I am a special snowflake

The other day as I was getting ready for work for what felt like the ten-thousandth time, I sighed and remarked, “The bloom has come off the rose.” My wife asked, “What, from [your fairly new job]?” “No,” I replied, “from my whole life.”

My shrink says I’m depressed and wants to give me drugs. I laughed and told him it’s not going to happen. He said I have two options: I can choose to feel better or not.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think I’m starting to agree with him. Yes, I can choose to feel better or I can choose to continue feeling like shit. But a pill just isn’t the answer, at least not for me. You see, if you’ve read any of my latest posts, you’d have noticed that I have been obsessing over magic lately. Or, more precisely, the loss of magic.

You’d think that for a [__] year old man, that I would have grown out of it by now. The illusion, however, that I was a special snowflake persisted. I don’t think it’s all that uncommon either. But that morning when I remarked that the bloom had come off the rose was perhaps the first time that I accepted the brutal reality that my magic is dead. Maybe I am a special snowflake; maybe I am exquisite; but I only look special to the other special snowflakes in my immediate vicinity, and even then only to a select few of them. To most of them and to anyone more than a meter away, I look like all the other snowflakes. There’s nothing exquisite or special about me.

The thought left me depressed for a day or so. As I mentioned before, it is a terrible thing to be stripped of magic.

On the other hand, maybe the terrible thing occurred much earlier, in the act of thinking there was magic in the first place. There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. And the trouble with thinking is that sometimes your thoughts don’t match up well against reality, and it is in reality that we all eventually find ourselves.

Correcting my vision, despairing not that my reality did not match my illusion, but rather that my illusion did not match my reality, is oddly freeing. Yes, there is no magic, but perhaps magic wasn’t my floor. Perhaps it was my ceiling.

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Illusions

Magic and illusions. Illusions and magic. It all falls into place now.

When we are young, we believe that our parents, or even all adults, have all the answers. Hell, we even believe there are “right” answers – to every question. How do they know everything? Why, to our little minds, it’s like magic. When this illusion fails, it may sometimes be traumatic, but it is also freeing, because it gives you a voice in the cacophony of voices that previously disregarded yours.

When we grow a little older, our illusions change and mostly appear to focus on that old siren – young love. There really is something magical about this illusion. You’re too young to know anything, so the idea that you could know anything about yourself, let alone another person, is ridiculous. But that’s what makes young love so magical – It. Is. Whatever. You. Imagine. It. To. Be. You don’t love that person. You love whatever perfect illusion you’ve created and stapled to a real person’s face. Ultimately, when the illusion shatters, either by their rejection of your stapling or by your finally seeing the dissonance between the image and the reality, the breaking of the spell is typically a harsh lesson. (As an aside, some people never seem to get the memo.)

As you get even older, you think you’re getting wiser. Parents and lovers take more realistic places in your life. You become more balanced, with the perspective that comes with experience able to mellow out the drama from your youth. Yet, illusions continue. Friends, acquaintances, bosses, colleagues, kids, even culture* continue to foist their preferred images of us onto us. And, in return, we project our desired illusions onto them. All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are not merely players, they are also directors, producers, cinematographers and, most importantly, special effects artists. You and your circle, walking hand in hand to whatever mirage has been jointly, subconsciously agreed to.

Did you ever stop to think how fucked up that is? The height of evolution (or God’s creation, whatever your priors) is self-awareness, and the immediate reaction of the self-aware? COVER THAT SHIT UP!! All the sturm-und-drang to get here, and we can’t get away from it fast enough. Instead of taking in the world as it is, the self-aware largely change the world to be what they want it to be by simply perceiving it the way they want it to be. It’s magic.

But you know what? There is no magic. That has been the most soul-wrenching lesson of my life. Imagine having something magical ripped from you and held in front of you, stripped of all properties that made it extraordinary – your parents, suddenly just ordinary people doing their best to keep it together amidst the stress of their own lives, completely unable to understand how their weaknesses will transmit to their children; your perfect lover, suddenly just an ordinary person that can’t hold a candle to the picture of romance or coolness or whatever-ness that you had stapled to her face; your career, suddenly full of ordinary tasks coordinated with ordinary colleagues; your friends, suddenly living an ordinary life not unlike your own notwithstanding starting something they are passionate about in an exotic location; your kids, suddenly just ordinary people, devoid of any of the cuteness of their early years that bonded you to them as if they were the most important, most interesting people in the world. A world suddenly without magic is a terrifying place.

