Will You Give an Ear for a Moment?

I’m lonely right now. And I’ve been lonely for a while. Everyone gets lonely; it’s such a basic idea it might be considered trite. I know all this and I’m still ashamed to admit I’m lonely. It’s even hard for me to tell my friends. A silence tends to waft in and settle after. I’m lonely. I’m scared of telling people that. And all that makes me ashamed. Thing is, I don’t know where this shame came from. It’s not like anyone sat me down and said “John, look, sometimes you’ll be lonely and it’s a bad thing” but admitting loneliness is socially uncomfortable enough to be seen as a social faux pas. Again, let me repeat, we are all lonely at point in our life and it generally isn’t by choice. It’s not like we’re revealing an intimately placed tattoo of the “WHASSSAAAPP” Budweiser commercial to a group of strangers. Loneliness is not only normal, it’s inevitable, and can in fact be capital “g” Good at the right moments and in the right mind mindsets. But what about when it isn’t Good and we need to be able to talk to someone because we feel locked away? I remember I was in group therapy years ago and a woman was describing how she and her husband had grown apart. She described in great detail, the gentle but firm way he used to hold the space between her breasts and push his chest against her back and would quietly exhale on her neck as she slept. She said that in the past months they’d inched farther and farther from each other until they were on opposite sides of the bed, both slightly colder at night. She described the weight on her shoulders and the weight in her stomach. Then one day she just got out of bed and just drove. She was supposed to bring her daughter to school, but her husband could handle it so she just drove until she got to the great American void all of us at least consider visiting: The Grand Canyon. She said she stood out there and it was grey but it didn’t matter because she felt free, but sad. And yet it was a better sensation than the cold bed. The group psychiatrist, a wizened old fellow who commanded a room by being soft spoken said, “Sometimes it’s the moments that we feel alone that mean the most, because not only do we die alone, but often times we live alone as well. It is actually the moments we connect that are rare. It sounds like you felt, for the first time, that it was okay to be lonely.” To which she responded with a reactionary staccato, “Oh no, I wasn’t lonely, I think it was just nice getting away from my husband and our kid.” I remember being uncomfortable with how defensive she was, or at least, being uncomfortable and picking up on her defensiveness. The easiest thing to do with anything uncomfortable is shove it away (but loneliness is inside us, maybe even when we’re with others) or make fun of it. I do a whole lot of the latter. Doesn’t help much. I also know I picked that one up from TV. I could talk about being lonely without upsetting the mood. I could have my lonely cake and sit in the corner watching it as it sat on the table too. Of course, these efforts at humor (lord, how not-funny is that phrase?) were passable about best. Maybe I’d go on about wondering if there was a kind of lycanthropy that turned people into a cat lady. I think I got it when I started feeding the neighborhood stray every morning etc. etc. This didn’t work, the humor that is. Then there’s another attempt at defending myself: drinking and going on social media. This is another thing I do an uncomfortable amount. It’s the usual ploy of trying to drown a feeling and heal it with the third best thing: digital interaction. I think loneliness may be the most common Western-Developed-Nation form of suffering. It is a key part of depression (which might be thought of an acid loneliness that seeps into every cell). I think we aren’t very good at talking or working with loneliness. To me, Camus was right to ask is suicide worth committing. Not because I think it’s a valid question, but because the drive behind it was, is there something in all this (lonely) suffering worth hanging on to. He recommended we imagine Sisyphus happy. The unspoken key to this philosophical as that we are there to witness Sisyphus endlessly role his boulder. We are there to be happy with him. Loneliness might be considered the foundation of modern philosophical thought. When Descartes wrote Cogito Ergo Sum (I think therefore I am) he was only proving the existence of the one who thought. When he realized this cast everyone else’s existence into doubt, it meant he had to scrabble to prove other’s existed. He decided that by viewing other’s over time, one could surmise they really exist. There’s something absolutely wrong and something dead right about this idea. People around us do tend to be shades. We don’t know their passions, how they interact, how they make love. And we can’t know the exact experience someone is having at a single moment: their thoughts, bodily sensations, rising temperatures, and swirling passions are forever locked inside them. But just as they are locked from us, we are locked from them. What I’m saying is loneliness is etched on human bones. It is a fundamental difficulty of being a singular subject that we’re forced to struggle with. Sometimes we’re given the tools to do it, sometimes we aren’t.  The rituals we practice, whether in private social circles, institutional places (school, church etc.) end up determining how we feel about and handle loneliness. So why am I so fucking afraid and ashamed of mine? I cannot conclude this topic. To be totally honest I had this silly notion that I could write my way out of the hurt in my chest, write my way out of my loneliness. I think that’s why I write in general. To feel like someone is there, listening. I guess that’s what I might want (not that I don’t already have it), probably something everyone would want, a person to listen, to share with. I’m not the only one who feels like this, right?

