Another Week Ends

Grief in the Workplace, Anti-Anti-natalism, Authentic College Essays, Technoboosting Spirituality, and the Feast of (Imperfect) Saints

Bryan J. / 11.5.21

1. For those of you who attend more liturgical churches on Sundays, you’ll likely be celebrating the Feast of All Saints this week. Apart from the white table linens and once-a-year hymns, the purpose of the feast is to give Christians a chance to acknowledge and remember those who have died in the Lord in the past year. In my opinion, All Saints is a real gift: where else can you set aside the time to remember with gratitude those who loved you well and acknowledge that the grief still lingers from their loss?

Certainly not your job. Chad Broughton highlights as much over at the Atlantic, arguing that “The American Workplace Isn’t Prepared for This Much Grief.” The article is political — Broughton is arguing for more stringent, federally enforced bereavement policy. Agree or disagree with him, but the politics aren’t the highlight: it’s Broughton’s observation that America’s obsession with work and it’s deep resistance to public grief are intertwined:

The U.S. has some of the most stringent social norms of any country regarding grief, according to Alan Wolfelt, the founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. Wolfelt calls this the “North American resolution wish,” or the idea that grief can be linear, quick, and efficient. After people have only a few days off, he told me over the phone, it’s time to go back to work, “buck up and carry on and keep your chin up.” And that’s if a company even offers bereavement leave, which for many employers is unpaid. As a result of the pandemic, some experts forecast that the incidence of prolonged-grief disorder — grief that is persistent, pervasive, and interferes with a person’s functioning — could rise dramatically. “For many people,” Wolfelt said, processing their loss has “only just begun in that first 12 months.” […]

The prioritization of work over grief is ensconced in federal employment law. The Fair Labor Standards Act, the foundation of U.S. labor policy, does not require employers to provide paid leave, including vacation time, time to convalesce, or time to plan or attend a funeral. That stands in contrast to countries such as France, Japan, and New Zealand, which all have laws (with varying conditions) that require employees be given between two and five days of paid time off after a familial death. In the U.S., just three states have passed their own policies, also with conditions, such as business size and length of employment.

Grief is such a wild and untamed state. I can’t help but wonder if so many pandemic era’s vocational unrest — labor strikes, mask tantrums, “the Great Resignation” — are the outworking of grief in rebellion against the expectations of work. And if grief is your state right now, may I commend to you a solid All Saints service this Sunday?

Along the lines of all things All Saints, there’s Tish Harrison Warren’s phenomenal New York Times column, “We Remember Saints Because They’re a Lot Like Us“:

In a cultural moment when we want to divide all people and institutions neatly into “good guys” and “bad guys,” those on the right side of history and those who aren’t, the righteous and the damned, this day reminds us of the checkered and complicated truth of each human heart. Martin Luther gave us the helpful phrase “simul justus et peccator” — simultaneously saint and sinner. It names how we are holy and wayward at once. It proclaims a paradox that we are redeemed yet in need of redemption.

All Saints’ Day reminds me that God meets us, saints and sinners, despite our contradictions, and makes good out of haphazard lives. It tells me that all of us, even the best of us, are in need of unimaginable mercy and forgiveness. The church is “first and foremost, a community of forgiven sinners,” writes the theologian Gilbert Meilaender. It is not “a community that embodies the practices of perfection” but instead “a body of believers who still live ‘in the flesh,’ who are still part of the world, suffering the transformations effected by God’s grace on its pilgrim way.” Recalling the stories of saints is, in the end, a celebration not of perfection but of grace.

