Denial or Contentment

I consider myself a student, learning something cool is exciting to me, even at my reasonably advanced age.   I try to learn what I can, understand as much as I can digest.    Much as I often devote myself to trying to master facts, read critical histories, acquire actual knowledge on which to base my strong opinions, I also see more and more that the world we move through is ruled by emotions, not facts, history, the wisdom of the ages.  Emotional learning is as important as anything, more important than most things, in fact, but it can be tricky, since we have mainly our feelings about our emotions to go on.

We are always at the mercy of emotions, our own and the emotions of others.   Emotions are beautiful, terrible, life-affirming, deadly, limitless in their kinds, shades and intensity.    There is nothing inherently good or bad about them, for the most part — only the actions (or inaction) they cause are of urgent concern.   Our feelings are the biggest part of what makes us human, what makes us hopefully humane.  It’s better to be motivated by feelings of empathy, mercy and generosity, on balance, than by selfishness, ruthlessness and jealousy.  The mind comes into it, always, to justify the moral correctness of what we already feel.   Who wants to feel like a selfish, ruthless, jealous person when they can feel virtuous instead?  [1]

It is an idea, seized by emotion, that animates all human belief and action.  One of the cruelest things you can do to somebody is destroy their idea of real hope for anything better.   This was the central tragedy of my father’s life — true hope had been ripped from him as a baby.  It is the idea of being able to improve our situation that sustains us in our worst moments.   Remove this idea and you’re done.    The ideas we embrace are crucial to how we live.

There are countless examples of how this idea framing shapes the emotional world, and human history. Take a look at Mein Kampf for one example.   In his chapter on Vienna, its author describes how logic and reason, in the crucible of the “poisonous snake” that was the city of Vienna, finally convinced him of a truth his tender heart did not want to consider: that Jews were the cause of all of the evil in the world and must be exterminated.   Fair enough, if you believe that shit.   Millions did, millions do.

My mind turns to politics when I think of examples of this idea/ feeling connection, since we’re living in emotionally-charged, pivotal, make-or-break times, close to where the world was in the 1930s with the additional pressures of an overpopulated natural world on the verge of vast climate catastrophe and global capitalism running nakedly amok, in the name of unlimited profits for the few while increasing billions have little or no prospect of anything good.    You’ll forgive one more “political” example and then I’ll turn to my larger point.

The radical right’s ascendance in America in the last few decades was founded on their shrewd understanding of the principle that ideas lead to emotional acceptance and then to unified political actions.   You frame the discussion, change the way people are talking about things, get public opinion on your side, et, voila, representative government is the real enemy of the People.    

It may be the same government that sent federal agents into the most overtly racist states to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan and stop a century of terrorism, that passed laws banning child labor, created standards for workplace health and safety, created a vast infrastructure that facilitated great wealth, passed laws designed to remedy centuries of racism, sexism and xenophobia at law, created food and drug safety agencies, an agency to protect our environment and one to protect citizens from financial fraud, administers vast medical programs for veterans, poor people and retirees, created a social safety net for children and old people, on down the list… this same democratic government is a tyranny that brutally coerces people to give up their most important possession–  liberty.   The essential liberty not to be coerced by majoritarian mobs for the benefit of “takers”.

Frame anything strongly, particularly to someone already inclined to believe your story,  and you will see emotions confirmed, certainty and vehemence increased.   The entire debate is in the framing.  Guns — constitutionally protected freedom.   Guns — murder weapons regularly in the hands of murderous maniacs.   Abortion– the vicious murder of unborn souls, an abomination God hates more than He hates homosexuals.   Abortion — a difficult choice women often agonize over but something preferable to bringing a rapist uncle’s unwanted baby into the world, or dying in childbirth.    Global warming — a vast conspiracy of freedom-hating Takers who just want to punish wealthy Job Creating Makers.   Global warming– increased atmospheric CO2 levels, largely the result of a century of burning gasoline and our vast meat/dairy industry — warming the earth quickly with disastrous and readily perceivable results: wild fires, droughts, floods, other catastrophic weather events, mass extinctions, etc.

OK, that’s enough of the political applications.   What I am really thinking about today is our moods, my mood.   The ever-shifting continuum of how we feel about the things around us, what we’re doing, the progress we are, or are not, making. Talk to me Monday and my idiosyncratic life is impossible to justify.   If I am such a good writer, why am I not seriously figuring out how to brand and market my work, get paid for it?   Where is the line of customers telling me how important my writing is to them?   I look at my seeming paralysis about doing simple things, like spending thirty minutes a day taming my uncontrollable desk and kitchen table.   What the fuck is that about?   That thought’s enough to send me into a funk, on a given day (though not enough to spur me to action organizing my jungle of papers).

Clearly, logically, if I spent even fifteen minutes a day going through that haystack of papers, shredding most of it, within a few days I could have the full use of my kitchen table, my desk, find my passport, the extension to the adapter for my laptop, missing photos, that roll of orange cloth tape I’ve maddeningly lost, other things I’ve been unable to locate lately.   Can’t seem to do it.   Once in a while this irrational paralysis torments me, colors everything in my life, makes me appear monstrously weak to myself, terrifying to Sekhnet.   I see the world through this vexing inability to do something every idiot in the world knows how to do and I feel bad.  At the same time, I clearly see that it is one perspective, and a merciless one at that, causing me to see my life so harshly, if not entirely unreasonably.  On a given day we may feel discouraged or encouraged; on discouraging days, courage is hard to find.

