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Episode 243: Breaking Bread With The Dead, with Alan Jacobs

by Scott Jones
September 23rd 2020
00:50:49
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My guest is Alan Jacobs. His newest book is Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader's Guide to a More Tranquil Mind (https://www.amazon.com/Breaking-Bread-Dead-Readers-Tranquil/dp/1984878409/ref=tmm_hr... More
Welcome to give and take. It's a podcast where yours truly. Scott Jones talks with artists, activists, authors, theologians, philosophers, scholars, political pundits and a host of others about their world, their work and the lens to which they experienced life. I engage my guests in a conversation that's free flowing, entertaining, unexpected, occasionally bizarre, oftentimes enlightening and informative and, above all else, deeply human. Thanks for listening to this episode of Give and Take. My guest is Alan Jacobs. In his new book, Breaking Bread With Dead Things, Gifted Scholar draws us into close and sympathetic engagements with texts from across the ages, including the work of a needed to, say, Heinrich Gibson, Jean Rye, Simone, they, Edith Wharton, Amita Goche, Claude Levi

Strauss, E Italian, Calvino and many, many more. By hearing the voices of the past, Jacobs argued, We can expand our consciousness, our sympathies and our wisdom far beyond where present moment can offer. It's a great book. We had a great conversation about it. I give you Alan Jacobs. Alan, welcome to the podcast. Welcome back, I should say, Yeah, it's great to be back. So the last time we talked, you wrote a book called How to think. Ah, guide for, um, turbulent times. This book doesn't feel unrelated. Your new book is Breaking Bread With the Dead, A reader's guide to um or tranquil Mind. I'm interested. What is it that draws you to tranquility as a kind of goal in in contemporary life? What do you think the value is there? Well, it's so hard to get, you know? I mean, it's like it's like gold, right? Scarcity, you

know, increases the value. Um, it's certainly, you know, So you're absolutely right that the two books are related to one another. And when I when I wrote how to think, I was I was really focusing on what people might do to, uh, connect with one another and to understand their own temperamental and circumstantial inclinations and to try to get people to fight back against that a little bit. And what I think has happened since then is that you know, just the positive feedback loops, and I don't mean positive in the sense of good, I mean, in the kind of technical sense of positive feedback. Right that when you get positive feedback coming through your speaker, right, it starts squealing like crazy because, you know, it's over your over driving the speaker and that kind of positive

feedback loop of people being Mawr and Mawr in there, uh, in their echo chambers, you know, and they build their own echo chambers, and then and then they live in them. And and I realized that I wasn't gonna be able to get anybody to do anything about their thinking patterns. And they're thinking habits unless, like, I get them to kind of step back a little bit and just chill a bit, get a little perspective and and become just, you know, lower your blood pressure, lower your heart rate. And and that's the kind of tranquility that I personally value very greatly because it's not easy for me to get and that I think a lot of other people would benefit from two. I'm curious. So you teach undergrads. Where do you see? How do you see the lack of tranquility manifesting itself in your students? I mean, what do you see? Where the prime symptoms that as an observer, you take note of E

. I mean, there's, you know, I think the the answer that a lot of people would give is, you know, social media. But I think from my undergrads it's not primarily social media. I think it's just the sheer chaotic uncertainty and fragility of our economic world. And, you know, costs of higher education have gone up enormously in the last 25 years, in part because, you know, colleges and universities try to do so much more. You know, they they wanna have, they wanna have swimming pools and they wanna have climbing walls and they wanna have nicer dorms. Then you know, then people of my generation lived in There's a variety of reasons for it, but the costs have gone up astronomically, and and so the students get a lot of pressure either implicit or explicit, from their parents that like

Hey, you need toe. You need to make sure that you know you get good grades, you that you get top grades, that you get in tow, grad school or law school or med school so that you know we'll get we'll get, I'll get. We'll get a return on our investment, you know, And that's where I see my students failing into achieve tranquility. They just feel that they're under so much pressure, they feel like they can't afford to take chances in education. They can't. They have to dot all of the I's and cross all of the teas and do everything that they possibly can to make sure that their parents do get that return on investment. And it's harder and harder to predict that that's gonna happen given the economic conditions that we have now. So my heart goes out to these these young people because they it's so hard for them to see a way clear to a better life. Um

, and that, I think, is where they are missing tranquility. And, you know, my book is probably not going to help them get that, but it might help them just ease off the pressure on themselves just a little bit. At least I hope so. One of the things that struck me in your book you referenced this Indian novelist who I had never heard of. Amitav Ghosh published this nonfiction book The Great Derangement. Climate Change in the unthinkable. And what struck me, um, about this was that he basically he tells this journalist West Stevenson this realization that, um, nothing in late 20 literature was helpful at all for thinking about the most. I mean arguably, you know, the biggest issue we face, right? Like if there's no planet, there's no other issues. E you have to have a planet thio on

. That's what's remarkable, right? That that this looming reality that we that is on the horizon urgently for all of us, that this author could find nothing in contemporary literature that helped him engage it, Right, Right, Because all off, all of the literature of the last 200 years or so is just assumes increasing human control of their environment, right? And the idea that our environment may be changing in ways that we have no control over anymore. Maybe at one point we did. But we don't have any control over it anymore is so foreign to our belief that we can just kind of, you know, innovate our way out of whatever difficulty arises. And so this sense of what do you do when you live in a world that you can't control it all? You know, I Amitav Ghosh says, I'm gonna look at

my distant ancestors for that, you know, because we go back several 100 years or 1000 years or 2000 years. And we find people who certainly knew what it was like to live in a world that they didn't have an environment they had no control over. And so they're gonna have to be our sources of wisdom because our more recent ancestors and then our current kind of technocrats or people who have no idea how to think that way eso we're gonna have to get it from somebody else. I mean, that would have been the normative experience for basically all of humanity and prematurity, right? Not not just living with the fact that you don't have you. Can't you control very little, right? Right, That absolutely anything can can happen. And, you know, I about 25 years ago. I think it waas my my wife was working for world relief and she was making a trip to Central America to see some things that some of the

projects that world relief was doing there. Yeah, In fact, I remember exactly when this was it was 1991 in 1992 And the reason I you'll know why. I remember in just a second, um she She met this farmer there who had, uh, completely changed, thanks to some help from world relief. He had completely changed his methods and techniques of farming, and he was getting much higher yield on his crops and everything was going great, he said. But now, he said, I've lost everything. I've gone back to where I was before because the, uh, my costs have risen so much that it's eaten up all of the additional profit that I that I was making. And Terry asked him, What? What is it? What? You know what? What's the cause of it, she said. He says, primarily gasoline. He says I have to drive a truck to the nearest city so I can sell my crops. And he said, I that the cost of gasoline has just gone completely crazy

and on The reason for that was the Iraq war or the Persian Gulf War and and you know that had sent worldwide oil prices skyrocketing. Here's this guy. He's got nothing to do with Iraq. He doesn't even, you know, he probably he's not even sure where Iraq is. He's just kind of living in his little world, and yet global circumstances are changing the way that he lives and radically and disrupting all the good things that had come into his life. And there's no nothing anybody can do to control that. So that kind of uncertainty, you know, as as our culture as human culture becomes more global. We're not getting mawr control. We're getting less control. We're not getting mawr predictability. We're getting mawr chaos on DSO We're facing that, you know, in 100 we've we've just in We've been talking like less than 10 minutes, and we've already mentioned several ways

in which people inevitably feel less secure, less stable, that their lives are less predictable than they would have been for an earlier generation like mine. A lot of the kind of pop wisdom right in this sort of self help kind of genre is like live in the now right be present centered. You have this great phrase temporal bandwidth, and you actually think living in the now is one of the things that robs us of tranquility and perspective, right? It's actually even though people try to peddle it like that's the way to tranquility. You kind of argue that it's not the way to tranquility, right? Getting d centered from that the now and the tyranny of the president is the way to some healing in this regard. Yeah, because for most of us in the developed world and in much of the rest of the world, are now is a very connected moment. And we're

