1. New Year’s Resolutions: we’ve said about all we’re going to say concerning a yearly ritual of personal bootstrapping, but some great articles this year from Tullian Tchividjian (on the spiritual side of things), from Woody Guthrie’s Sermon-on-the-Mount-standard life guide (pictured below), and finally, a wonderful Quartz article about how to make resolutions you can keep. After long study, they basically reverse-engineered the historically Christian approach to behavior change, from one perspective:

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Losing weight, drinking less alcohol, and spending more time with family tend to top New Year’s resolution lists—but they are also among the most commonly broken resolutions. Although about 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% of us manage to achieve these goals…

I have asked this question to audiences, “How many of you have ever gone on a diet?” 90% of the people raise their hands. So then I ask the next question, “How many of you have ever lost weight on a diet?” And I’d say about 85% of the hands go up. And then I ask people, “How many of the people who just raised their hand gained the weight back?” And everybody raises their hand. And that is quite consistent with what the studies show, that the average dieter gains 107% of the weight that they lost.

For the majority of people, those 85% of the people who are going to raise their hand again, it is just not going to work because it is not fundamentally a behavior problem: It is a mindset problem. The mindset is the thing that has to change in order to alter the behavior. And that is really the biggest insight that we’ve come to in this work. [Born again/from above, anyone??]…

There are two fundamentally different kinds of goals that people can make. We are drawing on work of colleagues of ours here at Harvard in the Kennedy School. They talk about “adaptive goals” and “technical goals.” If you have a resolution that is about a technical goal, that is something that you develop, a skill. If you have access to information, you can probably actually pull up how to learn this new skill.Technical goals make for really good New Year’s resolutions for people because that you can go at in a much more behavioral, sequential, logical level…

Using a New Year’s resolution approach, the best goals to go for are the ones that are just technical for you.

It’s incredibly insightful, but from a Christian perspective, the technical/adaptive distinction is far too neat here. Lots of contemporary Christian denominations/groups talk extensively about ‘technical’ crafts – singing better, being an excellent woodworker, honoring God in your cooking, art, athleticism, etc. And we’re just as on board with glorifying God “in all things” as the next guy, but… the suggestion that our culture-making has a positive correlation with spirituality risks subsuming ‘technical’ goals under the necessarily ‘adaptive’ rubric of spirituality. That is, if the spiritual problem is our internal resistance to God – yea, even in those that are regenerate (Calvin) – then making gardening a Christian issue may place it under the same constantly-backfiring rubric as, say, weight loss. We can immediately see the pastoral necessity of Luther’s separation of vocation from pleasing God or of Calvin’s insistence that some things must be completely indifferent with regard to morality. Only when something is merely technical does human freedom operate with spontaneity and the potential for real change. But perhaps social science and theology can only take us so far:

2. Ginia Bellafante over at the New York Times wrote a piece last month on the ‘favor economy’, or the tendency we have to do favors for others on the assumption that they’ll incur some non-monetary debt to us. Building ‘relationship capital’ with others is certainly a feature of New York, but I’d broaden Bellafante’s observations to just about anywhere. You write a rec for someone’s child, knowing that their connections in a social club could come in handy later, etc. The existence of a favor economy is pretty obvious, but I think there’s more to be said here, ht CB:

Some years ago, I had a friend who moved to New York with various aspirations, and until they were fulfilled he supported himself working at a restaurant. The place was cultish and bohemian — artists had started it — and interesting people worked there. Eventually my friend got to know the daughter of a famous actor there. On various occasions, he ate out with this woman and her father, noticing that when they did, the bill rarely arrived. This led my friend to one of his most astute and enduring observations about New York: “Only rich people eat for free.”…

In any event, a restaurant offering a free meal to someone who could easily pay for it was clearly hoping for a certain yield, in a form of tender even more valuable than a bitcoin…

