“There will never be enduring peace unless and until human beings come to accept a philosophy of life more adequate to the cosmic and psychological facts than the insane idolatries of nationalism and the business man’s apocalyptic faith in progress towards a mechanized New Jerusalem.” — Aldous Huxley
The worst part of being bleak most of my life was finding out, in retrospect, that I probably wasn’t bleak enough.
I was, first, the one who was chided: “No one wants to think about death and despair right now, John, we’re trying to have a good time.” Then, all that dark shit I’d been talking about became unavoidable, and then became surpassed by actual events — hello, 2020! — yet that didn’t endear me to more people.
You don’t win lifetime achievement awards for soothsaying. Instead, you’re reminded (often) that nobody likes a know-it-all, and you’re still the heaviest lift at the party when it comes to steering the conversation away from the ditches of apocalyptic devastation.
Worse still, things keep getting worse, the conversations get less avoidable, the itch to scream still further darker things into the void nags and aches, and I’m still left with … Christ, even I don’t want to think about all this right now.
Anybody got any hope to spare?
First, The Bad News
It’s become blindingly obvious that anti-intellectual authoritarian fascism is on the rise here in the US, steeped in centuries-old racism, rooted in colonial-era imperialism, predicated on a hierarchy of personhood, amplified by American exceptionalism and amplified by predatory capitalism. That’s a lot of -isms.
Many of us are, justifiably so, viewing those who support and fan the flames of all that, as enemies. And, maybe on an interpersonal scale, they are, or can be. Yet I’d like to zoom the lens even further out … just for a second here, anyway.
I don’t think we are only up against those people. Sure, those people have biases and egos and tendencies and beliefs, yet they weren’t born that way … Not if you’re willing to believe that humans are tabula rasa, and not inherently good or evil, which of course, is a belief in its own right, and perhaps subject to its own criticisms.
I think, more severely and broadly, we are all up against bad programming. Those fascists? They’re up against it, too. They’re just either really losing that battle, or they don’t know they’re fighting it yet. Either way, they’re carrying out the programming’s orders, whether willingly or unwittingly. Ask anyone who’s had their mind changed about an issue, or a past harmful behavior: they come to loathe and lament their past selves and their past behaviors and beliefs. I know in many ways I do, and I have my mind changed often.
See, the world becomes a different place when you realize bad ideas, faulty logic, harmful narratives and predatory institutions are the true enemies, and you begin to see people as unwitting or eager vessels for them. It becomes more tragic, in some respects.
“If only they could un-learn what they’ve been taught,” you begin to say, as you lament the gradual darkening of the curtains in your mind.
Bad Programming Begets Bad Programming
We’re fighting norms and values, along with harrowing circumstances, all predicated on bad programming, upheld by unwitting or eager vessels. The scope of our fight lies not against the people across the aisle, but against the mistakes and atrocities committed and compounded over time, that have crystallized into foundational and societal illnesses that are damn near terminal in their severity.
That’s hella serious, and as pitch-black as existential threats can be: we’ve lost reality itself, and we’re wiping out the economy, public health, sociopolitical organization and environment all along with it.
I could be speaking in overly intellectual terms here, and that could be construed as a distancing mechanism, yet I’m doing so not to place the problem farther away, but closer to us all: what we are fighting is at the very core of who we, the collective and the individual, are. We are fighting our perceived truth itself. We are fighting the idea of what it means to be american, human, alive, a person, good, evil.
That’s not a far away problem, or a Democrat vs Republican problem. It’s a problem as native and essential to our own existence as air itself. And with each breath we take, and as the body count rises due to a pandemic being eagerly cheered on by science-scoffing loons, we must take a critical look at what we inhale, what we exhale, and what’s in the air we’re breathing, and how it got there. For if all we see is the doom around us, we’ll incapacitate our hope.
That Which We Allow Becomes
The trouble is, I think over the past several months, I’ve only allowed myself the ability to feel pain, sadness, rage, and loss. Positive emotions feel out-of-step with the times — things like hope, pride, appreciation and joy. I’m not sure how many others among us are unconsciously pushing away our ability to truly feel the full spectrum, even amidst the backdrop of all this darkness. Maybe I’m the only one.
Thing is, so smoke fills a room the minute you open the door to it, so darkness fills your soul the minute you dim your shine so as not to shine too brightly. I sit, muted, against the backdrop of a breakfast bar, consuming the day’s news and doom-scrolling through the outrage down my Facebook feed.
I keep my friend list small, yet it’s filled with activists and empaths, and so I’m constantly bombarded with messages of, “if you’re not mad, you are the problem,” and things like that. Yet my surge capacity for caring had it’s circuit tripped for months, and I’m running on backup generators at this point. The depression’s relentless. The fear’s unending. I’ve lost sleep, gained weight, grown reclusive, given in to despair.
That which we allow becomes. We can only allow so much. And while en masse we’re allowing the greatest heist of decency and democracy the world’s ever seen, individually we can’t allow ourselves to be corrupted by the total influence of negative information. Humans were not wired to consume this much tragedy, this quickly, this often, this severely. So data increases exponentially, our capacity to process it does not proportionately rise with it. We crater, collapse, shatter and bleed. The darkness wins again.
You’re No Good When You’re Crestfallen
I struck up a convo with an ol’ writer friend earlier today, and she asked how I was. This was my answer:
“I’m great. I met a local, compatible, delightful women while under quarantine. I’ve secured my most eclectic roster of clients ever. I run and read and meditate every day. I’ve never drank this much water, cooked this much, or spent this little money. And …
…. LOL no, of course I’m miserable. Are you kidding? Democracy is falling apart and I’m gaining weight and losing money, and haven’t seen anyone who isn’t my love from 3 months ago since fucking almost February.”
Both statements are equally true. I’m better to myself than I’ve ever been, yet that world has chosen not to cooperate. I have days that are great, days that are tire-fires, but most days are a mix of mundane monotony and existential dread.
I’m not “killing it” this year (only police and the pandemic qualify as anything that could be considered “killing it” this year, and I don’t mean that kindly). I’m also not relentlessly upset. That’s only because as the world’s continued to explode, I’ve retreated further inward and found another gear within. But when’s the last time you left an eloquent three-star Yelp review? Thought so.
In a way, we’re all just trying to figure out how many stars we’d give each hour, day, week or month, and while 2020 is, on balance, a singular strain of horror, our moods are largely still dependent on who we are, what we’ve already endured, how we’ve learned to observe or identify those moods, and how we’re working on ourselves to build up the endurance to make it through. In short: we need to monitor the amount of tragedy we take in. Too much threatens to submerge our sanity, too little leaves us shamefully aloof. I’ve yet to find the “Goldilocks” level, although I feel I’m meandering closer.
Be Your Own Hope
Ah, yes. That ol’ phrase again. The kind of hope that’s never wrong is that which flows within. The belief in yourself … to change, to improve, to strive, to survive, to endure, to love, to be. To paraphrase the (slightly overrated) Kurt Cobain, the sun might be gone, but you still have a light.
So go easy on yourself. Try not to think about the future. Instead, think about the present. How can you win the next hour, the next day? How can you be of most value — to yourself, to your family, to your community, and to the earth itself? You still have the incorruptible capacity to create joy, and catalyze change. No one can take that away from you, no matter how dark they dim the lights.
I miss travel, dates, concerts, my future plans, the dollars I’m likely not making because of the pandemic, civil public discourse, being able to leave the house to go to literally anyone else’s (or anywhere), coffee-shops, other people, hope, hugs and all kinds of other things.
I don’t miss traffic, TSA, overstuffed schedules, feeling like I’m letting people down, the nagging sense of unexplained laziness, unexplained depression, too many fringe players clogging up too much of my chat windows or inbox, a crippling fear of failure or a compulsion to write more than I feel like writing.
I weep for (and work to re-imagine) things like public health, basic competence and decorum from our chief executive and his cavalcade of spineless enablers, explosive inequities and injustices too numerous to call out individually, the death of a functioning civilization.
In the meantime, I am gaining weight while running more, I quit smoking and my breathing’s worse, I’m happily paired yet lonely, I’m successful but not rich, I’m filled with both regret and pride. It’s a lot — and maybe more about me than you wanted to know — but if multitudes were easy to communicate, we wouldn’t have a need for writers.
Yes, you’re gonna do some good things between now and the end of this latest vintage of Hell on Earth, you’re gonna feel some pain and trauma, you’re still gonna spend 30% of your time sleeping, 25% working (or looking for more work), 20% eating, and a higher percentage than you’d like lamenting or worrying the ongoing devastation devouring us whole.
Yes, this is going to suck, and it’s going to suck hard and long and exponentially worse between now and whenever it’s done. But it won’t be totally joyless, or without meaning, or without wins. Not unless you allow it.