‘The desire to collapse in on ourselves’

Scott Beauchamp writes on the causes and consequences of a “world without kith or kin,” a culture where family and friendships, and the sacrifice and cost associated with both, are understood to be the barrier to, rather than the primary means of achieving, a meaningful life:

The Japanese word kodokushi roughly translates to “lonely death.” The term might be a touch poetic for what it actually describes, conjuring as it does the romantic image of an individual stoically riding off alone into oblivion. An existential cowboy leaning in his saddle towards the darkening horizon, embodying all the heroic maverick energy that our contemporary world so highly values. The apotheosis of freedom in current Western society being a complete atomization of self, an undoing of all the bonds which constrain us, kodokushi almost sounds like something to aspire to.

The material reality of the “lonely death” is grim. Disgusting, even. It is an odor the neighbors do not notice until it is already too late. It is the kinetic hum of maggots digesting an undiscovered corpse. It is the slow accumulation of “past due” notices in the mail, piling up until a stranger comes to query the “customer” in person and finds their liquefying remains. It is the cagey instinct of the entrepreneurs who have capitalized on kodokushi as a business opportunity, monetizing their lurid and sad deaths by offering special cleaning services for the tiny apartments of elderly folks who have died alone and unnoticed and are well into decomposition. In a phrase, it is the complete thing-ification of people who have outlasted their use-value. It is the fate of people who, as Simeone Weil quoted from The Iliad in a similar context, have become “dearer to the vultures” than their loved ones or community. Kodokushi is the process of humans being reduced to garbage. And it is not unique to Japan. As the first generation of humans “liberated” from kin-connections ages and dies, kodokushi becomes a global phenomenon.

Scholars who study demographic shifts refer to what happened in relatively wealthy, Western countries after the Industrial Revolution—a decline in both death and birth rates—as the First Demographic Transition. You can basically sum it up as the process of large, extended families, shrinking down to the nuclear unit. What is occurring now—the epidemic of loneliness, the severing of deep familial ties, kodokushi, etc.—is known as the Second Demographic Transition (SDT). …

Either way, and however far back in the dim memory of the human story you might trace the lineage of the drive to sever connection to and responsibility for one another (we can certainly go back at least to Cain), when taken to its logical conclusion the result always seems to be the same: people are transformed into refuse. …

The desire to collapse in on ourselves like dying, solitary stars, might be older than ancient. But more recently we can see it manifest in last centuries various ideological turns against both tradition and, more importantly, the notion of a transcendent reality. …

Any number of contemporary songs or movies come to mind where the family is seen as something to liberate oneself from in order achieve a deeper contentment and truer sense of self. Few examples exist of art which conveys the horror of the isolated individual, imprisoned by solitary desire. French author Michel Houellebecq might be the rare example of an artist who unflinchingly gazes into the abyss of modern self and, with a cold eye, catches sight of all the ways in which constructing a world composed simply of desire sated and desire thwarted contributes to profound human misery.

A question we ignore in our obsession with achieving greater levels of autonomy and self-actualization is something like: What is the liberated individual liberated for?

When we break free from our family and friendships and communities, what other world is it that we’ve broken into? Breaking away from the personal and social and moral and ethical constraints of daily life and into a place of abstracted individuality is pre-civilizational. It’s regressive.

Attachment styles

I was listening to Lila Rose’s “The Lila Rose Show” today, and she and her guest were talking about personalities and temperaments. At one point “attachment styles” were brought up, and that led me to Elizabeth Grace Saunders, who writes on the four “attachment styles,” relating to our personalities:

Your better mind knows exactly how to manage your time better at work but a primal, seemingly uncontrollable urge to do the opposite overtakes you.

You know you should say no when you’re asked to take on that new project, but you say yes. Or you know your boss said your report was good enough, but you work until midnight perfecting it. Or you’re just stuck — wanting to do better but unsure that trying will help — so you do nothing.

If you are frustrated with your seemingly irrational behavior, the root issue may be deep subconscious programming known as your “attachment style.” Your attachment style dictates how you relate to other people, particularly in situations that trigger stress.

Attachment style discussions typically arise in relation to the bond between parents and children or romantic partners, but in my work as a time management coach, I’ve seen that individuals can also “attach” differently in the workplace. Here’s how to identify your attachment style, and take control of how you manage your time.

She addresses anxious preoccupied attachment (fear-based), dismissive avoidant attachment (arrogance-based), fearful avoidant attachment (compounding-fear-based), and secure attachment (healthy). Here’s a wider overview of the history of attachment theory.

Georgetown Marian Procession

This morning I went to 7:30am Mass at Epiphany in Georgetown for the Feast of the Assumption. And at 7pm I walked back to Epiphany for their Marian Procession through Georgetown, from 27th and Dumbarton to Wisconsin, and then down Wisconsin and along M Street, and finally back up 27th to Epiphany.

We prayed the Rosary and at each decade the priests leading the procession offered a meditation on Mary as our mother. “Beauty is attractive,” it was said at one point, “but holiness is inspiring.” As we walked along, pointing in our way to Mary’s holiness, I thought about how far away from that I often feel. And as I thought this I heard Philippians: We’re here to work out our salvation. We sang between decades—Hail Holy Queen, Enthroned Above, and Immaculate Mary.

As we stood in front of Epiphany at the end, one of the women led us in singing the Salve Regina:

Salve, Regina, mater
misericordiae:
Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra,
salve.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et
flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia ergo, Advocata nostra,
illos tuos misericordes oculos
ad nos converte.
Et lesum, benedictum fructum
ventris tui,
nobis, post how exsilium
ostende.
O clemens: O pia: O dulcis
Virgo Maria.

‘Normal human despair’

Marianne Williamson recently observed that Americans are too frequently prescribed antidepressants for what she called “normal human despair”:

“The twenties can be very hard. They’re not a mental illness,” Williamson told BuzzFeed News in an interview Friday. “Divorce can be very difficult, losing a loved one, someone that you know died, someone left in a relationship and you’re heartbroken — that’s very painful, but it’s not a mental illness.”

“You had a professional failure, you lost your job, you went bankrupt,” she continued. “Those things are very difficult, but they’re not a mental illness.”

Williamson, a self-help author, has previously weighed in on the topic of overprescribed antidepressants, tweeting in June 2018 that such medications are being prescribed “many times when people are simply SAD.”

“The answer to depression is more scientific research only if you think of it simply in biomedical terms. The medicalization of depression is a creation of the medical industry,” she tweeted. “For millennia depression was seen as a spiritual disease, and for many of us it still is.”

I think this is true. And I think this also pairs well with Christopher F. Rufo’s City Journal piece on how those who have true addictions, affiliations, and illnesses in San Donato Val di Comino are treated in a humane way:

At six o’clock each morning, the alcoholics, addicts, and mentally ill residents of San Donato Val di Comino, Italy, emerge from their homes and congregate—sometimes together, but mostly alone—in the cafés around the town’s main square. Some of the hardened alcoholics order an espresso with a shot of liquor, then climb into work trucks and head out to farms and construction sites. The mentally ill—who suffer predominantly from depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia—order cups of coffee or sit at the patio tables emptyhanded, an indication that they have run out of cash for the month.

My father was born in this village, where I’ve observed this early-morning ritual during family vacations over the past two decades, but this time it struck me in a new way. For the past 18 months, I’ve reported on homelessness, addiction, and mental illness in American cities and spent many hours with America’s most vulnerable residents, who, on the surface, struggle with the same afflictions as the residents here in San Donato.

In fact, the contrast is profound. In West Coast cities, tens of thousands of addicts and mentally ill people live outdoors in horrific conditions and survive on a combination of panhandling, prostitution, and property crime, which, in turn, creates disorder on urban streets. Not in San Donato, however: here, addicts and the mentally ill are deeply integrated into the community and maintain a dignified standard of living. Their families and relatives look after them and stay involved in their lives. When necessary, the municipal government provides employment sweeping the streets, and local businesses sometimes pay mentally disabled residents to serve as lo spanno, an informal occupation that entails walking through the streets with a loudspeaker announcing products newly available in the town market. The community plays a role in helping the most vulnerable, not through compulsion or formalized social programs but instead through the values of self-help and community responsibility.

In San Donato, a man found sleeping on the streets would suggest a moral scandal. The village would shame the homeless man’s family into taking him in to provide financial, practical, and psychological support. The reason that nobody sleeps on the streets here isn’t medical or technical—it’s cultural. Despite massive economic and social change over the past century, Italians have retained a culture of family and responsibility that strictly limits the expression of pathological behavior and enforces a standard of dignity that encourages addicts and the mentally ill to participate in society despite their condition.

Let your hand be ready to help me

I’m sharing something from today’s Magnificat, which I was able to pray with someone who has, in ways I don’t fully understand yet, changed my life:

Lord, let my cry come before you:
teach me by your word.
Let my pleading come before you;
save me by your promise.

Let my lips proclaim your praise
because you teach me your commands.
Let my tongue sing your promise
for your commands are just.

Let your hand be ready to help me,
since I have chosen your precepts.
Lord, I long for your saving help
and your law is my delight.

Give life to my soul that I may praise you.
Let your decrees give me help.
I am lost like a sheep; seek your servants
for I remember your commands.

Tradition and community life

Christopher M. Reilly writes on healthy community life:

Senator Josh Hawley is right when he says that America needs to renew its attention to “the middle.” The quibbling of Democrats’ debates, and the historic dysfunction of Congress, show that most of our governing class is simply ignoring the demands that half of the country expressed by electing President Trump. We have had more than our fill of postmodern chaos and excuses from a governing class that is fleeing from responsibility for average citizens. All generations, not least the hounded Millennials and the forgotten elderly, have heard too much about an “epidemic of loneliness” and “death by despair,” and not enough about reasons to hope. …

While rebuilding a community requires reorganizing power, there is much more to it. It is not enough simply to urge people to rejoin their church or a baseball league. As Robert Putnam and his colleagues demonstrated in Making Democracy Work, communities are built around shared traditions and norms―the “social capital” of the people. A local community has a character that distinguishes its people and place, one that gives the community an identity that its residents can relate to, negotiate with, and absorb into their own personalities. The social capital of a community is not merely an asset for its current residents: it also affects the welfare of future generations and the community’s attractiveness to newcomers. Public policy must therefore take it into account.

There is always the danger that emphasizing social capital and tradition can quickly lead a community to oppress or unjustly exclude some people. The entire political tradition of the Enlightenment can be seen as a resistance to unthinking, oppressive traditions that were thought to underlie the Leviathan states that existed before and during early modernity. But the American communities that we are considering are much smaller in geography and population than the nation-state, and therefore the dynamics of interaction are different; as a shared language for face-to-face social engagement and events, knowledge of tradition can be essential to individuals’ free participation in dialogue within their community.

Moreover, not all appeals to tradition are sincere. Niccolò Machiavelli urged leaders to pay lip service to traditional themes in their public statements in order to give their progressive policies a more appealing ideological mask. We see the same deception at work today as the dual forces of elite centrism and relativism use the language of family, peace, and religious sincerity as a convenient decoy while they in fact promote a culture of impulsive consumerism. By contrast, the tradition and common sense of America’s small communities authentically uphold faith and family as ballasts against the chaos of postmodernity.

Because of the importance of passing on tradition, a flourishing community requires active communication among citizens. The members of the community must engage, debate, and cooperate in the social and political processes that govern the community’s operations. But that cooperation can happen only if each citizen identifies so closely with his extended neighborhood that that identity expresses itself spontaneously in his action. In other words, true citizenship is a process of dialogue between the individual and the whole, and such citizenship is at the core of what defines any community. As Rudolf Steiner declared: “A healthy social life is found only when, in the mirror of each soul, the whole community finds its reflection, and when, in the whole community, the virtue of each one is living.”

That being said, we should add that one kind of community, the two-parent family, is founded on natural bonds that go deeper than the members’ self-identification with the group. Families are the bedrock of well-being for their individual members, both children and adults. They give their members financial security, healthy emotional growth, and the life experience that imparts spiritual and practical wisdom. For children in particular, living a happy family life teaches them that the larger world—of which their family is an image—is good, a lesson that children carry all through their lives. Moreover, families act in the larger social dialogue in ways that individuals do not, through inter-couple relationships, collective parenting networks, and intergenerational support. Flourishing communities are as much defined by the engagement of families as of individuals.

All of this ties in with Philip Halfacre’s vision of genuine friendship.

Dumbarton Oaks Garden

I visited Dumbarton Oaks Garden today for the first time, alongside a friend whose idea it was to go. It’s in Georgetown, and only a few blocks from home, but it feels like you’re in the country:

In 1920, after a long and careful search, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss found their ideal country house and garden within Washington, DC. They purchased a fifty-three-acre property, described as an old-fashioned house standing in rather neglected grounds, at the highest point of Georgetown. Within a year, the Blisses hired landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand to design the garden. Working in happy and close collaboration for almost thirty years, Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand planned every garden detail, each terrace, bench, urn, and border. The upper sixteen acres were transferred to Harvard University in 1940 to establish a research institute for Byzantine studies, Pre-Columbian studies, and studies in the history of gardens and landscape architecture.

Short biographies at the close of life

Andrew Critch reflects on funerals, and whether our way of burying our dead is as much about honoring their bodies as honoring their memory. Specifically, Andrew suggests buying “biographies instead of expensive burials:”

Cemeteries and funerals are beautiful, because they tell a story of the past that we care about. They’re also somewhat expensive: families routinely spend on the order of $10k on funeral and burial rites for their families. There are people whose entire jobs are the preparation of bodies for funeral rites. Can we tell the story of the past better, but for the same cost?

I believe we can. If your loved one is close to death or has recently died, instead of planning for an expensive burial funeral, you might consider instead planning for the cheapest possible disposal of their earthly remains, and use the excess money to hire a biographer. The biographer can talk to your loved one’s family, and even your loved one directly if they haven’t yet passed, and write down people’s most treasured or meaningful memories about them. Your children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren could have much more than a tombstone to remember them by.

If more people adopted this tradition, cemeteries could become libraries where we keep tomes of stories about our lost loved ones, both bitter and sweet. When we bring flowers to the cemetery, we could leave them next to a book containing their life story. We could re-read their memories, and perhaps even take some time to read through the memories of other people we don’t know, and develop a feeling of what it was like to be them. Probably some people would take an interest in reading the stories even of strangers. Perhaps these “cemetery historians” would even bond when they meet at the cemetery, and recommend their favorite stories to each other. Together, we’d have a culture more capable of preserving and cherishing the memories of the people we’ve lost.

I don’t see this as being in competition with a proper funeral or burial at all, but as a natural part of the planning process that funeral homes or others could adopt as part of their service to respect the bodies of the dead and honor their memory.

Magnanimous, ‘great-souled’ people

I walk at a fast pace. But John Cuddeback warns against being in a hurry without good reason:

As is often the case, these words of Aristotle must be carefully considered. “The man who takes few things seriously” can sound like a man who doesn’t really value things—as though he were excessively nonchalant and under-estimates the worth of things. From the context it is clear that Aristotle rather is pointing to the man who properly judges things: a man who has recognized the few things that are really important in life.

So the man who judges things well, seeing things for what they are, is not in a hurry. Indeed, he usually walks with a measured, peaceful gait.

I had seen this text long ago, and I didn’t really make much of it. Then last week I was on retreat, and I kept catching myself rushing, bounding up and down stairs as though there wasn’t a minute to lose, when in fact there was no real need to hurry.

… I let myself get in a hurry, even though there isn’t a pressing need. An example comes to mind: how often have I gotten angry at my children when I go to pick them up somewhere if they so much as linger an extra moment to say farewell to their friends? “How dare you keep Daddy waiting!” As though the standard assumption is: Daddy has way too much to do, and you’re holding him up! Let’s get on with this! …

I’ve decided to start by slowing down my gait. It’s been hard. Even harder will be to learn really and truly to put first things first, to recognize what really matters and what doesn’t, and to act like it. The magnanimous man, which literally means the ‘great-souled man,’ takes seriously what he should. And for that very reason he is careful not to be in too much of a hurry.

John Cuddeback is consistently thoughtful. It’s worth receiving his emails.

An endless thirst for life

Memento mori, as a reason for hope and for right conduct in this life. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura on the event we all face—though not our ultimate destiny:

“Finally, what great and vile desire for life compels us
To quake so much amidst doubts and dangers?
Mortals have an absolute end to our lives:
Death cannot be evaded—we must leave.

Nevertheless, we move again and still persist—
No new pleasure is procured by living;
But while what we desire is absent, that seems to overcome
All other things; but later, when we have gained it, we want something else—

An endless thirst for life grips us as we gasp for it.
It remains unclear what fortune life will offer,
What chance may bring us and what end awaits.
But by extending life we do not subtract a moment
Of time from death nor can we shorten it
So that we may somehow have less time after our ends.

Therefore, you may continue as living as many generations as you want,
But that everlasting death will wait for you still,
And he will be there for no less a long time, the man who
Has found the end of life with today’s light, than the man who died
Many months and many years before.”