This Is How I Fight

Everything Everywhere All At Once

I wasn’t ready to propose solutions last week, and I still hesitate, because, after all, what hasn’t been said, and attempted, and written off and what can we possibly do about it anyway? I post this only as an attempt as a Buddhish perspective on this ongoing nightmare of violence and pain.

I haven’t delved too deeply into the current wave of ideas, because most of it is the same old story: lots of people centering gun regulation, other people focusing on mental health (though not doing anything to improve it). I did read Malcolm Gladwell’s 2015 article on the interesting theory of the slow motion mob, which aligns with the increase in fame-motivated and bigotry-motivated incidents (hate seems far too broad a term for attacks on specific identity groups), and I listened to an interview with Drs. Jillian Peterson and James Densley, (Minnesota!) Professors of Criminology who have written what seems to be THE book on mass shooters. Their research supports my (upcoming!) proposal, but like every human I know my brain is choosing which information it wants to hear, so I won’t claim objectivity. With that caveat, here are their key findings, based on extensive data and interviews. A few that stood out to me:

  • 80% of shooters were in a noticeable crisis prior to shooting, 40% had been for years
  • Psychosis was not a factor for 70% of mass shooters, and was minor in another 10%
  • 70% of mass shooters were suicidal prior to and/or during their attacks
  • Other than shootings at houses of worship (typically motivated by religious or ethnic hatred), shooters were part of the targeted community nearly 90% of the time

Dr. Peterson has summarized:

There’s this really consistent pathway. Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying. Then you see the build toward hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers. That turns into a really identifiable crisis point where they’re acting differently. Sometimes they have previous suicide attempts.

What’s different from traditional suicide is that the self-hate turns against a group. They start asking themselves, “Whose fault is this?” Is it a racial group or women or a religious group, or is it my classmates? The hate turns outward. There’s also this quest for fame and notoriety.

https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/05/27/stopping-mass-shooters-q-a-00035762

I feel like there are two real questions here, that either get conflated or shrunken down to one.

  1. How do we stop mass shootings?
  2. How do we stop people from wanting to commit mass shootings?

If you’re just interested in #1, then gun regulations make the most sense, especially those that restrict the number of bullets and the speed at which bullets can be fired. Obviously, background checks and red flag laws make sense. Putting age minimums on most gun purchases makes a fuck of a lot of sense, since the brain isn’t fully developed until our mid-20s. (Do I have to say it? We don’t think people are mature enough to drink, smoke pot, or, in some places, buy cigarettes until age 21; but they can buy an AR-15 as young as 18, are “adult” in the eyes of the justice system at 18, and can be tried as an adult when as young as 12, depending on the crime and the state.)

Maybe #2 seems too hard, but you want to reduce gun violence overall? Gun culture is one of the defining characteristics of the US, and the obsession with gun “rights” in some communities seems to prevail over almost everything else. Gang violence is dominated by shootings. It seems pretty clear that people are more likely to grab a gun in the face of internal or external conflict here than in other countries. Just look at the data on gun purchases during the pandemic. I doubt you read this blog for the research, but it’s worth noting that I could not find a single article on the increase in gun sales in other countries during the pandemic, while in the US nearly 20% of households bought a gun when COVID showed up, and 5% of those bought a gun for the first time. We view crisis as conflict and conflict as threat and threat as something that can only be fought with deadly weapons. Maybe there’s another way to think? Maybe we could see crisis as an opportunity for outreach and connection? Despite the emphasis on self-defense, people who purchased firearms during the pandemic were more likely to be suicidal. Suicides make up 2/3 of our gun deaths and the majority of mass shooters are suicidal.

Although folks like to put them in non-adjacent boxes, the culture that encompasses fearful self-defense and gun ownership and aggression goes to the source of #2. Why do people want to commit mass shootings? Whether they are glorified suicides or not? The illusion of separateness. Whether you believe it’s an illusion or not, the feeling of separateness seems to me pretty clearly the source of every act of aggression, ever. Sometimes the illusion is made unbearably realistic through abuse and neglect. As Dr. Peterson said above, early childhood trauma is the foundation of this behavior. Bullying is an act of separation, and creates feelings of separation. Inflicting abuse in general is impossible without the belief that you are harming a distinct, separate entity, even though the consequences inevitably impact both the one performing the action and the one it’s performed upon. Othering particular races or religions or other groups is creating separation, but young men like the Buffalo shooter are likely to join White Supremacist groups for the feeling of belonging and purpose they offer. If we want to stop people from committing mass shootings, we need them to feel connected to nonviolent, caring people.

Okay, great, Z. So what if we agree with you? What can we do about it? Can we force people to see the world in a different way? Can we compel compassion?

Last weekend we watched Everything Everywhere All At Once. It’s delightfully weird and fun, and, being the kind of nerd I am, I was particularly excited about both the fairly casual acceptance that there is no given purpose to life, and the transformation of the unimpressive husband from a nice, nerdy simpleton into a hero with one line: “this is how I fight.” That he is not supportive and loving out of weakness or fear or blindness or shallowness, but as a philosophical stand in the face of meaninglessness. His kindness is his weapon. I’ve said it before and I’ll surely quote it again: “If nothing you do matters, the only thing that matters is what you do.”

Big problems set us searching for big solutions. Perhaps that’s right, but the big solution to suicidal/homicidal acts may be comprised of millions of actions perceptible only to the actor and, sometimes, the recipient. What does it cost us to show a little extra kindness – a bit of embarrassment? A twinge of awkwardness? A minor inconvenience? And what is the payout – a potentially life-changing impact on another human and their community. I assume that every one of us has had a bad day in which a few words from another person completely turned us around. Kindness, just regular everyday kindness, has stopped people from attempting suicide that day. No one person can be held responsible for another person’s horrific act, but as a society we are not guiltless. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, because we are fundamentally interdependent and a connection to others is an essential part of every person’s wellbeing. I’m not a gamer, but I do appreciate the practice some video games offer – an alternative lifestyle, even. If you run across another character in a game (provided your goal isn’t to kill everyone you see), it’s generally a good idea to talk to them – you don’t know what you could discover. If we could play life with the same curiosity and fearlessness, I think we’d be a lot better off.

Yes, some people make it hard to be kind. Those are usually the ones who need it most. And yes, you should listen to your own warning bells and no, you can’t save everyone, and often you won’t even see the rewards of your work, and not everyone with a gun can be helped with simple kindness. But the return on investment is enormous.

Yes, vote to make it harder to shoot people, and support free mental health services, but I truly can’t think of anything that would make more of a difference than a concerted effort to be kind to people we interact with, to look at people as though they were something more than extras in our lives.

Upon completion, this all seems so obvious that it’s hardly worth posting. I hope it was worth reading. As by kickboxing instructor says, at least I showed up!

Art Hack

Art Hack

I cannot draw.

This is so true it’s not even critique. Playing Pictionary exclusively with non-artists, my work is irrefutably the most distorted, the least comprehensible. A horse may reasonably be interpreted as a capybara, a sailboat as a place setting. It’s one of those failings I’m no longer ashamed of, though of course I’ve always wished I could create a somewhat representative work, even if visual art is likely beyond my reach. Some people have trouble expressing themselves in words. I have not only been lacking in the ability to convey thoughts, ideas, or images in a visual fashion, I haven’t been able to successfully convey anything in graphite, paint, clay, crayon, ever.

Then, last summer, I started getting into trees. Not, like, physically into them (or just barely). But really falling in love with trees. I have to give credit to Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a book I would not have read if the author hadn’t had a remarkably forgettable name (a work I read of his years ago was one of my most loathed novels of the decade). For whatever flaws it has, The Overstory brought trees alive for me in a way that nothing in my child-of-hippies, nature loving, environmentalist past has done. I was suddenly thirsty with the need to know trees.

How does one meet trees? In the beforetimes, one would naturally show up at one’s local arbor social, chat up some tall, deciduous babe, maybe leaf together. But what of these pandemic times? Where does one socialize with a firmly planted, silent species?

Rather than returning to a method of learning that has, I now realize, always bored me, overwhelmed me, and failed me – that of book study and rote memorization (a methodology I think I may have repeated for decades because I saw it as a way to punish myself for my not knowing, ignorance being a sure sign of my laziness, ineptitude, and lack of intelligence, rather than an accident of circumstance), I sought another way in. I had been using iNaturalist at the recommendation of Jenny Offill’s ironically inspiring book, How to do Nothing in an attempt to identify local birds, so I posted some snapshots of trees in my area and begged the wisdom of the app’s community for identification, but soon found that there’s a lot more you typically need to identify a tree than a bird. A clear avian photo or song is likely to produce a positive identification from an avid amateur, but when I tried arborday.org’s tree identification gauntlet after iNaturalist failed to produce results, I found that with ~60,000 species on Earth, you need a lot of info to id a tree – info I didn’t even comprehend, let alone have the ability to produce (pettiole? pinnately compound? lobed margins? did they teach us anything important in school?). I had to gather data, and short of standing in front of a tree with my blech-inducing laptop to document objective information for long stretches of time, the best way to do that was to start sketching.

Not the whole tree. Too overwhelming for my detail-oriented brain, plus I am wary of attempting representation, for the reasons explicated at the top of this post. I was focused on essential pieces of the tree: the design and texture of the trunk, the exact shape of a leaf, the pattern of leaf placement on a branch, any acorns or fruits or other adornments.

Begin at home, they say. So I literally did. Not with the Black Walnut in my backyard – a tree I love so much I regularly ruminate on the heartbreak of its eventual demise (likely long after my own), much as I do with my dog (likely much sooner), but not with my partner (weird). I focused instead on the unknown boulevard tree, across the sidewalk from my front yard. I grabbed a camp chair and hauled my small stash of gear outside. I started with the trunk, carefully recreating every swirl, protrusion, and knot as clearly as possible with my new charcoal pencils in my new spiral-bound sketchbook. It didn’t take long to realize that not only was I not going to capture the 2×2′ chunk I had planned to draw, I would be lucky to finish 1/4 that much. It struck me that this was because I was essentially copying the details 1:1, that my brain hasn’t developed the skill to shrink the patterns down. I was literally just drawing what I saw, exactly as I saw it, to the best of my ability.

TREE!

Who cares? The year before, I didn’t think I could draw anything and now I had put something beautiful on paper. The intricacies of the trunk were engrossing. I could honestly have continued getting to know them for hours, if I had enough paper. Instead, I restricted myself to a small chunk of bark and moved on to a branch, being careful to accurately represent the characteristics I had seen on the arbor day site: how the branches grow out of the tree, how the leaves are arranged on the branch, the relative size, color, and texture of the berries all over it. Leaves are, bless ’em, portable, so if you tire of people’s stares, or worry about paranoid neighbors calling the cops, you can take a fallen leaf indoors for the rest of the session. My leaf was covered in little nipples (yep, that’s what they’re called), which I thought were bugs or disease, but turned out to be characteristic of my tree species which, after triple-checking with the Arbor Day foundation, a UMN list of common trees in my state, and a YouTube video for confirmation, I found out was a hackberry. As my first tree it is naturally special, but get this bonus: it has edible fruit! Those little berries that my dog regularly snacks on are tasty little morsels – very little, as the seed takes up almost all the space, but if you get them at the right time of year, the fruit tastes like fig. This was probably the best tree I could have started with, because I love to eat, and because I am always, in the back of my mind, looking for ways I might be useful after the demi-apocalypse. They’ll definitely let me live when I deliver these little delicacies.

Once I got to know this tree, I saw it everywhere. Not only because we were now acquainted, but because my block is lined with hackberries. Stupid human planning, and here’s hoping no hackberry disease comes to our lovely street anytime soon, but now I know.

This is the practical. I now know a tree. Several, in fact, as I repeated this practice some weekends while the weather was good – not as much as I’d like, but, you know, I know some trees, if you get my drift. The unintended but unsurprising bonus was how this intimacy breathed life into my spirit. I see trees differently now. I see the world differently now because I have paid attention to a handful of trees.

It can happen with any element of nature – birds, trees, insects, flowers. Once you really get to know a few of them, you are invited into a world in which the contrast has been turned up at least 100%. Once you know a thing, you literally see it in a way you could not previously. And once you can see that specific category of thing, you can use that awesome brain power to identify difference – how is this tree unlike my tree? What animals like to hang on my tree? What creatures prefer others? Which of my trees look healthy, which don’t? What in the immediate environment might influence that? The wacky thing, for me, is that all of these questions came from a place of curiosity, not of intellectual greed. The more I paid attention, the more my attention expanded. I started boring my partner on walks with my constant, simple observations like, Look at that beautiful trunk! What a scratchy leaf! Why aren’t there branches growing there? I don’t think one needs to know the name of something – cultural or scientific – to connect with it, but I do think I need to know some name, have some way to identify it so that it becomes real to me, and the ecosystem it interacts with becomes like the home town of a loved one – an abstraction now infused with meaning because it means something to someone you care about.

Until I started practicing it myself, I didn’t understand this apparent paradox: how can naming a thing, which is essentially putting it in a box and separating it from myself, bring me closer to it? I think of the neuroscientist who wrote about her massive stroke, explaining that the loss of words for the things around her allowed her to feel fully at one with everything. I don’t have a definitive answer (and don’t have to – I’m all about the nonbinary these days) but I think it has something to do with attention. For example, if we looked at all of humanity as nothing but people, it might keep us from stereotyping them as friend, enemy, good, bad; but if we resist any classification, we are left without an understanding of the whole or any of its parts. Once we start paying attention, we make note of differences, but also similarities and qualities and patterns. We start to see the object in relation to ourselves and other things we know, which connects it to us, even if only in difference and novelty. It’s not a perfect relationship, but it is a relationship.

Once I started paying attention to just the 1/2 dozen trees I’d sketched or otherwise identified in my neighborhood, I was also able to assimilate some of the knowledge I’d picked up from the books I’d been reading to theoretically connect with nature for years. For example, knowing that trees interact and act as communities to protect and defend themselves led me to predict and confirm that none of the Black Walnuts in the area would bear fruit this year because we had a remarkably dry summer and they were collectively conserving their resources. I felt terribly smart.

The living world has come alive for me in a way that is simple and tangible since I started sketching trees. I feel like I’m a part of my species-rich community, that we are actually connected in the sameness of growth and change and struggle and rest, and in the distinctions that live and breathe into and out of each other; our interdependence making each others’ existence possible. Knowing the plants and animals around you used to be essential to human survival in a quite literal way. Now those of us with a mediated relationship with our food and water can live without that, but it’s a lonely existence. As humans have isolated from the life around us, are we not like tourists in a foreign culture? Navigating our way through greenery and fecund landscapes either gingerly, not wanting to stir up trouble; or tendentiously, like an imperialist set only on extraction and exploitation. So many people are feel so lonely and disconnected. I think the massive pet adoption that swept many countries at the beginning of the pandemic was a wise response. Finding a way to connect to any of the infinite varieties of life that bloom in all but the most persecuted communities simply makes all life better.

Creative Imperfection (Perfection, pt 5)

Paris through the Window, Marc Chagall

We would have stagnated and likely died off as a species if we had settled for perfection. Evolution requires variation – a mutation from expectations, from what was extant or even conceivable before it happened. Our selectively cultivated foods – our pluots and actually tasty apples – came out of a desire for variety and difference: improvement, not perfection. When the focus shifted to profit, perfection took primacy over variety. (In the narrowest sense of the word profit, meaning a strictly financial benefit for the titular “owners” of the item in question, because the loss to the world has been enormous.) When we move from variation to perfection, we get shit. Look at the strawberry. Mass produced, global strawberries are engineered to be very red, very large, and very firm – the perfect image of a strawberry, and perfect for easy picking and long, bumpy transport. They are also flavorless. We are so averse to imperfect looking foods that we created a space for an alternative, radical industry based on selling “ugly” produce to people on subscription, because grocery stores won’t sell them. Because we won’t buy them. Perfect-ly good food, wasted because it doesn’t fit our model of what a particular food should look like.

Likewise, any ideal is just as timebound, subjective, and limited. Who created these standards? In the US, certainly, they are largely male, wealthy, White, able-bodied … you can keep adding privileged identities. What are those guys missing? The answers are infinite. Their idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. Perfect children were quiet and still and obedient. Perfect citizens conformed with social expectations and followed laws, which have at many times been exceptionally cruel and immoral.

What even is imperfection? Is it just a name we give something that doesn’t fit the way we want it to be, the way our necessarily limited human expectations circumscribe the parameters or potential of a being or object? Is perfection simply acceptance? Is that what Neem Karoli Baba demonstrated when he instructed Larry Brilliant to eradicate smallpox while unironically insisting that everything was exactly as it should be? Is a world without pain and horrors a perfect world? Or is the world always perfect, regardless of Global Weirding, genocide, pick your cause; and is our empathy and grief and work to change those circumstances as inextricable a part of the perfection as the ghastly circumstances themselves? Is a perfect world one in which suffering is present for us to relieve? Is that super self-serving and monstrous? That, just as plants and animals must die to feed other plants and animals, and forests must burn to allow for new growth, our human world must be filled with resource extraction and cruelty? Maybe. Or maybe we just throw out the idea of a perfect world and instead live the paradox of simultaneous acceptance and opposition.  

Buddhist, Native American, and other religions imply the idea of an individual entity being perfect independent of the community which literally and figuratively keeps them alive is absurd. Our selves don’t end at our “skin-encapsulated ego” (Alan Watts), and neither does the strawberry’s. That perfect strawberry is here reinterpreted as a massive failure because it poisons the soil, the farm workers who pick it, the air we breathe through the chemical inputs to grow it and fossil fuels to ship it; and denies nutrients and spreads disappointment to the people who eat it. In these interconnected worldviews there is no place for perfection, which attempts to delineate something that is by nature fluid. As the infinitely amazing Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy writes, we have deluded ourselves with the idea that power, or success, means domination. “This is not the way nature works. Living systems evolve in complexity, flexibility, and intelligence through interaction with each other.”[i] Evolution is never just personal; our environment decides which mutations are worth reproducing. Every creative act, every change is a collaboration between living things and their environments and cultures.

In the creative realm, the concept of perfection puts restrictions on what a thing can be, and creative potential can be smothered by such boundaries. If there is perfection to be reached, there is an idea of what is acceptable or appropriate, and therefore an unspoken idea of what is unacceptable, which is pretty much anything unfamiliar and innovative. If War and Peace is “the perfect novel,” where does that put The Vegetarian?[ii] Or Beloved? Or any number of works from other cultures that I have not been exposed to? What is a perfect face and who decides that? We’ve all seen the destructive potential of “the perfect body” and many carry that burden to the detriment of our health and happiness. The idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. At one time, perfect art was representative, and representative only of the “noble”. Every genre of art rejected the previous genre’s idea of perfection. Nadia Comanechi achieved “perfect 10s” in her Olympic routines in the 70s. Now that same performance wouldn’t even get her into the Olympics. But that’s just time, you might say. Indeed, time is a characteristic of culture, and just as arbitrary and whimsical in classifying excellence. Think of all we would want (in the dual, Shakespearean sense of the word) if previous standards of perfection were enforced. Future creators will say the same thing about our standards, even though that is hard to imagine. A culture of perfection makes the new harder to imagine. We assume that we know what a thing can be, and knowing is the beginning of the end. A beginner’s mind is a space for exploration, creativity, and growth; an expert’s tends to resist change

With perfection out of the way, there are so many more ways to be. Perfection is static, proscriptive, and therefore inhibiting. If the nature of all being is boundless, as Buddhism and psychedelics tell us, then either nothing is perfect, or everything is. And if we are perfect and thereby liberated from the pointless goal of achieving perfection, what could we do with the energy we now spend on self-improvement and material comforts to salve our cravings? We could make gloriously imperfect art, perhaps, or grow imperfect tomatoes, or form imperfect, diverse, messy, mutualistic communities that cultivate the joy of future imperfections.


[i] World as Lover, World as Self– 30th anniversary edition, p.152

[ii] The Vegetarian, Nan Kang, translated by Deborah Smith. Perhaps my favorite novel of the last decade. (©2007, English translation ©2016)