1. First up, from The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler wrote a fantastic book review on The Selfishness of Others by Kristin Dombek (which is being released next week!). Dombek’s book observes how modern society has come to speak casually about narcissism, which was once a term reserved to describe a pathological illness, when referencing anyone but ourselves.

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Dombek’s upcoming book, however, explores the way that the pathology of ‘narcissism’ has ballooned in modern parlance; the term has begun to define the entire culture and everyone it in. Dombek believes that using the term to describe run-of-the-mill ‘bad boyfriends’ and young people in general…blinds us to how our own craving for esteem and attention works…’If there’s one thing a girl with a bad boyfriend has,’ [Dombek] writes, ‘it’s the moral upper hand in the religion of mental health.’”

In other words, if I view my partner as narcissistic, then that probably means I’m just as likely demonstrating narcissistic behaviors, too.

But amid the epidemic of narcissism talk, Ms. Dombek argues, we remain confused about just what narcissism is. Is it cover for an empty, insecure self?…Ms. Dombek’s own view echoes that of the philosopher René Girard, who argued that our tendency to see narcissism in parents and partners is an effort to reassure ourselves that if those we desire are less than ideally responsive to us it’s because they are sick, not because we are uninteresting….

Before the book ends, [Ms. Dombek’s] bad-ish boyfriend — or “romantic affiliate,” as he prefers it — has morphed into a good boyfriend, or at least a partner no more self-preoccupied, she realizes, than she is. She breaks free not from him, but from the compulsion to obsess over whether he is a narcissist, clearing space to consider bigger questions, like the relationship between the cigarette butt she unthinkingly — a passing stranger might say narcissistically — flicks onto the sidewalk and impending climate catastrophe.

A wonderful conclusion. “Let whoever has not sinned cast the first stone…”

(A timely example of what Dombek considers “the fear of narcissism” may even be found in this week’s Hidden Brain interview with psychologist Jean Twenge, who discusses narcissism in “the culture” and in the presidential race and in millennials–but never really addresses the inherent self-interest in all of humanity. Twenge, of course, isn’t trying to be critical, but rather to listen: “It’s not about blaming,” she says. “It’s about what do young people have to say?” And what she’s discovered, in her listening, is that millennials (and many others who seem to show symptoms of narcissism) are disappointed when faced with who they have become versus who they were told they would become. Her conclusion? “Maybe I’m not going to tell my kids that they’re so special and that they can be anything. Maybe I’m going to tell my kids that I love them…”)

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2. Moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum was profiled by The New Yorker as “The Philosopher of Feelings.” Her work seems primarily dedicated to reminding the field of philosophy of the importance of emotion: “We aren’t very loving creatures, apparently, when we philosophize.” Her emphasis on vulnerability and compassion is frankly very Christian, even if she wouldn’t say so herself.

Unlike many philosophers, Nussbaum is an elegant and lyrical writer, and she movingly describes the pain of recognizing one’s vulnerability, a precondition, she believes, for an ethical life. “To be a good human being,” she has said, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, the ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered.” She searches for a “non-denying style of writing,” a way to describe emotional experiences without wringing the feeling from them. She disapproves of the conventional style of philosophical prose, which she describes as “scientific, abstract, hygienically pallid,” and disengaged with the problems of its time. Like Narcissus, she says, philosophy falls in love with its own image and drowns.

Nussbaum’s newest book, entitled Anger and Forgiveness, was reviewed over at Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. In it,

[Nussbaum] argues that despite anger’s long cultural history of being seen as morally justifiable and as a useful signal that wrongdoing has taken place, it is a normatively faulty response that masks deeper, more difficult emotions and stands in the way of resolving them. Consequently, forgiveness — which Nussbaum defines as “a change of heart on the part of the victim, who gives up anger and resentment in response to the offender’s confession and contrition” — is also warped into a transactional proposition wherein the wrongdoer must earn, through confession and apology, the wronged person’s morally superior grace.

Or, as DZ wrote in “Are You Washed By the Blood of the Lion,” “anger inevitably turns grace into law.”

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This, from Nussbaum’s book:

Anger is an unusually complex emotion, since it involves both pain and pleasure [because] the prospect of retribution is pleasant…there’s a widespread feeling that, bad though anger is, people (and women especially) owe it to their self-respect to own, nourish, and publicly proclaim their anger.

