Unplugging and its Discontents

The New Yorker website just published a provocative piece called “The Pointlessness of Unplugging.” I’m ambivalent about some of the author’s arguments, though I’m totally in agreement with its final takeaway: “If it takes unplugging to learn how better to live plugged in, so be it. But let’s not mistake such experiments in asceticism for a sustainable way of life. For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere.”

Perhaps of most interest to the readers of this blog, however, is the author’s citation of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s thoughts about the relationship between online communication and our authentic selves:

I was struck last year when Pope Benedict XVI, after he started tweeting, delivered a message on social networks. “The exchange of information can become true communication, links ripen into friends, and connections facilitate communion,” the Pope said. He added that, with effort, “it is not only ideas and information that are shared but, ultimately, our very selves.” Perhaps most surprisingly, the Pope argued, “The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young.”

I think the most important point of the Pope’s address is his claim (referenced but not quoted in the New Yorker piece) that those involved in social media must “make an effort to be authentic.” Really making ourselves available to others is not simply about physical presence: we can be physically present but still be miles away emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The Pope seems to be suggesting that the opposite may also be true: we can be hundreds of miles away from one another but still bear witness to others through our emotional, mental, and spiritual presence.


Of Sheep and Sadness


I posted last year about an extended visit to Mt. Saviour Monastery—but there’s one story I left out of that narrative. The monastery is also a functioning sheep farm and so I spent a lot of my days wandering around and looking at the sheep. It was shortly after lambing season and so there were plenty of adorable, adolescent-y looking sheep milling about. One, however, had gotten separated from his mother and was bleating, miserably, over and over and over again. And suddenly I thought, “That sheep is me,” and nearly burst into tears. These moments weren’t atypical for me—moments of deep, devouring sadness that seemed tied to old wounds that were still gaping—but I did then what I’ve been doing for several years running: I put it away. Part of this was out of fear, since I didn’t know whether going into that kind of sadness would ever allow me to come out the other side of it, and part of it was practical, since I knew that with this type of thing “it’s going to get worse before it gets better” and I had a degree to complete.


Flash forward to last weekend, when I visited the monastery again as part of a Lenten retreat program. I was sitting in the chapel during noonday prayers and I was thinking to myself how much more engaged I’d been with the service the last time I was there. And then I thought about how much more I’d been engaged with my dissertation work a month or so earlier versus how engaged I am with it now. And then I tried to think of anything that could happen that I’d really care about: nope, zilch. And then I thought about how tired I’d been lately, how much mundane daily tasks felt Herculean, and how—if I turned off the TV and my smartphone and just sat—I felt like I was floating on top of a profound loneliness. And so I realized what should have been blindingly obvious (at least to someone like myself, the child of a therapist and the taker of innumerable psychological diagnostic tests): I was depressed. Not can’t get out of bed depressed. Not making suicide plans depressed. But depressed enough that daily life had turned into a struggle and my own body seemed exhausted by the strain. Unsurprisingly, this is what happens when you file away nasty feelings until a “better time” to work through them. Eventually, they’ll assert their rights. 


The inconvenience of having to finally slog through them now is certainly still there, but the fear seems to have gone away. At least, it went away enough that I was able to sit down and write a contract with myself (yes, it’s silly, but it was the only way I’d ever follow up) that I’d call the health center, get a referral, and then actually make an appointment with a local therapist. All of which I’ve done, with the first appointment scheduled for next week. As suspected, owning up to all of this has started to impair the functionality I’d bought at the price of a lot of emotional repression. I’ve yet to burst out in tears during a tutoring session or coffee with a committee member, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if it ends up happening. The dissertation is attended to when I feel able, but it’s not going to be lightning-fast progress (especially if last night’s 13-hour sleep is any indication!) but it will be there when I get back. And, as one friend of mine who’s faced her own bouts with depression helpfully told me: “It’s just a dissertation.” And what I ultimately had to admit to myself at the monastery was that I couldn’t take care of other people or of other commitments until I finally stepped back and took care of myself. Until, like the bleating lamb, I could finally give a voice to my distress.


