I used to be good at being depressed. I knew what to expect from myself and others knew what to expect from me. I was that girl. It was almost a joke, although I was miserable and did feel truly alone, worthless, and angry.
I don’t know how to do it anymore. Monthly, when my hormonal changes peak, I just try to get through the day or days, knowing it’s temporary, knowing I haven’t fallen into a pit, but just tripped on a gopher hole. Allowing myself a little more distraction or a little more morbid indulgence than usual: dark fiction, climate reports, BoJack Horseman.
This week has been different, because it’s just not ending. I wake up in literal and figurative darkness – not despair, just not really looking forward to anything. That’s really rare for me, and it is a bit scary. I really think that’s the worst part of depression. No matter how bad things are, either because of brain chemistry or actual horrific life situations or both, the worst part is never the thing or feeling itself, it’s the fear that you will always feel like this. Like Kimmy Schmidt said, “you can do anything for 10 seconds.” Just keep restarting at 1 and you might be able to trick yourself that it hasn’t been so bad for so long. And since our slow-to-adapt brains are wired for patterns, we can tell ourselves that since it hasn’t gone on forever, it won’t last forever.
And then, of course, the occasional depressive looks for answers. Explanations. I’ve gathered a few: my job is boring me into an existential crisis. The additional job I’ve agreed to take on for the next 9 months is feeling like a terrible idea and gives me anxiety whenever I’m reminded of it. I seem to have finally entered recognizable peri-menopause, much later than my peers, after skirting around the edges for years, which may be the chemical cause of 90% of this current state, or the sugar I’ve been eating more of lately. And then there’s winter: white and greyness everywhere, shocking cold for this early in the season, concern for my homeless friend and discomfort with my own comfort; the isolation of being carless most of the time, of working alone from home everyday. And as supportive as my partner is, he’s the one with chronic mental illness. He’s not accustomed to being the light in the room. He asks if he can help, and I have no idea what to suggest.
I know it will pass, or at least change. I am an acolyte of impermanence. But it’s hard. It’s not as hard for me now to shed the identity by which I usually define myself (able to find the beauty in everyday moments), as it is to see the world so differently. How can the stupid shit that brought me joy yesterday leave me dry today. Why do the tricks that usually perk me up for hours (exercise, human interaction, good music physically enjoyed) now just serve to remove that weight for the duration?
Next week is Thanksgiving. I’m sure it will be lovely and I’ll feel fine. And after that I’ll adjust my diet and either tackle the tasks that make me anxious or give myself permission to let that go for the rest of the year and give myself some grace. As much as I don’t want to be in this place, I don’t want to have this perspective, I don’t want to feel like this, I am grateful. I do forget what it feels like to feel like this. While I’m sympathetic, I can find it hard to relate. How can others not see the beauty of life? the game of life? the joyful ridiculousness of life? the impossible connections we still manage to find among each other? The how doesn’t matter. The why only matters to the extent you can change the why. The isness is all there is when you’ve tripped on that hole, or fallen into it.
What remains? What wisdom can I carry from brightside Z to darkside Z? Just the impermanence and the not-knowing. I’ve done a bit of curling up and indulging in the surrounding darkness – I read Sabrina from start to finish on Tuesday night. But I am trying to stay open and let the cold sunshine in. I don’t know when this will end. I don’t know what will bust me out of it, or if it will just go missing some morning, but I am trying to stay open to the possibility that something might help. I go out. I volunteer. I watch sitcoms. I will do something very scary this morning that might do wonders or might leave me anxious, awkward, and alone. But I’m going to try it. Because something’s gotta give sometime. It always does.
later that day…
The scary thing was Dance Church: an unstructured, come as you are, leave when you want, pay what you can, DJ-accompanied space for people to move on a dance floor. Maybe it was that, maybe the philosopher I watched on YouTube, maybe reading part of Dr. King’s Strength to Love, maybe just the passing of time. Probably a combination of all those plus something unquantifiable. In any case, I’m out of the pit for now. And hopefully a bit more empathetic for it.
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.
I feel like there are two real questions here, that either get conflated or shrunken down to one.
How do we stop mass shootings?
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!
In my too-recent somatic experience of really feeling like a part of a mutualistic, interdependent world of plants, animals, and the constant exchange of electrons, anthropomorphism has come to mean something quite different than it used to. I don’t know if it’s the wider acceptance of Buddhist and Indigenous philosophies or the climate crisis or something else, but I’m also seeing more blurred lines in recent non-fiction books, including pieces about how the brain works, ecology, health, and others.
Here’s my supersimple explanation, based on nothing but my own education, of the evolution of anthropomorphism in Western culture. In the Romantic era across Europe and elsewhere, there was a shift in the intellectual classes towards an appreciation of nature and the other living things in it (some of them, anyway). You see this all over the English and European poetry of that era (late 18th-early 19th century), and the influence on American, especially Transcendentalist, literature as well. In a culture of hierarchies and human supremacy, granting human thoughts and feelings to “lesser” animals seemed a conciliatory and respectful practice. More recently, the ascription of human characteristics to non-humans has been considered childish and aspirational – something fanciful that we do to pretend that animals are more like us and force affinity where there is none. It is this position that is showing some much needed deterioration.
Unfortunately, some of the most habitual line-drawers between humans and others have been scientists. Much of the non-Right in this country is very rah-rah about science these days, and with good reason. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think that the purported objectivity of science precludes the field from prejudicial framing and, thus, prejudicial conclusions (see Braiding Sweetgrass for more on all of this). Naturalists, biologists, and other scientists of the living world have often been the first to dismiss talk of plant intelligence or the attribution of “human” emotions to non-human things. I understand how highlighting shared traits could be perceived as anthropocentric, that we should let animals just be animals. However, we can only understand the world in a context we recognize, and we are not just observers of the natural world, but participants in it. In order to participate we have to connect. In order to connect, just as with humans, we find things in common. If every emotional or motivational or intellectual connection we discover is dismissed as projection, it makes it very difficult to feel an affinity with other life forms. We are a part of this world. And other things in this world think and feel and act in ways similar to us. Trees have elders who help out younger trees, elephants perform ritual goodbyes for dead community members. Many animals hug each other with affection, or for consolation or conflict resolution.
Scientists employ […] technical language to distance ourselves from the rest of the animals. They call ‘kissing’ in chimps ‘mouth-to-mouth contact’; they call ‘friends’ between primates ‘favorite affiliation partners’ [….] if an animal can beat us at a cognitive task […] they write it off as instinct, not intelligence. Primatologist Frans de Waal terms this ‘linguistic castration.‘
Why Fish Don’t Exist. Lulu Miller. pp 181-2
We’ve hung onto this hard line between human and non-human life as if Darwin and his ilk never existed, as if we still didn’t know that humans are just animals that evolved in a distinctive way. We have been so enamored of our “superior” intelligence that we couldn’t even acknowledge that intelligence is a characteristic shared with other living things, let alone that others might be moreintelligent than us in any area. But we are finally starting to give non-human life the credit it deserves, finally starting to talk about the way trees send messages through forests to protect each other, the way octopuses and grouper work together to hunt, or a crow manipulates tools, as intelligence.
When we have acknowledged non-human intelligence, we have judged animals based on how well they can do what we have classified as “human” talents – recognizing themselves in a mirror, performing tricks, remembering where items are placed, etc. Anything that is not an area wherein humans excel is classified as instinct. This overused quotation is still sound:
If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
Or we will believe it is stupid. It’s even harder to get people to recognize the intelligence of non-animal life.How can something without eyes or what we call a brain think? Calling trees or fungi smart is almost embarrassing.
We have also held our species up as emotionally superior, capable of a wider range of feelings and sympathies than other animals, despite the at-least-equal amount of evidence that we are less compassionate, more cruel, and indubitably more destructive than any creature that ever lived. We see ourselves as more individually distinctive as well, less of a type and more of a solo creature, even though we are perhaps less able to independently care for ourselves than any other plant or animal, less able every year, it seems. Plus, anyone who’s had more than one dog knows that there is no such thing as a “dog personality”. Every dog I’ve had has been at least as distinct as each of my friends.
Indigenous cultures have had little trouble recognizing and respecting our species’ essential and interconnected place in the natural world, because to do otherwise would be to put your life and the health of your community at risk. The only way to live off the land is to live with the land, to recognize what was required of us and what could be expected of and negotiated with other species. The religions that emerged out of this life reflected that mutualism, just as European religions, placing the idle and intellectual above and apart from farmers and hunters and those who worked with the earth, created religions of hierarchy and separation. We have long dismissed indigenous knowledge as mythical and unscientific, because the science used was not recognized as legitimate. But it is science, based on generations of observation and experimentation, and with conclusions rationally drawn therein, just as with non-indigenous science.
Early “big e” Environmentalism believed that the best thing for humans to do with nature was leave it alone, as if we are not a product, part, and partaker of nature; as if we’ve become so far removed from the source of our very being that we cannot possibly be anything but a scourge to the living world. I’m not mocking. I get it. Certainly, keeping drilling out of the arctic and development off coastlines is understandable. This was a motivation behind our National Parks. Protecting nature from us is perhaps not as self-promoting as some other practices, but it’s just as isolating and unnatural. Seeing ourselves exclusively as a threat to the rest of the world is just as insane as seeing the world exclusively as a threat to us. It’s like labeling your liver as a threat – sure, it can do damage when things go wrong, but it’s also an essential part of the package, one the body can’t live without and one that cannot live without the body.
Why do we insist on drawing these lines? Does it make us feel special? Do we refuse to acknowledge our kinship with other living things for the same reason we refused to acknowledge that the earth was not the center of the universe? Is it some quieter but still extant idea that in order to have our Special Relationship With God, we must be different from everything else? Do we cling to the favoritism of a distant, immortal, esoteric being at the expense of forming meaningful relationships with our mortal kin all around us?
If we do tend this direction as a capitalist, Euro-centric culture, what good does it do us? Does separating ourselves from everything in the natural world improve our wellbeing in any way? If so, how? Because it allows us to destroy entire ecosystems, species, dramatically reduce the livability for most things on the planet, without compunction? Maybe the ease, comfort, and continual newness for which we sacrifice our world does make us happier, in a way. I certainly like central heat and Youtube Alan Watts lectures on demand, but they don’t make me any less lonely. The loneliness that emerged from deciding we were the only intelligent species on the planet may have created our obsession with the things and conveniences for which we sacrifice our only home in order to fill the lonely maw inside us. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that doesn’t seem very smart.
In the new edition to her gorgeous book, World as Lover, World as Self, Joanna Macy writes that our dependence on and concern for our othered neighbors may not be as alien as we are led to think, and the refusal to recognize our compassion for the world does not serve us.
Many therapists have difficulty crediting the notion that concerns for the general welfare of our planet might be acute enough to cause distress. Trained to assume that all our drives are ego-centered, they tend to treat expressions of this distress as manifestations of personal neurosis. […] “What might this concern represent that you are avoiding in your own life?” In such a way is our anguish for our world delegitimized,
and even mocked, especially when expressed by indigenous groups who have historically and spiritually cultivated and respected a connection to the world they interact with, and thus have felt the pain of detachment more deeply than most of the rest of us.
We are told that we could not possibly feel a true emotional connection to things that are not human, that the only legitimate loss is human loss (the loss of a pet is only considered significant if compared to a human, e.g. it’s a member of the family, it’s like a child). What does this denial cost us? How much less lonely would we be if we recognized our kinship with trees and squirrels and forests? It would likely place us more thoroughly in the world, which would benefit the rest of the planet as well as ourselves.
Going on a hike doesn’t just make us feel better because it “clears our head”. Nature itself makes us better in ways we do and don’t understand. MRIs have shown that
When participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated. It appears as though nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment.
Depression, anxiety, and drug overdoses are higher than ever recorded in the US. Where can we go for comfort? What if we could turn to a river or flock of geese for a sense of connection, endurance, shared struggle, and rest? We can, but we rarely view immersion in the world beyond the one humans have created as a real place of sanctuary, even though it is our collective ancestral home. Is the drama of the human condition the result of us putting our intellect above and apart from everything else?
Could the recognition of non-human cognition make our lives better? Could it make us better neighbors, better tenants? Could changing the language of anthropomorphism tear down the wall between us and the rest of the planet? I truly fail to see the harm in recognizing the humanity, for lack of a better word, in the vibrant & varied lives with which we share the Earth. Unless we are deliberately separating ourselves in order to keep guiltlessly extracting and destroying? Recognizing our kinship on a global scale would force a shift in worldview, one that might put a stop to our extractive and exploitative economy. I dunno. I think it would be worth it, for all of us earthlings.
I work for a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities. It has been an enormous educational opportunity for me, in the mind and the heart, especially the last few years as we’ve been putting more internal focus on understanding the history of disability rights and models of “dealing with” people with disabilities. This has had the added benefit of broadening my awareness of ableist language online and in print. (Y’all know I’m a word nerd.) Like every time another layer of scales is removed from my eyes, it’s a positive, but still mixed, blessing. Not mixed: recognizing the irony when a woman criticizing what she perceived as a fat joke on The Onion’s twitter feed called it offensive and “lame.” Taking the moral highground requires a bit more diligence, ma’am!
A word called out as having potential to offend folks with disabilities and their friends and associates is “idiot”. If you’re not deep diving into disability or etymology, you probably define this as something like “a person who is not smart” and something idiotic as “unwise”. The fact is, these common definitions of the words idiot and imbecile long precede the so-called medical classifications below. I don’t believe any words should be expunged from the language, certainly not because they were once associated with wrongheaded medical terms. But I do think one should know whereof one speaks, so to that end, here is the bullshit ranking of “defective mental development” from a little over a century ago.
Idiots. —Those so defective that the mental development never exceeds that or a normal child of about two years. Imbeciles. —Those whose development is higher than that of an idiot, but whose intelligence does not exceed that of a normal child of about seven years. Morons. —Those whose mental development is above that of an imbecile, but does not exceed that of a normal child
Edmund Burke Huey, Backward and Feeble-Minded Children, 1912
You may also be familiar with the illustrious Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ infamous statement in Buck v Bell (1927) that granted the right to ultimately sterilize thousands of people without consent: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
You can understand the painful potential of these words. But at the risk of appearing insensitive, the pain is not my primary issue. The Right Speech element of Buddha’s Eightfold Path encourages you to consider the following questions before you speak (… write, tweet, post):
Is it true?
Is it helpful?
Is it kind?
Does it contribute to harmony?
Is the timing right?
(Folks mostly refer to the first three. Harmony is a tough one to determine, but as a standup comedy aficionado, I love that timing is included.)
My objection to the way I hear these words being used today (and have used them myself) is less about kindness and more about truth. The too-common and too-casual use of the term Idiot to describe people we don’t agree with is increasingly grating on me. I admit I don’t always fight it, in part because it’s so pervasive and slips so easily into casual conversation, but I do balk when friends refer to anti-vaccers as idiots, for example. Because I think it’s inaccurate. People who believe a certain thing, as illogical as that thing may seem to us, don’t believe it because they have some overall intellectual failing. They believe it because people around them believe it; the sources they go to for information believe it; they don’t trust the people who are trying to convince them otherwise; or sometimes, maybe, because they were never taught critical thinking skills. But none of those circumstances are examples of stupidity: they’re examples of humanity, or bad luck. There is nothing inherently lacking in those people – they came to their beliefs by accidents of location, wealth, association, etc. just like all the rest of us. It’s also illogical that “stupidity” would have led folks to one belief unless “intelligence” likewise led all other folks to the opposite belief. There are widely varying degrees of intellect and comprehension on all sides. If you don’t think there are sheep-like, intellectually lazy Democrats and Progressives, you’re choosing not to see it.
Would any of this matter if it were just namecalling? Maybe, but not enough for me to be writing about it. The misapplication of these and similar words is both irresponsible and false. That is, it fails to recognize our inherent interconnectedness and removes us from responsibility for our fellow humans. If we write off Trump supporters or people who don’t see racism or flat earthers as inherently flawed, we fail to recognize the elements of our society and our humanity that encourage the groupthink or lack of intellectual rigor that we have decided they exemplify. If people don’t know how to recognize an illogical statement, it’s probably because the elements of logic weren’t discussed at home or in school. If they believe what they believe because their social group believes it, that’s no different from everyone else. Humans are evolutionarily designed to conform to their society – that’s what keeps us alive in a collective, thus we feel good when we agree with others and they agree with us. If people fail to easily recognize racism, it is in large part because our country has worked incredibly hard to hide blatantly racist policies and practices for the last 55 years, in particular, so that we will believe that everyone got where they are through intelligence, hard work, and good character, or didn’t get anywhere through some combination of failings in those areas. If some working class White guy with a public high school education born and bred in a rural, White area is told that Black people are discriminated against when he sees a Black President, a Black VP, Black sports stars and actors and business leaders, should we surprised when he laughs it off?
If there is a defining characteristic, a character flaw that should be called out in folks who cling to what many of us see as indefensible ideas, it is a refusal to change, to learn, to allow their assumptions to be questioned, to listen with the brain and the heart instead of the ego. Let’s call them rigidots. It’s free of any connection to disabilities in development, verbalization, or learning, and describes only a temporary state of being, not an inherent lack. And all of us are rigidots at one time or another. I’m a rigidot at least three times a day, perhaps only better than I used to be in that I often recognize it and try to soften when I do. There are antidotes to rigidocy any time folks with different ideas and perspectives can talk to the temporarily rigid like they’re not idiots, to approach them with compassion and curiosity and communal responsibility, instead of writing them off as sub-human or enemies. All terms that separate us, that mark groups of people as Others, reinforce our illusion of separateness and put another brick in the ego wall that keeps us apart.
Some of you may know that I struggle with deeply seeded self-loathing, despite actually liking myself quite a bit. I tried DIY brainwashing, which didn’t work. (Maybe I need a guru? Ritual? Drugs and a sex cult?) I’ve also tried changing my inner monologue – rejecting negative commentary, not allowing my dog to critique me in a voice that sounds a lot like mine. It’s really hard, y’all. Maybe if I put “be nice to Zoe!” signs in every room of my house. And on the inside of my glasses. And in little notes in all my books. And in post-its on every screen I view. It takes a ridiculous amount of attention.
Here’s the new plan:
I can’t hate myself if I don’t have a Self! You Buddhists and pseu-Bus out there know what I’m talking about. I believe that if I just stop identifying with the idea of the self, it will be the answer to all my problems and thus open up my capacity to engage & contribute to the world.
Easy enough. No more self =
no more self-loathing
no more self-doubt
no more self-judgment
no more selfishness
I was scrolling through Ted Talks last night while putting together a cheap compost bin, and was excited to find one on Not Taking Things Personally. Wasn’t crazy about the guy’s style, but the first half of his presentation was good. When people have a problem with you, it’s not about you. It’s about those people themselves. People react to you based on their own problems, preconceptions, and present state. Sure. No one sees what’s really in front of them, and there is no such thing as objectivity.
But then he addresses those (no doubt extremely rare) situations when it actually is your fault, and his solution is: compassion. Be nice to yourself. This pretty much puts me right back where I started: I am bad at being nice to myself, dude.
However, if I am just a collection of genetics, experiences, and particles, there is nothing to forgive, nothing to improve, nothing to loathe, nothing to regret. There is just this slice of life held together by a structure, some skin, and a more or less recognizable countenance. There is no master conductor that makes bad decisions and thinks bad thoughts and therefore no one to take anything personally when confronted by the perceived critiques or abuse of others. There is only the ability to incorporate that input into the particle stew and see how it changes the flavor.
Of course, the meal is incomplete without recognizing everyone else as their own particle hot dish, pozole, sega wat. (Thank you to the kishka of particles named Brian Greene for the particle idea of the self.) No one is really choosing the way they behave or the way they think. Everyone is a product of their environment or, as Buddha put it, (per Sharon Salzberg), “nothing exists independently of the causes and conditions that bring it about.” Judging, critiquing, excluding, ostracizing people for being the particulate arrangement that they are is pointlessly cruel and self-destructive. If instead, I can poke at that arrangement and try to reshape it in a way that I believe is more generous, more compassionate, more curious, if I don’t hate those particles for what they have been led to become at this moment, then I don’t tribalize and build walls and thereby prevent myself from using the most effective approach to try to recruit them to my antiracist, antisexist, humanist team. That is, I find the ways that our particles connect, find the shaping forces that we have in common, and recognize that neither of us had any say in being who we are.
But we do have a say now, at least in the sense that we have been brought together in this hypothetical moment and can listen to and learn from each other, to send our particles in a different direction going forward. Change is inevitable. How we change is contingent upon our environment, including everyone who reaches out to smack us down or lend a hand up.
I have a hard time just doing what I can. These days (ugh) in particular. There is the desire to shame myself for not doing more. You know the quote?
Do all the good you can, In all the ways you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.
The provenance is in question, but it was probably some religious leader. I should know better than to take advice from relgious leaders. But I’ll cheerfully latch on to any opportunity to criticize myself. Wheeee!
So I can read about Climate Change and create bite size chunks of facts for Minnesotans to absorb at the State Fair and write blog posts read by ones of peoples and bike to work and not have kids and skip that flight back to LA to see an old college friend. But I still felt obliged to attend the Day of Action for the Amazon (or whatever it was called) in the Cargill section of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Do all that you can.
Sooo not in my wheelhouse.
So not in my wheelhouse, in fact, that once I surmised the size (small) of the protest group, I decided to give myself a night at the museum instead. I don’t go to museums nearly enough! Being present with art is probably of equivalent spiritual value to the protest’s social value! Maybe I can weight them equally? Did I perhaps research whether the museum was open late that night before committing to the action? Was I looking for a smooth way out of the lack of fray, if the situation was fray-less? I’ve said too much already.
I have no problem being a number in a protest – one of thousands or even hundreds. I know that numbers are important and I’m happy to add to them. But to take public, political action in a small group requires certain qualities that I just don’t do well.
Keep it simple, stupid
I hated this when I had to do it in door-to-door canvassing, while completely understanding the need for it. To me, nothing is simple. Everything has nuances and unknowns and alternate theories and history and gray characters. But those subleties don’t get donations and they don’t get media attention and they don’t get supporters pumped up. Catch phrases do. Rhymes do.
Coordinated speech and action
Or what I like to disparagingly call Groupthink. Part of the problem is you need to be part of the group to be part of the think, and I tend to show up to protests alone and haven’t joined an activist group in a long time. (Ever?) Of course coordinated action can be visually arresting and effective when it’s a mass demonstration (take the prescriptions that rained down in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sackler wing) and chants and songs can show energy and purpose, and rouse spirits and draw attention. But coordinated action doesn’t seem coordinated unless it’s en masse, and I can rarely listen to a chant without judgment. I cherry pick my chants, and that’s not what organizers are looking for. Here’s what I hear from the maybe 30 or so people gathered outside the museum after their action.
“Did you hear? That museum guy said ‘a museum is no place for social activism!'”
“What? Hahaha! That’s ridiculous! Booooo MIA!”
So, was this guy a museum representative? A guard? I’m mostly seeing guards. I mean, was he speaking for the museum?
“Art is social activism!” All: “Art is social activism!!! Art is social activism!!!”
“Social activism is Art!” All: “Social Activism is Art!!!”
Hm. Much less so.
So I walked away, and they all chanted a little longer and took lots of pictures and seemed very pleased with themselves. And that is great. I am not being facetious. Those people have to exist – people with strong beliefs who are unashamed to be one of a few mounting a protest that will get no press and disrupt almost nothing. Because that is where things start. But I am not one of those people. It hurts my soul to pretend things are simple, because my soul is a place of complexity and confusion and contradiction. How do I Do All I Can if I don’t do this? Is this something I can’t do? How is that defined? What does the word “can” mean? Does doing all you can mean giving up everything in your life that isn’t benefitting someone else? If that keeps you from sustaining yourself as a human, isn’t that detrimental to the cause? If I gave up my job, my possessions, my time, my beliefs, would that be enough? Would anything ever be enough?
Of course not. And I do accept that I am not going to completely dedicate myself to the world outside myself. But I also know that what I do is not enough, and what I’m good at doing doesn’t do enough. So I’m going to the Climate Strike on Friday.
Maybe there will be lots of people there and I can fulfill my role as a body without angst before biking home, reading something important, and watching BoJack Horseman. Cross your fingers for me.
Last night was the last night of our 6 month, once-a-month, Unpacking Whiteness exploration at the Zen Center. I honestly got more out of it than I thought I would, and when we went around the circle to give a brief comment on our reaction to the process as a whole, mine was that I was surprised how much I learned from the White people in my group: that I’ve been exploring this topic for a while, unlike many of the participants, and hyper conscious of race my whole life, unlike (based on what they’d said) nearly all of the other participants, and I wasn’t sure I’d get much from the others in my little circle. But every week someone brought up something I hadn’t thought about, or hadn’t been able to put into words, or hadn’t been brave enough to confess to, and I deeply appreciated both what they gave me and the hope they gave me for the potential of other White people. Not that this group of Zen meditators is representative of all White people, but still, I’ll back pocket that optimism.
After we had all said something, anyone was welcome to pick up the talking piece and say whatever they were inspired to add. I didn’t think I had anything else, but a few people’s comments sparked (another!) revelation, and I decided to share.
So many Minnesotans I’ve spoken to talk about never having had Black friends, about having grown up in an entirely White community, about having no relationships with people of color, and it occurred to me that the very culture of Minnesota may in fact be racist.
I doubt that is the main reason why this state is still so white. I would but the biggest blame on the racial covenants that are just now coming to light, the people harassed out of their homes, the lynchings in Duluth, etc. But if you look at Minnesota today, how welcoming is it to people who aren’t White, Christian, and Mild? Minnesota Nice isn’t just about passive aggression and passing politeness. It means you made all the friends you’ll ever need in 5th grade, and there is no reason to let strangers into your life. It includes complaining about things to everyone except the people who can do something about it. It means not talking during a movie, but also not having the huevos to tell the person who is talking to be quiet. It means glaring at the person who laughs too loud; and calling the person at work who answers an emailed question directly, without copious smileyfaces and explanation points, “rude.” It means an inordinate amount of people who do not like to be touched, a preference I’d never before encountered. It means that social anxiety can go undiagnosed, because that’s just how people are here. If you are physically expressive, people think you are dramatic. If you are physically affectionate, people think you’re an artist. Or gay. (You probably are.)
I brought this up at work a few years back, when we were talking about culture. (This was before I was brave enough to bring up the fact that we were entirely avoiding a discussion of race.) Nobody was volunteering an answer to the HR Director’s question, so, like many before her, she went to me, because she knew I’d have something to say. I don’t really have a problem with that, except for that fact that in this workplace it is sometimes used against me. But fine. I decided to grab the spotlight and broach the issue of Minnesota culture.
Being indirect in speech, being passive, continually deferring to others is perceived as “normal” here. I know I am perceived as different or bold or whatever because I express opinions when asked, because I sometimes reveal what I know to be true, because I have the gaul to disagree with someone in a meeting where we are supposed to be giving feedback on a topic. You think this perception is normal, but it is not. It is cultural. My behavior was not unusual in Chicago or Los Angeles. It may have been slightly less typical for a woman, but it was not abnormal. You think it is abnormal because people do not typically behave that way in Minnesota, but your standard is not universal, and people who don’t follow that standard should not be Otherized.
Despite the reality that what I actually said was far less coherent, I had several people approach me in the days after that training to express how I’d opened their eyes. It was kind of stunning.
So my revelation last night was looking at this culture through a racial lens and finding even more that was unwelcoming. If I, a run of the mill middle-aged White woman, perceive this culture as repressive, what kind of impact does it have on various people of color? People who might culturally express themselves through spontaneous song or dance? People whose religion is built on argumentation? People who express trust and affection through touch? People who laugh loudly and look for friends across borders? So the Jews plant themselves in St Louis Park and surround themselves with other Jews. And then the Hmong came. And the Somalis. And they also tend to plant roots in neighborhoods that cater to their own culture. And why wouldn’t they? I don’t blame them, and I don’t think it’s all about the language or affinity bias. Minnesota, even Minneapolis/St. Paul, is dominated by a White, Christian culture in a way that Chicago and Los Angeles were not. Yes, the uber-culture in the US is always White, but there was too much of a mix of folks in LA & Chicago for any one cultural standard to dominate. I can’t define either of those cities by culture. When people do single something out, it’s usually an aspect of White culture, like the hippie laid back Californian, but that’s never representative. Minnesota Nice is far more accurate.
So it’s not just the poor transportation and the ridiculous rental prices that keep the Twin Cities from becoming Manhattan. It is our culture of Whiteness and Christianity. It’s oppressive and it is inherently exclusive. And it keeps these goodhearted meditators from having Black friends and Latino neighbors. It makes me sad, but recognizing something concrete always inspires me because concrete can be broken up. I felt inspired when I broached this in the circle last night. I thought it was another eye-opener, another way in which life could be improved for everyone. Something else we could work on!
But no one talked to me afterwards. No one thanked me for this awesome peek behind the curtain. No one openly agreed with me. Of course, that may be because I headed straight for my Chacos and walked out right after I helped put chairs away. I’ve never felt entirely welcome in the Zen center, and that also makes me sad because I set admittedly high expectations for Buddhist communities. Too much ceremony & formality for my comfort? Too little magical ability on their part to reach past my defenses and psychically will me to stay and commune? Aren’t they all enlightened already?!
Sorry for the inconsistent posts, folks. I’ve been wrapped up in a State Fair exhibit and thus entrenched in Climate Change lit. It’s taken an emotional toll, to be honest. I’m not proud of that. Oooh, middle class American White Lady feels bad about the warming planet. Pooooor American White Lady. Yeah. I’d like to come up with a better excuse for the depression that engulfed me when I dove into this swamp, but this is what I’m left with.
Happily, a different kind of climate change book has been helping me cope. I just finished Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, which got me to jump off the doom train and mount the bipartisan babble bicycle (sorry). I loooove books about the human brain and how it fucks us up. The Invisible Gorilla, Why Buddhism is True, and the somewhat discredited Thinking Fast and Slow are all excellent. This is another in that genre, but with the specific task of improving communication about climate change in order to push us towards a critical mass of action.
There is a lot of excellent information here: about our attachment to identity, our need to conform to the ideologies of the social group we’ve chosen, the way we assess risk, confirmation bias, etc. I could nerd about all of it for paragraphs, but I’m committed to the same goal as the author; improving communication and action on climate change. With that in mind, here is my biggest takeaway from the book.
Do whatever the fuck it takes to get people to move on climate change.
Maybe that’s a big extreme, or maybe it’s not. I could say that whatever the fuck it takes means chaining myself to an oil derrick or lying down in the middle of a freeway or blowing up a CAFO, but would that really be more effective that building support for carbon-reducing legislation? Most likely any non-believers who heard about my awesomely dramatic actions would be gifted with yet another reason to shun (what they view as) my “beliefs,” so those performances aren’t actually what it takes to get shit done. Let’s adjust:
Do whatever the fuck it takes to actually get people to act on climate change.
This is harder, because it’s not about declaring my convictions or self-righteously putting myself in harms way. It’s about doing what actually works, instead of what makes me feel good. And what works is letting go of my own narratives and beliefs and biases in order to join with my Others to fight the real enemy: the end of humanity and the world as we know it. (I don’t say the end of life as we know it, because that’s not necessarily an enemy or a bad thing. Moving towards a lower carbon lifestyle is necessary and can be even fun.)
This means I have to stop thinking of CC nonbelievers as stupid or sheep and start seeing them as vulnerable little human beings just like me whose circumstances have led them to the same kind of groupthink and bigotry and skepticism as mine have, just from the other political side. They critically distrust authority like I critically distrust the White House. They believe their community of caring, like minded people just like I do. They mold evidence to match their ideological beliefs just like me.
If I want them to join the fight against global warming, I have to make it their fight. I can’t just wait for the government to draft them into my war.
How do I do that? My embracing religious perspectives, by expanding the consequences of CC beyond the realm of environmentalism, by moving away from blame. It feels so good to blame, but it’s worse than unproductive. We have shared values, and if we identify and build on those, we may actually be able to fight the corporations that don’t have values because they’re not people with consciences but vehicles of production and profit, and the politicians who don’t have values because they’re only interested in what will get them through the next election cycle.
What are the shared values? Protecting children, being responsible, enjoying life, making decisions for ourselves, and maintaining good health may be a few.
So I clearly have the brilliant idea. I could work on turning it into actual communication. And I’ve tried a bit of that with the abovementioned exhibit. But how much is that really going to do? Who else should I be reaching out to? Through what medium? Why would any of the nonbelievers believe me, a believer, anyway? Any ideas on how to disguise myself? Help?
I don’t believe in free will. We can argue that another time. Right now I’d like to briefly discuss what this means when confronting issues of white supremacy and racism.
Denying free will does not mean denying responsibility. Certainly, one could choose to use it in that way, but that’s not my bag. Within the given framework that my actions are the culmination of everything – universally, politically, genetically, environmentally – that has led to the moment in which the action was taken, I still acknowledge some kind of “me” who understands ethics and feels compassion and has a history and as such, I am responsible for my actions. I am where I am because of the circumstances that have led me here, but now that I’m here, I am part of everything that has contributed to my current state. If this doesn’t make sense to you, I get it. I can’t explain it in a way that even I can fully defend, but it is what I believe.
Similarly, White people must accept responsibility for racism, even though their position of power, their privilege, and their ignorance may not be consciously chosen. We are where we are because of white supremacy, and we have hurt people with our words and our actions, inevitably. Taking responsibility means different things for different people, but I do think it must include recognition of current, pervasive, devastating and dangerous racism, and our complicity in it. For most of us, that means talking about it.
The White producers of the podast White Liessay that in their home state of Alabama, all the White people they tried to interview about racism and the Civil Rights movement said they’re tired of talking about all that. When asked when they did talk about all that, what deep, soul-searching conversations led to all this exhaustion, of course there was no answer. Because they have never talked about it. White people are worn out from all the conversations they’ve never had.
I’m not mocking them. It is exhausting. Carrying the collective knowledge of the shared White guilt of centuries of oppression is fucking exhausting. But the weight isn’t lessened by avoiding it. Talking about it, accepting our participation in racial injustice, actually does help. I have been talking about race for a while now, and I am here to testify, folks, that you can build White Racial Stamina. Can I get a witness! I’m not as fragile as I used to be; I can (sometimes) accept responsibility and recognize my complicity without emotionally devastating shame. It’s an endless journey, but I’m definitely further along the trail than I was even a year ago.
I am a living part of a living world, and just as there is no impenetrable barrier between my organs and the environment that keeps them functioning with Oxygen and water, there is no impenetrable barrier between my actions and the actions of the history that led to me. Breathe it in, clean it up, exhale the waste.
(Unnecessarily dramatic title brought to you by the allure of alliteration.)
Invisibilia is one of my favorite podcasts. Given, I only listen to half a dozen podcasts, but that’s because I’m picky, dammit. They recently did an episode on empathy, that left me with at least as many questions as answers, which is, in my view, doing things right.
Before I get into this, I’d like to try and distinguish between empathy and compassion (something the Invisibilia ladies did not do). You can disagree with my conclusions, but good luck trying to find definitive definitions. I’ve read half a dozen interpretations online and no two of them agreed. Even my trusty Shorter Oxford dictionary couldn’t help, for the simple reason that English just doubled up on the term by pulling it from two different languages. Empathy is Greek; Compassion is Latin. As much as I’d like to believe that every word in our ridiculously large lexicon is unique and necessary, it’s simply not true.
But I do think there is an important distinction in the definitions applied to the two words. When they are distinguished, one is taken to mean something like co-feeling: actually experiencing the pain, etc. of another. This is also referred to as Affective Empathy. The other is more like relating to, or understanding, or being able to identify with another. That’s called Cognitive Empathy, but I’m going to refer to it as Compassion, because that’s the word typically used in (metta) meditation, and I’ll use Empathy as co-feeling (except where I’m forced to do otherwise by the language of my sources). Compassion seems to have a level of useful detachment to it, which also aligns with Buddhism; whereas empathy gets you deep in the shit.
You may have heard that empathy is on the downslide in our youth. This conclusion is mostly based on self-assessments that have been administered to college students methodically over the past 50 years, with some cohort-wide behavioral changes tossed in for validation. Most of the guesses as to the why of it all have to do with decreased personal interaction with others due to technology, highly competitive schools and sports, and an emphasis on “success.” I’m interested in why it’s there, but more in our capacity to right the course going forward. And that ties nicely into the “punching a Nazi” culture that has compelled and repulsed me ever since Trump got elected.
The Invisibilia episode hinges on a clash of values – those of host Hanna Rosen, and producer/job applicant Lina Misitzis. Hanna fully admits that her goal, the show’s goal, is to help listeners feel empathy (either definition) for people who they might typically write off. When Lina asked her “Why?” I was stunned, but impressed. To me, compassion is an inherent good. Compassion increases connection and decreases conflict and isolation. It’s what we should be aiming for as a species. The most horrifying thing about terroristic acts is not what they do, it’s that they do not care about the people they perform these acts upon. Religious extremists are terrifying in their absolute assurance that they are correct, and that others are not worth correcting or worth giving a shit about.
(I was impressed with the Why because I think questioning any assumptions is a wise move.) Anyway, Lina’s position is that empathy is not healthy because humanizing people you are opposed to weakens your resolve to fight them. She said she had listened to an interview with the guy who organized the racist Charlotte rally, an interview that let him express himself like a regular person, and it started “fucking with my conviction.” I guess it’s natural that this worried her, but it ties into a couple things that I’ve heard a lot the last few years, and that I disagree with.
First, that anger is a great motivator, or that it is necessary to fuel action.
Second, Don’t Know Thy Enemy.
Third, Compassion is a limited resource.
To be continued soon. Sorry for the delay on this one, dear reader/s.
I’m attending a once-a-month, 6 month Unpacking Whiteness discussion series at a local Buddhist center. I signed up hoping to uncover an unbreakable bond between Buddhist philosophy and racial justice, where I often find conflict, at least on the surface.
More on that at some point. For the moment, I’ll just say that it has not served that purpose, at least not yet. And Yet, it has been enlightening in a different way. I wasn’t thrilled with the first session, but introductory meetings tend to be pretty thin. Most of the people in my little group hadn’t spent much time thinking, and less time speaking, about their own Whiteness and Whiteness in the world, and I facilitate those discussions whenever I can, so I was metaphorically twiddling my thumbs for much of the March meeting.
But this week things got good. By which I mean, they got vulnerable.
We started by going around the room and each sharing an act of historical racism committed by White people, preferably in Minnesota. I liked that everyone was instructed to phrase it as White actions, rather than Black or Brown or Red victimization. As in, “a mob of White people lynched three young Black men in Duluth in 1920” (fact) rather than, “three black men were lynched in Minnesota in 1920.” The passive voice is a powerful way to excise blame. I was intrigued by how many of the responses focused on atrocities committed against Native Americans. I don’t think that would have been the case in my hometown of Chicago. For better or worse, Minnesotans have more awareness of what they have done to Indians than what they have done to Black people. Many people think Black people just chose not to live here because it’s so cold or White; whereas, even if they can’t tell the story, they know Whites screwed over the people who lived on this land before us.
There were then two questions assigned to our small groups. How have you benefitted from White privilege and how have you been harmed by White privilege? The answers to the latter were particularly interesting. I honestly had no idea how I was going to respond, allowing me to, for once, answer pretty spontaneously. Everything I said bounced off of some excellent point a previous participant had made. Whether it was the shame I carry for being White; the feeling that any Black person would be crazy to trust me or any White person with real friendship; the fear of asking POC real questions about race because I know they’ve been burdened with the reality their whole lives; the oppressive White supremacist system of Capitalism and how it engenders competition, and constant dissatisfaction, and environmental destruction, and exclusion. (I highly recommend you have this conversation with a group of friends or open-minded strangers. Or in the comments below. I’d love to hear what you come up with.)
Our final task was to go around our breakout circles and say a few words about how we were feeling. One of the Zen priests, who happens to be in my group, said he felt terribly sad about the feelings of separation from POC that everyone had touched on. But I had to honestly say that I was both relieved and excited. Relieved that I had brought more muck to the surface, and excited at the prospect of embarking on disinfection. I don’t know how yet, but you can’t change what you can’t see.
There’s a tasteful sign in the most liberal of liberal coffee shops in my city that “asks that you use gender-neutral language when addressing its employees. Thank you.” Great. I have no problems with the sign. But I’ve whined to a couple of friends about not yet having the huevos to ask the business to clarify what they mean. Yes, I know what they mean, and most of their liberal patrons in their liberal neighborhood in one of the most gender-spectrum-friendly cities in the country know what they mean, but what about the ones who don’t? Continue reading “To Explain or Exclude?”→
Woman & Guy go out for dinner & a movie at the art museum. Pleasant conversation follows – good film, bad audience; good food, bad waiter – as they join the line of cars waiting to exit the parking lot. Woman, sitting in the passenger seat due to her low tolerance for alcohol, looks at her sideview mirror and remembers she got the car – finally, right?! – washed today. Did the mirror get moved? She asks the man if he can see out of her mirror. He doesn’t answer. She waits. She calls his name. He responds with mild defensiveness. She sighs, “it’s just … exhausting!” She presses her palms against her face, hard, and wills herself not to cry.
Zoe and I were sitting around a bonfire at an open prairie campsite when a chipmunk cautiously ventured from the tall grass onto the mowed trail next to us, grazing for crumbs. The little guy was easily spooked, darting undercover at any sudden movement, but who could blame him? Birds of prey hovered constantly overhead, scanning. Our chipmunk lived under relentless threat of death from above. Continue reading “Separation Anxiety: Is Feeling Separate the Enemy of Happiness?”→