Monday, November 29, 2010

On Suffering I: If Not I, Then Who?

“No one deserves to live that way.” [comment to “A View from the Abyss”]

I am humbled and grateful for the quality of compassion that motivated the above commenter’s declaration and, in its literal statement, I agree with it.  No one deserves to live in the state of terror, darkness, anger, futility and resignation that I experience while staring into the Abyss, no longer even clawing desparately to hang on to the edge of sanity.  However, what is usually meant when people say “no one deserves to live” in any given manner, is that no one ought to live in that manner.  Yet, most of those conditions so decried are necessary within the range of human existence: there will always be abject poverty, war, evil, greed, and psycho-spiritual instability.  Without them, our humanity would be a meaningless single dimension.  (I am not saying that striving to improve the human condition is a bad thing; in fact, I think it is our very striving to eradicate many of these conditions that we find a state of grace.)

Staring into the Abyss, acknowledging death, experiencing eternity in the endless space between heartbeats, is a necessity that gives depth of meaning to the rest of human life.  The question ceases to be “why me?” and becomes instead “why not me?”  If someone must travel the darkness, better that it be I and not someone else.  I would not curse anyone else with my experiences, yet I am grateful for the blessedness of having experienced them.

Is that an absurd contradiction? Of course, all the mysteries are absurd.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Knowledge of Good and Evil

I dreamed of holocaust and genocide last night.  Recently, I’ve been staring again into my own personal Abyss.  I guess now I’ve moved to staring into the communal Abyss of all humanity.  Whence comes man’s inhumanity to man? That very phrase implies that the evil perpetrated person to person is something intrinsically not human. It seems, however, that the perpetration of evil is specifically a human quality.  

Animals, to my knowledge, to do not engineer genocide, although they may murder, bully, and rape in maintaining social order or in a battle for territory. Animals, according to current research, commit personal atrocities as a means to an end but only people commit large-scale, tribal atrocities as ends to themselves.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, while animals may act with individual altruism in order to benefit the group, only people show any willingness to martyr themselves for ideology (a fact exploited by those engineering atrocity). 

Both poles of the human dichotomy, atrocity and martyrdom, can result only from the same aspect of humanity that I think is the defining separation of man and animal: self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is a sense of separateness from the rest of the world. 

There is no conclusive research on whether animals are self-conscious; certainly, they are aware of themselves—that my dog can be embarrassed when I talk about him is proof enough for me—but even animals that have been taught to sign do not refer to themselves in the first person.  They use the third person or call themselves by name. Human children commonly develop this sense around the third birthday, maybe a few months later.  They will start to use the word I to reference the self. 

Similarly, there seems to be no indication that animals have any sense of existentialism, that is, awareness that one day they will die (this is different than an end-of-life awareness of impending death).  Human children come to this awareness around age nine.  My elder daughter was 8½.  We were listening to the soundtrack to Ella Enchanted, and she was singing along.  She sang the first line of a song “every day, you die a little”, when abruptly she stopped singing, and ever so seriously informed me, “That’s true, you know.  Every day you live is one day sooner that you will die.”

I suspect that it is this existential self-consciousness that allows for both atrocity and ideological altruism.  To know that we are dying is terrifying, deeply and viscerally frightening to the human psyche. Life is a fragile and uncertain proposition.  Whether studied from the perspective of biology, chemistry, poetry, psychology, agriculture, philosophy, economics or religion, the deeper the subject is mined, the more clear the fragility and uncertainties.  It's all a crapshoot and then you die. That very knowledge demands that life become meaningful.  Why do we live, if only to die? We have a will to meaning—a drive innate within us to derive meaning from our lives (c.f. Viktor Frankl and the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy). If we cannot extract meaning and purpose from our lives, we will go insane.  

When the only certainty in life is death, uncertainty becomes the defining characteristic of Life.  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is Pascal’s “God-shaped Vacuum” into which is sucked every possible kind of meaning: tribalism, hedonism, greed, hierarchy, lust, imperialism, socialism, altruism, theism—and all are present and active in every religion in the world.

So few of us have the courage to acknowledge death, to create meaning, to accept uncertainty. We would prefer instead to expend our enormous psychic energies on denying the one certainty we have by inventing elaborate theories and formulae to simulate certainty.  Even simpler is to accept the theories and formulae of people we deem more willing than we to have looked into the Abyss (though we rarely check this sort of credential in deciding the credibility of our experts). And even more common than anything else is the tendency to abuse substances, behaviors, religions or other people to deny even the fear we feel at the uncertainty of Life.

