This Life

James Wood wrote a tremendous review of Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom called If God Is Dead, Your Time Is Everything. Since I’ll be quoting a review that quotes the book, we’re two degrees removed from the source, but I don’t have the book yet and there are tons of ideas here I want to mark. Here’s one:

The problem with eternity is not that it doesn’t exist (Hägglund is uninterested in the pin dancing of proof and disproof) but that it is undesirable and incoherent; it kills meaning and collapses value. This is a difficult truth to learn, because we are naturally fearful of loss, and therefore attached to the idea of eternal restoration.

So you could write a book (or, heck, a novel) about this one point, but Hägglund is going to continue to pull the threads of this logic and see what we can learn both about how to live our daily lives and how to conceptualize life itself.

The great merit of Hägglund’s book is that he releases atheism from its ancient curse: its sticky intimacy with theism. Hägglund has no need for a parasitical relationship to the host (which, for instance, contaminates the so-called New Atheism), because he’s not interested in disproving the host’s existence. So, instead of being forced into, say, rationalist triumphalism (there is no God, and science is His prophet), he can expand the definition of the secular life so that it incorporates many of the elements traditionally thought of as religious. Hägglund’s argument here is aided by Hegel’s thinking about religion. For Hegel, as Hägglund reads him, a religious institution is really just a community that has come together to ennoble “a governing set of norms—a shared understanding of what counts as good and just.” The object of devotion is thus really the community itself.

These two ideas together force one who has grown up in religion (could be any religion, could be many religions, doesn’t matter) to ask themselves (a) which of their human anxieties are they salving with religious conceptions and (b) what societal ills are quelled by the existence of religion. Asking these questions allows one to recontextualize religion in life: only then can you choose or reject religion itself. In the absence of this deconstruction, you are simply choosing or rejecting religion’s idiosyncrasies, specificities, and people, not the ideas put forth by it or the social institutions buttressed by it.

And to sidestep the fact that I don’t have the time to read Ludwig Feuerbach’s “The Essence of Christianity”, I have to avoid Wood’s deep dive into Feuerbachian thought and instead head to this conclusion:

Feuerbach wanted to liberate human beings from their harmful self-deceptions, but Hägglund sees no imperative to disdain this venerable meaning-making projection, no need to close down all the temples and churches and wash them away with a strong dose of Dawkins. Instead, religious practice could be seen as valuable and even cherishable, once it is understood to be a natural human quest for meaning. Everything flows from the double assumption that only finitude makes for ultimate meaning and that most religious values are unconsciously secular. We are meaning-haunted creatures.

Dayum. I’d wear a t-shirt that read MEANING-HAUNTED. So let’s look at meaning more:

Savagely compressed, Hägglund’s argument goes something like this: If what makes our lives meaningful is that time ends, then what defines us is what Marx called “an economy of time.” Marx is, in this sense, probably the most secular thinker who ever lived, the one most deeply engaged with the question of what we do with our time. He divided life into what he called the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. Hägglund adopts these categories: the realm of necessity involves socially necessary labor and the realm of freedom involves socially available free time. Rationally, Hägglund says, we should strive to reduce the realm of necessity and increase the realm of freedom. But capitalism is systemically committed to exploiting most of us, and to steadily increasing the amount of labor at the expense of our freedom. Capitalism treats the means of economic life, labor, as though it were the purpose of life. But, if we are to cherish this life, we have to treat what we do as an end in itself. “The real measure of value,” Hägglund says, “is not how much work we have done or have to do (quantity of labor time) but how much disposable time we have to pursue and explore what matters to us (quality of free time).”

So at this point, with these enormous excerpts, I’m just providing thin and ill-informed color commentary on Wood’s great piece of writing. I’ll stop. Just go and read the thing! I have to leave with one more quote, though:

…as Hägglund puts it, “our own lives—our only lives—are taken away from us when our time is taken from us.” We are familiar with the secular charge that religion is “life-denying.” Hägglund wants to arraign capitalism for a similar asceticism. Religion, you might say, enforces asceticism in the name of the spiritual; capitalism enforces asceticism in the name of the material.

And one more thought: ask yourself why capitalism works. Sure, it’s a way for us to specialize, to agree on a system where we barter our effort and our skills not onesie-twosie by individual transactions but rather in service of the whole scorekeeping system called money. And what happens when there’s a system of scorekeeping? We get to declare winners and losers, villains and heroes, us and them. Humans LOVE “us and them”. It’s like their favorite thing in the whole world to do: exclude and judge. So while I love love these ideas of annihilating fundamentally inhumane capitalism, doing so means you still have to solve a tougher problem: replacing the human need to count dollar by dollar why they are winning a game (only some of us agreed to play) with something else, to satisfy the desire to score-keep.

It sounds tautological, but we love games and capitalism persists because it is a game we love. You have to find a game that’s just as pervasive and distracting to the human animal, without being so harmful. And then: world peace, right?


Hi, Ess. I really should check in more often here, but of course I have many excuses: all those little things I’ve been working on that seem big now and I’ll forget in the future. In between those, I get to see you. I’m not always there, though. For that, I am very sorry.

Sometimes you dress up as Super Essie:


And sometimes you dress up as a cat:


Or you tuck Poppy in for bed:


But sometimes you fall and lacerate your forehead so badly that, when your Mama looks at it, she immediately knows that it is time to go to Children’s Hospital:


And you then endure days of heat and constant applications of Bacitracin:


After which your Puppy Surprise named Missy, whom you received after doing a spectacular job listening and holding still at the hospital, comes with you for removal of those stitches, but has her puppies at the doctor’s:


And even though she’s having a big day herself, Missy still has time to comfort you when you’re waiting to see the doctor.


I’m not going to forget driving straight from work and coming in to see you at your room at Children’s, wrapped up in your Mama’s hug, new stitches in your head, wanting nothing more than to show me the colorful rainbow popsicle you were eating.

And I’m really really not going to forget that when we were all leaving the hospital together, you wanted to ride home with me, and that I drove around town, watching the sun get lower and lower in the sky, listening to your gentle breathing while you napped away the troubles of a long, long day.

Essie Reading List

Some library books we’ve been reading to Ess recently:


Herman and Rosie is a jazz and NYC-themed love story and when Ess wanted a story read to her in the middle of the night, that’s the one she picked. I think she picked it because it’s long for a children’s book, but it still has a nice gentle pace for late-night.

The Life Cycle of a Penguin is representative of these little (and sometimes not-so-little) factual books that she devours when she’s into something. Right now she’s really into animals having babies. She’s got a birthing center (padded with Kleenex) set up in her room, and after emerging (with plenty of labor sounds — she’s very clear that having an animal is difficult for the mother), her stuffed mammals promptly get licked clean by their moms and begin nursing. Lots of nursing. SO MUCH nursing. It’s very sweet.

And then When the World is Full of Friends — what a great title. Plus, those illustrations by Anna Currey just make your heart sing, don’t they? Mykala and I are going to find something by her to put on our wall.

Born to Be

“I was born to be me.”


A Single Pond

“A single pond means it’s not married to a puddle or a lake or an ocean. Because single means not married and that’s the things a pond would be married to.”

— Esmé


Mykala and I have what we call everything’s going to be OK moments. They occur when, unexpectedly, you take a deep, clear breath and, finding the typical tightness and anxiety missing, begin to feel the awareness, just over the fence of obligation and the ditch of depression, of a peaceful field of calm.

My understanding of these moments has been subtly, but profoundly, wrong.

You see, like an ignoramus, I took the phrase at face-value: everything (all the events in your life) is (in the future) going to be OK (will turn out nicely).

That’s not it. Really really not it.

As I initially had it, I seemed to imagine on the other side of the fence just undulating hills of astroturf covered in prepackaged food. Like I could, naked and naïve, go to a fake world and experience nice, simple, things; no grit or moxie or spirit required.


Everything is going to be OK means choosing to feel that it will all be… OK. Critically, you are not to be blamed, you are not to feel less-than, you must not accuse yourself of failure when you feel deeply all will not be alright. Rather, the phrase describes a perception that there’s the modicum of a sliver of a possibility in there that you’ll feel, eventually, that it will be.

Or was.

So, on the other side of that fence of obligation, that ditch of depression, you wish for a variegated, treacherous, beautiful, bountiful, harsh, verdant, real landscape where you get to bring shelter on your back, friends for the journey, a good strong pair of boots, and a thoughtful spirit. To see where you’ll go, what the weather will be that day, and how the seasons will bend you.

This is something like a flowering of Buddhist awareness, and, as always with these sorts of things, the terms are pedestrian, the analogies insufficient, and the lesson only clear once learned.

P.S. I have not learned this lesson yet.


My thinking, years ago, went like this: people, groups of people, compete for limited resources. Even if one side is consistently committed to negotiation, to peaceful compromise (even if BOTH are), physical aggression from a few rogues on one side will inevitably cause armed conflict. How could even the most egalitarian, humanistic leader do anything else, upon witnessing killing of their own?

This evolved to a model of cultural scapegoatism. Violence will arise when there are abundant resources, from just the perception of unfairness or moderately uneven distribution. Tribalism, jingoism, binary exclusivism will then define the in-group by negation. Which is to say, “we are wonderful, we are treated unfairly, and we are the opposite of those people over there.” Those who complain loudest seem to be those who are winning… and suffering the least. So then there’s persecution, murder, war, all metastasizing from a domineering culture who perceives the Other with stereotyping, fear, anger, distrust.

Perhaps, I reasoned, within the framework of a healthy society, one where basic needs of humans are considered, reevaluated, provided for, humanity can reach its potential. The goods and Goods from capitalism can be enjoyed and the cancerous growth of gross inequality regulated — look to Norway, I thought! See how their national competence and foresight took oil wealth and invested it to make the lives of all their residents better and pushed beyond a world powered by oil. If we just built that society, I thought, the bonfire of violence would be starved of oxygen!

And then I read about the nigh-thousand year suffering of the Cagots:

Cagots were shunned and hated. While restrictions varied by time and place, they were typically required to live in separate quarters in towns, called cagoteries, which were often on the far outskirts of the villages. Cagots were excluded from all political and social rights. They were not allowed to marry non-Cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter mills. They were allowed to enter a church only by a special door and, during the service, a rail separated them from the other worshippers.

“Ok, ok” I thought, “it’s just another example of fighting over something important, some thing arising from insufficient resources.” But then I read further:

The Cagots were not an ethnic group, nor a religious group. They spoke the same language as the people in an area and generally kept the same religion as well. Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families identified as Cagots. Few consistent reasons were given as to why they should be hated; accusations varied from Cagots being cretins, lepers, heretics, cannibals, to simply being intrinsically evil.

Then the amorality of it, the nihilistic cruelty sunk in.

Which puts us at my thinking today: it seems to me that the human’s need for a strong sense of belonging and their concept of self is so fragile that violence cannot be blamed on conditions of intractable scarcity, or scapegoatism. No. It seems humans have an instinctual, intrinsic desire to inflict pain and suffering on another. Or, more precisely, an Other.

So that’s where I am today. I propose this: you can give a village, a people, a nation, an entire global society universal basic income, healthcare, justice, democracy, and they will destroy it, just to watch it burn. Because that is the essence of the human animal.

But we won’t know if my guess is correct until we first build that society. So let’s built it and hope I’m wrong.

I Spy

Me: “I spy with my little eye, something… BROWN.”
Ess, without hesitation: “My eyes!”

Hell of a Mess

Paul Volcker, at 91, Sees ‘a Hell of a Mess in Every Direction’:

“The central issue is we’re developing into a plutocracy,” he told me. “We’ve got an enormous number of enormously rich people that have convinced themselves that they’re rich because they’re smart and constructive. And they don’t like government, and they don’t like to pay taxes.”

I agree. They’re not rich because they’re smart, they’re rich because they’re lucky. You can find the scientific summary of this in a piece by Scott Barry Kaufman:

In an attempt to shed light on this heavy issue, the Italian physicists Alessandro Pluchino and Andrea Raspisarda teamed up with the Italian economist Alessio Biondo to make the first ever attempt to quantify the role of luck and talent in successful careers. In their prior work, they warned against a “naive meritocracy”, in which people actually fail to give honors and rewards to the most competent people because of their underestimation of the role of randomness among the determinants of success. To formally capture this phenomenon, they proposed a “toy mathematical model” that simulated the evolution of careers of a collective population over a worklife of 40 years (from age 20-60).

In general, mediocre-but-lucky people were much more successful than more-talented-but-unlucky individuals.

And Volcker’s statement loops right back around to this piece by David Roberts in Vox:

It’s not difficult to see why many people take offense when reminded of their luck, especially those who have received the most. Allowing for luck can dent our self-conception. It can diminish our sense of control. It opens up all kinds of uncomfortable questions about obligations to other, less fortunate people.

So, here’s the point: you’ve got the Gilded Age in the early 20th century, where the increase of inequality, the dizzying heights of wealth reached by the 0.1% were stopped by a Great Depression, a World War (the second), and a rebuilding of American society based on sane taxes and regulations that reduced inequality. Today, we’re right back at that gilded level of inequality. A bunch of selfish humans want more. Some of them get more. Some of them get much much MUCH more. Introspection is limited. Philosophy non-existent. Myths of personal exceptionalism and meritocracy abound and suffocate independent, compassionate, and logical thought. Which leaves you with an eye-wateringly rich class of human who think they got there as an award for being special.

Both of the following upper-class garbage statements spell doom for a liberal democracy:

My journey into misanthropy grows ever darker. I wonder where the bottom is.

Library books

Here’s a collage of the covers of the books we currently have checked out from the library:


Ess enjoyed the narwhal and penguin fact books very much. She gets super-interested in different animals; penguins a few weeks ago. It has been ducks for the past few days.

Wanda Gág books never disappoint; plus, she was one tough woman. We’re always looking for strong female role models for Ess. Marjorie Flack is great, too. Stephen Savage’s illustrations in “Where’s Walrus? and Penguin?” are so funny. Equally delightful for adults and children.

Oh, and Kevin Henkes is some kind of magician. What an amazing author and artist.