Wednesday, July 17, 2013

800 Words: Depressive Paternalism - Part 2

“We still speak of ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset.’ We do so as if the Copernican model of the solar system had not replaced, ineradicably, the Ptolemaic. Vacant metaphors, eroded figures of speech, inhabit our vocabulary and grammar. They are caught, tenaciously, in the scaffolding and recesses of our common parlance. There they rattle about like old rags or ghosts in the attic.”

George Steiner

“And you thought the first part of this was arrogant...”

Evan Tucker

For roughly a decade, I’ve lived with an extensive, Falstaffian, pot-belly. A few months ago, I was told by one particularly grating “Type-A-cquaintance” that I should get myself checked for a hernia. But a far closer acquaintance of mine recently told me, apropos of absolutely nothing, that I should strongly consider bariatric surgery (surgical weight loss). He even prefaced it by saying ‘I know you’re going to be mad at me for saying this.’ Well..., I know I’m fat, but that’s ridiculous. Not even I’m not that fat. I may eat like a swine, but I exercise regularly. I feel physical exertion easily, I live with bodily pain of all kinds, and I sweat a river every day, but I never lack for energy. The time may well come for gastric bypass, but I’m 31 fucking years old with a BMI of "only" 36. I’m plenty worried for the long-term prospects of my health, but I don’t yet have diabetes or heart disease or any other ailment associated with long-term obesity - and believe me, I’ve gotten it checked again and again. I simply need to lose weight rather badly, and there are quite a number of steps which I should probably consider before hacking my body to pieces so I can make it smaller.

This is a particularly close acquaintance of mine, and I’ve been told many many times by many many people that I should simply ignore what can only be termed a long-ongoing campaign of contempt he’s continually at great pains to show me, in spite of the fact that this is a particular acquaintance that can never, ever, be shed. Apparently I therefore have no one to blame but myself for the fact that I care so much what he thinks. But the problem with this solution is that through the years I’ve done what I could to ignore him, and continue to do so. After he uttered this particular imbecility on Thursday night, I called up another close mutual acquaintance and we laughed heartily at his idiocy as we have so many times before. I then hung up the phone, only to discover that I couldn’t sleep. Around five in the morning, I finally nodded off, and within five minutes of my awakening a few hours later, I felt utterly miserable about the hopelessness of my weight problem, which of course led to further miserable thoughts about my relationship with this person, which then led to miserable thoughts about my miserable relationships with other people, which then led to miserable thoughts about my miserable failures in less tangible areas, which led to an almost complete emotional darkness - far too overwhelming to be within my control and a darkness which any true depressive will recognize instantly, but others will inevitably call a self-fulfilling prophecy. As always, I tried to believe that such negative thoughts are self-fulfilling. But unfortunately, it’s almost completely the opposite. It’s the overwhelming desire to think positive thoughts which is a prophecy of negativity. All of my experience with this illness has taught me that a depressive who attempts to will himself into positive thinking sets a trap, which when it snares him will multiply depressive sensations as the realization grows of how impossible it is to control one’s thoughts and feelings. Within an hour of my awaking, I was sobbing on my bed, as utterly miserable as I was convivial the night before.

I have ample reason in my life to be depressed. But those reasons do not dictate the appearance of depression, and at this point it’s far more likely that depression dictates those reasons. Depression is an illness which chooses the person, not the person it. And to tell a depression sufferer that an unceasingly positive attitude can beat this illness, or that a depressive can simply choose to stop thinking depressing thoughts, is every bit as outrageous a manipulation as telling a rape victim that her short skirt caused her misfortune, or a cancer patient to forego medicine for holistic cures. And for a manipulation like that to continually come from a close personal acquaintance is a second wound, nearly as powerful as the first, and far longer lasting in its impact. If civilization continues to evolve to better places, then this sort of belief will soon be considered as willfully naive, as dangerous, as barbaric, and as evil as any of those other medieval bigotries. If such people exist in your lives, then you know that you may love these people, you may be thankful for every single thing they’ve given you, and you may owe them nearly everything. But you can never, ever forgive them for such a belief, and if they do not see the error of their ways and do everything within their power to repent, you know that it will forever be your primary memory of them - the ultimate difference between ‘He was great … even though...’ and ‘He was bad … even though...’ Because at the very time and on the very issue that you needed such people most, they stabbed you in the back.

It’s entirely possible, perhaps likely, that those of us who point fingers like that have sins towards them upon our heads just as egregious, but those unto whom evil is done do evil in return. The war between the depressives and the anxious is a war of attrition which will never end, and anyone caught in the middle can’t help but be collateral damage, their lives suffering from the suffering the two parties inflict upon one another. These two parties may love one another, but they clearly hate so many qualities they see in each other, and they’d sooner tear one another - and everyone in proximity - to shreds than ever concede an inch. It is a stalemate to which there can never be an adequate solution, merely ceasefires until the next battle.

Where did it all go wrong?... What goes wrong in the brain of a child ‘semi-prodigy’ that he spends his entire adolescence, and perhaps his entire adulthood, devoting all his alleged intelligence to a world he never understood? Was my head simply too filled with information too early to develop the proper skills at the proper time? Did the gears simply snap into place too early to understand the world for what it is? Was I lucky that my fortunes fell so early and I’ve spent my young years overcoming the setbacks which perhaps would have been inevitable come middle age had I rose high when I was young?

