I recently had an exchange with a good friend to whom I hadn't spoken in over a year. She told me that her father had become quite sick; that she'd gone home to visit him and ended up staying; that for the next few months she watched him deteriorate, day after day after day; and then, within that merciless tedium, how he'd finally died. Now she was still living home, feeling out of sorts, asocial, down on herself — a blob was the word she used, I believe.
From where I sat, removed from the immediate
emotional poignancy, it seemed so obvious that she'd been given this enormous
gift. She's a young woman and while her friends were gallivanting around NY and
LA, she became intimate with death. She witnessed the extraordinary
transformation of body to ghost, of this particular life lived — her father —
becoming something else, something immaterial, becoming memory, love, presence.
While her friends lived the beautiful finitude of this life — partying,
working, fucking, loving, — she lived the infinity within the finitude of these
absurd bodies of ours. So, yes, of course the entire social world looks
different to her now.
Of course, for many people in the world,
death isn't such a rare event. But for upper middle class Americans, death is
something we never expect, rarely see, and assume will somehow be taken care of
by others — doctors, caretakers, nurses, cousins. In our Purell-Prozac culture,
we have a tendency to wash away the unclean, whether intense feeling or subway
So when my friend told me that rather than
just return to her so-called life — her old apartment, friends, job — she was
loafing and flailing, I was pleased (that might not be the right word). Yes,
she feels lousy. Yes, she doubts herself. But such is as it should be!
Twenty-somethings tend to float through life, passionate and certain and
righteous. I sure as shit did. And that is not a bad thing, not at all. In
fact, it's gorgeous. Oh, to be 26 again! To feel that love! At 27, I eloped at
25th and Valencia, the day my new bride and I moved in together! Oh, and to be
that smart! I was writing my dissertation and lived my days immersed in
phenomenology and Deleuze and my thinking was on fire! I'll never be so smart
again, so passionate again, so ready to love and think again. Yes, to be
20-something is awesome.
But this woman was given something
incredible: an intimate taste of the line between the finite and the infinite.
What a painful, ugly, exquisite gift! So, yes, she has a difficult time
returning to her life, whatever that even means. Good. That is something her
father, in dying, gave her.
I had a similar experience watching my sister
die. For me, though, this reckoning of life and death came when I was 44. I'd
lived so long avoiding the resonance of death through that all-too-familiar mix
of cockiness, meds, fear, and distraction. This all changed when my sister
became sick, suddenly and awfully. And then when it became clear that she'd
die, soon. And then when she entered hospice, the last room she'd ever see
while everyone around her stood by, watching as she left this world. And then,
after weeks of somehow hanging on to breath, when her body finally decided not
to inhale anymore.
Holy shit! Holy fuck! Holy fucking fuck fuck!
How can she be gone?!? Forever?!? How do I wrap my skinny jew ass around that
Well, I could try to compartmentalize it, put
is somewhere else in my thinking and then "get back" to my life. When
I reach for the phone to call her and realize she's not there, I could just
think, somehow, that she's on vacation.
Or I could indeed try to wrap my body around
that infinite absence. I could take her death as a gift, as this thing that was
offered me out of supreme generosity and have it run through my veins, my
thoughts, my loves, my being, my becoming, through my dreams and imagination.
She gave me this experience, this awful, inevitable, exquisite, horrible
experience of how one leaves this earth and I could make the most of
At almost 45 years old, I rarely receive
presents. When I do, it's usually a bottle of booze (for which I am always
grateful). But my sister, in dying, gave me something else: she gave me a taste
of death, a front row seat to that line that separates the finite and the
infinite, the physical and the metaphysical.
To bear witness to a loved one's death is an
extraordinary gift. It's a gift from the person, to allow you to be there as
they transform into something else. To be shown death! To be shown how to die!
What greater gift is there? Would I rather have received a bottle of craft gin?
Maybe. On the other hand, how else are we to learn of death? How else are we to
know its ways, its ugliness, its stench, its beauty, its horror? From watching
those we love — our fathers and sisters and, sometimes, our children — die. (I put aside the question of young children, my sister's children, for that is another matter which I don't know how to address.)
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not
happy that my friend's father died. I am not happy that my sister died. It's
been almost 10 months since she's been gone and not a day — not an hour — goes
by in which I don't think of her, talk to her, give her a wink. Not a day goes
by that I don't cry.
