Another Week Ends

Altar Calls, Sad Love, Searching for the Self, and Parental Grace in Practice

Todd Brewer / 10.7.22

1. Lots of great articles to share from this week. Leading off, we have a philosopher who wants to dispel a long-standing myth.

Boy meets girl, girl meets boy, and they live happily ever after — or at least that’s how all the stories usually go. Over at Vox, Sean Illing talked with philosopher Carrie Jenkins, who argues in her recent book for what she calls “sad love.” Fairy tales and Hollywood rom-coms rarely narrate what happens in the years and decades after the wedding bells go silent. But more than an incomplete story, these books, films, and songs portray a misleading and even misguided view of love, that love is simply “happily ever after.”

Carrie Jenkins: One way I sometimes think about it is, I don’t think that the most valuable thing in my life is me being happy. Don’t get me wrong. I like being happy. I’ll take it if that’s available, but there are things that mean much more to me.

And I think when people have children, we tend to understand this. You’re gonna have a rough time, but there’s something about that that means much more to you. And there’s something about that goal of raising your kids that is valuable and meaningful in a way that’s not really about happiness or your happiness. […]

Sean Illing: We all want to love someone. We all want someone to love us. But the truth is that we often want someone to love us on our terms. And that’s problematic, if I’m reading you right.

Carrie Jenkins: I’d go so far as to question whether that can even count as love. Because it’s almost like you’re not really loving that person. You are just loving something that happens inside of you when you are around that person. If you are not working in a collaborative spirit with them on things that are meaningful to them and to both of you, then yeah, I’m not really sure that I would wanna say that’s love at all.

There’s also another risk that’s close to that one, which is where we tend to see a partner as a kind of social status symbol. Like, “Look at me, I’ve been able to attract this person.”

When we’re thinking about it in that way, that again can be incredibly toxic. Not only because we’re not seeing the other person — we are just thinking about how being with them is a benefit to us.

And this temptation to externalize it and say, “The other person is not making me happy.” That can be really toxic, too. Like it’s anyone else’s job to make you happy. That’s not necessarily what love is for or what love is about. […]

If I were to rephrase Jenkins a bit more pointedly: we love our children better than our significant others. Which is the kind of thing that sounds terrible to say out loud, but also makes perfect sense. Parents would do anything for their children, but often require their spouses to “meet them halfway.” Along these lines, “sad love” has a great deal in common with Christian love. Because if there’s ever been one person in the world who wasn’t all that interested in their own personal happiness and flourishing, it was Jesus.

2. For one way that selfless love might work in practice, the New York Times profiled the research of John and Julie Gottman, who commend “turning toward” your spouse rather than “turning” away from them in subtle judgement or apathy.

In one of the Gottmans’ best-known experiments, they invited 130 newlywed couples to spend a day hanging out in the lab (designed to look like a cozy home) and meticulously tracked their every interaction. The Gottmans checked on them after six years, and found a striking split: Those who remained together had turned toward each other 86 percent of the time in the lab. Those who ended up divorced did so only 33 percent of the time.

3. On the subject of parental love that knows no bounds … the Mets are finally good again, which means all the long-suffering, little brother to the Yankees, fans have all become insufferable. Well, except for two Mets fans and this fantastic story of grace in practice. Though she was indifferent to sports, Kathleen O’Brien began following the Mets for the sake of her autistic son:

“What will you do with him when you are gone?” my brother asked me a few years ago about my son. I froze. I had no answer. I’ve read enough about abuse of those with developmental disabilities to worry that there will be no good answers. I fear my own death, hopefully very far off, and what it will mean for him. I know I need to start finding, or creating, some possibilities that I can live with.

The Mets are one tiny part of the answer. I am betting, perhaps badly, that baseball will outlast me. My son will need some way to pass the time when I am gone. And baseball is nothing if not a pastime.

4. A few of laughs to be found this week, beginning with “All Of My Problems Are The Result Of Supply Chain Issues” in Slackjaw and Reductress’ “I Lived it: I Thought It Was Thursday.” But the top spot easily goes to “‘That’s So You!’ Says Friend Inadvertently Shattering Your Entire Self Perception“:

While Grace went on to assure you that she made her initial statement without really thinking, you were already deep in a paranoid, self-destructive spiral, calling into question everything you ever believed about yourself.

“I’m at the point where I’m truly questioning who I am at my very core. If this shirt is ‘so me’ then I’ve spent my entire existence being completely wrong about how the world sees me. Am I the human embodiment of fast fashion? Am I nothing more than a poorly executed trend, here one day, and gone the next? Is my mere existence harmful?”

