Tag Archives: philosophy

Don’t Be A Dick

I have developed a simple philosophy of life: don’t be a dick. If you can’t help others, at least don’t be mean to them. Think whatever you will about other people, but don’t belittle them to build yourself up. Some folks have a hard time following this principle. If more of us did, there would be fewer dicks in the world to bring us down.

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Just A Poet

“Who I am is who I was made to be, and that’s OK.” My teacher, a kind soul, asked what this means to me. I said I don’t know. I’m just a poet.

Like everyone, I suffer. Like everyone, I hope.

Who I am is who I was made to be, and that’s OK.

A double reading here: (1) the fact that I am who I was made to be is OK; (2) I am who I was made to be, and I was made to be OK.

Let’s assume both are true. Still, how shall we define “OK”?

Who I am is who I was made to be, and that’s OK.

Does OK mean “average”? Am I average? Perhaps. Compared to whom? Is average a bad thing? Am I an average guy? An average poet?

Who I am is who I was made to be, and that’s OK.

“OK” means something like: “There’s nothing wrong with me.” But here we’re saying what I am not, which is fine, but—compared to what I am—there are many things I am not.

Who I am is who I was made to be, and that’s OK, but who made me?

We’re getting into God territory here and we must tread lightly.

“Lightly.” God is called “almighty,” and this is fine, but right now I want to write: “God is lightly.” God exists lightly. The world—even gravity—exists lightly.

What the world is, is what the world was made to be, and that’s OK.

A step further: Who God is, is who God was made to be, and that’s OK.

But nothing made God, so how does God, without a creator, know God?

Perhaps through my suffering. Perhaps through my hope.

Does God need me to know God?

I don’t know. I’m just a poet.

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Free Writing #4

Neurotics lick
Invisible wounds
At pity parties

God works in
Mysterious grays

I’m either
On the phone or
Away from my desk

How would you rate
Your experience
In general?

God sends angels
People send emoji
Thoughts and prayers

I’m on the phone
Under my desk
How would you
Like your refund?

Priests high-five
True believers on
Palm Sunday

I’m either
In pursuit or
On the run

How would you rate
My experience
In general?

Anxious poets
Fear the verse

Are these
Tide Pods
Gluten-free?

I’ll have to
Check with
My manager

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A Leap And A Precipice

When I became the lead opinion writer for my college newspaper, my father suggested I call my column “The Road Not Taken” after one of his favorite Robert Frost poems. I thought about it but went in a different direction, choosing a title of my own: “Free Association.”

Recently I came across an article by David Orr, author of The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. According to Orr, Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” with his friend Edward Thomas in mind. After an initial reading, Thomas thought that Frost, through the speaker in the poem, was lamenting the uncertain nature of making choices, suggesting his life would have played out differently if he had traveled a different road.

Frost, it turns out, was mocking Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, readers assume that Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.

We can’t experience a life we didn’t lead—we only know the path we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.

Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. A heavy smoker for over fifty years, he carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts. He was depressed but never diagnosed because a doctor might have the audacity to suggest he quit smoking.

My father died at age seventy in the hospital where I was born. Doctors assumed he had lung cancer, but we never found out because he refused any tests.

Naturally, I inherited his nerves. Three years prior to his death, I was hurting so much I decided one day to disappear. Medicine works best in small doses, but it’s easy—when you think about it—to fit a bottle in your mouth.

There were signs we missed, being caught up in our moods. I shared a poem with him once about my life being an arduous climb up a mountain that extends higher and higher with each step, death a slip within reach.

Our only hope is to keep climbing, he said, without looking down.

“This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.”

He spoke from experience, having survived as a young man what doctors called a “break from reality.” In the days leading up to his hospitalization, he had visited different churches, determined to find his calling into ministry.

I don’t know if my father found God, but he did take solace in the poetry of Frost, Tennyson, Keats, Byron and Blake. A student of language, he conducted his ministry as a high school English teacher for thirty-two years.

He looks human to me now, but as a child I saw him as a larger-than-life figure of strength. I remember disagreeing with him many times about my choice of friends, but I also remember how hard he fought for me, like the time my bike was stolen. Acting on a tip from a neighbor, he confronted the kid’s parents and threatened to call the police. The kid confessed, apologized and never messed with me again.

