Hollow-eyed busts

Peggy Noonan writes:

As of this week, it is six months since the reckoning that began with the New York Times exposé of Harvey Weinstein. One by one they fell, men in media, often journalism, and their stories bear at least in part a general theme. They were mostly great successes, middle-aged, and so natural leaders of the young. But they treated the young as prey. They didn’t respect them, in part because they didn’t respect themselves. They didn’t see their true size, their role, or they ignored it.

It should not be hard to act as if you are who you are, yet somehow it increasingly appears to be. There is diminished incentive for people to act like adults. Everyone wants to be cool, no one wants to be pretentious. No one wants to be grim, unhip, to be passed by in terms of style.

And our culture has always honored the young. But it has not always honored immaturity.

I have spent the past few days watching old videos of the civil-rights era, the King era, and there is something unexpectedly poignant in them. When you see those involved in that momentous time, you notice: They dressed as adults, with dignity. They presented themselves with self-respect. Those who moved against segregation and racial indignity went forward in adult attire—suits, dresses, coats, ties, hats—as if adulthood were something to which to aspire. As if a claiming of just rights required a showing of gravity. Look at the pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking, the pictures of those marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge, of those in attendance that day when George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door and then stepped aside to the force of the federal government, and suddenly the University of Alabama was integrated. Even the first students who went in, all young, acted and presented themselves as adults. Of course they won. Who could stop such people?

I miss their style and seriousness. What we’re stuck with now is Mark Zuckerberg’s .

Facebook ’s failings are now famous and so far include but are perhaps not limited to misusing, sharing and scraping of private user data, selling space to Russian propagandists in the 2016 campaign, playing games with political content, starving journalism of ad revenues, increasing polarization, and turning eager users into the unknowing product. The signal fact of Mr. Zuckerberg is that he is supremely gifted in one area—monetizing technical expertise by marrying it to a canny sense of human weakness. Beyond that, what a shallow and banal figure. He too appears to have difficulties coming to terms with who he is. Perhaps he hopes to keep you, too, from coming to terms with it, by literally dressing as a child, in T-shirts, hoodies and jeans—soft clothes, the kind 5-year-olds favor. In interviews he presents an oddly blank look, as if perhaps his audiences will take blankness for innocence. As has been said here, he is like one of those hollow-eyed busts of forgotten Caesars you see in museums.

I like that image: that those who refuse to act like they are who they are end up being the “hollow-eyed busts” that line non-descript museum corridors.

Humanae Vitae symposium

Attending parts of the Humanae Vitae symposium at Catholic University for the rest of the week, in light of the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul IV’s affirmation of Christian teaching on sex, marriage, and new life. It’s taking place in the student union building on campus, a short walk from the Basilica, and opened last night with powerful remarks from John Garvey, president of Catholic University, and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia. They streamed those remarks here, and audio of their remarks is below:

I’ll be fitting in meetings and working on-and-off during this symposium, including a trip to Alexandria tomorrow to meet with Wesley J. Smith, one of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network’s board members. Here are some photos from the past two days:

I reject the idea that things were definitively “better” in the “old days”. They weren’t, because human nature being what it is, human beings weren’t definitely better or worse. But every generation and age has its distinctive strengths and weaknesses; its challenges and hallmarks. One of those challenges in our time is answering, “What is the family?” Is it simply a contractual arrangement, which in some cases produces children in the same way that corporate partnerships might produce products? Or is it something deeper, and something that speaks more profoundly to our nature as creatures in this world that we’re called to conserve and pass along? Those are the sort of questions that Christians are trying to answer at this symposium.

Some background information on this event:

Symposium Purpose

This symposium explores Catholic teaching on human sexuality, marriage, conjugal love and responsible parenthood as articulated in the papal encyclical Humanae vitae upon its fiftieth anniversary (1968-2018).

The symposium is anchored in the view that, in and through Christ’s work of redemption, God’s original vision of the person, human sexuality, and marriage grounds human relationships and, after the fall, heals them. It seeks to elucidate the anthropological, philosophical, and theological underpinnings of the encyclical’s reaffirmation of the divine plan as expressed in Catholic teaching and advanced by Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. Papers presented at the symposium will therefore assess the past, reflect upon the present, and consider the future. Presentations will be theoretical, empirical, and pastoral. They will draw upon the disciplines of history, philosophy, theology, and science, and will highlight effective catechetical practices. All presentations will treat major themes from Humanae vitae.

