Everything Happens…

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Earth at the Center of It All

Today is the funeral of Alton Sterling, the man who was (senselessly and illegally) killed by Baton Rouge police last week. Yesterday, a man drove a semi-truck full of weapons into an unarmed crowd in Nice, killing at least 80 and probably more. Last month, Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub.

We all know these aren’t isolated incidents. We know that, as individual tragedies, they represent thousands of under-reported human tragedies. Or, if you want to get really nasty, they highlight the violence that we, as a species, have done to each other for millennia.

And yet, whenever these horrible things happen, someone inevitably says, “everything happens for a reason.” It could be a well-meaning person’s response to a miscarriage or a lay-off or a frightening diagnosis. It could be someone’s way of wrapping their head around police brutality, drone warfare, rape, torture…you get it. It’s a comforting idea, and I almost wish I believed it. But I don’t.

For me – a person who has never had faith of any sort, who has never believed in god, or heaven or a universal meaning of any kind – it’s a lie, and I just can’t trust a lie.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about my own world view here. A lot of humanity believes that everything does happen for a reason, just as a lot of humanity believes in a god. We all engage life in individually determined ways (…which my ultimate point, but I’ll get to that). My atheist / Buddhist worldview works for me, but if you believe that everything happens for a reason that’s cool too. I’m not interested in challenging (or judging) your belief. I’m just expressing why I don’t share it.

Over the course of my life, some bad things have happened. When I was younger, I struggled with why. I clung to the idea that everything happens for a reason because I couldn’t bear for the damage to essentially be for nothing. Then I read an interview Keanu Reeves did after his girlfriend died 18 months after giving birth to their stillborn daughter. You could feel the interviewer trying to figure out how to address the almost embarrassing amount of personal tragedy Reeves had just sustained.

As part of the interview she asked him if he believed that everything happens for a reason. And Reeves, very calmly, said, “No. I believe everything happens.”

Suddenly, my attachment to the idea of a cosmic rationale dropped. Because yes. Everything happens whether it’s justified or not. Because that’s what it comes down to. It’s not about why. It’s about justifying (and giving meaning) to the unbearable things. That’s what we’re talking about when we say “everything happens for a reason”. We don’t actually mean “reason”, as in cause and effect. We mean “reason” as in, “please tell me it’s not for nothing.”

Keanu Reeves’ girlfriend died because she lost control of her car. She did not die so he could become a better Buddhist (or actor, or activist). His response was self-determined. If he became a better [fill in the blank], it’s because he chose to, not because it was meant to be.

Likewise, bad things happened to me because someone decided to do them. Not because it would make me the person that I am. My self-determined response helped make me who I am. It does not give cosmic meaning to, or justify, the events that catalyzed my response.

God does not open a window when he closes a door. There are no windows and there are no doors. In fact, there is no fucking house. There is only what we do with the horrible things that happen. That said, things do happen because something prompts them – ‘reason’ as part of cause and effect, rather ‘reason’ as higher justification. Let’s take Nice.

Nice happened because a man decided to attack an unarmed crowd. It was a random and violent example of one man imposing his will on the lives of innocent people. Those people were acted upon in a terrible, tragic way. They had no control. They are victims of a cause and effect that happened without them ever knowing. Now, in the aftermath, the survivors and family members will respond. Their responses are self-determined reactions to the individual effects of a massive tragedy. Some will find ways to a positive personal outcome. Others won’t.

I know that my emphasis on self-determination rather than on faith in a higher power may read as flimsy to those who believe in determinism. From that point of view, it would be easy to read this and say, “Ah, but Malin, what if your “self-determined” response is just part of the plan? What if the horrible things that happened did so to get you to this pre-determined point?”

Honestly, I can’t answer that because from a belief having point of view, that makes total sense. From my point of view, I respond to things based on an internal calculus that is entirely self-determined. I have no faith to trust, so I trust myself instead. So, if you find comfort in the idea that everything is pre-determined and that there is some kind of plan, do it. Take comfort. Why the hell not. Just don’t ask me to. Because, for me, there is no cosmic reason. We aren’t dominoes laid out in careful patterns. We are individual actors responding to causes and effects in a world full of phenomena that defy justification.

