1. Let’s start off with some seasonal cheer from A Charlie Brown Christmas. This week, the internet reminded us to take a closer look at Linus, who, during a Christmas pageant recital of Luke 2:8-14, does something incredible. I’ll let writer/discoverer Jason Soroski take it from here:

Linus is most associated with his ever-present security blanket. Throughout the story of Peanuts, Lucy, Snoopy, Sally and others all work to no avail to separate Linus from his blanket. And even though his security blanket remains a major source of ridicule for the otherwise mature and thoughtful Linus, he simply refuses to give it up.

Until this moment. When he simply drops it.

In that climactic scene when Linus shares “what Christmas is all about,” he drops his security blanket. And I am now convinced that this is intentional. Most telling is the specific moment he drops it: when he utters the words, “fear not” (at :38 seconds).

Christ, as our ultimate comfort, was first found wrapped up in his own security blanket, hidden away from a world that would inevitably harm him. Much in the way that he takes on our sin, he also takes on a warm blanket–our humble need for security. He arrives in our world all swaddled up so that we might, along with Linus, drop our blankets in a thrill of hope, in a moment of exhilaration.

2. Speaking of a thrill, ’tis once again the season to eat our feelings–the season to make snowmen-shaped cookies and count how many we eat. An article from Vox, “The Myth of Self-Control,” by Brian Resnick, explores the science of temptation and the evidence which suggests that “using willpower to achieve goals is overhyped.” The Mocking-understatement of 2016.

Many of us assume that if we want to make big changes in our lives, we have to sweat for it.

But if, for example, the change is to eat fewer sweets, and then you find yourself in front of a pile of cookies, researchers say the pile of cookies has already won.

“Our prototypical model of self-control is angel on one side and devil on the other, and they battle it out,” Fujita says. “We tend to think of people with strong willpower as people who are able to fight this battle effectively. Actually, the people who are really good at self-control never have these battles in the first place.”

Resnick isn’t writing about determinism or fatalism…but he is describing, pretty accurately, the bound will, our propensity to choose the bad thing. Moreover, Resnick’s “plate of cookies” is a great demonstration of how the law increases the trespass. Its very existence exacerbates the temptation against which we are helpless.

He concludes that if willpower is ineffective then we should be (at least a leetle bit) liberated from the guilt following our habitual stuffing-of-face, for example. Knowing that our fashionable failures don’t justify us, though, we may go a step further and call a thing what it is: the illusion of control, and especially of self-control: “Well, I may not be able to control the world, but at least I can do my own very best.” A study like this points toward our slavish nature and, most importantly, to a God who justifies us in spite of it.

If resisting temptation is a virtue, then more resistance should lead to greater achievement, right? That’s not what the results, pending publication in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Sciencefound.

The students who exerted more self-control were not more successful in accomplishing their goals. It was the students who experienced fewer temptations overall who were more successful when the researchers checked back in at the end of the semester. What’s more, the people who exercised more effortful self-control also reported feeling more depleted. So not only were they not meeting their goals, they were also exhausted from trying.

3. This hilarious book excerpt, “How to Appear Smart in Meetings,” is all you need to up your game at work next week. And also: “Essays that We, As Ladies of Early Middle Age, Would Like to See Written.”

4. Regardless of your politics on the pipeline, the following video is a moving testament to the power of forgiveness to transcend boundaries, ideologies, et al:

5. Well, how about some light reading on quantum physics this weekend? This interview by Amanda Gefter in The Atlantic is a wonderful read, not purely for its discussion of quantum physics, which is fascinating (¡nothing is real!), but for its unassuming testimony of faith. Wait for it…

In the interview, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman describes his lifelong wrestling match with the question “Are we machines?” His father, a pastor, was convinced that we are not; even as a teenager Hoffman’s own scientific readings indicated otherwise. Ultimately it was quantum physics, and his later dismissal of traditional realism, which brought him full circle:

Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviors. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be… Snakes and trains [for example], like the particles of physics, have no objective, observer-independent features. The snake I see is a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions…My snakes and trains are my mental representations; your snakes and trains are your mental representations.

Hoffman argues that we see things in terms of their “fitness functions,” their abilities to help us survive, and not necessarily for what they are.

The formal theory of conscious agents I’ve been developing is computationally universal—in that sense, it’s a machine theory…Nevertheless, for now I don’t think we are machines—in part because I distinguish between the mathematical representation and the thing being represented. As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world. I’m claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.

All in all, he’s not suggesting that nothing is real; he’s suggesting that our senses cannot be trusted to relate an objective reality. What we see is flawed, or at least skewed, towards our own self-preservation. From this we may be encouraged to remember what Paul writes in his letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 5:7): “For now we see but a dim reflection as in a mirror…” “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” Maybe Hoffman, even in his scientific celebrity, isn’t far from home after all.

6. Paul Bloom’s new book, Against Empathy, is causing something of a row these days. We have to first admit that his argument about empathy is far more nuanced than simply “against”; it may be better described as “too much of anything can be a bad thing.” (It is hard to say, honestly, whether or not Bloom is an Enneagram 8, “the challenger,” just hunting for something to go up against!) In the Boston Review this week, he shared some thoughts, first about empathy in public policy, contra every politician since, I guess, Bill Clinton. Seems convincing to me:

Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.

In light of these features, our public decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside. Our policies are improved…when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction.

Empathy is often a way for us to look inward to conjure a solution, finding in ourselves the strength to love or make peace. Bloom leads us to question our moral and emotional compasses and to the need for something outside of our personal biases, the need for an objective gospel.

Interpersonally, he cautions against what we might consider “the law of empathy,” the requirement that empathy is the best response, that a more empathetic person is a better person.

Putting aside the extremes, do more empathetic people make better friends and partners? To my knowledge, this has never been studied. Certainly we want our friends to understand us and to care about us. It would be unnerving if someone I love never flinched in the face of my suffering or lit up at my joy. But this is not because I want them to mirror my feelings; rather, it is because if they love me, they should worry about my misfortunes and be pleased when I do well. From a purely selfish standpoint, I might not want their empathetic resonance, particularly when I am feeling down. I would prefer that they greet my panic with calm and my sadness with good cheer. As Cicero said about friendship—but he could just as well have been talking about close relationships in general—it “improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.”

These waters require mercy more than anything. Jennifer Senior wrote in The NY Times, “Mr. Bloom has a nice feel for the untidiness of ethical thought.” This is a good way to describe a conversation about something as vast and particular as “empathy” which is hesitant to fold itself into any certain paper crane. It’s unhelpful, not to mention unrealistic, to expect companions in grief to live up to a standard, whether that be a standard of empathy or one of “rational compassion.” On this, see Chapter 8 of Churchy

7. Related to the above is Drake Baer’s post in the Science of Us, entitled, “Malcolm Gladwell Says HDTV Has Made the NFL Psychologically Painful.” Baer explains that the declining interest in American football may be a result of empathy-triggering technology.

The violence of football used to be obscured by the blurriness of standard-definition TV, but now it’s immediate in all its gore and glory. This, [Gladwell] properly observes, is “intimate information about other people’s emotions,” and it’s right there, getting piped into your living room or neighborhood sports bar.

Thanks to technology, football players are less abstracted, superhuman characters, and more vulnerable and relatable. And with that, parents — LeBron James included — are keeping their kids out of the game.

Depending on what you think of football, this is empathy working towards either a positive or negative end–but it is, nevertheless, working. In this scenario, empathy seems to be eliciting a controlling and inevitably biased response, perhaps confirming some of Bloom’s above suspicions. 

Strays: