Sunday, June 29, 2014

Gunning for the Past

On the heels of my reading about forgiveness and Kathyrn Schultz's TED Talk about regret, I decided to reread a book I first picked up in 2008--David Carr's The Night of the Gun (2008).

Carr is a well-known journalist who is also a recovering addict.  In his 20's and 30's, he struggled with a serious addiction to cocaine and, years later, he suffered from alcoholism as well.

His book, The Night of the Gun, is an interesting one.  Carr admits that he finds the genre of "junkie memoirs" distasteful, so his premise in writing his own memoir is a bit different.

Carr poses the fundamental question, how accurate is memory, really?  What does it mean to go back and tell the story of our own past, with all its sordidness, pain and regret, as if what we are relaying is necessarily "true"?  Given his own unreliable perspective, Carr opts to research his own past: to go back and find former friends, lovers and employers and document what they remember about him and about the episodes of his life.

The title of the book foregrounds this dilemma.  Carr clearly and distinctly remembers an incident from his past, when he got into a serious argument with a friend.  Carr remembers that when he subsequently showed up at the friend's apartment, the friend threatened him with a gun.

When he questions the friend about this episode twenty years later, however, the friend corrects him: it was Carr who showed up at the apartment with a gun.

Carr didn't know that he had ever owned or carried a gun.  As he remarks, "I am not a gun guy.  That is bedrock.  And that includes buying one, carrying one, and, most especially, pointing one" (11).

Carr argues that "walking over to my best friend's house with a gun jammed in my pants?  No chance.  That did not fit my story, the one about the white boy who took a self-guided tour of some of life's less savory hobbies before becoming an upright citizen" (11).

Imagine his surprise, then, when, in the process of interviewing another friend, that friend remembers how, when he arrived to pick Carr up that night, Carr sent him back to pick up some of his possessions from his apartment:
"I went back into your place once you'd taken off.  You sent me back to get a gun that you'd left there... [...] You were worried about the cops going through the place, and so you'd asked me to go back and get some things that you had stashed.  you had, I htink, a .38 special... I don't know where you got it." (14)
Carr thus wonders, "if I was wrong about the gun, what else was I wrong about?" (14).

Like most of us, he was wrong about quite a few things he remembered, because that is the way memory operates, even if you aren't drunk or high at the time that the events themselves have occurred.  And yet, memories shape our sense of ourselves--they are how we structure and organize our personal (and public) narratives and connect past to present.

What does it mean to have been a cocaine addict who eventually got clean, raised twin daughters as a single father, got married, and pursued a highly successful career as a journalist?  The meaning that Carr draws from his own story is shaped by his memory of what he did and how he changed.

And yet, that memory is highly unreliable.  Among other things Carr realizes as he researches his past, he discovers that he actually went to rehab 5 times, not 4, and that the perspective he had about his own sobriety as it unfolded at the time was by no means shared by others.

He knew he was a mess.  He didn't realize how much of a mess he actually was.  He knew his friends and family did their best to support him.  He didn't realize how much support, until he began to see his own life through their eyes, via the mechanism of shared memories.

In the end, Carr doesn't say a lot about regret, really, although it is one of the key underpinnings of the text.  He acknowledges that, when it comes time to interview his twin daughters, he is far more anxious and uncomfortable--because these are the episodes in which regret will be writ large.

As Carr points out, in the case of "the night of the gun," although the memory "lay between" them, he "didn't hold it against" his friend that he had, as Carr mistakenly thought, pointed a gun at him: his friend "was far from violent, and maybe I had it coming.  I doubt that he would have shot me no matter what I did" (12).

In the case of his daughters, however, the feelings are very different.  Carr admits that "[m]uch of the collateral damage that went with the life I chose landed on" one of his twin daughters.  The other daughter remembers a time when she and her two sisters ended up riding in a car with their father, who was intoxicated.
"We got in the car, and you seemed out of it, but I thought you were tired.  Maddie whispered to me, 'I think Dad's been drinking,'".  Maddie was eight years old at the time.  "I was like, 'No!  What are you talking about?  Shut up, don't say those things! That's not true.'  Meagan was like, 'I don't know, Erin, I'm a little nervous about it.'  We were still in New Jersey, I think only, like, twenty minutes from the house.  We had to pull into a gas station, and you didn't see an oncoming car, and we were, like, this close to hitting it.  That's when everyone knew for sure that you were just completely ass-faced drunk.  It was the most irresponsible thing you could ever do." (361)
As Carr acknowledges, "She is still pissed.  And I am still sorry" (361).

