in a box

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Even the freest people seem to be boxed in, not able to resist the noxious fumes of the confines they have built.

What is the investment for? And how could one stop oneself from making it? It is the natural impulse – to give and give. One gives because s/he wants to and can do nothing else. But this can lead to unintentionally fractious relations, or at least fractious feelings. Or at least an impasse.

But at some point, the question comes: what is one investing in? If the scales come out weighed down on only one side, the imbalance chokes everything, and the walls close in.

Photo by Eugene Lim on Unsplash

Stray observations, asking for a tap and the memory trap

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“Despite how open, peaceful and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you, as deeply as they’ve met themselves.” -Matt Kahn

But people are terrible buffoons, and will never listen. They must touch the hot iron.” -K Wolfe

Please forgive the desultory fashion in which I swan across a bunch of disconnected subjects. Just a clearing of the mind.

Remember

How much do I hate it when people begin statements in their stories with admonishment: “Remember”, e.g. “I went to Harvard. Remember: I didn’t get good grades!” or “I have been working and running around for 18 hours straight. Remember: I didn’t sleep last night either!” I don’t know if it is meant to be an invitation to pat them on the back for what revelation follows the entreaty to “remember” or literally a reminder, as if some detail they harp on constantly could be forgotten? Why does this bother me so much?

Similarly, we all have our favorite words and don’t necessarily notice we are using them constantly. “Similarly” is one of mine, probably because I love trying to make connections between disconnected things. When I go back over writing I see the way these words pop up again and again. I wonder if it’s deliberate when I see it in published books that should have been edited. For example, I noticed that Carrie Brownstein used some version of “sturdy” in her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, more times than I bothered to count. Claire Dederer uses some version of “semaphore” far too many times in her recent book, Love and Trouble. How do we attach ourselves to these favored words and expressions?

Asking for a tap: Freelance distance learning – Sierra Leone

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way, though. The annual Sierra Leone Marathon takes place tomorrow (May 28), and money donated benefits the Street Child charity, which, since its founding, has helped more than 50,000 children to go to school and stay in education. During the Ebola crisis, Street Child helped over 20,000 Ebola orphans, providing emergency support and connecting thousands with families. Today, Street Child works in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nepal and Nigeria with a current emphasis on education in emergencies and girls’ education.

While you can give any time, of course, the fundraising drive for the marathon is a good time to make a big push for support. I happen to be supporting this small team of enthusiastic marathoners. I’m eager for them to make it over the top with their fundraising goal, but really I’m pretty keen for the charity to be supported in general. There are a lot of charities out there and loads of people asking for money; it happens that I chose to get involved in this right now. The results of giving are easy to see, and I guess it’s important to feel like you see some kind of result – or a direct line between what you do or give to some kind of improvement. Not just an “I will write a check to assuage guilt and not think about it again” kind of effort.

As I have written before, everything I learn about Africa is incremental… kind of one country, one obsession at a time. We all heard about Sierra Leone in the last few years because it was one of the hardest hit in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, but it’s easy for a country and its people to get lost in that kind of crisis. (Prior to the crisis, Sierra Leone was rebuilding from a prolonged civil war – and just when they were making some progress, Ebola hit.)

As part of my intro to Sierra Leone, I’ve become better acquainted also with Liberia and other bits of West Africa. Which maybe I will ramble about another time. For now, I am just thinking about drumming up money.

I have no excuse except that I let compassion have free rein. Which is often my excuse for everything. All those years not saying no to freelance work because I couldn’t. But then even when I was free of need, not being able to say no because I forgot how to say no. And even after learning to say no, I couldn’t because I thought, “I can’t leave money on the table when I could give it to a cause”. Whether that cause was a down-on-his-luck alcoholic in precarious recovery or a greater cause like Ebola orphans in West Africa.

After all, what else are we here for? I was listening to Sigur Rós’s Ágætis byrjun album for the first time in many years, and it was as though I was transported back to summer 1999 in Akureyri, northern Iceland. I was introduced to this by my friend Anna’s friend, R. R passed away long ago when she was really quite young, and listening to the opening notes of this album bring these beautiful people – who have either changed or completely ceased to exist – to life in my mind’s eye. This gorgeous prelude to the Icelandic chapter of my life, the beginnings of which were already like half a life ago.

While listening to the album, I happened to look through my college’s alumni news and saw that a former classmate had died late last year. She was in her 70s, so it was not as shocking as when people my own age or younger die (I was the youngest in my class by decades in most cases, so my cohort have reached normal “expiration dates”, but it’s still quite sad). Already flooded by the aforementioned memory plucked from me by the sounds of Sigur Rós, these fleeting moments of curiosity, asking myself, “I wonder whatever happened to X”, like today, are often followed by more nostalgia-filled grief, discovering the deaths of people who once populated life’s periphery.

Yes, of late, I see a pattern forming in, overtaking in fact, most of what I write. A lot of death and mortality to reflect on. Which is in the end why, as much as I complain, or poke at language I find annoying, I am much more inclined to think about and act on helping others, and finding meaning in the time we are here.