But, thanks to her death, I am finally coming
to learn that people do indeed die. That is what we do, all of us. No duh,
you say. But I never understood this. I was always either immortal, ignoring
that death would come, or else I was afraid. Watching my sister die gave me a
third option: to be present with death.
Don't get me wrong: I still don't get death.
This gift my sister gave me is not like receiving a vase that you put on the
mantle and you're done. It's a much more difficult gift. To reckon the infinity
of this finitude, that inevitable transformation of body into ghost, is an
ongoing process — a gift that keeps on giving.
None of this is to say that witnessing death
automatically transforms you into a wise sage. I am suggesting, however, that
being intimate with death — especially of someone you love — offers the
possibility of transformation, of reckoning, of learning to be neither
oblivious nor afraid but to be present with death. I'm saying that witnessing
this kind of death can be an extraordinary gift rather than just a loss.
While not usually an everyday topic amongst co-workers and friends, how we shit is an important, influential component of our well-being. (I have a 10-year-old son; we speak often of such things.) When all goes smoothly, it bodes well for the day. When things come out in a less than desirable way, or remain in limbo, life tends to be a little harder, a little more strenuous.
I am not the first to point out the role of defecation in our health. Often, we take it as a sign of something else — our diet, digestive tract, mental well-being, our overall physical health. But what's interesting to me about poop, among other things, is that it is not just a signifier: it is a metonymy, continuous with the whole, a part of us. (Excuse the dorky rhetorical aside on tropes: synecdoche is part speaking for the whole, as when a teacher says, Let me see hands when she, in fact, means whole people. Metonymy is a continuous part that is not representative such as, say, a shitty shit which doesn't mean I per se am shitty — just my shit is.)
This is to say, shit doesn't signify as much as it happens. It is an event, not a code — even if it houses elusive meaning. We are little engines, systems of intake and output. If we are what we eat then surely we are what we shit, as well. Only we can't be reduced to either our diet or our shit; they are components of us, essential but not necessarily representative. Sometimes, we poop poorly which is part of a healthy system eliminating disease, germs, mayhem. Other times, our poo moves smoothly along while our lives crumble around us. We are more than our poop.
And yet how and what we produce — consistency, frequency, odor — is a poignant inflection point within the system that is our being. As such, it is worth heeding — not as we would tea leaves but as we would, say, a relationship. There is no revelation; there is give and take. There is not something to read in our poop as much as there is something to do about our poop (there’s a joke there somewhere about doing our do).
Our issues with shit begin young as we are harangued into pooping properly — in the right place and time. As an oblivious, afraid parent, I never considered the potty training of my son as anything but necessary. I knew that I couldn't send my beast to pre-school until he was trained to shit in a toilet, not in his pants. Such is the institutionalization of shit control. And so his mother and I bribed and punished and otherwise coerced him into no longer shitting freely into his diaper but into the toilet. And then, of course, to flush it all away.
There he is, perched precariously on the porcelain, his parents cheering him on with the promise of M&Ms and the threat of a scowl. What pressure! I remember when he was young and would unabashedly let loose in his diaper. Oh, how he savored the warm, wet embrace of his turds filling his pants! No more: now he was to shit at the right place and time, with permission, with adults waiting and looming and judging.
No wonder some kids don't want to let go! They are what we call anal retentive, afraid to release control, afraid to let down their parents — and afraid of sending this thing that came from them into a watery abyss in a great, mechanical swirl. Yes, the toilet is scary in many ways.
Other kids don't hold anything back. They want to please their parents. So they shit but they make a big mess of it: Here! Is this what you wanted so badly?!?
We assume shit to be a bad thing, something to be controlled and dismissed. And much of this is with good reason: playing with shit, living among shit, can make you very, very sick.
On the other hand, this makes us avoid shit — and, worse, shitting. We don't talk about it; we have anxiety about it. There is an epidemic of irritable bowels, for god's sake. It's not a disease. It's a syndrome! How awful is that?
In general, we use "shit" as a pejorative. This restaurant is shitty! My day was shit! Shit is bad. We shit on shit.
