Friday, January 4, 2019

Beating back against the darkness in the new year

What is meaningful for you?  Do you think it's what the wider culture considers meaningful?

Over the New Year, my depressive episodes went deeper and longer.  I distracted myself a lot, a task that Bill helped me with.  But I'm not only a disciplined depressive, I'm a canny one:  I usually know what's wrong, and if I don't know how to fix it,  my psychotherapist does.  But I had no clue about the triggers.  So I went to see him and simply listed off the various things that had been weighing me down--none of them major enough to warrant my moods.  After listening to my litany, he observed that they were tied together by the question of meaning.  Against the delight of writing was the question of whether my writing was meaningful to its audience, or even whether it would find an audience, whether it had any meaning for anyone besides me.  He framed my query this way:  We're living in a time of high drama--Trump's tweets, government shutdowns, the murder of Jamal Kashoggi, the viral spread of anything that is not truth, widening gaps between billionaires and everyday people.  Anger.  (An interesting article in Atlantic this month takes on the way anger hijacks the civil conversation we should be having.)  What's the point of writing poetry or a relatively quiet novel about the quest of a handful of twenty-somethings to figure out how to be at home in their futures, in their skins, on a planet that is changing, in an economic system that is fubar?  I even shamefully lamented that my FB friends "like" my quilts much better than my blog, so why don't I just stop writing and just make quilts?  Except there are things I can say with words that I can't say with quilts, I acknowledged.

My therapist pointed out two things.  First, that times of high drama may get people excited or feel they are important--that the intensity of their anger or frustration or outrage inevitably makes them feel important--but it's not a time when we can grow, either as individuals or as a society.  We need stability for that--for each of us to undergo his or her quest for meaning, for the culture itself to face some of its existential questions. Second, he could articulate something about what was weighing me down I couldn't quite express:  the magnitude of my own un-at-homeness in this historical moment.  Essentially, I am exhausted by my attempt to make interventions in a world that's fubar.

In one of the Atlantic's nightly newsletters there was a link to an article by Adam Serwer titled "The Cruelty is the Point."  He looked at the way Trump's base can get energized by Trump's meanness.  Then he studied some photographs of southern lynch mobs, noting how often young men attempted to insert their wildly smiling faces into photographs of the hanging or burnt body.  His conclusion:  that some of us get off on cruelty.  I know this isn't happening here in Canada.  Here in Canada, the city of Calgary has just built a beautiful new central library.  If you are a newcomer to Canada and you need to work on your English, you and your children can go to the library, where students in the Bow Valley College early childhood program will take care of your children while you study English.  You can borrow instruments from the Regina Public Library and even test them out in a soundproof room where you and your buddies can record your song--eschewing your parents' garage.   This kind of ingenuity gets me really excited and seems so distinctively Canadian.  Yet the New York Public Library will also loan you clothing and accessories--a tie and a nice-looking briefcase and purse--to help you with job interviews.  I don't think it's entirely chance that my examples are libraries, which are taking their jobs as cultural guardians seriously--not simply guarding books, but also guarding civility, creativity, and hope.

So what do we see next door that so unnerves us, even while we believe "it couldn't happen here."  That it can happen at all.  Post Nazism, post Rwanda, post-Kosovo, we are shocked that the kind of hatred and anger Trump is exciting in his "base" still happens in a "civilized" country.  Even if we are not writing a quiet novel or poems about juncos and trees, it must occur to many of us:  how do you push back against such darkness?

If facts and truth have disappeared in Trumptime, then we resolve to be more truthful, more meaningfully truthful in our daily lives.  We keep the habit, the resolve, the discipline of truthfulness alive in a time when it's challenged in the public arena.  As two great nineteenth-century naturalists, Alexander von Humboldt and John Muir, recognized, the whole world--its people and its creatures and its plants--are interconnected.  We need to honestly nurture those interconnections.  So we shine the light of truthfulness wherever we can.

If cruelty is the point, then we spread kindness.  New research by psychologists has revealed that a kind word or act ramifies like the branches of a tree from trunk to the tip of its branches.  Kindness has a considerable half-life, and there's a dopamine hit for both giver and receiver.  A little dopamine goes a long way in Trumptime, keeping our energies alight.

We all contain the dust of stars, scientists now tell us.  So each of us is capable of casting some light, of replacing cynicism with wonder.

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