Monday, December 29, 2014

The End of a Dark Age

The Peak Oil blogosphere is rife with fear (or hope, depending on your reading) that industrial civilization is headed into a Dark Age, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the fall of Rome. Many of us believe that knowledge accumulated by our society could be lost as the technologies used to preserve it no longer have enough energy to sustain them. While I agree with this assessment, I can’t help but think that we may be coming to the end of a different kind of Dark Age.

According to the civil religion of Progress, as defined by John Michael Greer, every previous historical period was a Dark Age compared to the present day. We often look back on our forebears and scoff at their beliefs. To cite an oft-used example, in the Middle Ages Europeans believed the Sun, Moon and Stars revolved around the Earth. (In this case, one out of three was pretty bad.) But, nowadays, people believe economic growth is always both possible and desirable. Considering our vast store of scientific data, which belief is more embarrassing? More to the point, which belief is more destructive and, potentially, ecocidal?

People who lived over 500 years ago can be forgiven their ignorance of the orbits traveled by celestial bodies. They didn’t enjoy the luxury of radio telescopes or mass spectrometers. Our ecological oversight is less pardonable by several orders of magnitude. All that is required to disprove the economic thesis is, one, the knowledge that the earth is finite and, two, the knowledge that economic growth requires increasing the rate of natural resource consumption. The first fact is well within the grasp of any sane member of our civilization. The second is obscured by propaganda and the manipulation of statistics, but should be nearly as obvious as the first.

At the risk of insulting your intelligence, I’ll try to explain this principle. Economic activity is generated by the provision of goods and/or services. In order to grow the economy, more goods and services must be provided. Whether these goods and services are physical or digital, they require energy and other resources to be produced and delivered to the consumer. All energy and resources are supplied by Nature. Therefore, the consumption of natural resources must be increased to grow the economy, and, since the earth is finite, economic growth is ultimately limited.

A few mainstream pundits have conceded that economic growth is limited, but assure us that we are nowhere near that limit. However, the behavior of the global economy since the turn of the millennium would suggest otherwise. Record prices for fundamental commodities, especially oil, have done little to expand supplies of those resources or substitutes. We’ve been in a state of stagflation since the financial meltdown of 2008. Now that commodity prices have dropped through the floor, we’ll see if there’s a glut in the market or if the high prices of the past decade have forced a significant part of the world to tighten their belts.

And even if we’re capable of significantly growing the economy by expanding our exploitation of the environment, why would we? The economy is destroying our habitat and condemning future generations to lives of desperate struggle in a poisoned world drained of resources with an increasingly inhospitable atmosphere.  Green economic growth is a red herring. Converting to renewable energy sources would still require a substantial downscaling of our economy and the First World lifestyle. There’s no silver bullet that will both save the planet and keep the economy growing. Denial of this reality is a case of willful blindness. We don’t lack the means to understand this truth, only the will to change our economic model.

The belief in infinite economic growth has achieved the status of dogma due to its usefulness to the elite and the ability of Capitalism to provide a comfortable life to most members of society. If the economy can grow forever, there’s no need for the rich to share their wealth with the rest of us. With this ideological cover, they needn’t answer for their greed. And if that doesn’t work, they can justify their avarice with the Capitalist maxim that self-interest drives economic development. We’ve all gone along with this arrangement because most of us enjoy the fruits of Capitalism. But now that the fruit is getting smaller, we’re forced to question the assumptions on which this system is built.

Just as our wealth grew astronomically in the 20th Century, so did our power over Nature. Unfortunately, at the same time our respect for Nature has virtually disappeared. We exploit and abuse Nature in service of the economy, thinking the economy is what sustains us. We forget our essential dependence on and vulnerability to the environment. The power of the natural world to enable or destroy all human projects, as well as humanity itself, has been denied in the process of deifying Science and Technology. We’ve come to think of ourselves as Masters of Nature rather than what we really are, which is Children of Nature.