I think that, like Carr, everyone--whether they are recovering cocaine addicts or stone-cold sober teetotalers--has regrets like that, stemming from memories that they perceive very differently in hindsight or when viewed through the eyes of others.  Events that they know others are still pissed about and things that they are still--and always will be--sorry for.

In the end, I think that's what makes Carr's memoir of addiction and recovery relevant reading for all of us.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Each Day, and the Living of It"

"Each day, and the living of it, has to be a conscious creation in which discipline and order are relieved with some play and pure foolishness."
- May Sarton

I like to take morning bike rides in a park near where I live.  I miss these rides terribly in the winter, when it gets too cold (by my standards, anyway) to go out riding.  So I spend the spring, summer and fall taking advantage of every day that offers a chance to ride.

Being on my bike reminds me of what it was like to be 8 years old--even if my body is occasionally aware that 37 years have passed since that time.

There's an elderly woman who carries a walking stick and strolls through the park every morning.  She occasionally whistles and sings as she walks.  When the birds sing, she whistles a response.

Yesterday, she and the birds were carrying on a lengthy call-and-response.  I couldn't help but smile because it was clear they were "talking" to each other. 

This morning, as I rode by her, she smiled and stretched her arms wide and said, "What a day, what a day!"

It was a beautiful morning.

I hope that when I grow old, this is how I age: walking and singing with outstretched arms at the beauty of the day.

This weekend, I watched an interesting TED Talk by Kathryn Schulz entitled "Don't Regret Regret." 

I think that maybe this is what life is: a mingling of regret for the things that weren't, joy about the things that are, and hope for the things of the future.

Monday, June 23, 2014

East Meets Italy: Summer Love

This weekend was the summer solstice, as I'm sure you know, and we couldn't have asked for nicer weather.

The clematis finally bloomed.  Finally. 

I got up early Saturday morning to head into the city and run an errand.  Afterward, I swung by the local farmer's market and got all kinds of wonderful things-- specifically, I picked up a few really nice local cheeses: a smoked mozzarella and a fresh ricotta and an herbed goat cheese.

As I was leaving the park, the Indian restaurant's booth caught my eye.  Actually, it caught my nose.  Boy, they sure know how to pick a prime location--right by the entrance and exit to the market.  I almost succumbed to temptation, but then I thought, "You know, you actually HAVE the ingredients to make any kind of Indian food you'd like."

So I resisted and simply sped home.

And then I made a chicken korma.  Here are the onions, sauteing in all of those wonderful, wonderful spices (garam masala, turmeric, coriander).
And then, because I've been having problems with yogurt causing allergic reactions (I know, I know--yogurt?  but yes, yogurt, particularly the thick greek kind), I decided to simply leave it out and use only the requisite coconut milk instead.

It probably lacks a "layer" of flavor when you do this, but there's no help for it, and quite frankly, the result was pretty tasty.    Here it is, simmering away.

In case you're wondering what's lying there in it, that's a dried chili, a bay leaf and--somewhere in there-- there's also a cinnamon stick.  I don't like super-spicy, so I find if I add the chili that way, I get the flavor without having to worry that it will be so hot I can't enjoy it.

And speaking of enjoyment, I've waxed rhapsodic on more than one occasion about farro, so I decided that I'd get creative and have an east-meets-Italy combo.  Instead of rice, I cooked a pot of farro, and here's the final result, a perfect summer meal of chicken korma and farro.

And then, since I'd clearly made the segue to all things Italian, I decided to get working with those yummy cheeses.  I had a bunch of red and orange peppers that I needed to use up, so I roasted them.

I then made a ravioli filling of roasted red peppers, ricotta and smoked mozzarella.  Here is that little bit of lovely:
The only issue I ran into involved the whole wheat ravioli dough.  I used my machine to roll it out thin, but in fact, it needs to be a bit thicker because the filling is a little moist and it tended to soak through my thinly-rolled ravioli.

In short, I lost a few.  But I have a ton of filling and whole-wheat pasta dough is a snap to make, so here is the initial public offering, with more to follow later on today.  They're frozen and ready to be bagged.

And speaking of that, I also decided to seize the day and harvest several bunches of mint, lemon balm and sage, so those are now hanging and drying in a cool dry place, ready to be bagged up when they're dry and used in tea.

