Cosmic Insignificance

Nietzsche on the nature of reflection:

When we try to examine the mirror in itself we discover nothing but things upon it. If we want to grasp the things we finally get hold of nothing but the mirror. This, in the most general terms, is the history of knowledge.

I could use the bulk of this post to conduct a close reading of the above quote, to pick apart its internal logic, illustrate its underlying tensions. But today I’ll concern myself not with what Nietzsche says, but instead what my choosing of this passage says about me.

Essentially I want to know why I’m drawn to philosophy in the first place and how this interest relates to my depression and anxiety.

Does a depressed way of thinking lead me to agree with Nietzsche that attempting to know something is futile? This sounds simple enough. My misery loves the company of Nietzsche’s pessimistic worldview.

In addition, does my anxiety recognize itself in Nietzsche’s thoughts on the impossibility of knowledge? Do I suffer from metaphysical hypochondria—the constant fear that reality isn’t real, that I have no self, that the world is an illusion? The vertigo of knowing that nothing can be known for sure? Makes sense. Afraid I’ll float away, I ground myself in doubt.

But the psyche is an ocean and so far we’ve only touched the surface. I argue that choosing this quote reflects a deep-seated existential angst that manifested itself long before any symptoms of my illness appeared.

I suffer from depression and anxiety because my entire being is engaged in an existential crisis, and has so since birth. My illness is both an expression of and response to this crisis. When I’m depressed I feel nothing because I am, at my core, Nothing. When I’m anxious I worry this Void will consume me.

Some people lift weights, get high or go to the shooting range as a means of coping with their cosmic insignificance.

I go to the library, where great minds thrive. And there I find Nietzsche. And there I find joy.

To Live With My Ailments

“Since when did self-awareness lead to a change in behavior?” So said a character recently on one of my favorite shows.

She has a point. Enlightened souls have blind spots. Smart people do stupid things.

Of course, realizing this is an act of self-awareness. It hits close to home, considering the number of years I’ve spent in therapy. If the “talking cure” doesn’t cure, what’s it good for?

But the human mind is far from simple. When I have a sore throat, runny nose and ear pain, my doctor diagnoses me with an infection and prescribes Amoxicillin. Within a week all is well. The same can’t be said for a mood disorder.

This doesn’t mean that therapy has no value. The absence of “ah ha!” moments or earth-shattering insights during a session isn’t a sign of failure. Sometimes just being there talking and reflecting helps.

Parts of me resist logic. I appreciate my elusiveness, take pride in the chase. But I’m always a little behind. I’m reminded of Camus’ thought in The Myth of Sisyphus: “The important thing is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments.”

Sounds like something he learned in therapy.

Phantom Limbic Effect

Every stomach ache or sneeze. The rise and fall of each orgasm, every burst of laughter. Physical sensations leave their mark without our conscious awareness. As with bodies of water—the flow of past currents etched in a riverbed—we retain a trace of what’s washed over us.

Particularly painful memories have a way of reemerging when we least expect it. The original moment has passed but we’re in the middle of it again, searching for an exit. I call this phenomenon the phantom limbic effect.

We’re familiar with cases of amputees who feel their missing limbs long after surgery. In what I’m describing the trauma is “missing,” that is to say, not happening right now, but the sufferer still endures its terrible weight, unable to dismiss it. An outsider might call this phantom pain, but for the victim it’s the closest thing to a flesh-and-blood terrorist.

The limbic system is the area of the brain that deals with emotions and long-term memory. In this case the body and limbic system together recall the trauma, with the body serving as the site of reenactment. It’s not just how you feel about a memory then, but how it feels about you, on and underneath the skin.

Of course, this works for the liberating effects of pleasure. But it’s hard to seize the day when old traumas hold us hostage.

Everybody Hurts

I can’t hide from it: I’m a sensitive guy. Sometimes I lie awake and picture the people I care about, focusing on my connection with them, recalling what about them makes me feel good. But there’s not one person I love who hasn’t suffered in this world. And this makes me sad. And the sadness I feel for myself rushes through me. I acknowledge, in their pain, my own.

We’ve all screwed up at one point or another. I’ve had my fair share of missteps. God’s forgiveness is easy to get. All you do is believe. Securing the forgiveness of others is difficult, but it’s never out of the question if you humble yourself and make amends.

The hardest part is learning how to forgive myself. If I could find myself walking down the street, emerging from a faceless crowd, what would I say to me? How might I comfort this sensitive guy, move out of his way and let him pass?

Public Displays Of Seduction

Last week a friend said my blog is getting too abstract. It’s not suited for mass consumption. Is my purpose to enlighten or entertain? A little humor couldn’t hurt.

Another friend told me to write for me, that the sharing is special and it matters little how much attention (or traffic) it generates.

I take pride in maintaining my blog. Every sentence is measured, every mark right where it belongs. It’s about infusing the prose with poetry or actually posting a poem (sometimes with commentary). I enjoy developing the blog’s lyrical qualities, the rhythm of writing and re-writing. I get excited by a spontaneous turn of phrase. There’s pleasure in creating paradox and leaving things open to interpretation. Often the form takes precedence over the content as I imitate writers I admire, trying different styles on for size.

