Sunday, April 3, 2022

April Fool's 2022 - The Folly of Fear

  Hello, and welcome to the 17th annual April Fools’ Observance! I developed this paradoxical celebration some time ago, while studying philosophy, which as we all know is for lovers of wisdom, as well as the bachelor’s degree for fools who aren’t sure what they’re doing after college. When I was studying I noticed something foolish about wisdom— it seems like a lot of things called wise contradict a bunch of other things also called wise. If you were to listen to all the wisdom you’re given, you would surely end up foolish. So I thought, I’ll gather people together, and give some wise advice about how to deal with the contradictions of wisdom. 

So that’s basically the premise— I pick an item of interest, gather the contradicting wisdom about it, and then sort through it so you don’t have to! And since all the wisdom contradicts, I refer to the whole thing as a folly. 

This year my topic is— The Folly of Fear. 

Surveying the Sources

This topic has already been covered extensively in the human canon, so I thought I’d start out by surveying some sources, and then hopefully sharing more original thinking about it. So let’s start with wise advice that discourages fear:

Some will tell you not to fear because fear is always based on an illusion. The author of the Psalms proclaims “The LORD is the stronghold of my life-- of whom shall I be afraid?”-- see, it makes no sense to fear, when God is on your side! Roman Emperor/Stoic Marcus Aurelius meditated on the delusional nature of fear from a more secular perspective, saying: “The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all. And before long, you’ll be no one, nowhere-- like Hadrian, like Augustus.” See, it makes no sense to fear, because you never had any control or significance in the first place! Whether God is in control or no one is in control, fear is based on illusion.

Others will tell you not to fear because fear is simply unhelpful. This is why FDR told us that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” why Dune calls fear “the mind killer”, and why Rebbe Nahman emphasizes that “the main thing is not to fear.” Fear is unhelpful because it gets in the way of decision-making and action! Alternatively, it leads to poor decision-making and evil action-- no less a sage than Yoda himself advises Anakin that “Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate… leads to suffering.” So, fear is unhelpful. 

Now let’s survey wisdom that encourages fear. Admittedly there’s not as many, but I think they’re still powerful: 

Some will tell you that we should listen to our fear, because it clues us in to deep truths about ourselves and our reality. The proverbial Biblical author praises fear, proclaiming: “Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” From a more secular and therapeutic perspective, fear highlights that which we hold sacred and would seek to protect. Fear points towards deep truths.

Others would add that we should listen to our fear, because it’s good for motivation. It’s for this reason that Aristotle includes fear in his definition of courage-- in face of danger, it’s good to act, but specifically in a way that incorporates concern about danger! To act without fear is not a virtue for Aristotle; the virtue of courage integrates fear with action. Similarly, noted Python John Cleese dedicates an entire chapter heading to this subject, advising us to “Get your panic in early,” using our fear as motivation to action.

Are we seeing now how important and helpful fear is? How it puts us in touch with our values, our reality, and our motivation towards courageous action? Truly, no less a sage than Luke Skywalker himself warns Rey that “Confronting fear is the destiny of a Jedi. Your destiny.”

Let’s summarize: Fear is based on illusions, and puts us in touch with deep truths. Fear stops us from acting, or motivates evil actions; and fear motivates wise action. So, what the hell is going on here?? 

Alan Watts, 20th century English populariser of Eastern wisdom, sums it up in his book: “The Wisdom of Insecurity”:

There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity…. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. 

The Meaning of the Contradiction

It’s a good contradiction, right? Here’s how I like to put it: fear is a reflection of our in-between position in the world-- that is, we have some power but not much, and some significance but not much. Foolish ways to overcome fear always involve rejecting or denying this in-between position. Some aim for more power by beefing up security; Watts points out how this actually fuels insecurity. Others, like Aurelius, try to shake off their fear by ridding themselves of any sense of self-importance-- to me this feels at most rather depressing, and at least inauthentic.

The actual state of things then, is that we seem to exist with some passing stability and some passing significance. If it’s unclear, what we’re really talking about here is: boundaries, and how hard it is to live with them. When we want to grow, we’re afraid of being trapped by our boundaries. When we want to survive, we’re afraid of our boundaries being broken. Anytime we are feeling anxious and fearful, it’s likely that our natural desires to live or grow are being threatened by the harsh reality of our boundaries, or the harsh reality beyond them.

Some Wise Advice

So, then, how shall we deal wisely with this contradiction? What do we do with fear, in all its wisdom and foolishness? 

Let’s start with an understanding of fear as related to the challenges of having boundaries; in fact let’s make it more concrete by talking about it as a response to edges. Makes sense, right-- when we’re close to an edge, we tend to get… edgy! So what can we do with an edgy feeling.

