choices


This is one in a series of posts about a recent trip to visit Biblical archaeological sites in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). I’m well along in the series; I’ve already written about Roman architecture, Roman religion, the exercise of imperial power, and the apostle Paul’s message to Jews and Gentiles. There are a few more topics I want to reflect on, including why Christianity appealed to the populace and how early Christians responded to oppression. This post will be about the second of those topics.

I’ve previously discussed the expectation throughout the Roman Empire that everyone offer sacrifices to or in other ways venerate the Roman gods, among them the emperors, who were typically awarded divine status posthumously, and sometimes when still alive. Adherents of Roman and Greek religious cults had no difficulty with this requirement; the person who worshiped Zeus on Monday could worship Aphrodite on Tuesday and the emperor on Wednesday without dissonance. Monotheists worship only one God, though. If they are being faithful to that one deity, they will refuse honoring all others. This was an issue for Jews before there were any Christians. After Palestine had come under Roman rule, in the days of Augustus, they were granted an accommodation. They didn’t have to make sacrifices to the emperor. Instead, it was considered sufficient that sacrifices were made for the safety of the emperor in the Jerusalem temple. Throughout most of the empire, first-century Christians were considered Jews, and so they benefited from this exemption.

There was some persecution of Christians by Romans even when they ostensibly had the benefit of the Jewish loophole. In particular, Christians were persecuted by Nero in Rome in the 60s. Both Peter and Paul were martyred there. Rome’s understanding with Judaism was strained when temple sacrifices for the emperor were suspended in 66 A.D., shortly before the Jewish revolt. Jews also became more concerned about losing some from among their number to Christian conversion and became determined to not allow those converts to continue to identify with synagogues. “The Curse of the Minim,” found in a Jewish document written around 90 A.D., was intended to end the practice of Christian converts associating with Judaism.

Thus, toward the end of the first century, Christians became less able to depend on the Jewish exemption to the expectation that they worship the emperor. That was also when emperor Domitian intensified efforts to get the entire populace to participate in emperor worship. In his commentary on Revelation, Paige Patterson, after summarizing the above history, indicated that “Christians, especially Jewish Christians, found themselves facing the unhappy alternatives of either denying Christ and embracing Judaism entirely or else preparing themselves for serious persecution at the hands of both the Romans and the Jews.” (Revelation)

The book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s, and the letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3 address the increasing likelihood of persecution or at least hardship because of their faith. Thus, the church at Smyrna referred to “the slander of those who call themselves Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” (Lexham English Bible) This may sound like anti-Jewish sentiment, but, as N.T. Wright notes, “this was essentially a struggle within Judaism, not against Judaism.” (Revelation for Everyone, p. 16) The church had Gentiles in it, but also had a fair number of Jews who believed they were the ones who were properly worshiping the God of the Hebrews. Those in the synagogue disagreed, and were probably telling the Romans that followers of Christ were not true Jews. John, the writer of Revelation, warned that the outcome would be persecution:

“Do not be afraid of the things which you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and you will experience affliction ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10)

The last phase seems to suggest that some in Smyrna would be martyred. We don’t know whether the believers there remained unswerving in their faith, but it’s fairly clear that in some of the churches there were believers who compromised when faced with hardship. This seems to have been the case in Pergamum, which had major temples to Zeus, Asclepius, and Athena and was becoming an important center for the imperial cult.

Base of altar for sacrifices to Asclepius, Pergamum.

Remains of temple to the emperor Trajan, Pergamum.

A believer named Antipas had been martyred in Pergamum. John commends those who remained steadfast despite the danger: “you hold fast to my name and did not deny your faith in me….” Yet there were others who weren’t to be commended:

 “But I have a few things against you: that you have there those who hold fast to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat food sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality.” (Rev. 2:14)

John is referring here to an episode during Israel’s exodus from Egypt in which Balaam, a prophet hired by Balak, the king of Moab, instructed Balak to send Moabite women to entice Israelite men to sin. Those in the church who hold fast to Balaam’s teaching have apparently decided that it is acceptable for Christians to compromise with the surrounding culture in a manner similar to how the Israelite men acted in response to Moabite seductresses. G. K. Beale gives the following explanation of the temptations that were present in Pergamum:

