There’s a bit of wisdom going around in social media circles: that the real New Year doesn’t begin — here in America, at least — until Jan 20 (not incidentally the day we have a new president). I like that and I need that, because so far, 2021 is delivering no relief from the constant, unrelenting pain 2020 wrought.
I mean, we’re still losing thousands of people every day (more than ever, in fact). And less than a week ago, our actual capitol was literally assaulted by people who somehow think that our soon-to-be-ex-president actually won re-election, despite zero evidence in favor of their argument and piles and piles of evidence against it. And, oh, by the way, they plan to come back in greater numbers in capitol cities across the nation in a week’s time. No big deal!
As is no great surprise, the turning of the page on the calendar offers little in the way of change for things in the world. These numbers and assignations are all made up, of course… January 1st, 2021, could just as easily have been Hunsplith the 89th, 86742, for all the care the universe has for our resolutions and the new year.
And I know some people out there and even our own backyards have managed to be productive and to make forward progress despite all this turbulence … but it’s been nigh impossible for me. To have any awareness of the news at all is like listening to ambulances, fire trucks and police vehicles blasting down a residential street at three in the morning … all the time, every day.
Can we improve ourselves in times like these? Or is surviving, making it through one day to the next, all we can ask of ourselves?
Wife had symptoms at the beginning of the week, felt bad enough to get tested by the end of the week, and last night got her positive diagnosis. Meanwhile, I started feeling … ehh, not great about on Friday, and that’s developed into full-on yuckiness by today.
I got my nostrils roto-rootered out this morning, but that feels like a formality at this point. We have the bug.
And the big surprise about it is not that we have it, but rather how long it took for us to get it. Wife and I both work in schools, which — here in the South — have taken a bit more of a “we’ll take our chances” approach than schools in other parts of the country. Masks are optional. Social distancing is enforced “where possible”, etc.
But we — my wife and I — have tried a little harder than most, I think, to keep ourselves and others around us safe. And now we are forced (by our own sense of conscience more than anything else) to grapple with some tough questions. Who did we see in the past week? Where did we go? Did we really need to do those things? How many people might we have exposed, and how much responsibility do we bear?
This is a lot to think about, and for anxious sorts (like my wife and I — more so my wife than I but I, too), it snowballs pretty quick. So now we’re sitting at home with some unexpected days off, feeling gross because of this bug (though none of us, thankfully, are having any serious symptoms), but also feeling gross out of guilt and worry.
A plague on our house.
I’d love to bring something creative or insightful out of this, but I’m too cloudy-headed to think clearly about it.
I remember in the old-school Sonic the Hedgehog games, in the underwater levels (every game back then had an underwater level or six, didn’t it?), there was this great little mechanic. The levels were far too long to make it through on one breath of air (however long an animated supersonic hedgehog can hold its breath), so interspersed throughout the zone were little fizzing fissures that would occasionally burp up a hog-sized bubble of air. You’d jump into it, get a bubble-popping noise, and your little blue guy would have another lungful of air to press onward with.
The game design was great, too, there’d be a little number flashing next to his head to show you how much time he had left, and when the timer was almost out, the music sped up and got all panicky.
But you’d catch an air bubble, and it would sustain you until you could get back above water, or to the next bubble.
Or you wouldn’t, and you’d drown.
Anyway, in the few weeks since we’ve been back at school, I’ve had more than one student tell me that my class is the only thing making school enjoyable for them right now.
And I don’t tell them how much it helps to hear things like that, that I’m drowning, that the music is speeding up in my head and I’m panicking that I might not make it to the next bubble fissure.
But they tell me that, and I think of old video games.
So here’s a dirty little secret: I’m off my meds, and have been for several weeks now. I didn’t go off lightly, and I didn’t go off without a plan, but from the moment I started taking meds I planned to go off them. And though I accept that I may, in fact, need the brain pills for the rest of my life, I don’t want to need them, and want to give myself a chance at being normal without them. Which is to say that going off them is a thing I view as an experiment, more than a man-I’m-glad-that’s-over step into a new chapter.
Several weeks in, though, I’ve met my first challenge: last night, for whatever reason, I felt the chasm yawning open beneath my feet, felt the old familiar monster beckoning me into the dark. True to form, I couldn’t point to what was causing it; I was fine one moment and overcome the next, the way a shadow slips, without notice, into existence when the clouds part and the sun shines down. Maybe it was the novel work I’d failed to get done over the last few days (even though my days of late have been extremely productive). Maybe it was the episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale we’ve been watching, poisoning my thoughts and my outlook. (Good TV, but man is it bleak.) Who knows.
