Another Week Ends: Achievement Freaks, St. Jobs, Luxury Disorders, Von Trier’s Obstructions, Self-Made Religion, Boardwalk Empire, and Lactivismby David Zahl on Oct 7, 2011 • 3:31 pm 1 Comment
1. As if we needed another reminder of the frightening heights the achievement curve has reached in recent years, James Atlas attempted to trace the cultural and economic forces contributing to the ‘excellence glut’ in his NY Times op-ed last week, “Meet the New Super People.” Atlas seems less interested in the psychological (and spiritual!) fallout of what he calls the “achievement freak” phenomenon, and more interested in the increasingly egregious disparities this trend is already creating in our country/the world, questioning where it could all possibly be heading:
It’s a select group to begin with, but even so, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on this list who hasn’t mastered at least one musical instrument; helped build a school or hospital in some foreign land; excelled at a sport; attained fluency in two or more languages; had both a major and a minor, sometimes two, usually in unrelated fields (philosophy and molecular science, mathematics and medieval literature); and yet found time — how do they have any? — to enjoy such arduous hobbies as mountain biking and white-water kayaking… Has our hysterically competitive, education-obsessed society finally outdone itself in its tireless efforts to produce winners whose abilities are literally off the charts?
Preparing for Super Personhood begins early. “We see kids who’ve been training from an early age,” says Charles Bardes, chairman of admissions at Weill Cornell Medical College. “The bar has been set higher. You have to be at the top of the pile.”
And to clamber up there you need a head start. Thus the well-documented phenomenon of helicopter parents. In her influential book “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety,” Judith Warner quotes a mom who gave up her career to be a full-time parent: “The children are the center of the household and everything goes around them. You want to do everything and be everything for them because this is your job now.” Bursting with pent-up energy, the mothers transfer their shelved career ambitions to their children. Since that book was published in 2005, the situation has only intensified. “One of my daughter’s classmates has a pilot’s license; 12-year-olds are taking calculus,” Ms. Warner said last week… being well-rounded doesn’t cut it anymore. You need to have a spike in your achievement chart…
The whole idea of Super Person is kind of exhausting to contemplate. All that striving, working, doing. A line of Whitman’s quoted by Dr. Bardes in our conversation has stayed with me: “I loaf and invite my soul.” Isn’t that where the real work gets done?
2. Speaking of super people, the enormous outpouring of public emotion following Steve Jobs’ death this week caught some of us off guard, myself included. Don’t get me wrong – he was obviously a major figure, and I love my Macbook as much as the next guy – just that the magnitude of the response certainly reinforces the notions of Apple as way of life, as identity marker, as religion even. At the very least, it betrays just how attached many of us are to the our various technologies (thank you very much, Steve!). I mean, was Thomas Edison mourned this way? Not sparing the f-bombs, The Onion nailed the situation, as per usual. The Wired obituary offers some lengthy and very informative hagiography, while Sean O’Neal took a more personal approach on The AV Club. And in The NY Times Mike Daisey tried to take a Jobs-like approach to the man’s death in “Steve Jobs, Enemy of Nostalgia“:
Mr. Jobs’s magic has its costs. We can admire the design perfection and business acumen while acknowledging the truth: with Apple’s immense resources at his command he could have revolutionized the industry to make devices more humanely and more openly, and chose not to. If we view him unsparingly, without nostalgia, we would see a great man whose genius in design, showmanship and stewardship of the tech world will not be seen again in our lifetime. We would also see a man who in the end failed to “think different,” in the deepest way, about the human needs of both his users and his workers.
3. Considerably less surprising was the announcement this past week by the World Health Organization that the US leads the world in mental health disorders, by a significant margin. Before you cry “cultural stigma,” do read The Atlantic round-up of the findings, in which they address a number of the understandable objections about how this sort of data is collected. Some of the more salient bits include:
Women are 50 percent more likely to suffer from mood disorders than men… [but] men — especially young men — are much more likely to commit suicide than women in most countries.
After the U.S., Ukraine, Colombia, New Zealand, Lebanon, and France have the next highest rates of mental health disorders.
Americans… many of whom lead relatively comfortable lives, blow other nations away in the depression factor, leading some to suggest that depression is a “luxury disorder.”
[The Harvard researcher who headed much of the WHO research, Ron] Kessler says, for example, that if your house is worth $500,000 but everyone else in your neighborhood has $1 million homes, this factor alone is one of the best predictors of depression. But when everyone is in the same boat, no matter how humble or lowly the quarters, there’s typically a lot less depression. Therefore, it’s not the objective conditions of life that matter, it’s your subjective perception of how you measure up -– or what you “lack.”