But there's been a slow, steady rise of the power of shit. We say things like, Whoa, this is some good shit! And then there's James Franco’s speech, as Alien, in Harmony Korine's beautiful, brilliant love story, Spring Breakers. Look at my shit! This is his abundance, his brimming with life. Sure, it's all material stuff but, in a way, that is what shit is: it is the radical materiality of our time on this planet. Parts of us are not physical. We are idea, sentiment, dreams, notions. But we are body — smelly, beautiful, often painful, also pleasurable body. We are shit, too. So why not make it good shit?
Like everything — kisses, puppies, worms, larvae, rainbows, death camps, Michael Bay, prayer, profanity, sixth grade — shit is part of life. It is necessary and as run through with the cosmic surge as everything and anything else. This doesn't mean we have to eat it. That's ridiculous. But it does suggest that we could have a different, warmer, less aggressive and dismissive relationship with it.
It's interesting to me how a word moves over time from neutrality to pejorative or compliment (not to mention how the word came about at all). Think about it for a minute: tasty — being of taste as distinct from being, I suppose, touchy, smelly, heary, or seey.
If tasty moved from being of taste to tasting good, selfish went the other route: from being of the self to being a bad self. There is no ambiguity to the word: to be selfishness is to be a bad. You're never called selfish as a compliment or as part of a description: Oh, Daniel, that act is so you — you're so selfish!
As Nietzsche argued and Foucault fleshed out, the social has a tendency to keep the selfishness of selves at bay. It's much easier for the police state and corporations — the distinction is blurred — if people are more or less the same. It's more efficient. So it's not too surprising that selfishness got a bad rap, that acting as, with, and for yourself would warrant an insult.
Now, I was about to say that being selfish meant you were oblivious to the social hence the social's transformation of the word into a pejorative. After all, the social needs to keep you in check, keep your will to yourself subdued, as it yells, Be nice to us! Think about us! The irony, I hope, is not lost.
And yet what is often construed as selfish is, precisely and distinctly, social. A selfish prick is someone who is always jockeying for his own gain, all too willing to screw you over to get what he wants — money, sex, a faster latte, a raise. In this sense, to be selfish is not, in fact, to be selfish but to be awash in social expectations, social obligations — even if seeming to act against them. It is to have forgotten yourself in order to gain, to win, to be rich, to screw out the other dude to get what's yours! To be selfish is, alas, to be bereft of self.
There is, then, another mode of selfish: being your self above and beyond and next to and below and with and without the social. To be selfish is to affirm your distinction in the cosmos, not your needs in the social. Rather than screwing over a lover or co-worker, to be selfish is to be absolutely present to your friends, lovers, family, co-workers. Instead of diminishing yourself out of fear and loathing, you inhabit yourself as yourself. Here am I, says Abraham when God calls.
To be selfish is to participate in the world as yourself, as this piece of the universe happening as it happens. Just as that rock is that rock, that river is that river, that cloud is that cloud, you are you happening as you happen, an element within the cosmic teem, swirling with everything else but as this particular thing: as yourself. That Chris Bell line rings out each time I think this: Every night I tell myself, I am the cosmos. I am the wind. You go like this, a piece of the cosmos itself. To be selfish is not to be distinct from the world but connected to the world as a particular piece of the world. It is to be present when the universe calls.
Being selfish doesn't mean ignoring the social. It means acting with the social rather than for the social. William Burroughs always hated the question, What side are you on? He preferred, What side are you with? That is being selfish: moving with the world in the way you do (not the way you should). You are distinctive even if sharing many elements.
I was driving with my friend the other day over the Sonora pass in the Sierras. It’s a tough road, steep and narrow without a passing lane. She was becoming anxious, not for fear of imminent death were we to drive over the ledge (my fear!) but because trucks would ride her ass if she drove too slowly — which made her feel bad! So she’d speed up even though it made her even more anxious. So I told her: Drive at your own speed — not out of vengeance or maliciousness but because that’s how you need to flow right now. Stay inside yourself. Be selfish. And so she did and the ride was very nice, even if a truck or two got to their destination 20 minutes later.
So, yes, being selfish may mean being a dick from someone’s perspective. It means not smiling even if you're supposed to smile, not nodding along when you're supposed to nod along, not cheering when you're supposed to cheer. It means being willing to stand alone, to do alone, to feel and think things that others find reprehensible. It means not being tied to the banality of morality (which doesn't mean being unethical; it means not being tethered to a code). It means being honest about the things you like and dislike. It means driving more slowly over a mountain pass if you’re scared.
