Recently, a friend posted ’Why do so many of ‘US’ suffer?’ Which was a question I found interesting and personally relevant, so I ended up writing a 4000 word response which I broke into several comments; both in terms of ‘US’ in the smallest and grandest sense I could manage. Which I’ve now collected it all as a note.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night.” From Howl by Allen Ginsberg
I think about this quote sometimes, think about how it was true -for Ginsberg- then, and how it certainly feels true now.
I know a great many people I love who suffer, terribly. The causes and particular species of suffering are legion: anxiety, depression, loneliness, and all manner of ill of mind, body, and spirit. The fact that these people are so often brilliant, loving, kind, hard working, beautiful, and -depending on how you calculate such things- some of the most materially wealthy, successful, and powerful homo sapiens who have ever lived would be consistently shocking if it didn’t appear with such regularity.
We suffer for reasons that are (at least) as old as our species. We suffer because everything is impermanent, everything and everyone we love is moving towards the point where it will leave us as we will leave it/them suddenly or over years & years but ultimately, always, inevitably. We suffer because nothing is stable; we suffer because we live in a world of verbs when we sometimes desperately want (or think we want) to live in a (false) heaven of nouns. We suffer from pain & discomfort, signals of distress we pump back into ourselves which we often can’t turn off. We suffer for the harm we’ve caused others, and the harm we’ve been caused by others. We suffer from ignorance and inconsideration and accident and malice. We suffer sometimes because people want to ‘instruct’ us and make us ‘better.’ We suffer from disease and we suffer from the treatment of disease. We suffer for the ways we are unable to satisfy our biological imperatives and the way satisfying ourselves can make us sick. We suffer because we compare ourselves to others. We suffer because we lie about who we are and what we want, we suffer for the ways we are punished for speaking our truths. We suffer because we fail, and we think that means something important just as we sometimes suffer because we ‘succeed’ and think that means something important. We suffer because of all the ways the world isn’t fair.
We also suffer for reasons that are unique (or at least uniquely magnified) for this particular place and time. We suffer for imagined futures which sap today of its joy: either because the future is inescapable dystopia or sparkling utopia that justifies any present pain to be inflicted on others or induced in ourselves. We suffer for misremembered pasts that make present experience seem wan and sallow; the persistent notion that we have fallen from glory. We suffer from what seems like a perversely terrible freedoms of choice (which obscure the ways we are uniquely constrained); our destinies are seemingly our own to make like never before… so if we don’t reach _ we have none to blame but ourselves (and there is no suffering quite like the belief that everything is your own fault because you weren’t good enough). We suffer from seeming to have access to all the world’s information, from having access to so-called ‘limitless’ opportunity even while we potentially feel like we’re worse off or just worse than our grandparents.
We are, constantly, asked to think about how fucked we are; how much we’re failing ourselves and others. I think I saw a quote recently about how media is the art of making every problem feel like your individual problem. These failures differ based on our moral persuasions and range from the deeply neoliberally personal (by not being hyper-productively perfect fonts of positivity), to the left-leaning national (the ‘resistance’ is failing!) to the global feminist (did you know about the scourge of female genital mutilation?), to the environmentally conscious (the ongoing Anthropocene mass extinction wave), to the evangelical Christian (the terrible moral degeneracy of this day and age) but make no mistake, whatever you are or want there’s an infinitely nuanced argument about why you and yours are fucking it all up.
Wild surges of weaponized ignorance threaten to diminish quality of life for generations, undo the work our ancestors sacrificed for… I think about this mostly with regards to the anti-vaccination movement but you probably have plenty of examples of your own. Global warming seems to be the unstoppable juggernaut, a Hobbesian leviathan stitched together out of 9 billion daily sins that we (apparently) can’t repent from and so it will consume us and half the biosphere along with us; a K–Pg class extinction event made inevitable because we refuse to come up with a new collective story beyond ‘ever less fettered capitalism’ endlessly.
Seemingly every one of every facet of political persuasion believes that our government, our institutions are fundamentally failing us. I’m quite certain that never before has it been easier to find evidence that our leaders, all leaders are damndable hypocrites who are wholly ineffectual when they aren’t actively hostile to ‘us.’ Almost every conversation between every subtribe is publicly accessible, and subsequently we enjoy an unprecedented wealth of evidence to vilify our enemies and would-be allies alike. We’ve never before had so much ability to talk over and through one another (while feeling like we’re righteously ‘engaging’). We all keep stasi files on one another (and by extension ourselves) know ten words written by every (innocent) person by which we may condemn them. Our neurological tics -addiction circuits, tribalism, implicit biases- are studied in part so others can better profit by subverting our interests.