Pray for Uganda

As you may already be aware, Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, which makes even “touching another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality” an offense punishable by life in prison was recently signed into law. In case this has to be said—though, frankly, I think it should be rather obvious—you can hold to the Church’s sexual ethic and recognize that legislation that severely punishes a sexual minority for their transgressions of that ethic but imposes no such strictures on heterosexuals, especially heterosexual men, is inherently discriminatory and clearly violates the Catechism’s insistence that we must avoid “every sign of unjust discrimination” against gay people. Furthermore, the prevalence of so-called “corrective rape” in Uganda should banish any notion that the growing anti-gay sentiment in Uganda is actually about a commitment to any traditional Christian sexual ethic. Indeed, in 2008 the Vatican made a statement to the UN calling for “States to take necessary measures to put an end to all criminal penalties” against homosexuality.

Gabriel Blanchard has spoken far more eloquently on this topic than I can, so I will leave you with a portion from his recent blog post on the subject (which is worth reading in full):

This is not about justice or decency. If it ever even was, it’s not anymore. This, even according to the fairly rigorous definition I use, is pure homophobia. Homosexual conduct was already illegal in Uganda; even on the view (which I utterly reject) that sodomy laws are just, this wasn’t needed. And it isn’t only Uganda and Nigeria — this poisonous atmosphere lies over half the African continent and more. Only days ago, President Jammeh of Gambia referred to homosexuals as “vermin” and compared us to mosquitos carrying malaria. This is a targeted dehumanization of a tiny minority, who are being stripped of legal protection in a group of societies that already hate and despise them.

I implore anyone and everyone who reads this to stop and pray for Uganda: for the safety and, if necessary, escape of Ugandan lesbians and gays; and for repentance and conversion on the part of the people in general, especially their political leaders. For the moment — I hope not to leave it here permanently — I don’t specifically recommend anything further. This isn’t because I don’t want people to do any more than pray, but because I for one don’t know what the wisest course of action is. I’m too ignorant of politics in general and of Ugandan culture in particular to have an opinion on that. Opposition to these laws from western powers has been labeled as “colonialism” by some Ugandans, and it is hard to know what practical effects sanctions and so forth would have; it could easily devolve into even worse demonizing and scapegoating of LGBT people than is already happening.

Musica De Profundis

This has been making the rounds in my Facebook circle for awhile, thanks to the large number of medievalists I happen to know. I share it because, well, who doesn’t want to hear “a 500-year-old song painted on a butt from hell.” As it turns out some, um, enterprising student decided to record several lines of music that appear on the unfortunate rear of one of the damned in Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (said butt melody can be found directly under the harp-thingy at the bottom of the hell section, which the linked Wikimedia version will helpfully allow you to zoom in on).

The song is, perhaps, not the most melodic thing you’ve ever heard—but then again, what do you expect from hell music, really? Read more—and hear the whole thing—here.

Committed to the Details

One commitment that pretty much has to be particular…

So, as mentioned in my previous post, I had the pleasure of spending last weekend at a graduate conference put on by the Berkeley Institute. The conversations and content were quite rich, and so I imagine that this will be the first post of several on the topic. The theme of the conference was “What is good work?” However, the question that held strongest sway in the panels, talks, and conversations was a bit more specific; namely, “What does it mean to undertake academic work when you have antecedent value commitments?” The vast majority of attendees and presenters at the conference were Christian, but it remained an open point of discussion how much the conference wanted to speak of this question of “antecedent value commitments” in religious—and specifically Christian—terms.  The overall milieu of the conference could perhaps be best described as crypto-Christian.

I greatly respect the Institute’s decision to sustain the tension between Commitment, conceived abstractly, and commitments, the nitty-gritty details of each individual’s particular convictions. After all, the Berkeley Institute aims to serve the larger Berkeley community by creating a space for dialogue and by attempting to broaden academe’s conceptions of what “counts” as knowledge. The conference attendees also represented a broad swath of Christianity, including the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions, though the distinctive nature of these traditions figured somewhat less into the conversations at the conference. I imagine that this was because most of us worked in departments where we were one of the few—or the only—active religious practitioners; as a result, merely being around folks who were in the same boat as us felt like discovering we weren’t the last dodo. At the same time, there’s no doubt that our particular religious traditions affected the precise nature of our commitments and, as a result, the nature of the work that we were pursuing.

