To Muse or Not to Muse

Thinking something over because it perplexes you is not everybody’s path to happiness or a better life, I understand.  Contemplating a troubling mystery is not for everyone, you have to be pushed toward it,  it takes a certain turn of mind, a predisposition, an odd kind of luck, even.   In my own life, because of the things I suffered when I was young (and the ongoing sufferings we all must sometimes endure) I find myself looking for patterns, clues, examples from the past that point to a better way, less friction with others and  more peace within myself.  The lessons of the past, as they are called are food for thought, if not always delicious food.  I’d like to think that as I’ve aged I’ve somehow become wiser and more merciful than I was as a confused, angry teenager.   Any improvement I’ve made has been the result of wrestling with things that trouble me.

My feeling is that if you get no insight into the things and situations that cause you pain you will always be in pain for the same reasons you always were.   Your reactions will remain unchanged and those reactions will fuel the behavior of others toward you.   The philosopher Moms Mabely is sometimes credited with the pithiest statement of this:  “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.”  

The only way, it seems to me, to avoid getting what you always got is if you learn to do things differently than you’ve always done.  In other words, doing that difficult thing: learning what you need to do better from the experiences of the past.   Hard fucking work, no doubt, and, though I try not to judge, I often have a hard time respecting people who don’t even make the attempt to learn from their mistakes. Such people are never wrong, no matter what.   If you look back with even a small amount of honesty it’s not that hard to see when you’ve impulsively done something that hurt someone or made things worse, justified by a shaky rationale conceived in anger or something like it.    

I had a close friend for many years who was extremely bright and also very angry. Because he was so angry, on such a fundamental level, pretty much everyone he ever knew eventually became a rival, an adversary and finally a hated enemy.   Not long ago, when his mother died, his older brother emailed, asking me to reach out to him after informing me that I was his brother’s only friend.  

I took this news philosophically, as I hadn’t spoken to the guy in more than a decade, after finally realizing there was little I could do to remain friends with someone as implacably angry as he was.  Our few emails back and forth after his mother’s death illustrated quickly that nothing had changed in his world– he was still and always the victim, and angry and defensive about it.  Because he is a smart and articulate person he also made a brilliantly baroque case that the world, including me, was wrong and he alone was right.   Zero sum game, black or white, no nuance or possibility that anything could be any other way — you dig?

Because of the damage done to him as a child, however it had happened, he constantly relived variations on the trauma in every relationship he had.  He lived the ‘repetition compulsion’, casting others in the roles of people he blamed for his persecution, a series of putzes he at first thought were very cool, and then playing out the identical  senseless drama of betrayal time after time.  Each of these future putzes, every one of whom he put great hopes in, came to reveal the same awful thing — that they were complete and unredeemed fucking assholes.  

I found this fascinating, and also, very, very disturbing and ultimately defeating. His resistance to any kind of insight into his behavior was fierce.  He was convinced, in each case, that he had been viciously wronged, had been completely blameless and absolutely justified in acting exactly as he had, at every step.   Each one of his stories was predictably the same — initial admiration, disillusion, betrayal (often violent) —  and yet he was compelled to repeat the same aggravating three act drama every time.  

If you pointed out the similarities between the new story and every other one, or ventured the opinion that any of it had anything to do with his unattainable expectations of others and his own behaviors justified by his unexpressed anger, he’d become furious, since he was the least angry person he’d ever met.

We like to think that we’ll always have our favorite people in our lives.   Sometimes we keep old friends, and some people seemingly manage to keep all of their friends, but other times things like resentment, anger, envy, competitiveness and irrational things that bubble up and are hard to put a finger on wind up prying people apart. 

Anger is among  the hardest things we all have to deal with.   Do we have a right to be angry? Quite often we do.   We all live in an aggravating world, in a misguided and often vicious and violent culture.   In my own life, both of my parents were quick to anger.  There was a lot of yelling in the little house my sister and I grew up in.   I don’t hold this against my parents anymore.  

I don’t say that lightly, it took me many years to truly understand that if they had learned to deal with their feelings of disappointment, frustration and helplessness, they would not have treated my sister and me the way they did.   They did the best they could, but neither ever obtained much insight into how damaging uncontrolled anger is. 