In short, it was a perfect summer weekend.  I managed a walk and a bike ride and some gardening and reading as well, so really, who can ask for anything more?

Keep it comin', Mother Nature.  We've waited out a lot of long, cold months for this kind of thing.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

"Realms of Unfathomed Nature"

I've been reading The Wild Trees (2007) by Richard Preston.  Preston is an excellent science journalist/writer who has a real knack for finding a story in the midst of seemingly uninspiring facts and phenomena.

This is particularly the case with The Wild Trees.  It's about the redwoods.  You'd think, "Okay the redwoods are something to see, certainly, but to read about?  Not so much...".  Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book, if only because the thing that most people probably don't know about the redwoods is that what makes them particularly fascinating is precisely what you don't see.

Preston focuses on the botanists and arborists who work in and with the redwoods and other large Douglas fir trees on the North Coast of California and Oregon.  Specifically, he describes the research that they conduct in the canopies of the trees themselves, hundreds of feet about the ground, and their quest to find the tallest redwoods in sections of forest that humans have not traversed for hundreds of years (if ever).

Preston describes the intricacy and complexity of the aerial ecosystem created by a redwood as it grows.  When its initial spire dies off--typically about midway in the tree's life--it sends out new trunks that branch out of the crown of the tree itself, and over time, these trunks put out more branches and more trunks, all extending outward and upward to the sky.

So what you see on the ground, is not at all what you will see if you climb the tree itself.  As Preston describes,
With the passing of centuries, the extra trunks begin to touch one another here and there.  The trunks and branches of a redwood can fuse and flow together like Silly Putty melting into itself.  The bases of the extra trunks bloat out and become gnarled masses called buttresses.  In the crowns of the largest redwoods, bridges of living redwood are flung horizontally from trunk to trunk and from limb to limb.  This cross-links the crown and strengthens it, in much the same way that flying buttresses support the structure of a cathedral.  As a redwood gets very old, its crown spreads out, until it can look like a thunderhead coming to a boil. (21)
Destruction by the occasional fire only adds to the complexity.  A redwood that has been burned in a fire might have "blackened chambers, holes, and rooms in the tree" called "fire caves."   Preston notes,
even riddled with fire caves, a redwood can grow back.  It drops off its charred buttresses and burned trunks, or it sends living wood flowing up around them, and it continues to send out new trunks, until the tree has become a three-dimensional maze in the air, with a complexity that comes close to defeating the human mind's ability to understand it. (21)
Preston interweaves his story of the redwoods' complexity with a narrative of the various complex individuals who have made it their life's work to explore and study these trees.  And--because it's Preston--he makes sure to include the grim and the gruesome, in answer to the question that he knows every reader will have, whether s/he admits it or not: "What happens if they fall?"

As Preston points out, typically, anyone who falls a distance of more than 50 feet will die.  The landing might break the person's spine or neck or it will cause massive internal bleeding--in at least one case, the fall from a tree ruptured a worker's aorta.

Arborists have a jargon for objects falling from a tree.  They will call out "headache" to let other climbers know if something is falling from the tree (because falling objects pose a distinct danger themselves) and the refer to falling from a tree itself as "cratering" or "taking a dive into a dirt nap" (100).

Preston describes the experience of a tree climber--Kevin Hillery--who fell 90 feet and miraculously survived.  In Hillery's case, luck was on his side: as he was falling, he managed to twist his body in midair, so that he was falling face downward, and he put his left arm across his body as he landed.  And perhaps most importantly, he landed in what is known as "duff," "a deep layer of spongy material" that is "a natural mattress, soft and slightly bouncy" (110).

Oddly enough, all of these things protected him: turning his body and clawing at the air raised his head up and putting his arm across his body protected his neck from the impact.  (In figure-skating, you're taught that when you fall, you should throw your arms up over your head--the simple gesture will pull your body upward just enough that your head won't strike the ice, preventing a possible concussion.  It's easier said than done, of course, and takes a bit of practice.  One figure-skater I know told me, "It's much easier to remember to do it after your first concussion.")

In Preston's narrative of risk-takers and thrill-seekers, however, there is a strong sense of environmental purpose.  As he points out, "The forest canopies of the earth are realms of unfathomed nature, and they are vanishing" (34) and "[t]he forest canopies of the earth are believed to hold roughly half of all species in nature.  No one knows, exactly, because no one has a clear idea of how many species actually exist on the earth" (35).

