Category Archives: suffering

Way Up High in the Manhattan Sky

Reeling this morning from my all-Trump-all-the-time ulcer-inducing news feed of despair, I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. I’ve been a compulsive news reader since I learned how. And, for the last few months, my morning habit has evolved into a kind of shamanic pathworking. Not the startup-bro takes ayahuasca at Burning Man to dream up new apps sort of thing. More like: I drank the cobra venom and I might be having an aneurysm but, if I live, I’ll probably learn something. Because that’s why we read the news, right? To learn something?

My wife walked into the room, looked at me breathing in front off the laptop, and walked out. After living with me for close to two decades, she deserves a merit badge for humanitarian service. I accept this. Nevertheless, we can’t bring ourselves to compromise on certain things—when the enfant terrible will be impeached, for instance, or when certain GOP representatives will disrobe and start flinging fecal matter at Rand Paul live on CSPAN. You can’t agree on everything.

But one thing we do agree on is that, after reading political posts for an hour, one should not look at emails, blogs, or news about the academic job market or the entertainment industry. Doing so inevitably weaponizes the cobra venom to such an extent that instead of a golden journey to Ixtlan with Don Juan, one finds oneself slipping down to Xibalba with the Lord of the Smoking Mirror. Ghost jaguars. Shrieking bats. Night winds. Tentacles. The American Healthcare Act. Steve Bannon in a bone necklace gesticulating at the moon. A real bad trip.

I was just about to read some Penelope Trunk on why it’s better to marry for money and get therapy instead of going to graduate school for an MFA when my wife came back in and asked me if I’d lost all sense.

“I’m, uh, reading.”

“Why do you do this to yourself?”

“Because, um—what am I reading? Shit!”

I was still in a trance. Penelope had already led me partway down to Tezcatlipoca’s Place of Fear and Torment. I closed her blog and the five newspapers I had open in the browser before I could go any further, but the damage had been done. You never emerge from a news pathworking unscathed.

For example, I’d read in the L.A. Times that Dave Chappelle just cut a $60 million dollar deal for 3 Netflix comedy specials at $20 million per special. And, in all honesty, I got the same feeling I’ve had in the past while reading about Trump filing Chapter 11 six times and defrauding his contractors while possibly laundering money for the Russian mob; Bannon and Puzder beating their wives; and a recently fired U.S. Attorney getting headhunted to teach at NYU as a sweet payoff in which he can “continue addressing the issues I so deeply care about.” Right.

There’s something sickening there, like justice has nothing to do with any of it—just graft and lots of vigorous lying. How many gold-plated toilets do any of them need? I got a very unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach as I tried not to think that such things exist in the same world as the famine in Sudan or North Korean death camps or the East Chicago water supply so full of lead that 1000 residents are being asked to relocate. Don’t play in the dirt, kids. Just Netflix and chill.

Still, reading about Chappelle was a nice break from the moral Andrea Doria taking place on Capitol Hill, even if the obscene payout did make me a bit nauseated. I think Dave Chappelle is one of the funniest people on the planet. He’s brilliant. There is a very small cadre of extremely talented comedians in the world, of which he might be the foremost member. Very few entertainers are on his level and he definitely deserves to get paid for his work. There’s no question about that. But $60 million on top of all the millions he’s already made seems a bit excessive, no? How about that children’s hospital in Sudan where so many children need help that “the hospital has run out of beds”? I wonder what a quarter of a million could do there? I wonder what $1000 could do.

If anything, the article on Chappelle caused me to start thinking philosophically about what an amount of money like that really means in the life of any individual. I know you can buy a lot of bottles of Pernod-Ricard Perrier-Jouet. And I know you can reach a level where everything becomes relative. If you’re partying with the rich and famous all the time, $60 million might still be an important chunk of change, but maybe it’s not as much, relatively speaking, as one imagines at $50,000 a bottle.

I find myself thinking, what if Dave took 2 of those $60 million (he’d still come away with $58 million, which would be enough to purchase several small islands and a Bavarian castle) and devoted that fragment of his inconceivable wealth to changing someone’s life or the lives of several people who could would clearly and directly benefit? What could be done for someone who can’t afford a prosthesis, for example, or someone living in a shelter who doesn’t have the resources to get back into the workforce, or a family in the Rust Belt living in a transient hotel because they lost their house? Such people aren’t hard to find right at home in the great United States.