Point is, the anxiety / depression / spiritual dread was there, unmistakably so, and I felt its pull. Walked right up to the edge, peered down into the dark, saw it there. Not terrifying, not menacing, just dark and vast and empty, like the ocean at night. And the messed up thing? I wanted to dive in.
Here’s where I need a detour.
One of my fascinations (I know, I know, add it to the list) of the last couple of years has been mindfulness. And it’s one of those fascinations where, like, I admire it at a distance, the way you admired your first crush from across the lunchroom but never actually had any plan for approaching them, let alone speaking to them. I haven’t done any real reading on mindfulness specifically, in other words, only brushed up against it in passing, thought “wow, that looks awesome, I should learn more about it,” and moved on knowing just enough to get me into trouble (as I do with so many other things in this life).
What I know about it is this: mindfulness is a superpower. And I say that not to exaggerate and overstate but to communicate how powerful it actually seems to be.
To fully explain THAT, I need another detour.
A fact of this life is: we’re ruled by our emotions. Mark Manson’s Everything is F*cked details this a lot better than I can, but essentially we have two brains: the rational brain and the emotional brain. We like to think that the rational brain drives the bus, but it doesn’t. Our emotional side drives, and it sometimes allows itself to be influenced by the rational side.
Think about the last time you were angry, and said or did something offhanded or rude to somebody you care about. Was that you doing or saying the awful thing? Well, yes, but it certainly wasn’t a rational, clearly thinking you. The rational, clearly thinking part of you knows that the things you do have consequences, and it will keep you from doing those things that have unfortunate consequences. Like shouting at your loved one. You wouldn’t do that normally, but you were angry, and it just came out. The Pixar film Inside Out represents this pretty clearly, come to think of it. The little girl’s emotions take turns behind the steering wheel, and when Anger or Sadness is driving, well, she acts accordingly. (For that matter, Intellect and Rationality are characters not appearing in Inside Out. Pixar is cleverer than we even realized.)
Detour within detour over, let’s circle back to mindfulness-as-superpower. Mindfulness, as I understand it (and let me fully disclaim once again that I’m not an expert and don’t fully understand it), is simply the ongoing practice of examining what’s in your own head. Not trying to “fix” what’s in there, just noticing it. Moment to moment, turn a magnifying glass inward, see what’s in there.
Consider: A Jerk cuts you off in traffic, your blood pressure rises, maybe you pound the steering wheel or wave your hands at said jerk in socially unacceptable gestures, probably a few words come out of your mouth that wouldn’t come out in front of, say, your grandmother. Mindfulness says, pause, examine. That’s anger, your thinking brain will tell you. Anger is currently driving your bus.
Or: You’re at work, plugging away at a project you’re behind on, and a friend pops in, invites you to lunch. “I don’t have time,” you snap, probably more forcefully than you should, and the friend skulks away, and maybe you feel worse. If you can force yourself to be mindful in this moment, you do the pause and examine thing. That’s frustration, you realize. You’re snapping at your friend because you’re frustrated about work. Frustration is driving your bus.
Needless to say, the practice is difficult, especially when you need it most. But here’s why it’s worth practicing it (and why I am practicing it — in fits and starts and with various levels of success, but still, that’s why they call it “practice”): because emotions are no more material than fog, than a shadow, than the stinky aroma of last night’s leftovers that you forgot to put in the refrigerator. (Let’s just stick with the shadow metaphor.) The moment you turn a light on a shadow, it disappears. It simply evaporates; it cannot exist where there is light. Emotions do the same thing when faced with the harsh light of rationality.
What that means — and what I’ve experienced — is that the realization that emotion is in the driver’s seat kicks emotion out of the driver’s seat. The moment you can notice, when the jerk cuts you off in traffic, this is anger, you’re angry and that’s why you’re shouting and swearing, it suddenly feels very silly to continue shouting and swearing. Turn the floodlamp of mindfulness on the shadow of anger (or frustration, or disappointment, or whatever), and the shadow boils away. It may not fix the injustice — you still got cut off, after all — but it puts control back in your hands.
This is the superpower. If you don’t have to be ruled by your emotions in a world where everybody is ruled by their emotions, then you can act with a clarity that is denied to most people most of the time. You can literally change the way you feel just by noticing you’re feeling a way that you really rather wouldn’t.
For a bit more reference, Sam Harris also has a lot to say about this topic, though I couldn’t point you to any one particular clip or passage in particular. But this one looks good:
And here’s where we close the loop and I bring us all the way back (finally!) to myself, last night, standing on the edge of that cliff, feeling the pull of those depressive impulses, or if you like, feeling myself sliding down a crumbling dirt hillside toward the crevasse. Not thinking about the fact that I’m off my meds and that may be playing a role, not analyzing why I felt so crummy, just feeling bad and, perversely, thinking it was probably going to get worse, so why fight it?
