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.

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.

A Merry Midwinter to You

It’s a holiday week, so I’m only doing one post. Enjoy and Merry Christmas.

A while ago… ages ago, really, I wrote an article entitled, “Yule: The Root of Your Christmas Tree”. This was so early in my career as a istock_000019538282mediumthinking person that it appeared in a newsletter that was printed on actual paper and distributed as a hard copy to people who held it, physically, in their hands. At the time, I thought the title was terribly clever and, while I now own that it might have been slightly less clever than I’d initial thought, the idea behind the title carries weight, perhaps even more now than it did then.

And now, the customary disclosure note, because, once again, I’m dancing right into one of the Big Three.

I was raised Catholic and am now a Buddhist atheist. I’ve never had religious faith, nor have I ever missed it, though I can very much see it’s value in other people’s lives.

Now, for all that, I LOVE Christmas, not as a celebration of one man’s birth, but as the current incarnation of a cultural phenomena that goes back millennia and feeds a very primal need in us, as human beings – to connect with each other during the darkest time of the year.

Before Christmas, there was Saturnalia, a Roman festival of light. Predating Saturnalia were a bevy of pagan festivals and feasts celebrating the winter solstice, among which Yule is the most well-known. The traditions associated with these various pre-Christian festivals colored the Christmas celebrations of early and medieval Christians. In fact, nearly all of the elements that signal Christmastime in the Western world, from fir trees and mistletoe to Santa Claus, have their origins in pagan celebrations from Britain, Rome, Germany and even Turkey.

Now, my point in all this is not to suggest that Christmas should not be celebrated as the acknowledgment of Jesus’s birth. I don’t particularly need you to keep the Christ out of Christmas, so long as you don’t mind if I do. My point, rather, is to suggest that human beings have been celebrating midwinter festivals since we figured out that fire is hot and keeps out the dark.

At it’s most basic, the purpose of these midwinter festivals was to unite the tribe / community so that its members could share in each other’s resources and good will. Far from being a frivolous thing, these celebrations were, in many ways, an effort at getting everyone through the long, dark winters alive.

The uncomfortable fact is that the early Church appropriated elements of many non-Christian midwinter celebrations and brought them all under the banner of a sanctioned Christmas holiday. There were many social, political, economic and even spiritual reasons for this, none of which I’m going to address in a post I’m trying to keep under 600 words as a gift to you, dear reader. However,  although Christmas is a decidedly Christian holiday now, it’s slow secularization makes me thing that those pagan, non-Christian origins have great value and are still applicable today.

Ancient pre-Christian principles still operate beneath our current Christian conception of Christmas, and I suspect that Jesus would approve of the message – community, sharing, light in the darkness, survival, love. Human love. I think that’s something we can all – Christian, atheist, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, pagan and everything else – get behind, particularly in this time of year.

So, in that spirit, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, a marvelous Saturnalia and a peaceful Solstice. May we all be good to each other, protect each other, share our warmth and resources, and wish each other peace. May we all make it happy and whole to the New Year. Cheers.

On Food & Love

To say that we, as a society, are conflicted about food, is to understate the depth of our cultural neurosis regarding caloric consumption. We are a nation that openly fat-shames pregnant women while stuffing our faces with Oreos. And yet, our relationship to food wasn’t always so conflicted. For centuries, when lentils were daily fare and a lord’s feast was very much like a family dinner at Buca di Beppo, food was a glory in it’s basic goodness.

My grandmother was born in Spain and escaped during the Spanish Civil War. In the years leading up to Franco’s regime, she knew what it was to be hungry. Decades later, safe and successful in the United States, she still remembered the profound, human anxiety hunger produces, so when her grandchildren came along, she devoted herself to showing us that she loved us in the most critical way she knew. She fed us.

For my grandmother, food was love. If you loved someone, you fed them, because nothing is more basic than ensuring that someone you love has enough food to survive – it doesn’t matter if that survival is literal, as in “here are some berries to tide you over while you hunt that mammoth”, or figurative as in, “you get cranky mid-morning so have a cracker.” To her credit, my grandmother, though a complicated woman, never failed to make me feel loved, and she did so, in great part, through food.

In diametrical opposition to my very modern fears of getting fat, my grandmother felt that if you had so much food that gaining weight was a worry, then you were doing something right. It’s a viewpoint she shared with many people in her generation – a generation comprised of people who had survived World Wars, the Depression, drought, famine and civil unrest, depending on where they had come from. The nation, at that point, was united by the memory of a common experience – hunger, worry and need.

Today, in the wake of a recession that still, in many parts of the country, feels as if it’s going strong, when people have lost jobs and food stamp usage is high despite budget cuts, this type of hunger and worry are all too common. But it’s common on an individual level. There is a divide between the have and have-not’s in this country and that divide is partially responsible for our conflicted relationship, culturally speaking, with food. We are no longer united under the common experience of lean times, as our grandparents were. And so, while there are many (too many) people experiencing hunger on a daily basis in the States, as a country we’re still high on the hog.

So where are we left us as a culture when food is, generally speaking, abundant enough for us to waste, but healthy food the province of those who can afford it? I’m not entirely sure. Without a large-scale catastrophe uniting us in one common experience, our 21st century relationship to food remains complicated. We want to indulge and lose weight, and the stress of that dichotomy has imbued the topics of food and eating with a very different kind of stress than that our grandparents experienced.

The time may have come for us to change the terms by which we think of food. It is, after all, a necessity that crosses all ideologies and all biologies. While I appreciate my grandmother’s point of view, I cannot embrace the notion that food equates love. It is, however, a powerful way to communicate good will, affection, caring and kindness. It’s a way to build community and take care of others. Food is nourishment for our bodies, and a means by which to nourish our relationships, as well.

So, in this month of tortured indulgence, I propose this. That we do not indulge ourselves with despairing abandon, should we have the luxury of doing so, but rather that we share our food with each other freely; that we accept it with gratitude; that we enjoy it wholeheartedly; and that we eat it in a spirit of thankfulness, and yes, of love.