getting things just pouring in. Um, you know, through the are the fire hose. One time recently, I was I was writing something about the firehose of information on that accidentally typed a D at the beginning of that word. So it was a dire hose, and I think that's actually a pretty good word way. Get the this dire hose of information and and and and there is the problem with that or there's a lot of problems with that. One is that things come to faster than we can deal with. Um, but another problem with it on, and this was a really great um, there's a block post recently by a friend of mine named Robin Sloan, who is a novelist, and, uh, he's actually now making a video game. And as he's been working on this video game, he, uh, he's interested as he sort of has to be in. Um, you know what's gonna be on the screen? Um, and he started talking about He's got this block post where he talks about different ways

of projecting images so you can have, like, the perspective, all projection. So, like you put a geometric shapes, you know, cubes and and spears, and you have them moving in relation to one another. And if you have a perspective all projection, you can easily tell which ones air closer and which ones are farther away. Right? And But if you use what what's called Ortho graphic projection, then you can't. They all look the same. You just see them moving and they look exactly the same. And Robin Robin said, I think it's such a great way to think about it. He said, Social media, uh, is an Ortho graphic camera like nothing. You know, everything looks the same sides, right? It might be a world transforming thing, or it might be a totally insignificant thing, but people are like, equally angry and equally upset, right? Everything kind of gets that same that that same

response from us and and we've, you know we've, it's It's very difficult to know how to manage because you know, the thing that sort of utterly trivial might get, you know, retweeted or reposted 10,000 times, and the more important thing might get reposted two or three times. And so you you lose your perspective and and you start getting what starts happening to you is a bit like what state poll eyes talking about when he talks about people who were blown about by every wind of doctrine. Right? You don't have any stability. Um, and that's where that phrase that I picked up from Thomas pension comes in. Personal density is proportionate to temporal bandwidth. If you have the temporal bandwidth you that is to say, you have a bigger now you can you can think back into the future and you can think forward, think back into the past and think forward into the future. If you're able to do that, then you get some perspective

on your issues of the moment, and then when you get that perspective, it gives you mawr density as a person, and when you have that density than you're not as vulnerable to all those winds, you could be a little more stable. And when you could be more stable, you could be more tranquil. So that's how that's how looking into the past, I mean, it was a C. S, Lewis says in an essay of his. He said books from the future would be just as helpful to us as books from the past, but unfortunately we can't get those. So we have toe, you know, the works from the past are things that give us that perspective and ground us. Give us a little more density, and that means density. Equal stability equals tranquility. That Z It's interesting that the way you describe because I think about things we know about, like post traumatic stress disorder, right and so much about what trauma does is it takes band with away right in the sense of you

have a traumatic experience and the past becomes the present, like you can't eso it robs you of your ability t to look back and look forward, right? And so it seems like the sort of tyranny of the now is like traumatizing everyone. Yeah, yeah, it is. It puts us in a permanent condition off trauma. It's destabilizing. It's you know, I mean, it was just so you know, we're recording this just a few days after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you know, and I heard about that and I thought, Oh, you gotta be kidding me. One mawr, one more thing that is going to be incredibly destabilizing and is going to intensify all the anger and frustration that's already out there. But see, that's how it is, right? Every new thing has that that potential, and it's just it's really hard to get out of that. You have to have a lot of You have to have a lot of strategies that help

you to deny yourself some of the things that you're accustomed to. But as well as anybody who's ever had Children knows that you can't just tell them no, you have to give them an alternative. You have to be ableto say, Try this instead and on. That's what this book of mine is basically an attempt to do. It's a it's an attempt to say, Try this instead, um, not to tell you to do nothing but to tell you toe, try something else. One of them says, I was reading the book. I was thinking about so much of the tyranny of the present is, um and like, like in this just inescapable, like as you're describing, we're in, You know, we're just reactive to social media to this, to this media influence to this. And I look at like I mean, so many people castigate Donald Trump. But I wonder if trump the illness or the symptom, right? Because, I mean, it seems that, like Trump's political success

is in mirroring this right, like he like, It's not that he's this great visionary leader or something. He's someone that's good at mirroring cultural influences, right? And so his use of media and social media seems to be so dialed into the problem you are addressing in this book, right? And that's how he's successful. I mean, it's it's weird. He speaks the lingua franca, right? Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, he knows he knows how this works. And, um, you know, I don't think of Donald Trump as an intelligent man in a in an academic sense of the word, but he's an incredibly shrewd man, and one of the things that he knows is that all of the people in the media who hate him Mawr than they hate the devil himself. He owns their mind space. He absolutely owns their mind space that if they start talking about something else, he can make them talk about him

