Sunday, January 3, 2021

A Stoic Alternative to "God Willing"

  Fear of future loss is a lingering effect of past loss. This is normal, and a total bummer. In mid-March 2020 I was home, and just trying to psych myself up to live and adapt to “the new normal.” But the previous normal had just been stolen from me; why would I be so foolish as to establish a new one? Why be a sucker and lose myself again in the illusion of stability and control? My grief and anxiety gave birth to protective rage and despair, which refused to acclimate to the world, and refused to feel OK in it.

I made tentative peace with this life and this world-- we’ll see how it goes, pending future hardship, pending future decisions about psychiatric medication. Philosophically, I made this peace through two insights: (1) by re-focusing my work, as I discussed on April Fool’s; (2) by developing my own take on Stoic spiritual exercises related to gratitude and loss.

Regarding #2, here are the moves:

1) Whether there’s a god or not, it’s amazing that anything (including us) exists.

2) Given my lack of belief in a god, that amazement stems from an emotional awareness of how unlikely the natural/human/industrial world feels.

3) Can you feel that? How unlikely all of this is? How many myriad ways none of this (or a radically different version of all this) could have come to pass?

4) Given the unlikelihood of any particular scenario, it’s even more amazing (or rather, ridiculous) that we, as agents, take for granted that we can make and execute plans. 


Let’s take a brief interlude to note how my thought-process would have diverged if, at step #2, the ‘given’ was a belief in a god:

2b) Given my belief in a god, that amazement stems from the awareness that all things proceed from god’s will.

3b) Can you feel that? How being just one creature in a god’s creation leads to these feelings of personal significance and insignificance?

4b) Given the power of a god’s will, it’s wild that we, as agents, take any confidence or comfort in our own wills.

The conclusion of this religious line of thought: We should always remember to humble ourselves before the divine will. One way to do that would be to affix the addendum “God Willing” any time we dare to plan or hope for the future.


The atheist has no such ‘out’ to this problem of personal powerlessness. The believer may humble themselves, but they ultimately find comfort and perhaps reassurance through connection to an actually effective will (a god’s) in the universe. Secular-seeming alternatives like “if the universe wants” or “if the fates allow” still project (at least grammatically) some higher, effective agency.

So, what’s the truly atheistic alternative? To hold on to our amazement at the unlikelihood of any/all things, and therefore to make all plans and hopes with an appreciation for the sheer comedy/absurdity of daring to desire. I suggest this: That we affix the addendum “as unlikely as that sounds”* to our hopes and plans. Because, really, this is all so unlikely! Let’s be amazed and appreciative of any good we get, and assume that it’s not ours to possess. We can still dare to desire, but without the foolishness of presuming control or possession.

I really hope these thoughts serve me as the future unfolds. Through stability and instability, I want to live gracefully-- as unlikely as that sounds.

*(If this sounds like a bummer to you, please note that it’s way less dark than previous drafts, which included “if we don’t die first,” “not that it matters,” or “not that the world cares.”)

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Mourning Dove

When the pandemic and the shutdown first started in NYC, I found myself (ok, we all found ourselves, but this is my story) at home and idle in the morning, during the time when I would have been commuting. While the early days in NYC could get very loud with sirens, there were also periods of silence, which could feel peaceful or off-putting, in the same way that the idleness could be relaxing or distressing. Sitting around in that idleness and silence, I started noticing a new bird sound with a pleasing lilt, like hoo-hoooo

 A confession, one in which I’m assuming I’m not alone: when I think of animal life in NYC, I think only of pigeons and rats. Since moving to Washington Heights three years ago I’ve added skunks (thankfully, just that one on Overlook) and groundhogs (I live close to Fort Tryon Park), but really it’s just pigeons and rats. Hearing this clearly-not-a-pigeon sound, it felt a little magical-- what, some new mystery bird? That I hadn’t noticed it until the pandemic shutdown felt significant, but I couldn’t say why. Three years of not noticing this bird sound, and now, in such a time as this, my ears finally pick it up. And so a new pattern emerged, of sitting in my living room each morning, and at some point hearing this bird. This was a period in which I had become severely depressed due to the personal/social crisis at hand, and hearing that bird was always a bittersweet part of the day, which was a relief from other periods of unrelenting bitterness. 

 After a month, I finally started wondering what kind of bird it was. I spent some time on YouTube poking around, which was fruitless, until I remembered a new Facebook friend, someone I’d met at a dinner party a few months before the shutdown. I described the phenomenon to him, and he immediately knew: my mystery bird was a mourning dove!

