"Blessed is the Child You Will Bear"
Advent and Anxiety
For Sunday December 23, 2012
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
Luke 1:46b–55 or Psalm 80:1–7
Luke 1:39–45 (46–55)
In his 2006 Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the novelist Tom Wolfe explains how he got his trademark theory about what defines people in contemporary society. As a grad student at Yale back in 1952, he read an essay by Max Weber that shaped his thinking for the next sixty years.
The German sociologist argued that society was stratified not only by economic class (Marx), but by status groups. People form status groups based upon shared values. Status groups can share almost any value — education, speech, dress, sports, politics, religion, ethnicity, family, occupation, sex, etc. Status groups become an "inner circle" which either include or exclude you.
Extrapolating on Weber, Wolfe calls this phenomenon "status anxiety." In his view, status anxiety is what drives every human being. "Even before I had left graduate school," Wolfe says in his 2006 speech, "I had begun to wonder if somewhere in the brain there might be a center that interpreted incoming data and gave the human beast the feeling he was improving its status, merely maintaining its status, or suffering the grave wound of humiliation."
Nathaniel Rich observes that the characters in Wolfe's new novel Back to Blood (2012) are driven by the same motivations as all the characters in Wolfe's previous novels: "anxiety about social status is the animating force of modern society… It is not a simplification to say that Wolfe's fiction is structured entirely upon this sociological approach." Status anxiety, says Boris Kachka in another review, is "that great fatal flaw of every Wolfe character."
Critics will quibble, but Wolfe has always insisted that his novels are realistic descriptions of contemporary society. He's famous for his research into the real life worlds of every day people. It's not a pretty picture. The people in his novels inhabit a hierarchial world of competition, vanity, and pretension. They struggle with feelings of deep inadequacy. They worry about what others think of them. Do they wear the right clothes? Is their spouse sufficiently good-looking? Does their job convey prestige and power?
Status anxiety of this sort is a form of self-absorption. In the vivid description of Augustine, it's the heart curved in on itself. Our self-centeredness, said the novelist David Foster Wallace in his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, is our "default setting, hardwired into our boards at birth." This is hard to admit or talk about, he says, because it's "socially repulsive."
Wallace was an astute observer of nearly every important cultural trend — television, movies, politics, pornography, business, work, etc. His novels show how these powerful social forces agitate our status anxieties, dictate our desires, and reinforce out self-centeredness in a recurring loop. No one is immune from their force field. Most of us go with the flow; a few actively resist, although this always comes at the cost of exclusion from a status group.
Status anxiety is a game you can never win. If you worship money, Wallace observes, you'll never have enough. If you crave sex and beauty, he says, you'll always worry that you're ugly. If you think science alone explains everything that's knowable, your world will be devoid of mystery. If power is your game, you'll likely be a deeply insecure person and control freak. An uncritical attitude toward technology leads to powerful means with no moral ends.
Mental health experts observe how the Christmas season aggravates our anxieties. This happiest of seasons is unbearably sad for some people. Big parties with status-chatter accentuate our loneliness. Christmas commercials brain wash us into thinking we can spend our way to fulfillment.
For an iconic moment when the many forces of status anxiety coalesce, consider Black Friday shopping — that day after Thanksgiving (how ironic) when people who have camped out all night in front of a Walmart stampede each other to death in the early morning darkness. Why? To spend money they don't have on stuff they don't need.
Status anxiety is bad enough. In addition, we all have legitimate anxieties about real problems. Last week a reader emailed me to request a poem to help her plan her own funeral — she's dying of lung cancer. At the post office, I met a neighbor who said he's made 175 job inquiries but still can't find work. At church, a friend's brother died of Alzheimer's. Another friend found a burnt spoon and hypodermic needle in a teenager's bedroom. Who wouldn't worry?
The psalmist for this week put his anxieties to verse. He laments his "bread of tears" and cries "tears by the bowlful." Enemies had ravaged their vineyards. Drought had parched the land. Their beleaguered community had become a source of contention and an object of mockery. And so he prays to God, "Awaken your might; come and save us!"
What pregnant mother doesn't experience anxiety? In her Magnificat, Mary contrasts the fortunes of the rulers and the rich, the hungry and the humble. Her ancient song finds its contemporary counterparts among the families of Damascus, Goma, Mumbai, and the many places around the world like them.
Christmas is the perfect catharsis for anxiety. It's a catharsis because it's a kenosis. Kenosis is the Greek word that Paul uses to describe how Jesus "emptied" himself so that we could experience God's fullness. Elsewhere he uses an economic metaphor to make the same point: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich." In our poverty we can experience God's presence, in our emptiness, his fullness.
Whatever our anxieties this Advent, real or imagined, we can pray with the psalmist, "Come and save us!" And we can imitate Mary, who was blessed because "she believed that what the Lord said to her would be accomplished."
For further reflection:
The Coming, by the Welsh poet and Anglican priest RS Thomas (1913–2000):
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said,
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
For Tom Wolfe, see http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/tom-wolfe-lecture.
For Nathaniel Rich, see New York Review of Books (November 22, 2012).
For Boris Kachka, see http://www.vulture.com/2012/10/tom-wolfes-new-novel-back-to-blood.html.
Image credits: (1) Blue Eyed Ennis; (2) In-Formatio.com; (3) Julie Lonneman Studio; and (3) Inspired Angela blog.