In the end, the botanists who climb redwoods and other tall trees are committed to exploring "earth's secret ocean ... inhabited by many living things that don't have names... [that] are vanishing before they have even been seen by human eyes" (35).

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Bike Ride, A Barbecue, and A Song

The title says it all.  A beautiful day, and a favorite tune. 

Happy Father's Day, everyone!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Hiatus and Happiness

I've been in an odd frame of mind for the past month.  I've barely read anything.

This is not like me.  In fact, I can only think of one other time--the summer after I finished my Ph.D.--when I went through a similar phase.

I started off great-guns in May, with a pile of books that I was all set to work my way through, and then little by little, listlessness drifted in, and I've set them all aside, even though I can't say that I'm not actually enjoying them--when I pick them up and read them.

I'm also finding it hard to get motivated to write.  I look at pages I've written and think, "oh, yes, I can fix that a bit..." or think, "Oh, I need to write that up..." but then the thought trails off and I just don't feel like doing it.

But I don't mind gardening and knitting and biking and swimming, so I don't think it's run-of-the-mill laziness taking over.  I find myself paying attention to small things--things that are said or done or felt in small-scale ways--instead of feeling the need to push through to something "more."

I think some of it may be the after-effect of a very cold winter marked by all kinds of ill health on my part.  I had more health problems this winter than in many a winter past--than ever, actually--and I think there's a part of me that is just enjoying feeling good and enjoying life without all kinds of pressure to accomplish something "substantive."

I also think I've simply had a busy year.  I did a lot of work last summer and during the academic year--several substantial projects, several new courses to teach--and I think I'm feeling like, "enough!" for a bit.  Time to slow down and take it all in.

I'm rationalizing the reading part of it by claiming that, in another month or two, it'll be too hot to do anything except read, so I'll catch up on it then.

But will I?  I kind of think that I simply haven't found an idea that fuels and fires my thinking and makes me want to read more, so I'm simply paging through things, waiting for that to happen.

I've found small bits that have interested me.  Like this picture that appeared on The Greater Good website.

You may have seen it already: last fall, an angry mob of bikers attacked a man in an SUV, dragged him from the car and began beating him in front of his wife and 2-year-old child. 

The man whose image is circled didn't know what had happened.  He simply knew that no one else was doing anything, so he stepped in and told the attackers to "stop it" and "let it go."

I've been thinking a lot about this image because what he did in a moment so terrifying was so surprisingly simple.  A few simple words stopped a scene of escalating violence, and reminded the attackers of ... their humanity.

I've been thinking that maybe that's the best thing we can do for each other sometimes: offer reminders of our own humanity when life gets crazy.  It's such a rare gift to be able to stop in the midst of the insanity and see what really matters--and what doesn't.

I like this 2004 TED Talk by Matthieu Ricard, a former molecular biologist who is now a Buddhist monk.  It's entitled, "The Habits of Happiness."


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Full Moon Thursday

It hasn't been a very eventful week.  I cleaned the house on Tuesday, but in a way, that was a bit of an event because I had actually let it get rather... bad.  It tends to get to that point more quickly than it used to, now that I have 3 shedding kitty cats.  I tend to blame it on them, because those fur-balls swirling around the corners of the living room aren't mine, they just aren't.  In response, they tend to point their paws at the tortilla chip-bits littering the floor all around the kitchen table, because those, well, those are mine, actually.

I went strawberry-picking, and the daquiris were quite nice, thank you.

I had my gutters cleaned.  That's not a euphemism for anything, I simply had the gutters on my house cleaned.

Today, I swam a mile and a quarter.  You wouldn't think those measly extra laps would count for that much, but I've been nearly dozing off all afternoon.  I hadn't been swimming in about a week: I've been biking instead.  But today was dreary and drizzly, and so, it was time to dive back in.  (Or sit on the edge of the pool and then hop in, if you want a more realistic description of the re-entry.)

The other morning, I got one of those horrible early-morning cramps in my leg.  If you've never experienced one, consider yourself blessed.  You wake up, stretch your leg and... SHIT.  Majorly painful cramp in your calf.  You can't walk it off, you can't rub it out, all you can do is curse and desperately hold on until it's over.

I used to get them almost daily (talk about a living hell), but lately, I haven't had one for a while.  (I didn't miss them.)  I've read it's "a potassium imbalance," I've read that it's "an electrolyte imbalance," I've read, "no one really knows what causes them." 

Anyway, the stupid things not only hurt at the time that they happen, but they cause my calf muscle to hurt for days afterward.  That seems truly unfair.  Anyway, I decided I would try to "swim it out."  (It didn't really work.)

I'm making a lemon ginger brew.  (This has nothing to do with the leg cramp, I've moved on to a new story.)  My house smells quite gingery right now: I have a recipe that uses this brew with strawberries, so that's what I'm going to try, eventually.

I noticed the Weather Channel's webpage is counting down the days until summer.  This completely confused me, because they posted the "First Day of Summer" Weather Forecast, and I thought, "Wait, what DAY is this?"  When I don't teach, it can be rather difficult to tell one Thursday (or Monday or Friday) from another.  I briefly thought I had lost an entire week, but no, it's still a week away.  

I think if you're counting down to the solstice, well, that seems a bit odd.  Harmless, but odd.  And on that note...

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Plan

I went strawberry-picking a few hours ago.  Can you guess what the plan for this evening is?

Here's a hint.

And a little Lifehouse to go with it.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Forgiveness Too

I've been reading Archbishop Desmond Tutu's, The Book of Forgiving (2014).  It's an overview and a "handbook," if you will, to help readers comprehend and embrace the act of forgiveness.

On the one hand, I think it's quite interesting, and it's not at all surprising to me that it's garnered all kinds of acclaim and support from people like Oprah and various other celebrities.  There's a "30-Day Forgiveness Challenge" that you can sign up for: you'll receive inspirational email messages each day and additional guidance working through the various exercises listed at the end of each chapter of The Book of Forgiving.

Okay, so now you probably understand why I'm also rather ambivalent about this book.  I don't disagree that if people are "stuck" in a cycle of hatred and retaliation and anger, they're going to need help thinking about and moving through that to get to a more positive way of engaging with others and with the world around them.

That said, I'm at the point at which I would give my eye-teeth to encounter a book about forgiveness that doesn't reference the example of Christ as one we should all aspire to.

I'm sorry, no.  I just can't.  I'm HUMAN.  Anger is a human emotion.  It isn't necessarily a bad thing, and personally, I think that any book about forgiveness that defaults to a religious doctrine isn't going to reach the (many) atheists among us.

In my own case, I remember being extremely hurt by various things that my mom said and did during and after my dad's death.  It was a really painful time for everyone, but in the same vein, my mom behaved towards me in ways that were simply not kind.

It was overwhelmingly frustrating to me that nearly everyone I met, when I began to talk about how I felt about what she had said and done, would interrupt and tell me, "Well, but you shouldn't be mad about that.  She can't help it.  You have to forgive her and move on."

By the end of several months, I was furious and positively seething inside.  It really bothered me that I was not allowed to say how I felt--because for whatever reason, my anger made people upset--and that I was  not "allowed" to feel angry.

Finally, one night, I made myself a promise.  I told myself I could be as angry as I pleased about what happened, and if I wanted to be mad about it all day and accomplish nothing for weeks or months on end, that was fine.

The only stipulation I set on myself was, each night before I went to bed, I had to tell myself out loud, "What happened is over."

My anger quickly dissipated.  This is a point that Tutu makes that I think is very compelling: to move towards forgiveness, the injured need to tell their stories and name the ways in which they've been hurt.

I think that, in American culture, we've become reluctant to allow this to happen on a day-to-day and personal level, although we extol it for victims of crime and political oppression.  In our own day-to-day interactions, we get defensive and tell people they need to "forgive and move on."

But as Tutu points out, forgiveness is work.  It takes time.  One thing I did like about the book is, Tutu would agree that the kind of behavior I characterized as "forgiveness bullying," in which we simply "pretend it didn't happen" or offer "non-apologies," is actually not forgiveness.

So what is forgiveness?  How can we forgive?  Tutu admits that there aren't any easy answers, but as I said, he tends to default to a Christian conception that I personally can't wholeheartedly embrace.  And yet, while I acknowledge the purging and cleansing effects of anger (and maybe the small act of retaliatory spite--you know, the kind that teaches people, "Hey, don't mess with me,"), I don't think there's any benefit to living in anger and hostility, nursing the wrongs that were done to you and carrying grudges that swell over the course of a lifetime like rolling snowballs.