Stripped bare, magic is just an illusion, a self-imposed mis-direction of your self-awareness. But I think I’m ready to forego the illusions.

*At a cultural scale, it’s a wonderful magic trick – controlling millions of people with nothing but an illusion. Depending on your alignment, this realization can be comforting or nauseating.

I Have Achieved Greatness, or the Importance of Doing Nothing

Don’t laugh, but I recently had a near-death experience. No, I’m serious. I woke up or shall I say that I regained consciousness from a place I had never been before.  It was like waking from sleep except that it felt like starting completely over.  Consciousness, I mean. The consciousness that awoke was not a consciousness that picked up linearly from where the prior consciousness had left off like when you awake from a night’s sleep. No, this was awakening from complete darkness, non-existence. Sure, I had my memories from a few days before, so this wasn’t amnesia, but it was more like the man in the machine left his shift and a new controller had taken over when production had resumed. This new operator had access to all of the machine’s memories and other faculties, but not to the meta-faculties of the prior operator.

The whole experience left me thinking of our place in the universe. How fragile not only we are, but even how fragile “we” are. All it takes is a little bump on the noggin and it is entirely possible that “we” can no longer be “us”.  How is that possible?

I grew up believing somewhere in my heart of hearts that I was or would be special.  That one day the world would see this incredible being or that I would accomplish something truly magical.  In other words, that I would become a statistical anomaly, which is a defining characteristic of those that become “great”. This belief was only reinforced when I became religious.  If you don’t look too closely, you might even be forgiven for believing that God created EVERYTHING for you. Like, you are the very center of creation.  Of course, not you, specifically, that would be incredibly arrogant of you to think that, but that honor is maybe reserved for a former or current leader of your particular brand of religion. Nonetheless, it is one or more humans who are the very culmination of the existence of everything else.  This notwithstanding the fact that the human race makes up a very small percentage of the biomass on earth, let alone its percentage measured against the mass of the earth, the solar system, galaxy, cluster or universe. Don’t worry, the magical thinking goes, it’s all about you.

But the biggest fucking trip of the whole thing is that we can’t even be bothered with the here and now of this fantastical universe-centered existence. We’re off preparing or becoming. For another day. It’s always for some other time. Religiously speaking, this life isn’t even special – the special part comes next, after. This life isn’t even about this life, it’s a time to prepare for the next life, whether with a god or just the next step in a cycle. Well guess what? Tomorrow never comes. From a career perspective, spend all your time studying to become a great Person-Who-Does-X-For-A-Job and what’s left at the end? It’s just a guy who does X. Why all the sturm und drang over the label, over the destination? It’s not fucking about the end, and it never was and never will be. It’s not about the prize at the end. It’s not about eternity. Eternity never comes. It’s about being, not becoming, dummy.

And here is how I know: recently, I became what I always knew I’d become: “great”, a statistical anomaly. I experienced and survived an injury that not many people experience, statistically speaking, and from which not many people survive. I AM SPECIAL! I HAVE ARRIVED! But, to where? The fact of my arrival has not changed anything. I am still here, experiencing my plain-vanilla life, as a plain-vanilla guy, no magic powers.

Put aside all the religious and ontological shit. Fact is, “you” however you want to define it, is here and now, reading this garbage. When you’re done with this, you will have time today to do more stuff. Who cares why or how this is so?  The only relevant question, given the fact of this vacuum of possibility, is what are you going to do to fill it? Questions of ultimate meaning, importance, purpose are interesting, but ultimately unanswerable and irrelevant. The fact is, you have awakened to this consciousness, to a game, the rules of which have been written long before your operator came online. You will do something. The only question is what? You can supply the why, and if not, there’s a long line of people willing to provide you a why, likely for a price.

In any event, my convalescing has brought me a great insight into the importance of a particular response to the question of what to do with our time: nothing. Stop planning, preparing – you’re already there; stop being opinionated – nobody gives a shit about your opinions anyway. Stop, look and listen. You are infinitely small – less than a speck of dust on a speck of dust measured against the vastness of visible existence in the universe. Our primeval ancestors had it right – gather with your friends and family and lounge around enjoying their company with nothing to do. Revel in the boredom. This is what we were born to do. This is greatness.

