the current

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“Most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we’ve made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we’re also formed by the decisions we didn’t make, by events that could have happened but didn’t, or by our lack of choices, for that matter.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine

“No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine (more or less the same idea as Kierkegaard: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”)

My father gave me only one piece of valuable, if obvious, advice in life, and it happened many years ago. Nothing he said before or after that has been useful or indeed true. Long ago I had a friend – a best friend, whom I loved to pieces. But this friend was also, possibly, the most unreliable person I have ever known. Once, after a particularly harrowing series of experiences that tripped over each other in their increasing lunacy and inconvenience, much of which blew up because of this friend’s inability to commit or follow a plan (and these kinds of debacles happened often enough that I found myself exasperated more often than not), I complained about it to my dad. I never have conversations with my father; the fact that I spoke to him about this indicates the level my frustration had reached. Before I got very far into my spiel of disappointment and anger, he stopped me and said, “Look, if you want to continue with that friendship, if you value the good parts more than you are put out by the bad, you have to accept that this is the way it is.”

I think of this frequently because it’s true in almost all cases with people in our lives. I’ve struggled, like all people, not to be judgmental – not just in the sense that I don’t want to judge other people’s flaws, faults, journeys, decisions or lack of decisions – but also in the sense that I don’t want to attach expectations to their lives and ‘progress’. For example, while I don’t judge an alcoholic in my life for being an alcoholic, for struggling with it constantly, and ‘falling off the wagon’ repeatedly, I also have to let go of any idea that change is required in order to care for him. He tries; he makes incremental steps in a positive direction, but this progress is constantly undermined and undone because after a month, or three months, or some period of sobriety, he slips back into old habits, and the drinking begins again and erases not just the sobriety but the stability he achieves on other fronts in his life (the parts I invest a lot of time in helping him with). It’s always back to square one, and this is inevitably disappointing.

But then I realize: this is its own form of judgment. I have to, if I continue to be a support to this person, discontinue all notions of ‘square one’ and ‘progress’ because, for him, it really is literally one day at a time. (“Self-regulation does not refer to “good behavior” but to the capacity of an individual to maintain a reasonably even internal emotional environment.” – Gabor Maté) I can’t hold these ideas about how he was doing ‘so well’ up as a kind of yardstick, measuring how far he has moved forward from last week or last month because it can all be wiped out in minutes. It’s that precarious, and no one hates himself more than he does when it all goes awry.

Life (and its series of relationships) is defined by, as we are aware, our choices. The alcoholic chooses to drink, even if there is something that drives him to do it that is beyond his control. My friend from years ago chose somehow not to be reliable, or at least not to be reliable for me. I choose, for example, to be (hopefully) an enduring friend, even to those who may not ‘deserve’ it (if I were tallying up some sort of score card). I choose to eliminate any notion of a score card or insistence that friendship always be a two-way street. I have written about it many times – there is often an imbalance, but to be a good, compassionate person or friend, it is not about what you get back from the people in your life. In an ideal world, you would not just give and give without getting something back. But it is not an ideal world, and as it happens, you get what you need from other sources.

Life is also defined by our non-choices, which is something we don’t consider much until we get older. I have had many conversations on this topic recently. In my younger years, I actively chose to continue difficult friendships, even when they were painful. I chose to believe in things that I knew were doomed. But each choice concealed a non-choice. I didn’t choose my own comfort at every turn. I didn’t choose to pursue or complete specific actions, which let outcomes float aimlessly toward wherever the current pulled them. I have been carried by life’s current to places I would not have consciously chosen if I were trying to make a plan.

Sometimes this path has been enlightening and joyful, and sometimes quite painful. And often leads to considerations of the paths not taken, by chance or by choice and all the infinite possibilities those paths pose(d).

 

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

Prospect forecast: Read and reject the label

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“Tocqueville captured the phenomenon of invisibly creeping despotism in atomized societies devoted to the pursuit of wealth when he wrote that people ‘in their intense and exclusive anxiety to make a fortune’ can ‘lose sight of the close connection that exists between the private fortune of each and the prosperity of all. It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold.’”