 As someone who loves words and wordplay, the homophones of “mourning” and “morning” struck me. This had been my “morning” bird; but why was it a “mourning” bird? A little Googling, and I read that others hear the sound of mourning in this bird’s noises. I can hear how they hear that, but I was annoyed at this unbidden meaning-- previously, I had just heard the sound of the bird, this sorta sweet, mellow hoo-hooo, and that’s all it was to me, a lovely sound. Now I felt this social pressure to hear mourning in it and, especially during a time of such great pain and anguish and loss in the city, I didn’t want this bird sound to be piled on to that experience. The sirens were a much more immediate and obvious symbol; why not just let the bird sound be what it was, a sound?

 Soon after, I was bird-watching on the benches at Bennett Rest, and I was able to pick out the mourning doves from the pigeons. Seeing them, it felt easier to separate them from this meaning of “mourning”-- nothing about the bird’s appearance (and, to me, nothing about their sound) automatically suggested mourning. I was able to shrug off this “mourning” meaning further when I found out that my partner, who’d only heard me talk about the bird, had been hearing me say “morning” dove. To us, it simply was a “morning dove,” and we could leave it that way if we wanted, since there’s no spelling in talking. 

 All of the above happened in April and May of this year. This past month, I had the (privileged) opportunity to leave the city for a week, and to vacation in a house deep in the woods. It was very, very quiet there-- well, actually, there was often a nonstop chorus of crickets (or cicadas? A further confession-- I really have very little nature literacy), but compared to the city, nature’s cacophony can sound pretty damn peaceful, right? I enjoyed the time away from work, away from wearing a mask outside, and just away from all the ways I associate civilization with our current crisis. I was still aware that this was just a vacation, and that I would need to brace myself for the transition back home. 

 The transition started on the second-to-last day of the trip, when I was outside in the afternoon, and heard a mourning dove. Damn classical conditioning! Immediately I felt uneasy, feeling echoes of that person last spring who sat helplessly in an apartment while illness raged across the city. Despite my desire to leave this bird and its sounds free of imposed meanings, I couldn’t help it-- the bird reminded me of (what I’ve noticed many of us are calling) “all this.” Dammit. Damn. It’s just a bird and a lovely sound! Must it be “mourning”? Must it remind me of my own mourning? I don’t want it to be this heavy, complicated thing, bundled with associations of anxiety and desperation. I want it to be light and simple and pleasant, like the sound of the bird. I worried that my return to the city would be a return to the overpowering weight of the crisis mindset, and this small sound was calling me back.

 Fortunately I’ve had (the privilege of) some good therapy, social support, and psychiatric medication over the last five months, and my return to the city did not trigger a relapse. I haven’t heard a mourning dove since I got back, but I look forward to it. I think back to the one I heard in the woods, and how it wasn’t a city bird, and therefore was far from (where I associate with) the pandemic. And, of course, neither the city mourning dove nor the mountain mourning dove are aware of the pandemic, or my associations, or their own name. But I am, and so when I hear the mourning dove again, I expect it to feel very close to me, and very far away.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Death does not defile, neither does water purify.

            This morning I attended a wonderful virtual talk hosted by Hadar and given by one of my favorite former classmates, Dena Weiss. She spoke about this week’s Torah portion Hukkat, through the lens of commentary from the Pesikta derav Kahana 36a (to learn more about this book, ask someone else please!). One line from the commentary has stuck with me all day and, well, I’m enjoying a wild insight I’m having about it.

            First, about the parsha and the commentary: In Hukkat, we read the law of the red heifer, an animal which is sacrificed, burned to ashes, and then those ashes are used to purify those who have been made ritually impure by contact with the dead. It’s a famously bizarre law, and in the commentary, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is asked about it. First he gives an answer that normalizes the ritual but when pressed further by his students he says:
            “Death does not defile, nor does water purify, but it is the decree of the Holy One, blessed be He, who declared, ‘I have issued an ordinance and enacted a decree, and you are not permitted to question my decree.” 

Death does not defile nor does water purify.

            What a line! I’m obsessed with this line! It’s been in my head all day. So here are some levels of significance I find in it (with my advance apologies both to Dena Weiss and Rabbi Yochanan, as I am sure that my own thoughts will be spiraling further and further away from the intentions and meanings of Rabbinic thought).

Ok, here we go:

1) On the intended level, I believe (and Dena explained to us this morning) Rabbi Yochanan is saying that ritual purity is an arbitrary thing, something that exists by decree rather than in any natural sense. Ritual purity and impurity are symbolic at best, and so if it doesn’t make sense, don’t worry, it wasn’t logical in the first place.

2) Now then, let’s approach this text more loosely. When I read “defile,” I think “ruins.” And in that sense, yeah, death defiles! It totally defiles. Closeness with death leaves an impact on us. It can certainly kill a mood, or an appetite. In a physical-experiential sense, contact with death defiles, and can leave us seeking some way to remove that feeling. And similarly, water totally purifies! In a literal sense, it cleanses, but again in a physical-experiential sense, it refreshes. I take a shower, and I feel new. So, even without “God’s” proclamations about ritual purity and impurity, I think there’s an instinctive human sense that death does defile, and water does purify. 