We’ve launched ourselves into Outer Space, trying to escape our home and prove our independence from Mother Nature. We’ve made scientific discoveries that earlier civilizations couldn’t even have imagined. But, in striving for greater freedom from natural limits, we’ve lost touch with the understanding of Nature that has sustained our species since time immemorial. We’re ignorant of basic laws of ecology that formed the foundation of even the most primitive societies. That’s why our technologies have become increasingly dehumanizing and destructive of our own habitat. They’re no longer grounded in the ground, i.e. ecology. Thus has our moral compass lost its bearings.

This disconnect from Nature also has more practical consequences. We’re far more ignorant of basic survival skills than any previous civilization. How many among us could survive a week alone in the woods without the trappings of modern life? Our comforts and conveniences have robbed us of self-reliance. Not only have we lost touch with the natural world; we’ve also lost touch with each other. Our social skills leave much to be desired, and our reluctance to build community has left us isolated and vulnerable to the influence of authoritarian institutions. Rather than organize networks of mutual support with our neighbors, we’ve relied on Big Brother and Big Business to provide for our every desire with fossil-fueled technologies. Even agriculture has become the province of a tiny minority. There’s no previous civilization that could boast that level of potential helplessness in the face of collapse.

Perhaps our forebears would’ve wrought just as much environmental and social destruction as we have given our technological capabilities, but we’re the only civilization in the historical record that has brought the planet to the brink of catastrophe. By that shameful measure, we stand alone. While we needn’t accept the title of Most Evil Civilization Ever (yet), we certainly can’t claim to be the Most Benevolent Civilization Ever, as we often do.

We’ll almost certainly lose much of our knowledge in the descent from this industrial peak, but what we can regain is far more valuable. This is our chance to replace the capitalist values of greed and competition with the human values of generosity and cooperation. This is our chance to become reacquainted with each other, with our needs and wants and how to tell them apart. This is our chance to reconnect with the natural cycles that guide all life. Instead of fighting Mother Nature, we should follow the example of our wiser ancestors and accept her gifts and lessons with gratitude.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Peak Me

Decline is all well and good for an empire or a civilization, but on a personal level it sucks. If you have the good fortune to live in an ivory tower that protects you from the consequences of social collapse, it can be fascinating to contemplate in the abstract as an academic pursuit. But for those of us who breathe less rarefied air, it's a bitch to live through.

Since learning about Peak Oil (specifically, the apocalyptic version that was presented to me by a friend), I’ve been waiting eagerly for the System to fall apart. Partly, this was detached intellectual curiosity. But a bigger part of my motivation was the desire to be rid of all the injustices, indignities and nuisances I associate with the Status Quo: environmental degradation, mindless jobs at evil companies, the Full House reboot.

Clearly, though, there was also a selfish motive for believing in Peak Oil. I was stuck in a corporate rut of mindless data entry jobs. I was a 27-year-old virgin whose lovelife barely had a pulse. My relationship with my parents was still mired in adolescent sulking. The idea that all of this would be swept away in a few years was very appealing.

But instead of the System collapsing, I collapsed: emotionally, socially and economically. Ironically, the revelation of Peak Oil is what triggered my breakdown. The stress that it added to my already-staggering emotional baggage made the load too much to bear. I could no longer maintain the facade of mental health.

It's hard to say how much of my collapse can be attributed to my pre-existing psychology and how much can be attributed to the economic turmoil of our times, i.e. The Great Recession. Of course, it would be a mistake to isolate these factors from each other and ignore their interrelation. I think my psychology had much to do with my failure to find a good job. Conversely, my job prospects led me to believe that I was a failure.

In 2004 I experienced a political awakening that led me to adopt radical Leftist views. The world became a much crueler place in my eyes. Everything around me seemed to be built on a foundation of oppression and injustice. I believed my parents, schoolteachers, professors and pretty much all my elders had sold me a bill of goods. The Glory of America turned out to be a fairy tale masking a rapacious empire that had sunk its vampiric fangs into most of the world.

I’d never been enamored of my data entry job at a transnational financial company, but now it felt like a betrayal of my humanity. After recovering from my initial nervous breakdown in ‘05, the job slowly became more demanding. This strained my relationship with my boss, whom I considered a surrogate mother, leading me to quit in ’08. It would be my last cushy job. The comfortable vocational niche I had occupied was replaced by temp jobs with absurdly demanding production quotas and micro-managing supervisors.