We might for some inexplicable and unreasonable reason (what else can we call it but a ‘reason’ even if it defies that very thing?) expect that the world, our quality of life – our own individually and that of each successive generation – will progressively improve. This is the lie we’re told/sold in at least American society, if not as overtly in others. And sometimes it turns out true. But the forecast isn’t true for everyone. This we know from the divisions we see played out in American society. And in all societies – modern and historic – the haves and have-nots, the with and without, the empowered and disenfranchised. None of this is hidden or difficult to see, but the label still reads: the world continues to get better; progress is on an endless march forward (whether “progress” means more liberal markets or universal prosperity/material betterment, eradication of the worst of the world’s diseases – its definition depends on to whom we pose the question, and even then does not have a simple answer. After all, for example, we might eradicate disease theoretically, patting ourselves on the backs about the triumph of science and ingenuity. But a drug company will come in and make the cure prohibitively expensive, so we have not made that much progress in reality).

These ideas come to the fore in many books I’ve read recently, most notably in Age of Anger (which I recommend) and the book about Boomers destroying everything. Things teeter on the brink on many fronts because people have been told that this label is true: “Freedom is all that matters – and by freedom, we mean the freedom to get rich.” And somehow, the have-have not dichotomy becomes entrenched because the masses of have-nots do not feel the same deprivation they should or the drive for equality. Instead they have been promised that there are lottery winners (whether literal or through hard work). Because they live in “freedom” (another word with complex meanings, all depending on whom you ask) – which in this case is another form of cage – they will swallow anything because there is a slight hope (certainly not expectation) of becoming wealthy, i.e. truly free.

Thus, individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies.

In Gabor Maté’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which was about addiction, one of his addict patients said it in the most down-to-earth, distinct way possible: “Then you go to the office and you see a couple of dozen patients … and all your money goes to the bank at the end of that, and then you count up your shekels or your doubloons. At the end of the day, what have you done? You’ve collected the summation of what you think freedom is. You’re looking for security, and you think that will give you freedom. You collected a hundred shekels of gold, and to you this gold has the capacity of keeping you in a fancy house or maybe you can salt away another six weeks’ worth up and above what you already have in the bank. “But what are you looking for? What have you spent your whole day searching for? That same bit of freedom or satisfaction that I want; we just get it differently. What’s everybody chasing all the money for if not to get them something that will make them feel good for a while or make them feel they’re free? How are they freer than I am? “Everybody’s searching for that feeling of well-being, that greater happiness. But I’d rather be a dog out in the street than do what many people go through to find their summation of freedom.”

But how are we to define freedom, really? We have the version that society feeds and reinforces; our own innate need to fit in or make ourselves feel better (and how? Collecting money? Consuming? Doing drugs or drinking? Owning guns?). From where do we derive our conception of personal/individual autonomy, freedom and what that means and why it is important? Why do we place such an outsized emphasis on freedom – or the version of freedom painted-by-numbers for us in the societies in which we live? Are safety or community or compassion not equally important?

From Age of Anger of course Dostoevsky is cited again: “True socialism, which rested on spiritual self-sacrifice and moral community, could not be established in the West, for the ‘Occidental Nature’ had a fundamental design flaw: it lacked Fraternity. ‘You find there instead,’ Dostoevsky wrote: a principle of individualism, a principle of isolation, of intense self-preservation, of personal gain, of self-determination, of the I, of opposing this I to all nature and the rest of mankind as an independent autonomous principle entirely equal and equivalent to all that exists outside itself.”

For Pessoa, though, no, freedom actually equates to being free of people and needing them for anything. I relate to his feelings on the subject. I have worked to find freedom from having to co-exist (even if in a bigger sense, e.g. paying taxes and earning money, I do co-exist), and flexibility when I did have to co-exist. At the same time, it is not entirely clear that this ‘freedom’ is important, certainly not beyond the individual sense, and is probably not psychologically healthy either (like it or not, we as humans do need some kind of network and connection to survive, i.e. no man is an island): “Freedom is the possibility of isolation. You are free if you can withdraw from people, not having to seek them out for the sake of money, company, love, glory or curiosity, none of which can thrive in silence and solitude. If you can’t live alone, you were born a slave. You may have all the splendours of the mind and the soul, in which case you’re a noble slave, or an intelligent servant; you’re not free.”

“Slavery is the law of life, and it is the only law, for it must be observed: there is no revolt possible, no way to escape it. Some are born slaves, others become slaves, and still others are forced to accept slavery. Our fainthearted love of freedom — which we would reject as strange and unfamiliar, if it ever came to us — is proof of how ingrained our slavery is.”