3) Follow me as I really co-opt this text for my own purposes. Now that we’ve established that death does defile and water does purify, what would it mean to insist that they don’t? Here’s where I go all atheist-misanthropic on you-- death doesn’t ruin life; it’s f**king built into life! Death ruins life the way that dish-washing ruins a good meal-- it’s like, sure, it ruins you if you’re spoiled. Gonna bring this rant up a notch-- death is a big deal because we make it a big deal, because, well, we are meaning-making animals, so making things into big deals is what we do. But, in terms of life as a whole, death’s a piece of it, and it doesn’t defile. The same goes for water-- it only has meaning in a human world; otherwise, it’s just another element that does its thing, and sometimes does its things with other things. Tl;dr: Death doesn’t defile because defilement is a human construct; water doesn’t purify because purity is a human construct. 

4) And now let’s return to these practices around ritual purity and impurity. If death doesn’t defile and water doesn’t purify, then why do them? If everything is meaningless, then why do meaningful acts? Well, I’ll refer you to #2 above-- whether or not there’s meaning in the universe, we seem to see/carry it anyhow! Death doesn’t defile, but it sure feels like it does. Water doesn’t purify, etc. And that’s why “God” decrees all of this.

5) Ok, one last step-- there is no God, just like there is no ultimate meaning. In that case, “God” represents our passionate attempt/insistence that life has meaning, because that’s how we work; it’s how we get by. The decrees of “God” (our projections of meaning) matter because we need meaning, whether it’s “out there” or not (it isn’t). We can navigate life better when we have narratives of defilement and purification (or your choice of two more updated terms related to downfall and redemption, etc). 

Death defiles -- death does not defile -- death defiles.
Water purifies -- water does not purify -- water purifies.

Or to put it another way: First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

April Fool’s 2020 - The Folly of Mental Health

            Good afternoon and welcome to my 15th annual April Fool’s observance. My talk today is on “The Folly of Mental Health.” 

            Would you believe that my observance of this holiday started with a mental health episode? In spring of 2005 I was in my last semester of college, and learning a lot of Hegel and Heidegger, and the paradoxes of human life were really blowing my mind. Then on April 1st…. I felt like I could see, I could understand, I could truly appreciate how life was made up of tensions that we must hold rather than solve, how each individual life exists as both complete and incomplete, how we must be both bold and humble, how we were mortal and our possibilities were endless. It was very exciting!
            It was too exciting. I, um, tend to get too excited. For the next 4 days I felt little need to sleep or eat, while I did feel the need to tell everyone what I’d learned. It was really great-- until it was exhausting. That episode ended with a brief visit to the psychiatric ER at St. Luke’s, where I was deemed too safe for myself or others to be kept there, given something to help me sleep, and that was that. Ok so I’m leaving out all sorts of distressing details, but that’s a nice clean version of the story, so let’s enjoy it for that. 
            Now here we are 15 years later, and I’m just emerging, hopefully, from another mental health episode. Why, yes, it was precipitated by the global pandemic, what a good guess!

            Now then, for anyone who needs a refresher, here’s how the speech works. First I will spend some time attacking mental health, pointing out its stupid and tragic contradictions, and mocking anyone who pursues it. Then I will close by defending and promoting it. I hope that you will be convinced, and then convinced again, and you’ll feel foolish, and you’ll think of me as foolish.

            Here are my three main points:

  1. I’m a fool to think I have power over my own mental health.
  2. I’m a fool to think that mental health is worth pursuing in this world.
  3. I’m a fool to think I can help others with their mental health.

Uplifting, right? Let’s do it!

            First, I’ll need a working definition of mental health. For today’s talk, I’ve decided to use one that’s probably glib and self-serving, and hopefully just reasonable enough that you’ll let me use it for now. How about this: Mental health is a state of internal coordination that makes possible the desire and ability to live in the world.  

Now then, the follies of mental health:

  1. I’m a fool to think I have power over my own mental health.

            If mental health is a state of internal coordination, how much power do I have over that coordination? I generally think of myself as a kind, patient, positive, upbeat person, but if I’m hungry enough, or tired enough, or congested enough, or stressed enough, those traits can disappear. I think of myself as a stable person, and then some unstable times come along, and that’s that. Mess with my body, trouble my future, shake up my worldview, and I can crumble. It turns out that I am only as stable as my surroundings, only as stable as my security. 
            In short, mental health appears to be highly dependent on physical and environmental health. As a therapist and someone who works on themselves a lot, in the last month I pulled out every coping tool I had, and developed some new ones, and none of them were as effective in calming me down as medication, security, and love. While I certainly had to take my own steps to get those things, my ability to get them was largely based on access, which is to say, privilege. If I didn’t have access to them, I can’t imagine where I’d be right now. 
            So, it feels very difficult to claim confidently that I have power over my own mental health.