The loss of that cozy corner of the American Dream was depressing and angering. Each new temp job knocked me further down the socioeconomic ladder. As Corporate America cranked up the pressure, my friends became harder to reach. To stave off loneliness, I moved in with my parents, which kept me from getting too forlorn but also turned our house into an emotional minefield. My attitude toward them was still that of a spoiled teenager.

Over time, the stereotype of the middle-aged loser who lives with his parents began to haunt me. I repressed the thought that I now embodied that cliché, but it was always in the back of my mind, feeding my depression and anxiety. This emotional endurance test forced me to come up with my own definition of “success” that didn’t rely on mainstream validation. I focused on my personal development and gave up the corporate ladder, which I’d only been clinging to in a misguided attempt to maintain my parents’ approval. With a lot of help from them, I was able to burst through my shell of misery and fully appreciate their love and support.

Although our mainstream society has not yet shown the courtesy to mimic my personal collapse, that doesn’t mean my journey has been in vain. This has been a voyage of self-discovery, and self-knowledge is the most important kind of knowledge. When we understand ourselves, we understand the prism through which we see the world, and only then can we see things as they are.

As the American Dream becomes more elusive, we would be wise to abandon that hollow ambition and aspire to a higher calling. The two cars and a house in the suburbs may be out of reach, but the things that make life worth living, love, friendship and community, are still well within our grasp. These have always been humanity’s noblest pursuits, and these are the only things that will weather the storm.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Teenage Trap

A teenage boy of the 1950's is cruelly forced to dance with a broom as punishment for his communist beliefs.

In the 17 years since I technically ceased to be a teenager, I’ve been stuck in a teenage trap of blaming my parents for my problems. I dwelt on the scars of my formative years, holding my mom and dad ultimately responsible for all of them. I thought those experiences were the reason I've failed as an adult. Though they've had a profound effect on my personality, there are plenty of other factors that explain my lack of professional and social success.

The problem was I couldn’t move on from adolescence. There was no fulfilling adult life to drape over the pain of coming of age. The existence I’d scrabbled together after college melted away over time, exposing the unresolved emotional detritus of my childhood and teen years. I couldn’t take comfort in a rewarding, well-paying job that gave me a sense of contributing to the Welfare of Humanity. I couldn’t bask in the love of a significant other to get me through the rough patches. And, perhaps most important, I could no longer rely on a collection of supportive friends to ease my fears. I was thrown back on my seminal resources, i.e. my parents.

Luckily for me, they had the patience and generosity to put up with my adolescent sulking for the last 24 years. But I worry about the many members of my generation who appear to be going through the same hardships as I whose family or friends aren’t as supportive as mine. Like most Americans, they may blame themselves for their failures. Even though I railed against Capitalism and the pathetic state of American education, I considered myself too smart to fall victim to the same obstacles that were holding my peers back. After all, I was great at school, and isn’t that the best preparation for the adult world?

If anything, my success in school condemned me to corporate serfdom. I learned the lessons of public education too well. I internalized obedience to authority and ignored many creative impulses that would’ve cost me academically. School drummed a lot of common sense out of me, especially the instinct to question authority when its decisions don’t make sense. I let any initiative I might have had wither on the vine, because, in school, it did me more harm than good. Consciously or not, Academia wanted a drone to plug into the Corporate Matrix, and that’s what I gave it.

A strong, well-informed support network might’ve saved me from this fate, but I grew up in the suburbs in a pseudo-community. When I moved to Chicago after college, I lacked the social skills to make friends of urban dwellers or form relationships with neighbors (not that they seemed interested in getting to know me). Once the friends I made in college and of post-college roommates drifted away, I had only my family to depend on. If I had bad parents, I would’ve been screwed, and I think that’s the situation a lot of people my age find themselves in: estranged from family and friends, left to fight the predations of Neo-Liberal Capitalism alone.

