Wednesday, May 29, 2013

10 Reasons to Kill Yourself

I have experienced very black depressions, and know how hard it is to get help when you are in such a state. I have pet the black-eyed dog Winston Churchill and Nick Drake wrote about. It has sat on my lap. Its breath is horrible.

There are few places you can find solace when the dog pays a visit. Few places, that is, if you're lucky. There is very little that resonates. At least for me, certain music could touch me; Nine Inch Nails has shooed the dog away for me before. So has John Berryman's poetry. Kay Redfield Jamison has also helped. But there's not much out there that can do the job; the writing is either too sanitary or too hopeful. When I am with the dog--when his scent overpowers everything else in the room--upbeat motivational speeches don't do me any good. If anything, they make things worse.

When I told my wife I was going to write a blog post called '10 Reasons to Kill Yourself', she cringed. But then I explained my thinking to her; to reach someone in a deep depression, you have to know the terrain. Those of us who have been there know, so it is on us to reach out to each other in a language we can understand.

I thought it would be worthwhile to collect a bunch of reasons in favor of suicide, and then demonstrate that there are actually better reasons not to commit suicide. For example; there is no God, therefore life is meaningless. But if there is no God, then you are actually presented with an opportunity to create your own meaning. I would flesh these little bullet points out, of course, but you get the point. Then it occurred to me that this gimmick would  be too transparent, and may only irritate a person in a deep depression. It would read like too many evangelical pamphlets that present straw man arguments for atheism and then proceed to knock them down with spurious logic.

So I am writing this instead. Maybe it is best just to lay my intentions bare and see what comes from them? When I started my recovery from alcoholism, it wasn't the AA or NA manual that provided me with the most sustenance; it was Richard Lewis's book The Other Great Depression. He wrote about things I understood from his personal vantage point. It surprised me how similar our vantage points were, too. As I began to come to terms with my mental illness, it was Kay Redfield Jamison and William Styron that made sense to me, and made me feel I wasn't alone.

Maybe just writing about our experiences are enough. So that's what I'm doing.

I already have two chihuahuas that I love, and two dogs are enough for me.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Keep Walking, Even If You Never Get There

Karl Marx was right about capitalism: it is no good for the human soul. He was also right that someday--like a diabetic trying to save her own legs by eating vegetables instead of sugary treats--we may discover that the strong needn't eat the weak, and that equality and human flourishing benefits everyone; the vegetables don't taste so bad.

But you're right when you say we're probably not ready for communism yet. A few more generations of us may have to die off first. That's fine with me. A philosophy that runs deeper in me than Marxism is stoicism. Under even my stoicism are the teachings of Arthur Schopenhauer, a man who was deeply aware of human frailty. He knew that suffering was the touchstone of humanity. Suffering, it turns out, is one of the things mankind does best.

We will have to suffer until we learn. Our children will suffer too; but that is okay. Mankind will experience growing pains until it is no more. Even in an idealcommunist system--like the one portrayed in Star Trek--there will be growth. There is no abandoning the will; the best we can hope for is to hone the will, and shape it closer to our ideals. The foundation of all progressive agendas has to be the understanding that mankind--like all socioeconomic systems--works better on paper.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

West Virginia Death Train

When I think of the Appalachian roots I inherit from my mother's side of the family, a few things pop into mind. Train tracks. twisty, windy mountainous roads, a particularly raucous, book of Revelations Jesus, and hard times.

When I say hard times, I don't mean 'having a bad day' hard times, I mean coal miner lore hard times. Trouble with the police. Trouble with alcohol. Disease, bad luck, poverty, suicide. That kind of hard times.

I don't know how accurate this impression is, because I haven't visited Matewan West Virginia much in my life, but these are the images I took away from family stories I overheard as a child. Maybe it says more about me that I fixated on the most morbid stories--Ghost stories, tales of demonic possession, disturbing suicides--but that's how it is. The soundtrack to the family history that exists in my mind could be done by Bonnie Prince Billy or Nick Cave.

My grandmother is not a hopeful woman. She comes from West Virginia, and she has always had something of an air of inevitable doom about her. She is a woman who doesn't expect the other shoe to drop; she knows it will drop. And wait just a minute, that guy might have three feet, and thus three shoes. Maybe four shoes!

One of my favorite past times when I was a kid was to read the book of Revelations and scare the holy hell out of myself. I would draw crosses on the door frames of my room to protect it from demonic infiltrators--I must have mixed my religion heavily with the many monster movies I enjoyed--and would phrase my prayers very carefully to protect all in my family from demonic calamity.