Give! Give! Give! More! More! More!

Zero-sum game: Learning to give

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I read recently that there is a backlash to e-book sales in the UK. I love the immediacy and convenience of being able to get books on my Kindle device, especially because I live in the country, and even if bookstores were more accessible, I’d find precious little to suit my tastes. I could never feed the hunger for a book a day that is my current appetite, and if I could, I would not find quite the range of things I want. Thus, I appreciate e-books, but there are moments that I long for the real thing. (I suppose this is not unlike something like … if I may be so crass, sex toys/masturbation versus actual sex. Imitation does its job and in many cases may even be more effective, but it’s more clinical. Nothing is quite the same as the real thing. And guess what? It’s National Masturbation Month now! Take note!) In fact, imitation is one of the ways we can isolate ourselves, which is the point of this meandering ramble.)

We could praise this shift – moving to more compact and “less wasteful” modes of producing information, but we lose tradition and the ritual that comes with selecting a new books – the heft of it in your hands, the smell of the paper, the thickness and quality of the paper, the artwork/design, the way the book’s spine wears and pages grow tattered. We love them in a way we will never love an e-book. As cumbersome as it was to travel with books, for example, I enjoyed taking books on the road with me and then leaving them behind in airports, airplanes, hotel rooms, friends’ houses, cafes, wondering if their story would continue – would someone else take possession of the book and get something completely new? What would happen to a book I purchased in Iceland and left in Halifax, Montreal, Mexico City? Now, this will never happen again.

We have certainly lost something – not just in consuming and loving literature but in the way we live, the way we define ourselves, the way we consume, the way we relate to and love others and ourselves and, fundamentally, the way we are. Perhaps it does not matter because the universe as a whole is just a long series of losing things – or things imperceptibly changing. But observing the moment we live in, it feels hollow. No amount of flashing lights and distractions can distract from the emptiness the culture creates.

Dubravka Ugrešić writes in Karaoke Culture:

“The very foundation of karaoke culture lies in the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games. Today people are more interested in flight from themselves than discovering their authentic self. The self has become boring, and belongs to a different culture. The possibilities of transformation, teleportation, and metamorphosis hold far more promise than digging in the dirt of the self. The culture of narcissism has mutated into karaoke culture—or the latter is simply a consequence of the former.”

“We walk through the world with our memory sticks around our necks, each of us with our own homepage, each of us with an archive stored on the web. We, are everywhere . . . And the more voluminous the archive that trails us, the less of ourselves there seems to be . . . We don’t communicate with each other . . . Oh so modern, we put things on YouTube so anyone can gawk at them. We used to send out ghostly signals of our existence, and now we make fireworks out of our lives. We enjoy the orgy of being, twittering, buying new toys, iPhones and iPads, and all the while our hunger just grows and grows. We wear memory sticks around our necks, having of course first made copies. The memory stick is our celestial sarcophagus, our soul, our capsule, our soul in a capsule*.”

“In all its manifestations karaoke culture unites narcissism, exhibitionism, and the neurotic need for the individual to inscribe him or herself on the indifferent surface of the world, irrespective of whether the discontented individual uses the bark of a tree, his or her body, the Internet, photography, an act of vandalism, murder, or art. In the roots of this culture, however, lies a more serious motive: fear of death. From the surface of karaoke culture shimmers the mask of death.”

We are indeed more alienated and isolated – both from others and, even more alarmingly, from ourselves. But with gadgets, platforms and forms of high-tech mirrors, we fool ourselves into thinking we are self-aware because we are self-involved, self-obsessed even. But it’s the superficial self we plaster all over every new social media channel and into every app – crying out for attention – and connection – but moving further away from it all the time as we turn ourselves into caricatures, and eventually, commodities. And we start to see each other as commodities for exchange.

Treating each other as commodities, and treating ourselves as objects we must market and ‘improve’ so we can place the highest value possible on ourselves (but in a way that somehow empties us of self-esteem), started as a pet peeve for me but has grown into a full-blown worry as the trend has accelerated in the digital age and become its own form of epidemic. Dehumanized automatons cataloging themselves online for consumption in one form or another. I am no less guilty of committing this commoditization crime, subscribing to the “marketplace” idea of love or care. We convince ourselves there’s an endless supply of other, better, more interesting options, and so teach ourselves to dehumanize – that there is nothing to treasure, and nothing to trust in. It’s not a new idea, attempting to assign an ROI to people, to cut losses. It’s a game of emotional preservation, but it’s also a perversity. Eventually it does become about summing up balance sheets and ensuring you’re not playing a zero-sum game. And what in the hell does that have to do with care, love, compassion, feeling? It’s not just treating others this way – it’s an internal devaluation that leads us there in the first place.

Erich Fromm captures these very concerns in his The Art of Loving – and did so long before the advent of the internet:

“Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions. Human relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling or action. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome. Our civilization offers many palliatives which help people to be consciously unaware of this aloneness.”