Nowadays, young adults are presented with a depressing choice. We can either work for the Man or try to make ends meet some other way. Both choices have insidious emotional consequences. Buying into the System can leave us feeling like a hypocrite and a traitor to our own principles. In my experience, a spiritual rot sets in that robs us of the comfort we seek. If we try to chart a morally upright course, the stigma of poverty may sap our confidence and self-respect. Economic dependence on our family, friends and/or the government undermines our sense of agency, maturity and vitality. We may resent our parents even when they're supportive, because we feel infantilized by their assistance.

But I would say that, even if we “sell out,” any success we enjoy comes largely through our own ingenuity, resilience and other skills they don’t teach in school. The economy has been working against most Americans since the late 1970’s when Jimmy Carter (followed by every succeeding president) introduced Neo-Liberal reforms that continue to put greater power in the hands of Big Business. This has led to the weakening of the social safety net and the triumph of the philosophy that self-gratification is the only worthwhile, attainable goal of Modern Life.

Following this blueprint due to economic necessity or social conditioning, our parents raise us with the “help” of television and the internet. We’re exposed to commercial messages that instill the belief that happiness can be gained through the acquisition of material goods and creature comforts. We’re measured by our performance in schools that suppress creativity and encourage submission to authority. We’re told to go to college and grad school, further delaying adulthood. Then we’re thrown out on our own in an increasingly cruel, lonely world that has little use for our credentials, but will gladly exploit our desperation to pay off the debt we’ve been saddled with. Stripped of resourcefulness and vocational alternatives, we line up for the corporate meat grinder.

To fend off despair, we angrily search for scapegoats. We blame ourselves, our parents, God, the Universe, everything but what I consider the real culprit: The Powers That Be, the nexus of corporate and government authority that runs things in the USA and most of the world. Sure, we often blame them for all the world’s ills, but how often do we believe that we have been personally thwarted by the Establishment? How often do we think we didn’t get that job or that apartment because of the System? This is a tough pill to swallow for a member of the middle class, for we have been raised to believe that the System may not work for everyone, but it works for us. If this is no longer true, then we must face the grim reality that we now have the same status as the working class and the poor and are vulnerable to the same machinations of the System that demean, dispossess and, sometimes, kill them. This may be why the protests over police killings of blue-collar African-Americans have found such broad support; many of us white-collar Euro-Americans feel like we could be next.

Our society’s individualism discourages us from blaming the Power Elite. The American cultural narrative of self-determination tells us that we are the captains of our fate. Supposedly, our socioeconomic structure is designed to free us, not imprison us. Ergo, our failures are a result of our own inadequacy. Despite the mounting evidence to the contrary presented by the collusion of Big Business and Big Brother (the government), we still cling to this belief. It’s difficult for us to accept that we may be at the mercy of forces beyond our control. It offends our distinctly American sense of autonomy. It can also be extremely depressing, for what is the use of keeping up the good fight when your fate has already been sealed?

The most viable paths out of this nightmare seem to be the individual ones, the ones we take alone. The option many people in this situation think of is to drop out of the mainstream society, which seems extremely risky and lonely. But I suppose it's no more isolating than being surrounded by people who either believe in an inhuman system or are resigned to its dominion. Social atomization has discouraged us from joining or starting a grassroots movement to change things. We’ve been taught to believe that such efforts are more trouble than they’re worth and ultimately futile. (I realize these claims aren’t consistent, but anyone expecting consistency in propaganda is sure to be disappointed.) Thus the System keeps us detached and (mostly) obedient.

Growing up middle-class in the suburbs may seem like a charmed life, but it has left me high and dry as an adult. As Late Capitalism feasts on what’s left of the New Deal and the Great Society, the skills and habits cultivated by our upbringing and schooling actually make it harder for us to stake a claim in the New Normal. The country we’ve inherited falls far short of the one we were promised. It’s a land where all but the very wealthy are subjected to an experiment in Social Darwinism.

The good news is we can fight back, but we have to overcome our socially-conditioned tendencies toward radical individualism and materialism. Corporate America would like us to remain forlorn teenagers for the rest of our lives. It prefers us as slaves to our “throbbing biological urges” and passions, looking for a quick fix of consumption to soothe our anxieties when the System denies our efforts toward liberation. But we can reject this programming and become real adults, that is, people who recognize their responsibilities to themselves and each other. Through such a revelation, we can rebuild community and collaborate on projects that develop the human spirit and overcome the mechanization and commodification of human life.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Confessions of a Nice Guy

Early-80's Tears for Fears would like to wish you and yours a Happy Holidays!