Rough and Rowdy Ways

I love music. It can be so beautiful and so powerful. I particularly love songs that capture pieces of my soul, that reflect my thoughts or emotions or that give voice to what I have heretofore found to be inexpressible.

At one point in my life, I have been religiously Christian – a true believer, performing the outward ordinances and keeping the observances that kept me “in the fold” of the religious community of which I was a part. I am no longer part of that religious fold, having undertaken a journey marked by three wayposts.

The first was the day that I decided guilt was a worthless emotion and to which I would no longer pay any attention. Before then, I had always felt guilty – even before I was religious. I always fell short of someone else’s standard, be it my father’s or my religion’s. I simply became tired of feeling guilty, always worried that what I was doing, or even what I was, was not good enough or what it “should” be. Why spend my entire life ashamed that I am not something that I simply am not? Why, indeed, would God create me the way I am, and then spend every resource trying to convince me to be something else?

The second was the day I learned that the opposite of love is not hate; it is shame. The problem when you feel ashamed of being different from a social construct is that it is very difficult to question the social construct. Ingrained in a young child is the law that a child must conform to his surroundings and not the other way around. How is it that as this child grows that he would question this most fundamental of laws? However, I finally began to accept that my problem of being ashamed wasn’t because there was something wrong with me. It was the authority figures that had surrounded me – first, my father and later, my religion. I physically left my father when I could and emotionally broke free somewhere along the way (normal boyish yearning for what can never be aside).

As to my religion, and despite the use of terms such as “authority” and “leader”, I realized that such people were neither. They neither had “authority” over me; nor did they “lead” me, unless I chose to follow, unless I gave them control. Putting aside uniquely religious doctrines and observances, fealty to which is required to be embraced in the religion and which in my mind have little real import, what authority is required to love God, to love your neighbor or to care for the widows and orphans? If this is true religion, what place does authority take, other than the position that it wrests for itself? A sad discussion for another day.

Having broken the spell of being a “subject” to this “authority”, I realized that if something makes me feel ashamed, I can correct that problem, not by “repenting” and better conforming myself to the thing that makes me feel ashamed, but by jettisoning the thing that makes me feel ashamed. Reject that which evokes shame and embrace that which kindles love! I am what I am. If God made me, and I am this way, who am I to be ashamed of it? I used to think that life was about “growth” and “development” in the sense of changing “bad” things about me and becoming “better”. Now, I think that’s largely bullshit – life is about discovery and acceptance. What others term “growth” is what I think occurs when you discover who you are and you learn to accept it. This is not a cop-out to excuse “bad” or hurtful behavior, either – my point is simply that love is much more powerful and motivating than shame. In particular, when someone uses shame to try to control or force change, examining their self-interested motivations becomes much more important than when “constructive criticism” is motivated by love. In the latter you can trust, in the former you can’t.

The third was some years later as I was running on the treadmill in my company’s gym and a familiar song played over my ipod. The song is “Down in the Valley” by The Head and the Heart. The opening lines are these:

I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade
Like ridin’ around on railcars and workin’ long days
Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways
Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways

Acceptance requires humility since all of us eventually find out that what we are includes things of which we are not proud – tempers, jealousies, desires, fears, weaknesses. For whatever reason, this day these lines cleaved my shell and sank deep into my soul. I felt peace, and I felt prepared to stand before God, exposed, without shame, simply asking “Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways.” I no longer felt any desire to mask these parts of me, to pretend that they didn’t exist or that they weren’t so bad or that I could overcome them by just choosing to act differently. Always acting, ever acting, forever – well, no more.

Few songs have the ability to capture so much of what I am in so few words and with such an exquisite arrangement combining music and song and silence and wonderful pacing changes and hauntingly beautiful exclamations:

Down in the valley with
Whiskey rivers
These are the places you will find me hidin’
These are the places I will always go
These are the places I will always go
I am on my way
I am on my way
I am on my way back to where I started
Oh-oh…

This journey, as chagrined as I am that it has taken me so long to come so short a distance, has brought me to me. Or to paraphrase T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know [ourselves] for the first time.

God

When it comes to religious matters, I have been alternately atheist, agnostic, religious, spiritual and now, again, agnostic. I will likely alternate between spiritual and agnostic for the rest of my life, but it is very unlikely that I will adopt religiosity again.