I did find an interesting article by Linda Graham about "How to Overcome Barriers to Forgiveness" (May 13, 2014).  Basically, people resist moving towards forgiveness if they're not ready for it, if they still feel a strong need for self-protection, and if they have concerns about saving face.

Interestingly enough, if you resort to forgiveness when you're not ready for it, it will fail.  In my own experience, I can testify to this.  In the months after my mom died, I dealt with a serious betrayal by a person I had considered a friend.  He wanted me to forgive him.  I tried and tried, and just couldn't.

I wasn't ready.  I don't know if I am today either, but I know that his behavior doesn't mean the same thing to me now as it did then.  As Graham points out, the adage, "Time heals all wounds" is an adage because it contains a measure of psychological wisdom: you need to leave the situation alone, and let time run its course and then see where you are.

We don't do that, typically.  I do remember at the time that all of this happened just wishing this person would "leave me alone"--simply talk to me about the weather, send an email to say "hello, hope you had a good week," and leave it alone.  If he had, I think we'd be friends today.  Instead, I felt pressured to say, "Okay, it's fine," when no, it wasn't okay, and it wasn't fine.

I think that I also felt pressure because of "face" concerns.  A falling-out can be a humiliating thing, and it always feels like failure.  When you've been betrayed, you feel a strong need to "save face" in front of others--to pretend that things still are what you thought they were.

In The Book of Forgiving, Tutu cites the wisdom of comedian Lily Tomlin, "Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past."

The last barrier is one that, I think, is at the root of my unease with Christian conceptions of forgiveness: self-protection.

We tend to resist forgiveness if we feel we need to protect ourselves--if we suspect that reengaging with the person will lead to our being hurt in the same way again.

Call me a misanthrope, but I think the self-protection thing is just good, plain common sense.  In my own case, I don't "suspect" I'll be hurt again, I'm 100% certain of it.  If people show no sign of acknowledging what they did and dealing with the truth of the situation openly and honestly, if everything they say or do is marked by an attitude of "Well, but..." and "You know, you...", then they aren't in the interpersonal space that can lead to forgiveness.

Because in the end, as Tutu points out, "an exchange of stories ... if done with total honesty" can be the source of "great understanding and healing between the two people" (81).  But this can't happen if there isn't an honest acknowledgement of responsibility--"The truth prevents us from pretending that the things that happened did not happen" (73).

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sisyphus Reimagined

I posted about this several years ago.   It's an idea I'm thinking about again, and an excerpt from article I'm hoping to complete someday soon, so I'm (re)sharing it here and now.

                In The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus writes, “One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness” (122).  In his national bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness (2006), Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert initially appears to have succumbed to this existential temptation; however, Gilbert is quick to warn his readers that “this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy” (xvi).  Instead, what Gilbert offers is “a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy” (xvii).

                The ability to predict happiness and the options available for an enjoyable future are central concerns in Albert Camus’s early fiction and philosophy.  In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus invokes the famous Greek myth of a man condemned to pointless labor as an index against which to measure the possibilities for human ecstasy in the face of existential agony.  In The Stranger, Meursault’s flat emotional affect masks a profound enjoyment of the nuances of everyday existence: in his prison cell, he remarks with his characteristic simplicity, “Maman used to say that you can always find something to be happy about.  In my prison, when the sky turned red and a new day slipped into my cell, I found out that she was right” (113).  In The Plague (1947), Dr. Bernard Rieux confronts the horrifying abstraction of the plague’s random and senseless decimation of human life with the realization that, whenever such abstractions appear stronger than human happiness, one must simply become a bit of an abstraction oneself.  Rieux realizes that in these moments, human imagination can only harm those who try to envision the possibility of future happiness; in such situations, one finds strength only by remaining grounded in the source of one’s pain.

                In much of his thinking about happiness and its possibilities, Camus overtly reconsiders and reconfigures one of the pessimistic conclusions of Arthur Schopenhauer, namely, that we are all fellow-prisoners in the penal colony known as life.  At stake is the question of how we can—or should—imagine ourselves and our circumstances if we want to be happy.  Should we operate in a state of blissfully determined ignorance and delusion, or should we renounce the comforts of such illusory optimism for a clear-sighted confrontation of life’s all-too-frequent pain and sorrow?  Our potential answers will ultimately determine the interrelationship of past, present and future in the explanatory continuum that we construct.  If we are pessimistic and refuse to hope, such pessimism is more often than not a testimony to our unwillingness to let go of the past—we prefer to learn from experience and, more importantly, to apply that learning to our present and future states so that it not only shapes who we are, but who we are willing to envision ourselves becoming.  If we remain optimistic, we look to the future, unwilling to grant either the past or the present a decisive influence over who we could one day become.  In both cases, imagination plays a crucial role in what we do with—and to—the time of our life.