The point is this: to be selfish means not being excessively driven by social demands. Are we all necessarily social? Of course. Does acting out of self-interest lead down a slippery slope to rampant murder? Well, no: the slippery slope is a fallacy, a silly metaphor that justifies too much nonsense (a topic for another time). To be selfish is to operate as yourself amidst the fray.
Being selfish may make you less popular. And it may not make you happy. But being selfish will make you more you, necessarily.
Back when I was teaching, usually when I got to Nietzsche, there was at least one student who'd raise his or her hand and say, That sounds like Buddhism. Now, I don't know much about Buddhism and, in those days, I knew nothing other than the pop sensibilities that somehow drift through the ether (whenever I interrogate how I "know" something, I generally find the source vague if not all together absent). I'd always reply, Maybe. But can you picture Nietzsche meditating with his legs crossed in a dark room while whale sounds play?
There is a certain tendency to conflate ideas, especially outside the academy and in those books we consider "spiritual" (oy!). Not only do we find a common thread, we instinctively and actively seek it until Jesus sounds like Buddha sounds like Kabbalah sounds like Eckhart Tolle sounds like Carlos Castaneda sounds like Alan Watts. And then, when I'm teaching Nietzsche, he gets thrown into the mix: the kingdom of God is inside you = the watercourse way = the power of now = this is it = amor fati.
Meanwhile, in the academy, more or less pedantic distinctions abound. Such is the very stuff of tenure. The first chapter of Deleuze's dissertation, Difference and Repetition, distinguishes between Nietzsche's and Kierkegaard's conception of repetition: if Nietzsche dances, Kierkegaard jumps — and jumping, for Nietzsche's Zarathustra, is the act of buffoons.
Both moves have their merit. There is something very powerful and profound in sensing a commonality, some core element — whether a sensation, observation, idea, or action — that traverses domains so that Jesus and the Buddha are of the same plane, secretly saying the same thing. Or at least having tea as they nod in agreement with each other.
And there is something exhilarating about distinguishing modes of repetition, styles of resignation, experiences of mystics. Dancing and jumping are indeed profoundly different. And this difference is the very stuff of life. It is the act and experience of affirmation, the event that says this moment, this shape, this moment is essential, necessary, that this moment is happening!
I've no doubt learned a lot from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Deleuze and Derrida, from Burroughs, Castaneda, and Osho, from Watts and Jesus, too (I've read the Gospels many times). And while there are certainly common threads that run through them — an overcoming of ego; an interconnectedness of things; the palpability of the invisible world; the affirmation of the self — there are essential differences, as well.
And while some of these differences are surely pedantic, there are differences in mood, experience, and finally in goal — if you will — of each writer. They share some ideas but they strive for, and push us towards, fundamentally different kinds of experiences. They seek what they seek, a way of going that they see, feel, desire, and live.
To read these folks is not just a matter of understanding. It's a matter of posture, a mode of standing in the world, towards the world, towards your self: a question of what you seek, I suppose, even if what you seek is the end of seeking. There are worlds of difference between joy, serenity, power, happiness, knowledge, faith, infinity. Which do you seek? What is your goal? How are you when you are at your best? Peaceful? Blabbering? Surging? Seething?
Now, I used to draw pedantic, academic distinctions — carefully delineating the difference between Derrida's iteration and Deleuze's repetition or between Harold Bloom's metaphoric misprision and Ricoeur's discussive metaphorics. And these were not utterly futile. But I'm interested now in something else: the affective state and ideal goal of each writer— not socially but existentially, in how we are asked to live day to day, what we seek and how we seek it.
Carlos Castaneda, for instance, seeks a kind of personal power. But it is practical power that stems, first and foremost, from knowledge of the invisible plane. For Castaneda, this is not a generality that can stand in for faith or infinity. On the contrary, his invisible world has lots of rules, ways of going, modes of reckoning and discernment. He teaches knowledge, or perhaps knowing, and how this knowledge can make you an impeccable warrior who can fly off cliffs and reproduce yourself simultaneously in multiple places. It’s a very strange mechanical physics textbook.