Symposium Objectives

  • To analyze the historical context in which Humanae vitae was promulgated and received. This includes consideration of the cultural, sociological, philosophical, theological, and empirical trends operative in the 1960s which fostered a more negative than positive reception of the encyclical in certain areas and even a rejection of God’s plan for married love.
  • To deepen the theological and philosophical understanding of Church teaching on human sexuality, marriage, conjugal love and responsible parenthood as articulated in Humanae vitae, with special attention paid to the later impact of the Theology of the Body and the magisterium of St. John Paul II, in addition to that of Benedict XVI and Francis.
  • To explore the scientific response to Humanae vitae’s call for developing viable methods of Natural Family Planning (NFP).
  • To look at effective catechetical practices devised to promote Church teachings on conjugal love and responsible parenthood and the moral prohibition of contraception.
  • To analyze negative trends in national and international policy that impact religious practice or expression regarding human sexuality, marriage, and family planning and to offer solutions.
  • To look for and assess hopeful signs for growing acceptance of the Church’s teaching both in the Church and in the culture and to make recommendations for the future.


Happy Easter! I celebrated Easter Vigil mass last night with my brothers. Seven passages from scripture are read at Easter Vigil, along with the usual Easter customs of affirming one’s baptismal promises. We are weak, we are frail, we are made for the eternal.

In his homily, Msgr. Thomas Flanagan noted that it’s Easter, not Christmas, that is the most central point in the calendar, and that celebrations of the Nativity weren’t particularly widespread until the 200s. That makes sense, but it’s not a history I was familiar with.

Fr. George Rutler, pastor of St. Michael’s in New York, reflects:

We know directly from Saint Paul that Greek philosophers thought the Resurrection was a curious absurdity. Politicians more pragmatically feared that it would upset the whole social order. One of the earliest Christian “apologists,” or explainers, was Saint Justin Martyr who tried to persuade the emperor Antoninus Pius that Christianity is the fulfillment of the best intuitions of classical philosophers like Socrates and Plato.

Justin was reared in an erudite pagan family in Samaria, in the land of Israel just about one lifetime from the Resurrection. Justin studied hard and accepted Christ as his Savior, probably in Ephesus, and then set up his own philosophical school in Rome to explain the sound logic of the Divine Logos. Refusing to worship the Roman gods, and threatened with torture by the Prefect Rusticus, he said: “You can kill us, but you cannot hurt us.” Then he was beheaded.

Fast forward almost exactly a thousand years, and another philosopher, Bernard of Chartres, also admired the best of the Greek philosophers and coined the phrase “We are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.” There had been long centuries without much effort to explain the mystery of the Resurrection with luminous intelligence. In the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton would describe himself the same way. Being intellectual dwarfs may sound pessimistic, but there was also optimism in the fact that, lifted on the shoulders of giants, they could see even farther than the giants themselves. In witness to that, less than fifty years after Bernard died, building began on the great cathedral of Chartres. The magnificent rose window in the south transept depicts the evangelists as small men on the shoulders of the tall prophets. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are closer to Christ in the center of the window, than Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel who lift them up, seeing in fact what the prophets had longed for in hope.

The Risen Christ is neither a ghost nor a mere mortal. Ancient philosophies could be vague about things supernatural, and ancient cults could be distant from personal conduct. The Resurrection unites ethics and worship. The famous letter of an anonymous contemporary of Justin Martyr, meant to be read by the emperor Marcus Aurelius, said that the way Christians live “has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines.”

The Resurrection was the greatest event in history, and unlike other events that affect life in subsequent generations in different degrees by sequential cause and effect, the Resurrection is a living force for all time, making Christ present both objectively in the Sacraments, and personally in those who accept him. Thus, indifference to the Resurrection is not an option. The future life of each one of us depends on a willingness to be saved from eternal death.

