

2. We’ve been banging the #seculosity drum for long enough on this site that I shouldn’t be surprised to see the trend continue to play out. But the recent New York Times profile of Peoplehood, the latest wellness startup, was still jarring to read, if only because the company isn’t trying to hide that it’s a secular replacement religion.

Peoplehood pitches itself as the natural successor to SoulCycle, but instead of bicycles, there’s a pseudo-therapists (called Guides), prayer candles (I kid you not), breathing exercises, and meetings aiming to “foster connection.” As Tara Isabella Burton notes, “Peoplehood sounds like a natural culmination of how we think about spirituality and commerce in 2022.” Thankfully, not everyone is sold on the company, and one commentator interviewed offered this pretty stinging critique:

Putting your physical fitness in the hands of spinning instructors feels like less of a risk than putting your spiritual, psychological and emotional health in the hands of someone trying to build and scale a giant business.

On this front, the contrast between Peoplehood and the church couldn’t be more stark. While the church has often been criticized over the millennia for accumulating wealth, the same can’t be said of your local congregation. Pastors (and online theology and culture websites!) generally don’t get into the gospel business because they think it’s a profitable venture.

3. Speaking of seculosity, Ligaya Mishan wrote a sweeping overview in the New York Times Style Magazine on the history of food and religion, ranging from the offering of cucumbers to the gods in Southern Sudan to the sacrifice of bulls in ancient Greece. Turning to the present day, she offers this astute observation on our meaning-making religiosity of secularism:

It is a banality of the modern day to say, “Nothing is sacred.” In fact, the opposite is true: Secularism has not banished the sacred but made it infinite. Unmoored from religion, we flail for meaning and seek new forms of exaltation. We turn ordinary objects into holy grails, making pilgrimages to restaurants ranked among the world’s best (and helmed by chefs not so jokingly compared to gods) or stand in line for hours for breakfast burritos, barbecue or matcha crème brûlée doughnuts, then post pictures on Instagram as proof of our devotions. Marketing strategists use the term “sacred consumption” to describe how customers can be taught to revere products and brands as totems, and to imagine that buying things is the way to satisfy a longing for ritual and community.

If this seems indulgent, that’s a moral judgment. Indeed, what we eat reveals what we value. Some of us refuse meat, eggs or even honey, restrict ourselves to ingredients available within a prescribed radius or reject processed foods, in the name of stopping the exploitation and abuse of animals, protecting the environment, fighting capitalism or just sticking it to the man. Others see the body as a temple and allow only the purest of foods to breach its barrier, whether organic, macrobiotic, raw or gluten free (even without an allergy), in pursuit of quelled anxiety, an immaculate complexion or eternal youth — another way of cheating death.

Her analysis of Christianity and food is probably too passing, nearly “wafer” thin. But the article did highlight for me how the Old Testament sacrifices were not believed to actually be consumed by God, who merely smelled the burnt offerings. This difference, I think, signals the broader belief in God’s transcendence, that God does not depend upon his creation to survive. Which makes it all the more striking that Jesus prompts his followers to feed on his flesh for their life (Jn 6). The self-sufficient God came not to be served, but to serve.

4. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this next piece, mostly for a lack of expertise in the field of psychology, but it does cohere with my own, admittedly anecdotal understanding. Writing in the New Atlantis, James Mumford takes aim at what he calls “non-judgmental psychology.” In his view, non-judgment psychology is not merely the withholding of judgement, but the relinquishing of all ideas of independent moral standards, where there is no such thing as good and evil, where right and wrong cease to exist. Consequently, “our recovery, our restoration to sanity, hinges upon our willingness to choose our own values.”

Whether Mumford has correctly characterized the field of psychology is not for me to say, but it does provide an analogy to what happens when there is a gospel without the law (i.e. antinomianism). Or when the freedom to which Christ has set us free becomes coopted by the very foreign, modern ideology of “you do you.” He writes:

How can a psychology wedded to relativism make any sense of this possibility of finding a way to be good again, of moral transformation? What does progress or growth mean if there is no standard of goodness outside ourselves? Talk of “a way to be good again” makes no sense if “good” is merely whatever you decide it is. Goodness can function as a meaningful measure of our actions only if it is not a product of our minds.