These are the pictures I paint of him in poems and stories. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father—retracing his steps, repeating his sins.

Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. One of my favorite philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, didn’t believe in fate. He argued that we must create our lives every day out of nothing. Without being consulted first, each of us was thrown into the world, and this thrownness throws us for a loop. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.

No stranger to mental illness, German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”

To create my life out of nothing, I must, at every turn, risk my life. Faith—in myself, in my father, in God—requires both a leap and a precipice.

This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.

Whether or not we recognize our path, it’s easy to get lost in the woods.

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Democratic Nihilism

In one of his final books, Telemorphosis, Jean Baudrillard discusses the spectacle of reality TV. He sets his sights on Loft Story, the French adaptation of the popular American show Big Brother. Baudrillard argues that fans of Loft Story value the show’s contestants not for their talents, but for their lack of any talent at all. He draws parallels between reality TV and democracy:

The democratic illusion is thus elevated to the highest degree: the maximal exaltation for a minimal qualification. And, while the traditional principle merely insured a partial recognition for merit, the operation of the Loft insures a virtual glory to everyone in terms of the absence of merit itself. On one hand, it is the end of democracy, by the extinction of any qualification of merit whatsoever, but on the other hand, it is the result of an even more radical democracy [based on] the beatification of the man without qualities. It is a great step towards democratic nihilism. (25-26)

Everyone in the Loft is destined for “virtual glory.” The opposite of the best and the brightest, the cast is governed by the rule of the lowest common denominator. Inspired by “democratic nihilism,” viewers get the cheap entertainment they’re looking for, and Baudrillard condemns them for it.

“The society which permits itself to enjoy the enthusiastic spectacle of this masquerade deserves exactly what it gets. Loft Story is both the mirror and the disaster of an entire society caught up in the race towards meaninglessness and swooning in front of its own banality” (27-28).

We can extend Baudrillard’s pop culture analysis to the state of American politics today. Citizens who vote incompetent people into office get the government they deserve. In 2016, millions of Americans voted against a former senator and secretary of state in favor of a reality TV host whose resume includes filing for bankruptcy four times and appearing as himself in the classic American film Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

Earlier this week, Trump’s origin story became a news event once again. In an interview with FOX Business Network reporter Maria Bartiromo, Trump spoke fondly of social media.

“I doubt I’d be here without social media, to be honest with you, because there is a fake media out there, I get treated very unfairly by the media, and I have a tremendous platform,” Trump said.

Twitter—a tremendous platform for petty people the world over—helps Trump govern via intimidation.

“So, when somebody says something about me, I’m able to go ‘bing, bing, bing,’ and I take care of it. The other way I’d never be able to get the word out.”

Perhaps this is the way the world ends—with a bing, bing, bing rather than a bang or whimper.

Marshall McLuhan said long ago that the medium is the message. Today the medium is the spectacle, and Twitter is the spectacle writ large. Twitter invites users to an orgy of information in which the reliability of hard news is faked like an orgasm in a collective sigh of disbelief.

Believe it or not, the president, according to the president, is the master of his Twitter domain.

“You know, they’re well crafted, I was always a good student, like a person who does well with that kind of thing,” Trump said eloquently about his posts.

The Society of the Selfie deserves President Trump, a man of “lights, camera, action” serving his own business interests at the expense of those he deems beneath him. Trump is the villain in a bad foreign relations film with no subtitles and no substance. And we’re on the edge of his tweets, hanging on every misspelled word.

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Possibilities For Communion

Matthew Ratcliffe’s Experiences of Depression: A Study in Phenomenology contains the most accurate description of depression I’ve ever read. For the depressed person:

The practical significance of things is somehow diminished; they no longer offer up the usual possibilities for activity. Associated with this, there may be a sense of impossibility; possibilities appear as ‘there but impossible to actualize.’ There can also be a sense of estrangement, as possibilities that are inaccessible to self appear as ‘accessible to others with little effort.’ Other people might continue to offer possibilities for communion, but these possibilities appear at the same time as ‘impossible for me to take up.’ Together, these alterations in the possibility space constitute a feeling of isolation, which is experienced as irrevocable because depression does not include a sense of its own contingency. The resultant estrangement from the world amounts to a change in the sense of reality and belonging—things no longer appear available; they are strangely distant, not quite ‘there’ anymore. Certain kinds of possibility may also be heightened. A world that no longer offers up invitations to act can at the same time take the form of an all-enveloping threat, before which one is passive, helpless and alone. Hope, practical significance and interpersonal connection are not just gone. Their loss is very much part of the experience; it is felt. (71)

Ratcliffe argues that most people see the world (without thinking about it) as a possibility space open to practical actions and meaningful projects. The depressed person inhabits a different world altogether, even as she stands before us in the same room. Her depression precedes her experience of being present in the world.

