In trying to properly document my beliefs concerning human morality, existentialism and justice I’ve had to write mostly about things that people don’t really enjoy experiencing – let alone reading. Things like suffering, loneliness, abandonment and mourning; important experiences to me but a little heavy on the negative.
I got in a bit of a tiff with my father the other night. I asked him what hearing the news of my spine disorder made him feel; I just want to get inside his head to understand why he chooses to dismiss the problems I bring to him, rather than comfort me and help me figure things out. He responded by telling me that I’m too negative; these events and problems in my life stress him out too much. And that got me thinking: am I too negative.
If the only picture of my life you had was this blog then you would probably think I’m a fairly negative person. Today I went to apply for a provincial benefit so that I could get a new bed. This past Saturday, on a whim, my younger brother and I decided to check out some beds in Sleep Country Canada. One of the sales-reps asked me if she could help with anything. Pushy sales-reps usually really get under my skin, but she was nice and pretty and most importantly not pushy at all. She helped me look at a few beds, and when I described the nature of my back problems she seemed to be genuinely concerned. All in all, it was a good experience. When she asked how long I was planning on keeping this new bed for (whether it’s a five ten or fifteen year investment makes a huge difference when it comes to price), I let her know that I had just purchased a bed from this store not three years ago; the bed I bought then was now broken – the sides collapsed, huge indentations from my body and uncomfortable springs poking through the mattress. Long story short, she spent a solid twenty minutes making phone calls to various distributors, and I ended up getting a full refund for my current mattress; a ticket to go towards the purchase of a new mattress.
So today I went down to start the application process; in two weeks I should have about 850$. To put that into perspective, my current bed costs somewhere around 600 dollars. That means I’ll have $1450 dollars to put towards a new bed. Awesome news, but not exactly the point of this story. The place I went is called the ‘Housing Stability Center’. People from all across Hamilton, Ontario come here when they’re down on their luck. The people you’ll find applying at any given time paint a scary picture of a future most of us fear having. And that got me thinking.
When I first applied seven months ago or so, the other people applying scared the absolute shit out of me. They made my fears real. They were homeless, disabled, forgotten and abandoned. They lived hard, hard lives. And even though I had a moral philosophy at that time built from the idea that the weakest and most at-risk are the most valuable and need the most help, I couldn’t bring myself to even look at them for too long. I’m not quite homeless yet. I’m still young, fairly attractive, and I still have my wits about me; I haven’t suffered for too long. But perhaps to someone like my father, or my brother, or even my old friends, I bring out their fears and make them real.
How do you shine a light on a problem without the illumination becoming uncomfortable?
I realized something as I was walking my dog tonight. I’d be having a fairly good day; I was thinking positively. But I heard something and for whatever reason that triggered this anxiety-response. And that too got me thinking. Chronic anxiety is so difficult to just ‘will away’ because it’s very compelling. Anxiety is like an alarm. Your body senses a problem and an alarm goes off in your head alerting you of that problem. That’s essentially what happens when you’re anxious. When you have problems, like I do, which persist, it’s hard to shut that alarm off. Right when you think you’ve accepted your fate, that alarm will start ringing and you find yourself again piercingly aware of what’s wrong with you.
Maybe I can be a trigger for others without even knowing it. The solution to that is obvious: don’t be a trigger. If you don’t paint a more positive picture, no one is going to help you. The problem with that solution is that it’s not very just to ask the person suffering to suffer more quietly because their pain makes others uncomfortable. But maybe that’s what I have to do. So I’d like to briefly acknowledge some things that I’m incredibly grateful for.
I’m grateful to be born to the family I was born to. I’m happy with the person I’ve become, and although there are many, many things that make my life very difficult (unsupportive parents and siblings, disease, pain, disability etc…), I know that things could have been so much worse. I’m grateful to be Canadian, and to have live in a Country that meets my basic needs for me. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to live, and to grow, and to help others.
I’ve always been grateful for these things, but I’ve never shown that I’ve always been grateful for anything. Even though it seems slightly unjust that I have to work even harder for attention, help and normalcy, It’s the only way I’ll ever accomplish the things I wish to accomplish.