The Hum

Trigger Warning for those struggling with suicidal ideation. If you are I urge you to call a friend and tell them how scared you are. The disorder will tell you not to: don’t listen to it. If you don’t have someone to call then call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They help. I swear it.

It comes to the surface every so often. I’ll be strolling along, capturing or being captured by my inner verbal/pictorial dialogue, and there will be a resurgence from my balls to my guts to my chest to my thoughts–from emotional center to intellectual center—and I’ll think, “oh, that’s right, that’s how I feel. I feel like if I sat down now I’d never get up.”

This is my “Water.” In his 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College David Foster Wallace, something of a hero to me, and also something of a warning story, starts off by telling the students a parable in which two young fish encounter an older fish who says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” Wallace uses this story to demonstrate the idea that, “The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” He then goes on to say this is a banal platitude when stated as a sentence. My water (and if you read the commencement closely, Wallace’s water) is emotion. Unfortunately, every time I stop and wonder how the water feels I’m met by a disturbed thrill. It feels like the underside of bad. It feels like the shallow levels are bright and cheery and when the dark water inevitably bubbles up it reminds me that sometimes I’d rather not be living.

I don’t use that idea lightly. There is a dark streak in me that would rather have me not existing, not necessarily dead; just not existing. I like to think of that thing that keeps humans going as a kind of hum, maybe the warm hum of a machine or computer, the hum of a beehive or the hum of a river or the hum of an uncle as he sits a cold beer on the swinging porch as the sun sets, ready for rest. Nonetheless, a continual linking inside people that chains each moment to the next and keeps them contented between intensities. I see it my father as he contentedly sorts papers and types on the computer. I see it in my students in class when they sit quietly while I read a work sheet to present. I see it in my friends as they work day in and out at jobs I couldn’t. I do not see it in me. I don’t hear it in me. I’m afraid I don’t have it. In fact, I’m not sure I ever did.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things in life that keep me here. I love my family and friends and will fight tooth and nail to keep from hurting them more than I already have. I have bursts of excitement; moments of jouissance that leave me wanting to fill the nearest moleskin with notes or the closest stranger with ideas, but between those moments there often hangs a hollowness that seems to be, well, for now at least, my default state.

In one of the more moving (in an admittedly disturbing fashion) of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy he recounts a line from an old Greek myth, Silenus. In it King Midas is searching for Silenus, Dionysus’ companion. When Midas finally catches Silenus, Silenus turns to him and says, “Miserable, ephemeral race, children of hazard and hardship, why do you force me to say what it would be much more fruitful for you not to hear? The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing.” I read this as a college freshman and felt soothed. Something dim and frustrated in me was named and gentle nuzzled in the tougher parts of Nietzsche’s writing. This also scared the living hell out of me because it brought a consistent feeling into full view. I remembered being 7 years old and wanted to ride my bike down the driveway into the stonewall at the bottom, and there was a Boy Scout Swiss army knife at 12 and again and again, I was shown in full the dangerous weight of my own internal hum. I knew there was something different in my basic self, or at least was convinced there was a difference.

But ironically, it was reading more Nietzsche that made me understand the flip side of my pessimistic self. In The Gay Science Nietzsche, ever the pessimism defines true grit and from this true passion when he writes:

The greatest weight.– What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

In my better moments I like to think I live this way, embracing eternal recurrence so that even the hum I don’t have is a moment of celebration just for being. I like to think the constant hurt makes sense due to some primordial philosophy. But maybe I keep going, not out of concerted effort, but because I do have that hum; it’s just set to a different frequency, lower and darker, inaudible like an elephant call, but there, stringing me together. I can’t really be sure.

There’s that old adage that you can’t really love someone else until you love yourself. I say fuck that. I can’t feel my own love but that isn’t going to stop me from loving others. It occurs to me that love might have a whole lot less to do with immediate sensation (though that’s a part of it) and a whole lot more with effort and connection, the willingness to enter the stream of someone else’s hum, to embrace them however they’re able to embrace. Maybe love is in the action of seeking to hold another whether that’s literally or figuratively. Maybe whether or not I feel it or believe it, and whether or not I cringe at the very word, love is a thing that reaches places I can’t, and brings me closer to others in a way I never thought I could be.

For now, that’s the goddamn tune I’m gonna hum.

Self-Loathing

Trigger Warning for those struggling with suicidal ideation. If you are I urge you to call a friend and tell them how scared you are. The disorder will tell you not to: don’t listen to it. If you don’t have someone to call then call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They help. I swear it.

It usually doesn’t make sense to rank emotions (they are multifarious sensations that can seemingly control us at times, theirs not best or worst), but I think there’s an ugliest emotion. It’s ugly in that it, like king Midas’ touch, makes everything it comes in contact with of similar substance. It can taint in a certain way. It even hard to talk about and hard to see due to what it invokes in the lookers or listeners: self-loathing.

Like any emotion self-loathing is a mix of other, less complex feelings that then employs itself in various particular forms. But a lot of times it’ll look like this: someone in the corner of an unevenly lit room, still wearing their jacket, with their greasy, un-showered hair hanging down as they viciously swear at themselves again and again and again. The person is both isolating themselves, but speaking audibly enough that others don’t hear and this, perhaps, is the unstable crux of self-loathing: it is both directed at the individual who hates, while still being directed outwardly. It contains the rage of a despair that says “Why couldn’t you love me enough?” while being unable to accept any love as honest or genuine. It can also go from a dense point of anger to a wide, subtle pattern of self-sabotage. It, like everything part of the depressive attitude, is cunning as hell.

I can tell you that shame plays a large part in self-loathing. The idea that you’ve done something wrong around other people and they knew you’ve done something wrong and that now they might think ill of you seems to bring out in people a tendency to mentally and verbally self-flagellate, as if their self-imposed anger might pre-empt and cut of the need for others to punish them (punish in the imagined form of more shame or some yet undiscovered terrifying feeling). So this brings out another layer to self-loathing; the anger for others is derived from what they might be doing and saying and how that feels like a true reflection of oneself.

I felt the need to write about this little talked about feeling because it’s one that visits me from time to time and it’s one that very few talk about in a calm way. Frankly, I’ve had a tough week regarding inter-personal relationships. I said some stupid things, had so things said to me, and walked home with my head hung and my heart heavy. On the walk from my friend’s house to my own all I could do was picture a whirlpool I was at the bottom of, a whirlpool that turned out to be a charming porcelain toilet where I was forced to eat shit for things I said. I kept imagining how disgusted others were with me (when I was disgusted with myself) and I kept imagining how this thing I call a person was now a broken veneer that I’d been desperately trying to hold in place for a long time. I was angry, but only angry enough to hurt myself. It seemed logical to slam my head against the wall, or a hammer on the back of my hand. I wanted the external word to exactly reflect the inflamed pain of my psyche. Instead I played Mario because I was so crippled by overwhelming shame/loathing/fear.

There’s a reason this stuff needs to be talked about. The thing is the above scenario is one I’ve lived in spirit a lot of times. The intensities have been different, sure, but all with the same strange mix of anger and contempt for myself and others. The only thing is, when self-loathing and depressive tendencies team up they start to become really dangerous. On that walk home I did more than think about hurting myself. I wanted to escape this cavalcade of painful confusion I was in so I looked up and thought the telephone pole was a nice place to hang a noose.

In every despair there’s usually something else struggling to get loose, something that wants to be free of the despair. This struggling can take the form of suicidal ideation (the final escapism) or the torrent of thought and feeling associated with self-loathing (if only I could contain all these thoughts and feelings in one grand picture, maybe I could purge them!), but despair must be struggled with in the right way. Friends help. So do pets. Tactile and soothing things that don’t seek to remove you or your thoughts, but rather, to coax them into submission, like cooing at an infant. In fact it’s this most basic ‘self-talk’ that gets me through self-loathing periods. Repeatedly telling myself “okay John, you’re doing this, you’re okay because you’re doing this and you’re doing this because you’re okay” (the ‘this’ referring to anything from walking to eating to teaching to goddamn breathing.  When the black hole of self-loathing is involved talking to myself makes me a little less crazy.