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The Virgin & the Whore Walk Into a Bar

Modern daguerreotype. Image courtesy thedaglab.com for The VIrgin and the Whore Walked into a Bar post by Malin James

Modern daguerreotype courtesy The Dag Lab

As you can see, I haven’t posted here in awhile. This isn’t from laziness or lack or commitment. Rather, it’s the product of a happy fact–I’m super busy with work on the other side of my career, (that would be the smutty side, for those who don’t know). Posts on this blog will probably be fairly sporadic for the next little while, or at least until I finish the massive project that is my novel. That said, they will pop up as I can manage. In the meantime, you can take a peek at what my erotica writing alter ego, Malin James, is up to here. Or not.. It’s totally up to you.

Which brings me to the virgin and the whore. I’ve always loved that paradox, mostly because I’ve always felt like both–the virgin and the whore, I mean. I am equally comfortable eating ice cream with my daughter and writing articles about the death of the Dewey Decimal System, (this is a greatly contested death, FYI), as I am doing and writing any number of things that I’m not going to mention here because my mother reads this blog. Of course, you can always check out the following to get a sense of what I mean: link, link, link. Click at your own risk.

There’s a common notion that a person is one particular thing–a mother, a teacher, a daughter, a parent, a slut, a virgin, a whore…you get the picture. I would contest this notion though. I think that, much as Meredith Brooks sang in her song, “Bitch,” (what a rockin’ good title), most of us are both sinners and saints. It’s only when we get too attached to one static identity that things get complicated and often unfulfilling.

Yes, I’m a mother and, I hope, a good one, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write things that would make my own mother supremely uncomfortable, (sorry mom–definitely don’t click those links). It doesn’t mean that I can’t have an identity outside of motherhood that many might find unorthodox at best, and somewhat distasteful at worst.

After years of wrestling and apologizing, the fact is that there’s a lot of dark in me–there’s anger and sex and rage and violence. But there’s also a lot of light. I’m nurturing and empathic. I’ve got compassion on tap. These things should be in violent contrast. They shouldn’t be able to coexist, and yet they do, quite naturally, in me, just as they do in most people. All you have to do is choose the two, (or three, or four), contrasting archetypes that resonate with you.

Of course, nothing is never as simple or easy as that. But that’s sort of my point–personalities aren’t static things. They are constantly in motion, acting and reacting. Really, when it gets down to it, personalities are simply a series of reactions, habituated over time. So, the virgin and the whore are part of who I am, and it’s only in cultivating both of them equally that I can truly be whole.

I wanted to give a quick, but very sincere thank you to Eric Mertens at The Dag Lab for letting me use one of his beautiful images in this post. You can see more of his work by clicking here. Mr. Merten does old-fashioned daguerreotype portraits in his lab in Oakland, CA. The work is gorgeous. Please, go check it out. 

Little Demons

Medieval woodcut. Image courtesy www.cvltnation.com

I don’t have big demons. I don’t have monsters, or addictions, or obsessions, or compulsions. I like to drink, but not to excess. I love pleasure, but not to my own detriment. I have patience, (hard won), and a certain amount fallible perspective, (also hard won). I am stable and strong, (extremely hard won)…

What I have instead are little demons. Little demons aren’t the demons that make you hit rock bottom. They’ve never pushed me to the edge. I’ve never woken up in places without knowing how I got there, (though I have woken up in places that I didn’t expect), and though I have quite a lot of regrets, I wouldn’t take even one of them back. Little demons don’t care about big things like that. They’re different. They’re quieter. Silkier. They are, by definition, small. But there are often quite a lot of them, and they all sound like the voice of reason in your head.

Let me unpack that a bit. Most people have a little voice of reason – the one that says, isn’t two donuts enough, you moron? and seriously, babe, DON’T sleep with your best friend. Sometimes we listen and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the voice is wrong, but more often than not, it’s dead right. Whether or not you listen to your gut, your conscience, you instinct, or whatever else you want to call it, is up to you, but you can trust that voice, almost implicitly, if you listen carefully enough.

Little demons mimic that voice. They tell you to be careful when you should take the risk. They tell you toss the dice when you should call it a night. Little demons tell you, with the conviction of god (if you believe in that sort of thing), that you should do the opposite of what is wise at any given time.