As a child, if you can’t learn something like how to deal with frustration and anger from your parents, you are up against a hard game.  You have to find teachers, make many, many mistakes, have many fights, accept insights wherever you find them, become your own teacher in how to do better dealing with difficult emotions, difficult people.  

I’ll end with the only simple, useful thing I’ve learned for sure.   There are certain people who, once they become angry at you, will never stop being mad at you, no matter what you do.  An apology won’t work, whatever you’ve done is unforgivable because it is characteristic of the kind of bad person you are.  Conversation will not lead anywhere better, there is nothing you can say or do that will lead toward mutual understanding or forgiveness once you are put into this unredeemable category.   When you find every attempt to make peace thrown back on you, the only thing to do with this type is to walk away.  

I’ve learned this painful lesson only after understanding that the only other choice is a bad one– to make a kind of false peace by accepting that you are an offensive asshole unworthy of being treated any better than the way this angry person is prepared to treat you.  If you are ready, in the interest of “peace”,  to accept a view of you distorted by someone’s anger as some kind of truth, you’re setting an inevitable trap for the future.  

A trap you must continue to live in, harshly judged, awaiting whatever you “deserve”.   This kind of bogus peace will almost always come back to bite you sooner or later, when your past offenses will be dredged up as proofs against you, and in the meantime, you must accept the unacceptable as the best you can get.   The only choice, once mutual peace is off the table, is leaving the room, closing the door.

On one level, you could call what I am advocating the same thing my unhappy, angry friend who lived in a world of discarded putzes did, but I will try to explain how it’s different.   We both justify our actions as the only thing to be done, yes.  We both come to see the differences between us and the other as an unbridgeable divide.  We both write the other party off as dead.   There is no coming back from death, not in this life.

The only difference is that I believe that I make every effort to give a friend the benefit of the doubt, make many attempts to make peace before finally taking up the sword and cutting the guy’s head off.  It’s a big difference to me, a willingness to try to see the other person’s point of view, to apologize, to seek reconciliation.  To talk instead of fighting– at least until talk proves itself senseless, anyway.

My friend’s drama was always the same unalterable scenario.  He’d acted in good faith, been generous, thought the other person was reciprocating, then there were warning signs, he tried to correct course, he was viciously betrayed.  You can see this as similar to what I have laid out, but there is a key difference.   Unlike me, he was never at fault, in any way, ever.   Kind of like our current president and many badly damaged people one encounters.

I have many times realized that I’ve said or done something hurtful to somebody I care about.   It is natural to do this from time to time, no matter how hard we try to be perfect, particularly if we were raised by people who often spoke out of anger before they gave themselves time to consider the better thing to say.   People who are angry enough to rage at somebody don’t always have the ability to admit they were wrong, even later.   When there can be no acknowledgment of a hurtful mistake the cycle of ill will is complete, if you remain within the radius of  harm.

When I become aware I’ve hurt somebody I’ve learned to move quickly to reassure them of my friendship, apologize, seek forgiveness.  I’ve found that people who value you in their lives are quite ready to forgive.   I extend this forgiveness to anyone who shows the humility to express genuine sorrow for some hurtful thing they’ve done.   It is not easy for people to make themselves vulnerable to somebody else, particularly in our kind of win/lose culture, I appreciate the difficulty and respect those who can.  [1]

Look, this attitude about seeking and extending forgiveness does not make me Jesus Christ, not by a long shot.  When someone behaves badly toward me, refuses to acknowledge any role in our subsequent conflict, and escalates things aggravatingly every time I try to make amends, I have the same initial response that virtually any toxic male in our violent culture has.  My first feeling is violence, punch my antagonist hard in the mouth to make him shut up.  Just stop the fucking noise.  If you are only capable of making things worse with your righteous, enraged bullshit and whining, for the love of Christ, just shut up.

I don’t chide myself for this feeling.  The feeling is understandable and the reflex was planted deep, long before I was old enough to have any say about it.  A feeling is different than an action.   You can feel a violent emotion without acting on it, though it takes work and time to learn to disconnect the two things.   I never was one to hit people (my vicious words always did the trick) and I haven’t had a physical fight with anyone in many years.  I’ve made some progress in controlling what my anger at first compels me to do.  And yet, the feeling can’t be denied, I can’t pretend I’m not provoked to feel that way, once I am provoked.   Each of us has our breaking point.  

