What would you do?

Imagine there’s a person you hate more than you hate any other human being; indeed, this may well be the only person you truly hate, more than Hitler or Stalin, more than Ted Bundy, more than your most loathed and offensive political antitheses.

This person’s every habit disgusts and repulses you.  Their laughter is at best grating, and at worse rings false in your ears, less melodious than a braying donkey.  Their wit is sophomoric, their wisdom trite clichés.  Their physical presence is frankly appalling; they stink, their breath is nauseating, their hair and their body habitus are the quintessence of unattractiveness, their features are disturbingly asymmetric, their ears protrude oddly and unevenly, their nose is off-center, and their posture makes you feel uncomfortable.  Even their flatulence is exceptionally rancid, as though some of their own internal organs have already begun to decay while they still live.

Lest we be mired in the superficial, it’s also clear that this person is horribly selfish, petty, irritable, judgmental, condescending—hateful and misanthropic, nihilistic, dismissive of all possible goodness.  They wish foul and horrific vengeance upon even strangers who commit the most minor of offenses, and were they given power and impunity, they would no doubt leave much of the world a wasteland.

When you see others treat this person with courtesy, with kindness, and even at times with respect, you cannot comprehend how they could be so fully duped.  Do they not realize what a Lovecraftian monstrosity it is with which they are interacting?  Do they not recognize, at some level, how appalling and foul this person is?  Don’t they know that the few seemingly kind, or mildly impressive, things that this person does are merely traps full of inevitable betrayal and disappointment?  Don’t they realize that this person always fails those who rely upon him, always disappoints those who expect anything good from him.  Can’t they see, just by looking, that he’s the living refutation of goodness itself, the very force of entropic chaos made flesh?  Or perhaps that grandiosity pays too high a compliment?  Can they not at least see that he is utterly pathetic, as pointless as any slime mold, but with none of the biological interest and uniqueness that might justify attention or curiosity?

Does not at least some part of them—some deep, animal instinct for self-preservation—cause the hackles to rise on the backs of their necks when they get too close to this person?  Do they not find that he would be worthy of pity if he were not so inescapably repugnant, so completely deserving of each and every bad thing that happens to him?

What if you knew such a person?  What if that person were part of your life, and had been for as long as you could remember?  You’re encouraged to love this person, but that’s akin to someone recommending that you love Jeffrey Dahmer, or Timothy McVeigh, Pol Pot, or the Boston Strangler.  Maybe Jesus, the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, or other similarly elevated souls could honestly find it in their hearts to love this person, but for you…well, for you, a mere mortal, how can your attempts at love not be overwhelmed by all the ways in which this person is unlovable, the things you find impossible to ignore, even while others either brush them aside, or don’t seem to notice them in the first place?

Imagine some people even offered or suggested methods by which you could physically, neurologically, change how you respond to this person.  But that would surely be akin to imbibing Marx’s opiate of the masses.  Do they really think you would consider it a good idea to blind yourself to the presence of such a negative force?  Do they really think that such ignorance could ever be bliss?

They don’t know what you know.  If they did…well, if they did, they would share your loathing.

Imagine you knew such a person.  Imagine this person worked in the same place you worked, shared your commute, watched the same videos, read the same books; imagine you could never be free of this person’s reactions to these things, that you could never not be given their commentary on whatever you tried to enjoy, that their enjoyment made you suspicious that your own enjoyment was inappropriate, or even prurient.

Imagine that this person was with you wherever you went, waiting for you when you awakened in the morning, and still there when you finally were able to get them to stop annoying you enough that you were able to get to sleep—for too short a time, giving too little rest.  You never know a moment’s peace or freedom from this person in your waking life, and they often invade even your dreams.

There is no way you can escape from this person while you are alive, no way you can live free from the presence of the most loathsome, the most pernicious little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth, no respite from the disgust engendered by this person’s presence…

…because that person is you.  That person is yourself.

What would you do?

A daily game of roulette

As someone who’s suffered from dysthymia—not infrequently veering into full-blown depression—since he was a teenager, and whose personal philosophy is borderline nihilistic, and who suffers from chronic pain, and whose marriage failed, and who spent three years in prison in Florida for trying (naively, it must be admitted) to help treat other people who have chronic pain, and who lost his license to practice a career he’d worked at for a very long time, and—this is the most unkindest cut of all—who doesn’t see his children because they don’t really want to see him (one of them won’t even interact with him); and as someone who bothers to keep going at all mainly just because he’s writing books and short stories, none of which may ever be read by anyone other than family members and possibly old friends…as such a person, each day for me is very much like a game of Russian roulette.