. He can. He's able to pull that back, and I think it Zack Absolutely essential, like there's no way he could have done what he has done to own the mind space of so many people. If it weren't for Twitter, you know, because it zits the perfect medium for him because people always talk about how he's getting himself in trouble on Twitter. No, he's not. He's always making himself the center of attention on Twitter, right? And he can just get up in the morning and shoot off a barrage of tweets. And he owns that space, and he owns the media attention for the rest of the day, and everything else disappears. And it's just like, you know, e I feel like that The number one qualification for being a journalist these days ought to be that you don't have a Twitter account and you can't read what? Donald. I mean, you'd see it anyway. but there was some way to hide from yourself. What he tweets

. Uh, you know, I think you would have mawr perspective and, um, or legitimate understanding of what's actually going on in the world. But that's not how it works. You know, I talked to my journalist friends and I said, You gotta You gotta get off Twitter, man, this thing is killing you. You know, they say I have to be on it. I have to be on it, but they have to be on it because that's where all the other journalists are. And I, You know, on the one hand, I get that On the other hand, I want to say you guys stopped talking to each other, you know, and and and go somewhere else and talk to other people who aren't on social media all the time. One of the things in the book that you raise I find so helpful you talk about Yeah, it's interesting, cause we're in in the age of cancer culture, right where it seems like we have no ability sometimes to be sympathetic to people's historical situations, and we sort of judge them by idiosyncratic, anachronistic standards and you sort of say, when we're engaging old books

, our purpose isn't to bring them into our world to interrogate them. The the way the experiences transformative is if you go into their world is a guest and poke around right and kind of an observe and see what you could learn as opposed to trying to ram them into our world, right, like you need to go is sort of a za guest in the ancient world. Right you go is a guest. But you also even though you're a guest and you should behave in the way that guests behave. You should also, um, remember that you have control over this. You can get up and leave any time that you want to. And and that's why I feel like reading old books is is really good practice. It's kind of like a trial run for dealing with your neighbors who don't. I think the way that you do right, somebody or some or your coworkers or somebody that you have to deal with that you can't really get away from that. It's making your life

difficult or it's frustrating you in some way. If you if you if you read an old book, you get this kind of low stakes, low investment practice in dealing with otherness in dealing with people who don't see the world the way that you do. And if they start freaking you out, which they will sometimes, right then I First of all, I think you should just own that. I don't think you should pretend that that's not your response. And I don't think you should become a moral relativist. But I think what you you know, Maybe at that point you kind of close the book for a little while, you know, and you think about it. You reflect on it and then you come back to it. And in that way you're kind of building up a sort of a reservoir off charity and generosity. And if you do this enough, it just might make it a little easier for you to deal with that obnoxious coworker or obnoxious relative. But you've got

to kind of work your way up to it. You know you need a little. It's like training for a marathon or something. And isn't there some value to toe? Learn how toe. How did make judgments in our own present time aware that we are so fraught with. I mean, you met you mentioned there's this great quote in the book where your quote you're talking about, um, Julian begin e and you say that Begin E's chief argument is that none of these figures had the good fortune to be confronted with the eloquent proponents of opposing views. And he's talking about people that can or Hume or, you know, um, people from previous centuries. They did not have the benefit that we have of being able to read Mary Walsten Craft in Virginia Woolf and Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King Jr and I think doesn't like some of the sojourns into the past. Could they make us more

aware that people are gonna look back at us? Yeah, we might look back at our own lives in just a few short years and think, Well, how could I thought or said or done this on? By the way, this is one of the things that present is, um prevents us from recognizing because, like, this is so for instance, um, this is something I've been saying for some years, like you think about, for instance, churches that air, changing their views on sexuality. And then they say, You know, we now see that we need to be more inclusive or whatever, and and the, you know Okay, okay, you know, But let's let's just stop and ask a question. If you see that now, why didn't you see it 10 years ago, right? I mean, presumably it was just Astrue 10 years ago. Is it is