5. In 1964, the BBC began a revolutionary documentary series that profiled a handful of children, with new chapters filmed every seven years to check in on these same individuals and where their lives have taken them. The Up series has since filmed seven installments, most recently in 2019. The documentary sought to illustrate or disprove a saying of Aristotle: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man,” the idea being that the character of a person was largely determined at the age of seven. After that point, one’s identity was largely fixed and stable. The Up series hasn’t yet disproven Aristotle, but, as Jonathan Rothman writes in the New Yorker, the answer is probably far more complicated:

[In life] there will be no escaping the paradoxes of mutability, which have a way of weaving themselves into our lives. Thinking of some old shameful act of ours, we tell ourselves, “I’ve changed!” (But have we?) Bored with a friend who’s obsessed with what happened long ago, we say, “That was another life — you’re a different person now!” (But is she?) Living alongside our friends, spouses, parents, and children, we wonder if they’re the same people we’ve always known, or if they’ve lived through changes we, or they, struggle to see. Even as we work tirelessly to improve, we find that, wherever we go, there we are (in which case what’s the point?). And yet sometimes we recall our former selves with a sense of wonder, as if remembering a past life. Lives are long, and hard to see. What can we learn by asking if we’ve always been who we are?

Whether you perceive stasis or segmentation is almost an ideological question. To be changeable is to be unpredictable and free; it’s to be not just the protagonist of your life story but the author of its plot. […]

[On the other hand] life is full and variable … what matters most is that we lived it. The same me, however altered, absorbed it all and did it all. This outlook also involves a declaration of independence — independence not from one’s past self and circumstances but from the power of circumstances and the choices we make to give meaning to our lives. Dividers tell the story of how they’ve renovated their houses, becoming architects along the way. Continuers tell the story of an august property that will remain itself regardless of what gets built.

Rothman never really answers the basic quandary, believing both the “changing” and “unchanging” views have explanatory value. Which is the kind of wishy-washy conclusion that might seem unsatisfying.

But to my mind, the inexplicability of human identity is precisely the point. Looking to ourselves, we see nothing but the abyss of a rabbit hole with no end in sight. The search for a fixed point of human identity will always come up empty. Humans are reliably sinners, and therefore ephemeral. But when we look outside of ourselves, we find an unchanging God whose power makes alive where there was once death. Or in the words of St. Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.”

6. Perhaps a bit cringe-worthy for many who grew up in evangelical circles, but I think one practice that illustrates well this paradoxical dynamic of sinners-now-saved-by-God is the now antiquated practice of altar calls. Yeah, you read that correctly. Though it might pain this liturgical Christian to admit it, there is something deeply commendable about bending the knee before God in such a public, and yet personal, way. As told in Christianity Today by Russell Moore:

Historian Martin Marty argued that evangelical churches of that day were growing at least in part because they met the human longing for the right kind of crisis: an ever-present opportunity for people to hear a call to start over, to leave behind the old self for the new one.

That was true not just for “seekers” but for all of us. Every week, with rhythm and regularity, we were reminded of who we were — sinners Jesus loved. No matter how short I had fallen, the Lord received me, “just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.” And every week, at least for those few moments, we were reminded of those around us who had not yet embraced the Good News — that Jesus loves them too and we shouldn’t give up on anyone who might walk the aisle one day.

We often criticize ourselves for our evangelical individualism (rightly, in some ways), but the altar call at its best balanced the individual and the community. The invitation was that Jesus died not just for humanity abstractly but for you. At the same time, no one walking down that aisle was alone — a silently cheering cloud of witnesses was all around (and sometimes we kept an eye open to watch). More than that, at least in my church, that time at the end of the service was when people would go and silently kneel at the front. Sometimes this petitioner had a spouse grappling with alcoholism. Sometimes they had received a devastating prognosis from a doctor. No matter — there were always those who would slip out of their pews, gather around that person, and pray. […]

But as we look at an American Christianity adrift — with a pull for some to self-righteous self-confidence and for others to the despair of an uneasy conscience — perhaps we should ask how we can remind ourselves every week that Christ Jesus died for the ungodly.

7.  Finally, a glowing review of Low Anthropology appeared this week on Englewood Review that’s worth your time:

In each chapter, I found myself pausing to reflect on times in which I acted precisely in the ways he describes, by attempting to ignore my limitations, denying my own double-minded and conflicting desires, or simply putting myself at the center of my universe. What’s more, I was repeatedly “cut to the heart” as I recalled moments in which I contemptuously judged others for the very same behaviors. It’s not too dramatic to say reading Zahl’s account provoked my own repentance, and because of his gentle tone, a joyful repentance. This is how we react to good news.


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One response to “October 1-7”

  1. Jason says:

    That ‘Wakanda Forever’ trailer though…🔥

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