1) The New York Times has certainly hit the ground running in 2013. This one came just yesterday from John Tierney, entitled, “Why You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be,” and is more than just a timely treatise against New Year’s resolutions. It briefly discusses the inner-psychic myth of our own present stability. The article looks into the studies of recent psychologists who found that people, from childhood on, tend to deny their short-lived interests, goals, and anxieties, and instead portray themselves as having arrived at a kind of destination, a changeless omega-point from which they will never deter. The reality, though, is that we all look back with some level of embarrassment about how we acted ten years back: the apartments we lived in, the tattoos we got, the music we liked to talk about. It’s as if the brain, knowing it all to be ephemera, is wired to deny it by charging the present moment with utmost heroism (ht CB).
They called this phenomenon the “end of history illusion,” in which people tend to “underestimate how much they will change in the future.” According to their research, which involved more than 19,000 people ages 18 to 68, the illusion persists from teenage years into retirement.
“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”
Other psychologists said they were intrigued by the findings, published Thursday in the journal Science, and were impressed with the amount of supporting evidence. Participants were asked about their personality traits and preferences — their favorite foods, vacations, hobbies and bands — in years past and present, and then asked to make predictions for the future. Not surprisingly, the younger people in the study reported more change in the previous decade than did the older respondents.
Thus, the typical 20-year-old woman’s predictions for her next decade were not nearly as radical as the typical 30-year-old woman’s recollection of how much she had changed in her 20s. This sort of discrepancy persisted among respondents all the way into their 60s.
And the discrepancy did not seem to be because of faulty memories, because the personality changes recalled by people jibed quite well with independent research charting how personality traits shift with age. People seemed to be much better at recalling their former selves than at imagining how much they would change in the future.
Why? Dr. Gilbert and his collaborators, Jordi Quoidbach of Harvard and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia, had a few theories, starting with the well-documented tendency of people to overestimate their own wonderfulness.
“Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good,” Dr. Quoidbach said. “The ‘I wish that I knew then what I know now’ experience might give us a sense of satisfaction and meaning, whereas realizing how transient our preferences and values are might lead us to doubt every decision and generate anxiety.”
2) Also from the New York Times this week, over at the Opinionator, Susan Shapiro writes a the memoir about the pain-probing power of writing about humiliation. In doing so, one not only finds they write more fluently, but one also “can’t remain removed and dignified and ace it” (ht CB).
“We need to worry you’re not O.K.,” an empathetic female memoirist told me. After I coughed up my deepest dismay, my memoir found a good editor and good reviews (except from the male columnist from Texas who still felt sorry for my husband).
I was recently worried that, as a still happily married middle-age professor, it might be time to stop making a fool of myself on the page. Then I realized the most fascinating new character I can’t get enough of is the bipolar C.I.A. agent Carrie Mathison from the Showtime show “Homeland.” She is a walking emotional disaster I adore and identify with, even when she’s getting electroshock therapy or sleeping with a spy she suspects is a terrorist.
3) Reviews have made Django Unchained something of a Western-Outlaw redux of its predecessor, Inglorious Bastards, with a (sort of) cast change, but none have pointed to moments of moral clarity quite like William Randolph Brafford over at First Things. He talks mainly on the central handshake scene, so be warned of the spoilers.
And a surprisingly gracious A/V Club review of Judd Apatow’s newest film for the adultescent archives, This Is 40. Not because it is really all that funny, but because it is an honest depiction of life in the face of aging, of people in the land of happy endings coming to grips with family circumstances that aren’t always so happy. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann star as the reprisal couple from Knocked Up:
So This Is 40 shows Rudd and Mann casually lying to each other and insulting each other, and not-so-silently bearing the burden of being in the middle years of a marriage that at this point would be harder to dissolve than to endure. But they also love each other, and maintain a roadmap for where they’re headed together, all while coming up with crazy new life-changing plans that they try their best to execute. The couple at the center of This Is 40 is like the movie itself: funny and thorny, and trying to be exceptional, even if that means making dumb, understandably human mistakes.
4) Speaking of A/V Club, probably one of the most comprehensive and insightful forecasts on the future of broadcast television, comes from Erik Adams. Like a zombie apocalypse, it’s a somewhat bleak diagnosis, but not without apocalyptic hope, too.
The funny thing about the phrase “the end of [noun] as we know it” is that there’s a ring of hope beneath the surface-level dread. The mechanism that brings you many of your favorite television shows is grinding to a halt, but another is rising up to deliver just as many (if not more) series worthy of your attention.
