Another Week Ends

Mommy Juice, Prioritizing Affection, Celebrity Teeth, Shrugging at the World, and the Sufferings Jesus

Todd Brewer / 9.15.23

When grace, generosity, and mercy form the core of one’s understanding of life and God, this almost always raises the usual objections that this ignores the ethical side of Christianity. Believe in grace too much and what’s to stop you from becoming a jerk to everyone? The moral framework of Christian faith, it is said, provides a template for navigating moral quandaries. Indeed, the humility and obedient self-giving of Jesus are simultaneously a model of Christian virtue and the gift that enables its recipients to be more humble, obedient, and self-giving (Phl 2). Yes, and amen.

But at the same time, it’s also impossible to overemphasize grace precisely because the stakes are far too high to do otherwise. Step outside the church bubble and it’s a jungle out there, a jungle where people actually live. Because for all the cultural emphasis of self-care or being kind to yourself, there is an unrelenting perfectionism that will always have the final word. In ways that exceed conscious assent, Christian or otherwise, the voice of never-good-enough can never be drowned out.

1. Take, for example, dental hygiene. An admittedly innocuous start, but by the end you’ll be reaching for your toothbrush. I’m sure you’ve noticed how perfectly white and straight celebrity teeth are nowadays. As told by Jessica Goldstein in the Washington Post, so has Sara Hahn, the specialist in cosmetic dentistry behind the viral Tiktok @veneercheck. “Perfect” teeth, accomplished through the dramatic surgical procedure, are the now the norm.

All of these altered smiles — the afters in Sands’s binder, the carousels of crowns on Hahn’s TikTok — seen one after the other after the other, start to take on a vaguely ominous bent. These perfect, inhuman teeth embody a phenomenon that I am calling “hotness creep.”

Hotness here is emphatically not about beauty — which is rooted in nature and often results from an unexpectedly pleasing assembly of imperfections — and it’s not about being sexy: messy, raw and alive. Hotness, by this definition, cannot be achieved through regular means, e.g. a combination of genetic luck, fitness and nutrition; hotness here must be bought and rigorously maintained through laborious, expensive and possibly dangerous upkeep.

Hotness creep is about that algorithmic tug toward sameness. Hotness creep is aggressively bland. Hotness creep is to actual beauty what ChatGPT is to literature. Hotness creep is a body whose every facet has been “optimized” through a cosmetic, capitalist intervention, which is why its most high-profile practitioners look less like people than android-esque approximations of people, as if they are wearing a filter full-time. Hotness creep is why everybody traded in their natural bone structure for “Instagram face.” Hotness creep is a face that doubles as a proof of purchase. Hotness creep is why so many nepo babies look like yassified versions of their parents. It’s appealing the same way a McMansion is appealing — a house that does not look “good” but does look expensive and, crucially, like every other McMansion.

The beauty ideal [is] becoming increasingly inhuman,” said Jessica DeFino, beauty industry reporter and author of the newsletter the Unpublishable.The standard that’s being reflected is not a marker of human health or even human possibility. It’s very marked by machinery and technological intervention … [and] visual signals that someone has attained a certain level of wealth and power.

Heath Ledger (RIP) might have been a heartthrob in the 1999 film Ten Things I Hate About You, but today his pearly grays wouldn’t have gotten him past the casting call. And if Health Ledger wouldn’t stand a chance, imagine how insecure everyone else feels about their smiles. We can laugh at the trend as much as we want, or perhaps sneer at the ridiculousness of what rich people spend their money on. But there’s a reason why you probably now own teeth whitening toothpaste.

2. Of course, not everyone has 100k to drop on cosmetic dentistry to expiate their guilt. Alcohol, by contrast, is dirt cheap and abundant. Which is precisely where many women today turn to stave off the day’s anxieties. I say women, specifically, because there is a stark gender divide in drinking habits when it comes to dealing with stress. Writing the Atlantic, Olga Khazan argues that “Mommy Juice” is far more than a meme.

Problem drinking has risen fastest among women in their 30s and 40s, the age at which many are squeezed between careers, motherhood, and aging parents. Overwhelmingly, high-income, highly educated women are the ones who drink. This may seem odd because high-income women should be better able to afford help with child care, chores, and other responsibilities that can cause stress. But although this group has more resources, the standards for child-rearing, housing, and career achievements in this cohort are also ratcheting ever higher. […]

In the short term, alcohol can be extremely soothing; it mimics the effect of a relaxing brain chemical called GABA. “It’s taking you out of your head a little bit,” Patock-Peckham said. “You’re not going to be overthinking things.” But the effect is short-lived: When someone who has been drinking starts to sober up, levels of GABA in the brain go down, and excitatory chemicals like glutamate and cortisol rise, so people wind up feeling more anxious in the aftermath. Drinking is merely borrowing happiness from tomorrow, as the aphorism goes.