Anyone who has looked into the Abyss and come away (too often people venture willingly or unwillingly into the Abyss and, in their terror, they get stuck there—our modern religious, medical, and psychiatric professions are more likely to ensure the stuckness rather than facilitating a return) has one other certainty in Life.  That Love exists.  That Love matters. Whether called Love, God, Allah, Light, OM, Brahman, or All/Nothing, whether found through science, religion, mysticism, or poetry, this succoring, sublime, transcendent Ineffability suffuses the Universe, both physical and psychic.  And that Love trumps existentialism in aeternum.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Perfectionism III: Thanksgiving Dinner

Oyster Stew
Rocket Salad with Pear, Pine Nuts and Beetroot
Cider-brined Roast Turkey with Sausage-Fennel-Crouton Stuffing
Wild Rice Risotto with Cranberry and Mushroom
Mashed Red Potatoes with Giblet Gravy
Sweet Potatoes Roasted with Figs, Shallots, and Pecans
Grilled Brussels Sprouts in Balsamic Vinaigrette
Sautéed Green Beans with Hazelnuts
Hot Red Cabbage and Apples
Maple-Glazed Carrots
Ambrosia Salad with Marshmallows and Mandarins
Cornbread and Butter
Cranberry Orange Chutney
Olive Tray
Assorted Pickled Vegetables
Pumpkin Pie
Apple Cobbler
Chef Kee’s Cheesecake with Sour Cream Sauce or Pomegranate Sauce
Cranberry Bread
Fresh, Candied or Salt and Pepper Nuts
Apples, Oranges, Pomegranates
Assorted Cheeses
Hard Cider
Sparkling Cider
Chateau St. Michelle Wines
Mineral Water

As a confirmed foodie, the annual food orgy in late November is my holiday. During my teen and college years, I lived close enough to my grandmother to celebrate Thanksgiving at her house.  Early in that decade-and-a-half, we feasted with grandparents, a great-grandmother, a great-aunt and uncle, and at least a half-dozen assorted cousins of my grandfather, along with the five of us in our family. My mother’s family history abounds in childless or single-child families so the gathering was heavy in WWII generation and I and my siblings the only children. 

My grandmother provided a meal whose tables truly groaned from the weight of the many dishes.  My father jokes that my grandma didn’t think a holiday was rightly celebrated “unless there were 93 sides dishes”. With so many celebrants, groaning tables were quickly demolished. As the older generation of relatives died off, Grandma continued to cook in the same variety and quantity for fewer of us.  We stepped up to the challenge and continued to consume prodigious amounts of food.  The holiday became for me a festival of bounty, manifest in gratuitous variation of edibles.

Because I love to eat, I learned to cook and Thanksgiving is a made-to-order opportunity to indulge.  My family of creation, however, is not nearly as passionate about food as I am.  Unless I insist, we eat boring, busy-suburban-family meals-on-the-run. When I did insist, I would pull out all the stops.  I made far too many dishes of kinds not much appreciated by my family but that I wanted to eat.  And, of course, in my perfectionism, I tried much too hard, took on far more than I could reasonably handle alone, so that always at least one dish was ruined and the meal never met my expectations.  I was grumpy and irritable long before sitting down to eat.

When I got sick, making even daily meals became too much for me and we spent over a year without celebrating any holidays at our own house.  Since summer of 2007, I’ve only made one holiday feast.  Last year, I finally agreed with my husband’s declaration that what it costs me to attempt a full-hoopla holiday is just not worth the effort.  We decided that I would pick one holiday a year to go all out with food and trimmings.  Naturally, I chose Thanksgiving since it is the only holiday strictly about the Eats. 

I found it a relief, oddly, to know that there would be once a year when our house was the destination feast.  We would invite guests (something else my family dislikes), make loads of food, and no one would complain because it was only once a year.  So, last year, that’s what we did and I loved it.  This year, however, I’ve been sicker than I was last fall and then I complicated the issue by going to a conference in Vancouver last weekend.  The conference was the first official, organized educational attempt I’ve made since the conference in 2007 when I first realized how sick I really was becoming. It took way more out of me than it seemed to deserve—just the travel left me huddled in bed, shaking and incapacitated, by six that night and required the whole next day to rest and recuperate while the family saw the sights.

Needless to say (although I was the last to admit it), any kind of effort at all was more than I could manage this Thanksgiving.  I left the entire day to the rest of the family to plan and execute.  The girls only wanted sandwiches made with deli-processed turkey on their icky sandwich bread and “stuffing from a box”. 