5) Over at Gospel Coalition, one of the best resolution-minded pieces we have seen, Tullian Tchividjian opens the journal of 18th century’s Samuel Johnson…or mine…or yours…
1738: He wrote, “Oh Lord, enable me to redeem the time which I have spent in sloth.”
1757: (19 years later) “Oh mighty God, enable me to shake off sloth and redeem the time misspent in idleness and sin by diligent application of the days yet remaining.”
1759: (2 years later) “Enable me to shake off idleness and sloth.”
1761: “I have resolved until I have resolved that I am afraid to resolve again.”
1764: “My indolence since my last reception of the sacrament has sunk into grossest sluggishness. My purpose is from this time to avoid idleness and to rise early.”
1764: (5 months later) He resolves to rise early, “not later than 6 if I can.”
1765: “I purpose to rise at 8 because, though, I shall not rise early it will be much earlier than I now rise for I often lie until 2.”
1769: “I am not yet in a state to form any resolutions. I purpose and hope to rise early in the morning, by 8, and by degrees, at 6.”
1775: “When I look back upon resolution of improvement and amendments which have, year after year, been made and broken, why do I yet try to resolve again? I try because reformation is necessary and despair is criminal.” He resolves again to rise at 8.
1781: (3 years before his death) “I will not despair, help me, help me, oh my God.” He resolves to rise at 8 or sooner to avoid idleness.
And we missed this when it came out, but one of the rare pieces that come out in the tinsel flashes of Christmas-speak, in which suffering and chaos and God’s commiseration is actually confronted, and we get it from Maureen Dowd. Again from the New York Times:
When my younger brother, Brian, died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh. They couldn’t explain why he died. Even if they could, it wouldn’t have brought him back. Yet the many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. They held me up to preach at Brian’s funeral. They consoled me as I tried to comfort others. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong.
A contemporary theologian has described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love’s presence to someone else, even as they are love’s presence to me.
I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.
6) In response to the Pew data about the falling rates of “believers” in America, Religion Dispatches did some research into the growing number of “None” respondents. Elizabeth Drescher asserts first that America is data-hungry and, second, that had the poll been run to account for “religious practices,” it would have found that more Americans behave religiously. Have we heard this before? (ht BZ)
This belief-based orientation in the study of religiosity, and the study of religion more generally, obscures what is revealed again and again as a diverse and rich spiritual landscape. Respondents to a survey that I tested earlier this year, for instance, ranked “enjoying time with family,” “enjoying time with pets or other animals,” “enjoying time with friends,” and “preparing or sharing food” as among the most “spiritually meaningful practices” in an inventory that also included the conventionally-measured practices of “attending worship,” “studying sacred texts,” and “praying.” Only prayer made it to the top of the list, coming in at number five behind what I’ve come to call the “Four F’s of Contemporary American Spirituality”: Family, Fido, Friends, and Food. This ranking was consistent whether respondents identified as religiously-affiliated or not.
Be that as it may, in terms of crisis, like the tragedy in Newtown, it seems that people seek the solace of organized religion, and not of the religious nones, as was discussed in the New York Times last week, that “In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent”:
“The best we can do as humanists,” [psychologist Darrel Ray] continued, “is to talk about that pain in rational terms with the people who are suffering. We have humanist celebrants, as we call them, but they’re focused on doing weddings. It takes a lot more training to learn how to deal with grief and loss. I don’t see celebrants working in hospice or in hospitals, for example. There are secular people who need pastoral care, but we abdicate it to clergy.”
…Yet, in the view of internal critics like Mr. Epstein and Dr. Ray, humanism suffers in certain ways for its valorization of the individual. The inside joke is that creating a humanist group is like “herding cats.”
7) Finally, Christianity Today talks brilliantly about why C.S. Lewis decided not to write articles for… Christianity Today. Dan Dewitt makes the argument that apologetics were useful to Lewis only in the context of World War II and, after the context changed, Lewis found the most ready-made home for the defense of the Gospel in the imagination. In short, he was ready to tell stories. Says Lewis to then-editor Carl Henry (ht JL):
“My thought and talent (such as they are) now flow in different, though I trust not less Christian, channels, and I do not think I am at all likely to write more directly theological pieces. The last work of that sort which I attempted had to be abandoned. If I am now good for anything it is for catching the reader unawares—thro’ fiction and symbol. I have done what I could in the way of frontal attacks, but I now feel quite sure those days are over.“
P.S. Just a reminder, our 2013 monthly giving offer expires ONE WEEK FROM TODAY (January 11): sign up for any amount of monthly giving (8 folks have already done so!) and receive a free Mockingbird publication of your choice! Click HERE for more details.
R.I.P. Mike Auldridge