At this point, you may of course be thinking of what many, including Nussbaum herself, see as the primary force behind the Trump campaign. Povoka’s article, on the other hand, aptly features a trailer for the indestructible Lemonade by Beyonce, which, though universally hailed, is perhaps a perfect example of the ostensible dignity of feminine anger. (Having not seen Lemonade myself, I have to wonder if, in it, the angry portion of the grieving process finds a new, more constructive direction? Or does it maintain its own consuming fire indefinitely?)

According to Nussbaum, anger prevents us from engaging with the deeper emotions of grief. It consumes us with the pursuit of what we perceive, perhaps reasonably, as justice and keeps us afloat in a river of ultimately uncontrollable water.

All too often, anger becomes an alluring substitute for grieving, promising agency and control when one’s real situation does not offer control…The way to deal with grief is just what one might expect: mourning and, eventually, constructive forward-looking action to repair and pursue one’s life. Anger is often well-grounded, but it is too easy for it to hijack the necessary mourning process.

3. In the Sept 2016 issue of The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan’s article, “How Helicopter Parents Can Cause Binge Drinking” brilliantly addresses parenting “laws” from a couple different angles.

Parenting laws, directed at teenagers, are always interesting because the teenager is rarely seen as a full person but only as someone who is merely learning–he is not yet who he will ultimately be (that seems false to me, if any of us can ever be who we are). Since teenagers are supposed to be in-flux, ‘becomings’ rather than ‘beings,’ they are always seen as the object, something to be sanctified or molded by the law. But the law accuses rather than sanctifies, and often, as with this example of binge drinking, inspires rebellion.

Regarding how to raise a successful kid, Flanagan argues, there are two kinds of parents–and both are sworn enemies to each other. First, there’s the “Good Parent.”

Good Parents think that alcohol is dangerous for young people and that riotous drunkenness and its various consequences have nothing to recommend them. These parents enforce the law and create a family culture that supports their beliefs.

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The Good Parent, however, is focusing on getting his or her kid into a good college. They believe that following these rules will help.

…the Good Parent who naively assumes that preventing a teenager from drinking will help him or her in the college-admissions stakes is dead wrong. A teenager growing up in one of the success factories—the exceptional public high school in the fancy zip code, the prestigious private school—will oftentimes be a person whose life is composed of extremes: extreme studying, extreme athletics, extreme extracurricular pursuits, and extreme drinking. Binge drinking slots in neatly with the other, more obviously enhancing endeavors. Perhaps it is even, for some students, necessary. What 80-hour-a-week executive doesn’t drop her handbag on the console table and head to the wine fridge the second she gets home? Her teenager can’t loosen the pressure valve that way—he has hours of work ahead. A bump of Ritalin is what he needs, not a mellowing half bottle of Shiraz. But come Saturday night? He’ll get his release.

The top colleges reward intensity, and binge drinking is a perfected form of that quality.

Everything is hard for a kid whose motto is ‘work hard, play hard.’ Sure, the Good Parent is a rule follower but is also blind to the fact that the rules, or the law, ultimately don’t provide what everyone is looking for–for the student to become what the parents consider successful, and beyond that, acceptance. Acceptance of students by colleges and acceptance of parents by, well, whatever pressures tend to plague parents. The rules simply point out the limits of the teenager in question.

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So the Good Parents are Pharisees. And, from our perspective, the easy targets. Next up, Flanagan continues, there are the “Get-Real” parents. In a lot of ways, the Get-Real Parents redirect the law at themselves–while understanding that their kids will never live up to the expectations of those Good Parents, Get-Real Parents nevertheless think there is still a way to do parenting right.

Get-Real Parents think that high-school kids have been drinking since Jesus left Chicago, and that it’s folly to pretend the new generation won’t as well…

Get-Real Parents understand that learning to drink takes a while and often starts with a baptism of fire. Better for Charlotte to barf her guts out on the new sectional than in the shadowy basement of a distant fraternity house…

The real question about these parents (many of whom pay for their kids’ alcohol…) is this: Why have they so cheerfully handed over their children to this ugly and worthless experience?

