“And I am of the universe, and you know what it’s worth”

I wanted to write today, but I had no specific subject in mind, so I figured I’d just start typing and see what came out.  Of course, I write nearly every day, no matter what.  Every work morning, I get up a few hours earlier than I need to, and I use the extra time to write…always at least a page, though usually more.  Most days, I write fiction, but though fiction cannot help but be an expression of its author’s character, it’s not quite the same as more directly sharing one’s thoughts.

One of the main uses to which I put this blog, “Iterations of Zero”, is precisely that:  to share my thoughts on various issues—scientific, psychological, personal, social, whatever.  Often, these thoughts are triggered by current events, and perhaps even more specifically, by people’s reactions to those events on social media, such as Facebook.

Facebook has been getting more and more depressing to me over time, though.  I mean, when I first got on it, it was mainly a way to reconnect with people I’d known back when I was alive, and it’s still good for that.  It has been good for that, anyway.  Unfortunately, it seems to distill the world’s stupidity in ways that are so overwhelmingly depressing that it’s all but impossible to bear.  Maybe it doesn’t cause this phenomenon, maybe it just brings it to the fore, allowing people to say in the hearing of the billion or so Facebook users what they would only ordinarily have said when drunk at a bar.

Modern technology makes it all too easy to create a Facebook “meme” and/or web-based “article” about almost any subject one might wish to undertake, including photos—which can easily be manipulated and adjusted to suit the needs of any would-be commenter—without having to go to the trouble of gathering evidence or making cogent arguments, and to share links and memes that other people—people who had seemed reasonably intelligent—will “like” and “share” in turn.

The quality of popular entertainment on television and in other media has always been hit or miss, but with the rise of for-profit news stations and reality TV, and then of social media, the actual level of intellectual discourse seems to have sought out, and located, the lowest common denominator.  Maybe it’s always been this way, and I just didn’t notice it until I’d lived long enough.  Maybe it really is getting worse.

So, I’ve been getting on Facebook less and less often.  I probably will never abandon it completely, since it’s the main venue through which I communicate with my daughter, and I don’t want to lose that.  But even such communication has its poignancy, its own bittersweet flavor.  I only connect with my daughter through Facebook (and my son, not at all); I only connect or pseudo-connect with anyone through social media, now.  But in all honesty, except for my daughter, there is no deep connection.  My social awkwardness is such that even interacting on Facebook, via direct messages or comments, makes me uncomfortable.  I don’t know why.  I don’t know why I care, and I don’t know why that caring makes it so much harder for me to do.  I just know that I feel utterly disconnected from the world on anything but the most superficial level.  I’ve no common ground with anyone at work.  I’ve no connection with any of my old friends; our lives are utterly separate and disparate.  There’s no one to whom I feel I can actually talk, though I’ve become quite good, as a matter of habit, at pretending to be in a good mood when speaking to family and the few others with whom I interact.

I’m at a loss.  I mean, I am writing my fiction and all.  I finished the first draft of Unanimity, a really long novel, at the end of January.  I wrote the first draft of a short story right after, and I’m now working on what was a random, walk-in short story that will likely become a novella.  But I doubt the world would be measurably poorer if neither these, nor any of my other works, were ever read by anyone again for all eternity.

I’m not even sure if I should post what I’ve written here.  It is, fundamentally, just an expression of depression and loneliness, and I think I’ve done enough of that, both here and on Facebook, without any sign of useful results.  Maybe I’m just too cryptic.  I’ve never been very good at traditional “cries for help”.  The one time I called a “suicide prevention” hotline, I got picked up by Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputies, who handcuffed me—injuring a nerve in my wrist—and brought me to a shit-hole of a mental health emergency place, from which I was released just a day or so later.  And while I was in jail I got put in a “suicide watch” cell with no mattress, no blankets, just a metal cot-frame (with sharp corners, ironically enough) and a thin, flimsy paper gown that fell apart within an hour or so.  These aren’t experiences I long to repeat.

Anyway, everyone to whom I might reach out is busy with their own lives; they have enough problems.  I have neither right nor merit to infringe upon their limited supplies of time and energy.  Maybe writing this blog is the best answer available to me, frail and limited though its use may be.

I considered titling this post with a line from a Beatles song: “And now my life has changed in oh so many ways.”  But the next line of that song is “My independence seems to vanish in the haze,” whereas mine is, if anything, more complete than ever before, and I’m leery of trying to remedy that.  I used to be able really to talk with my ex-wife (before she was “ex”) about nearly anything, but that didn’t turn out so well in the end.  I think that I’ve posted on Facebook and Twitter my fundamental disagreement with the poetic claim that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.  I know how I felt when I had never loved at all, and I know how it feels to have loved and lost.  I prefer the former.

