Wednesday, November 19, 2008

3 am Reflection On Suffering

I think that I am either becoming a writer or a farmer, because I cannot help getting up at three o clock in the morning. The keyboard starts calling me in my sleep, and when I wake up, I find that the voice is still there. The keyboard has always called me to get out of my bed with good ideas, but I’ve always said, yes, that is a good idea, and I’ll type it in the morning. And then I would go back to sleep. But not now. Now I say, yes that is a good idea, and I get up and type it. I don’t think that money making is the difference between a hobbyist and a professional. I think it is a willingness to sacrifice something for x that makes someone a professional. If you’re willing to sweat for it (or bleed for it), then you are a pro. Congratulations heroin users and sex addicts! You are the real deal!

The ideas don’t fight me as much when I get up early in the morning for them. You should see me typing now! I am really going. I’m hunched over my computer screen, drinking occasionally from a big glass of 2 percent milk, wearing only a pair of boxer briefs and wrapped up in a big brown blanket with stylized penguins on it. I’m flying. The words are pouring out of my fingers. The muse is rewarding my self deprivation. I’ll be tired in the morning, but it will be a good tired. I’ll be more productive. I’ll go to the gym, do some homework, do the dishes, and take a nap. I’ll feel good about it.

So I am either becoming a writer or a farmer, or maybe I am just getting older and shouldn’t drink so much grapefruit juice before bedtime.

Here is the idea that lulled me from my cozy bed:

I am training to become a grief counselor. It’s important to think about grief, suffering, and happiness when you would like to do this for a living. Since thinking about those things is important, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject, and the most recent book I have been reading is Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen To Good People. It’s a sympathetic book whose thesis is basically this: God is not all powerful, otherwise bad things would not happen to good people. To maintain our faith, we must choose between an all -powerful God who is not totally good, or a totally good God who is not all-powerful. That’s it in a nutshell, and it is the theology Kushner crafted for himself to save his faith after his son died tragically young from a condition he did not deserve. Kushner looks around at all of the others who suffer, and this is the worldview that comforts him in the face of the random cruelty of nature.

With Kushner’s theology in my mind, I set about my business this morning. I checked my grades for an important class online, and discovered that I had failed a test. I walked into the kitchen and saw a pile of dishes waiting to be done. I knew that I had to read all of King Lear for a class that night, and had not even begun it. A pile of laundry waited for me in the basement.

Times are tight for my family right now, so instead of going to our regular grocery store, I went to The Family Dollar to get some dish soap for the dishes. Let me tell you, it did nothing to elevate my mood.

The people in the store looked like zombies, and they made me sad. I was beating myself up over my failed test. The weight of all of the debt I’ve accrued to get the degree I am working on was coming down hard on me. Not only am I responsible for myself, but I’m responsible for my children’s happiness and development too. When I failed that test, I also failed them.

I was totally projecting at this point. I looked at a middle aged man stocking the shelves in the back of the store. He was pale, and moved lethargically. I became that man. Flash forward to the future: I didn’t get into grad school--I didn’t even get my bachelor’s degree--and I was forced to become a manager at The Family Dollar. Not only was I just a manager at Family Dollar, I was an assistant manager. Not even the top spot.

I felt ill. I drove back home, filled up the sink with soapy water, and called a friend who is also a psychology major. I told him about my existential frustrations, and he quietly listened. I asked him how he managed to be so happy, and he said that he thought his happiness was based on the fact that he didn’t allow himself to worry about the silly things that most other people worry about. He used Eastern philosophy to gird his loins (to quote Joe Biden). He quoted something from a manga book he liked that he thought might be helpful to me: “You’ve got a good pair of legs beneath you. Use them.” He told me he thought God was not helping or hurting us, and that life on the whole was mostly good. He employed metaphors and analogies to illustrate his uplifting view, and I responded with a darker vision.

‘Life is a challenge.’ he said. ‘You won’t always be moving up. Sometimes you’ll plateau. As long as you keep working, eventually you’ll get to the top of the mountain.’ I said that this presupposes some kind of ultimate justice in the world. ‘Tell a kid who is born with his lungs outside of his body that life is mostly good. Tell that to his parents.’ I said. ‘Your effort is not guaranteed to ever move you forward. Look at Job. People get worn down. Instead of climbing a mountain, maybe life is like war. You’re behind enemy lines, advancing with your men towards the bad guys' fox hole. You keep advancing towards your target, but the more you move, the more tired you become. Maybe you get injured. You’re efforts are wearing you down. When you finally make it to the fox hole, you turn around. All of your men have been killed. You find yourself surrounded by the enemy. They take you below and execute you. All of your work has been for nothing.’