I have had powerful spiritual experiences, three of which I would like to relate. In the first, I was having unprotected sex with my wife and I had a strong feeling (without a shadow of a doubt) that I shouldn’t be doing it. At the time I didn’t know why it “should” be so. Afterwards, we found out that my wife became pregnant from that liaison and I had a strong feeling (without a shadow of a doubt) that our child would die. At first, I didn’t say anything to my wife about it. Eventually, we both admitted to each other that we had had very similar feelings at similar times. Weird, right? We had the child and he almost died, but there came a point, after saying a prayer in the hospital, that I had a strong feeling (without a shadow of a doubt) that he would be okay, and he was and is okay many years later. Amazing, right?

The second story is less dramatic: I was interviewing for a new job and I felt really great about it. My wife felt really great about it. But I didn’t get an offer. I know what you’re thinking: cool story, bro.

The third story mirrors the second, except that I knew I would get the job and I had sort of known for years that I would work at this place (a place I drove by often and always somehow knew I’d work there someday). I did get the job.

The interesting thing about these stories that I’ve been pondering for some time now is how these stories reflect confirmation bias. All of these experiences (and other similar experiences) included a “feeling” about a turning point that would eventually be resolved factually. Two of these experiences resolved in ways that I “knew” they would. The other resolved incongruently with my prior feelings on the matter.

In short, these spiritual experiences, though the substance of them was factually resolved, were such that they were open to interpretation as to meaning, and the meaning was supplied by me both during the experience and also afterwards, subject of course to revisionist history. In each case, at the time, I was more religious and more spiritual than I am now, so in each case, I interpreted my feelings at the time as promptings from God. But what to do about my feelings about that job that I didn’t get? Like a rock in my mind’s shoe, it triggered my natural defense mechanisms against cognitive dissonance and…presto!…I rationalized away the discrepancy. After all, who has known the mind of God?

But this has always been unsatisfactory to me. What if my defense against cognitive dissonance had cut the wrong way? How is it that a guiding principle of my life should rest on an assumption? If I assume God exists and guides me or if I assume that religious authority is correct, confirmation bias tells me that I’ll find the evidence I need, or interpret what evidence I have in such a manner as, to support my a priori assumption. This…this just isn’t me.

I have always been more like Job: “Surely I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to reason with God.” (King James version of Job 13:3; other versions translate as “argue my case with God.”) And I would expect God to respond to me as to Isaiah: “Come now, and let us reason together…” (King James version of Isaiah 1:18, other versions translate as “let’s settle this” or “let us discuss this”.) In other words, rather than starting with the assumption of a perfect God and finding supporting evidence or explaining away deviations as due to my human limitations, I’d rather start with something I know: I know that I am experiencing via my physical senses, my reasoning capacity, and my emotions, and maybe it is my conception of God that needs to change to fit what I experience.

Certainly my experiencing is fallible, but why would I choose to question that which I know notwithstanding its limitations, as opposed to that which I do not and cannot know, but which I assume to be limitless? In either case, why would I denigrate that which I am, particularly if God made me this way? If God wishes me to understand, wouldn’t he show me in a way I can understand? Imagine God, walking around the busy streets of Manhattan, allowing himself to be totally visible, but only in wavelengths of light other than visible light and ranting (inaudibly to us), “Why the fuck won’t you idiots acknowledge me?” It’s a ridiculous concept. Why is it any less ridiculous to waive away serious questions by reference to the “mysteries of God.”

Mysteries, my ass. Listen God, if something’s that important, you should just tell me. If you can’t, it must not be important. I can’t believe in a god that is as provincial and petty as many religions, or at least religious adherents and authorities, make you out to be.

I am not a Good Person

I recently read this piece on The New York Review of Books website about poet W.H. Auden. I’ve never read any of Auden’s work, nor had I even heard of him prior to reading this piece, upon which I came in quite a roundabout fashion.

Although the entire piece is recommended, I wanted to focus on one passage that highlights some of Auden’s thoughts on the nature of evil.

By refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it.

On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.

My wife often says to me, “you’re a good person,” or “you’re a good father.” My response is usually troubling for her: “No. I’m okay, but I wouldn’t say that I’m a good person.” I don’t know that I’ve ever really been able to clearly articulate to her why I feel the way that I do – why I feel that I am probably okay, but that I would hesitate to pat myself on the back and think of myself as “good”.