                According to Gilbert, however, imagination is a flawed predictor of past, present and future realities, for three reasons.  In the first place, imagination tends “to fill in and leave out without telling us”—because we cannot “imagine every feature and consequence of a future event … we must consider some and fail to consider others” (247).  The consequences of what we leave out when imagining the future can be enormous.  Thus, nearly everyone imagines what life would be like after winning the lottery, but very few imagine life in the wake of a diagnosis of terminal cancer—even though the number of people who will succumb to the latter far outweighs the number of those who will experience the former.  This leads to what Gilbert identifies as the “second shortcoming” of imagination: it tends “to project the present onto the future,” to use current realities to fill in the details that are missing from our imagined tomorrow (248).  Lastly, imagination fails “to recognize that things will look different once they happen” and, even more interestingly, that “bad things will look a whole lot better” than we might imagine precisely because we have failed to imagine the changing circumstances and emotional adjustments that will necessarily accompany them (250).  According to Gilbert, evidence shows that “inescapable circumstances trigger the psychological defenses that enable us to achieve positive views of those circumstances, but we do not anticipate that this will happen” (202). 

This psychological adjustment to inescapable circumstances is repeatedly represented in the situations of Camus’ besieged protagonists and their respective searches for happiness: in fact, it is essential to the definition of happiness that Camus connects with his definition of the absurd.  As he suggests in The Myth of Sisyphus, “[h]appiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth” (122).  This adjustment is central to the wisdom of Meursault’s mother (“you can always find something to be happy about”), and it is a truth that Meursault will find confirmed in the circumstances of his life as a man condemned to death.  It is also the logic behind Rieux’s slow adjustment to the horrors of the advancing plague: as he notes, “[o]ne grows tired of pity when pity is useless,” and thus, “[i]n the sensation that his heart was slowly closing in on itself, the doctor found the only consolation for these crushing days.”  

                For his part, Gilbert suggests that the solution to the problem of individual happiness is “surrogation”: a willingness to defer to the perceptions and experiences of others as a benchmark against which to measure the possibilities for our own future enjoyment.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Gilbert acknowledges that this potential solution to the problem of predicting future happiness flies in the face of our inclinations precisely because it challenges our overwhelming need to think of ourselves as incredibly unique individuals.  As Gilbert suggests, we know our own mental states—our thoughts and feelings—in a way that is vastly different from the ways in which we know or infer the thoughts and feelings of others.  Moreover, “we enjoy  thinking of ourselves as special” and “prize our unique identities” to such an extent that “we tend to overestimate our uniqueness” because we “overestimate everyone’s uniqueness—that is, we tend to think of people as more different from one another than they actually are” (254). 

                In the characters of Meursault and Rieux, Camus represents individuals who eschew imagination when examining the possibility of happiness in the face of inordinately difficult circumstances.  In effect, Meursault and Rieux represent Sisyphus reimagined.  In envisioning the unending ordeal of Sisyphus, Camus focuses on the moment when, having momentarily completed his labor, Sisyphus watches as it is once again undone, as it always will be—as the rock rolls back downhill, Sisyphus knows that he must descend in order to begin the struggle all over again.  Camus ultimately argues that, “[i]f the descent is … sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy” because Sisyphus owns his own fate (121): thus, Camus insists, “[o]ne must imagine Sisyphus happy” (123).

Monday, June 2, 2014

Mid-Year Memes and Musings

As always around this time of the year, I find myself reflecting on what's gone before (since I finally have time to breathe and to think), and on what I'd like to change for the remainder of the year.

I've been reading a lot of psychology articles about personalities--in particular, the group known as "energy vampires."  People who suck the very life out of you--and out of your life.

As you'll notice from the meme to the right, I've learned that "it's okay to say no to unnecessary crazy," and I've posted the meme here to remind myself of that on a daily basis.  Because I tend to forget, and I'm easily drawn in by what initially appear to be minor situations that then have a strange tendency to escalate into full-blown drama.