They convince you that you know it all when you know nothing, or that you know nothing when you’ve got it dialed in just right. They tell you that you’re brilliant and then undermine your worth. Little demons offer input and whisper “truths”, but the perspective they have is skewed. They shadow the lens of your perception and make it hard to see.

I’ve been thinking about my little demons a fair bit of late. My little demons like to keep me safe. In fact, that’s the only program they run, because that’s what little demons really are – inculturated values, programs that we literally absorb as we grow up. Did your mother have issues with body image? Odds are there’s a little demon pushing that button in you. Did your grandparents overcome hardship? Did your father succeed, but at a heavy cost?

The experiences of those we love inform who we become. They color the house we grew up in and the lessons we subconsciously learned. That’s what I mean by “programming” and “inculturated values”. That said, they, and the effect they have, aren’t inherently negative. They just are. It’s the amount of influence we allow them to have that matters.

The trick is to figure out which of those values are inherited and which are native to you, the finite individual. Once you know that, you can listen to your gut more closely. You can tell the difference between your own instincts, and the little demons that would keep you safe, or push you to the brink.

I’d like to say that I’ve developed an ear for my own little demons, and to a certain degree, I have, but it’s far from 100%. I still get tripped up. I suspect I always will, just as I know that my daughter will carry some of the results of my experiences with her, regardless of how hard I try to control their influence. I can’t immunize her any more than my parents could immunize me. The little demons, the programs, the inherited values, are as much a part of the human experience as breathing or death.

My goal then, ultimately, is to make choices on my own terms – to listen to my reason, rather than the programs I learned. My hope is that, in doing so, I’ll give my daughter the tools she’ll need to do the same for herself.

Moderation and the Art of Earthly Pleasure

Epicurus, c.300 BC

Epicurus, c.300 BC

A warning right up front, this post is going to be pretty loose and off the cuff, so please forgive any glaring generalities. I’ll try to keep them at a minimum.

Last night, I caught part of the PBS program American Experience. It’s an interesting show and while I don’t often watch it, it always contains some food for thought. This episode, The Amish: Shunned, was no exception.

To be frank, there are many points on which I disagree with the Amish religion. I’m afraid that I just can’t view a community that so deliberately rejects progress, education and individual thought as terribly sympathetic. That said, it’s a valid culture based on a valid, if shockingly medieval, set of beliefs and I’m not going to waste time nit-picking it to pieces simply because I disagree. What I am going to do is examine one tiny corner of those beliefs – the avoidance of pleasure – because this principle has ramifications beyond the Amish community.

One of the Amish church members interviewed for the program brought up the issue in terms that implied the inherent logic of pleasure avoidance. He said, (and I’m paraphrasing now), “it’s human nature to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, as if that’s going to lead to happiness. Well, news flash, it’s not.”

Now, on the surface, I can see how this would be an easy notion to buy into, particularly from a conservatively religious points of view. If our nature is telling us to pursue pleasure, and our nature is essentially animal (i.e.: sinful), the only way to heaven must be to transcend our animal nature and pursue spiritual purity (per whatever terms your religion defines). Now, disregarding the ironic hypocrisy that this has historically led to (witch trials and murder aside, the attitude very often leads the abstainer to become addicted to the very pleasurable emotion of social righteousness), there is another, different angle from which to view the issue.

I’d like to propose an more Epicurean take on the question of earthly pleasure. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, believed that what he called “pleasure” is the greatest good. Now, this is where it gets interesting. He also believed that the way to attain such pleasure is to “live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires”. In other words, moderation leads to pleasure, which in and of itself, is a form of transcendence.

I’m not going to say that this point of view is more valid than the strict path proposed by the Amish or any other conservative religious group. I would say, however, that the Epicurean approach is equally valid and potentially more healthy. Know what you like, know what you don’t and find your limits – know where you overindulge and gently lead yourself back. No judgment. No drama. The maintenance of moderation requires awareness, which leads to presence in the moment, which can lead quite directly to lovely moments of clarity – every day transcendence. And yes, even spiritual and earthly happiness.