The cylinder with which the game is played is very big, to be sure, and there are many, many more empty chambers than that one full-but-oh-so-consequential one.  If there were not, the game would have long since ended.  Nevertheless, if one plays that lottery often enough, one is sure, eventually, to “win,” and I play it daily. It’s been a very long time—subjectively, it seems like a lifetime—since I’ve had a day without at least a moment in which I suspected that permanent oblivion would be a net gain when compared to its alternative.  There’s plain few days in which I never feel like just lying down in the middle of nowhere and never getting back up, just letting the elements do their implacable work. There are many days in which I fantasize about wading into the Atlantic Ocean (conveniently nearby) and then just swimming out, as far as I can, until I can’t swim anymore. (This latter idea is appealing because it causes very little inconvenience to others; one might as well not be rude).

I’m not sure what keeps the other chambers of that roulette gun empty, to be frank.  It’s probably nothing more than that mindless survival drive that was brutally driven into my biology by the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of natural selection.  There certainly isn’t much inherent to the continuing struggle that makes it seem anything but a pointless, Sisyphean task.  I often feel like one of Tolkien’s Ringwraiths:  they do not die, but neither do they grow or obtain new life; they merely continue, until at last each breath is a weariness.

What sensible person would bear these whips and scorns when he could his quietus make with a bare bodkin?

Well…so far, I would, it seems.  I’m far from convinced that it’s the correct choice.  I spin that metaphorical cylinder every day, and I am, quite honestly, not afraid of the day when the hammer falls on a live round…not in any real, deep way.  But the damnable organism that I am just mindlessly carries out its functions, at high and low levels alike, without so much as a “by your leave.”  It’s most inconsiderate.

I don’t really know what to say or do about all this.  I’m not really asking for help.  I’m a qualified medical doctor, though no longer in practice, and I understand the neurology and the neurochemistry and the psychology involved better than 99% of the general public.  I’ve called crisis hotlines before and was once handcuffed by imbecilic PBSO deputies for my trouble—causing nerve damage in my left wrist that lasted almost 2 years—before being brought to a squalid and pointless place where the limitations of our mental healthcare delivery systems became even more viscerally apparent to me than they had been before.  I don’t mean to go through that adventure again.

I’ve been medicated (the latter occasion a case in point), and I’ve been in therapy, and I’ve used neural stimulators and meditation.  I’m quite well read in the philosophy and science and fiction and poetry and music on the subject matter, let alone the trite, banal, condescending, and sometimes frankly insulting social media memes that relate to it.  I sincerely doubt that anyone has any arguments about the topic that I’ve never encountered nor thought of on my own.  After all, it’s a subject that’s consumed me for three quarters of my life, and I’m a voracious consumer of information, who has little to no social life to distract him.

I honestly don’t know that there is an answer, and I’m not even sure what question I should ask.  Nature isn’t obliged to be satisfactory of our wishes or convenient for our needs.  I don’t really even know why I’m writing this.  Maybe it’s just to avoid misleading anyone about me.  I have the faculty of humor, and tend to respond to things I find funny, and to try to make amusing comments, and to show appreciation for good intellectual points, and for noteworthy events, and for fine people and organizations.  I have a strong sense of curiosity, and I like to understand things, and to share matters that seem interesting.  Because of these facts, there are times when I probably seem upbeat and positive, happy and amused; indeed, there are probably occasional moments when those descriptions really do match my mood, if not my character.

Yet the game is always there, every day.  The cylinder spins, the hammer is cocked, the trigger is pulled, and the firing pin strikes—so far—an empty chamber.  I’m not talking about a real gun here, of course (I no longer can legally own one); it’s a metaphor.  But it’s a true metaphor.  The specifics of the game are not literally as described, but the stakes are just the same.  And one cannot, in principle, keep playing forever.  I frequently can’t help but wish that some happy turn of fortune would take the game out of my hands, preferably in a slow, degenerative, and painful fashion.  But such is not likely to be my fate; I come from a line of mostly physically robust forebears.  I guess the slow, degenerative, and painful process for me is the very thing I’ve been describing, the thing that makes me wish for something more direct and literal.  I don’t know whether that counts as irony, but it is certainly an impressive little twist of the knife of fate, and that, I guess, it the only other weapon with which I am met, even as I spin the wheel of the first one each day.

The undead of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld say that life is wasted on the living.  I’m often inclined to agree with them, at least about myself.

Not all the time.  But a lot of the time.  At least once a day.

Whether I need it or not.