The only thing we can do when a feeling like this is choking us is to make a better decision than smashing somebody’s face.   I’m not going to hit this infuriating person in the mouth to make his maddening sounds stop, no matter how strongly I feel the desire to.  

I’ve learned to take a breath, as many breaths as I need, walk away, think (perseverate, if you like), recover as much of my better nature as I can.   If there is no way to peace with someone who is acting unreasonably, provocatively, secure in his right to rage, at a certain point you have to accept it and keep away from that person.

Once I come to this unfortunate acceptance, after exhausting my efforts to defuse things and make peace, there is only one more thing I have to do.   I don’t necessarily advocate it or defend it, but it is the best I can do in these situations, considering the angry environment I come from.

I reach deep into my well-worn tool kit.   I set out in words the precise thoughts that will do the most direct harm to the person who can’t stop attacking.  I write these thoughts out in detail, politely and firmly but without mercy or any hope of reconciliation (since there is none, as already demonstrated by the failure of all apologies one can muster).  

I employ that maddeningly superior tone that unchallengeable masters of the universe always use when addressing drones.   In each paragraph I cooly remove another arm, a leg, set them side by side on the table.  My last lines sever the head, which I leave beside the limbs.   Now it is finally quiet.

In the end the violence is about the same as punching someone hard enough to make them shut up, but the beautiful quiet afterwards is nice and there is no danger of prosecution.  

It is not exactly peace, and a terrible loss is still there, along with the sadness that comes with a great loss, but the knowledge that this kind of pugnacious anger will no longer come at you from this particular person– in my mind, better than giving in and socking somebody.   No matter how much they might actually deserve it.

 

[1]  The kind of apology that does not help is what Harry Shearer calls the if-pology. “If I did something wrong, then I’m sorry.”   Think of Joe Biden’s decades-belated variation on the classic if-pology, delivered to Anita Hill recently — I feel sorry for what they did to you, and for whatever part you may think I may have played in what they did to you.   An apology Anita Hill was right to dismiss.

An apology, to be meaningful, must acknowledge the hurtfulness of the specific thing that one is sorry about and contain some sort of promise to try not to do it again.

Compare that to the kind of apology I was given right before an old friend I finally had to behead told me he loved me and that I, therefore, had to be his friend.

“I already apologized to you, so I don’t know what you want from me.  You think I did something to you, which I didn’t, and so no matter how many times I fucking apologize, you are too much of a rigid, angry and unloving fucking asshole — who can never admit to being wrong, I might add  —  to even hear it”

And then, as though proving his point, I could not find it in my heart to accept his apology.

A few thoughts on thinking

The most satisfying and memorable kind of conversation is like a great catch.  The thought you throw to the other person is held for a moment and tossed back, with an interesting additional idea, and it comes directly into your hand, for a moment of consideration, before you toss it back.  There is a rhythm to this kind of chat, and no rush to talk.

What you just said reminds me of something eerily similar that happened to me years ago.  I mention it.  You raise your eyebrows, nod, yes, it’s very similar, but there is one big difference.  You elaborate.  I hadn’t thought about that, but, sure, that’s a very big difference, all the difference in the world, really.  

You can learn something important when a distinction is illuminated like that.  This kind of conversation is a way of thinking back and forth, of collaboratively considering things and shedding light on some of the mysteries of this mysterious life.    

Most talks between us are not so much this way, they are quick, many unrelated things come and go, threads pop up and disappear, shorthand is substituted for consideration, we move on, time is fleeting, we gossip, we vent, we don’t linger to converse in the more thoughtful mode every day.

We can all remember specific conversations that were on a deeper level, that moved us, changed us even.   I recall one, during a bike ride with an old friend, when she told me something obvious and profound that I’d never thought of.  She put it succinctly, in a phrase, and it changed the way I saw things.  I had one, and only one, wonderfully deep, personal conversation with my otherwise fussy, distracted Aunt Barbara.  In the living room of my parents house, after everyone else had gone to sleep, the moments with her I value the most.