That’s not saying very much, though.  I’d rather receive a hundred lashes than two hundred, but I’d prefer not to have either, thank you very much.  The people I’ve most loved in my life have uniformly found me unpleasant to be around (probably the people I don’t love would concur) and that’s a pain I could stand to avoid.  I frankly don’t even like to be around myself…quite the contrary.

I do wish I didn’t feel so depressed so much of the time (I also wish for world peace, and to eat all the junk food I want without getting fat, while I’m at it).  I’ve been treated medically and psychologically for depression in the past, but never with very satisfying results.  I even reached out to a former therapist of mine not long ago for a recommendation of someone to see near me.  The recommendation was given, but I never contacted the person recommended.  The prospect of trying to open up to someone new is too depressing in and of itself.

Also, I have very limited spare time, and I want to use what I have on writing, mainly my fiction.  My fiction is better than my non-fiction, though even it tends to be pretty dark.  Reading my work isn’t something that can readily be predicted to uplift anyone; I apologize for that.  I am who I am, and I write what I must, and I cannot be anyone else or write anything else.

Maybe I’m just tired.  I’ve been trudging along for ages through barren terrain, and I’ve been doing it by myself for nearly the last third of the journey.  I have no Fellowship, no band of companion gunslingers to accompany me on my trek to the Dark Tower.  Maybe no one ever does.  In a certain sense, we are all alone in our thoughts and minds.  But in another sense, humans really do have a sense of empathy and connection, we have mirror neurons and “theory of mind”, among other things, which make our relations with our fellow tribespeople visceral and profound, as real and biologically salient as the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.  Some of us, though, appear—by nature, by choice, by circumstance, whatever—to belong to tribes of one.  I don’t know how many such uni-tribes there are, but if one cannot even find people with whom one feels kinship even on the over-a-billion-people venue of Facebook, it’s hard to see where one is going to find them.

Maybe we need to wait for AI’s or extraterrestrials to arrive.  Or perhaps that’s too grandiose and self-congratulatory, as are my own frequent thoughts—bolstered by some science—that people with depression are fundamentally poor at being able to fool themselves about the nature of reality in order to make themselves feel better.  This is “humbloid” speech, really; we say we are poor at fooling ourselves as though we are being self-critical, when actually it’s a kind of bragging.

Then again, I would dearly like to be able to maintain a positive attitude—not at the expense of fooling myself about reality, but simply by not letting it bother me; perhaps by embracing despair and depression and coming out the other side.  I don’t know if that’s possible.  If it is possible, I don’t know if I have the skill or endurance to achieve it.  It’s hard to be optimistic.

Honestly, what I sometimes wish most of all is that I were not saddled by nature with the irritating survival drive that gets in the way of any possible rest, or at least of oblivion.  But that stupid, stubborn, mindless urge is fundamental, as nature has required it to be, for good, sound biological reasons.  This machine was built to survive.

What a stupid idea.

I think after all I’ll title this blog entry with a line from a different Beatles song, one that much more clearly expresses my sensibilities than “Help” does.  John wrote this one a few years later in his career.  He never did live to be as old as I am now.  I, on the other hand, am ancient—subjectively at least—and that agedness has effects on me similar to what it had on Vermithrax Pejorative in Dragonslayer.

Whataya gonna do?

I don’t like the prodigal son

I’ve always had a problem with the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  This is the story Jesus tells in the New Testament about a father with two sons, one of whom is well-behaved and does what he ought to do, whatever that might be.  The other is a wild child.  He goes out into the world, doing the local equivalent is of drinking, abusing drugs, partying, having lots of unprotected sex with people he barely knows, gambling, spending too much time playing computer games…that sort of stuff.  Eventually, so the story goes, the second son hits rock bottom, as one might expect, and loses everything.  Then he comes crawling back to his father, contrite, supposedly having learned the error of his ways.  The father, in response, throws a gigantic party, and everyone celebrates the return of the prodigal son.

The other son, understandably enough, is miffed by this.  He thinks it’s unfair that the return of the ne’er-do-well is greeted with a celebration, while he’s been there all along, doing sensible things, behaving good, being loyal, and there’s no party to celebrate him.  The father explains that basically he’s always happy about the good son’s presence, and that everything he has is his, but that the other son, who was as good as dead, is now back and it’s worth celebrating.

I’m really on the side of the good son here, precisely because the parable of the prodigal son is a good description of how we often behave toward our families, friends, and others. Continue reading “I don’t like the prodigal son”

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.

We shouldn’t assume that we know other people’s motives and character based on limited data (and it’s almost always limited)

I have a long and very important letter to write today (I haven’t been this nervous about writing something since college), so I’m going to keep this relatively short, but I did want to write something, at least.  It’s on a subject that troubles me quite a bit, that apparent tendency—at least on social media—for people to act as if they were telepathic or clairvoyant regarding other people’s motives and thoughts.