Requiem for a Zombie Father

I was listening to a podcast today in which two men discussed, among other subjects, the state of being happy simply for the happiness of the person or people you love, even if that happiness was without you, or was despite you (not a negative type of “despite,” just a happiness that was fundamentally orthogonal to your existence), or was in a situation that traditionally is associated with jealousy.  They were speaking specifically of a notion associated with the “polyamory movement,” the concept of Compersion:  A feeling of joy when a loved one invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship.

One of the speakers said that, while he thought he would have trouble ever feeling real “compersion,” he nevertheless thought that, if he were to learn that he was about to die, he would certainly want to know that his wife and children would be happy after he was gone, even if that meant knowing that his wife would marry someone else, as long as doing so would make her happy, and the new man would be a good stepfather for his children.

I felt a strange and disturbing pang when I heard this, because it seemed to me that his hypothetical scenario described my situation quite well…except, of course, for the fact that I haven’t died.  I’m a sort of zombie version of that speaker’s contrafactual: dead but still wandering around, too stupid to realize that I’m no longer among the living.  I do not grow or obtain new life; I merely continue.

I truly do want my family to be happy, though.  All of them.  And maybe they really all would be happier if they didn’t have to worry about some pathetic revenant who’s too stupid to know he’s no longer part of the world.

It’s a strange thing to find myself envious of a hypothetical, alternate version of myself—one who died, perhaps, of some relatively short-term illness or accident, after which all the other events in the lives of my former wife and my children played out exactly as they have in this reality.  But I do feel that it would have been so much easier—for me, and probably for them—than the Nosferatu “life” I’m living.  It’s all but unbearable to be the dead husband and father and yet still to be around to know it, to feel the chill and putrescence of one’s own dead flesh, to ache and yearn for the life one used to have, and that others have, but to know—despite not wanting to know—that it’s all gone forever, and to know oneself to be now merely a source of pain and worry for those who have made it clear that they are happier without an animated corpse in their lives.

What is one to do in such a situation?  I’m really not the sort who believes in reincarnation, unfortunately, so I don’t expect to be revivified.  It’s just not the way I’m built; it’s not in my nature.  I had my life, my family, the people I loved the most in all the universe, but now that’s over.  They’re gone—or, more precisely, I’m gone.  I died some years ago, and somehow, I’m still upright.  I suppose there are some who might admire the stubbornness of a cadaver who is unwilling, or unable, simply to accept reality and die, but personally, I find it a contemptible.  Then again, I’ve never been my biggest fan.

In “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Dumbledore says, “Do not pity the dead, Harry.  Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.”  I think he was right.  Death is, finally, nothing to be afraid of or to be pitied; it’s simply a state of oblivion.  It’s the restored default, a return to the ground state—the deleted file, the song after it’s through being played, the dance after the dancers have left the floor.  Life, on the other hand—especially the life of a walking corpse—can be a sheer cacophony, a lurching, drunkard’s walk.

What is one to do?  Where is my answer, or at the very least, my release?  Where is my Van Helsing, with cross and wooden stake, to end my career as an undead thing?  I’m waiting.

In the book “Red Dragon,” Will Graham says of Hannibal Lecter, “He’s a monster.  I think of him as one of those pitiful things that are born in hospitals from time to time.  They feed it, and keep it warm, but they don’t put it on the machines and it dies.  Lecter is the same way in his head, but he looks normal and nobody could tell.”  Though I’m certainly neither a murderer nor a cannibal, I think I know what he means.  I think I know how that feels.

I’m tired of being in pain, of knowing that I can never get back even a semblance of all that I’ve lost.  I miss my children so much, but I have nothing to offer them.  I even miss their mother as well, but I clearly have less than nothing to offer her.  Every breath is a weariness.

Phone calls aren’t old-fashioned, and a call from me isn’t worth the effort, anyway.

There’s a Facebook meme that I sometimes see, and it goes something like this: “Call me old fashioned, but I prefer a phone call to a text message.  I want to hear your voice, to have a personal connection, not just read what you have to say.”

I don’t think I have the words exactly right, but the gist of the thing is there, and it’s the general message and attitude of it that I want to address to begin with.  The attitude conveyed by the meme seems to be one of self-righteousness and self-congratulation—though probably most of the people who share it don’t feel that way.  To many of us that’s the way it comes across, though, and I have little doubt that the originator of the meme felt smug and snooty as he or she created it.

It’s to that person that I’m really addressing the first part of this post, but I also want to speak to those who thoughtlessly share the meme, causing real pain for some people, one of whom is me.

First, and perhaps foremost, I want to address the absurd notion that a phone call could ever be “old-fashioned.”  Humans have had telephones—in any form—for barely over a century, and for the first half of that time, the phone was a rarely used, and a rarely owned, item.  Phones as a ubiquitous means of communication only came into common existence in the latter half of the twentieth century, and became something each person carried on their person only within the last decade or so.  Writing, on the other hand—text messages, if you will—has existed in one form or another for millennia. Continue reading “Phone calls aren’t old-fashioned, and a call from me isn’t worth the effort, anyway.”

Against “cultural appropriation.”

I recently read an article that was written in response to a conflict between two professional athletes about the nature, the problem, and even the hierarchy, of “cultural appropriation.”  My thoughts upon reading about this frankly ludicrous conflict were basically the same as my general reaction to all accusations of “cultural appropriation,” and they are more or less as follows:

“Congratulations!  You are clearly and irrefutably safe.  Indeed, you are clearly and irrefutably among the safest creatures ever to grace the surface of this hazardous planet.  You have adequate, clean water, you have abundant food, you have superb shelter, you have protection from predators, from attackers, and from invasion, and you have a lifestyle that provides you such abundant and luxurious free time that you can invent problems about which to be outraged.” Continue reading “Against “cultural appropriation.””

Adulation and congratulations to Kip Thorne and his Nobel co-recipients for their confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves

Kip_Thorne_at_Caltech
Professor Kip Thorne of Caltech

I just wanted to write a brief posting about how delighted I was to learn that Kip Thorne was one of the scientists who shared the Nobel Prize for physics this year, for his part in the long-awaited confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves.

I’ve been a fan of Professor Thorne’s for more than two decades now (roughly), and have long regretted that he wasn’t more of a public figure, though that’s probably by his own choice.  I first heard of him in the post-script to one of the episodes of the original “Cosmos,” (added when the series was re-shown on TBS).  In that post-script, Carl Sagan mentioned that when he was writing his novel “Contact,” he wanted to ascertain if there was a legitimate, scientifically valid way for a sufficiently advanced race to travel great distances through space in reasonable lengths of time.  The person he asked, he said, was Kip Thorne, and it was Kip Thorne who gave him the information he used to create his worm-hole-using alien race in the book.*

If memory serves, Carl Sagan also mentioned that Kip Thorne had written a science book for popular consumption, called “Black Holes and Time Warps.”  (You can find it here on Amazon.)  The next time I was at a book store—probably Borders, my favorite book store, the loss of which has been a source of bitter heartache to me—I found a copy and bought it.

I have rarely been so pleased with a science book.  If you’re interested in a wonderful, thorough, but well-explained treatment of some of the more extreme aspects of General Relativity, I can’t recommend anything more highly.  Even Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene have not produced anything better (that I have read) on this subject, and if you know me, you know that’s high praise indeed.  This is one of those books that, when you read it, makes you feel brilliant.  This is because the author understands his subject so well that he can convey it in absolutely clear terms, illustrating it literally and figuratively so that these mind-warping (and space-warping) concepts make perfect sense.

Congratulations to Professor Thorne, and to his co-recipients for the recognition of their work on gravitational waves.  I remember that, when I first heard about the LIGO observatory, some years ago, and how it worked, I thought, “But wait, won’t the lasers and the space they pass through be compressed and stretched by gravitational waves exactly the same amount?  Won’t that negate the measurable effects of the waves and make the laser interferometry wash out?”  Obviously, this was not a question that wouldn’t have occurred to the people creating the observatory, and they knew why it wouldn’t be a problem, or at least not an insurmountable one.  I wish I’d thought to ask someone in the know when the question occurred to me.  I wish I’d known whom to ask (certainly at that time I could not have asked Professor Thorne himself, though nowadays he could probably be reached through Facebook or Twitter).

Anyway, I was more than happy to have my own dubiety (is that a real word?) smashed when the announcement was made that the waves had been detected, and then again, and now again, only within the past few months.  It’s not astonishing quite in the same way as when I first heard of the discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating (Wow, what an excellent, world-changing surprise that was!), but in other ways it’s just as awe-inspiring.  We (the human race) are on the leading edge of a whole new era of astronomy, one that could someday let us peer back past the last scattering surface that produced the CMB and catch glimpses of a time ever closer to the Big Bang.

I get chills.  Seriously.

So, despite all the other, horrible news, of disasters both natural and man-made, that we’ve all had to endure over recent days and weeks, we should take heart in the knowledge that knowledge is possible, and that, however easy it is to destroy things, the power to learn, the power to create knowledge, and thence to create new prosperity, is clearly much stronger.  If it were not, civilization would long since have been destroyed.

These are the sorts of thoughts that people like Professor Kip Thorne inspire in me…and I tend to be a gloomy person by nature.  Congratulations, Professor Thorne, and congratulations also to Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish, Kip Thorne’s co-recipients.  It’s people like you who help keep life worth living for people like me.


*Kip Thorne was also responsible for the bits of the movie “Interstellar” that were actually scientifically accurate, and he certainly cannot be blamed for any departures from legitimate scientific realism one finds therein.

Depression Can Be Powerful

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

-Kris Kristofferson

 

There’s a curious phenomenon I’ve sometimes noticed, wherein I find myself not exactly welcoming bouts of depression, but feeling as if they are normal for me—more truly me than other states of being.  There’s a dark familiarity that’s difficult to explain, along with a sense that my mind is in some ways clearer, saner, when depressed than it is at other times.  Certainly, my concentration often improves when I’m depressed.  I’m less easily distracted, whether by good things or bad things; it’s a curious phenomenon.

It’s vastly preferable to anxiety, but I’ve mostly gotten past that over time—having lost one’s career, one’s health, and one’s family, and having spent a few years in Florida State Prison, will tend to make other social concerns seem petty and trivial by comparison.  Similarly, fear of pain, and even of death, can be significantly blunted after having gone through enough grief—when one has felt physical and emotional agony that has led one not merely to lose one’s fear of death, but to wish for it, many things lose their ability to intimidate.  The greatest fear can then be simply that the pain will continue, that this life will not end.  But even that loses its urgency over time, and the pain becomes familiar.

This doesn’t seem to be a universal occurrence, as the many heartbreaking cases of PTSD make clear, but it’s also surely not unique to me.  There’s no doubt an accumulation of various life events, interacting with the baseline neurology and physiology of the individual, that leads to some people being hardened by circumstance, and others being eroded or destroyed by it.  Which one of these is so in one’s own case can, of course, be difficult to tell, even from within.  Even if we accept as a truism Nietzsche’s claim that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger,” it is no doubt a fact that some things simply kill us slowly.

Anyway, it’s just an interesting fact that often when I’m depressed, I feel sharper, more clear-headed.  There’s some data indicating that those with a history of depression are more realistic in their assessment of their own abilities, and of reality in general, than people not prone to depression.  I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating.  It’s not that depressed people are more pessimistic in general—though when in the grip of a full-fledged episode, many undoubtedly are—but that they simply evaluate reality more objectively, more accurately, more scientifically.

It may be that taking the blinders of comforting illusion away leads to a truer and more potent understanding of reality, even if it can sometimes nudge one towards despair.  Darwin’s “Devil’s Chaplain” has a sometimes-horrifying sermon to deliver on the “clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!” but even such a nature has grandeur and beauty.  Its beauty may be all the greater because it does not exist in reference to mere human concerns; rather, our concerns are subordinate to and contingent upon it, and are altogether trivial.

It’s not that the universe wants to destroy us, as Neil deGrasse Tyson has been heard to say in a playful tone (for if the universe really wished to destroy us, we would be destroyed); rather, it’s that the universe does not care about us one way or the other.

There is freedom in this, but as with all freedom, there is responsibility, and the recognition that one’s fate is in one’s own hands, to save or damn oneself and, possibly, the Earth.

Another benefit of the feeling of depression—no doubt part and parcel of the force that eliminates some forms of fear—is the urgency it takes away from mere happenstance.

The Tao Te Ching says that, if you accept death with your whole heart, you will hold nothing back from life (or words to that effect).  I’m not sure that’s always true; sometimes accepting death can simply lead to apathy.  But apathy can be a form of freedom, too.  As long as it’s a position not born of denial, but rather of acceptance, it seems a morally defensible stance, if not one that I want to embrace.

Having accepted that one will inevitably lose everything can be freeing.  This is especially so if one has already lost nearly everything that one ever placed real value upon, and come out the other side and realized that one has lived through it—and that one could do so again.  One comes to the realization that one is not deeply or profoundly afraid of losing anything, nor even of losing everything.  “Damaged people are dangerous; they know they can survive.”

I would take this one step farther.  Not only do damaged people know they can survive; they know that ultimately they will not survive, nor will anyone else.  Far from being crippling, this knowledge can be the removal of an onerous burden.  Knowledge that we are ephemeral makes life more precious than if it were eternal, but it also takes a lot of the pressure off.  The circumstances of one day, or even one life, are just not all that crucial in the scheme of things.  It’s okay if you fuck up from time to time.  Indeed, it’s okay if you’ve fucked up your entire life.  It’s not a permanent mistake.

That’s some of the freedom, the familiarity, and the perverse comfort that depression sometimes brings me.  It has its costs and its miseries—more or less by definition—but it has power, too.