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Social Science

“The Only Thing You’ve Got Is What You Can Sell”: Making Peace with the Stories We Tell Ourselves

“The Only Thing You’ve Got Is What You Can Sell”: Making Peace with the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Death of a Salesman is one of my favorite stories, not because it is a piece of great “litracha,” but because it is about a man to whom I can profoundly relate. For anyone who wasn’t subjected to Arthur Miller’s masterpiece in high school, here are the basics: Willy Loman is a salesman harboring great expectations for his son, Biff. When grown-up Biff returns for a visit (“I’m mixed up very bad,” he says), Willy’s delusions about who Biff should be collide with who Biff really is. Willy nevertheless maintains a blind sort of optimism: “Certain men just don’t get started…

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From Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote

Last week, DZ posted from Oliver Burkeman’s excellent article on time management and the law of unread emails. I just finished up his 2012 book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, and, boy, good points of connection abound. Trying to get to the bottom of why we have such difficulty doing what we are told to do, or, rather, not doing what we are told not to do, Burkeman uses a study conducted by Daniel Wegner at Harvard’s ‘Mental Control Laboratory.’

When you try not to think of a white bear, you may experience some success in forcing alternative thoughts into your mind. At the same time, though, a metacognitive monitoring process will crank into action, to scan your mind for evidence of whether you are succeeding or failing at the task. And this is where things get perilous, because if you try too hard – or, Wegner’s studies suggest, if you are tired, stressed, depressed, attempting to multi-task, or otherwise suffering from ‘mental load’ – metacognition will frequently go wrong. The monantidote-oliver-burkemanitoring process will start to occupy more than its fair share of limelight on the cognitive stage. It will jump to the forefront of consciousness – and suddenly, all you will be able to think about is white bears, and how badly you’re doing at not thinking about them.

Could it be that … our efforts to feel positive seem so frequently to bring about the opposite result? … When experimental subjects are told of an unhappy event, but then instructed to try not to feel sad about it, they end up feeling worse than people who are informed of the event, but given no instructions about how to feel. In another study, when patients who were suffering from panic disorders listened to relaxation tapes, their hearts beat faster than patients who listened to audiobooks with no explicitly ‘relaxing’ content. Bereaved people who make the most effort to avoid feeling grief, research suggests, take the longest to recover from their loss. Our efforts at mental suppression fail in the sexual arena, too: people instructed not to think about sex exhibit greater arousal, as measured by the electrical conductivity of their skin, than those instructed to suppress such thoughts.

He concludes this chapter, entitled “On Trying Too Hard to be Happy,” with the metaphor of a Chinese finger trap. In the case of striving for our own happiness, he writes, “‘doing the presumably sensible thing is counterproductive.’ Following the negative path to happiness is about doing the other thing – the presumably illogical thing – instead.” In other words, try to climb out of that ditch and before long human nature kicks in, handing down a shovel.

On Being an Imposter: “Fake It Till Ya Make It” in a World of Expectations

On Being an Imposter: “Fake It Till Ya Make It” in a World of Expectations

This one comes to us from pastry-making imposter, Madeline D’Elia. 

The social science concept of imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon (IP) as it should properly be called, has been in the spotlight for a few years now. It was the topic of Facebook CEO’s Sheryl Sandberg’s 2011 book Lean In, social psychologist’s Amy Cuddy’s 2012 Ted Talk, and Carl Richards’ piece in the New York Times. We’ve all heard the hackneyed expression, “fake it till you make it,” and IP can best be thought of as the deep seated anxiety that you will always be on the former end versus the…

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Prejudice Like Crack: Confirming Confirmation Bias with Michael Lewis

Prejudice Like Crack: Confirming Confirmation Bias with Michael Lewis

I’ve been enjoying Michael Lewis’s new book, The Undoing Project, which picks up where Moneyball left off: When it comes to sports recruitment, if the numbers are more reliable than human judgment, the next question is why? What’s going on in the human mind that makes even the experts’ top picks hit-or-miss?

One answer is the inevitable confirmation bias. The following definition comes to us from our magazine’s recent Mental Health issue: “The tendency to experience the world through the lens of your already held beliefs. If you think, before you’ve eaten there, that La Frontera is a terrible restaurant…the odds are in favor of you hating it…

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Searching for Hope in Raising a Mentally Ill Child

Searching for Hope in Raising a Mentally Ill Child

One last peek into the Mental Health Issue, right before we send off the Food & Drink Issue to print (in one short week). This one came from Brian and Debbie Solum, who were also featured in the Mockingcast special during that time, which you can listen to here. (Not to be missed!) If you’d like to send the story, or the whole issue, to a friend–they’re still available here. 

