Another Week Ends

Languishing, Horror Movies, Conspirituality, Existentialist Life Hacks, the Quittin’ Spirit, and Dune

CJ Green / 10.22.21

1. If/when appraising “self-care” (an easy target for criticism online), one should first disclaim that it is, at least, kinder than its predecessor: Whereas “self-help” left hurting people with endless demands and books to buy, “self-care” says, at its best, do less. It’s about taking “me time” — maybe a warm bath, a cup of tea, an evening off to watch Ted Lasso… Good as it is, though, self-care can’t cure everything, and when it becomes your constant medication, things get a leeetle bit tricky.

As Jamil Zaki says in the Atlantic, for most people, the predominant issue of the pandemic is no longer “intense distress” (for which self-care can help) but rather the feeling of “languishing” — a lower register of depression and loneliness.

though self-care soothes, it can be too individualistic to help with loneliness. “Me time” is great, truly, but human flourishing is typically out there with everyone else. … Another approach—one that has been shown in years of research to bolster people’s sense of self — is to show up for others. […]

The punch line is simple: Giving boosts meaning in good times, and might be a salve against languishing in tough ones. Here’s the problem: Many people don’t seem to get this. Individuals wrongly predict that spending time, money, and energy on themselves will make them more fulfilled than spending those resources on others. When they act on these illusions, ironically they can deepen languishing and loneliness. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior can intensify when people most need human connection. For instance, individuals who feel lonely or depressed tend to turn inward, focusing less on others, which leaves them even more disconnected over time.

St. Paul advised this: “in humility value others above yourselves.” Millennia later it continues to be excellent life instruction. But Zaki investigates how this plays out in practice. Considering parents, teachers, and nurses (full-time “careworkers”), he wonders, “Other-care has caused our burnout; how could it possibly be a cure?” The answer? It depends “on how we think about it.” When it comes to caring for others, our “inner judgments” — our motivations — matter. Whether we offer ourselves out of obligation, guilt, or genuine love impacts not only our personal wellbeing but also our overall helpfulness. “Ultimately, the line between self-care and other-care is blurrier than we might realize. People are psychologically intertwined, such that helping others is a kindness to ourselves and watching over ourselves supports others.”

2. Another way to protect against anxiety and distress? Horror movies. “Whaa?” Don’t believe me — take it from “full-time horror researcher” Mathias Clasen, whose studies suggest that:

people who suffer from anxiety disorders can find comfort in horror movies, presumably because these movies allow them to experience negative emotions in controlled and controllable doses, practise regulation strategies, and ultimately build resilience. …

People who watched many horror movies reported less psychological distress in response to COVID-19 lockdowns than those who avoid horror movies. … Horror movies, then, can function as inoculation against the stresses and terrors of the world. They help us improve our coping skills, and they might function as a kind of enjoyable exposure therapy.

On the Mockingbird website, Trevor Almy once wrote of exactly this. Horror simulates worst-case scenarios with virtually no risk and — better — it’s often a communal experience. “That this occurs in a colosseum of onlookers,” Trevor wrote, “is all the more humanizing.” Clasen again:

My colleagues and I see this all the time in our haunted house research. People go through the attraction with strangers. They seem nervous and fidgety before they enter; 50 minutes later, they come stumbling out of the haunted house, sweating, chatting and laughing like old friends.

3. In the Guardian, Eva Wiseman writes of “conspirituality” (this was a new term for me): the melding of conspiratorial thinking and pseudo-spirituality, of far-right QAnonism and a more lefty wellness culture. At first seemingly incompatible, they both defy the “established authority” and attempt to disentangle truth from pervasive lies. Wiseman mentions the Conspirituality podcast, which:

is dense and fascinating, and moves in and out of topics alternately Instagramable and apocalyptic within two breaths. Certain thoughts stay with me. “If you keep getting enlightened, are you ever really enlightened? When you attempt to integrate a holistic practice into a capitalist society, more is always demanded.” And, “Conspirituality is an ideology, but it’s also a financial racket and it’s also a way of being with other people.”

Not unrelated: “Man Trusts No One Except Everyone on Reddit.”

4. Fave humor from this week has to be “My Existentialist Life Hacks“:

Six words: Tony Robbins, Brené Brown, Eckhart Tolle. Six more: Don’t want ’em, don’t need ’em. My true life coach is any toddler who is crying hysterically, ever reminding me that life is a disorienting hellhole that defies explanation.

5. You can hardly get more existential than wondering: What even is a person? Seems at once a humorously simple question and an impossible one — yet the answer impacts entire ethical/moral frameworks. The bioethicist Xavier Symons takes predominant assumptions to task, describing them this way:

Modern philosophy has a highly cognitive conception of what it means to be a person. Personhood has come to be associated more with what a person can do, rather than who they are. [These definitions] focus on cognitive capacities like self-consciousness, sentience, rationality, and autonomy.

The problem, Symons recognizes, is that this approach excludes those with cognitive impairment, like dementia, which more than 6 million Americans have.

If we are to value the lives of people with dementia, we must move beyond a conception of “I think, therefore I am” and replace it with a less exclusionary conception of personhood. … We should, in other words, move beyond the Enlightenment preoccupation whereby one’s ability to know and master the world is a measure of one’s humanity. We should also reject a neo-liberal conception of personhood that reduces the concept to an individual’s productivity. […]

We ought to approach all persons with a kind of reverence, knowing that we are in the presence of something mysterious. The mystery is arguably greater in the case of people living with dementia, given their circumstances and the at times devastating impacts of cognitive decline. Yet perhaps their personhood and mode of being is deserving of greater reverence for this very reason.

