the Babel podcast

Dear readers, this has been a stereotypical Monday, which means that I don’t have the energy to write a full post.  But here is, as I promised last week, a link to the episode of my colleague Clifford Stumme’s podcast The Pop Song Professor in which he and I discuss Mumford and Sons’ 2009 album, Babel.  Let me know what you think, especially if there’s something on the album we didn’t discuss that you have an opinion about.

Also, I watched one of my favorite movies, The Godfather Part 2, on Saturday, and was thoroughly depressed, as always.  Expect to read more about this next week.

 

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Advent week 1: a Christmas post roundup

Considering my interest this year in finding practical ways to observe the rhythms of a healthy Christian life (e.g., giving up checking email on Sundays, taking a quarterly three-hour meditation “retreat”), you might think that I have a great plan to celebrate Advent.  I don’t.  I’m just going to do what I always do, which is to break out my Christmas decorations and music on December 1.  (I actually jumped the gun a little this year–I got my Christmas tea towels out yesterday.  And now for the big confession: I’ve been listening to the Celtic Holidays station on Pandora for weeks.)  But I have decided to write a Christmas post every Monday of the four weeks of Advent.  I have no idea what I’m going to write in most of these posts, but I’ll figure it out as I go.  Some of the posts may be better than others, but won’t that be more exciting than those chocolate Advent calendars that reveal the exact same square of bland chocolate every day?  I think so.

I feel a heavy, but probably totally imaginary, weight of expectation on my proverbial shoulders as I prepare to write these posts because I’ve always made a point of writing excellent Christmas posts ever since I began my blog in 2011, a tradition I’ve kept up even during periods when I’ve largely neglected to post  My first Christmas post , written just days after I started the blog, was short but profound.  Since then, I’ve written about topics as widely varying as A Christmas Carol adaptations, the school shooting that occurred in Newtown, CT, near Christmas in 2012 (a post I didn’t want to write but felt compelled to), Danny Kaye’s socks, a Charles Dickens Christmas story that’s NOT A Christmas Carol, and my bird ornaments.

In college, when I couldn’t figure out how to start a paper, I used to take up a page or more on introducing the topic, telling tangentially related anecdotes, and apologizing for what was to come.  By then, I was already well into my required page count!  I guess I haven’t changed much since then; I basically just did the blog version of that exact thing.  This post won’t be an entire waste of your time, however, if you click on the links in the preceding paragraph.  And I promise not to waste your time in my remaining three Advent posts (and my Boxing Day post!  It’s on a Monday this year).  When I next write to you, I’ll have all my bird ornaments up and will have listened to Harry Connick, Jr.’s When My Heart Finds Christmas (another vintage Penelope post topic) at least once.  See you then.

 

 

Fantastic EQ and How to Have It

Well, I couldn’t wait until next week.

I know there are some people who read my blog who love J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world as much as I do, but there are also some readers who aren’t great fans of that world but are interested in the psychology/personal growth topics I often write about.  This post is for all of you.

Last night as I was leaving the theater after seeing Fantastic Beasts and Where I Find Them, I ran into several friends and acquaintances, and as we briefly exchanged expressions of love for the movie, I noticed that I kept putting my hand over my heart, as if I needed to keep it inside my chest.  That’s how the movie made me feel.  I felt like my heart was overflowing.

Another way of saying the same thing: Sharp-eyed viewers (and people who have been on Pottermore recently) will notice that the protagonist, Newt Scamander (whom I loved just as much as I hoped I would), has a Hufflepuff scarf.  I remarked to one friend that even though Newt is the only Hogwarts graduate in the movie, all the inner-circle characters seem like Hufflepuffs to me.  Despite their different personalities, they are all kind, awkward, earnest, and almost painfully empathetic.  And I think that’s why I loved the movie.

Emotional intelligence (EQ), of which empathy is a big part, is a topic that fascinates me, so I can’t help noticing when fictional characters show that they have it–or don’t.  In Fantastic Beasts, I saw the main story as a piece of Newt Scamander’s EQ development journey.  At the beginning of the movie, he doesn’t make eye contact with people (he does with animals, though), he behaves bizarrely in social situations, and–most importantly–he’s very, very guarded about his personal life.  By the end, he hasn’t become a different person, but he’s learned to trust a few people who have earned it, he makes the (for him) difficult admission that a human being is actually his friend, and he seem to take the first tiny steps toward falling in love.

