I‘ve been simultaneously reading two books of essays, largely autobiographical, whose authors’ courage at admitting the truth about themselves is disarming, even startling. Melissa Faliveno’s Tomboyland describes growing up in rural Wisconsin and evolving as a queer feminist; here are a few excerpts from this amazing writer (photo above from her website):
I tell her I think this is a cultural thing, a midwestern thing. And maybe what I mean is it’s a class thing. It’s something I think about often, having grown up in a small town — where you do your best to hide your pain, where if you let it go a whole town will know. Talking about your problems I think is something reserved for the upper classes, the educated classes, for families in which a life of the mind is more important than a life of work, and of the body, and of the land. Where my friend Sue comes from, and where I come from — generations of farm families with little money and many mouths to feed — we don’t have time for the kind of trouble that dwells in the brains or heart. We learn this from the stories of our forbears, who were more concerned with the kind of trouble a drought could bring, or whether the crops would yield. We don’t have the tools — the language, the education, the resources — to say some things aloud, to deal in the daylight with our problems. So we keep them to ourselves, and we carry them with us.
In a small midwestern town, darkness gets buried like a secret. I came from a place that kept silence like a curse, a people who stuck to their silence like work. In a place where the land is both fertile and hard, lush and alive then brutally cold — a land we work with our hands until they’re hard, a land that decides our fate no matter the toil — we are silent about our hopes. We are silent about our fears. We are silent about money, unless we think someone has too much. We are silent, most of all, about our bodies, our desires and our pain. In my family, we sat in our silence; we steeped and stewed in it; we kept it packed inside.
“It seems like our job is to figure out what to do with our grief,” my friend Jules says. “Like, do you just drag it behind you? Do you figure out a different way to relate to it? Do you use it to fuel something? Do you make it your own?” No one I ever knew had used the word grief like Jules did. I’d only ever heard the word within the context of death. Jules, instead, talked about grief as if it was just a part of life, that it was something we carried.
“How do I carry it with me?” she says. “Because you can’t cut it off and you can’t leave it behind. I think that might actually become a defining feature of a person — how you relate to your grief and what you do with it. I think we need to expand the definitions of grief. Sometimes you get angry, and sometimes you get sad, and sometimes you profoundly mourn something. And I wish it was more a conversation in general, so it would be seen as a normal part of living, as opposed to the way you’re broken. The reasons I didn’t want kids were all selfish. I didn’t want to watch their hearts break, and I didn’t want to watch them struggle, and I didn’t want my heart to be broken by watching them go through the same things I went through, or things I don’t even know about now — I didn’t want to feel the pain… My mother had such a picture in her mind of what a good mom was, and she tried to do it, but she really didn’t have the ability because no one fucking does.”
“Is there anywhere you feel you can be your full self?” I ask Jules.
“No! Never! I don’t think I’ve ever been my full self anywhere. I don’t even think that’s a thing.”
We laugh, because we understand that on some level the idea of a whole self seems like the dream of a much younger person, who has yet to make the hardest decisions — the kind that thrust a person down one path instead of another; the kind that are immutable. We laugh because we both know now it’s not possible. But as we part ways that night, and I watch the blinking tail-light of her bike disappear into the darkness, I grieve the person who used to think it was.
Vlogbrother John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed is a collection of transcriptions of his podcast, which mixes astonishing bits of historical and scientific research with brilliant quotes you’ve never heard, jaw-dropping insights into human nature, and raw admissions of his struggles to cope with everything from being bullied and beaten up in childhood in Orlando, to his OCD, which has driven him close to the point of madness throughout the current pandemic.
In one essay John (photo above from his website) quotes Amy Krouse Rosenthal‘s words of wisdom: Pay attention to what you pay attention to, and then he adds:
Marvelling at the perfection of [a dying leaf his son had shared with him] I was reminded that aesthetic beauty is as much about how and whether you look as what you see. From the quark to the supernova, the wonders do not cease. It is our attentiveness that is in short supply; our ability and willingness to do the work that awe requires.
In another essay he wonders what moths, irresistibly drawn to all forms of human-made lights, will do when our species has gone: Will they be drawn to the moon? In another, he reveals the astonishing fact that practically all the penicillin ever dispensed descends from the mold on a single cantaloupe, found by accident by bacteriologist Mary Hunt in a grocery store in Peoria in 1942 during the search for sources for what was then a rare antibiotic.
Listen to his podcast on Wonder and Sunsets and it will make you cry with knowing how broken and amazing our sad species is. You can feel the pain he carries in his gentle, fragile, yet reassuring voice.
I love these two books, but there are moments in them I cannot endure — they are simply overwhelming in their self-awareness and their brutal honesty about their narrators, and the human condition.
Over the last decade, with a lot of help, I have finally started to pick away at all the gunk that has been so layered over who I think I am to the point I became unrecognizable, even to me. The insufferable arrogance that I once displayed, largely as a defence mechanism of course, has yielded at least a bit to an awareness that my whole life, and the bulk of the decisions I have made, to do, and not do, things, has been driven almost entirely by fear.
