I haven’t finished watching The Good Place. Every time I sit down someone interrupts me (please don’t spoil it) and I forget what I was trying to do. I don’t have time to finish watching this very well-done series, but I totes have time to click on the actors in that series when they trend on twitter. In this case, Jameela Jamil—noted beautiful person who, on the one hand, espouses hideous views on abortion, and, on the other hand, is advocating for the potentially sane idea of “body-neutrality” which means that you don’t have to feel happy about yourself all the livelong day but can just take your own body as it comes to you, decaying and flabby in the case of mine—has lately got herself into some kind of controversy.
As far as I can make out from my vague, desultory glance at twitter, Ms. Jamil was made a judge on some kind of show that I would never permit my children to watch, nor watch myself, what with not even having time to watch The Good Place. Upon her appointment to this auspicious post, the wide world complained that she did not deserve to be there, because, though an ally, she is not the right “kind” of person, as in, the sort of minority acceptable to the show itself, which majors on minor issues like “sexual identity” etc. So anyway, once people began to complain, Ms. Jamil responded by coming out as “queer.” This should, I suppose, have been a great boon to the “queer” “community” what with her being so ridiculously beautiful, but perhaps is a bit odd, because she, though a “woman,” is “dating,” or is in some way involved with a “man.” Also, the timing is specious. But when someone, no matter how beautiful they are, makes this kind of declaration, they can never be questioned, because they are only living into their “truth,” whatever that is, so that there the matter rested.
Until a few days later, when a podcaster accused Ms. Jamil of manufacturing, as in lying about, her claim that she suffers from some kind of illness. I looked it up, it’s called…hang on, let me find it again…Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. The person to whom Ms. Jamil is romantically attached came out in her defense, tweeting this:
Oh and FYI, the woman spreading these lies about my girlfriend has started a Patreon so that you have to pay her to hear them. Literally profiting off exploiting and gaslighting a young woman of colour with a chronic illness. Cool.
Also, Ms. Jamil tweeted that she had battled cervical cancer while working on The Good Place. There are lots of tweets. If you’re not reading a book, or doing something clever on a Sunday afternoon, I guess you could scroll through them as I have done, trying to understand what all the arguing is about. Best not to bother though. Let my waste of time serve as a warning to others.
“When he saw the crowds,” reports Matthew on this second to last Sunday of Epiphany, Sexagesima if you’re into that sort of thing, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
The dual appellation—harassed and helpless—is one of those terrible timeless motifs that fits itself into every age. I often have an over-abiding sense of helplessness whenever I scroll around twitter. For one thing, there’s the rage and insanity, and for another, there is the miserable spectacle of humanity in all it’s glory, chatting about all the things it thinks are most important. But it is not this moment alone, the sense of helplessness pervades every corner of history. Pick an era—the Romans as the Huns sweep down from the North, the sense of inevitability in Europe as WWI entrenches itself, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the gentle drift of young people to big cities for the past long while, the big city where the young will make money and send it back home, but may also contract “tuberculosis” which is sometimes another way of saying “AIDS” in many parts of Africa, the desperation and ruin in China as illness sweeps across the land. Humanity, in all its iterations, fights for control but remains every day helpless.And harassed. I mean, we absolutely harass each other, and endure in our turn the harassment of others. If there is one adjective that could rightly describe public discourse, it is the constant, drip drip drip of both liar and victim, person who is right and person who is wrong (sometimes within the same hour), person who is trying to get what they can, person who is just very bad, person who is sort of bad, but not quite as bad as others. I have tried to cope with this in my own life by not tweeting. But truly, this blog is turning into what I’ve taken to calling the “sub-blog” which is the long-form version of the “sub-tweet” which is where you talk about someone without @ing them, or in otherwise letting them know what you’re saying. It is the great dance of social media—or réseaux sociaux as the French call it.
Jesus, of course, said the words in-person to a vast throng of people covering a hillside. He had just healed them all of obvious and hideous diseases. Matthew recounts a remarkable, though truly minute, number of healings. Even so, even after all those miracles, all those people made well, in spite of so much inspiration and lovely stories that were surely shared up the depth and breadth of Galilee, #blessed #healed, it is only then, surveying them all, that Matthew tells us that Jesus is moved with a deep, gut-level compassion, identifying all those people gathered around him, as “sheep,” “without a Shepherd.”
The primary way you can identify a sheep without a shepherd is the persistent belief on the part of the sheep that no shepherd is required. There isn’t anything wrong. Everything is fine. I just need to tweak my feed and stockpile my painkiller. I, certainly, don’t look at Ms. Jamil and think, ‘that person needs Jesus.’ I think horrid things like, ‘I wish she weren’t so tall,’ and, ‘I wish Jennifer Aniston were not quite so beautiful.’
Is it any wonder, then, that the laborers are few? It is because the laborers themselves are sheep with twitter accounts, with enough time to see what is trending, but not enough time to remember why they charged up their devices in the first place. Jesus surveys the gathered throngs and feels sick about it. It’s awful. There isn’t any human hope for them, because they are “helpless.”
The property of being human is to be helpless. To be unable to do the known good thing. And the property of God is always to have mercy, as the old prayer says. It is within the peculiar nature of God to have his bowls moved with compassion when he surveys the wretched estate of his sheep. He looks at his helpless disciples and tells them to…what? Try harder? Scroll faster? Harass less? What?
No, to pray. Pray earnestly. Which is a further, humbling admission of helplessness. Because the person who truly prays is the person who admits, yet again, that nothing could be done, no truth could be told, no healing could be grasped. I tried everything, says the person who prays, and it all came to nothing. If you say that to someone on Twitter, though you may feel better, you will have not helped anything. Some will scold that you should have tried harder. Others will commend you for your bravery in admitting defeat. Only God, who is himself the Good Shepherd, whose property is always to have mercy, will look at you and say, ‘Well then, you came to the right place. I can heal you of all your diseases, but better than that, I can keep you from going to hell.’
‘Pray earnestly,’ Jesus says to his disciples at a time when they can’t see the harvest and don’t even know what kind of Shepherd he is. But they do later. They discover that he himself is the grain of wheat that falls into the ground. He is the One Shepherd whose voice can be heard over the loud, clanging gongs of all those below. He is the one who has true compassion, rather than the blighted compassion of someone like me, so harassed and helpless, staggering along to prayer.