“We squander our personalities in orgies of coexistence. Every spoken word double-crosses us. The only tolerable form of communication is the written word, since it isn’t a stone in a bridge between souls but a ray of light between stars.”

“Whenever I’ve tried to free my life from a set of the circumstances that continuously oppress it, I’ve been instantly surrounded by other circumstances of the same order, as if the inscrutable web of creation were irrevocably at odds with me. I yank from my neck a hand that was choking me, and I see that my own hand was holding a noose that fell around my neck as soon as I freed it from the stranger’s hand.”

How can there be this kind of false freedom when it really is a form of keeping people in line, enslaved to a system that pushes them down but teases/taunts them with the tantalizing idea that maybe they could be one of the few to reach the upper echelons? What does it say about a society whose values and education reinforce the idea that that is all that is worth striving for and that that is what truly constitutes freedom?

From Age of Anger:

“In Santayana’s view, most human beings, temperamentally unfit to run the race for wealth, suffered from impotent resentment, and even the few successful rich did not enjoy ‘moral security’ and ‘a happy freedom’. He left the United States for Europe in 1912, having concluded that ‘there is no country in which people live under more overpowering compulsions’. For the next four decades he continued to amplify his warnings that the worldwide dissemination of an individualist culture of competition and mimicry would eventually incite a ‘lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence’.”

“Modernization, mostly along capitalist lines, became the universalist creed that glorified the autonomous rights-bearing individual and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom. Economic growth was posited as the end-all of political life and the chief marker of progress worldwide, not to mention the gateway to happiness. Communism was totalitarian. Ergo its ideological opponent, American liberalism, represented freedom, which in turn was best advanced by moneymaking.”

“Responding to Fukuyama’s thesis in 1989, Allan Bloom was full of foreboding about the gathering revolts against a world that ‘has been made safe for reason as understood by the market’, and ‘a global common market the only goal of which is to minister to men’s bodily needs and whims’.”

A society in which the bitterly competitive fire is stoked to create humans most inhumane?

“Rousseau warned, amour propre is doomed to be perpetually unsatisfied. Too commonplace and parasitic on fickle opinion, it nourishes in the soul a dislike of one’s own self while stoking impotent hatred of others; and amour propre can quickly degenerate into an aggressive drive, whereby an individual feels acknowledged only by being preferred over others, and by rejoicing in their abjection – in Gore Vidal’s pithy formulation, ‘It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’

“try to make sense of bewildering, and often painful, experiences by re-examining a divided modern world, this time from the perspective of those who came late to it, and felt, as many people do now, left, or pushed, behind.”

“Yet only on the rarest of occasions in recent decades has it been acknowledged that the history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence, and that the politics of violence, hysteria and despair was by no means unique to Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or Communist Russia.”

The questions – and answers – are tied up in language and its influence/power as well. The language of freedom and equality are an effective smokescreen to mask that there is no actual freedom or equality. In a sense, it’s a sleight of hand (or tongue, in this case), not unlike when US Republicans have recently insisted that all people will still have “access” to healthcare if Obamacare were repealed. Yes, they would be free like every other person in America to shell out a whole lot of money to buy the care or insurance that perhaps, under Obamacare, they could actually afford. They don’t tell you that by “gaining so much freedom”, you are also losing a lot of money – if you could even afford the care in the first place. Bernie Sanders crusaded around this tricky language in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, reminding people that yes,  “access to” something is not the same thing as actually being able to get, buy or use it.

“Four years before Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, the German thinker Max Stirner argued in the equally incendiary The Ego and its Own that the impersonal rationality of power and government had disguised itself in the emollient language of freedom and equality, and the individual, ostensibly liberated from traditional bonds, had been freshly enslaved by the modern state. Bakunin, the forebear of today’s leaderless militants, spoke with glee of the ‘mysterious and terrible words’, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, which portend ‘the complete annihilation’ of the ‘existing political and social world’.”

“His friend Herzen saw Europe’s new gods of wealth and power as inaugurating an era of mass illusion – and violent counter-attacks. Europe was fated to move, Tocqueville warned, to ‘democracy without limits’, but it was far from clear ‘whether we are going toward liberty or marching toward despotism, God alone knows precisely’.”