Pleasures aren’t inherently dangerous. Pleasure are simply pleasures. It is up to the individual to moderate the degree to which he or she partakes. To ignore pleasure is to reject one of our species’ greatest gifts – joy. Joy in food, joy in sex, joy in clean fresh air and warm fires at night. These are all valid pleasure and part of the equally valid human experience. Surely, if there is a god (as an atheist I don’t believe there is, but I respect those who do), that force would want us to enjoy the full spectrum of our lives, rather than reject half of the gifts we were given.

On the Nature of Fear

Image from the film, Gaslight (1944).

Image from the film, Gaslight (1944).

Several weeks ago, my daughter had night terror. They are aptly name. She was terrified and it was terrifying to watch. She screamed so hard she couldn’t cry and fought, trying to defend herself. After 5-7 minutes, she calmed down and slipped right back into sleep.

That night, I stayed awake, watching her and thinking. The next morning, she didn’t remember a thing. She went off about her day, happy as a bug. I, on the other hand, was pretty raw. Once I was able to step back, however, her display of what I can only call primal fear, and the empathic recognition I felt, struck me as interesting and made me think.

What is the nature of fear? I don’t mean what purpose does it serve. I mean what is it? At it’s most basic, fear is a response – a response to a perceived threat. It prompts our brains to produce chemicals that induce either flight or fight. This response is innate – people run at the feared object or they run away. Most people lean more heavily towards one or the other. Others have equal access to both. I’m a natural fighter. And that night, as my daughter pummeled away despite stress and obvious fear, she showed me that she is too.

In a film last year called After Earth, Will Smith portrayed a type of warrior who is, literally, without fear. This absence of fear renders him invisible to a species that marks its prey phenomenally. Fear smells good to them. To transcend fear, to somehow rise above and conquer an amygdala level response, is portrayed in the film as the ideal. In fact, the film’s climax centers around the young protagonist’s ability to do just that – eradicate his fear response and defeat the “monster” that was stalking him.  In the film, this ability signals both he attainment of an ideal, and the next level of development for human beings.

It’s a compelling message on the surface. Transcend your fear to the point of eradicating the response. Who wouldn’t want that? Upon consideration, however, I would say that, seductive though it is, it’s a bit of a misleading message.

In reality, fear serves two purposes. The first is obvious – that initial response – flight or fight – that might keep you from getting killed.

The second purpose, though less obvious, is arguably just as important. Fear keeps us civilized. Fear makes us aware of consequences. As in, Don’t jump off that building. You could break your neck, or Don’t rob that bank. You could end up in jail.

Granted, fear also adds an element of risk to those activities and others like them. Therefore, fear could be said to heighten the thrill of doing these things. But for most of us, on some level, fear is the filter that keeps us from being psychopaths. Fear reins us in.

In the end, After Earth implies that fear is a useless emotion – one that a person must transcend. I would argue that fear is neither salutary nor unsalutory. It’s a matter-of-fact response. It’s value correlates to the value of swallowing or blinking. It happens because that’s how our physiology evolved.

Simply put, you cannot choose not to fear. To suggest doing so is to suggest the physically improbable. What you can do, is manage the impulse. You can train yourself to acknowledge fear without attachment, as many Buddhists do. You can teach yourself to channel the adrenaline fear produces into defense. You can learn to dismiss, or channel, or transcend the response once you’ve had it. You can do many things with instinctive fear, but you cannot eradicate it. Realistically speaking, it’s part of our make-up. We might as well not breathe.

My daughter fought, even though she was terrified, even though she obviously didn’t know what was happening and that she wasn’t alone. She fought, and she fought hard. Fear told her to fight. Fear told her to survive. That’s the purpose of fear.

Evolutionarily speaking, fear has kept up from poking bears with sticks, and from eating the berries that killed Old Man Grog. Fear has kept us viable, even though predators with teeth and claws should have destroyed our tender, pink selves. Running. Fighting. That is what fear helps us do.

If the time comes to eradicate the fear response then we will – slowly, over millennia. In the meantime,  it might be more useful to understand fear, and how it functions. Better to accept and  live  comfortably with it, rather than wish, fruitlessly, that it didn’t exist.