Another Week Ends

9/11 Remembrances, Aging and Listening, the Beauty of Being Humbled, and the John Mulaney Lie

CJ Green / 9.10.21

1. Twenty years after 9/11, a great number of powerful responses have been written. First I would like to point toward a couple from our own website, most recently Sarah Condon’s reflection on living in the aftermath of tragedy, both then and now.

I view the whole event so differently now. I do not see the politics, and I cannot buy into the resilient patriotism that came out of the disaster. I just see the people. I see the mothers who dropped their children off at daycare on the way to work. I wonder what they packed their little ones for lunch…

Only God seems to understand the specificity and magnitude of a sudden loss.

There is also the anonymous Reflections from the 73rd Floor, from 2011:

The man who shook us out of our shock to continue moving. The men who helped that woman on the 15th floor. I do not know if those men made it out of the building or not. They could have walked out like the rest us. Instead they helped someone not as healthy as themselves. The firemen, while trained for disaster and rushing into danger, had certainly never experienced anything like this before. Even the security guards; these were not high paying positions of public trust. These were the men who swiped our badges going into the building. … They risked their lives for acts of charity. It is hard to imagine a better portrait of the love that we Christians speak of.

Also check out David Zahl’s sermon, The Vulcan and the Red Bandana, about the firefighter Welles Crowther.

2. For PBS, Dan Cooney writes of the rebuilding of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Manhattan. Founded in 1916, St. Nicholas was the only place of worship completely destroyed in the 9/11 attacks.

Now, two decades later, the church is embarking on a resurrection of sorts. … More than 1,000 LED lights inside the newly-designed, domed sacred space will light up — creating a sort of beacon of hope and faith in lower Manhattan.

“We will turn on the lights of the church from within and the church will glow to the world,” said Archbishop Elpidophoros, the current leader of all Greek Orthodox Christians in the United States. …

It will be a place “where we hope people of all faiths, nationalities, races and religions from all over the world, by the millions, who go through Ground Zero, will walk into the church — whose doors will be open — light a candle and reflect in their own way on what occurred that day in our national shrine,” Psaros said.

One of the ways the shrine will depict this is through icons, which are colorful and symbolic images that depict Biblical scenes, events in the life of Jesus Christ, and an array of prophets and saints. Orthodox and early churches going back to the founding of Christianity have used icons.

“According to the tradition that we have in our church, all senses have to participate in prayer,” Archbishop Elpidophoros said. “The visual part of prayer is the icon. And the icon helps the faithful to focus on prayer when they are in the church.” …

In the Orthodox icon of the resurrection, Christ is depicted lifting Adam and Eve out of the depths of Hades. Joining them in the St. Nicholas version of the icon will be policemen, firefighters and other first responders who lost their lives on Sept. 11. The icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ child that is typically shown in the apse, the area behind the altar table in the sanctuary, will include art of the skyline of New York, the Statue of Liberty, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge and Ellis Island — the first stop for many Greek immigrants to the U.S.

3. At the Conversation, two researchers Chao Fang and Sam Carr conducted a sweeping analysis of loneliness and the aging experience. Compiling testimonies of the elderly, they examine how it feels to age, to survive unimaginable loss and change. The first quote here is incredible — intimate and so real:

For Peter, 83, the loss of his wife had created a painful void around feelings of touch and physical intimacy that had always made him feel less alone.

“I suppose all my life sex has been lovemaking. I mean, we are really getting personal now, but when my wife died, I missed that so, so much. It’s much more enjoyable in old age, you know, because, I mean, if I said it to you you’d think oh good grief, that horrible old body and all the spots and bumps and cuts and wounds and … takes off a wooden leg and … takes out the eye. Sorry [laughs] … But it’s not anything like that because you know you are in the same boat … you get round it, some peculiar way, you accept it all.”

Fang and Carr also explore some foundational difficulties in coming face-to-face with one’s suffering:

Older people born in the first half of the 20th century were unwittingly indoctrinated into the concept of the “stiff upper lip”. Through most of their lives – including wartime, peacetime employment, conscription to military service, and family life — there was a requirement to maintain high levels of cognitive control and low levels of emotional expression. … People said that wartime childhoods had “hardened them”, led to them suppressing deeper feelings and feeling the need to maintain a sense of composure and control. …

The piece ends with a note of hope — that much can be healed with a listening ear.

The Extraordinary Lives Project sought to listen to older people’s recollections, wisdom and reflections. Sharing these recollections with others, including younger generations, has been mutually beneficial and helped older people to feel that the lives they have lived counted for something.

There is also a need to consider how to support older people in relation to coping with some of the inevitable losses ageing creates that threaten their sense of connection to the world. Organisations seeking to connect people going through these struggles can play a role in developing a sense of “coping together”.