Turn On, Login, Space Out

Listen To This While Reading

Sometimes I’ll have up to four screens on at once. Generally it’s just two, but if I’m feeling especially rotten it can get higher. Often times it will go something like this: computer screen to play a videogame  (and despite adventure/puzzle games being my favorite I’m probably wasting time throwing grenades at Nazi zombie robot dogs and feeling shitty about it because I generally tell people I don’t play games like this; in fact I’m not even enjoying it that much), iPhone with one earbud in to listen to a podcast (but actually unconsciously wishing for a text knowing I won’t answer it), TV on in the peripherals piping an episode of The Office I’ve seen at least six times (I sort of look up to/ identify with/ wish I looked like Jim because maybe women would like me more and I like having the slightest sensation that I’m not single and my girlfriend is as kind and pretty as Pam and maybe I’m not as lonely as I thought), and laptop on a stand next to the computer with Facebook just sitting there, staring at me, the site itself simmering at a high temperature, wanting to scald me with the images of friends doing fun things without me.
The strangest part? I do this to escape the feeling of loneliness. I connect to disconnect from myself.
Connection is something I value highly. But are there different types?

In Zadie Smith’s article “Generation Why?” on the film Social Network she finds herself at the uncomfortable junction of generations (which seems to happen whenever bold new type of technology reveals itself to be popular) ask whether the Facebook Generation has a different conception of personhood. She writes, “Perhaps Generation Facebook have built their virtual mansions in good faith, in order to house the People 2.0 they genuinely are.” Her question is full of implications that every generation demands of its offspring: are you serious? Are you really in there? How can you live life this way? I’m worried what you’ll turn into if you grow up. Do you have the capacity to be human like we do?

The answer to all of these should be obvious, and it’s not the questions that are really interesting. It’s more… why are you even asking. Considering I just got an iPhone and was chided by my best friend’s father for being behind the times, I think there’s less of a generation gap in terms of technology use, but there is one when it comes to what we might be losing to social technology. Maybe we’re ignoring what’s truly dangerous about technology’s affects. Not its ability to influence behavior like the video games causing violence in the 90’s scare, but social technologies ability to anesthetize more primal and necessary desires.

You see, when I’m watching four screens I’m often unknowingly refusing to address a problem in myself that will nonetheless be played out through my extremely divided attention. I want to be with other people and yet much of being an adult seems to require certain amounts of either being with others in strictly “professional” settings or being alone or both. This is celebrated. I don’t know why.

So to answer my own previously posed question: there’s one type of connection with many different flavors and intensities. It can be strong, joyful, fraught, confused, sexual, funny, any of these, but when I’m not longer with the person, physically, it takes a sharp turn. Instead my anxieties and desires fill in the gaps for me. Suddenly the way I saw you sitting with you legs tucked under you, leaning on one arm and looking both enchanted and enchanting; that’s gone, so the complexities and intricacies of interaction are lost and with it a certain amount of human social signals, a certain amount of felt warmth, that isn’t so much heat as it is the bones of spirit.

For me, solely texting or Facebooking or calling friends is colored with anxiety. I wonder if I’ll ever see them again, if they care about me all, if they’re actually doing okay or putting on that voice that says they’re doing okay. I worry if our friendships that end up in the digital realm can suffice, can sustain. The polite answer is yes, the honest answer: why am I trying to drown myself in connective media?

But please don’t take me for a Luddite. There’s some joy in the use of computers in all there vermiform shapes and sizes. What worries me more is the way in which adult life is not structured around connection, but rather, connection must be structured around adult life (adult life being understood crudely as work, pay bills, everyday ins and outs, responsibility). Maybe what previous generations are actually asking is can we take it, a life that is not built around connection? And maybe the right answer is no, not when its so easy to treat ourselves with a large dose of digital downtime. I might already be nostalgic for a time that never was, but I know if depression has only been increasing in the last fifty years, why not try something (that I will leave purposefully vague) that encourages community rather than a turn on, login, space out (‘til worktime).

In the mean time I might get a fifth screen. I hear the curved TV’s are on sale and I need to catch up on Kitchen Nightmares.