I'm often left sitting and staring at an email, wondering, "Wait, what?  How did this... I mean... it isn't really... that important...".  And yet, there it is.  DRAMAANGST.  And the churning stomach that accompanies them.

Clearly, I'm missing the cues, and I want to get better at picking up on them before I find myself in a mess, rather than afterward.

And this means I need to say "no" earlier and probably a bit more often than I currently do.

I found this online quiz interesting.  It helped me think through my situation.  On the one hand, I have a pretty strong "emotional capacity" in general.  A tendency towards self-reflection is a key component of one's emotional capacity and if nothing else, this blog testifies to that.  I also have a good job, good education, and strong friendships with healthy and well-balanced people.

So you think I wouldn't get sucked in at all, right?

But it turns out that, like most people with a pretty strong emotional capacity, I also have my down-days.  There have been times when I've had a lot of work, chaos, and health-crises in my life, and these are times when I'm more vulnerable--as most people are or would be.

And this is typically when the energy-draining people begin to become problematic.  Relationships that I may have been managing or tolerating just fine when my emotional capacity was high, quickly spiral into insanity and exhaustion when my own capacity is diminished.

When you look at the quiz's questions for assessing an "energy vampire," you realize, wow.  That is NOT someone I would want in my life.  And in a way, although energy vampires are often unconscious of what they're doing--they don't necessarily realize how truly draining they are--they are also aware that you wouldn't want them in your life, if you knew what they were like.  So they don't pile on to a person right out of the gate.  They groom their "friends," and then the demands begin.

In short, once they have their hooks in you, it's harder to get away.  And they bring a LOT of unnecessary crazy in their wake.  So you have to leave.

I also discovered several articles about the psychology of apologizing that helped me feel even more justified in saying no to unnecessary crazy and the type of personality I've called "forgiveness bullies."

Non-apologies avoid initiating a request to talk, avoid directly addressing what happened, and lack sincerity in--or simply avoid--admitting that the person did something wrong.  They use "I'm sorry" or "I apologize" as a way of getting out of further discussion.  They frequently reference (allegedly) good intentions as a way of sidestepping responsibility and they include words like "if" (I'm sorry IF you felt...) and "but" (I'm sorry BUT I just thought...).

I had an experience recently that, while unpleasant, has become a great way for me to remember two very important things: 1) say no to unnecessary crazy, and 2) non-apologies don't cut it.

Several years ago, I had a serious (and I mean, serious) falling out with someone I had considered a very good friend.  I haven't spoken to her in almost 2 years now--and quite frankly, I haven't wanted to.

At the time, I told her very explicitly what I found upsetting about her behavior and why, and that I didn't want to be in touch with her anymore and no longer considered her a friend.  I was quite clear.  She had betrayed my trust, lied to me to my face, and talked about me behind my back in ways that ended up causing me serious problems that took months for me to straighten out.

She thought I wouldn't find out, but in fact, I caught her at it.  It wasn't even like I heard about it from someone else--I straight-up caught her doing it

So, needless to say, we haven't spoken in a while.  Two weeks ago, she suddenly started beeping the horn at me when she saw me.

I couldn't believe it.  She actually followed me to the park one day, and literally drove by me, beeping the horn, to get my attention.  I think she wanted me to come over and say "hi."  I really don't know.

As I told my best friend, I just stared at her.  I'm quite certain that, at one point, my mouth was hanging open.

All I could think was, "This person is treating me like I'm a... pet... or something."  Like, she beeps the horn and I'm supposed to... what, exactly?  Clap my wee hands and scamper over, eager to re-start our so-called friendship, because, oh goody!  she's back.  I was so hoping!  I finally got the last mess she created straightened out and my life is calm, quiet and happy, so this is perfect timing--is that it?   

One of my friends said, "She did that?  That's f**ked up."  To which I say, yes, indeed.  It's "unnecessary crazy," in a nutshell, announcing itself as such.  And I'm quite certain that horn-beeping is a form of non-apology.

Several days later, I found the following internet meme and, while memes are often cliched and cheesy, I can't help but like them sometimes.  And this one, like the "unnecessary crazy" one, I find useful.  It summarizes all of the many ways of interacting with other people that lead to genuine friendships and productive relationships.

It's a reminder of all the ways that life can be lived without unnecessary crazy.