This is depression, said the voice of rationality. For whatever reason, you’re feeling like sh*t. Depression is driving the bus right now. And, poof. I didn’t magically feel better, but the spiral stopped. I stepped back from the edge, I stopped sliding down the hillside. And I went to sleep thinking that was weird, I wonder what brought that on instead of thinking I feel sh*tty and everything is sh*tty and tomorrow’s probably gonna feel sh*tty too.
And I feel good this morning. Not great. I can still feel last night’s funk around the edges, but depression is not driving my bus. Restlessness is, a little bit, because I’d love to get out and do something but it’s too flipping hot. But so is contentedness, because I didn’t let myself fall into the abyss, and instead I’m writing (always a good thing) and my kids are on the sofa watching a movie together and being adorable, and I’m happy to let that feeling drive the bus for a while.
Mindfulness isn’t a cure-all. For depression especially, when you’re in the abyss, thinking isn’t gonna save you. But for the day-to-day struggles, when you feel yourself sliding? Mindfulness really is a superpower.
I picked up Mark Manson’s latest offering, Everything is F*cked, at my local library on the New Releases rack. Readers of the blarg will know that I love profanity, especially when it pops up in places it doesn’t belong (like a book title!). So I was intrigued. Of course, I also quickly realized that this is the same Mark Manson who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, a book whose title also pleased me mightily but which I never bothered reading because I figured — I’ve kinda got that covered. I’m notorious — and it drives my wife nuts — for not caring about what other people think, for giving the metaphorical finger to social niceties, for just putting my head down and minding my own business. But after reading Everything is F*cked, I’m rethinking my decision not to read The Subtle Art, if for no other reason than that I want to hear more of what Mark Manson has to say, on virtually any topic.
Anyway, I got the book and immediately began my campaign of defacement of public property, i.e. dog-earing the hell out of this book. Almost every page featured a passage or two that made me sit bolt-upright, the gremlin in my brain shouting “YES” at the top of its lungs, so this book took a beating. A loving, well-meaning beating (Dog-earing books shows them you care!), but a beating nonetheless.
Because I loved this book. I loved it so much that I had to read it slowly, digesting its insights and offerings over time, like the Sarlacc devouring its victims over thousands of years.
The thrust of the book is that Life is Pain, and the better we can understand and embrace that fact, the better off we will be.
While this isn’t particularly surprising news for an atheist at least passingly acquainted with cosmology and the physics of the universe, it does rather put things into perspective.
Rather than try to review the entire book, I’m just going to provide some quotes from its pages, for your own edification and mine.
The Feeling Brain drives our Consciousness Car because, ultimately, we are moved to action only by emotion. That’s because action is emotion. (33)
Much of the first part of the book is given over to the dichotomy of Thinking Brain / Feeling Brain, and how we think that we live our lives with the Thinking Brain behind the wheel, but we really don’t — the Feeling Brain is always driving. Anyway — this quote in particular is relevant to me because this is a concept I’ve attempted to communicate to my Acting students, if never in such succinct language. So I’m gonna be assimilating this quote for future use.
… silencing the Thinking Brain will feel extremely good for a short period. And people are always mistaking what feels good for what is good. (37)
I don’t have a whole lot to add here, except to say that this phenomenon is probably responsible for a lot of the tribal behavior we see these days. You know. Politically. And so on. Ahem.
The pain may get better, it may change shape, it may be less catastrophic each time. But it will always be there. It’s part of us.
It is us. (106)
If the first half of the book is an examination of how our brain deceives us, the second half of the book is an exploration of the thing that drives us — which is pain, and more to the point, an avoidance of pain. We’ve sort of become slaves to the idea that we’re supposed to be happy all the time, that pain is this thing that crops up from time to time, but with the right outlooks and attitudes, we can avoid it or fend it off completely. Nonsense. We are defined and created by our pain, in the same way that the application of fire and heavy blows from a steel hammer create a sword.
Children are the kings and queens of antifragility, the masters of pain. It is we who are afraid. (230)
Antifragility is this concept Manson deals with a bunch in the final quarter of the book: in a nutshell, stress makes an antifragile thing (person, structure, idea) stronger. And because most of us try to hide from pain, our bodies and minds lose this quality. But kids, who haven’t yet been beaten down by the world, don’t know enough to hide from pain, so they run towards it — and this has the paradoxical effect of making them stronger.
The book is a fascinating read, and for a guy who has been sort of wracked by anxiety over the past year or so, it was an empowering and enlightening read.
It also gave me the best summation of my feelings as a writer that I have ever read: