When The Self Is Lost

Gracie Lofthouse investigates depersonalization disorder, which is “characterized by a pervasive and disturbing sense of unreality in both the experience of self (called ‘depersonalization’) and one’s surroundings (known as ‘derealization’)”:

Dr. Elena Bezzubova, a Russian psychoanalyst who treats people with depersonalization in California, calls it a painful absence of feeling. “A mother comes to me and says, ‘My son is in prison, I received a letter from him. I do not care, but it bothers me. Please prescribe me something to cry.’”

It might be the implications of the numbing, as opposed to the actual numbing itself, that cause the most distress. Have you ever played that game when you repeat a word over and over again until it loses all meaning? It’s called semantic satiation. Like words, can a sense of self be broken down into arbitrary, socially-constructed components?

That question may be why the phenomenon has attracted a lot of interest from philosophers.

In a sense, the experience presupposes certain notions of how the self is meant to feel. We think of a self as an essential thing—a soul or an ego that everyone has and is aware of—but scientists and philosophers have been telling us for a while now that the self isn’t quite as it seems. Psychologist Dr. Bruce Hood writes in The Self Illusion that there is no center in the brain where the self is generated. “What we experience is a powerful depiction generated by our brains for our benefit,” he writes. Brains make sense of data that would otherwise be overwhelming. “Experiences are fragmented episodes unless they are woven together in a meaningful narrative,” he writes, with the self being the story that “pulls it all together.” InThe Ego Trick, Julian Baggini writes that people are, as the 18th century philosopher David Hume wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature, “bundles of different perceptions.” “The unity [of self that] we experience, which allows us legitimately to talk of ‘I,’ is a result of the Ego Trick—the remarkable way in which a complicated bundle of mental events, made possible by the brain, creates a singular self, without there being a singular thing underlying it,” Baggini writes.

The Agony Of Christmas In Broken Homes

Heather Havrilesky offers advice to a stressed-out millennial revisiting a contentious relationship with her mother. She recommends serious self-care and being “prepared to serve the common good”:

Now, why should you be prepared to serve the common good? Because this is the realistic, adaptive, self-protective behavior of a mature adult. Instead of focusing on your own drama, you should focus on helping others. Because, look, part of you still believes that you might be able to right the wrongs of the past. The Jekyll-and-Hyde mother is tricky for this reason; her good days fool you into believing that you might be able to shake her out of her irrational attacking state. Listen to me: Your mother will never change. Going home for the holidays is not about “fixing” her or the past. It’s about tolerating the freaks you grew up with, making them dinner, giving them your unconditional love, and keeping your mouth shut. Realizing this might seem to serve them, but trust me, it serves you the most, by keeping you safer from heartbreak.

So help with the homework. Go out and buy some groceries. Do the dishes. Pour the wine. Listen. Laugh. Do the dishes again. Listen some more. Don’t expect to be in the best mood as you do these things. Do them anyway.

Meanwhile, Berit Brogaard explains what makes Christmas a hard time for divorced parents:

When sane parents separate, many judges, thankfully, divide custody equally. Each parent gets his or her fair share of custody, if at all possible. Even when it’s not possible to share the time with the children equally, judges will usually attempt to divide up the holidays evenly. The kids spend every other holiday with mom and every other holiday with dad. It certainly is in the children’s best interest to get to spend some time with each parent. Most kids, with decent moms and dads, would prefer to spend every holiday with both parents. The precious little ones secretly hope for the impossible: That their divorced or separated parents will get back together. But despite their wishes, they adjust to the situation. They have no other choice.

Nor do the parents. As we face the holidays many single parents face a very lonely time. They may be with dear family members: parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles. Yet they may nonetheless feel a profound pain in their hearts, even as they watch close relatives savor the pecan pie or scream in delight when they rip open their Christmas presents. Their own children are far away.

You’re Paying For That Well-Chosen Adjective

Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food examines the vocabulary of restaurant menus:

Mr Jurafsky ploughed through the descriptions of 650,000 dishes on 6,500 menus. Mid-range restaurants repeatedly insist that their food is “fresh”; this “overmentioning”, he explains, is a symptom of status anxiety. Cheap eateries swear their food is “real”. Expensive restaurants avoid such terms. The mere mention that the crab is real or the plums ripe is sufficient to conjure in diners’ minds the possibility that they might not be—the “maxim of relevance” in linguistic terms.