Nietzsche professes joy — amor fati, not just accepting your life but loving it, all of it. But he has his own brand of joy. I used to compare his amor fati to Walt Whitman's leaves of grass: where Whitman loves everything, takes in everything, says Yes to everything, Nietzsche says No to bullshit, No to the things that make him sick, No to morality. His joy is more rambunctious and perhaps grumpy than generous. He seeks a surge of vitality, calling the foundational element of existence the will to power. Note that this is not a will to dominate; in fact, his version of the will is not really egocentric at all. You are your will and your will is what you do, what you desire. But his figures are all about strength, power, having the lungs to breath thin mountain air, having the fortitude to be alone and bold. This is a far cry from Whitman prancing through America making sweet love to field boys by the river. Which is to say, they give us two different modes of joy.
Kierkegaard’s knight of faith enjoys a surge of vitality but he channels it inward. The knight's power is quiet, sure, understated. And while he once dwelled alone on the mountaintop, he is all too happy to live amongst the throngs. If Nietzsche's "well-turned out man" smells good and walks well, Kierkegaard's knight of faith lives incognito, unknown and unknowable.
I've just started reading Osho, aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, in particular his interpretations and lessons from Tantra. His prose is serene and yet thoroughly lit, even agitating: he is challenging you to be differently, to think differently. Mostly, he wants to enter this impossible yet actual place where you no longer surge or don't surge, understand or don’t understand. It's more of a high vibratory hum, a quietly seething ecstasy (it’s not contentment; it’s moves at a higher vibration than that).
Deleuze and Guattari are up to something else entirely. They are perhaps closest to Castaneda in that they love fleshing out the mechanics of the invisible world in these elaborate discourses on knowledge and what it means to know. But whereas Castaneda is serious — although don Juan is not — Deleuze and Guattari are often smiling this smarypants smile. It's different than Zarathustra's laugh or Kierkegaard's irony: their laugh has no depth and yet resonates unto infinity.
I could go on to Jesus, Thomas Merton, Luce Irigaray, Guy Debord, William Burroughs, PK Dick, Clarice Lispector. All of these smarty folks have taught me profound things about how to go in the world. And while there are commonalities, sometimes they are at odds with each other. Which is why reading is not merely consumptive but productive: in our reading, we remake the book as we remake ourselves.
I think about things. It’s my first instinct when I approach anything. My mind works quickly to size up, make sense, and spin whatever it is — situation, text, idea — in such a way that I can readily process and play with it. I don’t like letting things sit in a haze, vague and inchoate. I turn whatever I encounter into a structure that resonates with me, that’s digested. And just as a rock climber might crave a certain degree of difficulty, I prefer thinking about complex things.
I want to say I see ideas. But it’s not quite visual in any common sense of the term. My son is a visual thinker. He literally sees ideas, creating storyboards, comic books, drawings. His thinking enjoys shape, color, and narrative. Not me. Sure, I see shapes and moving parts but it’s all rather abstract. However, it’s never nebulous. On the contrary, it’s quite precise, a contrived combination of gesture, mechanics, and mood. I sense how the idea works, its logical and mechanical connections, its terms of operation (narrative is a kind of logic but enjoys different connective tissue than mechanics or logic). My thinking is more gestural than imagistic; indeed, I gesticulate a lot as I think.
Unlike my son and artist friends of mine, I don’t see pictures of things. I don’t see colors, not really. I see lots of greys and darker outlines and feel how the idea happens in my veins and various appendages. Thinking, for me, is vibratory and usually happens throughout my body — even if we like to think that thinking happens in the brain. I suppose my thinking forms some kind of outline or schematic of the idea, a blueprint of a sort.
If my son thinks with images, I think with words. Words enjoy affect and sensation but in a very different way than images. Words are less visually aggressive. They’re monochromatic squiggles that carry and conjure concepts and moods but are not much of anything by themselves. (Which makes words magical and exceedingly odd.)
In any case, all understanding is a kind of sensation, a palpable yet invisible intensity and resonance. When I don’t understand, I get agitated, experiencing a kind of existential dyspepsia. When I do understand, especially something complex, I feel a surge of well being, everything moving along smoothly, a dose of existential fiber.
(Part of thinking is to come at ideas with others ideas. These pre-canned ideas can prejudice engagement with the new thing so that there is no actual thinking, just a fitting into an existing schema. This is always a risk.)
Usually, once I understand an idea — once I see how its parts work together — I let it move around my body, permeate my tissues. I want to know how it makes me feel, if it sits well with me. I love that phrase sits well with me. I suppose that is my test for what some people call truth: it’s true if the idea feels right to me. In this case, truth is a matter of whether the idea resonates with me, is something I can use to explain things to myself or others in such a way that I am at once excited and at ease. I test whether it fits with my style, fuels my being, and somehow excites me (I’m not sure this is the best standard).