now same thing with, like, trans issues or people discovering, you know, American racism for the first time. Like why didn't you see this before? If it was, it was there. Why didn't you see it? And you know, it's something that people don't really want to talk about, But it's incredibly important to kind of Thio. Stop and say Okay, why didn't I see that before? But if you move just from outrage to outrage, then the kind of the only thing that really matters to you is that I got to get I got I have to get on the right side of this issue that's happening now, so I've got a post about it or tweet about it or say something about it. because, you know, I wanna make sure that I'm not going to get canceled now. So I'm gonna, you know, get out in front of this and make sure that I say the right things. But when you're always trying to do that right then there's never really a point at which you can step back and reflect. Well, if this is like a big thing for me now, why wasn't it a big thing for me before? And you know, if you do that, if you think that way, you have to

realize how much of your thinking my thinking everybody's thinking is just shaped by the background noise, the ambience. You know, the sort of the ambient beliefs of our time. And we don't think about all of those issues because we can't think about everything. And so we just for a lot of issues, we just take the views that the people around us take because that's, you know, it's triage is a word that I use a lot in this book. And, you know, I think understanding that is a really important thing because one of the things that will do, I think, is give us maybe a little more charity towards our past Selves. But then, if we're gonna have charity towards our past Selves, which I think is appropriate, how about having some charity for people right now? Who are, you know, not on the same side that that we're on right? It drives me nuts when these people who like change their views about sexuality or about racism or about whatever, and then all of a sudden they're, like, totally intolerant of people

who held the same view who hold the same views that they held like a year ago. It's just crazy. I remember watching Bill Maher like a year or so ago there was during the Democratic primaries, and he was doing, I guess, his kind of closing remarks, You know, his which he does the end of the show. And he was saying something about Kamala Harris and and how she basically had. Um, yeah, I kind of lucid up her views on, um, use of marijuana from when she was a prosecute. When she was that the attorney general and Bill Maher and Bill Maher saying, people, that's how can you support her? How can you encourage her and Bill Maher is like because people evolve, people change. And he hit the whole point of his kind of concluding remarks in a shower that people evolve and change. And that's a good thing. And we shouldn't castigate people because they have a change of mind, right? Or because

they have a change. In fact, e mean part of what would I take to be at the heart of of your book? Breaking bread with the debt is actually the further you get in temporal bandwidth, the more you're going to be able to change your mind in way in ways that it feels like with present is, um that were so open minded. But I think what you're arguing actually is now actually present is, um, makes it very difficult to change your mind because you're captive to these forces that have this gravitational pull and and that when you increase your temporal band with, you actually have some capacity to say, Oh, just like many people in history have evolved and changed and and had blind spots that this is a possibility for all of us. Yeah. And the thing about this is that we think I think when we are living in a completely present ist world where we think we're changing our minds because we change. We may have either a different position on an issue that we once had, or we now have a position

on an issue that we didn't have position on before. But you can do that without actually changing your mind. You can you can be seeming to be changing your position. But maybe there's actually a consistency there in the consistency is that you're doing whatever the people around you are doing. And, um, you know, you do that today. You did that a year ago. You did that five years ago. So the again the kind of the ambient background shifts. But you're always shifting along with it, and and so you're not really changing your mind. You're you're pursuing the same habit of mind that you had pursued all along. And what what encountering works from the past does is it gets you out of that ambient kind of flow, and you're you're now somewhere else. As you said, your your visitor somewhere else, right? And you have to learn the customs of the country and you try to adapt to those. And then sometimes what

you're gonna say is you know, I do need to change in this direction that other people have been encouraging me to change, But sometimes it can actually be just the opposite. Sometimes you say, you know, I've lost touch with what I once believed and what I once counted on. And maybe I need to get back in touch with that. You know, maybe maybe the only way to go forward for me personally is for me to go back to some, in some sense, to what I believed before the the expanding your temporal bandwidth kind of gives you the freedom to do that right. It gives you the freedom to to change your mind in mawr than one direction. Um, not always moving with whatever the zeitgeist is doing, sometimes moving against it, right? It is. That's why I love so much Chesterton's idea about, um what he calls the democracy of the dead. Right, that, um