Pricey joints also use longer words. Mr Jurafksy calculated that every one-letter increase in the average length of the words describing a dish adds an extra $0.18 to the price. Phrases like “exotic Ethiopian spices” inflate prices too. Such foods would not be exotic to real Ethiopians. Places that label their food thus are not catering to native eaters who consume it every day; “that exotifying or orientalist stance is instead directed at non-native eaters,” he writes. Vaguely positive words, however, such as delicious or tasty, “linguistic filler words” used when restaurants have nothing genuinely valuable, such as caviar, to talk about, bring the price down by 9%.

“Beginning In Damnation, Bound For Deliverance”

Kathryn Schulz profiles Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild (recently made into a motion picture, seen above), which recounts her experience living alone in the woods for three months. Schulz connects Strayed to a tradition of religious pilgrimage – “the Muslim walking to Mecca, the Buddhist to Bodh Gaya, the Hindu to Puri, the Catholic to Lourdes”:

Religious pilgrims walk outdoors, but their fundamental journey is inward, undertaken to improve the state of their soul. So, too, with Strayed. The subtitle of Bill Bryson’s book is Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. The subtitle of hers is From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Like Dante, then, Strayed is on a spiritual journey, beginning in damnation, bound for deliverance. That makes Wild a redemption narrative — and that, in turn, helps explain its popularity, because redemption narratives are some of the oldest, most compelling, and most ubiquitous stories we have. We enshrine nature writing in the canon — you were probably assigned Thoreau and Emerson et al. in high school — but it is redemption narratives that dominate our culture. Among other things, you can hear them in religious services all across the land and in AA meetings every day of the week.

Wild embodies this ancient story. Or, more precisely, it embodies the contemporary American version thereof, where the course is not from sin to salvation but from trauma to transformation: I was abject, dysfunctional, and emotionally shattered, but now I see. This version has more train-wreck allure than the traditional one (being a mess is generally more spectacular than merely being an unbeliever), and it is also more inclusive. Identifying with it requires no particular faith, beyond the faith that a bad life can get better.

A Child’s Uncertain Identity

Erin Siegal McIntyre tells the gripping story of a child caught between two sets of parents, Timothy and Jennifer Monahan of Missouri, who adopted her from Guatemala, and Loyda Rodríguez and Dayner Hernández, who say she was abducted from their home when she was a toddler. Though Guatemalan officials have ordered that the girl, known as Karen to her American parents, be returned to her Guatemalan family, she remains in the US. From McIntyre’s recounting of the legal quagmires surrounding the case:

The Monahans made it clear that they didn’t believe the results of the DNA test that showed a match between Karen and Loyda Rodríguez. They implied that the little girl in their home wasn’t the same child whose DNA had been tested in 2007. In Guatemala, Jennifer Monahan said, “DNA is sort of viewed as a title, and we strongly feel that Karen isn’t property.” … [The Monahan’s lawyer Jared] Genser … declared that the Guatemalan court ruling had no jurisdiction in the US.

Yet the original issuance of Karen’s orphan immigrant visa, necessary to enter the US, and her American citizenship both depended on the authenticity of certain identifying documents—the same documents that had been voided by the Guatemalan judge. Essentially, US citizenship had been granted to a girl whose identity was in dispute.

When asked what they would do “if it is proven that Karen is Mrs. Rodríguez’s daughter,” Timothy Monahan answered, “It’s really very difficult to say.” He added that they’d been “trying to work with authorities all through this process.” But Guatemalan authorities said they’d never been contacted by the Monahans.

The same day the Monahans made their TV appearance, thousands of miles south, two women intimately involved in Karen’s adoption were sentenced in court for human trafficking, document fraud, and criminal enterprise related to the buying and selling of the child. [Guatemalan adoption lawyer Susana] Luarca’s nursery director and the lawyer who facilitated Karen’s adoption were both found guilty of all charges, and were sentenced, respectively, to sixteen and twenty-one years in prison.

Keep reading about the case here.