To a large extent, what many Get-Real Parents are interested in is success. Ever since returning home from the maternity ward, they have been in the business of raising winners. Winners make varsity, winners take Advanced Placement classes, winners apply early decision to selective colleges, and winners are at the top of the social hierarchy at their competitive high schools—which means they boot and (more important) rally. Perhaps, for some of the more mercenary and lucrative professions—including stock trading, investment banking, and high-stakes sales—there are actually benefits to heavy drinking. A binge drinker emerges from college both elevated and coarsened: educated enough to compete in the market and sullied enough by the hard knocks of binge drinking that he won’t be too shocked by what he finds there.

No wonder these young people keep drinking.

The Get-Real Parents have taken a concept which looks a lot like grace and acceptance and turned it into manipulation. Like the Good Parents, they have a goal in mind–the transformation (or sanctification) of their kids in the direction of the parents’ choosing via law.

It seems to me that there’s also generational warfare here. The current generation of students will never be able to conform to the expectations of another generation–can a college freshman live up to his dad’s glory days? Will he ever feel he has met that expectation?

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4. In humor, there’s a Seinfeld spec script floating around, which picks up approximately three years after the last episode left off… Read at your own risk here. Also, from McSweeney’s: “I Love You, But Our Happiness Doesn’t Fit My Personal Brand’s Narrative Strategy.”

5. More from Popova at Brain Pickings! In this post, she unearths Josef Pieper’s brilliant 1948 analysis of leisure, and I was tempted to just  quote the whole thing, but here are the highlights.

Leisure, then, is a condition of the soul — (and we must firmly keep this assumption, since leisure is not necessarily present in all the external things like “breaks,” “time off,” “weekend,” “vacation,” and so on — it is a condition of the soul) — leisure is precisely the counterpoise to the image for the “worker.”

…Leisure is a form of that stillness that is necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real — a co-respondence, eternally established in nature — has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real…

Leisure is not the attitude of the one who intervenes but of the one who opens himself; not of someone who seizes but of one who lets go, who lets himself go, and “go under,” almost as someone who falls asleep must let himself go…

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According to Pieper’s interpretation, leisure is very much aligned with the left-handed power of God. It also of a completely different nature than “work.”

The simple “break” from work — the kind that lasts an hour, or the kind that lasts a week or longer — is part and parcel of daily working life. It is something that has been built into the whole working process, a part of the schedule. The “break” is there for the sake of work. It is supposed to provide “new strength” for “new work,” as the word “refreshment” indicates: one is refreshed forwork through being refreshed from work.

Leisure stands in a perpendicular position with respect to the working process… Leisure is not there for the sake of work, no matter how much new strength the one who resumes working may gain from it; leisure in our sense is not justified by providing bodily renewal or even mental refreshment to lend new vigor to further work… Nobody who wants leisure merely for the sake of “refreshment” will experience its authentic fruit, the deep refreshment that comes from a deep sleep.

For more on this line of thought, grab a copy of The Mockingbird’s Work and Play issue here.

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6. Over at 1517: The Legacy Project, Donovan Riley wrote a great exposition on “Simul iustus et peccator” and cited the following quote from Luther’s Introduction to Psalm 23. A welcome reminder for those of us who tend to feel that the Christian life should look “somehow different” from the life of anyone else:

All the saints are sinners and remain sinners. But they are holy because God in His grace neither sees nor counts these sins, but forgets, forgives, and covers them. There is thus no distinction between the saints and the non-saints. They are sinners alike and all sin daily, only that the sins of the holy are not counted but covered; and the sins of the unholy are not covered but counted. One would have a healing dressing on and is bandaged; the other wound is open and undressed. Nevertheless, both of them are truly wounded, truly sinners, concerning which we in our books in other places have abundantly bore witness.

Strays:

  • I couldn’t bear to read any spoilers about The Cursed Child, but apparently the new Harry Potter is “all about daddy issues”: more on that here.
  • For some reason, the title of the following article seemed like it would be funny, but it’s quite sobering and certainly good for thought: Four Things Dying People Agree are as Bad or Worse Than Death.
  • Finally, Netflix continues to inspire, this time with a new one from Christopher Guest: