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The Revised Common Lectionary, a compendium of Biblical passages read in churches each week of the liturgical year, today includes the following verse:

“For our momentary light affliction is producing in us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure and proportion….” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Meditating on scriptures like this can bring to mind interesting thoughts and images, as it did for me today:

Affliction weighs too much sometimes,
enormous gravity that hangs on limbs and ligaments;
shoulders slouch and legs shuffle.

Odd then that such hardship fortifies us
not for the succor of relief but for another weight,
that being glory.

As lilacs have endured the heft of winter cold
that they may then be burdened with the fireworks
of fragrant flowers

so too will we be resurrected in seraphic Spring,
bursting with great blooms of glory,
extravagant beyond all measure.

This is a poem I wrote in April, 2005, when I was working as a college prof. Thankfully, my life isn’t like this anymore! My reading isn’t near as erudite, but much more enjoyable, and it’s easier to get outside.

Like those games in truck stops with quarters piled on flat metal trays

with the promise that, if you play, you can keep whatever falls,

so books roost on counters, tables, chairs, wherever they can find a space,

vital knowledge being held within the folds of their wings,

ready to be shaken loose. Nearby, I see Pinnock, Gerald May,

Kierkegaard and Hauerwas.  Walker Percy and John Calvin

lie one atop the other on my desk; Camus is on the floor,

in a scrum of existentialists topped by Frederick Neitzsche.

How nice it is, I think, to be the type of person who reads such books

and talks of them with other priests serving in a shrine of culture.

***********************************************************

Outside, winter’s bony fingers pull on gloves:

azaleas have exploded

with bursts of bloom as bright as any fireworks,

dogwoods twirl white parasols,

and souls have risen from the dead.

David Bailly, Vanitas. This is an example of the memento mori tradition

The last year spent isolated in response to covid19 has reminded all of us of our mortality. Now that some of us are getting vaccinated, there’s reason to hope for a gradual return to something like normal. Yet there are lessons to remember from this time. Here’s a poem I wrote about a month ago about what we’re going through; after the first couple verses, it is a conversation with death.

The ravages of death abound
in state to state, from town to town
conveyed upon the mist of breath
unholy virus, you are death.

So I avoid the best I can
death’s ravages, its frigid hand
while hundreds daily still fall prey,
be it by foolishness or fate.

My life for now is circumscribed—
lackluster days and quiet nights.
So, do I fear your dire threat?
No, but I offer you respect,

expecting we may meet one day
not battling, but in embrace,
prepared–by having had full life–
to book the journey you provide.

An ending, yes, but not the last,
for, after death mows me like grass
the king will come with trumpet’s shout,
before him death and I will bow.

Here’s a poem about the internal dialogue between fretfulness and trust.

 

Awake at 3 a.m.,
my mind invites me to climb from the low place
where languid wisps of drowsiness still curl,
up the stairs to where tomorrow’s puzzles wait.
If I try to fit one piece in place, like as not
I’ll be drawn to undertake a dozen more.

Content yourself, my soul
and in the darkness know
the God who’s everywhere
will hold you in his care.

About an hour’s passed. I’ve turned from side to side
too many times, stretched out my legs
then pulled them up again, folding and unfolding
like a flimsy chair. When does the dog need medicine?
What paperwork is incomplete? What emails need reply?
How should I be positioned on tomorrow’s starting line?

Content yourself, my soul
and in the darkness know
the God who’s everywhere
will hold you in his care.

The earth has nearly turned into the light.
My nighttime thoughts still leave in disarray
most pieces of the day. I learn for what must be
the thousandth time that without his help
I can’t build the house or guard the city.
Take to heart the lesson of the night:

Content yourself, my soul
and in the darkness know
the God who’s everywhere
will hold you in his care.

In a previous post, I wrote about one theme David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, namely the desire many characters have to escape themselves. Social realities in the U.S. intensify this desire. DFW seems particularly interested in exploring aspects of American culture that interfere with living a healthy and authentic life. In the book, the most detailed critique of American culture is offered by a character from a rather different culture, albeit still North American. Rémy Marathe is from Quebec; he is an agent  (he’s actually a quadruple agent, when you sort out who he is betraying and pretending to betray) of the Wheelchair Assassins, a violent separatist group that is seeking to acquire the lethal “entertainment” named Infinite Jest V to use as a terrorist weapon. He complains to his contact Hugh Steeply, agent for the North American government’s Office of Unspecified Services, about the failure of Americans to live for any purpose larger than themselves:

“You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Chose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger that the self.” (p. 107)

He thinks that Americans “choose nothing over themselves to love, each one.” (p. 318) As a result, they are particularly susceptible to the lure of the lethal entertainment. They will “die for this chance to be fed to the death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving.” Exclusive self-love prepares us for self-indulgence, nothing more. The effect of the lethal entertainment on its viewers seems just a more intensified version of what the American entertainment industry does to all of us every day. When DFW wrote IJ, we were entertained mainly through television, VCR tapes, CDs, and DVDs. Now packaged entertainment also infects our laptops and cell phones, enticing us everywhere we look. It deadens us, it tempts us to give our lives to it, one cat video at a time.

And it isolates us. Though the characters in IJ are often physically present with each other, they mostly fail to forge meaningful connections. The pioneering developmental psychologist Jean Piaget coined the term “collective monologue” to describe the way in which young children talk to each other: though they take turns talking, each is carrying on an independent stream of speech, not listening to or responding to what the other is saying. Many of the conversations in IJ come close to being collective monologues–Hal and Orin, for example, or the residents of Ennet House with each other. Hal asks his Little Buddies (the younger students at E.T.A. that he mentors) “Even if we all live and eat and shower and play together, how can we keep from being 136 deeply alone people all jammed together?” (p. 112) The question can be asked more broadly: how can we keep our way of living from isolating us, even if we are sitting in the same restaurants or offices or living rooms with others? Hal thinks connection is possible because the students are united by common hardship, but this hypothesis isn’t borne out in the rest of the book.

Isolation is an issue at Ennet House as well. One of the things that residents are said to learn early in their stay is “That loneliness is not a function of solitude.” As with the E.T.A. students, they aren’t alone very much–they room together, go to meetings together, and spend almost all their time in each other’s company. There is little solitude, but a lot of loneliness.

Marathe and Steeply. Image from http://www.brickjest.com.

Marathe tells Steeply, “You are what you love.” Unlike what we desire, what we’re tempted by, or what intrudes into our lives, we have a choice about what we love. Marathe later tells Kate Gompart, a depressed Ennet House resident, what (or whom) he chose to love. As a young double amputee who belonged to a suppressed minority, he felt empty. Everything changed one day when he saw a woman about to be hit by a truck. He quickly rolled down the hill he was on, arriving just in time to sweep her out of the way.

“It was this frozen with the terror woman, she saved my life. For this saved my life. This moment broke my moribund chains, Katherine. In one instant and without thought I was allowed to choose something as more important than my thinking of my life. Her, she allowed this will without thinking. She with one blow broke the chains of the cage of pain at my half a body and nation.” p. 778

His betrayal of the Quebecois cause was for the sake of getting medical treatment for Gertraude, the woman he rescued who subsequently became his wife. He of course had told Steeply earlier that a nation was a sufficient cause to give oneself to, but a woman wasn’t. Thus he wasn’t living according to the ideals he espoused. Despite his own inconsistency, Marathe’s critique of the U.S. raises interesting questions that the rest of IJ explores in depth. Though Marathe’s views weren’t identical with those of DFW, I suspect that Wallace used Marathe to express concerns about American culture that he thought had some validity.

Most of us have felt at times that entertainment or social media is playing too big a role in our lives. Most of us have been halfhearted at best in our efforts to keep these forces in their proper place, though. St. Augustine talked about our disordered loves; for many of us, our love for our entertainments is disordered. Thus, it will never fully satisfy. Choose what you love, says Marathe. Then follow through and give your time only to that which is worthy of your love.

Julie Beck, a writer at the Atlantic, recently wrote an article about how friendships change over time. She notes:

“The voluntary nature of friendship makes it subject to life’s whims in a way more formal relationships aren’t. In adulthood, as people grow up and go away, friendships are the relationships most likely to take a hit.”

Even in the social media age, when we can keep track of friends from long ago no matter where we each happen to live, there are some friendships from earlier phases of life that aren’t maintained. Others are maintained, but barely: seeing facebook posts a couple times a year written by someone I worked with 20 years ago means we are still in touch, but the fiber of connection is stretched so thin that it makes little difference to either of us.

Beck describes the developmental trajectory of friendships. In childhood, a friend is mostly someone to play with. In adolescence, there is more talk, more self-disclosure, and friends are important in our search to discover who we are. Young adults are “more likely to seek out friends who share their values on the important things.” Young adults are also quite mobile, so many friends get left behind as we travel to get educated or take a job. By middle adulthood, we’re all quite busy, shuttling between work, marriage, and parenting. “[I]t’s easier to put off catching up with a friend than it is to skip your kid’s play or an important business trip.” Thus, friendship researcher William Rawlings of Ohio University found that middle-aged adults defined friendship as “being there” for each other, but actually had little time to spend together. Busy middle-aged adults make relatively few new friends other than among people they already see regularly, such as co-workers.

Later in life, though, kids leave home and we work less, or not at all, and we have more time. Some of that time is devoted to friends. As Beck indicates, “People tend to reconnect with old friends they’ve lost touch with. And it seems more urgent to spend time with them…” Of course, some old friends are lost for good. Others live at such a distance that it is difficult to get together. It’s not impossible, though. There is one friend I’ve known for over twenty years that I go to Georgia a couple times a year to see. I also have a high school friend who lives in California but was able to spend time with when he came to Michigan twice since 2012.

I grew up in West Michigan and returned here in 2012 to help my parents. There are several old friends in the area with whom I thought I would be spending time, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I’ve seen a few of them briefly, but only meet regularly with one–the one I had made time for throughout the decades I was really busy. I’m not fully retired, so my desire to renew old friendships may increase once I do quit working. For now, though, rather than reconnect with old friends, I’m devoting more time to friends who were already a priority for me, and I’m making new friends.

I’ll write more about why I think I’ve maintained strong friendships with some people but don’t have much interest in renewing friendships with others with whom I was once close. I’m curious about other people’s experiences, though. How have your friendships changed over the years, and why have you kept the friendships you have?

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

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

I recently saw “The End of the Tour,”  the movie about Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) interviewing writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) shortly after Wallace’s landmark novel Infinite Jest was published in 1996. Lipsky travels to Wallace’s modest rented home in Bloomington, Illinois, then accompanies him on a trip to Minneapolis for the last stop of the book tour. The movie is a long conversation between two intelligent men in their 30s, one probing, the other alternately spilling out his thoughts and lamenting the artificiality of their interaction. These seem to be two men struggling with despair, only one of whom realizes the struggle is occurring.

In alluding to despair, I’m thinking of the way that Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the term. In his Sickness Unto Death, he describes despair as a condition of the self. Here’s how I recently summarized the ways Kierkegaard thought we despair:

“We can despair in two ways, according to Kierkegaard. First, a person can wish to be rid of  him- or herself, that is, can be unwilling to be oneself, a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the despair of weakness.” Second, the person can despair to be a self, that is, can despair because one desires to be a self that one cannot be, a condition referred to as ‘the despair of defiance.’”

It doesn’t take much effort to see that David Foster Wallace (the Wallace of the film, that is, who might not have resembled the real man) was well acquainted with despair. He tells Lipsky that he is addicted to junk television (we see one TV-watching binge during the movie). Any addiction, TV included, can be considered either an attempt to escape from oneself or an attempt to be a self other than who one is (or both). Of the two possibilities, Wallace seems mainly to have been trying to get away from himself.

Wallace seems quite aware of his propensity towards despair. In 1988, eight years before Lipsky’s interview, he was hospitalized and put on suicide watch. He says to Lipsky (all quotes are my best attempts to transcribe the dialogue from the movie, but I can’t vouchsafe their accuracy), “I was a 28 year old who had exhausted a couple ways of living.” After describing the experience in the hospital, he added, “and when that happens you become unprecedentedly willing to explore some other avenues of how to live.” I haven’t read Infinite Jest, but I understand that it can be considered just such an exploration of ways to live. Wallace isn’t so sure his search has unearthed a workable solution. Looking back to the time he fell apart, He tells Lipsky, “I don’t think we change. I think I still have the same parts of me. I’m trying hard to find a way to just let them live.” He was well aware that despair still lurked within.

Wallace sees contemporary culture as making it particularly difficult for him (or anyone else, for that matter) to be a self capable of wholeness. That culture produced the endless flood of TV shows constantly available to soothe his angst. He foresees a time in which the internet and virtual reality become even more insiduous pathogens capable of infecting and  destroying the self. He says at one point that his writing is about “how easy it is to be seduced off your path because of the way the culture is.” He then mentions what he fears: “What if I become a parody of that?”

Wallace seems to have thought that a genuine connection with another human being would aid him in his struggles. He opens up to Lipsky with that end in mind. That effort proves fruitless, since Lipsky has no intention of being genuine. He would rather present a counterfit self in order to charm Wallace and thereby obtain material for his Rolling Stone article. Wallace at one point says that literary success has made him feel like a whore, but Lipsky is the real whore here, prostituting his humanity in an attempt to gain success.

Lipsky wishes to be a self he can’t be–he wishes to be an acclaimed author like Wallace–but, as portrayed by Eisenberg, anyway, doesn’t have the insight to realize that this striving is a form of despair. As Lipsky prepares to drive away after the interview is completed, Wallace leans into his car window and says, “I’m not so sure you want to be me.” Good words of warning for those times when we start thinking that we will be at peace if only we manage to be someone other than who we are.

A recent New Yorker article titled “How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy” actually describes research findings indicative of greater unhappiness AND greater happiness among Facebook users, depending on what they did on the site.  Several studies were summarized, including a recent study by a team of researchers led by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan.  Those researchers sent text messages to research participants five times a day for two weeks, asking about Facebook use and emotional status.  The more the Facebook use at the time of one text, the worse these participants felt at the time of the next text.  Greater Facebook use was associated with decreased well-being over the course of the two-week study.  Another study found that looking at Facebook posts made by others was associated with increased envy, a phenomenon thought to be the result of social comparison. How can social comparison have this effect? Within the last 24 hours, friends on my Facebook feed have posted pictures from Hawaii, a college football game, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, and a street festival.  Meanwhile, I’m sitting in my bedroom writing this post.  Am I envious?  No, actually, since I’m still getting over jet lag from a great trip to Washington and don’t want to be anywhere with more sizzle than where I am right now, but you get the idea.

Not all studies find that social media use puts us in the doldrums.  Some studies have found such use to be associated with increased happiness, social trust, and engagement.  Even the thought of sharing something via social media increases activity in the pleasure centers of the brain.  Why have the findings about social media use and emotional states been so inconsistent?

One possible way of accounting for the different results comes from a 2010 study by Moira Burke of Carnegie Mellon University and colleagues.  Among those who actively interacted on Facebook by posting themselves, commenting on others’ posts, or even liking those posts, loneliness was decreased and feelings of bonding were increased, particularly bonding with those who live in close proximity.  On the other hand, passively consuming content posted by others was associated with more loneliness and decreased bonding.  Thus, perhaps it is not the amount of Facebook use that matters, but whether the user is participating actively or only passively.

So, the following rules for increasing happiness (or at least minimizing misery) among those of us who use Facebook seem consistent with the research to date:

  1. Use sparingly.
  2. Have as friends those to whom you aren’t particularly likely to compare yourself (I manage to follow this rule, since I use Facebook largely to keep up with former students, my kids, and my nephews and nieces, all of whom are at very different stages of life than I am).
  3. Don’t just passively scan your feed.  Comment, like, and post things yourself.

The last rule may make you happier, but, to the extent you are creating more content for your friends to passively scan, it might have an adverse effect on them.  Ah, the ethical dilemmas of Facebook use!

I’ll conclude this post by sharing some great pictures from my trip to Washington.  Research indicates it will give me great pleasure to do so.  Beware, though: looking at them without liking or commenting on this post may be hazardous to your emotional well-being!

Lighthouse Park, Vancouver

Lighthouse Park, Vancouver

Elliot Ritzema by the Swinomish Channel, La Conner, Washington

Elliot Ritzema by the Swinomish Channel, La Conner, Washington

Mary Ritzema at the Greek Festival, Bellingham, Washington

Mary Ritzema at the Greek Festival, Bellingham, Washington

Me at Picture Lake in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

Me at Picture Lake in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

I recently received an email that read, in part, as follows:

“Our Webmail Database that records your webmail data and profile has just been contrasted by a serious circulating internet virus. As a result we are upgrading to a new email version to help increase the storage megabyte and are therefore deleting all unused emaill account as a result of the nonexistence of users.

“To confirm the your account is currently in use and to integrate the recent maintenance carried out in e-mail system and also help in resetting your space in our database and erase the virus circulationin our webmail. Reply back with the information as required below. . .”

A request for username, password, and other identifying information follows.  It’s obviously a phishing scam.  My first reaction is that scammers need grammar lessons—using plurals when called for, having subject and verb agree, and eliminating sentence fragments would make the pitch much more plausible.  Also, though, I’m concerned about one of the problems the author cites as necessitating deletion of email accounts, namely the nonexistence of users.

Question-mark-faceI wonder, do these users know they don’t exist? Why are non-existent users being singled out?  Is it because they’ve been neglecting their email accounts?  If their email accounts get deleted, won’t that be a further blow to their already-fragile identities (not only do I not exist, but now I’ve lost email privileges as well)?

If the non-existent are losing their email accounts, what other indignities might they be suffering?  I understand that there has been a major effort to delete the non-existent from the rolls of registered voters.  (It’s been Republicans who have been particularly intolerant of non-existent voters.  Democrats are said to be more accepting.)   There are also reports of the non-existent losing their welfare benefits or Social Security pensions.  In the workplace, the non-existent aren’t likely to gossip, embezzle, show up late, or take overly long coffee breaks, yet employers are very hesitant to hire them.  They can’t buy a house or get a driver’s license.  And how many of them have good credit scores with the rating agencies?  Very few, I’d wager!

The non-existent are clearly the victims of discrimination.  I, for one, think that this mistreatment has gone far enough.  Let them keep their email accounts!

Ann Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton and former director of foreign policy for the State Department, published an article in The Atlantic this past summer which she provocatively titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  She wrote that she had been telling women that they didn’t have to compromise their goals for both career success and a fulfilling family life, but realized this wasn’t really the case.  She left her State Department job after two years and returned to Princeton because she concluded that “juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible.”  Thinking about what she had told her students through the years, she concluded “I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”

Ann Marie Slaughter

Slaughter thinks that the problem is not with women themselves but with the nature of society.  In her view, women need to recognize more clearly these societal structures that have halted progress towards the feminist ideal of fulfillment in every area of life.  She is optimistic in the long run about women achieving the feminist vision, but thinks that society needs to change first.  She puts it as follows:

“I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”

Slaughter lists several “half truths” commonly believed by and shared among women that interfere with forthright discussion of the structural problems that women face.  These half truths are that women can have it all if they are just committed enough, they can have it all if they choose the right mate, and they can have it all if they sequence family and career events properly.  Slaughter thinks that, instead of focusing on these myths, women should work for systemic changes that would make combining family and career more feasible; most of these have to do with changing workplace norms.

Slaughter isn’t the only successful woman mulling about these issues.  The October 1 & 8 issue of Newsweek contains an article by Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, titled “American Women Have It Wrong.”  Despite the tremendous progress women have made in the workplace, she notes, women are still under-represented in the higher echelons of most professions.  The headwinds women face aren’t, in her view, due to government policy or overt discrimination directed against women.  “Instead, the problems we face are subtler. They come partly from the media, partly from society, partly from biology, and partly from our own vastly unrealistic expectations.”  Like Slaughter, Spar has a variety of prescriptions aimed at making the path to the top easier for women.

What interested me about the articles is that both Slaughter and Spar question the feasibility or wisdom of women’s pursuit of “it all,” at least in the current milieu.  Spar puts it as follows: “The only way that American women will ever fully solve the ‘women’s problem’ is by recognizing the quest for perfection for what it is: a myth. No woman can have it all, and by using all as the standard of success, we are only condemning ourselves and our daughters to failure.”  Or, if not failure, using such a yardstick condemns them to misery.  Spar cites the case of a young former student who seemed to be doing everything well.  The young woman saw herself differently, though.   “’Each time someone commented on how I’m always in a good mood or smiling, I felt more and more like a phony,’ she confessed. ‘If only they knew that, behind closed doors, I cried and crumbled under unrealistic expectations set not by peers or professors, but by me.’”

Slaughter, too, came to the realization that working at a high-status, high pressure job while at the same time participating in her family was not so much impossible as unsatisfying.  She considered various ways to make the combination work, but finally decided that wasn’t what she wanted to do:  “I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults. But also irreplaceable years for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals.”  Slaughter thinks that as a nation we should focus more on happiness than on achievement: “Last I checked, [Thomas Jefferson] did not declare American independence in the name of life, liberty, and professional success. Let us rediscover the pursuit of happiness, and let us start at home.”

So, perhaps the question shouldn’t be, “Can women have it all?” but “Is it good for them to try to have it all?”  Even better, let’s ask “Is it good for anyone to try to have it all?”  Women in our society still have more obstacles to achieving their goals than do men—a situation that we need to address more than we have thus far—but life is always lived within limits, and striving to do everything perfectly comes dangerously close to denying that we have such limits.  Kierkegaard said that nearly all of us are in despair because we want to be a self but can’t accept the self we are.  One form that such despair takes is the “despair of possibility”—a lack of recognition that our capacities are limited and what we can do pales in comparison to what we would like to do.  I’ve not had to juggle the multiple demands that many women try to keep aloft (except for a few years after I was divorced).  Nonetheless, my experience is of having repeatedly tried to take on more and more commitments and interests, until I realize once again that I can’t do everything and whatever satisfactions my accomplishments bring me are outweighed by the stress of trying to keep it all going.  Then, for a while anyway, I go back to being the self that is a good fit for me rather than the self I would like to be, and am relieved.  Why strive for having it all when that striving in and of itself takes away our peace and contentment?

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