that that we we we have a democratic order. But the democratic order includes people who lived before us and people who will live after us. A swell. That's I think the key to being able to genuinely change your mind and not just go with that ambient flow. Yeah, it doesn't Chester someday say something like, Tradition is the living faith of that. But traditionalism is the dead faith of the living right. I don't think it's Chester Son who says that I think the person who first said that was Jaroslav Pelikan. I think the theologian, I think. But it's a very Chester Tony and point to make. Yeah, I've always associate with Chester for some reason, but I think it strikes me that your assessment of present is, um is kind of what that quote identifies his traditionalism, right? It's this dead faith of the living. It's this kind of faith that doesn't can that struggles to have actual fluidity and dynamism

and openness that it's actually it's funny because it masquerades is the opposite, right? Masquerades it the most, open the most. And yeah, your argument is that it's actually pretty stagnant when you get to the root, right, right. And that's why I really like the phrase, Um, Paul, Very Leo is French, um, kind of Marxist theorist, but he's got this great concept of what he calls, Um, the frenetic stand still being at a frenetic standstill like you're incredibly agitated and you're incredibly, you know, your your mind is just zipping around and your tents and you're on edge. And yet you feel you're not really going anywhere. You feel like you're just, you know, it's like it's like trying toe, you know, swim in one of those one of those pools. You know that that you where you can have a pool, that's only what are these things called? You know, the pools only like 6 ft long. But you just get in and swim like crazy to stay in place. Yeah

, like a treadmill. And it's a it's, you know, that's a frenetic standstill, right? You're completely agitated and stressed and and just kind of bugged out all the time. But you also have a sense that you're not actually going anywhere, that that life is just kind of the same old thing, you know, and and very Leo says that this is a really common experience in our world, and I think if we're honest, we will admit that it ISS you say make an autobiographical statement in the book and you talk about how you grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, that you're thankful for social mobility and that your your dad spent a lot of your childhood in prison, Um, that you weren't on the upwardly mobile kind of track. And yet the fluidity in society did give you some chances. But then you make this statement that there's a trade off that that you have thinner family connections and

and and you make a statement about that. The sort of lack of deep friendships that you have, like lifelong friendships, I'm wondering are Do do old authors play a surrogate role for you, his friends and and and And what is it like? Because so much of your whole metaphor here is breaking bread right? Like table fellowship with people that you actually can't eat with. And I'm just wondering, Is there a loneliness in your existence without these deep kind of lifelong friendships? Yeah, you know, I do have I do have I don't have lifelong friendships. My wife does. She are close to it, you know, like people that she met in sixth grade and things like that. And I don't have you any meaningful connection with people from then, but I have these really important, super valuable and and

sweet friendships. But there it's just says something about the world that we were in. These were all friendships that were formed when we all lived in Wheaton, Illinois. Right? And I'm thinking about those really, really dear friends, right? And there's a couple of them who still live in Wheaton, Illinois. But I live in I know one of them, you know, they're Yeah, Milner, a guy who is It is a good friend of mine, you know what a what? A prince of a guy, right? You know, And I don't get the hang out with Matt anymore, right? Because I'm, you know, we email or things like that, But he came to visit Baylor a couple of times, but so I'm in Texas. I have friends, uh, really, really close friends who are now in Michigan, South Carolina, West Virginia. Ah, Philadelphia. Right there. They're they're all over the place. And those air hard to sustain, right? I mean, we're still friends, and we still love each other, and but finding the opportunity to get together on a regular basis

, that's just just almost impossible right. We're already starting to think about, you know, let's all move and live in the same area when we retire, you know, or so. But, you know, we don't even know where they were going to get there. So it's It is the friendships or dear, but they don't They can't sustain the day today like they did when people, when we were all living in, you know, in the same town and could get together for a drink or dinner or whatever at any time. So, yeah, I think it's really true that the writers who have been most important to me really are friends. And they are people that I can go back to any time I want right. And when I feel the need to to reconnect, it's always interesting that I have this. I think, uh, yeah, I talked about this a lot in my book on the pleasures of reading that are the way that our culture emphasize this novelty. It's people often don't re read books or if they do