2. Nobody is arguing against Charles Taylor anymore: the secular age values authenticity. Nowhere has this trend become more evident (and absurd) than in the pressure cooker of college admissions. The SAT and ACT scores are out; nowadays, it’s all about the personal essay. On the one hand, that’s not so bad: the pressure cookers of standardized testing was never a full expression of a student’s gifts and talents. But the flip side of the equation can be an even worse for students. Joseph E. Davis at the Hedgehog Review outlines the song-and-dance that prospective students must go through when they are not judged by their ability, but their whole identity, through the evermore important personal essay:

The performance of authenticity is complicated because the application essay involves mixed messages, some of which don’t easily mix. “The goal of the personal statement,” according to the prep service Kaplan, “is to show the reader your unique character and traits.” Your “unique qualities will shine through,” states The Princeton Review, if you’re “honest and genuine.” But being different from others is not enough; one’s uniqueness must count. It only matters if what is special or meaningful about you demonstrates that you have more to offer than the next candidate. You are trying to “distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool.” And, unfortunately, the others all have unique qualities too. Your authenticity, your specific difference, must lift you above them, into that coveted file marked “exactly who we’ve been looking for.”

Further into the essay, Davis outlines how students are judged less for their authentic self (which is not a particularly welcome secular idea) and more on their self-knowledge. Just how aware of their authenticity are they?

If the self, presented as authentic, cannot be judged, how, then, can admissions officers read essays and render verdicts on them? How, that is, do essay readers read them, especially when the writing is reasonably crisp, and the self is portrayed in a pleasingly crafted fashion? Their reading, I propose, is guided by the composition theory known as expressivism. The criterion of quality in this perspective, argues the rhetorician Adam Ellwanger, “is the depth of the engagement of the author with herself.” The self is sacrosanct, beyond judgment, but what can be judged in this method of reading is “the self’s judging of the self.”

What makes this possibility compelling is that the content of the personal essay is largely focused on self-transformation. Although there are different “prompts” that students can write on, they share a common theme: They require students to reflect on a meaningful experience—encountering an obstacle, solving a problem, questioning a belief — that affected them and brought about some personal development, insight, or new perspective. According to the prep advisers, the personal essay is a place to display your “personal growth,” “self-awareness,” capacity for “introspection,” and ability to “explore the significance” of the story you tell.

The self-judgment that colleges judge is a particular type of personal transformation, a “metanoic conversion,” to use one of Ellwanger’s concepts. “Metanoia,” literally “afterthought,” he explains, is a decisive change of heart or thinking; it is the experience of “a transformation of being,” an alteration of personal ethos or identity. This form of change or “conversion” involves a negation, a moving away from a prior self that was deficient in some way. In the context of the personal essay, as the sample essays provided by the prep consultants reveal, that prior condition or state might be ignorance, self-doubt, naiveté, provincialism, misguided behavior, or, well, the possibilities are endless. The prior self, per se, is not the key; the crux is the change in orientation. The evaluation of the essays centers on how students present the critical distancing, the finding, in institutionally congruent ways, of their motivation and their “voice.”

If you’re not a Bible languages person, you might not know that this Greek word metanoia is found 34 times in the New Testament, and is primarily translated as the word “repent.” In a world that cannot judge someone based on their identities, the college admissions process has turned to judging people based on the quality and authenticity of their repentance.

And look reader: I have been in plenty of churches that welcomed everyone regardless of their identity but judged the hell out of them about the quality of their repentance. It’s miserable and a recipe for emotional and spiritual disaster. Go find and hug a high school senior.

3. I have very little patience for the anti-natalists (anti-kids) in the news today, which is a struggle because it’s a very hip ideology. Kids are bad for the environment. Kids are bad for your finances. Kids are bad for your marriage. Most famously as of late, kids make you less happy. Google it yourself — the articles are out there. So I was happy to find Paul Bloom making a pull in the opposite direction this week in The Atlantic, articulating, as Switchfoot so memorably sang back in 2005, that ♪ Happy is a Yuppie Word. ♪

Children make some happy and others miserable; the rest fall somewhere in between — it depends, among other factors, on how old you are, whether you are a mother or a father, and where you live. But a deep puzzle remains: Many people would have had happier lives and marriages had they chosen not to have kids — yet they still describe parenthood as the “best thing they’ve ever done.” Why don’t we regret having children more? […]

There’s more to life than happiness. When I say that raising my sons is the best thing I’ve ever done, I’m not saying that they gave me pleasure in any simple day-to-day sense, and I’m not saying that they were good for my marriage. I’m talking about something deeper, having to do with satisfaction, purpose, and meaning. It’s not just me. When you ask people about their life’s meaning and purpose, parents say that their lives have more meaning than those of nonparents. A study by the social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues found that the more time people spent taking care of children, the more meaningful they said their life was—even though they reported that their life was no happier.