Just a few more years without these problems might have made all the difference. I could have handled the learning disabilities without depression, and I probably could have handled the depression without learning disabilities. But the combination of the two was, thus far, lethal. Just a few more years, and I could have been confident on the path to a professional violin career without risking a panic attack at the idea of practicing, ten more years and I might have learned the ropes of journalism, twenty more and I could have been a lawyer or an academic or God knows what the limit could have been? But in retrospect, that was mostly impossible. I was depressed because I saw my future all too clearly. I realized that no kid was like me, no school existed for a child like me, and I existed in my own little world. How I was never diagnosed with a condition like Asperger’s, I’ll never know. I’ve been told over and over again by doctors and friends that I do have social skill and read people rather well. By this point in my life, I know the world around me like a map, yet I still feel as though I exist outside of it, in a world which only I occupy. A world may yet exist which can accommodate people like me - perhaps it did in the past, but as of right now, it certainly doesn’t.

In both good and bad ways, I’ve spent most of my life trying to change ‘me.’ So long as I’m breathing, I’ll keep trying to better fit the circumstances of my life. What else can I do? But I think I’ve earned the right to make a little list:

Asking purely as a fantasy, what would have to change in a world I could live in comfortably?

1. Language. Contemporary language is a trafficked drug mule. It is almost impossible for most people to say what they mean, or to mean what they say. So many more people read and write than ever before in human history, yet it has never been more clear that the way in which most people speak or write is either sub-literate, or pseudo-literate. There are more English speakers in the world than ever, yet the result is that language is stretched on a rack. Most people carry with them a faux-populist insistence that every demotic (google the fucking word...) linguistic usage has to be accepted as worthy of dignified treatment, or there is a faux-intellectual insistence on accepting every piece of jargon as worthy of dignified study. The result is that if they so choose, there isn’t a single English-speaker in the world who can’t hide behind the bullshit which language allows us. There are an infinite number of ways to contort language, and the result is that both the public and private realms of interaction are corrupted in ways they needn’t be: politicians and corporations and clergy can affect ethical behavior without ever setting off the alarms of the people they control, while friends and family can lie all too easily to one another. Corrupt lawyers can parse laws into ever more microscopic evasions which can let anyone with money get away with murder, and intellectual frauds can create whole new fields of ‘study’ in the humanities which only study how language can be perverted to say absolutely nothing, and in the process ruin the curiosity (and sometimes the careers) of their smartest students, who eventually realize that nobody is interested in their field of study, nor should people be. The more meanings we accept to every word, the more elisions and evasions we allow. English may be the common tongue for the plurality of the world, but never has the gulf of how English is used separated you from your neighbor so clearly. Perhaps it was always like this, but it doesn’t have to be.

And because language is so contorted, nobody thinks to use it to speak their minds. No matter how much information we share about ourselves on the internet about what we do, there is preciously little content of substance about what we think. The thought that someone would keep a public diary in which he continually speaks his mind, and exposes his innermost existential questions with few aspirations to self-promotion, and absolutely none about presenting a ‘best self’ to the world, is anathema to virtually everyone else but me (and occasionally to me too). There are thousands of blogs on any given subject and sub-subject, read by small communities of like-minded specialists. But how many blogs are there which are about nothing more or less than what it’s like to be human? What does it matter if the internet is tracking you when you have so little to offer of interesting and universally appreciable content to track?

Furthermore, how can people even present a ‘best self’ to the world when there is increasing evidence that there is no ‘self’ to begin with? What does the ‘self’ even mean in an era on the cusp of of mass genetic manipulation, cloning, organ transplant, and personality-altering drugs. Each of us is many different selves, constantly warring with one another for domination. Like so many linguistic perversions, the “self” is long since proven to be a nonsense-concept, and there are no words for all the multiple identities which consciousness can produce at any given time.  The sooner the world realizes that each person has many different identities within their “selves,” the more perceptive and compassionate we all are capable of being to each “self” within each other.

Lastly, we live in an era that values concision. In this era of screens and the images they show, we’ve all apparently decided that we’re too long-winded - we use too many words, we talk too much, we make our lives too complicated when we can simplify them so easily by being more terse. The wrong words get us into trouble, and right words go unnoticed. Every writing program tells you the same thing: never use two words when one will do. But they never tell you the just-as-true opposite: never use one word when two are required. The only concept in the world that does not require nuance is the need for nuance. A picture may say a thousand words, but there’s no guarantee that those thousand words the picture says will be any less vapid. At least with a thousand written words, you might get some context.

For the first time since the Middle Ages, the linguistic gulfs between us grow greater. Every academic field has its own jargon, every region its own particular meanings for words and words for meanings, every social class its own dialect, and every field of interest its own inside information. So many new concepts, many of them beneficial , are created from such flexibility. But if we want to minimize misunderstandings around the world, then the world needs a common tongue. Not just a common language, but a language in which we’re all trained vigorously, in which the meaning of every word and clause can be both rigidly disciplined and free to be flexibly used to make the most difficult concepts simple.

(to be continued...)

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