1. “Trickle-Down Distress: How America’s Broken Meritocracy Drives Our National Anxiety Epidemic” – what a title! Maura Kelly’s piece in The Atlantic functions almost as a survey of a number of the studies and articles we’ve highlighted in recent months, such the WHO reports that show America leading the world in clinical anxiety by a significant margin, and the recent piece about Having It All. In what essentially amounts to a treatise on the cruelty (and practical and psychological dead-end) of works righteousness, Kelly looks at how thorough-going the conflation of personal identity with material/career success has become in our culture, and how the tyranny of Control in the life and well-being of everyday men and women is making us all miserable. And as always, the underlying culprit appears to be a tragically inflated view of human nature, aka an unquestioned though no less destructive embrace of original sin. It may be a depressing diagnosis, but let’s face it, also one for which Grace could not have a more natural entree. It’s not a question of If but When the wheels will fall of the bus, after all.
The idea that we can accomplish anything we put our minds to is so pervasive that we often have a lot on our minds. We feel pressure to take on more responsibilities and to make the “right” choices — and we beat ourselves up when we fail, as Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning for the State Department, wrote in this month’s Atlantic cover story . “Millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot),” she wrote. And unsurprisingly, perhaps, women suffer from a number of anxiety disorders — including generalized anxiety and panic attacks — at a rate twice as high as that for men. But men feel the heat, too. As McNamee puts it: “A reasonable argument could be made that the race to get ahead in America is particularly stressful. If Americans believe that individuals ‘get what they deserve’ based on their merit (innate abilities, having the right attitude, working hard, playing by the rules), then disdain for the unsuccessful is seen as warranted.”
2. While we’re at it… Are you looking for a new way to feel inadequate and judge others? Another slippery measurement stick to try to latch on to? Well, look no further! Klout.com is here. The company anonymously tallies our online “influence”, and doles out the results to potential employers, airlines, you name it. Wired tries to explain “What Your Klout Score Actually Means,” though the answer should be fairly obvious. Rhymes with ‘Jaw’:
Much as Google’s search engine attempts to rank the relevance of every web page, Klout—a three-year-old startup based in San Francisco—is on a mission to rank the influence of every person online. Its algorithms comb through social media data: If you have a public account with Twitter, which makes updates available for anyone to read, you have a Klout score, whether you know it or not (unless you actively opt out on Klout’s website)…
Peak outrage was achieved on October 26, when the company tweaked its algorithm and many people’s scores suddenly plummeted. To some, the jarring change made the whole concept of Klout seem capricious and meaningless, and they expressed their outrage in tweets, blog posts, and comments on the Klout website.
3. Speaking of technology and control, the recent outages on the East Coast inspired Megan Garber of The Atlantic to write an insightful (if rather implicating!) reflection on the depth of our collective i-dependency, “We Are Still at The Mercy of the Clouds: Instagram Has No Filter for Nature’s Fury”. Sort of makes a person even more excited for J.J. Abrams’ new Revolution series, coming this Fall, which concerns a ravaged post-electric world.
4. The Atlantic’s coverage of the Aspen Ideas Festival yielded a few interesting pieces on parenting, “Do Kids Need to Hate Their Parents Sometimes?” and “Parents Need to Relax”. The second one contains a fascinating if slightly sad little anecdote about how we turn grace into law:
[One] study, the first to ask children their views on their parents’ work, asked a representative national sample of American third through twelfth graders whose parents worked what they’d wish for their employed parent or parents. And while the parents largely guessed their kids would wish for more time with them, they were wrong: The kids’ top wish was for their parents to be less tired and stressed…
It’s easy to judge parents, and we do it too much… But the panel found agreement around the idea of what Lawrence Cohen, a psychologist and author of Playful Parenting, called “relaxed high expectations” — encouraging kids to push themselves without making them case studies in our own anxieties.
“I got a panicked call from a mother who said, ‘I’m really worried about my child. She’s 4, and she hasn’t found her passion yet, even though I’ve signed her up for 12 activities,’” Cohen said. “Parents heard that children learn through play, so then they thought every play moment has to be educational — ‘How many wheels does that truck have? What color is the truck?’ The poor child can’t play with the truck!”