Still, many people use drinking to erase a stressful day and ease into the evening. Ann Dowsett Johnston, the author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, describes a typical night back when she used to drink: She’d race in from a hard day at the office and, staring down several hours of cooking and child care, immediately pour herself a cold glass of Pinot Grigio. Once, her fiancé pointed out that the fridge was open before her coat was off. “We see the aim for perfectionism on the part of women,” says Johnston, who is now a psychotherapist, “and then we see self-medication of largely depression, anxiety. It’s an exit strategy; it’s a way to numb.”

Khazan suggests that easy fix would be to make life easier for women. More childcare, cheap healthcare, balanced gender norms — more help fulfilling perfectionism’s demands. That might sound nice to some, but it doesn’t address how these ideals are self-imposed and even desired. It was the 16th century reformer Martin Luther who wrote, “The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it.” To not seek daily expiation in the form of a bottle of wine, but a place where the guilt of imperfection is embraced.

Men, for their part, seem to deal with their stress by talking about the Roman Empire. Poor chaps. If only they knew how merciless it really was.

3. If the Moms aren’t alright, the kids aren’t faring any better either. Actually, the two are probably intertwined. Stressed-out parents have a trickle down effect on kids, who are simultaneously inundated with their own pressures to achieve. Get the right grades, have the right extracurriculars, don’t get pregnant, be that special person whose uniqueness will change the world. You know, easy stuff, right? And on this subject, Jennifer Breheny Wallace’s new book Never Enough is a proverbial gold mine. Seriously, the Mbird office has been buzzing its release. Breheny Wallace takes aim at what she called “toxic achievement culture,” which poisons families with unbearable expectations. Her diagnosis of the issues is laudable, but her solution is even better. Here’s what Breheny Wallace said in a recent interview:

[Interviewer]: What do children, particularly adolescents, need most from their parents?

BREHENY WALLACE: In my research, I sought out the “healthy strivers,” the students who were able to achieve success in healthy ways. What it boiled down to was that these kids felt a deep sense of mattering. They felt deeply valued for who they were by their family, by their friends, and by their community separate from their external achievements.

The kids who were struggling the most felt like their mattering was contingent on their performance; that their parents only valued or cared about them when they were performing. Or, for other kids who weren’t doing well, they heard those messages from their parents, but they were never expected to add value back to anyone other than themselves; these kids lacked social proof that they mattered.

For parents, I’d focus on a phrase from Suniya Luthar, the resilience researcher: “Minimize criticism. Prioritize affection.” Find ways to let your kids know that they matter, separate from their achievements.

“Minimize criticism. Prioritize affection”?!? Breheny Wallace doesn’t say as much, but this is an approach to parenting that mirrors justification by faith. Or, to rephrase it as a question to parents, how are we to expect kids to not be crushed by the weight of perfection if we ourselves believe we are justified by works?

4. In the most recent edition of his Red Hand Files, punk rocker turned faith apologist Nick Cave offers his own sage advice to a twenty-year-old who finds it “pointless to pursue anything in this bizarre and temporary world that is so much against my values in every way possible.” Cave begins by commending the idea that the world is, indeed, “bizarre and temporary” before pivoting to “two qualities that will improve your life immeasurably.”

The first is humility. Humility amounts to an understanding that the world is not divided into good and bad people, but rather it is made up of all manner of individuals, each broken in their own way, each caught up in the common human struggle and each having the capacity to do both terrible and beautiful things. If we truly comprehend and acknowledge that we are all imperfect creatures, we find that we become more tolerant and accepting of others’ shortcomings and the world appears less dissonant, less isolating, less threatening.

The other quality is curiosity. If we look with curiosity at people who do not share our values, they become interesting rather than threatening. As Ive grown older I’ve learnt that the world and the people in it are surprisingly interesting, and that the more you look and listen, the more interesting they become. Cultivating a questioning mind, of which conversation is the chief instrument, enriches our relationship with the world. Having a conversation with someone I may disagree with is, I have come to find, a great, life embracing pleasure.

It is difficult to see the world and not grow weary at its ills (something that’s true, regardless of your politics). The desire to shrug and unplug emotionally from the weight one feels is certainly one way of coping. But Cave commends the opposite tact, to turn one’s derision inwardly in self-examination and embrace the “bizarre and temporary world” with charity.

In many ways, Cave articulates here something of the spirit of Mbird, which David Zahl laid out in a column a couple of years ago.

Come to find out, this new reality in which we operate — however tenuously or tentatively (Lord help our unbelief!) — doesn’t make the world go away. Instead, like Jesus, it throws us back into the world. But not in order to wrest from it some sense of security or hope or kingdom come. No, we are thrown back into the world to love it as it is, rather than as we would have it be.