There are many ideas I presumably understand but never incorporate into my way of going. For instance, the Hegelian dialectic. I’ve read quite a bit of Hegel; I even did my doctoral exams on him. But I never believed him. Well, that’s not quite right for it’s not really a matter of belief. It’s a matter of speed and shape, of metabolism. Which is to say, his ideas, his writing, his shtick never incorporated itself into my modus operandi. The dialectic always struck me as so much nonsense. I know people who love and spout Hegel. Not me. It just never sat well with me, like calves’ liver and rollercoasters.
Sometimes, an idea doesn’t make sense to me no matter how long I think about it. This is certainly true of Newtonian physics. I’ve never understood what happens when you drop a ball from a moving train, regardless of how many times it’s been explained to me. I believe the word for this failure of mine is stupidity. It’s all so much gobbledygook to me.
And then there is Hagakure, the Way of the Samurai. The darn thing downright baffles me; I can’t see how the parts fit together – one minute I’m being told always to use a toothpick, even if I didn’t eat, and the next I’m being told to embrace a certain mania for death. But maybe I find it so difficult because it doesn’t actually proffer ideas. I’m using the wrong tools, taking a hammer to water: I’m thinking precisely where thinking isn’t called for. (Kierkegaard says faith begins where thinking leaves off; faith is its own very strange kind of sense making.)
The main reason I think I enjoy thinking so much is that it gives me a sense of control. It affords me a semblance of certainty in a world that is anything but. Thinking bolsters my ego, makes me believe I’m in control because I can understand — even when the idea is about abandoning control! I understand ideas about never understanding! I think and then nod in my head as if I’m certain — even if the idea is fundamentally about uncertainty!
I’m not just saying that there’s a distinction between knowing the path and walking the path. I’m saying that knowing the path often prevents walking the path.
This is one thing that has always made me suspicious of academia: academics know things. They are rarely perplexed, confounded, or even excited. Grad school is about learning to be in control, to be the expert — to be the one who knows. I learned all these ideas about the death of the author, iteration, repetition, and multiplicity, ideas about the relationship between power and knowledge. And yet I was always in a position of knowing, of having to put forth my take in a paper or lecture. I was being taught to nod along to ideas that asked me not to nod along.
And now all I want is not to know and I don’t know how to do it. I want not to think but my mind and body won’t stop. My will to know and, worse, to be the one who knows is keeping me from life. It reinforces my ego, providing a temporary and all-too-precarious shelter, as if I could understand life. But then people die and shit happens and thinking fails me, leaving me in a puddle of tears, confusion, and anxiety. All knowing comes to an end; all understanding is futile. By thinking, I try to build a buttress against the teem and flow of a universe that is infinite and relentless and doesn’t give a shit about my ability to make sense. While I understand the idea of surrendering to the cosmic flow, this understanding prevents me from actually surrendering. Thinking gives me a sense of control precisely when I should feel neither control nor lack of control.
I’m not saying that I should or will stop thinking. I’m saying I want to change my relationship to thinking. The fact is, for me, thinking is fun. It’s a kind of exercise and, frankly, it’s a delight. But I don’t want it to yield ego, to yield a state of knowing. I want it to be an activity like knitting, cooking, or kite surfing — something pleasurable to do while I’m alive. At least I think that’s what I want.
Earlier this year, my son was having intense anxiety — phagophobia, to be precise, a fear of choking when he ate. He’d shake and tremble, panic riddled, because he thought he’d choke to death on a piece of cheese.
I know this intense fear for I have lived much of my life with it. In college and my 20s, it was AIDS (this was the 80s, mind you). Every time I got tested, I’d fly into utter panic, convinced I was positive. And you know how I thought I’d got it? My fucking cuticles! My cuticles get dry and sometimes bleed and I was sure they’d be my downfall.
My fear of dogs was even sillier. It didn’t matter how big or small. The minute the beast looked at me, I knew it was sizing me up, assessing my guilt and sins, poised to rip my throat out. Dogs were avatars of divine justice, special agents sent to whiff my weakness and destroy me.
Cuticles, cheese, and Chihuahuas: these are the things that have made my spawn and me shake with mortal fear, keeping us up nights sweating.