The other evening as I lay resting with my feet up (amazing how much difference that posture makes in handling chronic fatigue), I began writing a fantasy menu.  Of course, everyone in the family ridiculed it—when a foodie lives with non-foodies, it is given that no understands the power of simply thinking about good food.  One daughter asked if this list was all the food I wanted to eat that I hoped someone would make for me; she thought it was a joke but she hit the nail on the head. 

So I share it here in hopes that another misunderstood foodie enjoys the Thanksgiving wishes in every dish.  I am thankful today for my readers.  And for my husband who understands me enough not to serve me a kid’s sandwich and was willing to plan, shop, and prepare a real turkey breast, a spiral ham, chips, shrimp starters, some decent bread, and all the sandwich accessories.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A View From the Abyss

"I tried so hard to do and think all the Right Stuff and now I’ve spent the last three years unable to function to anyone’s expectations, much less everyone’s.  When I attempt too much, my body starts to give out.  And should I not pay sufficient attention, my mind goes—the black holes in there take over more and more of my cognitive function. I extended myself no grace for failure all those years and now I lack grace of gait and thought, a lurching facility of deed and word." (here)
After I posted these words six weeks ago, I hoped this admission and the victorious declaration that followed would become truth for having been stated.  When that expectation did not become my experience, oh, how I crawled like Jonah into my little hovel to hold close my misery and chant my “woe-is-me’s”.
“Just kill me now, LORD! I'd rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen."  (Jonah 4:3, New Living Translation) 
The weather here has finally turned to fall.  From unseasonable daytime highs of 90F/42C when November began, we are belatedly getting to temperatures around 70F/22C.  The lower temps have been great for my physical well-being.  Part of the mess I’ve been in this year stems from the fact that my autonomic nervous system is wildly dysfunctional.  Among other effects of this dysfunction is an inability to tolerate heat (or cold, but that is not so often a problem here in the desert).  Having accomplished so much healing spiritually and physically last fall and winter, I was entirely unprepared for how much this summer’s heat would debilitate me. 

The real kicker of the year, though, was what I did to myself.  Late last spring our Medical Benefits Account managers decided that the supplement protocol I was buying for my condition was no longer an approved expense.  Neither is it covered by my insurance so my remedies had to start coming out of our regular monthly budget.  And that is very hard for me to do.

Allowing myself and my healing process to rank high enough on the list of priority spending is all but impossible when it means admitting that I am actually sick and not just lazy or malingering, and that I deserve to spend money on my health even if it means the sacrifices will be some of my girls’ educational or extracurricular activities, or the family’s groceries.  The martyred mother archetype has been ingrained in me by our culture, my childhood religion, and the immediate example of my mother’s own early death. Like the Good Mother, the self-sacrificing, self-martyring, Holy Mutha’ that I am, I rarely place refilling my supplement protocol above near-bottom of our budget.

I let my remedies run down, didn’t refill them promptly or at all.  By October, I was completely off all my supplements and my triumph-over-perfectionism post marked the last-ditch effort to pull myself out of the abyss by willpower alone.  Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work against the physical dysfunctions of my body and brain.  A week later, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably in the bathtub while my husband begged me to get help.  I scared my family but I scared myself even more because I was already thinking favorably about a Final Solution.  My usual injunctions against suicide, with appeals to familial obligation, leaving my children motherless, left me untouched.  And that terrified me.

I told my husband that I still don’t trust anyone not to make me worse (as has been the case with the overwhelming majority of professionals whose help I have sought over the years).  I already know the remedies I need, I just can’t make myself order them regularly.  It was an enormous effort on my part, much greater than it would seem from reading these words, to ask my husband for his help.  I simply need someone to make sure that I treat myself with the same care that I would give a client—monthly follow-ups and adjustments to protocols—and to check that I’ve actually ordered the remedies.

So I’ve been back on my protocol for a month.  Although the first doses pulled me back from the very precipice, it had taken most of these weeks to feel as though I’m not within stepping distance of the Abyss.  It has been hard to admit that I really cannot control my life, my body, my health or well-being by sheer will-power.  That there are conditions that a “suck it up and get on with things” attitude simply cannot overcome.  That I am not lazy or malingering, nor shirking my responsibilities, nor letting my family down, when I take the time, money, or rest necessary to my health.  That martyrdom is not holy.   Holiness is life, lived abundantly, joyously, and with humble gratitude for the precarious precious nature of life’s realities.