Talk to me Tuesday and I’m relatively carefree.  I have reason to be.   I sleep almost eight hours most nights, spend an hour or so every day walking, often in parks, have a few good friends, a loyal life partner, and many things I love to do.  I’ve become good at a number of these things I love to do (which tends to happen with things you love, if you have the time to do them).  

If you love to draw, and have all of your favorite drawing tools at hand, and paper you like– shit, that’s a blessing that’s hard to explain.  Same with a musical instrument you can pick up and make sing.   Bending the strings to give the instrument a beautiful voice  — what could be a more blessed thing?  I also write almost every day, a contemplative stretch of a couple of hours that makes me feel productive and very blessed indeed.   Whether there is a God that blesses us in these moments, or a spirit, or someone named Dave, these are all net benefits, blessings of life, doing things that bring us pleasure, that allow us to see our progress.

An idle thought started me off today, idle, though also tricky and maybe important — how much of my good feelings on a good day are the result of simple denial and how much is actual contentment with my, admittedly, unconventional, random, disorganized-seeming life of chronic non-achievement?

It’s very easy to see the denial in somebody else.   They might tell you they are not angry, then suddenly refuse to interact in a friendly way, then fly into a rage when asked about this, then admit that maybe they were a little angry, then tell you again that they are not angry — you are.    This is classic denial, and easily observed in the world.    Our current president is a reflexive practitioner of this — he says something, denies he said it, is shown a video of himself saying it, claims it’s a fake video, says the opposite, then says the original thing.  It’s all the same.  Whenever somebody points out something that might annoy, anger or embarrass you just say “you’re lying.  I never did what I just did — you did it, ass-breath.”

One thing I learned from a very scary period of waking every day in a black hole, seeing no way out (not strictly the case unless you wake up in an actual black hole, held prisoner by some sadist or some State):  the inescapable black hole is in your mind, your spirit, your feelings.   It is your feeling of being in a black hole, not an actual black hole you are forced to stay in.   It’s very real when you wake up in it– nothing could be more real in that moment than your certainty that you are trapped — but it is a feeling of being in a desperate place, as opposed to a physical reality.  

The phone could ring, a familiar wise-ass on the line, and you will find yourself falling right into the rhythm of the familiar wise-ass chat. End the chat and fall back into your black hole, as often or not, but there is a lesson in knowing we have some control over the feeling.   Next best thing is simply remembering that these feelings generally pass, as long as there are enough good things in your life as well.

We are all of us alone, fundamentally, particularly in the moments we feel desperate.   We, and everyone we love, we all must die — a terrible thing to consider. Does feeling a sense of connection with a writer who touches you qualify as a denial of your essential apartness, the unbridgeable actual gulf between you and the mind of the writer, or is it part of a larger sense of connected contentment as when you discover something new and familiar at once?    

A feeling of connection is better than isolation, in most cases, so why not smile when recognizing the brilliantly expressed humanity of a Shoshana Zuboff, an Isaac Babel, a Steven Zipperstein?   This abstract feeling of community is a great thing, it imbues us with admiration for our fellow beings and hope for the future.   The lack of this feeling, a sense of eternal, existential disconnection, is at the core of every destructive movement in the world.

You feel isolated, you have no prospects of anything much better, you are suffering alone and you are going to die.   The world is ruled by (insert your hated group of powerful psychopaths) and you are utterly helpless against it.  You need to take these horrible feelings out on somebody.    These strong feelings will cause you to look for others who feel this way.   There are literally millions of them.  You can find their avatars on-line.     There are no guarantees on the internet, of course, boys will sometimes find themselves talking to a fifty-year old pervert who calls himself adorable twelve year-old Vicky.   Part of the danger, but not that much different from being in a crowd of fist-pumping fans who do not stop to think about what they are actually cheering.

Contentment is sometimes elusive.   I am not content when I see all the horrible things done in my name, when I consider the sick values promoted by the exceptional society I am part of, when I feel myself treated unfairly, when I think of the misery sadistically inflicted by the spouters of meaningless slogans.   When I see the pugnacious face of thirty-three year-old Jewish Nazi Stephen Miller.    I can’t be in denial about any of these feelings, and I can tell you about any of them in detail and why I feel that way.

On the other hand, when I find the clip of Nature Boy on youTube is in the key I know it in, D minor, and I can immediately play along without having to tune the ukulele, I’m quite content.   If it’s in E minor, I’m content. G#minor… less content. 

Or maybe I’m in denial.  So many of us are. 


[1]  The obscure Colorado libertarian school Charles and David Koch attended (after their graduate degrees at MIT) for some lectures and later funded was devoted to the idea of liberty and the righteousness of the born-powerful.   Its founder and head lecturer taught that the “Gilded Age” was actually the greatest period in American history, there was no shame in using brutal advantage to increase your own vast wealth, and that the “Robber Barons” were, in fact, heroic builders of our great nation, the greatest Americans of all time.  

RIP, David, give my best to Roy Cohn.

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