There has never been a time when our capabilities as individuals and as a species have been so advanced; we see farther and more, can do more than at any other point in history. And yet… we still focus on our limitations, worry that these will be terminal.
We have enough automation and learning that we could easily provide for the material needs of everyone on the planet with everyone working less and living more WHILE creating more space for the non-human biosphere to flourish with more robustness and diversity than it’s been in hundreds of years. It’s what ‘we’ say we want. And yet, it’s not what we do, how we act; and this essential disunity between word and deed can be maddening.
Even as we’ve charted the lands, we have never been further off the ‘map’ of social expectation & custom — never before been further away from the environment we evolved for; because we certainly didn’t evolve for this layer of plastic which coats the land and our lungs. In many ways it feels that we perhaps have an abundance of what should be scarce, a poverty of what should be ubiquitous. We have replaced momentary fear of being eaten with existential dread of our balloon mortgage payment. It has never been simpler for ‘us’ to meet our material needs (food, water, shelter) and stimulate pleasure in ourselves even as more of the people I care about seem to struggle to thrive (or alternately, if you turn your attention towards the poorer and browner parts of the world and even this country there are plenty of humans struggling to gain access to clean water, to eat enough quality calories, let alone preventative medical care).
Humans probably are at their best as nomadic tribes of 100 something individuals, each with a clear place and a future, lover(s) and children, a sense of where they come from and where their people will likely go. We’re probably are at our best when we spend most of our time grooming one another; with word and service, with sharing and play. It’s easier to live day by the day when you can’t preserve food and I wonder if we perhaps miss -on a genetic level- the alternately docile and terrifying megafauna we slaughtered and starved to extinction. I know we miss many of the ways family used to be, what family used to mean: your people, with whom we spent all our time and with the sense that you could more readily look to our elders for advice and suggestions about what we should do next as their lived experience would be so much closer to our own… something that becomes less true year by year. So much of these things we don’t have anymore; especially true of ‘us;’ who I define broadly as the miscellaneous tribe of wierdos who have so far outstriped the bounds of an ‘off the shelf’ life so many default into. For better or worse; we used to emerge into a family and a narrative that would be more or less stable throughout our entire lives. Perhaps this was largely reviled then (though I have my doubts) but now I suspect we’re missing whatever the subtle ritual nutrients were included in this familiar predictability. Now, me and mine get the benefits and travails of building a family of choice even as we can’t take comfort in our parent’s ‘faith’ (whether that faith was in Jehovah, in progress, in black and white simplicity of a ‘perfect’ etiquette for every situation) and we’re still scrambling to figure out what can possibly replace these foundations from which we’ve become unmoored. We do this even as we seek to obscure the multiplicity of ways we’ve defied (and continue to defy) the norms. So many of my friends live in a series of nested closets, if only to ensure society at large considers them employable.
And then maybe there’s all the things that are far more prosaic but ultimately have incredible influence on our lived experience:
–Maybe we all need a bit of lithium in our water which we would have easily gained from streams and wells.
–Maybe we all need a gut full of hookworm to balance out our over-eager immune systems.
–Maybe we all need a bit more vitamin D, and in our work to lessen our chances of skin cancer we make it harder for us to regulate our moods.
Who can say all the multiplicity of ways we have made it more difficult for humans of this generation to thrive, who knows what unique problems we face because of how our ancestors solved theirs? (Though, I at least I tend to think we have better, more interesting problems on balance than those of centuries past.)
To preach less, and to bring it back to myself 2017 has been a difficult year for me. In 2016 I had more or less ‘gotten’ everything I ever wanted: a wife, a child, a stable job, benefits, health, money in the bank, fans of my creative work, and a thousand other incidentals. Even more than getting what I wanted, it was better than I’d ever hoped; in my marriage, with my friends, in my life I had more freedom, more options, seemingly aggrandized possibilities of play and growth and exploration. And then, for months after I suffered from resurgent anxiety; that pervasive dread that it was all only a matter of time before it was all ripped away from me because of all the ways I wasn’t enough. And this was something that grew even as I got a raise, a bonus, a promotion, fan mail and vacations and parties and still more blessings without number.