Raising children, then, has an uncertain connection to pleasure but may connect to other aspects of a life well lived, satisfying our hunger for attachment, and for meaning and purpose. The writer Zadie Smith puts it better than I ever could, describing having a child as a “strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.” Smith, echoing the thoughts of everyone else who has seriously considered these issues, points out the risk of close attachments: “Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation?” But this annihilation reflects the extraordinary value of such attachments; as the author Julian Barnes writes of grief, quoting a friend, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.”

Meaning > Happiness, any day and every day. And I guess when I hear certain quarters of the internet evaluating childrearing through the calculus of happiness, I want to send them that Switchfoot song to listen to (presumably while they’re grading college admissions essays I guess?). It’s of no small coincidence that “be fruitful and multiply” is in the first chapter of the good book. Kids are the best, even if they don’t make you happy. Come at me.

4. In humor this week, I was called out in the Onion this week when they reported “Lowly 9-Year-Olds Gaze Longingly At Elite Few Chosen To Bowl In Birthday Boy’s Lane.”

“They booked three whole lanes, but Tyler and Eli and Sam get to bowl with Brian,” said Simon Jennings, part of the lowly band of 9-year-olds who could only stare in wonder at the elect group from their humble spot three lanes down at Sunset Bowl, knowing they were nothing before the glorious spectacle of mirth that was one of the hallowed boys entertaining Caldwell by placing a bowling ball under his shirt and pretending to be pregnant.

Been there. Also on this All Saints holiday, The Bard himself returns from the grave with a simple request: “Stop Letting High Schoolers Put On Productions of Macbeth.”

No offense, but my play isn’t exactly light fare, okay? Lady Macbeth goes insane with guilt and then dies by suicide. Multiple people are murdered, including children. My show is heavy with the weight of gore and bloodlust. And yet some of these schools go from putting on a production of my somber tragedy in the fall to putting on Grease in the spring. Grease! A musical that has the lyrics “Shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom.” Do you know how hard I worked on the pacing and structure of every line of Macbeth? Every word was intentional! And then to see it replaced on a marquee by a show that made its lyrics by putting a bunch of letters in a blender and then simply using that word pulp … Frankly, it’s embarrassing for everyone involved.

On the more R-Rated side there’s: “I Know I Wasn’t Supposed to Tell Hannibal Lecter About My Personal Life, but I’m Not Used to Men Being Such Good Listeners” and “3 Moments of Happiness to Enjoy Before the End of Daylight Savings […] Destroys You” are good for laughs too. Also: ♫Existential Crisis♫ and the forgiveness of Steve Bartman.

5. Questions of neurochemistry, spiritual experience, and technology are tough to write about in a week-end wrap-up column. At the same time, I sometimes wonder how similar my Christian spiritual experiences in prayer are to the guy who just returned from an ayahuasca retreat in Costa Rica. As science and technology continue to probe the mysteries of our neurochemistry, there’s a conflict brewing between faith and control. That’s purposeful language: I don’t think that the power of technology and psychedelic medicine to induce psycho-spiritual experience would cause me to doubt God’s existence. Jesus rose from the dead — of that I am convinced.

The deeper question arises when we have the power to induce psycho-spiritual experiences on ourselves — to use “technoboosts” like ultrasounds or electric stimulus or psychedelics to push the reset buttons in our brains that have heretofore been the providence of God. I found  New Technologies Are Promising a Shortcut to Enlightenment.

When people first hear about technoboosts for enlightenment, there’s a tendency to think that using technology to induce spiritual experiences is a totally new phenomenon — and that therefore a tech-induced experience is not “authentic” spirituality.

Thompson says both those premises are wrong. For one thing, people have been using tech to induce altered states of consciousness for millennia. We may not be used to thinking of tools like prayer wheels, mandalas, rosaries, or rhythmic drumming in shamanic dances as spiritual technologies, but that’s exactly what they are.