Corporate Concubine Culture

Dan Kois praises Helen DeWitt’s 2011 novel Lightning Rods – the first selection for the Slate/Whiting Second Novel List – as “a sex comedy that pursues a single dirty joke much, much further than it ought to and, in doing so, skewers American capitalism with a purer, more invigorating hatred than any novel I can remember.” The satire figures female employees as “lightning rods” specially hired to relieve the libidos of their male coworkers:

Women were being molested in the workplace,” [character] Joe reasons, “solely because their colleagues did not have a legitimate outlet for urges they could not control.” Worse, due to expensive sexual-harassment complaints, “men who worked hard and had a valuable contribution to make were being put at risk, through no fault of their own.”

Once per day, a male employee with privileges can press a button on his computer to order a lightning rod. One of the firm’s lightning rods will then receive a discreet message on her computer; she is expected to report immediately to a stall in the ladies’ room, where she will replace whatever she’s wearing on her lower half with a short skirt and no underpants. She will then lay in a specially-designed contraption which will slide her lower half through the wall into a stall in the adjacent men’s room, where the male employee, condom on, will sate his carnal desires, the better to go back to his office refreshed and focused and ready to make money. The women, too, handsomely remunerated for their additional tasks during the workday, go back to their desks, where they can plan for the glorious futures their fat paychecks will help them enjoy. (One former lightning rod, the book tells us, is now a justice on the Supreme Court!)

In a 2012 review, William Flesch described the novel’s take on a sales-minded society:

Salesmanship is all about acknowledging, about seeing, that there are different ways to look at the world. When you tell other people how you see the world, you can hope to encourage them see it your way. Encouragement becomes the medium of social interaction. Tolerance and friendliness become synonymous, which means that not too much strain is put on tolerance. And the lightning rods — by dissipating sexual tension, turmoil, anxiety, and disgust — contribute to the sense of tolerant friendliness.

DeWitt isn’t contemptuous of that tolerance, which her novel often frames as a social achievement. We see Joe making real moral advances in the course of the narrative. There is progress to his story: “It’s important to remember that there’s more to life than being a success. Sure, if you do something it’s important to give it your best shot. But it’s also important to be a good person.” Though the lightning rods are a literalized commodification of women, these women, just as much as their uni-functional peers in the office have ways of looking at things too. Some even prove themselves to be good salesmen.

In an earlier review, Garth Risk Hallberg applauded DeWitt for “luxuriat[ing] in the eloquent dumbness of the corporate idiom.” He suggested that the novel’s satire extends far beyond corporate culture:

Lightning Rods is no more “about” sexual tension in the workplace than A Tale of a Tub is about the tub. But if Joe’s “Lightning Rods” are the vehicle, what is the tenor? What, exactly, is being skewered? By the end of the book, the answer, wonderfully, seems to be “everything”: bureaucracy, sexual politics, the objectification of the female body, the sanctification of same, political correctness, political incorrectness, etiquette, boorishness, ambition, laziness, late capitalism, and even logic itself.

DeWitt brings to satire what Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 brought to the detective story: purity of means, ineffability of ends. This is not to say that Lightning Rods shares that novel’s epic sweep. It is, by design, a minor work. (DeWitt says she began writing it, and several other books, in 1998, “to pave the way for” The Last Samurai.) But it so emphatically aces the tasks it sets for itself, and delivers such a jolt of pleasure along the way, that it reminds me of just how major a minor work can be. I wish the other leading American novelists would produce more books in this vein. Come to think of it, I wish Helen DeWitt would, too. At any rate, as one of her endearingly flummoxed characters might say, I literally cannot wait to see what she does next.

Giving Your All

Julian Savulescu argues that “few people if any have ever been anything like a perfect utilitarian”:

It would require donating one of your kidneys to a perfect stranger. It would require sacrificing your life, family and sleep to the level that enabled you to maximize the well-being of others. Because you could improve the lives of so many, so much, utilitarianism requires enormous sacrifices. People have donated large parts of their wealth and even a kidney, but this still does not approach the sacrifice required by utilitarianism. …

People think I am a utilitarian, but I am not. I, like nearly everyone else, find Utilitarianism to be too demanding. I try to live my life according to “easy rescue consequentialism” – you should perform those acts which are at small cost to you and which benefit others greatly. Peter Singer, the greatest modern utilitarian, in fact appeals to this principle to capture people’s emotions – his most famous example is that of a small child drowning in a pond. You could save the child’s life by just getting your shoes wet. He argues morality requires that you rescue the child. But this is merely an easy rescue. Utilitarianism requires that you sacrifice your life to provide organs to save seven or eight lives. Easy rescue consequentialism is, by contrast, a relaxed but useful moral doctrine.