“In particular, what may be included are trade guild festivals involving celebration of patron deities through feasts and sometimes immoral activities. Refusal to participate in such activities could result in economic and social ostracism (cf. 1 Pet. 3:11–21). Therefore, there was much pressure to compromise. And just as Israel was influenced to fornicate both sexually and spiritually, the same was true of Christians in Pergamum.” (The Book of Revelation, p. 249)

We tend to think that early Christians were regularly being thrown to wild beasts or being told to recant or die. Though such things did happen, what was probably more common was the kind of social and economic pressures found in Pergamum. Membership in one’s trade guild, and with it one’s livelihood, depended on participating in an occasional festival honoring a pagan deity. It would be easy to rationalize such compromise. Yet John makes it clear that Christ wouldn’t tolerate such betrayal of the faith among his followers. All this makes me wonder whether there are compromises I’m making that Christ finds equally distasteful. We Westerners are in a culture that doesn’t erect statues to Zeus or Athena, Still, there are abundant idols for us to worship–fame, money, power, pleasure, self. It takes considerable discernment to recognize whether we’ve been bowing the knee to any of these. Reflecting on the situation in Pergamum has made me more attuned to this issue in my own life.

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This is the last in a series of posts about David Foster Wallace’s monumental novel Infinite Jest. Wallace details a variety of factors that make it difficult to live as an authentic self in twenty-first century America. I most recently posted about practices that characters in his book used to battle addictions and live more authentically. Much of what he said is similar to the approach taken by James K.A. Smith.

Smith, a philosopher from Calvin College, has written a series of books about the importance of our actions in shaping us. He refers often to DFW; Marathe’s comment that “You are what you love” is also the title of one of Smith’s books. Smith writes, “our most fundamental orientation to the world–the longings and desires that orient us to some version of the good life–are shaped and configured by imitation and practice.” (You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, p. 19) Like Wallace in his Kenyon College speech, Smith proposes that humans are creatures that worship–we can’t not worship. Our devotion is evident not only when we attend religious services but also when we engage in secular “liturgies” such as going to the mall. By our actions we are always giving ourselves away to something, and we are shaped thereby. Sometimes we give homage mindlessly, but we can also intentionally engage in liturgies in an effort to change. We can choose to engage in practices that with time will reshape our desires.

This same strategy for change–identify what activities will transform you and do those things repeatedly until they shape your desires and thoughts, not being overly concerned with how or why the change occurs–is an essential part of the program at E.T.A., the tennis academy that is one of the two main settings in Infinite Jest. Here is Jim Troeltsch, one of the older players, speaking to his Little Buddies:

“Boys, what it is is I’ll tell you it’s repetition. First last always. It’s hearing the same motivational stuff over and over till sheer repetitive weight makes it sink down into the gut. It’s making the same pivots and lunges and strokes over and over and over again, at you boy’s age it’s reps for their own sake, putting results on the back burner…” (p. 117)

Unlike the transformative practices at Ennet House and AA, which are also described at length in IJ, the practices at E.T.A. are mainly designed to make the students the best tennis players they can be. There’s also some attention given to preventing the successful players from self-destructing, but there’s no emphasis on shaping desires or becoming authentic selves. And, though the E.T.A. liturgies contain, as do those of AA, elements reminiscent of worship (I think that the human proclivity to worship is what DFW means when he talks about the impulse to give oneself away), this similarity isn’t discussed. This topic is probably one of those “real” matters that Mario, the novel’s ‘holy fool,’ has noticed embarrasses all but the younger players. When Mario visited the other main setting in the novel, the drug treatment facility at Ennet House, he liked it “because it’s very real; people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.” [p. 591]

Mario’s brother Hal, one of the star players at E.T.A., has improved his tennis skills tremendously as a result of the practices taught at E.T.A., but these practices have done nothing to cure his inner emptiness. In contrast, over at Ennet House, Gately has followed the suggestions offered him by A.A. and his desires are changing. He’s also becoming a more complete self, one who cares about others and wants to do what is right. [The rest of this paragraph discusses the end of the book, so readers who don’t want spoilers should skip it.] Near the end of IJ, as Gately lies in his hospital bed, he reflects on his life while he was still actively using, especially his relationship with “Fackelmann,” with whom he committed crimes to support his habit. Fackelmann did something that put him in grave danger; rather than helping him, Gately took advantage of him. It’s not made clear why Gately relives this memory; my take is that by doing so he is mentally engaging in the liturgical practices of confession and repentance. As Christians have learned for centuries, these practices have tremendous power to shape us. Their power doesn’t stem from being embedded in a religious ceremony; they are effective even for those, like Gately, who practice them in the temple of the imagination. The book ends with symbolism that could be suggesting new birth; perhaps Gately receives forgiveness from the God he can’t sense and has trouble believing in.

Despite the hundreds of pages devoted to all manner of folly and failure, in the end IJ seemed to me to be a hopeful book. No matter how badly the characters behaved, no matter what trouble they got themselves into, redemption was possible. The route to wholeness is seen most clearly in the practices of AA, but the way of redemption is much more ancient than that, having been followed by pilgrims throughout the centuries. Recognize how far you’ve fallen, surrender your pride, and practice those things that will teach you humility, constancy, and patience. As the apostle Peter put it, the God of all grace will restore, establish, and strengthen you.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

I recently saw “The Hero,” starring Sam Elliott as aging actor Lee Hayden. Lee had success early in his career but has been marking time ever since then. As he tells Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a woman barely older than his 34-year-old daughter who becomes his love interest, as a young man he starred in a movie that he is proud of. Since then he’s kept busy but hasn’t accomplished much. The opening scene shows what he has been doing; he records take after take of a commercial for barbecue sauce, “The perfect partner for your chicken.”

Lee checks with his agent regularly, hoping to be offered a movie script. Unfortunately none is forthcoming. Still, he yearns for one more chance at success. In his dreams, he often finds himself back in the movie for he was famous (also named “The Hero”), though when he returns there he is an old man. He’s divorced and has a strained relationship with Lucy, his daughter. He’s bungled things with Lucy; he’s been absent and inattentive. He feels badly about where things stand with her, but apparently not badly enough to change. He devotes his time and energies not to others but to smoking pot, often with Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a former acting buddy who is now his dealer.

Lee is stuck. However, two things happen that have the potential to change his life. First, he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Second, he and Charlotte begin seeing each other. It’s not that the attentions of a woman can solve his problems, but the woman in this case has a somewhat different take on life than he does, and that opens him to new possibilities. One interaction between them goes something like this:

Lee: It’s kind of weird to be remembered for one part forty years ago.
Charlotte: Yeah, but it’s as close to immortality as most of us will get.

You’ve done better than you think, Charlotte seems to be saying. Don’t worry so much about your legacy. Live in the present rather than in the past or the future.

Here’s a conversation they have about their relationship, but also apparently about living one’s life:

Charlotte: So what do you want?
Lee: (uncomfortably) I don’t know.
Charlotte: Don’t think so hard about it, man.

Charlotte may give too little thought to what she’s doing with her life, living impulsively, profligately. Still, she’s a good corrective for Lee, who is paralyzed by his thoughts.

Why is the film called “The Hero?” Mary McCarthy wrote “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story,” Ironically, Lee, the man called “The Hero,” has for decades avoided being the hero in his own life. He has evaded self-knowledge and the commitment to others required to develop and sustain relationships. His cancer diagnosis and Charlotte’s provocations are invitations to the hero’s journey (I’m thinking of Joseph Campbell’s description of the mythological hero who is called to adventure, resists, accepts the call, enters an unfamiliar world, undergoes an ordeal, and returns home with a reward).

Besides coming from cancer and Charlotte, Lee’s invitation to the hero’s journey also comes from within himself. The dreamscape that he enters when asleep has two recurring scenes. In the first, he is a cowboy who encounters a man hanging from a tree. In the second, he stands on the ocean shore, looking out toward the horizon. I take the first of these to be an intimation of his mortality. One approach to dream interpretation is to see everything in the dream as representing a part of the dreamer; in this case, the lynched man would represent him. The second scene, with the vastness of the ocean and the force of its waves, might represent all that is greater than Lee–the infinite, the eternal, the divine. Like Lee, we are prone to live selfish, constricted lives until we are confronted either by suffering and death or by that immensity that makes us feel tiny by comparison. Will we try to hide from what we’ve seen, or will we accept the invitation to venture out into it?

Lee reacts poorly at first. He can’t even manage to tell anyone he has cancer, though he tries. He avoids setting an appointment with the oncologist, not wanting to face his dire medical condition. During the last third of the film, he makes some progress, though I won’t give details here. Suffice it to say that, having for decades avoided being the hero of his own life, there’s only so much he can accomplish in the few days covered in the film. Lee may have accepted the call to heroism, but he hasn’t progressed very far in the journey.

I’ll close by describing the final scene in the film; this is something of a spoiler, so don’t read on if you would rather not know how it ends. Remember that in the first scene Lee was in a studio recording the soundtrack for a commercial. In the final scene, he is back in the same sound studio, recording a follow-up commercial for a new version of the same product. It seems that he has gotten exactly nowhere during the film. But is that so? In the opening scene, he appeared a little irritated having to repeat the same phrase over and over, a little contemptuous of what he was doing to earn a living. I may be reading too much into the final scene, but the irritation appears to be gone and he seems at peace even while doing something so prosaic. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do something ordinary or banal again and again, perhaps bemused that life had come to this but more than anything just glad to be alive? May we all achieve that measure of contentment.

On his blog The Quest for the Good Life, Andy Tix wrote a post titled “Confessions of a Trump Skeptic.” He admitted to having been overly preoccupied with politics over the past six months and to having despaired over the results of the election in the U.S. I can relate; in fact, I wrote a similar post in November. What struck me most about Andy’s post, though, was his account of the Introduction to Psychology class he taught the day after the election was held:

” I was expecting people to be confused and fearful like me, but what I’ll most remember were some students ‘high-fiving’ in celebration.

“The topic of the day just so happened to be the social psychology of prejudice, and so I began the class hesitantly asking my students to comment how their reading connected with their experience of the election. A young woman cautiously raised her hand, and remarked that ‘the election has caused me to shut down in fear.’ I asked why, again assuming she would be like me. I’ll never forget her response: she said it had felt impossible to tell anyone how she had voted for our new President-elect because of worry that they would regard her as a bigot.”

Andy quickly realized that he had made assumptions about those who had voted differently from him that in many cases were inaccurate. In other words, he had stereotyped, thinking of Trump supporters as all alike. He had judged them as “uncaring, ignorant, unenlightened fools.” Perhaps some are. But for every white supremacist or Neo-Nazi who voted for the Republican ticket there were dozens who were more concerned with issues such as the decline of the middle class, the growth of government regulation, or the character of the Democratic nominee. Among them were both of my siblings and my mother.

Andy includes in his post a response he gave on Facebook to a friend who was struggling with issues of faith and politics. He wrote the following:

“Part of the lesson here for me is to be humble enough to really try to understand the appeal of a man like Trump to basically good people like many of my family members and friends who voted for him. I feel like I need to do a better job of listening to people different from me–particularly those with different ways of thinking about issues such as these.”

There’s an irony in our not listening well to those different from us. Logically, we are least likely to be able to correctly predict the thought patterns of those who are most different from us. These, then, would be the people we would need to listen to most carefully in order to get any sort of understanding of how they reason about issues. In contrast, those who express opinions much like our own on a wide variety of issues probably think about the world much as we do, so we don’t need to listen as carefully or probe as deeply in order to understand their reasoning processes. Why then, do we do the opposite of what makes sense– why do we listen only briefly and superficially to those who differ from us, but carefully to those who share our opinions? And why then are we so sure we understand those who are different from us when we haven’t given them much of a hearing?

Perhaps part of the reason we tend not to listen to those who are different from us is the outgroup homogeneity effect–the tendency to view all members of some group of which we aren’t members as alike. In contrast, we see the members of our own group as more varied. I’m part of the ‘group’ of Clinton voters, but offhand can think of at least a dozen people I know who are members of what is for me the ‘outgroup:’ Trump voters. They all are white, but other than this one common feature they vary tremendously–in demographic characteristics such as age and gender, but also in their degree of enthusiasm for their candidate and their reasons for voting as they did. I’ve talked with a few of them in depth about the election, and it’s evident that the differences among them outweigh the commonalities.

Andy mentioned the need for humility. Besides empathy, that’s probably the quality most lacking as we look across the political divide. The psalmist writes about taking a stance of humility before God:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother….” (From Psalm 131, NRSV)

I wonder whether psalmist’s aversion to occupying his thoughts “with things too great and marvelous for me” pertains not only to the proper way to approach God but also the proper way to think about others. My imagination can never encompass the totality of their feelings, beliefs, and motives. It’s only when in humility I give up my conviction that I know what they are thinking that I can truly hear what they have to say. That’s something I have to remind myself of again and again.

Image from democracynow.org

Image from democracynow.org

About a week after the recent U.S. election, I wrote a post regarding the ways I had not followed the path of the pilgrim during the preceding months. The pilgrim’s path is characterized by kindness, clearsightedness, humility, faith in God’s care, and a “hermeneutic of generosity” (Paul Farmer’s phrase for interpretations that give others the benefit of the doubt). Writing about my shortcomings in this regard has helped me subsequently be less preoccupied with current political machinations and more focused on God’s love for all that he has made. It’s helped moderate my fear and anger. What’s left, though, is still sorrow–sorrow mainly for the “losers”–those who will experience negative consequences as a result of the election–but also sorrow for many of the “winners,” particularly those whose votes were based on a narrow self-interest that had in it no room for concern for the well-being of the immigrant, the refugee, or the foreigner. Some of these winners may be disappointed if the new political order doesn’t deliver on some of its promises to them, but I’m mostly concerned that some might get precisely what they want to their detriment. Benefiting at the expense of people less fortunate than you may please you, but it’s not good for your soul.

a-testament-of-devotionI’ve been particularly struck by something I read recently in A Testament of Devotion by Quaker writer and scholar Thomas R. Kelly. The book was copyrighted in 1941, but the chapter from which the quote came was apparently a lecture delivered to the yearly meeting of Quakers held in March, 1939. Kelly’s topic was “Holy Obedience,” which he introduced with a quote by Meister Eckhart:

“There are plenty to follow our Lord halfway, but not the other half. They will give up possessions, friends, and honors, but it touches them too closely to disown themselves.”

Kelly encourages his listeners to follow Jesus all the way. He tells them some benefits will result, among them holiness, humility, simplicity, and suffering. Yes, he considers suffering a benefit. Some will suffer because of oppression, some because of hardship, and, Kelly seems to think, some will suffer because of the suffering of others. Of course there is always someone somewhere who is suffering. I’ve never become calloused to that suffering, though. If anything, it bothers me now more than ever.

Kelly alludes to a conversation he had with a Hindu monk, who told him, “Nothing matters; everything matters.” I think I’ve been able to attend less to politics the last few months because of one side of this paradox–nothing matters. Yet I feel sorrow because of the other side–everything matters. For Kelly, this included “the blighted souls of Europe and China and the Near East and India.” When he wrote early in 1939 Japan had already invaded China and Europe was arming itself in preparation for the war that started later that year. Kelly spelled out the implications for those who sought to follow Jesus the other half of the way:

“In my deepest heart I know that some of us need to face our comfortable, self-oriented lives all over again. The times are too tragic, God’s sorrow is too great, man’s night is too dark, the Cross is too glorious for us to live as we have lived, in anything short of holy obedience. It may or may not mean a change in geography, in profession, in wealth, in earthly security. It does mean this: Some of us will need to enter upon a vow of renunciation and of dedication to the ‘Eternal Internal’ which is as complete and as irrevocable as was the vow of the monk in the Middle Ages.”

Our time is perhaps less tragic than his. Or perhaps not–“the blighted souls” of Syria are being devastated by war; suffering humanity is turned away at many borders; nations exchange threats; nuclear weapons stand at the ready; seas rise from ice-melt as the world warms. I’m less inclined than I used to be to compare the miseries one time to those of another. All times are too tragic; God’s sorrow is always too great; man’s night is always too dark. And there will always be those who are untroubled by such realities and those who respond with the renunciation and dedication that Kelly called for.  The more thought I give to the pilgrim path, the less I’m able to ignore what transpires in the world.

On a recent lengthy car trip I decided to get caught up on current pop music trends. I listened to most of the Sirius XM Weekend Countdown and a little of the Billboard Adult Top 40. Yeah, I’m too old for this sort of music. I listen to it because I’m interested in the themes of pop songs–they reveal much about the dreams, fears, and preoccupations a sizable segment of our culture.

As usual, there were plenty of songs about romantic relationships, ranging from lust (Selena Gomez – Hands To Myself) to yearning (Tryon – Somebody To Love Me)  to lovemaking (Zayn Malik – Pillowtalk) to disgust (Selena Gomez – Same Old Love). Justin Bieber apologizes to one mate (Sorry) and walks away from another (Love Yourself). What really interested me, though, was not the relationship songs but the ones that portrayed how the artist perceived him- or herself. Our self-concepts are key to our identity, and culture provides templates for possible selves (my grandchildren can choose to be sullen rebels or competitive achievers, but identities like gentleman of leisure or devotee of the goddess of reason are no longer in the catalogue of potential selves). From this listening, I concluded that contemporary songs contain views of the self ranging all the way from grandiose self-sufficiency to anxious inadequacy.

Grandiose self-sufficiency is represented by  “Me, Myself, and I” By G-Eazy with Bebe Rexha. Here’s the chorus:

Oh, it’s just me, myself and I
Solo ride until I die
‘Cause I got me for life (yeah)
Oh I don’t need a hand to hold
Even when the night is cold
I got that fire in my soul

The video shows G-Eazy at a party surrounded by adoring fans but miserable about his lack of privacy. He raps about what he needs–privacy, space, to be alone–and what he wants:

A Stella Maxwell right beside of me
A Farrari I’m buyin’ three
A closet of Saint Laurent…

He thinks he is a self-made man, a trendsetter who is reaping the fruits of his efforts, “swimming in money, swimming in liquor.” Yet  success has brought too much attention. There’s a segment in the video when he’s divided into three images, two of which are telling the third that he shouldn’t complain: he wanted success and adulation of the masses comes with the territory. Then, near the end, there is this:

Yeah, lonely nights I laid awake
Pray to lord, my soul to take
My heart’s become too cold to break
Know I’m great but I’m broke as hell
Having dreams that I’m folding cake
All my life I’ve been told to wait
But I’ma get it now, yeah it’s no debate.

The grandiose self is shut off from others, “too cold to break.”  In splendid isolation it knows it’s great–I thought here of Satan isolated in Dante’s deepest level of hell–but, paradoxically, at the same time it’s broken (the “broke as hell” here seems to refer not to lack of money but some sort of inner impairment). Some identity-seekers perusing the catalogue of possible selves might find grandiosity appealing. Wittingly or not, G-Eazy shows that such a self-concept won’t make you happy.

An elevated sense of self is also in evidence in Demi Levato’s “Confident,”; in which she sings again and again (ad nauseum):

(Ah ha) What’s wrong with being, what’s wrong with being
What’s wrong with being confident? (Ah ha)

And being confident is pretty much all the song is about. She’s responding to criticism:

(Oh oh, oh) So you say I’m complicated
That I must be outta my mind
But you had me underrated
Rated, rated.

But, like her confidence, the criticism she’s received is amorphous, unlike the comments that Taylor Swift was shaking off a couple years ago. So, should you define yourself via your high level of confidence? Sure, if that confidence reflects particular abilities or knowledge or effort. Otherwise, maybe not.

Another song asserting a strong sense of self (“Take or leave who I am/cause this is me.”) is “Pride” by  American Authors. The self in question is, not surprisingly, defined by a sense of pride:

I ain’t never giving up, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever giving up my pride
I ain’t never letting go, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever gonna sell my soul
I-I-I-I got this feeling
I-I-I got this feeling
I ain’t never giving up, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever giving up my pride.

Why such insistence on holding onto pride? Has the singer done something to be proud of? The lyrics don’t mention anything. Instead, they portray a diminished self, one for whom things aren’t going well:

My home don’t feel the same
Last year flew by; goodbye to the good vibes
What we thought were the best times
Nights out with the people I love
Now I’m lost in the neighborhood

Why has life turned sour? Maybe it’s the booze (“Another drink down the drain/Ten more before I get on the plane”). Maybe it’s rejection by family (“Pushed out of the family tree/Upside down”). Somewhere around the edges there is a suspicion that he’s responsible (“Maybe I’m the one who’s changed or the one to blame,” “wish I was good enough for anyone”). I wonder if holding onto pride of this sort–not justifiable good feelings about one’s accomplishments, but pride in the service of stubborn defiance–is a defense against becoming too aware of our role in our problems. It’s a way of adapting, but not a particularly good one. This sort of self-concept isn’t likely to foster healthy relationships or emotional well-being.

There are other interesting songs that have implications about how to view ourselves–I like Panic at the Disco’s “Victorious,” which seems to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the glories of winning, subtly suggesting that victors aren’t that grand after all. I’m most fascinated with Twenty-One Pilots’ “Stressed Out.” Whereas most song lyrics portray the singer expansively or even heroically, these lyrics are about a diminished self who can’t seem to get anything right:

I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard,
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words,
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new,
I wish I didn’t have to rhyme every time I sang.

What’s the problem? The singer has left childhood behind but hasn’t yet figured out how to handle what comes next. He’s become even more insecure than he was as a child:

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink,
But now I’m insecure and I care what people think.

He’s left reminiscing about the joys of childhood play:

We used to play pretend, give each other different names,
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away,
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face,
Saying, “Wake up, you need to make money.”

Returning to the womb of parental protection sounds pretty good:

Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days,
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.

This is the opposite of G-Eazy’s grandiose self–a self diminished, not expanded, by growing up, a self plagued by insecurities and perceived inadequacies. The video shows the members of the group riding tricycles, suggesting they aren’t even mature enough to drive cars. In the catalogue of available selves, this is not a model that anyone would choose. We are in an age of limited prospects for all but a minority of high-achievers, though, and this is a self that many people will be saddled with.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

I remember when the first McDonalds opened in my hometown. There wasn’t any seating, just a walk-up window. The burgers cost 15 cents, which was a bargain even in the 1960s. More McDonalds opened, and they eventually had seating and a more extensive menu. Burger King, Arbys, and Wendys soon followed. Fast-food culture has been criticized both for the quality of the food and the hurried lifestyle it represents. At least fast-food restaurants served meals, though. We used to sit down three times a day to eat, but many of us don’t manage that any more. We eat on the run, and often what we are eating are snacks rather than meals.

A recent Associated Press article by Candice Choi documents the decline of meals. Food industry experts reportedly state that “Snacks now account for half of all eating occasions, with breakfast and lunch in particular becoming ‘snackified’…”  According to Marcel Nahm, an executive with Hershey, “People are snacking more and more, sometimes instead of meals, sometimes with meals, and sometimes in between meals.”  Hershey and other purveyors of packaged, processed foods are seeking to take advantage of this trend. Hershey offers snack mixes, Tyson offers packs of cut-up chicken, and Kellogg’s offers To Go shakes and cereal pouches.

Kellogg's to goThese products and others marketed as snacks are designed for convenience. Too much trouble to get out meat, mustard, lettuce, and bread to make a sandwich? Just open a meat pouch and snack away. The AP article doesn’t mention it, but the move to greater snacking seems a form of “life hack.” According to Wikipedia, a life hack is “any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life.” The less time spent on meal preparation or consumption, the more time available to get things done.

Of course, wanting to hack food in particular or hack life in general is based on a singular view of what life is about. Giving up the pleasures and benefits of eating regular meals only makes sense if productivity is more important than those pleasures and benefits. Is getting as much done as we possibly can really what life is about? The gains that shortcuts like snacking provide are costly to our health and our emotional well-being. They also are costly to our relationships, since food is about relationships, starting the parent-infant bond at feeding time and including the family meal, formal dinners, and lunch with friends.

Of course, social trends that reach extremes are usually met with some sort of backlash. Snackers/food hackers are counterbalanced by foodies who devote considerable time and effort to rituals of food selection, preparation, and consumption. Snackers devote little thought to what they eat; foodies think about it all the time. Snackers satisfy momentary cravings; foodies plan far in advance where and what they’ll eat. Snackers eat in private; foodies dine with others or use social media to share their food choices.

But foodies, too, have a singular view of what human life is about. Foodies aren’t just trying to eat healthily and save the planet; they are also interested in food as experience and see life as a venue for maximizing sensory and emotional pleasures. As such, at their worse they are prone to the vices of the gourmet–snobbery, waste, and priggishness.

Rather than hacking food or making it the focus of life, I try to take a middle way. I’ll occasionally snack on nuts or a piece of fruit to tide me over, but always manage to eat three meals a day. I learn enough about food that I can eat healthily, but don’t spent a lot of time on food or nutrition sites. I eat alone sometimes, and sometimes with others. I’ve never posted a picture of a meal on social media. I think there are lots of people like me. We don’t go by a catchy name like food hackers or foodies, but I’d like to think that we have a more sensible attitude toward food than either of those groups. So snackers, give up your unhealthy ways, and foodies, give up your obsessions! Join us in the broad and anonymous center! Up with gastronomical moderation!

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