And in another New York-themed Easter thing, here’s a 1956 shot of the Financial District that someone shared yesterday:

Snopes explains:

The image is real and was taken shortly before Easter in 1956. One newspaper, the Oxnard Press-Courier, published the photo on 31 March 1956 with the following caption: “Huge crosses, formed by lighted windows, blaze above New York’s skyline as part of an Easter display in Manhattan’s financial district. This scene, photographed from the roof of the Municipal Building, features 150-foot-high crosses in the City Services Co., City Bank Farmers Trust Co., and the Forty Wall Street Corp. buildings. (United Press Telephoto)”

Intentionally (I assume) those buildings seem to mirror the three crucifixions at Calvary.

A whole life, in the space of an hour

Elizabeth Bruenig writes with “all the spiritual advice” she has, “learned through experience, not study” which resonates with me as we approach Easter:

About an hour passes between the second time Peter denies knowing Jesus and the third and final time. It must have felt like an eternity, sitting there in the nighttime firelight, overcome with dread and uncertainty. There was time to think.

Maybe Peter thought about some way to still stop this entire process, this thing that was prepared to happen. That had been his first instinct, after all. Maybe he thought about fleeing. Maybe he thought about the next question that would come, and what he would say. Maybe he tried to steel himself to affirm his friendship with Christ, come what may. Maybe he had the exact words in mind.

And maybe he knew by then, after those first two denials, the likelihood that he would find his strength now was rather low. Jesus had said as much, anyway.

The man must never have known a longer hour. Hope is a thorn in the side of doubt, not a thing with feathers that perches in the soul. It aches. And at the end of it all he does —you will—still fail. Peter denies Christ again. The rooster crows, and Jesus looks at Peter, because even though Peter has denied Jesus, Jesus has not denied him. His opportunities are not yet exhausted.

The majority of us — who Augustine called the non-valde-boni,the not-very-good-ones—live our whole lives in the space of that hour. We hope. We try. We will probably fail. It will happen over and over again. The most relatable Christians in literature are not the subjects of hagiographies, but of the kind of morally ambiguous stories that amount, in the end, to what we call a life. Shusaku Endo’s Kichijiro, who repents only one more time than he apostatizes, is perhaps the ideal form.

In an era where solutions are judged by their efficiency, it can be hard to accept that this is just how grace works on fallen creatures: like a spiral, circling around you over and over again as you repeat the same mistakes, drawing nearer and nearer to your heart the longer you seek it. It isn’t that grace is ineffective or inefficient but that we are, being what we are, imperfect vessels for it. The miracle is that it works anyway.

Our entire being and existence are mysteries of the most incredible nature, and way too often we all end up arguing with one another over little controversies.

Who can explain the grace and beautitude of a human life, let alone the reason for there being stars illuminating the void in which the matter of this universe coheres? Where do the things that seem firmest in our observational and scientific experiences find their origin and meaning?

A Christian is one who believes that Christ came through that mystery and into the human story for the purpose of a relationship that can survive the shattering of not only very galaxy and the universe itself, but even the calamity that is the death of one we love.

Digital minimalism

Cal Newport writes about “digital minimalism“, a concept and a book he’s drafting:

In late 2017, as part of my research for a book I’m writing on digital minimalism, I invited my mailing list subscribers to participate in an experiment I called the digital declutter.

The idea was simple. During the month of January, 2018, participants would take a break from “optional technologies” in their lives, including, notably, social media. At the end of the 31-day period, the participants would then rebuild their digital lives starting from a blank slate — only allowing back in technologies for which they could provide a compelling motivation. …

Since January, I’ve been reading through the hundreds of reports that participants sent me about their experience with the digital declutter. I’ve been learning a lot from these case studies, but I want to focus here on one observation in particular that caught my attention: when freed from standard digital distractions, participants often overhauled their free time in massively positive ways.

Here are some real examples of this behavior from my digital declutter experiment…