The god of my childhood was a frightful being, and the devil was a consistent enemy I had to be ever vigilant against. As the song I sang in a church Christmas pageant one year stated:

"Satan is my enemy,
daily he gets after me.
Like a hungry lion he
Wants to gobble me up
and swallow me!"

Not only were demons really floating about the place, and Jesus ever present with his big rule book and punitive black sharpie (to mark up my soul when I sinned), there were black folks out there who were up to something. I wasn't sure what, but I knew it wasn't good. Black folks and liberals who hated America and wanted to burn flags. No wonder I found my way into the arms of H.P. Lovecraft; how could I not identify with horror stories that suggested other, terrible worlds, and were infused with a pronounced fear of 'the other'? Lovecraft's work is animated by a deep fear and a feeling of cosmic smallness that is completely familiar to me, and still resonates.

Of course, these are just my impressions. I have many kind, gentle family members that still live in West Virginia. They don't seem to be possessed by the same demons that I perceived to be the natural aura of those who live in those areas, and--as far as I know--are neither particularly racist nor overly fearful. Real or not, this is part of my mind's landscape; and if I am to continue to grow as a human being, I am going to need to learn how to traverse it.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Doubt and Faith: Halves of the Same Wheel

True beliefs express themselves in action alone. Transitory beliefs express themselves in debate, argument, cognitive dissonance, and faith. Thus, most of our beliefs are subject to change.

We don't debate gravity. Gravity is a true belief. We do debate politics and religion, because--as much as we may hate it--we have doubts about these things.

Doubt and faith must always accompany one another. Faith is the working through of a desired belief. We must practice faith in respect to transitory beliefs that we wish to transform into true beliefs.

Doubt is not something to be eschewed; where there is doubt there is faith, and faith is the animating force of our intellectual and spiritual life. As Schopenhauer noted, we only notice where the shoe pinches; doubt is a bastard of a pinch. Doubt makes us vital, and provides sustenance to our faith.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Do We Choose Our Beliefs?

Steve Perry asks:

Hey Spencer,

           Where do you get the idea that we do not choose our beliefs?


My answer:

Beliefs are formed at a preconscious level, and seem to be tied up in the region of the brain (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) that pertains most to sense of self. Beliefs can change, but only as the sense of self is altered by the environment and new information. We're incapable of changing our minds simply based on new information; the new information also has to relate in some preconscious way to our survival instinct. A good example is this: on a conscious level, I know there are no ghosts in my house. On an instinctual, preconscious level, however, there may be a stronger subconscious belief that will present itself after I've watched The Exorcist at one o clock in the morning and am home alone.

Within any given context individuals only have so many variations of things that they can believe and ways they can behave. We are capable of changing these ways, but external factors have to be conducive to such changes, and must apply enough internal pressure to create the impetus for change.

My definition of faith is derived from this understanding. It is the desire to attain or preserve a belief that is in flux by creating an environment that is conducive to the creation or preservation of that belief. True beliefs do not require such safeguarding and reinforcing. My belief in gravity requires no assistance. Gravity is consistent in almost every Earthbound environment. My belief in Marxism, however, does require a certain amount of reinforcement, because there is enough historical evidence and contrary opinion out there to force me to entertain doubts about it. The same goes for my atheism: it has to be something I consider on a conscious level. It too requires reinforcement. As does your religious faith and political ideas.

At least that's my understanding. We can also probably get into a discussion about free will, but I'm in much shallower territory there.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A More Accurate Definition of Faith

We have no control over what we believe. As the famous quotation goes, "you can do what you want, but, you can't want what you want". What we believe takes no effort. It is not dependent upon science or reason or willpower or anything. It just is. A more accurate definition of faith would be 'the process of trying to believe or not believe what one does or does not believe'. Faith is struggle. It is intellectual and spiritual effort to change an internal state of mind and soul. In a sense, faith is the only active state of mental or spiritual being. Yesterday I posted the following update to Facebook: In light of the above definition, it may be more appropriate when discussing one's move from religion to use the phrase 'my faith has lost', rather than 'I have lost my faith'.

Yesterday, I posted the following statement to my Facebook page:

"I struggle with my attitude towards religious people. On the one hand, I am very sympathetic to those who use their holy texts as motivation to do good, or to just hang on in a world that can be very tough. On the other hand, I become furious when I read or listen to most theology or apologetics. I'd like to be able to live in peace with my religious brothers and sisters, but the rising indignation I feel when wading through religious thought is tough to ignore."

I am at a point in my atheism where faith is completely inactive. At first it was active--I think--because in my heart of hearts I wanted someone to convince me I was wrong in jettisoning religion.