The desire for this kind of conversation is a big reason people love to read.   We have a dialogue, of a sort, with another mind, a mind who was driven to set things on paper, after combing them into the readable form we have in front of us.   I am reading a book like that now, a novel.   Full of what Zora Neale Hurston called “that oldest human longing”, the desire to reveal ourselves to another, to speak our deepest personal truths and be seen and heard as we really are.   Speaking is great, writing is a more refined version of speech.

This dialogue with the author is a big reason we read.  I knew nothing about Shoshana Zuboff except that she recently gave a few very interesting interviews about her mind-blowing book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.   I didn’t pick up the book because I wanted a dialogue with her specifically, the subject she wrote about was compelling to me.  It turns out she is not only a very perceptive and extremely well-read woman, she’s fucking brilliant, creative and extremely engaging.  

She reminded me of Hannah Arendt in the way her book was loaded with thought-provoking insights seemingly peripheral to her central idea. Of course, no insight is peripheral to anything, in the hands of a creative thinker and skilled writer.

Take this seemingly random peripheral insight from her book.   We in the West have long valued the idea of our own autonomy.   The principle that we alone, as individual moral actors, have the final say in what we think and do.   This idea, Shoshana Zuboff points out, is under great pressure now, in an age when systematically modifying our behavior, our choices, how we think and interact, is increasingly monetized by people who become billionaires by tracking our every impulse, particularly things like the desire to be accepted by others,  and directing these impulses toward personally targeted commerce.  

The ideal consumer is one who is not autonomous, driven by deeply held beliefs and a strong internal need to feel independent, but heteronomous.

Heteronomous?   What the fuck?

Shoshana Zuboff provides this great term as the opposite of autonomous.   Heteronomy is the external force, based on an overarching concept, that drives mass conformity.   This indispensable word is apparently a coinage of Immanuel Kant’s [1].  

Note: the digital technology that allows us to instantly search for and pull up information, opinion and historical (and ahistorical) details is a sharp double-edged sword, of course.  We are all very smart, in our information age, and capable, if we wish, of effortlessly fact-checking and quoting very accurately, when we have instant access to the world’s collected information.  We are not nearly as impressive when we have no cell reception and only memory and wit to rely on.   In this age anyone can tap in a quick search and come up with:

Heteronomy refers to action that is influenced by a force outside the individual, in other words the state or condition of being ruled, governed, or under the sway of another, as in a military occupation.

Immanuel Kant, drawing on Jean-Jacques Rousseau,[1] considered such an action nonmoral.[2][3]

It is the counter/opposite of autonomy.

Philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis contrasted heteronomy with autonomy by noting that while all societies create their own institutions (laws, traditions and behaviors), autonomous societies are those in which their members are aware of this fact, and explicitly self-institute (αυτο-νομούνται). In contrast, the members of heteronomous societies (hetero = others) attribute their imaginaries to some extra-social authority (e.g., God, the state, ancestors, historical necessity, etc.).[4]

source

 

The actions of a heteronomous person are driven not by an internal imperative to act based on a personal, individualized belief system, but by an external force.  The masters of the force that moves masses can make themselves all-powerful and wealthy beyond the dreams of the most wanton slaveholder who ever enjoyed the involuntary company of an endless parade of beautiful servant girls.

You get a notification and look into your cellphone screen to read a come on that a third party has sent to you.  Your smartphone, of course, has a camera with a sharp lens and you have, by clicking “accept” when downloading the app, already given permission for the app and any associated third parties to have access to that camera.   As you look at the come on, the camera captures your reactions.   A few revealing micro-expressions are taken and filtered through algorithms that tell the third party exactly what you are receptive to receiving as a follow-up.  Disgusted by the ad?   We are too!    We’ll send you the antidote!

In our surveillance age, privacy is sacrificed to “security” and convenience.   The genius of the world’s smartest man, Jeff Bezos, was implementing a system to exploit his keen understanding that by monetizing the laziness and poor impulse control of the average American consumer he could become the richest individual in human history.  