One of us, one of us…

But at what point in a conversation is it useful to start saying things like “As a Christian,” “As a Catholic,” or “In my tradition”? At what point does it become necessary to acknowledge differences as well as similarities? Perhaps most importantly, what’s the cost of this type of acknowledgement or its absence? Part of the value of a tradition is that it generates a sort of “thick” culture to incubate art, thought, and experience—which necessarily loses some of that thickness as it becomes more diverse and pluralistic. At the same time, the fact that nearly all of the conference attendees worked within secular academia—a de facto rejection of the academic “Benedict Option” provided by religious educational institutions—suggested that we all found benefits in the broader conversations that could occur within the “thin” but rigorous disciplinary structures of our respective fields.

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Coming soon…

I’m presently out of town attending The Berkeley Institute‘s graduate conference “What is good work?”

Out of general principle/miserliness, I refuse to pay for hotel Wi-Fi. But blogging from my phone is likely to drive me to madness. Ergo, dear reader, you won’t be hearing much from me till next week, but rest assured that many thoughts on vocation, academia, and commitment are percolating thanks to the conference and will hopefully find their way–more fully formed–into blog posts in the very near future.


On Taking Sex Seriously

Photo by Flickr user Stew Dean

For a long time, the argument about the supposedly sexually repressive nature of Catholicism went like this: Sex is a powerful, beautiful, and deeply important part of human life; to ask us to deny our sexual impulses is to ask us to deny a transformative part of human experience. It’s a critique at work in some of the most important literature of the last century: it’s in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and in D.H. Lawrence’s oeuvre. It was what “Make love not war” meant when it was still possible to say such things without irony; a time when “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” was understood as tied to meaningful—even transcendent—experiences and before all three were rendered innocuous, and utterly free of intrinsic meaning, by that little adjective “recreational.”

In recent years, however, the critique has shifted. It says, in short, “What’s the big deal?” I recall reading the combox of a Catholic blog a year ago and, while I no longer remember either the blog or the post, I remember coming upon a comment that went something like this: “The problem is that you Catholics take sex so seriously.* It’s just not that huge of a thing.” The comment unsettled me, but it’s taken me some time to figure out why. In an unexpected turn of events, the Church is suddenly the D.H. Lawrence of the world. That is to say, it’s one of the last places you can find where sex is still understood as a potent and transformative part of being a human being.**

In his biography of St. Francis, G.K. Chesterton diagnosed what he saw as the dangers of his own age:

The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago. […] We know what sort of sentimental associations are called up to us by the phrase “a garden”; and how we think mostly of the memory of melancholy and innocent romances, or quite as often of some gracious maiden lady or kindly old parson pottering under a yew hedge, perhaps in sight of a village spire. Then, let any one who knows a little Latin poetry recall suddenly what would once have stood in place of the sun-dial or the fountain, obscene and monstrous in the sun; and of what sort was the god of their gardens.

Chesterton’s horror at the worship of sex in an ancient society which arranged even its garden landscapes around the potency of a phallus seems downright quaint now—not because we’re now “enlightened” enough to know that such explicitness is not “obscene and monstrous,” but because the Greeks and Romans still found sex, found somethingworthy of worship. Temple prostitution may—and should—strike the Christian as perverse, but one can’t help but say “But at least they had temples.” Even if sex, as Chesterton puts it, became a “tyrant” and crowded out anything else, at least its tyranny was still understood as “sacred.”

What we have now is something much darker than what Chesterton shuddered at: it’s not that we worship sex but that we’ve lost an understanding of what it even means to worship. That is to say, we’ve lost an understanding of what it would mean to consider anything—even our own desires—as something that transcends us, as something beyond a mere possession of the self. To worship is to recognize that there’s something beyond your self worth acknowledging. For the ancients to place a phallus in the middle of their gardens was, in quite a literal way, to take something that appears to be a possession of the self and to put it outside the self, to make it (again literally) larger than the self.

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7 Quick Takes—02/07/14—Philosophical Cats Edition!