        2. I’m a fool to think that mental health is worth pursuing in this world.

            Mental health makes possible the desire and ability to live in the world, but who says this world is worth living in? Here’s the voice of Folly, in Erasmus’ “The Praise of Folly,”: 

            “ many disasters human life is exposed to, how miserable and messy childbirth is, how toilsome it is to bring children up, how defenseless they are against injuries, how young men must make their way by the sweat of their brow, how burdensome old age is, how death comes cruel and inescapable… how man is besieged by a whole army of diseases, threatened by accidents, assailed by misfortunes, how everything everywhere is tinged with bitterness-- to say nothing of the evils men inflict on each other, such as poverty, prison, disgrace, shame, torture, entrapment, betrayal, insults, quarrels, deception….
            … in fact, who have been the most likely to commit suicide out of weariness with life? Isn’t it those who have come closest to wisdom?”

            Sorry for this dark passage. These are dark times. Remember, I do promise I’ll end by affirming mental health. 

            But, for now, let’s talk about how this world is crazy-making. Camus and other existentialists would probably use the word “absurd,” but in this context I think “crazy-making” really gets my point across, doesn’t it? I’m thinking of the classic bumper sticker: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” This world will drive you nuts and break your heart. Here’s another cliche quotation: “In a mad world, only the mad are sane.” (Kurosawa) I know I’m not really building a case here-- I’m just leaning on a general and increasingly common sentiment that the world is either disordered or corrupt or both, and so why should I bother getting myself in order? Why bother trying to keep it all together, when it all seems set up to fall apart?
            So, it feels very difficult to even desire mental health in this world.

        3.  I’m a fool to think I can help others with their mental health.

            If I can’t control my own mental health, and this world is crazy-making, then how could I think I can help anyone else with their mental health? This is the most damning folly, the one that’s kept me out of work for the last few weeks. I can hide away in my apartment and feel ok, but exposure to the suffering, and putting myself in a helping role these days-- it’s been overwhelming, and depressing, and anxiety-provoking, and appetite-stealing, and just seems dumb. If my ideas and coping tools weren’t enough to help me, how can I help you? If I can’t get you safety or security or medication, what good am I? If this world is crazy-making, why do I insist on being this gatekeeper, in defending and promoting an absurd life?
            Let me put this another way: AHHHHHHHHHHHH! Yeah, that’s about right.

            Well then! Time to try to argue the reverse eh? Let’s see if I can redeem mental health as a personal and professional ambition:

  1. Regarding my power over my own mental health:

            It’s true that I don’t have as much power as I’d like, that my peace of mind is greatly impacted by physical, relational, and environmental factors. This fact has really humbled me in the last month. 
            And yet, I’ve continued to work on my own coping skills and my own thought patterns. I’ve continued to try to face my issues, to figure them out, rather than relying solely on my securities and comforts and external treatments. If I really think mental health is out of my control, why do I keep trying?
            I’d like to think that I am both fragile and resilient. I crumbled but I continued. I’m starting to recognize how resilient people are, how they have hidden reserves of resilience, sometimes unknown even to themselves. People have survived and thrived (or as Faulkner says “endured and prevailed”) throughout history, despite the repeated collapse of, or persistent lack of access to, structures that meet our basic needs. If people keep getting by and keep wanting to get by, I guess they must have some power over mental health.
We have so little power to determine our fate, but we still do what we can. I have so little power over my own mental health, but I’ll do what I can. I’m pushed around and battered by enormous waves, but I’ll still try to swim. Which brings me to my next response...

        2. Regarding pursuing mental health in this world:

            Why bother trying to swim in a turbulent abyss? And how? Oy-- the best I can do here, and this strikes me as both true and important and insufficient, is to say this-- the world is not only a turbulent abyss. It can be! And it will be. But it’s not always awful. How’s that for a ringing endorsement, eh? “Life: It’s not always awful!” 
            A slogan I’ve been playing around with is “Stare into the abyss, but then find something else to do for awhile.” I’m not confident that such a slogan could effectively turn my head from the abyss, but the idea is right-- The world will continue to throw shit at us, but it’s essential to keep perspective and remember, to see, to witness, to sing out our praises, that the world is more than just the shit it throws at us.
            My favorite passage in the Talmud is in Tractate Eruvin 13b, in which we’re told that the schools of Hillel and Shammai debated for 2.5 years about whether or not it would have been better for man to have been created or not. Well, the word isn’t “better”-- it should be translated as “easier.” Would it have been easier for man to have been created or not? And after all that time, they take a vote and conclude that, no, it would have been easier not to have been created. But, they add, now that man has been created he should examine his actions. 
            What a debate, right? And what a conclusion! I find this passage almost perfect in their  understanding of the hardship of life coupled with their resolve to live well anyhow. I find it even more validating that they really don’t endorse life, and certainly not new life-- they just say, well, now that we’re here, let’s do our best. The world sucks, but we should still aim for excellence. It’s a dark and beautiful sentiment, appropriate for these times.

        3. Regarding helping others with their mental health:

Talking about aiming for excellence, let’s turn to my final folly, working as a mental health counselor. How do I help anyone? 
So, first, the obvious contradiction, one that’s plagued me for most of my absence from work: as little as I can help the clients, not being there for them is certainly less helpful. That’s the point that started bringing me back, and the one my therapist keeps making-- being present, being a listener, caring, is important and helpful, even in the absence of any saving action. 
In preparing to face my clients these days, I face so many unknowns-- what will happen next, how I can help, how they can help themselves, what keeps them going. There’s so much I can’t imagine, and those blank spaces in my imagination terrify me. I have more questions than answers, and thus have so few answers for the client, and yeah it’s terrifying.
What do I do, then, with my own lack of imagination, about why and how to move forward? I think I have to humble myself in a few ways:
First, by recognizing that the failure of my imagination is simply that-- my own inability to see ahead. I can’t mistake my darkness for the absence of a path forward. Second, by honoring the client’s resilience, acknowledging that they always stand on their own strength, not mine, and that my inability to imagine how they do it is just one more sign of their strength and my limitation. 
Third, by being process-oriented but not process-obsessed. I don’t know what we do next, but I’ll be with them while we talk it out. I don’t need to be the master; I can’t be the master. Here’s a slogan I’ve been playing with recently that I’ve found liberating and encouraging:

“It's not my job to justify this life or this world. The client is coming to struggle honestly, and I'm there to accompany.”

It’s not much, and it’s a lot-- to promise to be with you while you struggle. To sit with you, and use my own struggle to help you with yours, without getting overwhelmed by mine or yours. To join you in your struggle, and yet not take on yours as my own. 
            These are hard times, and I’m having a hard time, and the world is crazy-making. Mental health is damn hard, seemingly impossible sometimes. We are fragile-- and resilient. It would be easier not to have been created-- but let’s examine our actions. And I can’t save anyone from all of this, but I can sit with them, be with them, struggle alongside, so that we’re together in this. 

            Thank you.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Averting the Severity of Life

I. Who Shall Live
In Unetaneh Tokef, the phrase “who shall live and who shall die,” is followed by this list (copied from the link above, with some edits by me):
Who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning.

Conventionally, this list is interpreted as the variety of ways that those “who shall die” might do so in the coming year. But! Then the passage goes on to this list:
Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
This second list is about ways of living, not ways of dying. Looking at the original Hebrew, one list flows right into the other, and is grammatically very similar, with the same repeating formula of “and who… and who….” So, just for the sake of Torah (for generating more wisdom), why assume that the first list is only about death? After all, we know the phrase “live by the sword,” right?
Looking at the first list as ways of life opens up the metaphorical imagination. What could it mean to live by water, by fire, by sword, by beast, by famine, by thirst, by upheaval, by plague, by strangling, by stoning?
Maybe these are lists of ways of making a living (given a lot of metaphorical leeway)? Anyone working in the pressures of a capitalistic market knows what it’s like to live “by thirst.” Anyone trying to make a name for themselves on the internet is trying to live “by plague (virality).” Too much of a stretch?
Maybe we could expand our perspective to see this as a list of ways that individuals or groups include violence in their survival strategies. If you protect yourself by overwhelming those who would attack you, then you live “by water.” If you feel safe due to police or military presence, then you live “by fire.” If you thrive on chaos (see: trolls, whether on the internet or in the White House), then you live “by upheaval.” If your freedom requires the captivation of others, then you live “by strangling.” If your self-justification requires the vilification of others, then you live “by stoning.” Eh??

II. The Severity of Life
Hold on to your hats, because I’m gonna take a big step back and broaden the overall theme/message-- all life thrives on severity, harshness, on something negative. Half of your DNA comes from the victorious sperm that got to the egg first; all of your DNA comes from the coupling of a sperm and egg that then shut out all other applicants. Whether eating meat or not, we destroy life to add to our own. We live in competition for limited resources, whether material or emotional. (If this passage has you coming up with counter-arguments, please wait until section III; for now, just go with this.)
We live not only by love, but also by violence, by severity. Riffing off Sartre’s “We are condemned to be free,” I’d say that we are decreed to make morally questionable choices, to choose a way of life and in doing so choose which beings must ‘take one for the team.’ I’ll eat this, and live instead of it. I’ll take this job, and you’ll have to keep looking. I do not believe that America is currently threatened by immigration, but I can imagine (because I consume dystopian sci-fi) scenarios in which overpopulation becomes an actual problem. At many points in our lives, we are forced to decide what we will and will not accommodate, and this can be a pretty severe choice.
I’ve been meditating on this fact about the severity of life, as I observe and participate in current political debates. I’ve got a friend (just one) who supports the current administration, and when we talk/debate, I heap my righteous indignation on him, asking how can he be so callous towards human life, towards others who don’t share his privileges. And this goes pretty well, until he brings up some counter-example-- some statistically-less-likely-but-still-existing violent criminal migrant, or the similarly-less-likely-but-still-happens victim of a false sexual assault accusation-- at which point I find myself shrugging, and now I’m the callous one.
I’m not bringing this up to make a moral equivalence between the two of us, but to recognize that both of us construct our moral positions by, at some point, drawing a limit to our compassion and willingness to accommodate others.

III. Averting Severity

Re-enter Unetaneh Tokef!
But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severity of the decree.
We are condemned to be free; how do we avert the severity of our choices? As a secular psychotherapist, I (loosely) translate the triad above to: self-critical analysis, intentionality, and generosity. I believe these practices can mitigate the severity in the (ultimately unavoidable) violence of life.
To respond to my own comment above about competition for limited resources, it’s often the case that we’re driven to compete not by actual scarcity but by the fear of scarcity. I’ll hoard food and keep it from you, not because I’m hungry but because someday I might be hungry. Self-critical analysis may help me distinguish between rational and irrational fear of others. Reflection on intention may help me recognize that I need to find a way of life that serves myself as well as others. And the practice of generosity challenges me to expand my circle of benevolence, and in doing so recognize how I only live by the grace of others.

Self-critical analysis, intentionality, and generosity avert the severity of life.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Passover, as explained through Holes

            Situations can be characterized by the type of hole involved. A hole can appear promising or problematic. A hole can have a bottom or be bottomless. The combinations of those two dimensions produce the following kinds of space: Container, Passage,  Trap, Abyss.

What kind of hole am I encountering?

            Identifying the kind of hole you are in will help orient you to the possibilities and challenges of your situation. I’d like to illustrate this using the Passover story:

            Egypt = Trap
            Red Sea = Abyss/Passage
            Desert = Passage/Abyss
            Canaan = Container
            *Bonus: The Sinai event as all of the above

Egypt = Trap

A trap is a problematic situation characterized by stuckness, lack of escape. In a trap, there is a space but it’s totally surrounded, unrelentingly contained by rigid boundaries. In a trap, the task is escape, creating holes, pushing and crossing boundaries, or generating freedom through the previously unimagined and unattempted.
There’s a Rabbinic pun about Egypt (Mitzrayim) as Narrow Places (Metzarim). This creates a slightly different space image-- the passage so narrow one becomes trapped in it. This is a beautiful bit of psychological Torah isn’t it; a lot of situations that we think of as traps, in actuality, are just ways we feel stuck while we’re on the way (passage). There’s still a way through, even if we cannot figure how the heck we could squeeze through such a constricted path. Sometimes the path is so narrow we lose all sight of it. Trap situations call for close observation of all apparent boundaries and possible openings. Even if escape is impossible, a hole can serve as a port or vent.

Red Sea = Abyss/Passage

            An abyss is a problematic situation characterized by openness without stability. In an abyss, it’s all space in all directions, unrelenting space, nothing to stabilize or orient oneself against. In an abyss, the task is falling gracefully and/or seeking stability. It’s important to recognize, though, that an encounter with an abyss (especially once you’ve fallen in) is most of the time entirely out of one’s control.
            If you see an abyss up ahead, it’s a pretty good idea to stop first. Do not just enter an abyss! The Israelites are stopped at the Red Sea, facing only problematic options-- a trap behind, an abyss ahead. Then, the miracles happens! God gives them (but not the Egyptians) a passage through the sea. The Midrash on Nachshon ben Aminadav gives us some additional ‘hole’ Torah-- that one might need to jump into an apparent/real abyss, having no other way to discover a passage. Ideally though, when encountering an abyss, one should find a way to explore it while keeping one foot on firm ground.

Desert = Passage/Abyss

            A passage is a promising situation characterized by openness and direction. In a passage, one can press forward, turn back, rest, and get side-tracked. The task is getting through, and all its related challenges-- finding a path, staying on the path, managing obstacles, etc. Because of its similarity with an abyss (because bottomless), passage can also be a very disorienting, distressing, and discouraging situation.
            The desert is passage for the Israelites between Egypt and Canaan. They journey, go astray, make stops, have setbacks, and eventually get somewhere. On the other hand, the wilderness is so disorienting that it can feel more like an abyss. The entire generation leaving Egypt (save two) dies in the desert. For Korah and his ilk, the desert becomes a literal abyss.

Canaan = Container

A container is a promising situation characterized by protective boundaries and flexible openings. In a container, one should feel oriented, safe, stabilized, and free. The task is maintaining good boundaries.
Canaan is the promised container for the Israelites but their time in it will always be fraught with boundary anxiety. Who and what is allowed (or prohibited) in the country/community will be a constant and ever-budding obsession.