Shop, in the privacy of your home, in your underwear, for the specific things that will make you elegant, popular, the envy of your friends and enemies alike.  Pay an annual fee and become a preferred customer, you can receive this great stuff almost instantly.   They’re working on a way to have robots and drones get this stuff to you in virtual real time.   What a world!

As we enjoy the convenience of this cyber world we give up certain crucial thing.   Human interaction has been changed by the always-on social media machine that converts the world into a data-driven high school popularity contest. The need for face-to-face play, improvisation just for fun, one of the great joys of human life, has been largely replaced by virtual human contact. Virtual human contact that allows third parties to monetize and profit from our need to connect.

Just as the female calf on the industrial diary farm never experiences the play that all young mammals have always enjoy as they master a host of social skills, including the flirting that will lead to reproduction (these industrially raised young cows don’t need to learn anything, they’ll be artificially inseminated and give more milk than any naturally raised cow) [2] today’s teenagers are growing up in a less playful, far more precarious, world few of us could have imagined.   Except perhaps on our worst day in junior high school.

A world where everyone has a camera on them at all times, for better or worse.  Where, on a dare, or being flirtatious, at an age when people are searching for the acceptance of their peers, racy nude photos are taken, exchanged, live forever on servers in virtual clouds.   At the worst possible time in the life of a fifteen year-old girl a formerly trusted best friend reveals a vicious side, posts that photo of you with the dick against your dumbly grinning face.   Of all the things that goad adolescent suicide, a good public humiliation is high up there.  Another person’s shame can now be uploaded, instantly, on to the internet everybody carries in their pocket.  This is a new, devastating weapon everyone is aware of.

Shoshana Zuboff discusses the wariness that must be imparted to children in this world of eternal invasive, largely commercial, surveillance.  Be paranoid, they are collecting every private insight that can be gleaned, in order to “serve you more efficiently”.  They are modifying your behavior in real time, and the reach of their prying apps, in continually more refined ways.  You are a sucker if you trust anyone.  Do not make eye contact, hit “like” and LOL.

I saw an ad for what seems to be a wonderful project.  A search engine that spends its profits planting trees, they’ve already planted millions of trees in formerly denuded, lifeless landscapes. We can read all the devilish details of what amoral motherfuckers Google’s executives are. They also built the greatest internet mousetrap in history, you have to give them credit.  The proof of Google’s value, as they say, is in the pudding, they are richer than fuck, among the most successful companies in history.   That’s really all you need to know.  Hate success?  You hate freedom!  (talk about heteronomous logic)

The alternative search engine I saw the ad for, Ecosia, has a series of wonderful ads.  They plant trees to restore destroyed rain forests, reclaim arid new deserts, provide habitat to preserve some of the thousand of species that are becoming extinct every day.   You can download their free app.   Sounds like a total win-win.  Fuck google.  Let me support a company that is doing something proactive to save our planet from the rapacious extractionists who are, to put it crudely, raping our biosphere to death.  

Then I think:  this is exactly what they want, isn’t it?  Talk about building the ultimate mousetrap.

Download the free app, along with every other idealist in the radius of Ecosia’s advertising,  and they are on your computer, on your phone, in your home, in your head.   They now have your name, and your every preference, on a worldwide list of everybody who fancies herself an idealist, everyone who wants a better world.  Who do they have to wipe out first, if they are to finally have everything just before the earth breathes its last?   Me and you, baby, the people who are determined to fight the grim, determined, heteronomous armies of death.  

Another bracing thing Shoshana Zuboff details is how this justified paranoia has decreased human to human trust among Americans.   We also have less and less trust for institutions, norms, the fairness of justice.  We are right to be paranoid, as we are screwed left and right, in the name of abstract principles that serve only the monetizers at the top of the societal food chain.   Distrust has become a kind of default setting as we learn more and more about the details of how we are being systematically fucked and lied to about the nature of this nonconsensual arrangement.

One final thought about thinking.  We tend to think in words (feelings come in many tastes, smells, sounds, colors, etc.)  and so a word like anodyne, or heteronomy, is essential in forming certain thoughts.  Without the word neatly expressing and encompassing the larger concept, we’d have nothing to chew on, at least not in a way we can express.  Something to masticate.