Now I am one with my unbelief and feel no stress about the belief of others. I feel--having once had belief myself--I can empathize with it. I can also understand it from a sociopolitical and psychological perspective. That's why mere belief doesn't bother me. How can I be bothered by something that is beyond someone's control?

I am still, however, bothered by the public reasoning people put forth for their religious faith, and by other conclusions that assumes the truth of their faith. They are intrusive. They are arguments by people who are trying to bolster their own waning or uncertain belief, either by propagandizing themselves or by convincing others to buy into their mythmaking in the hopes that there is truth in numbers.

There are certain things I have faith in, and certain ideas I hope to promulgate, so I have to understand the mechanics of what is going on here, too. But I do feel obligated to confront faulty thinking and corrosive conclusions wherever they appear. This will probably remain one of my vices.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Marx's Body Count

Aflutter by my Marxist ties,
Mass graves and gulags swarmed his head
But Karl Marx needs no alibis
For Stalin and Mao’s many dead.

Unless in his spare time he killed
Whores or orphans or old salesmen,
It wasn’t blood but wine he spilled,
And did all of his killing with his pen.

Don’t sweat my presence on picket lines
Or cry as I recite ‘Aubade
Marx is as guilty of Stalin’s crimes
As Jesus was for the crusades.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Most Rational Decision

First of all, I am researching suicide for my next book. I have to say that, because when friends and family notice you are writing, reading, and talking a lot about suicide, they get a little concerned. I am not planning to kill myself; at least not until the last season of Mad Men is over.

One of the texts I am revisiting for research is Albert Camus' Myth of Sisyphus. It was a big deal to me in high school, although I didn't totally understand it. A few things that Camus assert or eludes to in this work is that, in a way, suicide is the most rational decision. Life is devoid of natural meaning, thus the most rational answer to a world of that nature is to kill yourself. However, Camus does not endorse suicide. Rather, he suggests that we embrace the absurd by revolting against this natural conclusion by living. He suggests that really, we only begin to live once we realize life is meaningless, but choose to continue living anyway. We must, he suggests, make our passions our path, and recognize the humor of being a sentient, meaning-seeking creature in an unthinking, meaningless universe.

Camus has an interesting take, but it misses the issue of mental health, which is one of the major underlying contributors to suicide. The blackness of depression is not a close relative of absurd recognition. It is a closer relative to a cancer eating away at the brain of its victim.

But people manufacture stories that explain suicide: survivors and victims alike do this. They have to, because humans need stories, and survivors want answers. So by his own logic, Camus' reasons for and against are just as good as any other story we tell ourselves, but I would caution people about accepting that extreme suffering must be a natural companion to life. There is something of the dialectic in Camus' reasoning, and--while suffering will no doubt come--it is not the necessary mainstay of life. Struggle, however, is the necessary mainstay of life, and it manifests itself in friction created by struggling--or 'revolt' as Camus puts it--between the acceptance of the emptiness of all things and the queer human desire for narrative.

The only reason I didn't start smoking in High School is that I realized I would never look as cool with a cigarette in my mouth as Albert Camus.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


He died while I was in my mid twenties, but up until about three or four years before his death, I viewed my maternal grandfather as an angry, disconnected, somewhat silly man. My only pleasant early memories of him are that he occasionally blew cigarette smoke into a bubble wand for us in his backyard. Other than that, he watched T.V., yelled at us for leaving half empty cans of Coca Cola around the house, and hated junk mail with a transcendent passion.

He was not the fun grandfather. The fun grandfather--a person who was and still is wonderfully supportive and engaged with me to this day--is my paternal grandfather.

But something changed when my son was born; because we were a poor, young couple who couldn't afford daycare, my grandmother agreed to watch our son while we went out and worked for virtually minimum wage. During that period, the craggy exterior of my grandfather softened, and he embraced our son with all of his heart. He loved my son with all of his heart, and I learned to love him in return for the love he gave to my son. He would call and ask us if his little buddy could come over and play on the days my grandparents weren't watching him. He was always purchasing little stuffed animals and toys for him, and made a ritual out of walking to the mailbox--that receptacle of the hated junk mail--with him. It was very cute to see them walk together.

My grandfather died of heart problems while my son was very young, but I am so glad they got to know each other, and I am so grateful that I got to see that side of my grandfather. Otis stands as my evidence that people are capable of growth. His relationship with my son is also my evidence that grace is real.