We will be the first to admit that we are cynics when it comes to parenting. After almost twenty years of experience, we feel we can easily dismantle every Christian how-to book…

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The Surprising, Unsought Gift of Sylvia

Can’t believe we’ve never posted a quote from Anne Long’s classic (and now sadly out of print) treatise on Listening, much of which was inspired/informed by the work of her longtime mentor and teacher, the hallowed Dr. Frank Lake. The book is a must, not just for those involved in ministry, but for anyone hoping to traverse an increasingly divided world. Here’s an excerpt from Section 2:

41m7cmrifql-_sx314_bo1204203200_Looking back, we may well recall individuals who have meant something to us at particular, sometimes crucial, points on our life journey. For me, it was Sylvia Lake, wife of the well-known Dr. Frank, yet with an experience and contribution very much her own. I first met her when training as a Clinical Theology tutor. There was an honesty, humanity, wisdom and wholeness about her which were, for many of us, a ‘fleshing out’ of integrity. She was ‘fully human, fully alive’, in touch with both joy and pain. And, as I discovered  in the times when she listened to me, there was a quality of loving in her that was resilient, straight and unsentimental. Gordon Allport, the Harvard psychologist, said that love as described in 1 John 4 is ‘incomparably the greatest psychotherapeutic agent — something that professional psychiatry cannot of itself create, focus nor release’.

This was so with Sylvia. Certainly it was more than a collection of human qualities that attracted me, rather a uniting of them into what felt both personal and beyond personality. She was at home in her humanity yet at the same time pointing beyond herself. At various points when I have been depressed I have turned to Sylvia and been helped, not only by her good listening skills but by something deeper–the presence of grace and God in her. I can think of others who, in similar ways, have been given to me at various, often critical, points in my life. They may or may not have been trained in counseling skills, which has helped me to see that, [in the words of Alastair Campbell] “In the last analysis there is no cleverness or accomplishment in pastoral care. It is no more (and no less) than sharing with another in the experience of grace, a surprising, unsought gift.” (pg 44-45)

The Academic Terror Dream

The Academic Terror Dream

This one comes to us from our terrified academic friend, Duo Dickinson.

I am 61 years old. The last time I took a meaningful test was when I took, and passed, the last 2 (of 5) days of licensing exams to become an architect in 1982, 35 years ago.

But 20 years of testing from grammar school through licensing exams infected me with a disease so deep it’s unseen, unfelt and without consequence. Unless I am asleep.

By any objective estimate, I have lived a blessed life. I may have worked hard, but I have been given every advantage by circumstances I did…

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The Church Without Christ and the Ghost of Christmas Future

The Church Without Christ and the Ghost of Christmas Future

I am an American Christian, however little I sometimes want to own that label. God, preaching, and proper theology may matter to me, but I know there is a business side of the church that demands pragmatic response. Bills must be paid, complaints satisfied, and attendance must be kept up, and all these things seem to ask technique of this pastor far more than faith. Pragmatism is rewarded, and this pragmatism easily hardens into cynicism when one knows how the ecclesial sausage is made.

I serve two congregations and converse daily with an assortment of other insiders, and I have to watch my tongue around…

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My Best New Years Eve(r)

My Best New Years Eve(r)

In downtown Milwaukee, there’s a Starbucks attached to an ice rink where every winter, you can drive past and see families, singles, couples, and kids of all ages gliding in graceful rotation over an artificial frozen pond. The sight evokes the kind of Americana sentimentality one might feel upon seeing a Norman Rockwell painting or a 1980’s Speilberg film. It just looks like the thing to do – the thing you ‘ought’ (read Law) to do in the winter, in the Midwest, with your wife and kids…especially during the holidays. It seems so inviting to sit with a cup of hot coco or…

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How to Lose an Argument: Biased Assimilation in Rational Thinking

How to Lose an Argument: Biased Assimilation in Rational Thinking

I think we owe ourselves a congratulations. We got through the holidays! The holiday-less S.A.D.-inducing winter spans before us and the countdown to new TV shows and MLK day begins.

Amid all of my complaining about 2016 and the politics of gift-giving, I had forgotten to expect one thing that can actually make the holidays challenging: just spending time with family…occupying the same dinner table, digging into the same refrigerator, watching the same movies with a group of people we never chose our relation to. It was only a matter of time before our great Uncle Fabio–we all have one–staggered through the doorway with all sorts of opinions…

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Mom Goggles

Mom Goggles

One of my favorite shows on television is The Goldbergs, which is a sitcom about a family in the 1980s. The mother, Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey), is ridiculous not only in her 1980s-ness (jazzercise, big hair, shoulder pads, mom jeans), but also in her single-minded devotion to her family. Her love for them often seems to travel only in a one-way direction. Her husband is apathetic. Her children are teenagers and embarrassed by her smothering affection. But she doggedly loves them anyway, in spite of herself and in spite of their protests. In one episode, her children accuse her of having…

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“Mother and Child”: Calling BS on the Expectations of “Silent Night”

“Mother and Child”: Calling BS on the Expectations of “Silent Night”

I used to love how the carol “Silent Night” captured my image of the season: peaceful, expectant, hopeful. Then I became an adult, and a parent, and Christmastime became anything but serene. I found myself singing words like “all is calm, all is bright” while looking around at other faces, wondering, “Does anyone else believe this nonsense?” When God saw fit to give me my own swaddled baby boy–then another–I related to Mary more than ever and felt that someone must speak up for her, because if I know anything about Christmas with a newborn (and I do; my kids…

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