In 2016 I tried to set aside all the self-serving delusional nonsense in my bios and identify the true “story of me”:
My whole life I have been bewildered, unable to really make sense of anything, just muddling my way through, and I have often been quite fearful and socially anxious as a result. I have put great effort into many things but have nothing much to show for it. I’ve had some interesting insights, but nothing that’s of much practical use to anyone. I have been generous, but only when I could easily afford to be. I’ve been very lucky. I have become more joyful and fun-loving, but more pessimistic, more curious, and more skeptical about everything, even whether we as separate ‘selves’ actually exist.
Lost, scared and bewildered, that’s me. Maybe a lot of other people, too, but who am I to say?
And as a result I am just unable to open myself to, and really empathize with, the enormous suffering, sorrow and anguish that dominates so much of so many people’s lives. It hurts too much. It shuts me down. I become catatonic, dysfunctional.
So now I’ve reached this perilous and awkward stage where I’m very content exploring “how the world really works” but am increasingly averse to learning any more about what it means to be a human in times of immense struggle, precarity and danger. I am, most of the time, more contented than I have ever been, less distraught. But that’s in part because I no longer share the anguish of my human colleagues over our personal and collective tragedies and unhappinesses. I can’t face them. I know I’m no use to the world broken, and if I allowed the colossal awfulness of things to affect me as it affects them, I would be forever broken. I could never heal.
That means, then, that I can’t care much about the profound suffering of others. It’s not that I don’t care; it’s that I can’t. It’s too much to bear. It’s so much easier and more tempting to contemplate, and to believe, that the self, and all suffering, is just the affliction of the brain’s misunderstanding of, and disconnection from, what’s really happening, which is actually utterly ‘impersonal’.
All my life I have believed that life should not be so hard and so terrible as it seems to be for the human species. All my life, I have never felt safe. We are not well, I have come to believe, none of us in this mad global cancerous ‘civilized’ human culture, and our severe illness is having a catastrophic effect on our world and on each other.
In her book, Melissa writes: “To live well is to speak one’s truth — even if that truth is just a question.”
So I guess my question is: What’s wrong with us? How and why did we get this way? Why, when wild creatures live lives filled almost entirely with moments of equanimity and moments of enthusiasm, are human lives so filled with dread, anxiety, violence, misery, destruction, anger, shame, and grief — and yet we don’t sensibly just remove ourselves from Gaia’s gene pool and end the suffering. Instead, we invent after-lives that will ‘redeem’ our lifelong unhappiness and misery, we make it illegal to end our own lives peacefully, and we bring yet more human babies into the world with the insane belief that it will somehow be better for them!
And we convince ourselves that there’s nothing wrong with how we live, and that things will inexorably get better, when all the evidence shows the opposite to be true.
What’s wrong with us? I care, but I can’t care. I know, I sense, I remember the anguish and dread and hopelessness and emptiness and self-loathing and gnawing terror that I suspect all but the most inured, psychopathic humans feel much or most of their lives. I’m sorry. I know I can’t fix it, but it’s much worse than that: There’s nothing to fix. That’s not to deny the feelings, and the damage that they do to us. It’s to say we are all deluded about what’s really going on, starting with the belief that we’re apart and separate and have control over what these seeming bodies we feel ourselves inside do, and don’t do.
When I’ve met with people suffering from dementia, the nurses told me not to argue with them, and not to ‘agree’ with their ravings either, but just be present with them and acknowledge that what they see, hear, and fear, is completely real for them, though it “obviously” is not real. I wonder whether that’s exactly what might be called for in all our dealings with all our fellow humans, all of us coping with the ghastly affliction of having and being an endlessly-suffering, tormented, unsatisfiable self.
There is no cure for this affliction, though *%#$ knows we try enough substances to try to medicate ourselves to endure the pain another day. And we all have it, this affliction, save a handful who have no selves but mostly don’t know what they’re missing, and who function just fine without them.
I remember the childlike wonder, long before wonder became something manufactured by corporations and packaged in theme parks. When there are glimpses here, I remember. Suddenly it’s obvious, that this ubiquitous human madness, this ghastly psychosomatic misunderstanding of what the brain has invented, is covering up the stunning, simple wonder of everything being already everything, weightless, without importance. Nothing needed, nothing that must be done.
But then I am back, forgetting, making conceptual nonsense from perceptual sensations. Judging, assigning meaning, taking things personally. Getting angry, ashamed, terrified. Lost, scared and bewildered again. It helps a bit to know it’s all a hallucination, a misunderstanding. But it doesn’t change anything. Just as our lungs cannot decide to stop breathing, I can never let go.
I ache with Melissa’s and John’s struggles and sorrows, and cheer for their accomplishments, their small victories, their moments of sheer joy. But I recognize their lives are, like their books, just stories, fictions, like all our lives are. Their stories are smart, compelling, insightful, and articulate. I feel like I know them, like I really would like to know them in the time I have left to know anything.
But they are still just stories. If only we could get past our stories, lose our selves and just be! But of course, that’s just a story too.