 

 

[1] Kant, a world-changing philosopher, is reputed never to have traveled more that a short distance from where he was born.  Forty miles is the distance I recall hearing from a chatty professor in a philosophy class at City College around 40 years ago.   I did a search for what that distance actually was, using the newfangled internet.  That he never travelled more than 16 km. (9.9 miles) from his birthplace is apparently a crock:  

A common myth is that Kant never traveled more than 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) from Königsberg his whole life.[45] In fact, between 1750 and 1754 he worked as a tutor (Hauslehrer) in Judtschen[46] (now Veselovka, Russia, approximately 20 km) and in Groß-Arnsdorf[47] (now Jarnołtowo near Morąg (German: Mohrungen), Poland, approximately 145 km).   source

Ninety miles, bitches.  Don’t believe the hype.

 [2]  Thank you, Yuval Noah Harari, for the description of this animal right to play and socialize, unsentimentally sacrificed without a second thought by the industry that brings Americans their dairy and meat.

Thanksgiving Cliche scene

We had a great Thanksgiving at the home of Sekhnet’s family, a very warm and interactive bunch.   It actually made us all feel thankful, including the great feature of their home being only 18.3 miles away and therefore not our usual hours in traffic drive for family, vegetable side dishes and dessert on turkey day.   Toward the end of the day I was sitting in an alcove with a couple around my age and noticed that the pillow behind the woman’s head had little black eyes and a black nose.   The eyes blinked.   It was the family dog.   Her husband had been absentmindedly petting the same dog when we chatted earlier.  She began singing the praises of this affectionate pipe cleaner of a dog.    The dog was indeed a wonderful creature.

I told her Ricky Gervais’s great bit about dogs being better than people.   Gervais is an atheist, but he says that when he dies, if he finds out he’s wrong, and there is a God, the first question he’s going to ask God is “why did you make chocolate deadly for dogs, you bastard?”

“Ricky Gervais is an atheist?” she said, and then we got into a conversation about Netflix, which is where I saw the routine.  They don’t subscribe to Netflix.   A friend had recently told her about a BBC documentary she had seen on Netflix about three generations of Trump and said it was great.  It was.  I began describing some highlights, in the most neutral possible way, as it became clearer and clearer that the woman was horrified by our fake reality TV president.   The man sat on the couch across from us glaring silently.

This appeared to be shaping into an instance of the Thanksgiving day cliche in our tribal America: a few drinks, a big meal, a violent argument about politics that tears another family down the middle.   I watched the man glare on the couch across from us while his wife got more and more animated in her denunciations of Trump.  In the next room at least two of the family members there had actually voted for the vile lying psychopath.  I was aware of being dangerously close to the high voltage third rail of American life in our third century.   Finally the woman said “Gary did work for Trump, tell ‘im,” and the glaring husband spoke.

He’d been one of the contractors on Trump Tower and had been screwed by Trump, during the course of the job and at the end.  “He’s a bully,” he began and then described the details of what a scumbag he was to work for.  “We had a contract, laying out everything we had to do, the prices, every detail.   Working for him was a nightmare, because he treated everybody like his slaves, then when the work was done he just goes ‘ah, I don’t like this work so much, I’m only going to give you…’ and he pays pennies on the dollar.   You want to spend thousands taking him to court, be his guest, he loves nothing better than sending an army of lawyers after workers he screwed.”

I agreed that the man is no damned good and referred to the many businesses in Atlantic City that had literally gone under after Trump stiffed them as his imbecilically self-toppled casino empire came crashing down.  They’d been delivering steaks, dry cleaning, maintenance, electrical work for years, extending mountains of credit to our deadbeat grifter-in-chief and then — poof! 

He nodded, glaring. still angry decades after working for the man who is now, by a narrowly engineered Electoral College win, the president of these disgraced and divided United States.   What can one really say, in the end, about an insatiable, broken, destructive person like this scary clown with the nuclear codes as his last card to play if all goes badly for him?

We concluded our chat and I excused myself to go into the next room and got a cup of coffee, which I drank sitting near a smiling woman who had voted for the man who promised to make America great again, and saved them a bundle on their taxes.