After all my self-righteous indignation about Assholes and the supposed failures of Feminism, I have to come clean: I ain't no Nice Guy. On multiple occasions, I've treated women with something less than chivalry, and all because I was desperate to get laid. This is the tragedy of the Nice Guy. I got nowhere with women, and I blamed my Niceness for holding me back. I should've blamed my shyness. ("Confessions of a Shy Guy" might be a more apt title for this.) But, temporarily, the Niceness got the old heave-ho, and I became what I claim to despise: an Asshole.

The Nice Guy Theory of Virginity was an easy answer, which is why I embraced it. It was self-aggrandizing to think that I was too nice instead of too shy. I could cast myself as the victim of Woman's Inhumanity To Man, instead of the victim of my own personality, cowardice and grim visage. I didn’t have to look in the mirror or do any of the hard work it takes to improve oneself.

I didn't lose my virginity until I was 31. Even 6 years later, I'm still hesitant to share that. The shame I felt about it was staggering. But I certainly wasn't a late bloomer in terms of my interest in girls. I had some smooching sessions with a girl (Ah, Naomi.) in first grade and enjoyed them very much. Then middle school came along and destroyed my self-confidence and my relationship with my parents.

The Nice Girls who had been so nice before puberty didn't seem interested in dating me. (There's a good chance they were, but my low self-esteem blinded me to those possibilities.) The only girl I asked out in high school (over the phone, of course) said she'd "have to think about it." (Yes, even 18 1/2 years later, I still remember her exact words.) Even though we had a class together every day, she never gave me an answer, and I never mentioned it again. This was a painful betrayal and resulted in a long-standing grudge against Nice Girls. That's another problem with being a Nice Guy. If the few times you ask a girl out don't go well, you become even more reluctant to stick yer neck out.

Predictably, college kicked off with a couple (tacit) rejections to wipe out the uncharacteristic confidence with which I'd arrived on campus. There were probably many opportunities to sow my wild oats, as is the custom, but my self-esteem had been knocked down to its previous, miserable condition. As I progressed through my 20's, the shame and anxiety about being a virgin kept growing, which obviously didn't help my nerves around the ladies. I carried my virginity around like a cross, hoping no one noticed the gaping hole in my adulthood. It contributed to my nervous breakdown at 27. To recover, I cemented a few strong friendships and repaired some of my relationship with my parents. After that, I wasn't as anxious about it, but I was still extremely eager to throw off the psychological burden.

Ironically, I think the gentlemanly way to do it would've been a casual hookup, as long as I was upfront about my intentions. But that would've required a boldness and straightforwardness that I lack in spades, so I took the "easy" way out. I found a girl on an online dating site, tricked her into developing feelings for me and then dumped her after we'd had sex a few times and the guilt became unbearable. It's a story as told as Time. This happened in November 2008. The joke I came up with later was that, after a black man was elected President of the United States of America, the Universe figured anything was possible and finally let me have sex.

Granted, I'm being very reductionist and kinda hard on myself, but that's it in a nutshell. She was very nice (in the real sense), but I didn't feel a strong emotional connection with her. I expressed affection for her, most of which was feigned. It wasn't totally fake, but a lot of it was just the warmth I would feel for any decent, pleasant human being. I also let myself get swept away in many "tender" moments. I take some solace in the fact that, after a month, my conscience was killing me, and I broke it off as honorably as I could (over the phone, of course).

A year later, I went through a similar, month-long routine with another woman. I could've ended it better, but it wasn't a total mess. It didn't really matter, because I wasn't interested in being friends with either of them afterward. I didn't think we had enough in common even for that. I just wanted the sex. In the parlance of the streets, I "hit it and quit it."