But this piece and this passage excellently express why I feel the way that I do. I’m not a “good person” who can divide the world into good people and bad people. I’m just a person who generally makes good decisions, but I can have (and have had) terrible thoughts and emotions and urges, and I occasionally make bad, or even hurtful, decisions. Labeling me as “good” implies that I have achieved a certain status via my past actions or decisions and that, once in that box, I have “made it.” I have arrived.  I.  AM.  GOOD.  [echoing].

That’s just not the case. And it’s not the case with others, either. If you ever watch a movie, particularly children’s movies, you may be struck that the “bad guy” always announces himself as such, or it is somehow otherwise easy to spot the villain. This is not how it is in real life, and it is surprising to me to see adults, particularly the talking heads on TV and in positions of power, assume the same simplistic view of good and evil.

Real evil, if there is such a thing, doesn’t announce it itself. It is something of which we are all very capable. It is probably something that we would attempt to justify or clothe in gentler robes. The reason real evil becomes hard to spot or that it can be justified is because there are truly very few things, if any, that are “pure evil.” Even taking a human life, typically the most taboo or “evil” action that a person can take, can be labeled either good or evil depending on the identities of the victim and the perpetrator, the context and even the audience. 

Pope Francis, part deux

“If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart; if you aren’t a conservative when you’re old, you don’t have a brain.”  – Some Guy

Some Guy is a guy I work with who said this to me once. I’ve thought a lot about it, trying to understand what he meant by it. It’s clearly not a statement of fact. It’s not really an opinion, either – it’s more than that. I finally settled on the idea that it’s a statement of values.

I don’t know whether he would view it this way, but my interpretation is that the words “liberal” and “conservative” do not necessarily mean in the political sense that they are used these days in the United States. In this instance, “liberal” is more about social change; and “conservative” is more about social stasis.

Viewed through this lens, the statement is one about how young people, with little at stake, are more open to seeing the harshness of the costs of the existing economic and political system and, in particular, the harshness borne by certain groups disproportionately. Whether by compassion, thirst for wealth or power, or some other motive, young liberals are also more open to changing the status quo, which inevitably means a shifting of wealth and power from those who have it to those who do not. In this context, it is obvious why the older generations, with a lifetime of accumulated investment in the existing system, would rationally resist change and the resulting shift of wealth and power.

I suppose this tension is natural, and I don’t propose any fix for it. As I wrote above, I think the statement is ultimately a statement of Some Guy’s values. Maybe at one time he smoked pot, walked around naked at Woodstock and spoke of free love, but he now loves his couch on wheels of a Lexus and his fat 401(k).  Maybe he feels guilty; maybe he feels like he got the best of both worlds; who knows?  Anyway, to the Pope!

Pope Francis, it would seem, would disagree with Some Guy, with his call for a more equal distribution of goods to the world’s poor. In an earlier post I made the claim that my only problem with his statements was his faulty understanding of what a “free” market is. Well, I was wrong.

The more I thought about it, the greater the dissonance it suggested to my mind. Pope Francis, it would seem, calls for those with wealth and power to give some of it up for the good of all. That is all fine and good, and he can believe whatever he wants.

But my question now is this: is the Catholic church included in that? He moved out of the fancy papal digs to live in a hotel, he drives a beat-up Peugeot or whatever, and he’s been lauded for doing other such humble-ish things.

But I’m not buying what he’s selling.  Imagine the vast wealth of the Catholic church – the church properties, the church residences, the cars, the furnishings, the jewelry, cash on hand and who knows what else. Has he done anything with them? Has he taken any of the savings that he’s generated personally (savings only in the sense of not spending so much money as his predecessors) and given it to the poor?

What would really impress me is if the Pope followed the instruction to “go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” Matthew 19:21, King James Version. I assume that is entirely in the Pope’s control, but is that what he suggests? Is he leading by example?

Or…or is it that he, the head of one of the wealthiest and most powerful organizations on Earth over the last 2000 years, has only called on all the other wealthy people and powers to give up some of theirs? Is it offensive of me to suggest such a thing? I don’t think so; after all, 2000 years gives you plenty of time to rack up a few skeletons in the closet – selling of indulgences led to Martin Luther’s revolution; what will priestly pedophilia and its cover up lead to?

So, if Pope Francis really cares for the plight of the poor and really believes that redistribution of existing wealth is the cure, I call on Pope Francis to put the church’s money where his mouth is, lead by example, and fulfill scripture to boot.