        Let’s make this super-literal-- one place that I often feel edgy is when I’m next to a high ledge. Specifically, I’m thinking of the George Washington Bridge walkway, or more specifically, that one part that doesn’t have a high fence, and where social conventions place me on the side closer to the ledge. Ugh, that feeling-- in my imagination, I’m already falling, right-- and just watch what happens to my hands, shoulders, chest, face as I talk about this. So what do I do? I bring my attention back to my current center of gravity, which places my head atop my shoulders atop my spine atop my legs, all stably on the walkway, at least in this moment. Yes, the edge is scary, and also… I’m remaining on this side of it, and so I can draw my attention to that continuing experience of stability. I tolerate the edginess, and I don’t lose awareness of stability. This awareness doesn’t dispel fear, but neither does it feed into it, and that seems to be the best we can do with fear.

Well, I suppose we can do one better, by recognizing those situations in which going over the edge could actually be growthful rather than fatal. I was listening to a podcast recently about the Grateful Dead’s live free-jazz explorations, known infamously across setlists as “Drums/Space.” The episode was discussing a particular well-known performance, 10/26/89 in Miami, which many audience members, who may or may not have been under the influence, found frightening… and compelling. One listener's comment stuck out to me: “This is kind of scary but it’s interesting.” (repeat that) What a brave and inspiring combination of sentiments! To be curious at the same time as afraid-- it’s a difficult combo to master, but think of how rewarding it could be, what I might learn about myself and the world, if I can accompany fear with curiosity.

        Now, about “accompanying fear with curiosity”-- it sounds nice, but in actual practice, it might just be a bunch of therapeutic hogwash. When I’m afraid, I usually don’t feel anything else, as I’m rather busy feeling afraid! To combine fear and curiosity requires finding some element of security, and thus being able to engage with fear and risk while maintaining that element of security; in therapy, this is called secure attachment. Secure attachment can be given or earned, and so is likely my best professional answer to the question of dealing with fear. But honestly, all of this feels too intellectual, and the experience of fear is not very intellectual, so I want to provide an answer that’s a bit more inspirational than all this.

I’ll close with a metaphor that’s been appealing to me recently, one that inspires in me the ability to allow fear even while disliking it. I call it…

Living at the Shoreline

Imagine a vacation day at the beach. The beach is fun and relaxing, and yet it’s also a place that is rife with edges, and even worse, moving edges. Going to the beach means hanging out in the shoreline AKA the “active coastal zone,” which is everything one finds above the continental shelf (so, like, the ocean) and below the part of land that’s never eroded by water (so, like the far side of a dune; or a wall). Some people love playing in the water, with waves constantly rolling or crashing against them; other people hang out at the shore itself, where the waves play upon the sand; still others prefer the beach, playing in the “intertidal” area where sand gets covered and uncovered throughout the day and night. You can picture it all now yeah? The waves, the sand, the tide? The active coastal zone, the various moving edges of water and sand-- there’s so much happening! It’s all very stimulating and fun; y’know, like a day at the beach. 

Now imagine living on the beach-- what a nightmare, right? The tide comes in and gets my stuff all wet. Any kind of enclosure is eventually swept or eaten away by the water. And the waves! They never stop rolling in. To try to establish firm and secure grounding at the beach, is alternatingly exhausting and terrifying.

Living at the shoreline requires us to redefine success and security. If my expectation is to get repeatedly hit by waves big and small, then I can’t think of getting knocked over as failure. Getting knocked over by a wave is just what it sometimes feels like to live at the beach. Getting your stuff moved around and your space eroded is just what it feels like to live in-between the tides. Success then… is about remaining at the shoreline, rather than getting swept into the ocean, or rather than just quitting the beach altogether. Success is about working with the waves, developing a lifestyle that integrates the rhythm of the storm, the calm, and the tides. Success is about working with the feeling of edginess, rather than blowing up or shutting down in response to it.

But why put up with this at all? If it’s so awful to live on the beach, why not just leave? I hope you won’t mind, but for some reason this question got me all spiritual and mystical, because, well… the sea is terrifying, and it’s the source of life. The shoreline is the site of pleasure and terror, the source of life and of destruction. Ultimately it’s an act of radical love to embrace life, despite the fact that it will kill us. In embracing life, we are led to embrace fear, to incorporate it into our overall vision of life.

To live well with fear then, is an expression of love for life, as well as resignation to life’s terrors. As Naomi used to say to me, during the first pandemic wave, with both great resignation and great love: “This is where we are now.” Similarly, we can echo Steven Tyler’s own philosophy regarding life on the edge: “We can tell ‘em no, or we could let it go, but I would rather be a-hangin’ on.”

Thanks for your time today!

Sunday, April 11, 2021

April Fool's 2021 - The Folly of Participation

Hello, and welcome to my 16th annual April Fool’s observance. This is a day for celebrating paradoxes, and the event itself is built on something of a paradox-- it began 16 years ago when I started recognizing all these existential paradoxes that everyone shares, and so I started a holiday for us to share them with each other. But if we already share them, then why hold a day to share them? And yet, if we didn’t already share them, there’d be no reason to share them. Does that make sense? No, seriously, am I making sense?