As disingenuous as it sounds, the truth is I'm a hopeless romantic. In elementary school I could cry at the drop of a hat. But middle school taught me (and many other boys) that crying is for girls. My heart was filed away and only brought out on rare, safe occasions. Anger took the place of sadness, and my sensitivity was replaced with a hard shell of apparent indifference. I really haven't had a good cry since I was 12.

Failing to get a girlfriend or get laid eventually turned me into an (internally) angry, bitter, resentful Asshole. I gave up on romance and took the easy (or sleazy) way out to rid myself of the stigma of virginity. Of course, having sex didn't fix my emotional problems. I was still desperate to have a girlfriend, to be in a romantic relationship and feel that love, warmth and intimacy (both physical and emotional) with a woman.

This was largely a result of my broken relationship with my parents, especially my mom. I think the yearning for sex was really a need for unconditional, unguarded love and emotional intimacy. I don't know why it was redirected as sexual desire. Perhaps to distract me from its essentially emotional nature, so I wouldn't have to think about the real problem. It's also much safer emotionally; sex without love exposes far less of the heart than love alone.

I think I’ve taken care of my issues with my parents, but I still have a ways to go in fixing my abandonment issues in the wake of losing touch with many close friends. This essay is a good step in that process, I think. It feels like a moral and emotional "cleanse,” like something someone in Los Angeles would have done periodically at a clinic for a ridiculously inflated price. But I don’t have that kinda money, so instead I blog about embarrassingly personal things. You could call it the Confessional Cure.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Asshole Theory

Well, once again I'm left to ponder why my romantic overture to a girl came up empty. One at a time, each detail of the event will rise to the surface of my mind for thorough examination. Should I have asked her out in person when I had the chance? Was the email a mistake? Was I a complete goober for phrasing it "If yer keen, we should hang out sometime?" Is this all just pointless self-flagellation because she was never interested in the first place?

When I step back and think about it more rationally, though, this incessant fretting over minutiae feels more like a defense mechanism than an objective assessment of my performance. I think I'm just trying to protect myself from the far more likely possibility that she's "just not that into me." That potentiality is much more depressing than thinking I did something to put her off.

Of course, imagining that she (tacitly) declined my offer because I emailed instead of asking in person is also troubling. I certainly hope she didn't hold my shyness against me. It would be a mistake, I think, to dismiss someone (male or female) for being reserved or even socially awkward. To cite a couple of cliches that have been quoted so often we usually ignore them, you can't judge a book by its cover, and still waters run deep.

It bothers me to think that women may be more attracted to bold men. Several years ago, I came up with a theory that explains, at least to my satisfaction, why confidence isn't the best quality by which to judge a suitor. I call it "The Asshole Theory," and it goes like this: It's easy for assholes to be confident with women, because they aren't emotionally invested in the outcome. Assholes just wanna get laid by a chick, any chick; they're not looking for a relationship or a personal connection. If they get shot down, they just move on to the next target, because to them the objects of their desire are just that: objects.

This is why it pains me when the lady in the commercial says, "I live my life, and, if somebody comes along and talks to me, that's how it goes." It seems like a lot of women approach romance this way. Well I've got news for ya, ladies: We ain't livin' in the 50's anymore. You wanted equality, and, even though we're not there yet, we've certainly come a long way. But with more rights come more responsibilities. In other words, if you wanna date Nice Guys, yer gonna hafta make the first move sometimes.

[Excuse the colloquialisms. I often lapse into urban (Southern? Hard-boiled film noir detective?) vernacular when I get worked up.]

Speaking as a (hopefully) Nice Guy, I have to say that ever since I hit puberty I've been disappointed in how passive women seem. Feminism has let me down. I thought girls would be asking me out on a regular basis. Not because I had a high opinion of my own attractiveness. (I didn't and still don't.) I just thought that's how it would go. Most of my bosses have been women, yet when it comes to dating y'all seem stuck in the past.

But, again, when I stop to really think about it, I'm forced to admit that I've been hit on about as many times as I've hit on girls (or women). If you count the times I've been hit on without realizing it, they probably far outstrip the times I've made the first move. (But I don't count those. Sorry. If your intentions aren't clear, it doesn't count. This is another problem. Women usually wanna communicate by Morse code, but men generally only understand semaphore.) It leads me to believe that my lackluster lovelife is a product of my shyness rather than a failure of Feminism.