You are helping someone you know get into a club (a literal or figurative one), partly because you like the person and partly because her father is on the board of an organization where you would like your 22-year-old child to work. You want a reservation at a restaurant that doesn’t take any and is always packed so you call a friend, with whom you once generously shared everything you know about chess teachers for 5-year-olds, who has an acquaintance who works at the Food Network…

We are more likely to give favors to those who are capable of repaying us, and there’s nothing too much ‘wrong’ with that. But it’s interesting, too, just how ingrained a this-for-that mentality is, and how difficult it is for grace to manifest itself, on a person-to-person level, when we’re so used to having implicit strings attached. Perhaps this is one reason God ‘chooses’ the weak, or why it’s so hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven… one-way love can only manifest itself when it’s impossible for us to even pretend that we’re capable of remuneration.

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3. Cue The Guardian’s brilliant Christmas Eve article claiming that “The People Who Challenged My Atheism Most Were Drug Addicts and Prostitutes”. There’s nothing here that can add to that, ht AZ:

Three years later I did escape my town, eventually receiving a PhD in physics, and then working on Wall Street for 20 years. A life devoted to rational thought, a life devoted to numbers and clever arguments.

During that time I counted myself an atheist and nodded in agreement as a wave of atheistic fervor swept out of the scientific community and into the media, led by Richard Dawkins

I eventually left my Wall Street job and started working with and photographing homeless addicts in the South Bronx. When I first walked into the Bronx I assumed I would find the same cynicism I had towards faith. If anyone seemed the perfect candidate for atheism it was the addicts who see daily how unfair, unjust, and evil the world can be.

None of them are. Rather they are some of the strongest believers I have met, steeped in a combination of Bible, superstition, and folklore.

The first addict I met was Takeesha. She was standing near the high wall of the Corpus Christi Monastery. We talked for close to an hour before I took her picture. When we finished, I asked her how she wanted to be described. She said without any pause, “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.”

Takeesha was raped by a relative when she was 11. Her mother, herself a prostitute, put Takeesha out on the streets at 13, where she has been for the last 30 years,

It’s sad when it’s your mother, who you trust, and she was out there with me, but you know what kept me through all that? God. Whenever I got into the car, God got into the car with me…

In any crack house, in the darkest buildings empty of all other furnishings, a worn Bible can be found laying flat amongst needles, caps, lighters, and crack pipes…

In these last three years, out from behind my computers, I have been reminded that life is not rational and that everyone makes mistakes. Or, in Biblical terms, we are all sinners.

We are all sinners. On the streets the addicts, with their daily battles and proximity to death, have come to understand this viscerally. Many successful people don’t. Their sense of entitlement and emotional distance has numbed their understanding of our fallibility.

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As we like to say here, the only empirically provable tenet of Christianity is its low anthropology, and I think this article is an excellent apology/raison for the biblical theme of God choosing the least, in the world’s eyes. Suffering and powerlessness break through the old, weary calculus of this-for-that. And for the “successful people”, well, it’s not just entitlement and emotional distance, but even/especially good habits, education, the comparative ease of not doing drugs, not being a prostitute, which distances them more than anything. In encounters like the one described above, we see a true sort of compassion, grace, or religion – i.e., not a grace which can uplift us as we are, but operates in brokenness. I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor, who saw this with clearer eyes than anyone: “Today’s reader, if he believes in grace at all, sees it as something which can be separated from nature and served to him raw as Instant Uplift. This reader’s favorite word is compassion. I don’t wish to defame the word. There is a better sense in which it can be used but seldom is—the sense of being in travail with and for creation in its subjection to vanity.”