re read them, they feel guilty about it. But re reading is one of the great joys of the reading life. You know, being able to go back and revisit a book that you really love. And I've kind of got developed a sense over the years of when it's the right time to do it, because you don't wanna do it too much or the book kind of loses some of its appeal for you. But, you know, I I've become attuned to that voice in my head That tells me it's time to go back and do this again. It's time, and one of the things I can do is a teachers. I can often assign those books and make other people read them and force them to sit in a room and talk with me about them. You know, I could get a captive audience for the books that I most love. That's a fun That's a fun thing to do. But yeah, I do think that that you're I hadn't thought of this before, Scott. But I think you're exactly right That that that they are kind of surrogate. These books that I loved the most kind of surrogate friends. Yeah. You know, it's interesting. Like I've done it. Uh, I

don't know. A couple 100 interviews, probably on this podcast, I think, Yeah, I think. And and then then, with another podcast I used to do for a group of Mockingbird. I've probably done 100 or so there. Mhm. It's not very often, I mean, that a book becomes accidentally timely, but I've had several interviews were like, just the way history marked out. An author kind of had an accidentally timely moment, and I felt this way about reading breaking bread with the dead because it came out in co vid 19. And it seems like Cove in 19 for the United States is an m. R. I for the dysfunctionality of our society, right that they were the most advanced nation on the planet in many ways, like wealth y scientific discovery. And we can't contain a virus that's not all that hard to write like. I mean, it's not like that. It's not rocket science how we would, but just

our inability right to have a common shared humanity to and and this is not a new thing. Pandemics are things that earlier generations lived with, with regularity with less sophistication. I mean, I'm wonder, as you look it at the pandemic. I mean What wisdom do you see from the past that would help us navigate a time where we just had 200,000 deaths. I mean, this is a very kind of tragic moment, And I wonder what resource is there are to get out of the president is, um it seems to be killing us quite literally right now, right? Right? I think so. Let me say two things. One is so there are There are lots of different ways in which you can commend and celebrate knowing the past. Um, but my book is really focused as much as I can focus it on the kind of, you know, I mean

, I only half jokingly call it a self help book, you know? And I think, um uh, that that kind of personal acquisition off perspective and tranquility, those air the That's the key thing in this book. That's the thing that I that I really focus on. And I think that, you know, I talked earlier about the dire hose, but, you know, there's this other word that has been come about lately. People going on social media and doom scrolling right. You're sort of scrolling through one kind of doom after another, and I think that that that's just a first step is you can't make you can't make rational and maybe more to the point, compassionate decisions about what you're going to do and what you're not going to do when you're in the dunes scrolling dire hose

mode right, there's always something to agitate you. There's always something to make you upset. There's always something that will, you know, kind of get to your amygdala and and your lizard brain, you know, is responding in that way. And I think it's just this is this is it makes people kind of crazy, right? We my wife was on a my my wife was on, you know, one of those, you know, sort of neighborhood websites, you know. And she ended up having to get off the neighborhood website because people were fighting about masks all the time. And the people who didn't wanna wear masks were saying, Remember this one person saying over and over again, you know she would. Terry was telling me about this, that this one woman kept saying, You take care of you and I take care of me and and I kept thinking. Don't you know how infectious disease works? You know, I mean, this is, you know, that that's just it's just it's zits

so disconnected from reality, you know? And But she got herself locked in right, And and I was thinking, This is somebody who could really benefit from getting off line going for a walk, you know, reading an old book and just just to kind of try toe, get that perspective. But then the second thing and this seconds just same or briefly right is that it's really worth finding out how people have dealt with, uh, with pandemic disease in the past, right? Just to see there is an incredibly moving story about and and you may have come across this I'm forgetting the name of it. But it was an English village that in time of plague 350 years ago or so, um, that voluntarily isolated itself from all the other surrounding villages. It was just like, you know, we may all die, but we're not going to make anybody else die. And they had a little boundary stone at the edge of the of the village that people

from other villages would come and drop food off for them there, and then they would go away. And then the people from the village would come and get the food. But they they agreed to die basically because they couldn't prevent themselves from being sick. But they could at least prevent other people from getting sick. So that's the second thing. Is the ways in which understanding how people have dealt graciously and sometimes heroically with with these kinds of diseases in the past can make it possible for us to imagine a different way of acting than the way that we usually act? It's an issue. I think the whole kind of trump political program, right? The Make America great again kind of almost is. It's kind of dependent on present is, um right, because once you start thinking about well, how do we evaluate greatness? Do you want to go back to segregation? Although we were a world power