What to include, what to tone down, what to keep to myself—the process is exhilarating. Writing serves as therapy, confession, an outlet for suppressed emotions.

My blog is a talk with myself before an audience composed of people I know and people I’ll never meet. It’s a conversation affording me a chance to express myself and claim my humanity as my own. Even when the subject is dark or dense the object is to have fun and just go with it.

To tease ideas and play with words, entice the mind with images. To seduce and be seduced: is this not a gesture of love, devotion to a body of thought?

Approaching Godzilla

I read somewhere an interesting analogy regarding the relationship between our intellect and emotions. Our intellect is like a monkey riding on the back of an elephant. The monkey thinks he’s the boss, barking out directions to the hard-headed elephant who pays no attention, charging up and down the jungle.

When it comes to my depression, the elephant is Godzilla. Elephants are big; Godzilla breathes fire and destroys major cities with his tail.

I’m still learning how to approach my monster without being crushed. A man can run only so far.

Art Therapy

“I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility . . .” –William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800)

There are two things in my life that have gone well together for a number of years: writing poetry and going to therapy. I have maintained since high school that my art and mental health battles have greatly defined my identity and place in the world.

Both my poetry and depression have roots in emotion, which is why I took a liking to Wordsworth’s quote about “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”

I see parallels between these activities. In the calmness and safety of a therapy session, I am given tools to deal with my emotions. The session provides moments for me to recall emotions of varying degrees; my poetry, meanwhile, serves as a vehicle for my thoughts and feelings as they’re expressed within the confines of the text.

To take it a step further: the time and place of a session is the container (the event). What we discuss and how I feel about it are the contents (the-tending-to-the-event). The structure and layout of a poem is the container (the form). What I’m saying and how it’s expressed are the contents (the-tending-to-the-form).

At the end of most sessions, I share a recent poem with my therapist. This has far-reaching practical applications. It’s beneficial for my therapist and for me.

Each informs the other: my poems help in my treatment and my treatment sessions help me strengthen my poetry. My therapist serves as a guide to living well and writing well. He’s my interpreter and editor for both life events and my artistic choices. He can tell from a poem my overall mood in the days surrounding its composition. This can be pleasing one time and troubling the next. (Ironically, what I leave out or try to avoid—in both therapy and writing—is significant regardless of my noticing it.)

I see no immediate end to the journey that is my therapy. And as long as I have my wits about me, I’ll continue writing poetry. Wherever my feelings take me, I’ll submit myself to the process—and have plenty to think about as I carry on.

Mixing Metaphors

Over the last two weeks, I have begun writing poetry inspired by bands like Pixies, Pavement and Guided By Voices. This new poetry is an exercise in free association in which I let ideas find me, begging to be consumed. Less editing is involved; a “first thought, best thought” approach emerges. Wordplay is of utmost importance, even if “meaning” is left open and abstract. My first attempt follows below.



there’s death in diagnosis
a panic for the cure

we name our faults
after the fact
blame our sorrows on the world
repressing all the rage

the center untenable
we’re forced to have fun
bored from playing fools

there’s nothing to see
but blinded eyes
truth a fiction
bound to keep us down

revolving doors
we lose ourselves
in passing moments

another sacred season
dead on arrival
bereft of crossed out loved ones

ever get the feeling
you’re mixing metaphors
for faint reaction
from an audience of one?

performing tricks
repeat speech violations
to be booked
in departments of correction?

My Emotional Temperature

“If you do it, then it’s done.”

I thought of this phrase back when my sense of time was a bit jumbled. Memories, mostly bad ones, were flooding my brain as thoughts of the future were rendering me a petrified mess. In trying to make sense of my mixed-up self, I realized that what we consider NOW is finished the moment we experience it. The very act of doing something puts the actor in the immediate past, as things to do—in the future—wait to be accomplished.

This is all coming back to me today because lately I’ve been taking my emotional temperature a lot. I keep searching for the connective tissue between what I did yesterday and what I have to do tomorrow, all while my being occupies its current position. I’m always aware of my thought/feeling processes, but my self-monitoring has increased during my recent job search.

The larger issue here is, of course, the question of value. Throughout my life, even in the smallest moments, I have demanded ultra-meaning. I often ponder the purpose of this or that aspect of my life, which ultimately leads to: “What is the meaning of my life?” Perhaps the answer that pops up a lot (There is no meaning—I have no purpose) is a direct result of my wanting an-easy-to-find, single Meaning in everything I do. (And believe me, during this difficult job search my questioning of the process has happened more than once.)

Sometimes I forget just to live and to allow myself my thoughts and feelings as they are. My battle is, indeed, an internal one. I suppose, when I finally pull back from beating myself up, I can take comfort in the realization that it’s better to “hyper-feel”—to be a jumble of emotions—than to feel nothing at all.