It seems absurd, comical even, but it’s actually quite sad. Looking at the boy while he was panicking, it was suddenly so obvious that his fear was precisely what was ailing him, even killing him, spiritually if not physically. To shake in fear, to panic, about what might happen is to miss life, skip right over it, to slide into an abstract set of possibilities and miss what’s happening right now. His fear of choking, my fear of AIDS and dogs, is all the same: it is to fear what might happen.
Alas, to live in fear of a future that might happen is not to live. But nor is it to die. It is to live a waking, walking death. It is to evacuate yourself of yourself, to be absent to your own life, to live in a possible world. While cuticles and Chihuahuas may be extreme, I know so many people who are afraid of being alone, afraid of losing their job, afraid of in flight turbulence, afraid of any kind of confrontation, afraid to dance, afraid to go to concerts. It’s all fear of what might happen, fear that anything and everything can and will go wrong. It’s a fear of death that erases the present moment.
Last year, I watched my sister die. It was horrible watching her dissipate and then, after five grueling months, disappear from this earth. She went from being a vital, brilliant, hilarious, beautiful woman to being a withered remnant. It was foul in so, so many ways. When she passed, I found myself in despair, utterly distraught about what had happened. I was not living; I was stewing, raging impotently against a universe that would do such a thing.
My shrink told me to meditate (he’s less fruitcakey than that sounds). But meditation always struck me as all wrong. What do you mean sit there and do nothing? That’s nihilism! Life is doing! Life is sounds and words and ideas! I always thought I needed the noise to tether me to the planet. And so I blabber on to others and, worse, to myself. I never shut the fuck up.
The silence of meditation, I told him, is death! I don’t want to die. To which he replied: Yes, it is death. But you need to die. Your avoidance of death is your problem. What my shrink understood that I did not is that my debilitating grief and avoidance of silence, along with my fears as well as my boy’s, were all the same thing: a fear, an avoidance, of death.
Just as my boy’s panic about dying was precisely the thing that was killing him, my relentless search for a linguistic tether was precisely what was untethering me. The will to noise, those relentlessly mad voices in my head, were keeping me from life — by keeping me from death. It’s the absurdity of thinking that if I just keep talking, the Big Silence will never come. It was the madness of my inconsolable grief. After all, what is more futile than raging against death?!? What is more absurd than being afraid of the very thing you know — you know! — will happen?
As my shrink told me, silence is indeed death. While part of life hums with the sounds of living, part of life speaks with the silence of death. Life is run through with death. But death is not nothing. Fear of death is nothing. The roar of nonsense in my head is nothing. The relentless drone of the TV, of Facebook and Pinterest, of Rdio and Spotify, is all so much nothing. All these things can be great, even inspiring, but to demand them all the time, at all costs, is to drown out the silence of death. It is to will nothing. To fill your life with noise and nonsense is to render yourself zombie.
For Kierkegaard, despair — not disease — is the sickness unto death. And what is despair? It’s turning away from death so much that you can’t die; you lose your self and become a breathing absence, a warm body devoid of life, too absent to even die. You fret the irrelevant and bemoan the inevitable. To meditate, to quiet the voices in my head, is indeed to die. But, in so dying, I am able to live.
The noise of things is often beautiful but it is not the only sound to hear. John Cage’s 4’33” is the sound of life and death, noise and silence, intermingling in a cosmic calculus. The sound of life is not just the play of children, the honking of horns, the laughter of love: it’s the silence of death that lurks everywhere, always and perfectly, in between and amongst the clatter. To shun this silence, to mute it, is to miss life itself. Mind the gap, indeed.
To live with fear — fear of what happened or might happen, fear of a death that is inevitable, that is an essential component of life — is not to live at all. Only by dying every day, by welcoming death and its exquisite silence, does life happen. Or so I hear.
The world has a tendency to overwhelm me. I get caught up in this and that — romantic stresses, hypochondriacal spells, financial woes. Sometimes, there are what we might consider bigger problems such as the death of someone close or the struggles of my kid. In all cases, I strive for equanimity: being calm, cool, and collected (mind you, I usually fail).
To enjoy equanimity is to be equal to the world — to be congruent, as my shrink would say. It’s what Nietzsche would call being equal to your accidents. It’s to feel that all is as it should be, regardless of how intense or seemingly awful, and hence to wish it no other way. Life is what happens so there’s no need getting worked up.