4. The New Yorker ran a fantastic piece on Pop Francis I, now widely considered the most provocative/innovative (more properly, ‘updating’) Pope since John XXIII. Per usual, his style and tone are saturated with grace, and his ability to combine a deep concern for the poor, a basic continuity with Catholic tradition, and an overwhelming emphasis on love and mercy have positioned him as a genuinely remarkable figure:

Bbl8RjJCcAAdcsu.jpg-largeHis break from his immediate predecessors—John Paul II, who died in 2005, and Benedict XVI, the traditionalist German theologian who stepped down from the papacy in February—is less ideological than intuitive, an inclusive vision of the Church centered on an identification with the poor. From this vision, theological and organizational innovations flow. The move from rule by non-negotiable imperatives to leadership by invitation and welcome is as fundamental to the meaning of the faith as any dogma…

Francis views the Church as a field hospital after a battle. “The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful,” he said. “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds.”…

For Francis, the Church’s purpose is not to bring God to the world but simply to emphasize God’s presence—already there.

The article also provides a partial account of Francis’s (formerly ‘Bergoglio’s’) past, and unsurprisingly, parts of it were ridden with ‘wilderness years’ and guilt. It supports Luther’s dictum that the life of a Christian is one of repentance – that is, self-examination and self-recognition as sinner. For those familiar with Christ’s correlation between forgiveness and love (Luke 7), or the Gospel writers’ concern with showing Peter’s weakness, whatever political shadiness was in Bergoglio’s past could be, if anything a spiritual résumé:

The years of the Dirty War form the general ground of the Pope’s striking self-criticism: his experience, one Jesuit told me, was “searing.” After leaving office as Provincial, Bergoglio was rector of a Jesuit seminary for a time, then worked on a dissertation for a degree in theology. He was sent to a Jesuit house of studies in Córdoba, Argentina, as spiritual director, yet these were wilderness years for him. He told Spadaro that in Córdoba he “lived a time of great interior crisis.” In an earlier interview, he had confided, “I had to learn from my errors along the way because, to tell you the truth, I made hundreds of errors. Errors and sins.” He told Spadaro bluntly, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech.”…

Doris Lessing in 2007

5. In culture, the great writer Doris Lessing died last November, and something in The Economist‘s obituary stuck out:

For 30 years, by her reckoning, people had expected that she would get the [Nobel] prize. She hated expectation: that burden that made you a prisoner of circumstances and dragged you along like a fish on a line. The expectation when a child that she would behave, and not try to pull down her itchy stockings or burst into tears. The expectation that she would be a good wife (as she tried twice), pushing prams all day long, instead of leaving her two small children behind to start a new life. The expectation that the Communist revolution would usher in Utopia, when it was all “a load of old socks”. Why did people expect such things? Who had promised them? When?

The article goes on to implicitly show her works as trying to break out of expectation, into a place of freedom. The constraints placed on her – how every new expression of hers became a new set of expectations – was touching, and I suspect any writer (or person, for that matter) can relate to the experience of new forms or achievements of habits calcifying into something restrictive. The need to push against those expectations is, of course, partly a very human need to assert autonomy, but perhaps too a genuine human push toward spontaneity, freedom.

6. This just in from The Onion: “New Antidepressant Makes Friends’ Problems Seem Worse“, ht DZ:

After just a single dose, clinical trial participants’ moods improved dramatically as they began to believe that each of their close friends was struggling with serious financial, professional, familial, and medical issues,” said drug developer Eugenio Risso, explaining that 9 out of 10 subjects reported markedly lower levels of pessimism, self-doubt, and generalized unhappiness after they began to sense that those around them were on the verge of full-scale emotional breakdowns.

As usual, pessimism at its most hilarious/too-close-for-comfort.

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7. Joseph Epstein at The Wall Street Journal took a probing look at the decline of WASPs in America (see DZ’s take here) and the emergence of a new ‘meritocracy’ replacing it (not that WASPs (the ‘untitled aristocracy’) weren’t meritocratic to begin with). The article’s a bit of a mixed bag, but his conclusions on meritocracy are particularly good:

Much can be—and has been—written about the shortcomings of the WASPocracy. As a class, it was exclusionary and hence tolerant of social prejudice, if not often downright snobbish. Tradition-minded, it tended to be dead to innovation and social change. Imagination wasn’t high on its list of admired qualities.