But yes, this is a fantasy, not an introspective drama.  Yet I think the splashier plot, the one involving dark magic and wand duels, also hinges on emotional intelligence.  At the end of the movie, empathy saves New York City.  (How’s that for a superhero movie title?)  Seriously.  Unfortunately, it comes too late to save the lost soul whose personal conflict has been spilling over and wreaking havoc on the city.  As in the Harry Potter series, we see that children who don’t receive love usually (unless they’re special, like Harry) have no love to give others.

There’s also a beautiful metaphor for empathy in this movie.  One character that I didn’t except to love (I forgot that Rowling can write really great female characters, unlike so many authors) was Queenie, who is a Legilimens (for you non-fans, that means she can read minds).  Mind-reading tends to be portrayed as a sinister skill, but in Queenie’s case, it’s a literalized form of empathy: I actually do know what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling, but instead of using that against you, I’m going to help you if I can, and just accept you if there’s nothing else I can do.  I think my favorite line in the whole movie was when Queenie said to Newt, talking about a girl that Newt used to be close to, “She’s a taker.  You need a giver.”  Right at that moment, Tina (Queenie’s sister and Newt’s–I think–love interest, and the one whose empathy, along with Newt’s, saves NYC) walked onto the scene, as if on cue.  The next second, so did Jacob, Newt’s new friend–a guy who’s so giving that he wants to open up a bakery and spend the rest of his life feeding people (insert emoji with heart-shaped eyes).  So it was just a whole room full of real and honorary Hufflepuffs–people whom you really, really want to be your friend.

Maybe I’ll write more about Fantastic Beasts next week.  (I haven’t even said anything about the fantastic beasts yet!)  But I just wanted to explain why I’m not just being sappy and fangirlish when I say that I had to rein my heart in after watching this movie.

 

Is grit good?

This post is going to be fairly similar to one that I wrote a few weeks ago entitled “Satisfaction is not in my nature.”  Today I’m taking a slightly different approach to an issue, or constellation of issues, that I wrestle with a lot.

If you read a post I wrote about a year ago, “I am not fast,” you know that I’m a little cocky about having a high degree of what is, admittedly, an unglamorous character quality: endurance, persistence, tenacity, grit…whatever you want to call it.  Basically, it takes a lot to make me quit.  That last term, grit, has become a buzzword in psychology and education over the past few years.  Studies are now showing, or at least we’re being told that they are, that grit is a better indicator of success in college than IQ or even high school GPA.  And other studies are corroborating the common-sense conclusion that grit remains a useful characteristic in various areas of one’s life, including career and relationships.

So even though it’s not as exciting as being fast or amazingly creative or highly articulate, having grit has become a bit of a source of pride for me.  It’s closely related to a quality that I’ve often been complimented on since childhood: being disciplined.  With that one, it’s a little easier to see how I could start to become smug and feel morally superior to people who do hit the snooze button at least once before they wake up.

In several of my recent posts, I referred to a book I read recently, The Gift of Being Yourself by David G. Benner.  It’s actually the second book in Benner’s Spiritual Journey trilogy, of which I’m now reading the last book, Desiring God’s Will.  (For no strategic reason, I will be reading the first book, Surrender to Love, last–that’s just the order in which I acquired them.)  Benner has spent the first couple of chapters of Desiring God’s Will shattering my pride in being disciplined.  While he doesn’t completely discount the value of self-control (after all, it’s one of the fruits of the Spirit) he shows, from Scripture and common-sense observation, that discipline can lead to pride and rigidity and–most disturbingly–lead us to believe we don’t need God, and therefore cause us to pass ignorantly by the surprising blessings that God reserves for those who gladly participate in the fulfillment of his kingdom.

Having demolished my pride in being disciplined, Benner goes a step further in the section I read this morning and casts doubt on the unqualified value of grit (though he doesn’t use that word or refer to any of the recent scholarship on the topic).  Heretically (especially to American readers), Benner posits that there are times when it may be not only okay to quit, but even sinfully stubborn not to quit.  I need to go back and read the section again to make sure I really understand, but I think he’s right.  I can think of one situation in my recent life in which I probably should have given up on something a lot sooner than I did.  It makes me cringe to write that, but there it is.

As I’m reading this book, I keep thinking about Perelandra, the second novel in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, and the Adam and Eve-like characters who lived on a floating island and had absolutely no control over where they went.  They just had to trust their creator.  Could I live like that?