It’s not a matter of losing one’s hopes; the depressed person lacks a capacity to hope for any meaningful life at all. She is estranged from the world of non-depressed people for whom possibilities appear “accessible with little effort.” The possibility of believing in possibility itself feels impossible.

Hers is an altered world marked by inhibition and indecision in which she feels trapped. Her future is not her own, and she is “passive, helpless and alone” before it. Good things won’t happen for her; only bad things will happen to her.

While Ratcliffe’s detailed analysis of depression helps me understand my illness, I wrote this post for people who don’t know how awful depression feels. I hope my blog offers possibilities for communion regarding an illness millions of people across the world know all too well but often lack the words to describe.

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Hide And Seek Truth

In Please Follow Me, Jean Baudrillard sees a familiar game in a new light.

Consider one of life’s original situations: that of a hide and seek game. What a thrill to be hidden while someone’s looking for you, what a delightful fright to be found, but what a panic when, because you are too well hidden, the others give up looking for you after a while and leave. If you hide too well, the others forget you. You are forced to come out on your own when they don’t want you anymore. That is hard to take. It’s like turning too fine a phrase, so subtle that you are reduced to explaining it. Nothing is sadder than having to beg for existence and returning naked among the others. Therefore, it’s better not to know how to play too well; it’s better to know how to let others unmask you and to endure the rule of the game. Not too fast, not too late. (85)

When I was a child, an angry boy masquerading as my best friend bullied and abused me when nobody was looking. For example, after defeating me in a game of basketball, he’d hold me down and call me his bitch. Things only got worse from there.

I learned that it is safer to not play at all—to stay inside and curse the game, resent the players, refuse to participate.

I can’t say if trauma caused my depression, but it certainly didn’t help matters. Whatever its origins, depression is my default state, and my body won’t let me forget it. I’m tired all the time and spend hours in bed, hiding in plain sight.

Still, there’s more to my distress than meets the eye. When life is but a dream, an eight-hour nap is an act of defiance, and I won’t let my family forget it. I play dead for (negative) attention. The sick role suits me (un)well.

Before new people in my life figure out I suffer from depression and anxiety, I end up telling them (by putting myself down or cancelling plans at the last minute) that things “aren’t right” with me. The thought goes: I’m going to fuck things up anyway; I might as well get it over with.

Therefore—playing on Baudrillard’s words—it is better to unmask myself, on my own terms, before others expose me and deem me unlovable.

Take off one mask, and three more appear. In college I wore myself out trying to be the perfect student, the perfect employee, the perfect perfectionist. I gained recognition for my academic achievements but needed others to verify my self-worth. If everyone liked me, then no one would hurt me.

Today I seek validation by composing (and obsessively editing) obscure blog posts that I hope family, friends and digital strangers will find profound. I cite sad philosophers and wounded romantics to demonstrate, poetically, the complexities of living with my depression. And then I write obscure blogs about writing obscure blogs to sound intelligent.

Layers folding into layers, thoughts unfolding into thoughts—my blog is a revelation hiding in plain sight. Under the guise of a wise soul, I use words to cultivate an (in)active being-towards-death. As a philosopher, I always assume the fatal position.

However safe my bubble feels, I can’t live forever in theory. I can’t practice my faith in philosophy without other people.

The chaplain at my mental health clinic told me that everyone needs human connection, but trauma survivors whose trust has been broken need connection even more. Yet out of shame they hide from the world, and no amount of love or support from other people can save them. Survivors must learn to love themselves again.

But hope isn’t easy. Despite the power of positive thinking, it’s hard to flip the script when your reality is inverted. Somersaulting your way through the world is bound to cause vertigo.

In the mind of a child grown up too soon, youth is a weapon. Innocence is self-defense.

An early violation breaks more than the rules.

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