another way like I mean, this kind of that kind of slogan just requires a kind of fantasy laden present is, um, right. It's sort of precludes critical engagement with the past that you're kind of inviting us to in breaking bread with the debt and, you know, and I think and you know and that tends to generate its inverse. And this is another way in which, um, Trump kind of owns the mind space of so many people. Is that the extreme? What? What I think of it is an extremely dark view of human, of United States history that we get in The New York Times 16 19 project again. I think it's more correct than the idea that America was once on uncomplicated Lee. Great. But I still think it may be a little too dark, and I wonder whether that even that kind of project even would have happened

if there hadn't been a president saying Make America great again, right? It kind of generates, it's it's, you know, it's it's trying to pull back the pendulum in the other direction as as far as possible. But the more that we the more that we study the past, right, the mawr that we see people who were just as messed up as we are, and and which means that you know what I say over and over again is let's treat the figures from the past How we want figures from the future to treat us right. What do we We do not want a future in which our behavior is? You know, I talk in the book about negative selection and positive selection, right? And then if you use negative selection, So that's it. You did this wrong. You're out of here. We're not paying attention to you anymore. Well, then none of us are gonna make that cut right? None of us are gonna make that cut. What we want from the future is for people to acknowledge

what we did wrong, but also to acknowledge what we did. Right. And if if we are a mixed bag, um, you know, I mean, look, it's It's like Kant, Immanuel Kant. Great Linus. So true, out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made Right is the truest thing. Anything anybody's ever said about human beings, right? We're all made from this crooked timber of humanity. And if that's why I think that seeing that incredibly mixed bag of the past is something that can help us to beam or charitable to people in the present, and then maybe if we exhibit a kind of a disposition of charity and generosity than maybe people are a little more likely to be charitable and generous to us when the time comes. When I when I read your book, I mean, I think there there's a tendency of the book like that with a book like this to think that the

author is going to be, um, kind of nostalgic or overly romantic about the past. But that's not all the tone I get. And actually, what's interesting is as I finished the book, you seem like a person. It's got a decent amount of hope, like an openness to the way the human story can play out. Has has your engagement with the past made you a more hopeful person about the human, how the human story could unfold in the future. Yeah, I do think it has. And I've needed that because I don't think that I am by nature hopeful. But I feel that I as a Christian, I am commanded to be hopeful. You know that it zump thing that I'm required to pray for and to and to seek and yeah, you know it has to see how many times in the past people who were just really

seriously messed up in all kinds of ways, nevertheless ended up producing things of value that we benefit from that were blessed by. Is that that that helps me to have again, um, or charitable and generous attitude towards the people of our moment, but also, ah, hope that in in God's Providence that there will be, um uh that there will be flower and fruit that will come even in this dark time if we just work to make that happen. This is why I've been joking lately. That I'm my model is the Gandalf option. You know, the Gandalf, where he talks about how it's his role, is a steward. Yeah, to find every good and beautiful thing and to take care of it. And we can do that right. Nothing is stopping us from doing that. And I love that idea because there's so many people today, especially

conservatives and Christians, um, conservative Christians to And now it's really true along all the way across the the political spectrum. I just know so many people where I can tell everything that they hate. I know everything they hate. I know everything they disapprove of. I know everything that they reject. But I can't tell what they're for. I can't tell what they want to build. I can't tell what their vision for the future is. And so, at the very, very least, I wanna be somebody who manifest that degree of hope so that people will. We'll see that that's possible. And maybe think of what about what they hope for also. Well, I'll tell you that breaking bread with the dead is a great contribution to that kind of movement for hope. And I really enjoyed reading it. So thanks for writing it. And thanks for taking some time to talk with me about it. This has been great, Scott. I really appreciate it. Pay the pleasure is all mine. Thanks

for listening to this episode of give and take. If you like what you've heard here, please do a few things for May go Share about this episode in iTunes. Write a review, give it a rating, share the love and goodness or go on social media. Share a link to the episode on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. Please pass along the love and goodness, if you've experienced here. Thanks again. Thanks again for listening to this episode of give and take. And until next time, friends fare thee well.

Episode 243: Breaking Bread With The Dead, with Alan Jacobs
Episode 243: Breaking Bread With The Dead, with Alan Jacobs
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