4. Two interesting articles on the Image website. The first, “Learning to be ‘The Perfect Human’” takes a fascinating look at a fascinating documentary, Lars Von Trier’s The Five Obstructions, examining the relationship between restriction and creativity. The author’s conclusions are worth reprinting, ht MS:
I thought about my deadlines. I may need gimmicks that force me to work—a deadline, a contract, a threat to my ego. But when I experience inspiration, the singular joys and exclusive revelations of the work become their own motivation. I’m working for love, the best provocation of all.
Second, Tony Woodlief’s piece “Stripping the Fat off Reality” touches on one of our favorite themes, the search for new persuasive words for defaced or degraded ones. He paraphrases a fantastic portion of Walker Percy’s essay “Novel-writing in an Apocalyptic Time”:
“The great poets and novelists always wrote about the nature of God and love, of man and woman. But how can even Dante write about the love of God, the love of a man for a woman, if he lives in a society in which God is the cheapest word of the media, as profaned by radio preachers as by swearing. And ‘love?’ Love is the way sit-com plots and soap operas get resolved a hundred times a week.”
This is why writers turn to parody, and satire, and derision, Percy wrote, because the true things have been so corrupted, and everyone seems to be colluding in their corruption. So the writer feels he must “mock and subvert the words and symbols of the day in order that new words come into being or that old words be freshly minted.”
5. A belated no less enthusiastic mention of Lillian Daniel’s excellent article/sermon on The Christian Century, “You Can’t Make This Up: The Limits of Self-Made Religion,” in which she addresses the selective reasoning and plain hubris behind prevailing ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ cultural attitudes about Christianity. There’s an edge, thank God, but there’s also a lot of humor, and no lack of compassion:
[After his divorce, a former churchgoer] found himself spending Sunday mornings sleeping in, reading the New York Times or putting on his running shoes and taking off through the woods. This was his religion today, he explained. “I worship nature. I see myself in the trees and in the cicadas. I am one with the great outdoors. I find God there. And I realized that I am deeply spiritual but no longer religious.” He dumped [the news that in my lap as if it were a controversial hot potato, something shocking to a minister who had never been exposed to ideas so brave. Of course, this well-meaning Sunday jogger fits right in to mainstream American culture. He is perhaps by now a part of the majority—the people who have stepped away from the church in favor of running, newspaper reading, yoga or whatever they use to construct a more convenient religion of their own.
I was not shocked or upset by the man's story. I had heard it many times before—so many times I could have supplied the details. Let me guess, you read the New York Times every Sunday, cover to cover, and you get more out of that than the sermon? Let me guess, you find God in nature? And especially in sunsets? ...When you push on this self-developed spirituality, you don't find much. God is in the sunset? Great, I find God there too. But how about seeing God in cancer? Cancer is nature too. Do you worship that as well?
If we made a church for all these spiritual-but-not-religious people, if we got them all together to talk about their beliefs and their incredibly unique personal religions, they might find out that most of America agrees with them. But they’ll never find that out, because getting them all together would be way too much like church. And they are far too busy being original to discover that they are not…
With the humbling realization that there are some things we simply cannot do for ourselves, communities of human beings have worked together and feuded together and just goofed up together. They come together because Jesus came to live with these same types of people. Thousands of years later, we’re still trying to be the body of Christ, and we are human and realistic enough to know we need a savior who is divine.
6. In television, doubtless you’ve heard the miraculous news about Arrested Development coming back for a fourth season and possible movie! This weekend brings us the season finale of Breaking Bad, which, after a pretty lackluster first half of the season, has really heated up. I predict another major cliffhanger. Next, clearly I’m not the only who’s finding Boardwalk Empire to be a bit of a snore this year. NY Magazine boldly asked why the show feels more and more like a beautifully tailored but empty suit. The third season of Parenthood, meanwhile, is off to a fantabulous start, a welcome relief from all the great shows with zero sympathetic characters. Speaking of which…
7. A relevant article on The World of Psychology by Sandra Sanger on “The Illusion of Control,” in which the therapist confesses, JD:
A perennial theme among my clients involves going beyond a simple wish for more control, and extending into the realm of a driving need for control. The former usually comes with a reluctant sigh of acknowledgment that our spheres of influence are not just finite, they are actually quite small. The latter often comes dished up with a heavy serving of denial and a bad case of the tail wagging the dog. The need for control ends up controlling the individual.
8. On Slate, just in case you believed the Amish were impervious to schism. And a brave perspective on the counterproductive, guilt-centered dogmaticism/Pharisaism at the heart of World Breastfeeding Week and the Lactivism Movement.
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