5. Alina Tugend tackled the same issues from a slightly different angle in her NY Times column “Redefining Success and Celebrating the Unremarkable” which uses Brene Brown’s line, “In this world, an ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life,” as a jumping off point to discuss the limits of performancism, ht CB:
“Ordinary has a bad rap, and so does settling — there is the idea is that we should always want more,” [Katrina Kenison, author of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day”] said. “But there’s a beauty in cultivating an appreciation for what we already have.” And that’s not easy, she acknowledged, especially in affluent areas where success — or the perception of success — is like a drug that we can never get enough of.
“I know I began writing in an attempt to heal the disconnect between what I observed around me — the pressure to excel, to be special, to succeed — and what I felt were the real values I wanted to pass on to my children: kindness, service, compassion, gratitude for life as it is,” she said.
People are hungry for such reassurance. Ms. Kenison’s book trailer has received 1.6 million views, which is far from ordinary. Some people may fear that embracing the ordinary means that they are letting themselves and their children off easy. If it’s all right to be average, why try to excel?
Indeed! Would that they (and we) might find some of the comfort they’re looking for in the Comfortable Words, eh?
6. In theology, the countdown to Tullian Tchividjian’s new book Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free has begun! It comes out on October 1 and a short excerpt from the introduction appeared on Liberate today (“What need is there for another book on suffering?”) and it’s very much worth your time. I’ve had the privilege of helping with the manuscript a bit and can assure you that this is one you’ll want to be pre-ordering. It’s a terrific, highly accessible (and deeply pastoral) primer on the theology of the cross, especially as it relates to human pain. And Mbird readers will get a kick out of seeing some of our stuff referenced. While you’re over at Liberate, it’s also worth checking out their just-concluded four-part series on Law and Gospel.
7. Freakonomics posted an amusing story about a Cambodian village that’s converting to Christianity for economic reasons. Essentially, the Gospel has alleviated the villagers fears of black magic, “saving them hundreds of dollars in sacrifices to the gods in order to prevent illness and bad luck.” There you have it! ht JD.
9. A truly beautiful review of the truly beautiful appeared in The Other Journal, courtesy of M. Leary, ht WH:
This, Anderson says, these two little kids in a tent on a beach with a BB Gun and a bunch of paperbacks – is what we have lost. It is lovely that Sam and Suzy can only conceive of responding to this experience [of falling in love] in terms of eventually getting married. In Anderson’s world, they simply can’t help it. For marriage is not a contract but an act of rebellion against the pettiness of life.
If [Moonrise Kingdom] is a true flood narrative, we have to ask: What exactly is being judged? I think it is pretty clear here that Anderson has enacted this flood as a devastation of the “long defeat” of adulthood. But even more specifically, all the subtle ways by which adulthood robs us of the ability to love freely, without any reason or expectation of result. Few in Anderson’s films get to experience this untutored kind of love – Sam and Suzy perhaps the first.
10. Some say that following a musician you like on Twitter is a surefire way to like them less, and I’d have to agree. One notable exception I’ve found is The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, who never ceases to amaze. For example, I initially thought his numerous tweets professing his love for Amy Grant’s Lead Me On album were meant ironically, but shame on me. A friend alerted me to Darnielle’s poem about his relationship with that album, “Goodbye Good Man,” and it’s stunning, ht WRB. In somewhat related news, The Magnetic Field’s 69 Love Songs is being illustrated! And thus far at least, the project looks as charming as it sounds. An example appears earlier in this post. Finally in music, I don’t think anyone expected Blur’s “comeback single” to be so Earth-shatteringly good. Praise God:
11. Two last little items in television. One, Jerry Seinfeld has a new web-series that starts this week, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. And two, the interview the Louis C.K. did with The AV Club this past week is flat-out inspiring, both in terms of trying new things (courage!) and treating people well (grace!). In addition to being showbiz’s least likely moral voice, Louis is also on his way to becoming emblematic of how transparency that flows from a rock-bottom anthropology actually produces connection and trust (and goodness?) rather than the other way around. [Warning: the interview is not devoid of Louie-style obscenity]:
When I negotiate with somebody who I’m working with on a crew, like if I hire a first A.D. or something, the way I work it in my head is, I tell them my economic realities—this is a low-budget show—and then I ask them to tell me how much they want. Say the guy says, “I want $500 an hour.” That’s not realistic; I’m just making it up. Then I’ll say, “Okay, I’ll give you $550.” You know what I mean? I ask him to think about what he really needs; when he tells me, I give him a little more. It buys me goodwill with this person; I feel good about what I’m paying them. I like to give people a little more than they want, and I like to ask people for a little less than they’re willing to give.