Friday, January 25, 2013

Learning How To Die

"but learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die." ~ Seneca
This won't come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but today I want to write to you about death.

The above passage from Seneca rings very true to me, and when my head is on straight, death--not in a morbid way--is never far from my thoughts.  The other day my kids were talking about death. A beloved family member had recently died, and my 8 year old said, 'I wish I could make a machine that would stop people from dying'. My 11 year old responded, 'People have to die though. The world would become crowded otherwise. It's nature's way of keeping our species alive'.

Two totally different interpretations there. One, emotional, the other, coldly rational. I sympathize with both.

Just a few days before I was commenting to a friend about the necessity of the 'old order' to die so that the new order could move the human project forward. Each generation is only good for so much progress before it becomes a hindrance to greater progress. Conservativism seeps into all of our bones after a while.

Living forever has never seemed to be the goal to me. It is tragic when young people die, or when people die tragically, or with important unresolved issues. When old people die of normal human causes, and seem to have left a good legacy behind them, and have gone in relative peace, the affair seems bittersweet: the point of life doesn't seem to be to live long, but to live well. With this consideration, even a person who does not make it into ripe old age can be seen not necessarily as a tragedy when they pass, but can also possess something of a bittersweet quality.

Of course, that's easy for me to say when I am not talking about the death of someone incredibly close to me: of course I will always appreciate the sweetness of knowing great, beautiful people, but the closer the person comes to you, the younger they are, and the uglier the circumstances of their departure, the stronger the bitterness will no doubt be. May we all be spared such bitterness.

But we all have to die, and it shouldn't surprise us. It's something that seems healthy to keep in our minds, to keep us kind, to keep us charitable, to keep us focused. Seneca has to be right about the amount of time it will take us to adequately prepare for that moment, and in so doing, may we also learn how to live in the process.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Owners Are Getting Scared

I work at a homeless shelter. Tonight at dinner, as I sat at our service desk and watched all of the people eat, and talk, and laugh, I remembered how disturbed one of my neighbors was when he heard about our efforts to ensure that the residents of our shelter--and all shelters--got out and voted. My neighbor--white, christian, male, conservative, mid-fifties--went from disturbed to downright offended when President Obama won re-election, and the county that it all seemed to come down to was our county, Hamilton County, Ohio. To my neighbor, by bringing local community organizers into our shelter to have residents sign voting pledges, by have state agencies come in to help our residents register to vote, we were essentially delivering the country to President Obama.

"We didn't tell them who to vote for". I said.

"Of course you knew who they were going to vote for. Who gave them the free cell phone?" he said.

Ah, the so-called 'Obamaphone'. Conservatives hate it. To them, it smacks of decadence, and misguided liberal spending. In reality, it's a very practical investment for our society to make. Newt Gingrich talked about replacing the safety net with a trampoline: we live in a very high-tech world, and in order to function in this world, we have to be plugged in. If we expect disenfranchised folks to even have a chance at competing, wouldn't they also have to be plugged in? In the shelter business, we are about helping people get housing, but we're also about helping people eliminate barriers to housing. If our residents have cell phones, that cuts out a lot of walking time, and a lot of paper work. Ultimately, it should help them get back on their feet, and that is something we all want.

"People who are on the government tit shouldn't be allowed to vote". he said.

"If you believe that, then no C.E.O. in the country should be allowed to vote." I said, always the troublemaker.

"The rich worked for what they've got. The people who stay at your shelter have been made soft by the system. " He said.

My response: You are likely to die in the class you are born into. Inherited wealth gives a person an unfair advantage. Being born into a privileged class gives a person an unfair advantage.Yes, a person can rise from the bottom to the top, but what do they have to become to do so? What do they have to sacrifice? I guarantee you a privileged person who rose to the same level did not sacrifice as much. And what if you don't have the killer instinct? What if you just want to live a simple life, and not participate in the rat race? Should you have to work so hard? Yes, the man born with sand bags tied around his legs can still hypothetically 'win the race', but why not take off those sand bags and see how he does? Why not give him the option of not even running the damned pointless thing in the first place?

It's a frustrating conversation, especially when you consider that my neighbor should be on my side on this: he is not one of the owners of this society. At best, he only serves as one of the owner's many attack dogs, operating under the illusion that 'if only I work hard enough, I too can join the ranks of the owners'. But dogs cannot become men.

The point is, this argument about who should and shouldn't be allowed to vote is coming up more and more. After Romney lost what he and his followers had deluded themselves into believing would be a great white landslide (no way colored and poor folk will vote again like they did last time!), they started talking about restricting the vote.

But it's too late for that. Us poor people, Us women, Us black people, Us latino people, Us asian people, us gay people, us disabled people, Us non-religious people--we're voting. We're being heard. And if you want to say we are just voting for people who are promoting our best interests, then you're right: but tell me that the rich in this country don't do the same thing.