Then I see something like the catcall video, and I become horribly ashamed of my gender and wonder how women even get out of bed in the morning, much less routinely pass me on the corporate ladder. It makes me much more understanding of women's passivity and seemingly old-fashioned perspective on dating when I see how many fucking assholes and Neanderthals are out there. After I saw that video, I realized that I have an obligation, as a Nice Guy, to stick up for women who are being harassed. Women can't overcome the rape culture on their own. We men who don't want that in our society have to stand with them.

Which leads me to my conclusion, that I have to take a more active role in my own lovelife, as any shy person (male or female) should. At the end of the day, my ruminations on "the failures of Feminism" are probably just another example of a middle-class white guy bitching about not being the lord of all he surveys anymore. It's not like I have to overcome major obstacles to find true love, like women still do. I just have to deal with the fact that things aren't as easy for guys as they used to be. The world is changing, and we all have to adapt.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Hate the War Crimes, Not the War Criminal

While searching for a very different kind of photo (Don't ask.), I found this picture of former president George W. Bush holding his grandson. I have to say, it melted my heart. All the rage toward him I accumulated since my political awakening of 2004 just disappeared. I was reminded that he's still a human being, endowed with all the foibles, passions and graces endemic to our species.

That isn't to say he isn't a war criminal, because, technically, he is. But it's worth remembering that war criminals are people too. Hating someone, no matter how heinous we find their deeds, is a destructive activity that dehumanizes us as well as the object of our hatred. As the saying goes, "Don't hate the player; hate the game."

In the spirit of that wise, old axiom, I will continue to hate the machinations of the Military-Industrial Complex while trying not to hate the people who carry them out. Besides, what did all our hatred of Dubya get us? A Democratic president whose foreign (and domestic) policies are virtually indistinguishable from his predecessor's and a bunch of Democratic members of Congress who continue to fall in lockstep behind the Power Elite.

Yet we on the Left don't hate Obama or any Democrats with anything like the passion we directed at Dubya. So what does that say about our hate? That it has little to do with reality or effecting beneficial change in the world. Anger can be harnessed to achieve worthwhile goals, but when it turns into Hate, we are the ones who have been harnessed. At that point, Hate is holding the reins, and it has no interest in doing good.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Escape from the Shadow Realm

In the words of the Grateful Dead and Soul II Soul, what a long, strange trip it's been back to life, back to reality. I finally seem to be coming out of a soul coma. For the last few years, I've been plagued by a sense of unreality, a feeling that the world and its inhabitants are unreal or (more often) that some inter-dimensional haze separates me from everything (and everyone) else. The effect is mainly emotional, but I'm most aware of its visual component. It slightly blurs my vision, softening all edges.

Apparently, this is a symptom of Depersonalization Disorder. I discovered this quite by accident when I looked up Adam Duritz of Counting Crows on Wikipedia. On an episode of the hit podcast Jordan, Jesse, Go! one of the hosts (Jordan) said Mr. Duritz's dreadlocks were fake, so I decided to conduct some independent research. I was unable to confirm that claim, but I did learn that he experiences the aforementioned disorder, which is marked by a feeling that the world isn’t real.

Usually, I would be relieved to learn that my condition has a name and afflicts others too. But that revelation increased my anxiety. For some reason, I wanted to keep this malady to myself. I wanted it to remain personal, unique and nameless. I didn't want to label it with a clinical diagnosis. My bouts of depression often provoke this reaction: “Must sadness always be pathologized? Can't I just be bummed out? Isn't there enough pain and suffering in the world to justify being down in the dumps?”

I've been out of phase with Reality since the fall of 2010, but it feels like I’m almost all the way back. I keep bursting through fuzzy membranes of distortion that were cutting me off from the Real World. It's like I'm traveling through dimensions, getting closer to my home dimension, but never quite there. I'm striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping that the next leap will be the leap home. (Sorry, I had to.) The goalposts keep moving. The closer I get to Reality, the more I notice the sensations that are still missing. I didn’t even notice my sense of smell had diminished until it returned in full force a week ago.