Because, that’s not what I focused on.
Instead, I focused on things like the reality that I could not meet my (ultimately) unrealistic goals for publishing and so I felt like I was failing the people in my life. And, seemingly more and more each day, I despaired that -whatever I was doing- it wasn’t the right thing. If I was spending time with family, I felt like I should be working. If I was working, I felt like I should be writing. If I was writing, I felt like I should be spending time with my family. And even now, while I’m in a better place there is in me a small joy-predator voice in me that insists that I should be doing something else instead of riding this inspiration wave to write this; insists that this stack of words means nothing to no one and I fail in making time to craft it.
The fact that the feelings, the emotional tide had nothing to do with what was actually happening reminded me most of a season in my past where I isolated myself in my college apartment, avoiding class, skipping meals, seeing no one, self-medicating against existence via video games as I marched towards flunking out of university for no good reason beyond my own difficulty connecting with meaning (or perhaps nothing more than chthonic neurochemical tides).
There are so many ways to be miserable, and while we have influence nobody controls how they feel. You don’t have to look very hard for reasons to justify and enlarge your misery; and so much of what is best about us -our sensitives, our empathy, our drive- can curdle be turned against us.
I just lost half a day gazing in fascinated horror through the archives of the ‘incel’ subreddit, a webforum for young men who have defined themselves as involuntarily celibate. They celebrate and mythologize their pain, their sense of rejection; create a new dialect with which to better echo one another, lending volume to their howls and ensure the walls of their solipsistic cave grow ever thicker. They are but one manifestation of the ‘red pill’ men’s _ hydra, people who post stories like the tale of an unpunished woman killing a 14 year old boy-child, anecdotes to support a world view, create infographics about how you can determine how slutty a woman is by measuring labial folds. Radicalization and anger, growing as it Ouroboroses in on itself. But their structure, their activities reminds me of an anti-trans facebook group I stumbled upon by following to the source of an acquaintance’s post, a group claiming the mantle of ‘real feminists’ that comb the web for stories about transwomen assaulting people, sift through twitter vent sessions to find any hint of hypocrisy and evidence of how transwomen are intellectually baseless and damaging to society writ large. There are communities and ongoing conversations for teen girls who worship anorexia as divinity, for antinatalists who think conceiving human/sentient life is horrific crime, or the more common philosophy that a God who is love will punish most of humanity to burn forever. All these and more are little hell-worlds you can visit and indwell anytime you want.
Would that I could speak to them, would that they knew their worth and the worth of others as human beings, each doing their best. But, even here is a trap; a desire to ‘help’ miswielded creates suffering, creates enemies and antagonism; by inserting myself incorrectly in conversations I can easily become the other, the adversary which only reinforces a tribal identity oppositional to me and mine. If I’m not careful, I think without merit that I know better and best; if I’m not careful, I speak more than I listen. If I’m not careful, I do not give wholly and freely; I meter out a portion of ‘goodness’ which proves how great I am and to which others should supplicate to in gratitude.
If I’m not careful, I ‘should’ all over everything.
And all the endless shoulds, and each one a polite little invitation to suffer. ‘I should be having more sex’ ‘I should be richer’ ‘We should not eat animals’ endlessly. Depression feels like nothing so much as a television turned to the static of a dead station and anxiety is a camera recording its monitor output, looping back on itself forever. There are so many channels to choose from and we should appreciate when we have the channel changer firmly in hand (since sometimes I don’t). But the thing is, it’s all happening, every channel, and it’s all happening right now. You can find out about anything/everything, exhausting all capacity to care/act/feel. It’s easy to say ‘it’s all in your head’ as though that solved matters, but it’s all all in our heads (or more specifically our minds which extend to every part of us and every interaction in which we take part).
And we have to learn to wield ourselves, how to steer ourselves.
We have to decide what sort of story we’re going to tell about all of this.
Here is how I try and manage the stories I tell, how try to steer myself and my moods. The biggest, and perhaps most difficult, trick to steering myself is to give myself permission to feel sad, to suck, to fail. When I think of these things as indicative of more severe issue, or most terrifyingly when I think about them as endless rather than temporary, they are likely to become monstrous and fearfully all consuming. Patience here is key. Sometimes, my work is to change what’s bothering me. Sometimes my work is to realize it’s not worth stressing about. Always, the work is to ‘show up’ whatever that means for the situation. Always, the work is to remember that it’s temporary and changing in ways I can and can’t anticipate.