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As I violated my 2-post-a-week resolution last week, I figured I should make amends in a manner sensitive to the cultural mores of the internet. Internet,  I present to you by way of apology this menagerie of philosophical and theological cats. I’m terribly sorry; I’m as guilty as the second cat in this video:

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If I could find a sufficiently large cat picture, and a font size that was highly readable even when very tiny, and I felt like opening up a graphics editor, I would make the following Nietzsche quote into the best philosophical cat meme ever.

Since I’m lazy, you’ll have to settle for this adorable cat picture and Nietzsche’s explanation of what your cat is really thinking. (Technically he’s describing a herd of cows but, you know, same diff…)

This is a hard sight for man to see; for, though he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness … A human being may well ask an animal: ‘Why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only stand and gaze at me?’ The animal would like to answer, and say: ‘The reason is I always forget what I was going to say’—but then he forgot this answer too, and stayed silent: so that the human being was left wondering.
But he also wonders at himself, that he cannot learn to forget but clings relentlessly to the past: however far and fast he may run, this chain runs with him … A leaf flutters from the scroll of time, floats away—and suddenly floats back again and falls into the man’s lap. Then the man says ‘I remember’ and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished for ever. Thus the animal lives unhistorically: for it is contained in the present, like a number without any awkward fraction left over. —Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”

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Seven Quick Takes—01/24/14

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This is what happens when I try and make sensible economic arguments to myself:

 “Hmm, what with this polar vortex nonsense—and my neighborhood’s crappy sidewalk maintenance—I’m kidding myself about sticking with a running program this winter.”

“You could join the school gym.”

“That’s true, but I can barely talk myself—in good weather—into walking out the door to go for a run. Do I seriously think that I’m going to talk myself into driving all the way to campus to work out?”

“Fair point. Plus, it costs so much buy to gym privileges.”

“You know, there is that new Wii Fit version that just came out. And look, it’s on sale on Amazon for less than the gym would cost you and you don’t have to leave the house to work out.”

“That’s a valid, sound, and utterly irrefutable argument for the purchase of a video game and accompanying paraphernalia. Logic compels me…” *click*


UPDATE: As a clear sign of my old-lady-ness, I totally thought the “u” at the end of Wii Fit U meant an update to the Wii Fit program. But, it turns out there’s a whole new Wii console…oh dear. This may take some sorting out…(though, so far as I can tell, the balance board accessory—which is the pricey bit to begin with—should work fine, I just need to get the older program).

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If I can talk myself into things I don’t need, maybe I can also talk myself into doing things I totally should do. Fortunately, The Millions has already helped me along by usefully re-writing the titles of famous novels to turn them into solid-gold click bait. Some of the best: “Watch This Kid Burst Into Tears When He’s Refused Some More Porridge” and “We Thought We Could Beat On Against The Current Without Being Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past. Boy Were We Wrong.” One of my favorites actually comes from the combox: “One Man Goes To Extraordinary Lengths to Catch the Biggest Fish Ever—You Won’t Believe His Age.”

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Like T.S. Eliot? Adore Jeremy Irons? Of course you do!  It expires 13 hours from now, but at the moment you can still stream Jeremy Irons reading Eliot’s Four Quartets at BBC Radio 4. The actual reading starts around 7:45 on the recording. If only all the books I read could be narrated in my head by Jeremy Irons…

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And now for something completely different: A cat playing a theremin! (Last second is absolutely priceless.)

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Cats (and dogs!) are also remarkably talented at helping you keep track of whether you’re meeting each day’s dissertation research and writing goals:

Cats on Fridge

Stickers worked when you were five and they will work now. Stickers always work.

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As Friday comes to a close, allow me to boast of my great achievement of having finally completed a Monday New York Times crossword puzzle without having to look anything up: 


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Finally, in more serious (and super-exciting) news…well…rumor: John Allen reports that two senior Vatican sources have indicated that Pope Francis intends to visit Philadelphia in September 2015 for the World Meeting of Families! Sounds like it’ll soon be time for me to pay my first real visit to Philly (I don’t think that driving near it on the Pennsylvania Turnpike really counts, which is all that I’ve done so far).

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!