Does it go beyond just the language in which the concepts are couched? Are concepts now inextricably tied to other concepts to form a net in which we are completely tangled? That is, to be American is to be free? And yet “free” in that statement is in a constant state of redefinition, stretched and pulled by different groups (one is tempted to say the liberal and the conservative, but this is too simplistic. Possibly it is pulled by the haves and have-nots, but in those cases, it’s more like the haves are holding the have-nots in their hands and pulling them at both ends like … a taffy pull, manipulating, stretching and taking more and more from them).

“Presciently critiquing the neo-liberal conflation of free enterprise with freedom, Rousseau claimed that individual liberty was deeply menaced in a society driven by commerce, individual competitiveness and amour propre. Anticipating anti-globalization critics, he argued that finance money is ‘at once the weakest and most useless for the purpose of driving the political mechanism toward its goal, and the strongest and most reliable for the purpose of deflecting it from its course’. Liberty was best protected not by prosperity but the general equality of all subjects, both urban and rural, and balanced economic growth. Emphasizing national self-sufficiency, he also distrusted the great and opaque forces of international trade, especially the trade in luxuries.”

And what could be more true than these ideas, also fruits plucked from Age of Anger?

“Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Kierkegaard doubted the then new ‘idea of sociality, of community’ promoted by journalism, and cautioned against the public opinion that rose from ‘a union of people who separately are weak, a union as unbeautiful and depraved as a child-marriage’. Early in the twentieth century, communications technology was still confined to the telegraph, the telephone and the cinema; but Max Weber warned that, combined with the pressure of work and opaque political and economic forces, it would push modern individuals away from public life and into a ‘subjectivist culture’ – or what he called ‘sterile excitation’. In 1969, Marshall McLuhan claimed that the era of literacy had ended with the advent of radio and television; their multi-sensory experience in a ‘global village’ had returned humankind to tribal structures of feeling and ‘we begin again to live a myth’. Today’s colossal exodus of human lives into cyberspace is even more dramatically transforming old notions of time, space, knowledge, values, identities and social relations.”

“In his prescient critique of the neo-liberal notion of individual freedom, Rousseau had argued that human beings live neither for themselves nor for their country in a commercial society where social value is modelled on monetary value; they live for the satisfaction of their vanity, or amour propre: the desire and need to secure recognition from others, to be esteemed by them as much as one esteems oneself. But, as Kierkegaard pointed out, the seeker of individual freedom must ‘break out of the prison in which his own reflection holds him’, and then out of ‘the vast penitentiary built by the reflection of his associates’. He absolutely won’t find freedom in the confining fun-house mirrors of Facebook and Twitter. For the vast prison of seductive images does not heal the perennially itchy and compulsively scratched wounds of amour propre. On the contrary: even the most festive spirit of communality disguises the competitiveness and envy provoked by constant exposure to other people’s success and well-being.”

Photo: Yes, should have paid attention to/read the label before purchasing online. A 1.5 kg package of tea is probably a bit too much.

Present possibilities

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How foolish you can feel after everything is said and done. First that you let yourself walk down the path, however gingerly, with however much trepidation felt and caution you thought you exhibited, in the first place. Winding up steep hills, when suddenly, the path ends, and you’re lost and deep into the woods. It’s getting dark, and what shadows and figures you can faintly make out are unfamiliar. How can you not want to cry, get angry and overreact in frustration? It’s temporary, as all things are. Light will return. You will find your way back, the biggest, self-effacing wave crashes over you, leaving you feeling more foolish than ever for the overly emotional, panicked reaction. But how could it have been otherwise? It is as though, suddenly, you wandered off the safe, clear paths to which you were accustomed. The sense of adventure, openness to feeling new things, awakened. You were confident you could keep your footing, but a whirlwind of different circumstances conspired to… knock you on your ass. In hindsight the whole thing is embarrassing and laughable. Oh, the misguided, animated imagination, once aroused.

And how far away from these minor misadventures you can so quickly feel. One moment fretting and regretting, hot tears welling up as you ask yourself what you were thinking going up there, climbing deeper into the woods. The ground underfoot covered in damp moss, becoming increasingly swamplike. The very next moment, feet on the ground in cities new and old, concrete and cobblestone, breathing in the world of literature read long ago, reminiscing about people you once knew, tasting everything like it’s the first time – and sometimes it is. There are always the phantoms of the past haunting, keeping certain addictions flickering, but mostly faded into some archive of past transgressions. They return sometimes, and it is almost a relief in some way to feel the pounding familiarity push-push-pushing its way in. As if the past can breathe new life into the future, and push you on your way to the new.