Ludwig Wittgenstein described the unique ways in which human beings relate to each other as “an attitude towards a soul”. This phrase provides a concise summary of the kind of attitude we ought to adopt toward people experiencing the effects of advanced dementia. We need to look beyond the external markers of personhood that we usually rely on, and instead focus on the inexhaustibly rich and unrepeatable character of the human soul.

6. After years of writing about workism (aka “the religion of work” aka “the Protestant work ethic”), we are today seeing a strange amount of not-work — and an attendant panic about it. At the Atlantic, Derek Thompson, coiner of the term ‘workism,’ now writes of a “Great Resignation”: “Nearly 7 percent of employees in the ‘accommodations and food services’ sector left their job in August,” he says. There may be a temptation to see this as laziness or sloth, but Thompson sees something else:

… quitting is a concept typically associated with losers and loafers. But this level of quitting is really an expression of optimism that says, We can do better. You may have heard the story that in the golden age of American labor, 20th-century workers stayed in one job for 40 years and retired with a gold watch. But that’s a total myth. The truth is people in the 1960s and ’70s quit their jobs more often than they have in the past 20 years, and the economy was better off for it. Since the 1980s, Americans have quit less, and many have clung to crappy jobs for fear that the safety net wouldn’t support them while they looked for a new one. But Americans seem to be done with sticking it out. And they’re being rewarded for their lack of patience: Wages for low-income workers are rising at their fastest rate since the Great Recession. The Great Resignation is, literally, great. […]

Leisure and hospitality workers might be saying “to hell with this” on account of Americans deciding to behave like a pack of escaped zoo animals. Call it the Great Rudeness. … Cabin-fevered and filled with rage, American customers have poured into the late-pandemic economy with abandon, like the unfurling of so many angry pinched hoses. I don’t blame thousands of servers and clerks for deciding that suffering nonstop rudeness should never be a job requirement.

7. Saw Dune last night. Very good — and terribly sad that it’s only Part One. Exiting the theater, I heard unanimous ripples of praise. With that in mind, I wanted to highlight my buddy Zack Verham’s essay “The Gospel According to Dune,” written in response to the film’s promo buzz last year. You might already know that Herbert’s masterwork relies heavily on religious references, Christian and otherwise. But Zack (who liked Dune before it was cool) says the story best illuminates Christianity inversely:

Paul becomes a pseudo-messianic figure, referred to as either the Kwisatz Haderach or Muad’Dib by various factions in the Dune universe. … he fulfills various messianic prophecies among the battle-hardened native peoples known as the Fremen. These prophecies, however, were planted on Dune generations ago by the same faction that has created Paul through centuries of careful genetic sculpting by way of cross-marriages between powerful feudal houses. Paul is the culmination of a grand genetic experiment which attempted to “create” a messiah. This process is completely outside of his control, and through the effects of his lineage he is able to enter Dune as its Christ figure …

Paul’s messiahship is pretty explicitly (and I believe at least somewhat intentionally) the photo-negative of the Christian messiah. Paul becomes the political and military messiah that Jesus explicitly refuses to be, and he leads a terrible trans-planetary military conquest by the end of the novel, rising up “against the Romans,” in the Biblical imagery. Similarly, Paul obviously rules “from above” when he usurps the imperial throne at the end of the novel, rather than “alongside of” or “below” as Jesus does while he ministers in Palestine among the poor and outcast.

8. Last but not least, Giles Fraser, comin’ in hot with a fantastic write-up on the seemingly disparate characters of God. It’s great theology in deceptively straightforward terms. To wit:

It is a cliché — and indeed an antisemitic trope (See Richard Dawkins) — to compare the violent austere God of the Old Testament to the loving warm and cuddly God of the New Testament as captured in the person of Jesus. Old Testament bad, New Testament good — that’s not Christianity btw.

But nonetheless, the central dynamic of Christianity is to be found in the interplay between immanence and transcendence, between the God who draws near and the God who is far off. And far off isn’t a bad thing. This is the God who hovered over creation at the beginning of time. The is the God of the unknown, the one who rather put Job in his place by saying that there are some things that will always be beyond his understanding. This is the God of the God’s eye view, looking at things from the widest possible perspective. This also is the mystical God of silence, there in the still small voice of calm. For Jews, this God is not even to be named. He is known as “Hashem”, the name. This is the God who hides his face from Moses.

Christianity doesn’t resile from any of this. But adds something shockingly different. God is manifest in a particular person, with a name and a face. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He is down-to-earth (quite literally) and makes God relatable in a whole new way. Jesus is God, and Jesus is my friend.

For the first 400 years of the church’s history, it struggled to express how both of these perspectives could be true at once, how God could be both near and far, immanent and transcendent. And what it came up with was the doctrine of the Trinity, not so much an answer to how these different perspectives co-exist, but rather a firm commitment to the idea that neither could be given up without giving up the heart of what it was to be a Christian. The Trinity is not any sort of philosophical answer but a kind of regulative guide to what orthodox Christianity looks like. “But play you must a tune beyond us, yet ourselves,” wrote Wallace Stephens. It’s a bit like that.

Strays:

  • Two new releases for your consideration: Lowland Hum’s latest album (out today)! Also, a new collection of poems, Trespassing on the Mount of Olives, from the OG Mockingbird poetry editor Brad Davis. Looks excellent!
  • Some remarkable photography here.
  • None too sure about this new Batman movie. Not to be confused with a superhero buff, I am just one man who still finds the Nolan trilogy iconic, and this seems not nearly as worthwhile.

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