And there are more of us.

The owners are getting scared.

And they should be.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ignore the Noise; Do the Work

My thoughts have been mainly introspective lately. It's true that I've recently formed a study group to read Marx's Capital in one year, and that Marx is inherently about the world and other people, but I don't have much to say to you about that. I'm just reading, talking to other people about what I'm reading, and percolating.

This year's motto is going to be 'ignore the noise; do the work'. That literally translates into focusing on my job and my responsibilities to my family, but also metaphorically translates into 'do the personal work'. I've got some spiritual and emotional growing to do, and I've got to give myself some space to do it in.

One of the concepts that helped me quit drinking was the concept of 'the booze brain'. The idea that there was this ever-whispering voice constantly trying to sabotage my own sobriety and masquerading as my own mind, helped me dislocate myself from my disease. If I found myself in the midst of a clever rationalization I would ask myself, 'does this line of thinking end up with me drinking?', and if the answer was 'yes', I would know that it was not my own brain that was thinking, but my booze brain.

I have come to realize that the booze brain has many other cousins, and each can throw up a distracting clamor that prevents one from 'doing the work'.

'The work', by the way, is whatever is central to your character. It's whatever you need to do to grow, to find peace, to progress towards self actualization. It can be your job, It can be your relationship with others. It can be reading a book, riding a bike, or even washing the dishes. It's the product of your labor, a thing that you would do for the hell of it, even if no money or status were attached to it (maybe there is some Marx slipping in there). I would like to do things for their own sake, 'for the hell of it'. I would like to do things prayerfully, and seriously. Too often, I am trying to ride two horses with one ass.

'The noise' is the other horse. It's the thoughts that tempt you away from what you know you should be doing, or drain them of their joy. The noise is the self-doubt, the naysayers, the shiny thing that distracts you from your goals.

That's all. I get cranky if I go too long without writing something, so here's something.

Friday, January 4, 2013

How Much Must We Suffer?

When you have a mental illness, you suffer. Every day can be a struggle. To be alive, to function, to focus on basic tasks...all of these things can look and feel like steep mountain climbs.

The medical establishment can offer you medications, however, that might mute your suffering. I have heard many creative individuals who view their illness as an intricate element of their powers and very being voice concerns over whether the bargain--we'll take away a bit of the pain, but you may end up giving up a bit of yourself--is worth taking.

How much suffering is too much? When does struggling lead to suffering?

Struggle is the currency of personal growth. Whether it be in the gym, at your job, in your relationships, or acquiring any kind of skill, you will struggle. Suffering is the biproduct of struggle. Suffering is struggle without resolution. As you struggle to lift weights outside of your existing comfort zone, your muscles suffer. As you attempt to understand a new and complicated philosophical model, your mind suffers. Your spirit suffers. Eventually, however, a membrane breaks: you come out the other side, and suddenly that philosophical model--those weights--are within your range of capability.

Many artists have mental illness, and many of them do not medicate because they feel it will cause their art to suffer. Many artists also commit suicide, and what causes art to suffer more than the death of the artist?

Maybe an artist would suggest that they must suffer, because the world needs art. The world needs 'executive madness'. All of our best leaders have had at least a touch of this madness. If they all were to go on mood stabilizers, would progress halt? Is the art, or the leadership, or the vision, worth the cost of the life of the artist or the leader or the visionary? It's a tough call. On an even simpler level, are we really living if we are not experiencing life to our fullest capability?

I think of the Christian belief that Jesus had to suffer on the cross in order that mankind might be forgiven of our collective sins. The rationale and the mechanics of this set-up are a mess, but the fundamental Christian understanding that suffering must accompany struggle, and that only through struggle can something higher be obtained appear to be self-evidently true. Whether or not the suffering can be done vicariously is a different issue entirely, which would need to be explored separately. This Christian core also seems to accept the idea that there is an acceptable amount of human life that might be sacrificed for a higher creative end; be it Jesus dying so that man might be redeemed, or the artist dying so that man might be raised up.

The question of acceptable suffering also looks different when you look at mental illness through the (appropriate) lens of medical health; how much suffering would you allow yourself to experience if you had cancer or irritable bowel syndrome? What higher purpose would justify those pains? How much of your individuality would you be sacrificing if you allowed yourself to be alleviated of that suffering?

It's a very complicated question, and it's one that isn't helped by the stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds mental illness. It also isn't helped by one of the dominant themes of our capitalist society: we must always be comfortable. We must always be enjoying ourselves.

Usually, I write for my own illumination: writing helps me hash out what my real feelings are about an issue. Here, I find myself at the end with the same questions I started with. C'est la vie.