I try and talk to people about what I feel and what I’m going through. The more pronounced the instinct to hide, the more ‘shameful’ I feel the more I know I need to talk about it (as I felt incredible shame having anxiety despite getting everything I said I ever wanted and learning to talk about this was so critical to no longer being controlled by it).
I try to sleep, eat, cuddle, bathe, and move my body; regularly and healthily even if I’m not particularly ‘feeling’ it. When things are at their easiest, I can rely on internal cues to help me know when it’s time for each but sometimes I can’t. When I’m experiencing the latter, it’s nice to have external cues to rely upon.
When it comes to the ‘big’ fears (ie Peak Oil, Global Soil Degradation, Catastrophic Climate Change, and on & on) which I sometimes despair in response to, I take some solace in reading the work of writers in the 50s and 60s. All the ‘best’ minds knew that global thermo-nuclear war was inevitable, as they knew we couldn’t produce enough food for 4 billion people (the ‘hard limit’ of what the planet’s agriculture could produce keeps getting reset and the arrival date for the inevitable Malthusian collapse keeps getting pushed back, but we’ve been collectively -at least in certain circles- terrified of this for the last century at least). I take some solace in the fact that we -as a species or as life more broadly- have lived through so many apocalypses. The conquest of the mongols killed an estimate 5% of the world’s population, with various regions said to have still not recovered economically. The black death killed between 30-60% of the population of Europe. The introduction of smallpox by Europeans killed an estimated 90% of the indigenous population of the Americas. And yet, the world, Europeans, and most especially first nations people persist and exist and create and move into the future… despite everything.
Ecstasies and agonies both abound, and they keep shifting back and forth. Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back, sometimes it feels like a thousand-thousand steps back but the dance continues; both for me and others. And whether you read Ecclesiastes and think everything has a season or practice breath yoga and find everything in that inhale-exhale you can maybe glimpse something like a rhythm of things.
As far as we can see, there is only this, and there is only now; and there is only the story we’re telling ourselves about this-now. And this-now is endlessly becoming something else. My work as I understand it is to make the change I want more likely than the change I don’t; to do the work of this particular moment knowing that I never owe or am owed results, or feelings, or _. I get to play with a deck that isn’t stacked for me or against me (which is perhaps easier for me to claim due to my myriad privileges) but I try to remember it’s not about winning or losing (since what does those terms mean, existentially?) it’s about the simple joy of playing the game(s) as I will.
When I suffer, I suffer because of my insistence that things should be other than they are. I suffer because I judge myself (and, by extension, everyone else) and find myself wanting: too fat, too poor, too lazy, too wasteful. I suffer because I become temporarily convinced that I have somehow essentially gotten off track, somehow I’ve become something I was never born to be. But how could I?
There is no difference or meaningful distinction between the grandest accident and the grandest design; they are all fragile human frames we place upon the heaven-hell of what merely is.
I try and remind myself, ‘Go feel the warm light of the summer sun. Go feel the chill of the moonless winter night. They are two halves to a coin; inevitably linked to one another. Both are necessary.’
I say to myself, ‘You are as you were born to be, your struggles and learning, your triumphs and failures exactly as they were supposed to be.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not (and how could one ultimately determine that?) the saying-believing of it changes me.
For all the people who suffer, collectively and on an individual level; they need food, and compassion, and shelter, and security, and care, and love, and tribe, and the potential to discover or make meaningful work for themselves. We can never have ‘enough’ of any of these things to feel transcendentally secure because everything must change, so we need to take solace in having ‘plenty’ of these things when we do have enough of them (because sometimes and some people don’t). I also suspect as moderns we especially need better stories, ones that make it ok to feel sad and depressed, that doesn’t worship on the altar of everything is great forever and ever (or the sallow utopianism that it could all finally once and for all be solved if we all could just do _). I suspect we most especially need stories that help us view our problems as their actual size and shape, ones that present us more or less as we are. We are story domesticated great apes; we learn, we KNOW through and with stories.
So… what story do you want to tell about all this? By choosing what to pay attention to and how, we can change damn near everything for ourselves. We can play better, safer, more inclusive games than ever before. We can suffer less, and enjoy more; and help all those we touch, all those who come next to do the same.