This case of Depersonalization Disorder must be a result of repressing emotional pain. I think my mind has tried to escape reality to avoid the stress and misery of my situation. My closest friends stopped calling me back, and I failed to find any new friends with whom I connected emotionally. The only jobs I could get were of the soul-crushing corporate variety. My cousin, with whom I’d been living, moved back home to Chicago, and I didn’t want to live with strangers anymore. Therefore, I moved in with my parents for what was supposed to be one winter, but which just passed five years. My relationship with them was still broken from adolescence and fraught with tension and anger. By pretty much any measure, I should’ve been despondent. Internally, I conformed to that expectation, but I was unable to process my grief.

In the absence of constructive action to extricate myself from this predicament, my brain took me out of my rut and whisked me away to the Shadow Realm. The world became a ghost town and the people tumbleweeds. I could still see and hear them, but their actions didn’t have much positive effect on me. However, even benign comments and deeds were enough to trigger my anxiety. When nothing anyone is saying or doing makes you feel better and often makes you feel worse, I guess turning everyone into a wraith is a logical defense mechanism. It comes in especially handy when your friends disappear, because the transition from ghost to empty air is less jarring than that from corporeal being to nothing.

This parallel universe was safe, but it was also boring and lonely. Nothing was worth doing, because I was numb. Since everyone was a shade, physical contact felt illusory and emotional connection vanished completely. I wasn’t willing to open up to the only people who were emotionally available to me at the time. I lost the ability to connect with new people. I was too afraid to open up to them, feeling like I’d been emotionally abandoned by my family and all my closest friends.

This isn’t the first time I’ve withdrawn from the world. It’s a habit I developed as a child. I would routinely plunge into the abyss of TV rather than attempt human contact. My parents had to force me to go outside and play with the other kids. Socialization has always offered me greater rewards than television, but it also offers greater risks, foremost among these, rejection. Being a sensitive boy, I was an easy target for verbal abuse as the new kid in elementary school and then as any kid in middle school. By the time I got to high school, I’d already had my fill of rejection.

That pain has driven me to flee the company of people many times. I often wish I could live alone and keep the world at arm's length to avoid being hurt anymore. If it were up to me, I would live Jorge Luis Borges's "life of the mind." I would lose myself in fantasy, TV, movies, music and books. For about half of my two years in Chicago, right after college, I realized that dream. Discovering that all my bachelor’s degree entitled me to was a seemingly infinite string of temp jobs left me bitter. I wanted nothing more to do with a society that had convinced me a college degree was the Key to the Kingdom and then, once I got one, still denied me a stable, white-collar job. I retreated into my apartment and spent my days watching TV and playing video games.

But the peace of solitude quickly curdled into paranoid isolation. Each day became a repetition of eating too much, watching too much TV and staying up too late. I was lonely, depressed and obese. This is what happens whenever I spend too much time alone. Physical symptoms crop up that are severe enough to convince me I need to overcome my fear of rejection and re-engage with people. Ultimately, my body is the one that keeps pulling me back into the World.

There’s always been a tension between my desire to be in the middle of Life, amidst teeming Humanity with all its joys and troubles, and my desire to be free of those obligations, indulging in solitude and serenity. I assume most people have to deal with that tension and strike a balance between the stress of engagement and the loneliness of isolation. I’m usually overwhelmed by the stress and easily hurt by my family and friends’ perceived rejection or abandonment. If you’re grateful for my continued participation in Life’s Grand Pageant, you can thank my unconscious. If it were up to my conscious mind, I would’ve checked out a long time ago.

I think this desire for escape is fueled by our Lonely Society. I doubt it would be so easy to slip into the Shadow Realm if I were part of a true community, like in the Olden Days. Those personal connections are what keep me rooted in Reality. Having supportive family and friends gives me a feeling of self-worth that convinces me living in the Real World is worth the pain and struggle. On my own, I’m liable to lose touch with Reality and fly off into a void of despair at the apparent futility and cruelty of Life. The love of my family and friends (eventually) convinces me to stick around by renewing my faith in Humanity and giving me hope for the Future.