“At any rate, the sense of falling in love develops usually only with regard to such human commodities as are within reach of one’s own possibilities for exchange. I am out for a bargain; the object should be desirable from the standpoint of its social value, and at the same time should want me, considering my overt and hidden assets and potentialities. Two persons thus fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values. Often, as in buying real estate, the hidden potentialities which can be developed play a considerable role in this bargain. In a culture in which the marketing orientation prevails, and in which material success is the outstanding value, there is little reason to be surprised that human love relations follow the same pattern of exchange which governs the commodity and the labor market.”

It’s not just technology that has created this, as evidenced by Fromm’s observations from the 1950s. But technology sprays fuel on the fire and changes. Ugrešić highlights how technology radically changes the perception of everything. I relate, having succumbed to the same mindless tv addiction she describes and am now “clean”. I take it a step further to say it has changed our perception of who we are – how we are – what we are capable of (so much more in some ways, but so much less in others):

“It’s a notorious fact that technology radically changes one’s perception of everything, including time. Thirty years ago I could wile away the hours on the cinematic aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky and similar directors. Today I am ashamed to admit that my eyes have simply been weaned off them; the shots are too long, too slow, and the plot, if there is one, plodding and ambiguous. I used to love all that auteur stuff, but today I don’t have the patience. In the intervening time I’ve become hooked on cinematic “fast food.” Flowing in my veins, this fast food has changed the rhythm of my heart, my attention span, and the rhythms of my respiration. The truth is that I overdosed on television, and so I don’t watch it anymore. I’ve been clean for a while now, and I don’t miss it a bit. But I do watch lots of documentaries—it doesn’t matter what they’re about, the most important thing is that they’re “slow food,” that they offer me the illusion that what is happening on the screen really is happening. The way I read has changed too. At first I was surprised when friends told me that they were going to speed-reading courses. Now I’m thinking about enrolling in a course myself. My eyes are too slow, the computer screen just gets richer and faster, and my attention span is ever shorter. From the sheer quantity of information my memory is getting worse and worse. It’s not just that I have no idea what I consumed on the Internet yesterday, it’s that I don’t remember what I sucked up five minutes ago.”

Should we be alarmed? It can be argued that laws, social mores, technology of earlier ages also came along and changed things. Airplanes, telephones, cars, inheritance laws, vaccines, and so on and on. Every generation predicts the end of civilization (or possibly something slightly less hyperbolic but nevertheless negative) because of change. But change is inevitable. Does it matter, for example, if young people’s brains end up being wired differently because of their affinity for devices? Does it contribute to this disconnection people my age and older are screaming about? Does it matter that taking notes in longhand will make the information stick if young people never really learn to write? Should these be the things we get upset about? Should we listen as Pope Francis chides the digital world for acting as a roadblock to “learning how to live wisely, think deeply, and to love generously”?

Is the loss of tradition, ritual, care going to objectify everything and everyone? Have we already crossed that line? We already “value” everything that is instant or fast. We cannot seem to handle things that are ambiguous or hard. Where do we find hope in this landscape?

Maybe it’s in all those people who take up knitting; all these “rebels” embracing old-fashioned books and letter writing; maybe it’s the neighbor planting a garden. And at the core, perhaps, it is also extending the sense of humanity and connection – building love, which is actually one of the most difficult things. No wonder we run in terror.

Fromm again:

“This attitude — that nothing is easier than to love — has continued to be the prevalent idea about love in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.”

Fromm poses a question, which he may actually, in some measure, have answered himself:

“Here, however, an important question arises. If our whole social and economic organization is based on each one seeking his own advantage, if it is governed by the principle of egotism tempered only by the ethical principle of fairness, how can one do business, how can one act within the framework of existing society and at the same time practice love?”

The answer, as I see it, apart from finding a way to love, is to cultivate true giving. The two go hand in hand.

“Nothing’s free unless it’s freely given” – Charlie Hilton, “Pony”

We can only love if we give freely, and we can really only give freely by loving. Actively. And through both, we can feel alive.

“Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a “standing in,” not a “falling for”. In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving.

What is giving? Simple as the answers to the question seems to be, it is actually full of ambiguities and complexities. The most widespread misunderstanding is that which assumes that, giving is “giving up” something, being deprived of, sacrificing. The person whose character has not developed beyond the stage of the receptive, exploitative, or hoarding orientation, experiences the act of giving in this way. The marketing character is willing to give, but only in exchange for receiving; giving without receiving for him is being cheated. People whose main orientation is a non-productive one feel giving as an impoverishment. Most individuals of this type therefore refuse to give. Some make a virtue out of giving in the sense of a sacrifice. They feel that just because it is painful to give, one should give; the virtue of giving to them lies in the very act of acceptance of the sacrifice. For them, the norm that it is better to give than to receive means that it is better to suffer deprivation that to experience joy.

For the productive character, giving has an entirely different meaning. Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.”

*See also Hal Hartley’s 1998 film The Book of Life.