But what of the limbo of the present moment? Or, as Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians propose regarding time: it’s all happening at once in different dimensions: past, present, future, life, death.

It is within these present moments, when the mind still wanders back to what might have been (Kierkegaard’s ‘future you will never have’), when your guard should be up most of all, but isn’t. In one moment or another, roaming in the Baixa or Belém or Katowice or Kraków, dredging up images of the dreary recent past, only to live moments of Invisible Cities as though they were almost your own:

“But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time” … or more fitting, a “city where the foreigner hesitating between two (wo)men always encounters a third”.

The present opens and widens the world and its possibilities again, anew. You regain footing, and it is then that the possibilities present themselves.

To deal with the times: Don’t go numb

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“How inured to that do I want to get?”
“Just enough.” (from this week’s episode of Madam Secretary)

The problem we face, beyond the immediate stripping of democratic tradition and human rights, and all the diversionary fires set to distract us, is our own boredom, our own fatigue, our own journey toward being inured to what is happening: “It isn’t so bad.”

Almost everyone knows that the intensity of any feeling cannot be sustained: anger, passion, love. Perhaps especially the attention span. We have neither the attention span for sustained fighting, even if we have our own lifelong cause, nor the attention span to maintain laser-like focus on one thing while all the distractions explode all around us. And that’s what is counted on – at least with the way things are going in the politics and government section of society. Isn’t that kind of everything, though? Society and our place in it? We know what happens if we bury our heads in the sand: nothing good.

Where is the line between burying our heads/distracting ourselves/avoiding reality and allowing ourselves some diversion to regain our strength and focus, to learn and prepare for everything the world is throwing at us? Something that keeps us from burning out?

I had a conversation the other day that made me think of the concept of ‘burning out’. It was about learning languages, actually, and how I took on languages as though it were a PAC-MAN game. Keep gorging. Gobble gobble gobble. Naturally I burned out on the whole idea of being a student.

J: When I was 22, I wanted to play frisbee and kiss girls.
Me: I loved learning languages much more when I was young. Now I would prefer kissing girls and running through the forest.
J: Well – a true Renaissance woman would be able to do all of those things. Concomitantly.
Me: I burned myself out on studiousness.

I had, back then, and even throughout my 20s, believed that I would always be a student. (Yes, we are always students throughout our lives – learning never ends unless we are willfully ignorant and closed off. Here I refer to living as a formal student, enrolled in a study program.) It became so much a part of who I was that it stopped having much meaning. And this, too, is a symptom of the aforementioned malaise/”issue fatigue”: even when you are not only passionate about a cause, but your life or livelihood depends on it (healthcare activists, equality/civil rights activists, etc.), you still get so beaten up and worn down that the fight, too, can start to feel meaningless.

Once I was burned out on applying myself to studies, I focused on other things and purposely tried to numb myself with overdoses of work and TV. I stopped reading because I wanted to sidestep meaning and feeling. Incidentally, a lot of formal education feels like it is designed to sidestep meaning, feeling and independent thought, which is why we also need committed education activists who prioritize the fostering of creative and independent thinking. (“Poetry is important for the teaching of writing and reading.”)

This numbness is the most dangerous thing. We must in these times find the path that lets us balance the pain and frustration against the will to fight and hope for something better (that we may never see).

…As a side note, at least not every interaction with television is empty; in a recent episode of Call the Midwife, we experienced real beauty with a taste of Federico Garcia Lorca.

And in Madam Secretary, a most apt Kierkegaard quote:
“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”

It’s True
-Federico Garcia Lorca
Ay, the pain it costs me
to love you as I love you!
For love of you, the air, it hurts,
and my heart,
and my hat, they hurt me.
Who would buy it from me,
this ribbon I am holding,
and this sadness of cotton,
white, for making handkerchiefs with?
Ay, the pain it costs me
to love you as I love you!

Es verdad
¡Ay que trabajo me cuesta
quererte como te quiero!
Por tu amor me duele el aire,
el corazón
y el sombrero.
¿Quien me compraria a mi,
este cintillo que tengo
y esta tristeza de hilo
blanco, para hacer panuelos?
¡Ay que trabajo me cuesta
quererte como te quiero!

Photo (c) 2013 Justin Elliott