  • An engineer named James realized how much of the information he used to consume though social media during the day was “unimportant or useless.” With this drain on his attention removed from his routine, he returned to his old hobby of playing chess, and became an enthusiast of architectural Lego kits (“a wonderful outlet”).
  • Heather, a writer and mother of three homeschooled kids, completed a draft of a book, while also reading “many books” written by others.  “I’m recapturing my creative spirit,” she told me.
  • An IT professional named Andy noted that he typically reads 3 – 5 books a year. Free from the time sink of social media, he’s on track to finish 50 books in 2018.
  • Angie is a yoga instructor, but she also has BFA and used to be a professional artist. “Not spending time on social media had me thinking,” she told me, “what do I want to get good at? Making social media posts, or getting back into painting?” She choose painting. During her declutter she booked three new art shows and had her work accepted at a juried exhibition. “For me, it was simply a refocusing of my time and commitment to myself, to get better at something I love,” she said.
  • A retired stockbroker named Bob began to spend more time with his wife, going for walks, and “really listening.” He expanded this habit of trying to “listen more and talk less” to his friends and family more generally.
  • A PhD candidate named Alma described the experience of stepping away from distracting technologies as “liberating.” Her mind began “working all the time,” but on things that were important to her, and not just news about “celebrities and their diets and workouts.” Among other things, she told me: “I was more there for my girls,” I could focus on “keeping my marriage alive,” and at night “I would read research papers [in the time I used to spend scrolling feeds].”
  • Another PhD candidate named Jess tackled Anna Karenina and Infinite Jest during the declutter. “Now that I feel like I’m actively choosing what I do with my downtime, I find [hard] activities like reading more pleasurable.”
  • A government worker named Ari replaced his online news habit with a daily subscription to the Wall Street Journal print edition. “I still feel perfectly up to date with the news, without getting caught up in the minute-to-minute clickbait headlines and sensationalism that is so typical of online news,” he told me.
  • When a publishing executive named Leonie gave up Facebook, she had an epiphany: “I do want to connect socially,” she told me, “but for a bigger purpose, and with a specific group of people, and to share a valuable message.” So she started her own blog on a topic she finds important. “It’s early days yet, but I’m enjoying this redirection my time and creative energy into making something that’s uniquely me, instead of getting caught up in the ‘compete and compare’ culture of social media.”
  • David was a former professor looking for a new job after moving to a different state. Ignoring the traditional advice that social media is key to finding jobs (as I also recommend), he deleted his accounts and dedicated his newfound free time to a more traditional job search. “I started getting more and more job interviews,” he told me, attributing his success to being able to deeply research open positions. This effort culminated in the last last week of the declutter: “I had five job interviews in five days and two offers.” He also competed a full rewrite of a young adult novel he was writing. “So I would say this experiment was a wild success,” he concluded.


Regret and virtue

On the use of regret to live a more virtuous life:

To “live life without regrets” is impossible because we are imperfect. There are thoughts, words, and deeds which all of us must repent. “Regrets, I’ve had a few but, then again, too few to mention,” sang Frank Sinatra in the incalculably pompous song, “My Way.” In Edwin O’Connor’s wonderful old novel, The Last Hurrah, the story’s hero, Mayor Frank Skeffington, lies dying as friends gather around, and one old political rival, who announces that if Skeffington had it to do all over again, he’d do it very differently. We want to cheer as Skeffington marshals the strength to say, “The hell I would!”

As much as we might admire the pluck of Frank Skeffington, we should, if granted a second or third or fourth chance to correct our errors, resolutely do so, secure in the knowledge that virtue often proceeds from regret rightly acted upon. Regret – accompanied by restitution and resolve – are not undesirable, but, on the contrary, are the wellspring of the examined life which, in turn, leads us to know, love, and serve God.

In 1984, Pope John Paul wrote (in Reconciliation and Penance): “The restoration of a proper sense of sin is the first way of facing the grave spiritual crisis looming over man today. But the sense of sin can only be restored through a clear reminder of the unchangeable principles of reason and faith which the moral teaching of the Church has always upheld.”

To have “a proper sense of sin” leads to the regret that converts sinners into saints. As we approach the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection this week, we should also keep in mind that through Him regret can be transfigured into joy.

Another way to think about yesterday’s Kierkegaard excerpt on regret is to first distinguish between regret and remorse, and then to distinguish between things you authentically regret and the recognition of which and resolve to live differently can positively change your life, and the sort of fruitless regret that Kierkegaard tends to be speaking toward, which is the regret of opportunity cost more than lack of living as a good person.

Transcending regret

Søren Kierkegaard in Either/Or:

If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a girl, you will regret it; if you do not believe her, you will also regret it; if you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both; whether you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both. If you hang yourself, you will regret it; if you do not hang yourself, you will regret it; if you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both.

Transcending regret involves recognizing that every choice includes an opportunity cost, and learning to make peace with the myriad versions of your life that you’ve foregone or missed out on, and finding real joy in the only life you’ve got—which is the one you’re living right now.