“You Can’t Just Move Napa Or Bordeaux A Few Hundred Miles North”

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Sandra Allen examines how winemakers are adapting to climate change:

A splashy, controversial study published last year by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that in major wine-producing regions, the area suitable for viticulture — wine-grape growing – is threatened. By 2050, such terrain will decrease by between 19 percent and 62 percent, under a business-as-usual carbon emissions scenario, and between 25% and 73% if carbon emissions increase, which some argue is more likely. The U.S. government’s 2014 National Climate Assessment, which lays out in spectacular detail and no uncertain terms what our country should anticipate in terms of climate change, summarizes American wine’s situation thusly: “The area capable of consistently producing grapes required for the highest quality wines is projected to decline by more than 50% by late this century.” …

Even a small change in overall temperature, or increased instances of extreme weather, will throw wrenches into the hard-won understanding producers have of their grapes, land, and climate – and of how to coax from that combination the best possible beverage.

Living Into The Big Unknown

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Jack Miles contemplates how “science keeps revealing how much we don’t, perhaps can’t, know” – and considers how that connects to religious pluralism. He argues that our ignorance can inform the way we understand faith:

However we cope with our ignorance, we cannot, by definition, call the coping knowledge. What do we call it? Let’s not give it a name, not even the name religion; the dilemma precedes religion and irreligion alike. But if we can concede that religion is among the ways that humankind has coped with the permanence and imponderability of human ignorance, then we may discover at least a new freedom to conduct comparisons. If we grant that we must all somehow go beyond our knowledge in order to come to enough closure to get on with the living of our lives, then how do religious modes of doing just that compare with irreligious modes? Since the challenge is practical rather than theoretical, the comparison should be of practices and outcomes rather than of theories and premises—yet the hope must be for a reasonable way of coping with the impossibility of our ever living a perfectly rational life.

Religion seems to to assume one aspect when considered as a special claim to knowledge and quite another aspect when considered as a ritualized confession of ignorance. One may certainly be struck by the peculiar way in which ostensibly authoritative pronouncements made in the course of religious revelation always seem to arrive coupled to the disconcerting proviso that ordinary human knowing could not have reached what is about to be conveyed: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9). So much, it would seem, for empirical confirmation. But rather than construe such language as vicarious boasting, one may take it, counterintuitively, as Isaiah’s way of reckoning with the limitations of his own mind. To this day, most expressions of religious commitment can be understood as utterances in either of those registers. The boastful construction is smug, loud, insufferable, and can sometimes seem omnipresent. The confessional construction is reticent and thus easily overlooked, yet its appeal shouldn’t be underestimated. The world harbors many a muffled believer and many a shy practitioner, reluctant to undergo cross-examination about a confession of inadequacy that defies ready articulation.

(Photo of “a huge supernova remnant crossing over the constellations of Taurus and Auriga” by Adam Evans)

Signed, Sealed, Delivered After Death

Neuroscientist David Eagleman launched a start-up, Deathswitch, that allows clients to communicate posthumously:

Subscribers are prompted periodically via email to make sure they’re still alive. When they fail to respond, Deathswitch starts firing off their predrafted notes to loved ones. The company now has thousands of users and effectively runs itself. Among the perks of a premium Deathswitch account is the ability to schedule emails for delivery far in the future: to wish your wife a happy 50th wedding anniversary, for example, 30 years after you left her a widow.

Death is the original other dimension—a parallel universe that, for millennia, we have anxiously tried to understand. As software, Deathswitch is relatively simple, but as a tool in that millennia-long project it can feel spine-chillingly disruptive. Eagleman has jury-rigged a way for people to speak from beyond that inviolable border and—for those of us still sticking it out on this side—to feel we’re being spoken to. It’s another example of technology enabling things that previously would have seemed magic.