‘That’s a cynical view.’ my friend said.

‘I was only demonstrating the way this kind of thinking works.’ I said. ‘You’re tossing around these platitudes and mantras that are not based on anything, trying to tell me that everything will be alright if I adopt your worldview, but that is not guaranteed.’ I was becoming irritated with my friend. Who did he think he was? He hasn't had my experiences. He doesn't have my responsibility. Who was he to say I was misled in my sense of hopelessness? Essentially my thought boiled down to this: my pain is bigger than your pain. There can be a very masturbatory element to despair.

My friend didn't deserve my misplaced hostility, so I tried to back down and smooth things over. I re-interpreted what he told me into the same little pep-talk I give myself whenever I feel like I'm hitting the wall: Even if nothing is guaranteed, I have to keep working towards something, and I have to be hopeful. Life isn’t like war, or a mountain climb. Life is like life. The only alternative to feeling miserable and giving up is to keep moving. Watch the clouds pass in the sky. Like a twelve-stepper, you only have to get through today. Make today count. It's true that to climb out of a hole is to risk falling back in, but what is the alternative? I'm not staying in this hole.

A bunch of stuff like that.

It was good of my friend to listen to me, but I realize it wasn’t his philosophy I was looking for, but his empathy. The feeling that he was reinforcing his own views as he spoke to me tainted how I received his counsel: That’s a cynical way to look at things. and I don’t get worried by the silly things that worry other people. and You’ve got a good pair of legs beneath you, use them. This kind of ‘counseling’ is the same kind of counseling that Kushner derides in his book. To protect God, or the counselor’s faith, the counselors lay the blame at the foot of the person who is suffering. They create meaningless cosmic scenarios that justifies your suffering to themselves, and reinforce their own worldview. It's like saying to someone, 'It's God's will', or 'Pull yourself up by your bootstraps'.

Maybe God had nothing to do with my pain. Maybe I don't have bootstraps.

It’s true that in the end, all that Kushner offers is a rationalization to maintain his own faith. It’s one we could use too, if it appealed to us. But a bigger message in his work is offered to those who would comfort than to those who grieve: You are not in the life of the grieving to philosophize. Their problems are not silly to them. They’re outlook--if it seems cynical--is validly cynical at that time. They need to be heard. They need to be allowed to construct a language specific to themselves and their specific scenario. Everyone grieves differently. The grieving don’t need a Wayne Dyer style lecture from their counselor, they just need attentive empathy and compassion.

Harold Kushner found a language for his suffering, and so has my friend. Both of these philosophies may be useful to someone at some time, but suffering is not a one size fits all endeavor. We can observe the tools that a person is constructing for themselves to create healing, and encourage their use. What we cannot do is assume that our personal tools will be useful to everyone, and must resist the impulse to use time that we are supposed listening to other people’s grief to work out our own issues, or to bolster our own beliefs.


Lodo Grdzak said...

Wow. There's a lot there Spence. Its easier to be a writer if you think someone's reading. Obviously I read your blog.

I think this was the most self-revelatory thing I've read by you. At one point you espouse a propensity to feel that you're getting worse when you don't feel you're getting better (something along those lines). I dont believe that's true of life, but I think that's definitely the ailment of so many writers. And artists. Overcoming that and recognizing the long-term momentum you've built may be the biggest difference between those that stick it out and those who dont (I cant say for sure since I myself am a work in progress and have no artistic success to point to).

Anyway, Im gonna read this again later cause there really is a lot there.

Spencer Troxell said...

I wrote this as part of a training journal I am keeping for school credit. I really questioned whether I should put it on this blog, because I have not primarily been writing on such a personal note.

I appreciate your advice, and I agree with it. I am very hard on myself, but I think it makes me stronger. I don't settle for where I am at very long. I will be sticking around.

We're all works in progress, you know? All we can do is be there for each other in whatever way we can. I think that's the main point of this post.