Sinai as Container, Abyss, Trap, and Passage

            Sinai appears as a container when the people all arrive and become one nation. Looking back at the Sinai event, it defines the people, creating a division between those who stood at Sinai and those who did not.
            Sinai appears as an abyss when God’s arrival triggers clouds, lightning, and a breakdown of the natural order. God crosses the boundary into the world, and this is threatening to the integrity of the world as a container. This is likely why the people beg Moses to have God speak to him rather than them.
Sinai appears as a trap in the Midrash in which God is said to overturn the mountain on the people “like a barrel.” In this version of the story, the people learn that their ‘freedom’ from Egypt is only for the purpose of serving God; if they don’t ‘choose’ the Torah, then they will remain trapped.
            Is Sinai a passage? Sort of-- it’s a stop along the way, and therefore it is a part of the way. It’s an ordeal for the people to get through, and not everyone (see: Golden calf worshipping) makes it through. The people are challenged to move-- from slavery to freedom, from idolatry to monotheism, from mixed multitude to nation, etc. The story of the Israelites in the desert is one of progress and regress, and Sinai is just one episode in which we see both kinds of movement.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Apil Fool's 2019 - The Folly of Meaning and Nihilism

Welcome to my 14th annual April Fool’s observance! It continues to thrill and delight me that people show up to this, that folks participate by bringing their own paradoxes and listening to mine. I sometimes wonder, are you all just patronizing this old fool? Maybe you just want to save me from embarrassment, so you show up to my party to hear me speak. I would feel pretty foolish if no one came. Although, maybe that’s too charitable a reading of you all-- maybe you actually come because you want to embarrass me, and what better way to do that then show up and listen to me embarrass myself? Dang, now I feel foolish because you did come! Well, thanks a lot-- wait, am I saying that sarcastically?? Man, I don’t even know anymore.
            Oh well! Let’s do this.

            The title of my speech this year is a bit much, but I promise it’ll be worth the trip, if you can believe me. This year’s speech is: The Follies of Meaning and Nihilism. That’s right, you get double the foolishness this year! These twin topics-- meaning and nihilism-- are one way of framing the paradox that fueled my daily writing in 2018.
            I’m using the word “meaning” to represent a certain perspective on life: that life is something we should invest in. We should care! Life is better when we care, when we try, when we do our best, when we aim to explore and plan and optimize and love and commit, when we find meaning in life, when we make meaning in life, when we tell ourselves meaningful stories about ourselves and the world and life. Know what I mean? Like, “Hey all, let’s live meaningful lives because life can be so darn meaningful.” That’s the frame of meaning, and I hope you feel it when I say it. A meaningful life is possible and good to pursue. I could try to answer the question “What’s the meaning of meaning?” but I think it would really make this speech drag. Instead I’m just hoping that some part of you feels it when I say that “meaning” is a good and appropriate pursuit in life. It’s the part of you that loves meaning and wants life to be meaningful and feels good when life feels meaningful. Y’know?
            Now then, the perspective I’m calling “nihilism”-- I could also have called it meaninglessness, but I like how the word “nihilism” brings a lot of attitude into the talk. So, the various things I mean by nihilism-- basically, that all the stuff I said about meaning just now might be lovely but it’s also just bullshit, because life is bullshit. I’ll admit that my atheism makes this perspective easier to feel-- there’s no God, the Universe doesn’t know or care about us, all of our stories about meaning are just stories, there’s no ultimate point to anything, each of us just dies and disappears and gets forgotten, the sun will burn out and everything will be cold and dark, and so whatever we’re doing right now just cannot matter that much, because ultimately it’s all nothing and we’re all nothing.
I think the atheists in the room are already with me, so now lemme try to bum out the more religious folks in the room, with a little help from my biblical friends Kohelet and Job. Both of them might also tell you that life is bullshit because we die and are forgotten, because our safety and comfort and health are fragile and will ultimately desert us, and the fact that a God exists just adds to a sense of injustice in the world rather than saves us from it. Kohelet adds some additional pessimism, letting us know that society will always be unjust, because that’s what humans are like, especially when we gather in large numbers. Of course, in the era of this political administration and the catastrophe of our global stewardship, it’s not too hard to inspire you to feel pessimistic. You bummed yet?
So that’s the basic paradox! We should try to live meaningful lives, and also, life is bullshit. Each approach has its folly. If I try to live a meaningful life, eventually I get hit by the absurdity of it all, or at least with the all-consuming abyss of mortality and eternity. But if I live as if life is bullshit, if I just sink into my pessimism and cynicism, then what a waste, right? I’m a fool if I invest in life, and a fool if I don’t. A fool if I treat life as sacred, a fool if I don’t.