Moreover, it may be that someone with over $60 million in the bank could easily hire the right assistants (a whole team, a task force, an entire building’s worth of henchmen and secretaries) to make something like that happen ricky tick. We’ve seen far stranger things in the media lately. We’re bound to see stranger things in the months to come.

Cool dude.

I know Dave has been involved in a lot of charitable events and donated his time to good causes—all of which is as admirable as his talent. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about direct action in the lives of people who would be forever changed. Is that naive? It’s certainly not as easy as giving a NGO a big tax-deductible donation or volunteering to participate in a charitable event. Then again, genius-level comedy isn’t easy, either. It takes guts, brilliance, a gift, and the determination to make it happen—just like anything good in life.

Someone in college once said to me, “Yeah, money can’t buy me love, but a certain amount of money will give me the power to make finding it more likely.” I thought about that for years before concluding that it was pure garbage. You can find love in a ghetto. You can find love in a refugee camp. You can find love after everything has been taken away and you think your life is over. As my wise grandmother used to say, “If someone loves you, they’ll come and spend time with you while you mop the floors in a slaughterhouse.”

That seems right. Quality is not quantity. And love, happiness, tranquility, and the satisfaction of doing good work are all priceless, being essentially internal achievements and therefore free to all human beings. But one thing money can do is create conditions for healing the world. And that matters, maybe more than anything. Why do I bring this up after too much Sean Spicer on a Wednesday afternoon? Because it’s been making me ask myself the same old question: What is good? And, once again, I must conclude that quality and quantity are mutually exclusive categories. Show me what you’re doing. Show me how you’re going to heal the world. Then I’ll tell you what’s good.

What is it like to be Dave Chappelle—to be a brilliant artist and to have so much money that it sets you apart from every other artist in your field, except for a very exclusive group of people who happen to be as fortunate and gifted as you are? I have no idea. I do know, like most people, I love his work. But, at the same time, I think of the dreams most people have of a little house with a dog and a garden somewhere quiet where they don’t have to live in fear, of no more crushing debts, of a dental plan, of their kids having reasonable chances to work for a decent future, and of some kind of profession that doesn’t produce night terrors. And I know what it isn’t like to be Chappelle.

These are very modest dreams, but they’re ones that most sincere people have. Most people don’t need half or a quarter of a million to realize such dreams. Most people don’t need or want a super yacht, don’t need to be on the board of the Bank of Cypress, don’t need a tower in midtown Manhattan with their names way up on top in gold. Shit, most people don’t even need tenure—even though the failed sideshow entertainer who passes for our President wants to destroy PBS and the NEA just for kicks; even though, for 30 years, the academic job market has been run by people who dress up in SS uniforms and burn offerings to Ronald Reagan in their secret masturbatoriums. But I know reading about such things is imprudent. It’s Paul Ryan’s Popul Vuh.

So I’ll be trying to detox from the news for the rest of the day. Maybe I’ll work on my novel while I wait for the next paid writing assignment to appear in my inbox like sweet life-sustaining mana from heaven. One thing I won’t be doing is reading any more about Dave Chappelle discovering El Dorado. Because I feel reasonably certain that today someone’s going to die because of money and it won’t be him.

 

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On Passing Judgment

The robot ghost of Ram Dass, one of my favorite self-help gurus, posted the following to his Facebook page this morning: “The judging mind is very divisive. It separates. Separation closes your heart. If you close your heart to someone, you are perpetuating your suffering and theirs. Shifting out of judgment means learning to appreciate your predicament with an open heart instead of judging. Then you can allow yourself and others to just be, without separation.” This statement is why I love Ram Dass. His personal philosophy is so opposite to mine that I feel he is my spiritual uncle, still part of a family from which I was estranged long ago.

Since the dear old boy obviously didn’t post this himself and since the invisible automaton (whether human or a AI postbot amounts to the same thing) tasked with marketing his personality isn’t programmed for discussion—and since the commenters on the page seem more like the postbot than the guru—I will add some thoughts here with my morning coffee.

It would be easy to say, “Judge and prepare to be judged because this is human nature.” But responding that way is useless without a lot of support: what is human nature and how can we know it? What is judgment? How are passing judgment on others and the experience of judgment being passed on you similar and different? And why should this part of human nature be preferable to the idea, “judge not.” If I can’t develop some reasonable working hypotheses here, I can’t argue with the guru at all.

And yet there is something I feel when I read a statement like, “Separation closes your heart.” I think I feel angry, indignant. Same with, “Then you can allow yourself and others to just be, without separation.” So I want to explore these feelings as a way to at least get to some subjective truth, some way of knowing myself. Because if I can’t come up with answers to the above questions, more objective ways of knowing are foreclosed. In the end, while thinking about this, I have only myself, my feelings, my sense that something rings true or false. Where do these negative feelings come from? Why was I experiencing them when all the guru was saying was that it’s good to come together with people and try to understand them?

Inception

I was re-watching Inception the other day, a movie I like a lot and one that manages to be extremely clever while also being high-concept and super-formula-driven. And I thought about something a screenwriting teacher from AFI once said about the social function of movies, especially high-concept ones: they provide novelty (i.e. new information); the reinforce dominant social values; they offer vicarious emotional relief via a simplified fantasy life; and they generate a sense of closure (i.e. everyone lived happily ever after until the sequel) as opposed to real life where there is never any true closure. Inception does all these things.

After watching Inception multiple times, I felt like I finally understood it enough to think about it critically. And as soon as I reached that point, I started to get depressed because here was one of my favorite movies showing me something about all movies and, by extension, about human nature. Inception provides a complex matrix of streamlined ideas about lucid dreaming and subjective filters for reality (novelty / new information); it has the usual provincial social values of most action films (hero must set things right with wife and family who don’t understand what he has to do to make a living); vicarious emotional relief via a simplified fantasy life (unlimited funds, beautiful women, travel, super powers in a “heist movie” frame, and meanwhile the corporate energy moguls are portrayed as sad clueless cretins); and it gives a sense of closure (the Total Recall ending—is this reality? Does it matter if you’re happy?). All well and good. We can pick any high budget action film and get the same layout. But what does this teach us about what we need? Because we will obviously pay good money to get it.

What I realized while watching Inception for something like the fifth time is that we are indeed separated. We are indeed suffering. And this is so horrible that we need to enter another frame of reference (the fantasy world of the movie) for relief. Inception, like so many other movies in its genre and in general, gives new information because our days are monotonous and we are bored. It reinforces social values because we feel uncertain about what we are told to believe about our lives. It offers emotional relief because the conditions of our lives regularly depress and discourage us. And it gives a sense of closure because this suffering only ends at death and since we don’t understand death, we can’t look forward to closure there, either.

In short, Hollywood understands the nature of our constant pain and offers us a very straightforward transaction: pay a little and get a little relief. We might criticize the movie industry for this, but really there is a lot of sincerity there. Hollywood wants to make great amounts of money, sure. But people also want to make Star Wars, Escape from Alcatraz, Key Largo, High Plains Drifter, and Citizen Kane because of the power in creating something like that—the vast cultural impact that comes with satisfying the above human needs so deeply that people will carry some of that satisfaction for the rest of their lives. Because life will be hard for everyone whether they open their hearts or not.

Separation is a Given as is Judgment

So when the guru tells me that separation breeds suffering, I have to agree. But this is why I’m estranged from that particular family: we cannot avoid suffering and it is disingenuous to claim that we can. This is how I feel when I think about my own experience as a social being. Suffering is inevitable because culture depends on being able to use stable and replicable data (old, often monotonous, information). A stable society depends on shared values that are nevertheless constantly being challenged in a divisive and uncertain world and therefore need reinforcement. We’re very upset about these things. And nothing is ever completely handled. It’s never over.

I think I get angry at such self-help advice because it presupposes things can be solved. And that, if I only change myself, suppress something in myself, root something defective out of myself, I will have life handled. This makes me angry because it seems like a lie, like marketing, beneath which is a very old, very Christian idea: you are defective the way you are. You must atone for this defectiveness by conforming to the pattern we give you. Only then will you find release from your suffering. Rubbish. I would rather watch a movie and find temporary relief, then think about and understand why.

There is a lot to be learned from gurus advocating self-help and self-change, even if those gurus are engaging in stealth Christianity. I like Ram Dass for his infectious cheerfulness, his sense of humor, and his intelligence. However, when it comes to what I must do to feel better, my emotional sense is that I would rather indulge in who I am than try to become who someone says I should be.