It happens so easily, and probably without much thought (probably without much ill-intent).  We see a post or declaration, or a political or social statement, and we infer from it all sorts of things about the source’s character, intentions, and morality.  It’s remarkable that we imagine we’re so good at such interpretations, since most of us very rarely have any idea what our own motivations and deeper thoughts are.  It’s apparently true that often we can recognize by facial expression and body language how our friends and colleagues are feeling more clearly than they recognize it themselves, but this is broad and crude.  Recognizing that someone is sad or angry before they realize it themselves doesn’t give us any reason to think we know why someone is sad or angry.

Yet if a person posts a meme supportive of the Second Amendment—or conversely, one supportive of stricter gun control—those who see this meme often seem to draw far-reaching conclusions, straw-manning the person and their supposed motivations.  The sharer must be a right-wing, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-government bigot, say; or alternatively, they must be a “regressive leftist,” communist, SJW, crusading vegan, who wants to emasculate all men.

How many people in the world would meet those descriptions accurately?  There are probably a few—there are a lot of people in the world, after all, and the Gaussian is broad.  But surely, most people don’t honestly fit into any such broad stereotypes.

Of course, maybe I’m making my own error by guessing that people perform such acts of unwarranted attribution based on limited statements and data.  Maybe I’m straw-manning the people online.  Certainly, there are many to whom I’m being unjust—or would be if I were thinking of them.  But mostly, I’m thinking of the people who respond to trolling and counter-trolling, and the ones who take part in internet-based debates that rapidly, or immediately, degenerate into name-calling matches of which most six-year-olds would be ashamed.

I wonder how people can feel comfortable engaging in such interactions on a regular basis.  Perhaps the anonymity, or pseudo-anonymity, of the online world helps people let slip their baser natures more easily.  We are free from the subtle cues of body language and expression that, as I stated above, give us a sense of how our interlocutor feels.  Also, the nearly-automatic echo-chamber effect of social media tends to reinforce our sense of identity as a member of a particular group, and that leads us to be more inclined to react to perceived outsiders as enemies—this is probably both defensive and a matter of “virtue-signaling,” or what would probably be better understood as tribe-signaling.  We are declaring to those in our tribe that we are members in good standing, and thus should remain welcome.

A similar phenomenon might be behind why a lot of people, many of whom don’t honestly subscribe to the tenets of their stated religion, continue to go church (or mosque, or synagogue, or whatever) on a regular basis.  They demonstrate not their actual beliefs, but that they are committed members of the tribe.

This is, I suppose, often relatively harmless.  But it is anathema to honest discourse.  And it’s only through honest discourse (as far as I can see) that we can come to an ever-improving model of the world, to come nearer to truth and understanding.  We can see how tribalism and partisanship, a reflexive judgmentalism and name-calling, has poisoned much of our political system, creating deadlocks even in a government currently dominated by a single political party.  Nothing gets done—or at least very little does—when those involved are just trying to demonstrate their “virtue” by assailing those on the other side.  At least, it seems like that’s what they’re doing.  Maybe I’m misjudging.

I don’t know what the fix for this tribalism is; it seems to be something innate in the human character.  But it’s surely not the only thing, or we would never have created modern civilization.  Perhaps a place to start, a small step, would be for us to try to curtail our instinct to lead or to respond with accusation and insult.  If we think we know someone else’s motives, we should stop and think again before believing ourselves.  If we want to bring a point of criticism to their attention, instead of reflexively spewing, “It’s gross!  It’s racist!” we might start by saying, “I don’t know what your intentions are here, but when you say something like that, it comes across—to me at least—as racist.  Is that what you wanted?”

I don’t know if that will work better or not, but I’d love to see the experiment tried on a large scale.  In the meantime, remember, just because you infer something doesn’t mean that it was actually implied.

Stop respecting emotions so much

I’ve said it before in other venues, but it bears repeating:  as a society, we need to stop giving so much respect and deference to emotions.  I’ve gotten push-back on this idea before, but it’s really not that radical, nor that negative, a proposal.

I’m not recommending that we abandon emotions altogether (if that were even possible), or try to suppress them, a la the Vulcans in Star Trek.  Emotions are a real, and significant, part of the experience of life.  Everyone has them, and they are interesting and important.  I don’t want to deny the validity and reality of any person’s emotional experiences, nor to dismiss the real pain and joy that emotional reactions can entail.  The human experience is an emotional one, and emotional states can be useful in many ways.  Joy over a success can lead one to try to repeat it in the future.  Outrage over injustice can drive a person to act against it.  Fear, as Gavin deBecker has eloquently pointed out, can protect us from real danger, which still exists in the world despite all our advances. Continue reading “Stop respecting emotions so much”

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.”