            I’m not going to explore this conceptually. Instead, I want to go straight to talking about what it has looked like, and what it could look like, to live with both of these opposing truths.
            How has this paradox played out in my life so far? I think I go through periods in which the mode of meaning dominates, and other periods in which the mode of nihilism dominates. These might be relatively long periods-- the peak of my religiosity was clearly in the mode of meaning, and my first depressive episode (back in 7th grade) was in the mode of nihilism. The periods can also be much shorter-- I can find that I care deeply about the meaning of my work on Monday but by Thursday or Friday I’d just rather do nothing. Or that right after my coffee at 8am, I’m ready to seize the day, but around 6pm I’d rather the day just leave me alone. If the news is good that day, then maybe life isn’t total bullshit; if the news is bad, well there ya go.
            Two brief examples about how meaning and nihilism can often get a bit mixed up in each other-- these are also ways of showing that what I’m really talking about here is how we frame, how we interpret, our experiences and decisions. The first example is about drugs and alcohol, and the second is about child-raising.
            Drugs and alcohol-- is taking them an act of meaning or nihilism? One could see it either way. At times, I’ve taken drugs or alcohol to facilitate feeling closer to life, closer to others, to make more connections between ideas, and so on-- in that regard, drug-taking is an act of pursuing meaning. Those actions might imply that life without these facilitators lacks meaning; or my actions could just as well imply that life is rife with meaning, and there’s nothing like a good sacrament for revealing the sacred. Right? Sometimes people feel great love for others while on drugs. That could be because they actually hate people but love drugs. Or they might realize on drugs how much they actually love people. So the act of taking a substance could reflect the spirit of meaning or in the spirit of nihilism.
            Moving on to children-- is making one in this day and age an act of meaning or nihilism? One could see it either way. Watch this-- I could choose to have a child because I’m investing in life, because I care about the future, because I want to pass on my values and hopes to the next generation. Or I could choose not have to child because I’m investing in life, and I don’t want my resources to get sucked up by a new life when there are already so many suffering people and institutions I could serve, in order to create a more secure future. In the mode of meaning, I could choose to have a child or not. Now watch this-- I could choose to have a child in a more cynical frame of mind, thinking who cares if it exponentially increases my carbon footprint and takes away time and energy I could have spent fighting for justice, because, hey, I’ll get mine, and we’re all gonna die anyhow. Or I could choose not to have a child because fuck it, that’s time and money I could spend traveling or on myself in some other way, and why care about the future if I’ll be dead in it anyhow. In the mode of nihilism, I could choose to have a child or not.

            Why am I doing this to you? What am I doing to you? I think I’m just trying to show that, at least in my head, life is meaningful and life is bullshit, and my actions keep expressing one or the other or both, and I just keep feeling so foolish about the whole thing. Foolish, but smug also, you can see that part too, right? Smug and glib and sort of right.
            Ok, how are we doing? So far I’ve hopefully demonstrated how I get jerked around by this paradox. I think I owe you some kind of wisdom about how to live this paradox well.

            We should pursue a meaningful life, and also life is bullshit. Can those be brought together?
            My first suggestion is the usual one when I’m dealing with paradox, which is that it’s best to seek rhythm between these modes, and in doing so, achieve some kind of balance. That looks like caring really hard, but then not being surprised by life’s absurdity (the Stoic approach?).. Or caring really hard, but also occasionally giving yourself a break from caring. It could look like staring death and loss and nothingness in the face, and despairing, and then giving yourself a break from that and just living life and enjoying hope. I could treat each mode as a blessing, by taking the attitude that it’s kinda nice to feel really motivated in the morning, and also a relief to care less about all of this later on in the day. Work and play, awake and asleep, solitude and intimacy, meaning and nihilism-- maybe these opposites work best as a pair, each works best when I take them in the right proportions, striking a good rhythm, a good balance.
            That’s my usual suggestion. I’d love to be more ambitious, and to offer a vision of harmony rather than rhythm, right, like some way of gracefully combining the two modes, to stand with one foot in meaning and one foot in nihilism. But I really don’t know how to do that-- in my experience, each just spoils the other. When I’m trying to make something of myself and of this life, a touch of nihilism brings despair and just kills my motivation. When I’m just letting go and not giving a shit, thoughts of meaning can provoke guilt or shame.
            So, do I have a better suggestion? Well, I have this, and this is really why I’m talking about this topic today and always-- the best thing you can do is make sure not to neglect one side of this paradox! And I’ll be honest, I’m saying that because I strongly prefer people who can appreciate and stand in both sides of this dilemma. If you’re too caught up in meaning or too caught up in nihilism, I tend to find you imbalanced and insufferable. I just feel like you’re either missing the point or missing the pointlessness.
            Yup. As always, my solution is the same-- telling you to hold both sides of the paradox. Just because the universe doesn’t care doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Just because you feel like your life is precious doesn’t mean the universe should. Life is meaningful, and life is bullshit; the deepest wisdom I have about life is to take it seriously and also it’s a big joke. Confused? Feeling foolish? Excellent. Thank you.