But then there is magnanimity. It’s a surprisingly tough word to say which seems apropos: it’s a surprisingly tough state to achieve. If equanimity is how you stand towards yourself, being equal to your own accidents, magnanimity is how you stand towards others, allowing others their accidents. If equanimity is letting yourself happen in the world, magnanimity is letting others happen in the world. It is a supreme social and existential generosity.
A friend told me this story the other day. His son called him many years ago — the son was in his 30s at the time — and let loose a rant. You were a lousy father. You abandoned us. You're selfish and horrible and I don't want you in my life at all — no letters, emails, or phone calls. No contact at all!
This was, of course, an exceedingly painful thing for my friend to hear. But he didn't interrupt. He didn't argue. He didn't offer explanations or excuses. At the end of his son's 20-minute rant, he said, May I say one thing? I am your father and I will always love you. I respect your feelings and will stop contacting you. When he told me this story, I thought: That is magnanimity.
As his son yelled, my friend could have, and indeed was expected, to yell back. Or at least to engage the rant, to offer his defense, to stammer and apologize, as if it were a courtroom and he needed to mount his defense. But what my friend did is spectacular. He chose not to engage on the immediate terms of the engagement but to engage on the broader, more emotionally resonant level. His son, for a variety of reasons both apparent and not, needed to vent, to be angry, to cut off contact with his father. And his father, lovingly, let him.
The fact is that our response to others' immediate terms of engagement is less ethical than it is aesthetic: it is a temptation. It's more tempting than sex, food, or drugs. Someone says something and our first response is precisely to respond, to react. Someone asks a question, we answer. Someone yells, we yell back. I am always struck by the fact that if someone cuts me off when I'm driving and I honk, they give me the finger. It's not an ethical, contemplative response. They see my honking as a provocation and, without thinking, reply in kind. Over the years, I’ve learned to respond differently: I try to meet a driver’s anger with calm and generosity (try being the key word).
This is perhaps the greatest temptation of life: to react immediately to stimuli. This is Nietzsche’s definition of the slave mentality: to be reactive, constantly responding to what other people say and do until you don't exist. You become a pinball, hitting off the last bumper; a zombie; an absence.
Magnanimity asks us to do otherwise. It asks us to engage others not on the immediate linguistic or emotional terms. It asks that we survey the wider psycho-existential and rhetorical expanse of what's being asked for and what’s being asked of us. And then, rather than jockeying for position, magnanimity asks one more thing. It asks that we be generous.
To be magnanimous is to honor the other's state of being. Rather than defending, attacking, or parrying the words and actions of another, magnanimity allows words and actions — allows other people — to happen as they will, sees them as necessary and, in their own way, beautiful.
We've all had this experience of a parent, child, sibling, lover screaming at us out of frustration, anxiety, even well deserved anger (my friend's son was not wrong in his accusations of his father). We can, and often do, reply in kind. They yell; we yell. But magnanimity replies otherwise: it lets it all happen, lets the other person be, lets the other person express, feel, live while we bear witness.
What's tricky about magnanimity is that it can look like indifference. This is particularly difficult when dealing with your child. Your son is yelling at you. Shouldn't you try to calm him? Soothe him? Somehow help him? Yes, and that is precisely what magnanimity does. But rather than forcing him to be calm and cool — which is impossible —, magnanimity performs calm and cool. Rather than proffering a salve, magnanimity is the salve. Magnanimity doesn't say I don't care. On the contrary, it says I care absolutely. In the place of retaliation or even help, magnanimity offers the sweeping embrace of love and respect. It offers the understated grandeur of a respectful presence, without agenda, need, or pressing desire.
This doesn't mean to be cold. You can be hurt and sad by what someone else says or does. To be magnanimous means not letting those emotions get the best of you. It means letting the feelings happen — that's equanimity. And then letting the other person be: that's magnanimity.
Am I saying that we should just watch as others suffer? Of course not. There are obviously times actively to intervene, to stop someone from doing something. Magnanimity is not a demand or fixed law. Like all things, it has its time and place. But in everyday social interactions, especially with loved ones, magnanimity often goes a far way.
Allison Holt is an artist, theorist, and teacher working with video, sound, glass, maps, words, and more to present the mechanics, and criti...
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