Recently I posted on my Facebook page that I believe humans between the ages of twenty and thirty and over the age of sixty are the ones who have the most promise; between twenty and thirty because of sheer propulsion, and over sixty because--if they haven't been hardened and made bitter by life--they have accumulated so much wisdom, and abandoned so much pointless ambition. My grandfather exemplified this truth.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

On Suicide Logic

I will never shoot myself. It's too messy, and leaves a traumatic scene for the person who finds you; likewise hanging and jumping from a considerable height. I will never poison myself, because it seems very uncomfortable, and the success of the endeavor is doubtful. I would consider drowning, if only I were able to be unconscious during the process, and out far enough into a large body of water to assure I would not wash up on the shore bloated and covered in sea stuff. The only scenarios in which I can see myself committing this act are if I became feeble enough to require constant caring for, or found myself in a state of chronic suffering that could not be assuaged.

Although we all think about it from time to time, we do not talk about suicide in our culture; that's why there is an increasing amount of it. I think there are good reasons to commit suicide. I also think there are understandable reasons to commit suicide. Most suicides fall into the 'understandable' category, but suicide logic is not healthy logic. Often, a suicidal person suffers from untreated or mistreated mental health issues and/or drug and alcohol abuse. These suicides are missing the full picture, and that's a tragedy.

We do not talk about suicide enough in our culture, so I'm going to talk about it. In the coming weeks I would like to use this blog to explore the reasons people choose suicide--maybe 'are compelled towards' is more accurate--and to see if maybe there are better reasons not to kill yourself available to a suicidal person weighing the pros and cons of that irreversible decision.

In a piece I wrote earlier this month entitled 'H.P. Lovecraft Furnishes Us With a Good Reason Not to Commit Suicide', I quoted the weird author on his decision not to kill himself in the face of the ultimate meaninglessness of life:
"And yet certain elements--notably scientific curiosity and a sense of world drama--held me back. Much in the universe baffled me, yet I knew I could pry the answer out of books if I lived and studied longer. Geology, for example. Just how did these ancient sediments and stratifications get crystallized and upheaved into granite peaks? Geography--just what would Scott and Shackleton and Borchgrevink find in the great white Antarctic or their next expeditions...which I could--if I wished--live to see described?"
Curiosity was enough of a carrot to keep him from hanging himself from the stick of nihilism.

And there are so many other reasons to commit to life instead of death in a world where there is no inherent meaning. We get to construct our own meaning. There are people to love. There are things to accomplish.

To a mind in a deep depression, I know all of the things I mentioned above seem horribly patronizing, almost to the point of parody. All I can do for a person in deep depression is to listen to them if they wish to talk, and to guide them towards appropriate treatment. To a person teetering in between places--and maybe even to a person in an extreme depressed state--having thought about suicide with an un-depressed mind and spirit may create a healthier context for them when they are in the darkness. William Styron talks about how he was budged out of his intention to commit suicide by hearing a song sung on a video tape one night as he sat in his living room contemplating his ultimate demise.

There are many other stories of people being saved and saving themselves from the brink of suicide. So let's mine those stories, and let's talk about our own stories openly and honestly. Repressed things only get uglier and angrier the more we do not talk about them. It's time to let suicide out of the bag and see what it looks like in the light of day.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Reviews I Wish I Had Gotten For My Book

“Jesus was the word made flesh: This book is the flesh made word. All you other writers can stop now. Spencer Troxell has won writing.” – The New Yorker

“We just finished reading our son’s book, and it turns out he was right about everything the whole time.”
–Spencer’s Parents

“After reading this book, we’re convinced that our daughter and grandchildren are in good hands. Also, it turns out Spencer was right about everything this whole time!” –Spencer’s Mother and Father-in-law

“Gahhh! It burns! No…not the razors! We never should have treated Spencer so badly! We were wrong! Oh no! Not the flesh eating worms! Gahh….” – Various Enemies, Naysayers, and Just Plain Jerks.

Get a copy of the book that these (and so many more!) imaginary reviewers are raving about here.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

It Is Finished.


I'm pretty proud of it. These are my best pieces of writing, and Andrew Wood's illustrations are phenomenal. Get yerself a copy already.

From the introduction, by Christian Thompson:

"This collection of essays comes to you from the mind of a gentleman who was willing to burn through the walls of bramble that made up his illusions in an (oftentimes painful) pursuit of survival, truth, and humanity. What results is an on going series of engagements of the heart and mind that were written specifically for us (the “dear readers” that I hope he never refers to us as).

It is here that you will find camaraderie among the underdogs of our culture that knit together like the fabric of a humanist flag. The pieces written are often like letters to old friends and have a way of offering an open hand to the reader while simultaneously challenging us. As we delve into the medicine cabinet, we’ll find reflections of illness, a strong stance for justice, and the sweetness of honesty and truth.
And it’s kinda funny. That too."
Get yerself a copy already.