Plus, Thompson told me, “I think authenticity is a very misleading concept.” […]

A related concern about some technoboosts is that perhaps they only lead to temporary changes — altered states, but not altered traits. If their consequences fade away within hours or days, how much good does that really do?

“It is possible just to have experiences that are something like transitory highs,” Wildman told me. But they can incentivize you to develop a continuous practice. “These incredibly powerful experiences can completely change your willingness to take on something like that.” […]

Thompson, for his part, worries that such technoboosts might be counterproductive rather than beneficial — if, for example, the way the technology mediates the experience of meditation reinforces the ego tendencies that meditation is meant to alleviate. This is his concern about all the gamification the Muse app displays, from telling you when you’ve achieved a streak of consecutive days to rewarding you with bird chirps when you’ve stayed calm long enough.

“It builds up a sense of a performative, successful self,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh look, I’ve meditated a hundred days in a row now!’ It’s not only distraction, it actually reinforces precisely the thing that you’re trying to get beyond.”

If the technoboosting crowd is already trying to preempt its solutions from becoming one-off mountaintop experiences or exploring how to make the practice less ego-centered, that’s encouraging to me. It just goes to highlight the limits of this technology in the same way that retreats and prayer and rosaries and quiet times have their limits as well. Enlightenment is fine and helpful, as are all spiritual disciplines, but none of them are a substitute for a savior.

6. This Reformation Day-Meets-Twitter essay from Carl Trueman in First Things is equally helpful in its vocational and devotional insights, and not just because I’m the guy behind Mockingbird’s tweets. Flame-war pamphlets may have moved the masses in the sixteenth century, but it’s the essays, books, and treatises that turned the madness into the movement.

As a Protestant, I rejoice that the Reformers carried the day in many places, with their appropriate emphasis on biblical authority, divine grace, and the finished work of Christ. They recovered the gospel and paved the way for many of the freedoms we in the West now take for granted. But I am not naïve enough to believe that they won simply by force of argument. Few people would have had the background to understand the issues, and that would have applied to many subsequent debates, particularly regarding the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Few members of the populace could actually read. So what made the Reformation a popular success in so many places?

There is no simple answer to this, but a key element was the pamphlet war: the production of short, cheap, polemical publications, often illustrated with woodcuts, that served to shape the mind of the populace. Both Protestants and Catholics engaged in this pamphlet war, which was perhaps the first battle for the popular mind in Western history. What is interesting about these pamphlets is that they were not in general designed to seek and establish truth, but rather to discredit the opposition. […]

Twitter not only persists, it is popular. Even intelligent people use it. Why? Part of the answer is surely this: It fulfills the same function as Reformation pamphlets. It does not seriously engage with the arguments of the perceived foe; it seeks to discredit those arguments—not by engaging them, but by indulging in the far lazier and far more effective strategy of discrediting the character of the person making the arguments. Thus when we mistake Twitter as a medium for truth, we are in trouble. Insults are seen as argument, slander as reality, superficiality as depth. […]

One last thought: the Reformation, Protestant and Catholic, may have been fueled by pamphlets. But who, beyond a small group of scholars, reads those pamphlets today? To the rest of us they are, at best, the throwaway productions of a bygone age, at worst an example of the way in which human beings can treat each other with pride and venom and no concern for the truth. The works that really counted — Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian, Calvin’s Institutes, Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, Bellarmine’s Disputations — continue to shape how Christian leaders approach the faith and teach it to their congregations. And those writings could not be encapsulated in pamphlet form. There is a lesson there for those of us who have eyes to see.

Strays:

An All Saint’s Day reflection on the death of the Rev. Thomas McKenize over at Rabbit Room. “He told us that one of the great things about a liturgical church is that he could die and be replaced, because, at least in theory, priests have interchangeable heads. Emphasis on “in theory.”

• “Jesus died in the blackest way possible / with his hands up and his mama there watching him.” Suffering and Theodicy in Hip-Hop over at Christ & Pop Culture

• “So, in celebration of Reformation Sunday I would like to offer us a field guide for spotting the difference between Law and Gospel” — A Reformation Sunday sermon from Nadia Bolz-Webber

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