For those who are new to the event, here’s the format of my speech-- I’m going to talk about the folly of some concept or activity, and then contradict myself by promoting that same concept or activity. And the whole thing today will take 10 minutes.

Today’s topic is: The Folly of Participation.

Paul Tillich, in his book The Courage to Be, offers three different meanings for “participation,” and I experience folly in each one of them. These meanings are: (1) sharing, as in sharing a room (2) universality, or having in common, and (3) being a part, such as participating in a political movement. Participation is: Sharing, universality, being a part. Let’s talk about the folly of each.

First, the folly of sharing

You can only share something that’s yours, and that requires a feeling of possessiveness. Here’s what I mean by that-- if I only want half of my sandwich, then giving you the other half isn’t sharing; it’s giving you something I’ve already disavowed. By my definition, sharing must involve sacrifice, and therefore involves folly-- because I want what I want, even as I’m giving it away. If you can imagine, in this household I sometimes make food, and then Naomi wants a bite. Every single bite I’ve ever shared with her brings me gratification... but also regret. Why give away what I want?

Of course, refusing to share, or rather refusing to cooperate around sharing, also has its follies. We see this in the classic “tragedy of the commons” in which a shared resource is consumed in an unsustainable way. Everyone takes as much as they want, and we’re soon left with nothing.

A brief summary so far-- to share is to deny desire, and therefore to betray oneself; not sharing is to deny relationship... which weirdly enough is also to betray self. More on that later.

Now then, the folly of having in common

To have in common is to be common, and to be common is to be robbed of uniqueness. Sorry for the abstraction; let’s get specific. I’ll use commonality in conversations as my example:

If a topic of conversation is common enough, we call it “small talk.” Some people say they hate small talk, because there’s no individuality revealed by discussing common topics like the weather. If we’re not being individuals, then we cannot actually connect as individuals. The same holds true for more substantive talk, if it’s full of cliches. I see this happen when people discuss politics or current events, but are just taking turns regurgitating talking points they’ve absorbed through common media. It feels foolish to me because it’s a conversation with very little encounter— just memes passing in the night.

My horror at cliche and small talk peaked at the beginning of the pandemic-- within a week of things shutting down here, I was quickly overwhelmed and bored by the fact that every conversation was about the pandemic. The way it took over our attention, and there was nothing else to talk about-- I felt disgusted by the suffocating commonality of it all.

I may be just revealing my own issues here, but I’m gonna share one more example. I also lived in NYC during college, and sometimes I would find myself on the subway, lost in my head about some personal or interpersonal drama. And then I’d look up, across the aisle on the 1 train, and see other people’s faces, and realize they were having their personal drama, and I would feel silly for taking myself so seriously. Maybe it’s a numbers thing-- there’s just so many other people living their lives that, whatever I’m going through, no matter how private and personal it feels, is just one more universal thing, one more tired cliche.

Another brief summary-- acknowledging my own commonality is embarrassing; of course, denying it is simply foolish.

Finally, the folly of being a part

And now let’s turn to the indignity of being a part and not the whole. Here’s where I’ve found myself struggling with this- in joining political chanting or political marching. In being part of a hora. In sitting through group meetings, unless I’m running them.

Why do I hate being a part? Is it just me being a contrarian? Well, that’s definitely part of it. But, like, what’s really going on? Being a part makes me vulnerable to the bigger thing I’m a part of it, and that vulnerability, that helplessness, can feel undignifying. That discomfort with vulnerability intensifies if I see the larger whole as chaotic, destructive, or simply uncaring about me as an individual.

A humbling image that captures this for me— in the fall I see the trees changing color, and I like to imagine that I, too, am a tree-- only to realize that I’m clearly a leaf, not a tree. A part of the whole, yes, but so easily discarded.

Beyond my discomfort with the smallness of participation, there’s also a rich spiritual tradition of distrusting groups, of refusing to participate. In the gospels, Jesus tells rich people to give away their wealth, asserting that rich people cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. There’s a great leftist interpretation which frames Jesus’ statements as a condemnation of participating, of benefiting, from an unjust system. In an unjust society, only the destitute, only those excluded from participating in the system, are innocent.

We can go even further back, to the Hebrew Bible, to that great myth against participation-- the Tower of Babel. All the peoples of the world are working together for a single cause, and even God sees this and basically says: “If they can do this, they can do anything!... So I better put a stop to it.” The people united will never be defeated, and that’s exactly the problem. God doesn’t trust large groups, and neither do I. I’m afraid of the group getting carried away, and me with it.