This is how I come to realize that, in truth, my career has come at the expense of my children. I work all weekend. I am glued to my phone. I am never fully present with them. There but not there. This is because, in all honesty, my chief value has been “career,” not “family.” … I realize that though I have lived up to my values (my career is doing fine), I am actually pursuing the wrong values. I have lost my way. I need to backtrack to where I went wrong, recognize a duty incumbent upon me, and alter my course. Not rationalizing the values I do have but thinking about the values I should have is what leads me to change.

What would it look like for psychologists to preach what they practice, to accommodate the intrinsic value they presuppose their patients to have? It would not, I think, necessarily entail a return to Victorian-style moralism, making patients stand on stools, like Jane Eyre at Lowood School on her “pedestal of infamy,” and branding them sinners and liars. Rather, it would see psychologists refusing to rule out from the outset a transcendent good that is the natural end of “man’s quest for meaning.” It would see psychologists encouraging patients to search for values beyond themselves, but making that quest for themselves. It would see psychologists echoing Iris Murdoch’s challenge, that each of us make “an attempt to look right away from self towards a distant transcendent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue.”

6. In humor this week, Slackjaw’sStop Worrying About Your Embarrassing Childhood Memories” is pretty on the nose. And Reductress notes the incompatibility of personal ambition and self-care with, “Why I’m Adjusting Expectations for Myself if the Rest of You Agree Do the Same“:

Okay sure, you want me to “take care of myself” and “prioritize my mental health,” instead of grinding all day to achieve inhuman goals on an unrealistic timeline? That’s very sweet of you! What a humanizing thought that momentarily inspires me to imagine other possible systems of value! But I wasn’t born yesterday, and it kinda sounds to me like you want me to ease up on my productivity so you can go grind alone in private, show me up on LinkedIn in a few years, and one-up me.

Elsewhere, Canadian website the Beaverton targets anyone watching the NHL playoffs right now, and this Pittsburgh Penguins fan feels seen: “Local man’s emotional well being still entirely dependent on sport controlled by these idiots.” In other news from them, “Uh oh! We told this graduating class they can do anything and they believed us!” aptly skewers many commencement speeches making the rounds these days:

We were asked to give a speech at the graduation of a local high school and carelessly ended it with a generic encouraging statement about how they can achieve anything they wanted. How would we know they would actually take us seriously?

I mean, you should see some of the thank you letters we got, filled with dreams we absolutely did NOT mean to nurture. One kid said he want to go to Harvard, but look at his shoes! No way his parents can afford that. This other student says they want to be Prime Minister like they don’t know that every graduating class ever has at least one that says that so they can’t all do it. Shit, this kid says he wants to clone a bunch of dinosaurs and sell them as pets! How did this one even graduate?

Um, what?:

6. Rounding out this week is wonderful reflection by David Clay over at 1517 titled, “You are a God who Hides Himself.” Channeling the reformer Martin Luther, Clay sees the hiddenness of God to be a function of God’s mercy, a way to contravene our very human tendency to boast in our accomplishments:

God has arranged things precisely so that self-congratulation will be absent from heaven. This is only right and fair: glory belongs to the Lord alone. But there is a further reason why God finds human boasting so repugnant. To “boast,” after all, is to put forward some accomplishment or attribute as the evidence of one’s sufficiency. It is to say, “This proves that I have earned my spot in the world (or in heaven). This entitles me to the respect of others and of myself.” […]

Cobbling together résumés to prove one’s worth makes knowing Jesus impossible. Even in the realm of purely human relationships, we know full well what self-focus can do to our friendships and marriages. Conversely, knowing Jesus makes all of our résumé-building, our “boasting,” appear laughably silly, which it is.

God thus excludes our boasting out of his abundant mercy. He hides himself so that we can never take credit for having figured him out; he reveals himself only in ways that destroy our pride. He chooses pagan kings and a crucified Messiah. He conceals himself from the wise and learned and shows himself to children. He kills so that he can make alive. And this is no cruel joke. We might do our best to miss out on the eternal joy of knowing Jesus, but God refuses to let us succeed.

Strays:

  • I’ve Always Struggled With My Weight. Losing It Didn’t Mean Winning.
  • Can Social Media Be Redeemed?
  • What’s the the key to a good parent-child relationship? “Low Expectations,” says Arthur Brooks in the Atlantic: “Neither parents nor adult children have to be perfect for the relationship to be satisfying and healthy. With lower expectations, you can break out of childhood dynamics (yours and theirs) and form a bond based on mutual respect as adults … Waiting for your parent or child to get their act together is probably not a recipe for success in your relationship.”

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