5. In humor this week, the Onion had plenty to say about our phone use with their, “New iPhone 15 Includes 12 Animal Sounds And Colorful Lever.” And their “Instacart Valuation Crashes As Americans Realize They Can Do Some Things For Themselves” is worth a chuckle. For those who over-think everything, the New Yorker told the epic saga of “Boy Meets Girl.” But the best satire of digital life comes from Reductress’  Attempt to Be More Present in Life Robs Woman of Rich Online Experiences“”

Lucy says the whole experience has left her feeling empty, and like she’s “missing out on a vital part of life.”

I could’ve been fighting with strangers on Twitter,” Lucy ruefully told reporters. “But, no, I was having a long, insightful conversation with my mom about how she finally came to terms with her own mortality. Boring!

Sources confirm that Lucy has been engaging more in her real life, trying to stay as grounded in the present moment as possible. “Last I heard, she’s taken up yoga and meditation to try and get more in touch with her body and emotions,” said Lucy’s roommate, Thea. “I feel bad for her, honestly. Doesn’t she know she could be watching YouTube videos and commenting things like ‘who’s watching this in 2023?’ I don’t know, it just sucks to watch someone throw their life away like that.”

6. I recently had the privilege of interviewing scholar and writer Esau McCaulley about his most recent book, How Far to the Promised Land, (which I highly commend). This except published in the Atlantic was one of my favorite parts. McCaulley’s father left when he was young, leaving for the convenience store and not returning for years. Reflecting on that tragedy, Esau saw God’s hand at work:

I know many people who have struggled to believe in a God who allows such suffering, especially of innocent children. To them, my childhood pain is evidence that God either doesn’t care or isn’t powerful enough to help. Religion, they then conclude, is a false promise that keeps people shackled in fear, waiting for a salvation that never arrives.

Such criticism becomes even more urgent in Black contexts, where the question of why God didn’t intervene to end slavery sooner looms large. Where was God on the slave ships, in the cotton fields, in the courtrooms where innocent men and women were condemned to death for crimes they did not commit? Where was God when I was a child in need of his protection? There is no Black faith that doesn’t wrestle with the problem of evil.

My reply to these questions is: We who have suffered must have some say in how that suffering is interpreted. We won the right, through our scars, to discern the significance of what we endured. My grasp of that significance begins with my experiences of God when I was a child on my knees in front of my twin bed, hands clasped and eyes shut tight in prayer, repeating the simplest of prayers: “Help.”

In those prayers, God came to me not with logical explanations of the problem of evil but with his presence. When I prayed, a sensation of warmth that began in my chest moved throughout my body. The room seemed less empty. The lack of a speedy deliverance frustrated and perplexed me, but I never doubted my experiences of God. They were how I survived. God and I have been through hard times together; we have a relationship born of that intimacy. If any testimony deserves our attention, it is the large number of folks who believe there is no way to tell the Black story in the United States without affirming that God carried us through.

7. Closing out this week is Madison Pierce’s reflection on the suffering, human Jesus and her own struggles with chronic illness, “My High Priest Understands My Pain.” An expert on the Letter to the Hebrews, Pierce discovered in the text something far better than a reflection on the humanity of Jesus. The human Jesus felt human pain. He does not stand aloof from our struggles, but within them.

Passion Week was only a glimpse of Jesus’ suffering. Although the most pronounced challenges that he faced occurred that week, he experienced weakness in the form of hunger (Mark 11:12) and fatigue (John 4:6) and presumably pain all throughout his earthly life.

Additionally, his omniscience married with his experience as a human being is something that warrants further theological reflection. After all, what pain does Jesus not comprehend?

Dragging myself up the stairs, willing my legs forward inch by inch, I fixed my eyes on Jesus, as the author of Hebrews urges us to do (12:2).

But when I looked, he was not sitting comfortably at the top, waiting. Jesus dragged himself up the stairs too. Jesus was weary and in pain. And he was with me.

This picture of solidarity transformed me. God was not asking me to endure anything that he had not endured himself. As I fixed my eyes on him, I realized that I could now see him more clearly, but he had never lost sight of me.

I’m not sure I have found the “right” answer to the question of what God’s grace is sufficient for, but when those words hurt, I can say, “Your grace is sufficient for me because you are with me.” […]

If we are intended to imitate Christ — or to approach him, per Hebrews — then surely his empathy is a part of what we are to make our own. We do not have the ability to take on the experiences of others, as Jesus took on flesh, but we can enter more deeply into their pain. These passages in Hebrews lead me to ask God for a deeper understanding of what those around me are experiencing so I can care for them well.

The author of Hebrews offers comfort in the here and now — grace from God for the present. So often in my season of pain, people pressed me toward the hope of potential healing; they prayed fervently that I would experience relief. Those prayers were not misguided. Nor were they malicious. But they did not offer me the same comfort.



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2 responses to “September 9-15”

  1. Brian says:

    Thank you

  2. […] Do About It. The interviews, which we’ve highlighted on the Mockingcast and in our weekender columns, have been […]

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