Ok, let’s summarize the whole critique so far:

My aversion to participation is based in concerns about protecting my identity, or as Tillich would put it, my self-affirmation. To share what I have is to let go of the supremacy of my desire. To have in common is to have my uniqueness revealed as illusion. To take part in something bigger than myself is to abdicate power over my meaning and my fate. These are fair concerns, stemming from distrust of others, and disgust at being reduced to less than one.

Ok, now let’s critique the critique

First, let’s call bullshit on my hatred of participation. I clearly love participation in all three meanings of the word. First, sharing: while I might have an in-born concern about food scarcity, I also take joy in giving up what I have in order to see another enjoy it. Next, having-in-common: I’m obsessed with the existential givens— the experiences and challenges faced by all humans— embodiment, emotion, freedom, isolation, meaninglessness, and death. My therapeutic practice is mostly focused on encouraging clients to take personal ownership of these ultimately common experiences. Finally, about being a part: well, I’m actually not a total misfit— I like being a part in all sorts of situations. I may not like chanting at rallies, but if George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars want me to chant, I will do it gladly and extensively. I say I don’t like meetings, but I love a good class, or men’s group, or brainstorming session. I say I hate the hora, but really I just hate ones that are uncoordinated, or in cramped spaces. Really I love participation in many forms specifically, coordinated and safe forms.

Besides the fact that I love participation, I could also point out how hatred of participation can reveal some neurotic and unrealistic tendencies. 20th century psychoanalyst Karen Horney described it as a neurotic phenomenon. I’ll share her words, because I found them pretty damning of my anti-participation sentiments. Talking about the individual who wants to detach from the larger whole, she says: “He simply takes it for granted that he should derive all the good of living at a particular time in a particular social system, but resents being linked with others for good or ill. Therefore he cannot see why he should suffer from anything in which he has not been personally implicated” (Our Inner Conflicts, 175-6). Resentment at being linked with others— is this the height of concern for liberty, or the height of immaturity?

A client recently told me, sadly, that her partner found her needs taxing on him. This metaphor of taxes perfectly captures the ambivalence we have towards participation. Any good liberal (or Ned Flanders) will tell you that taxes are ideally a civic good, with each individual paying into the pot, and benefiting all (including themselves). A good conservative will tell you that taxes are theft, forced participation which diminishes the individual. The verb taxing always has a negative connotation, but we should reconsider what that implies. Taxing is only a bad word if I see taxes as simply taking away my good. If I find society’s needs taxing, that means I see my own good as something separable from society.

Beyond the folly of separating my good from the common good, Judith Butler points out the folly of even thinking of myself as separable from the common. In On Giving an Account of Oneself, she reminds the reader that any story about the self is always already involved in a social context, sets of relations, sets of norms. You can try to deny participation, but you can’t actually escape it. Those who hate traffic are forgetting that they are the traffic. And there’s no moral high ground in refusal to participate— it’s just righteous indignation without actual righteousness. Righteousness involves action, and action is participatory. Thus the foolishness of separating your sense of self and your sense of good from that of the whole.

So what do I have here?

It appears that I love and hate participation.

Participation entails a loss of self and a gain of self.

Sharing is caring, and caring is vulnerable and dumb.

Commonality is undignified and inescapable.

Participation is morally suspect, and a moral necessity.

I feel the need, as always, to leave you with something definitive, or at least beneficial. And yet, all I have is this:

- Don’t be a fool in separating yourself from others.
- Don’t be a fool in joining others.
No, that’s too negative; lemme try again.
- Be a unique fool! And be a fool with the rest of us.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

How to Identify Paradoxes in Your Life (2021)

Hello! If you’re reading this, then I must’ve invited/challenged you to identify paradoxes in your life. Congratulations! 

Here’s what I mean by paradox - any situation that involves contradictions that must be lived rather than solved. Kinda abstract, right? Ok, some examples:

  • I love lying in bed, but the only way I’m able to fall asleep is if I get up and do things during the day. I love being active in the day, but the only way I’m able to be productive is by lying in bed all night.

  • I love being social, but also, other people are an inconvenience. I love being alone, but also, it gets lonely.

  • In relationships, it’s important to be yourself, and it’s important to be flexible for your partner.

Each of the above could be posed as a dilemma:

  • To stay in bed or get up?

  • To be alone or be with others?

  • To stay myself or change for someone else?

To embrace paradox is to realize-- these are all false dilemmas!

What I am calling a paradox is any situation in which the only way to lose is by picking one side once and for all. The only way to win is to figure out how to live with the contradictions (or tensions) rather than solve them. 

So, to identify paradoxes in your life, pay attention to:

  • Situations in which you feel forever torn

  • Situations in which you find yourself going in circles

  • Situations in which you keep trying to find some kind of balance/rhythm

These could be intrapersonal, personal, interpersonal, mundane, spiritual, domestic, professional, or pretty much any other sphere of life.

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.