Yet the WASP elite had dignity and an impressive sense of social responsibility. In a 1990 book called “The Way of the Wasp,” Richard Brookhiser held that the chief WASP qualities were “success depending on industry; use giving industry its task; civic-mindedness placing obligations on success, and antisensuality setting limits to the enjoyment of it; conscience watching over everything.”

[Sounds like a recipe for anxiety]…

What our new meritocrats have failed to evince—and what the older WASP generation prided itself on—is character and the ability to put the well-being of the nation before their own. Character embodied in honorable action is at the heart of the novels and stories of Louis Auchincloss, America’s last unembarrassedly WASP writer. Doing the right thing, especially in the face of temptations to do otherwise, was the WASP test par excellence. Most of our meritocrats, by contrast, seem to be in business for themselves.

Trust, honor, character: The elements that have departed U.S. public life with the departure from prominence of WASP culture have not been taken up by the meritocrats. Many meritocrats who enter politics, when retired by the electorate from public life, proceed to careers in lobbying or other special-interest advocacy. University presidents no longer speak to the great issues in education but instead devote themselves to fundraising and public relations, and look to move on to the next, more prestigious university presidency…

He goes on to suggest fault for the subprime collapse may lie with the greed of those inured to a life of ladder-climbing. He may even have a slight point there, but he fails to give an account for why and how the ‘graced’ WASP culture lost its hegemony. It seems like you have no choice but to agree with his critique of meritocracy, but the suggestion of Edenic nostalgia is misplaced. Isn’t neurotic maintenance/preservation just as exhausting as neurotic ladder-climbing? In Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, it’s the possibility of ‘downward social mobility’ that makes everyone a meritocrat, willing or not.

8. Speaking of meritocracy, Epstein may lament too that the days of the tastefully spartan Christmas card have come to a close, if there were any. It seems with social media on the rise, there’s less pressure to use Christmas cards to keep up / humblebrag. The Atlantic tackles one of our favorite annual sermon illustrations:

SDyEwIt wasn’t long ago that the Christmas letter, specifically, was reviled, not celebrated. An older writer on HamptonRoads.com, who had not gotten the memo it was time to celebrate the golden hour of the form, commented, “Every year I get those letters, the ones where friends brag about how Junior graduated from Harvard, Sister married the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Hubby got a promotion for the twentieth year in a row and the letter-writer was voted best Mom in the world.”…

So, what I find most fascinating about the decline of Christmas missives and its attendant celebration is that we are willing to imbue them with the power to connect us together, while denying that power to newer inventions.

Imagine social media’s critics casting their eyes on the enterprise of holiday-card writing:

-Holiday cards are a stand in for real face-to-face interaction, allowing people to present a simulacra of emotional connection that hollows out the real thing.
-The Christmas card list was the original “friend” list.
-Holiday cards, in that you could count them, led to an early quantification of social relationships.  “How many Christmas cards are on *your* mantle?”
-Christmas letters allowed people to cherrypick from their lives, allowing them to misrepresent the “real” person behind the letter…

[B]eyond the physical form of these cards, the spirit of Christmasness, of holidayness only grows more pervasive. No matter what time of the year, people now write contemplative letters with weird formatting to an ill-defined audience of “friends”; these are Christmas letters, whether Santa is coming down the chimney or not. There are reindeer horns on pugs in July. And humblebrags about promotions in April. There are dating updates in November. And you can disclose that you were voted mother of the year any damn day you please.

For good or for ill, perhaps we’re seeing not the death of the holiday card and letter, but its rebirth as a rhetorical mode.  Confessional, self-promotional, hokey, charming, earnest, technically honest, introspective, hopey-changey: Oh, Christmas Card, you have gone open-source and conquered us all.

Ouch. He’s pretty good in skewering our nostalgia, and it’s a provocative article, but I don’t there’s anything at all wrong with saying that Christmas cards are still nice, pleasant, personal and desirable in a way Facebook updates are not. Still a pretty interesting comparison.