All this reminds me of something I read in Paul Zahl’s Peace in the Last Third of Life:

Good listening, empowered by the listener’s empathy of feeling, has the unique potential for getting your pain out, for getting you to ‘sick it out,’ in such a way that the bind it has on you loosens. In addition, when the primal pain starts to come out, not only does its present hold on you relax; but often it begins to appear, in the light of day, to be not quite the terminating fiery goblin you thought it was. Its hold gets loosened, by means of exposure to the light. Its power — both in itself and in the power you have been giving to it in your mind — diminishes. … (p. 59)

Boomer, find a good listener, especially if you are all alone. Good listeners are few and far between, but they exist. There may be one next door. There is probably one at church. […]

But everybody else, you take some time now to listen to a Boomer! He or she probably has a lot to say and almost no one to whom to say it. You cannot do a greater service to a Boomer than just to listen to him. (101)

4. Lots of headlines about John Mulaney this week. Let’s start with his excellent interview with Seth Meyers, who conducted an intervention last fall for the suddenly controversial stand-up. Mulaney says this at the end:

“You guys saved me from drugs, and Olivia and this baby have helped save me from myself, and this early journey out of recovery… I’m really grateful for you buddy.”

But wait, rehab? Salvation from self? Divorce? New relationship, and a baby? This is not coming from the self-deprecating but seemingly optimistic and basically innocent Mulaney many have presumed to know, and fans have been expressing shock and confusion about “the John Mulaney lie.”

At Vox, Aja Romano summed it all up pretty nicely: “every celebrity exists both as themselves and as the symbol they represent … Mulaney’s nice-guy schtick was probably always doomed to lead to disappointment.”

“They’re all uncomfortable to be,” he told Seth Meyers when Meyers asked him if post-rehab Mulaney was “the hardest version of John Mulaney to be.” He described the experience as like standing on “Bambi legs” — a predictably cute, Mulaney-ish way of describing a complicated new situation.

However, if the public allows Mulaney to reinvent himself, to have a significant say in the next iteration of his collectively constructed public persona, it probably won’t be as a winsome newborn babe in the woods. It will likely, instead, be a much different, darker, and perhaps even humbler version of the impossibly perfect symbol we thought we knew.

5. As for humor, this quiz made me laugh: “Your Mom’s Advice About Dating Or Constipation?” Dumb. Funny.

For satire, there is also “‘At Least I’m Self Aware!’ Explains Friend Who Is Aware Of Wrong Toxic Trait.

6. When I saw the preview for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, I was full of suspicion. Though it features Jessica Chastain (always great) and Andrew Garfield (the suffering priest of Silence), it just seems way too easy to lampoon televangelists. But I was softened by this sympathetic interview with Garfield.

“My only caveat was ‘I’m not going to be a mustache-twirling villain.’ [Chastain] said, ‘Of course not. I want you to do this because you’ll make him a full person.’ We weren’t looking to make fun of anybody or do anything but tell an essential truth about their dynamic. The universality of their story and how we can all get lost and follow the wrong god. And how beautiful it is to be humbled.”

[Jim] Bakker was certainly humbled.

Garfield continues:

“The pervading religion right now is prosperity. Look at any social media platform; it’s no accident. Jim and Tammy were the first reality show couple. They announced births and had family Christmases on the air. They were pre-Kardashian Kardashians,” he says. “Look at these megachurches now; it’s alive and well. It’s all prosperity doctrine. ‘I am enough if I have this.’ That is what fascinated me about Jim, and it was painful to play: inhabiting that space of total dependence on something that is undependable and calling it God.”

Around this time, Garfield suffered the loss of his mother. His recent performances were “colored by the loss of his mother and the preciousness of life.”

“The good news about me and her is that we left nothing unsaid,” Garfield says. “We had all the quality time we could possibly have while she was here. And those last two weeks I got to be with her were probably the most profound two weeks of my life. To be with her and my dad and my brother, all of her friends, my nephews. It was full of grace in the midst of the terrible tragedy.”

7. For Persuasion, Zaid Jilani wrote a concise, firm treatise against schadenfreude — especially of a political nature. “The German word ‘schadenfreude,’” he explains, “means experiencing satisfaction from someone else’s misfortune.” It is “generally viewed as a vice… we know that it isn’t healthy to take too much pleasure in someone else’s pain.” But when this feeling becomes political? It’s almost too tempting to resist.

We’ve seen a lot of political schadenfreude during the pandemic. As hundreds of thousands of Americans have perished from COVID-19, political partisans have taken to exploiting some of these deaths to engage in grave-dancing by publicly shaming or humiliating people whom they perceived to have been reckless during the pandemic.

This grave-dancing is most apparent on social media, a medium where users are incentivized to post about their out-groups, particularly in moralizing language.  …

Taking pleasure in the pain of people who annoy you is fun. Our brains are hard-wired to enjoy it. But it’s not always humane or compassionate, especially in the face of a pandemic or a murder wave.

There is a reason our greatest traditions, both religious and secular, tell us to love our enemies. That imperative is particularly important in the face of rising social and political polarization. The people opposite us in our big debates are our fellow citizens, and they deserve respect.

To put it theologically, this is a clear example of a law — a moral demand — that is both good and something of which we will all fall far short. Not cause for despair, but for relying more fully on the grace of God.

8. Lastly, the scholar John G. Stackhouse, Jr. wrote an excellent disputation against beauty. He makes his point with fruits and veggies. Picture the produce section at the grocery store: tons of apples, carefully arranged, shiny, red, visually perfect, and also “leathery” and tasteless.

Beauty in a mixed-up world no longer can reliably testify to anything other than itself. And it might well disguise something actually bad — like those indestructible and inedible apples.

So here’s to ugly cucumbers, tomatoes, and all the rest — not because they’re ugly, as if that were now a virtue, but because they can yet be good vegetables: tasty and nutritious.