Don’t compare yourself with what you used to be, compare yourself with what you can still do.
If you’re sick, don’t compare illness with your health. Compare your illness with your function. We’re always going to have functional limitations, but if you spend your time mourning loss you won’t be able to accept the fate you’ve stumbled upon, and do the things that you need to do.
How do you shine a light on a problem without the illumination becoming uncomfortable?
Phronesis: “Prudence, or practical wisdom’… can be understood as ‘pragmatic’. Differs from theoretic wisdom by a conclusion in ‘human action’ – it’s practical in that it guides human action. Phronesis is a way of being concerned with one’s life. Phronesis is concerned with particular experiences because it is concerned with informing action in particular situations (Carl asking rhetorically if John was taught to fight in a castle, versus the streets (a practical advantage given the particular situation and one guided by particular experience rather than the theoretic knowledge John received in his holdfast).
A prudent person cannot act against his better judgement.
Doing some research into virtue ethics for an essay I’m writing about Game of Thrones, I stumbled upon this word ‘Phronesis’. Finally! Finally some name to call the divide between my family and I; and between people who just can’t seem to ‘get it’ and those who can. For so long I hadn’t any way to describe what made me different. It wasn’t intelligence that set me apart from my family – my younger brother is a verified genius. It wasn’t just morality that set me apart – morality has been taught for thousands of years, and hasn’t yet prevented people doing crummy things on a daily basis. And it wasn’t just the unique particular experiences I’ve had; because the majority of ill people I know have not changed for the better by their experiences. The things that others’ do which bother me the most are the small subtle things done every day, that slowly, silently eat away at a person; not so much a thinking problem, but an inability to produce a certain type of conclusion (a particular conclusion produced by a persons’ desire to prevent the bad things that happened to them from happening to others ).
But now I have a word for this ‘thing’; phronesis… parts pretentious, and awesome.
“Sai had wondered, Should humans conquer the mountain or should they wish for the mountains to possess them’. Sherpas went up and down ten times, fifteen times in some cases, without glory, without a claim of ownership. And there were those who said it was sacred, and shouldn’t be sullied at all.”
I’ve been asking myself the above question quite a lot lately, but I’m not closer now to an answer than I was a year ago.
Is it really possible that you can live a good life without any help?
The question at first appears to be one of sustainability; can you sustain your life without any help or any love. When I first started watching the threads tethering me to normalcy stretch and fray that idea of sustaining my life was the hope I escaped to. Fear is intoxicating. And like all intoxicating things, it dampens our rational faculties. I was so afraid of ‘going crazy’ and ‘being alone’ that I couldn’t see beyond my immediate problems. I was looking for an answer in all the wrong places.
Over time there were fewer and fewer places to hide, and the exposure to the elements really wore me down. Soon that well of hope that I had escaped to for so long ran dry. And so I was forced to look elsewhere for answers.
So I took the problem in another direction: can you sustain yourself alone without help long enough to transform your life into a ‘good life’. O.k. great. Simple enough, right? Well, it may have been simple had it not been for my chronic illness. My health is very unpredictable. If I was healthy I would have tackled the problem by immersing myself in school work. I’d consume a steady diet of cheap inspiration and glib memoirs. And I would have probably been all-right.
When you try to solve a problem this big it’s important to take into mind all the things that need fixing; if you’re going to do it, why not do it right? So I took an inventory of all the things that are preventing me from having a good life, and all the things that could prevent me from having a good life. This was the single hardest thing I’ve ever had to force myself to do.
I have a chronic genetic disease which causes chronic pain, joint fragility and instability, poor healing, spinal problems and sleep problems. I also have no emotional support. When I started taking the time to inspect my life a little more closely I began to notice how little I had in the way of love and help. When I vowed to not end up alone and depressed and broken I had no idea what I was asking of myself. If I knew then what I know now I’m not sure I’d have made the same decision. I probably would have ridden things out, and let fate choose for me; like so many people do.
But the future had other plans for me, I guess. I was lucky enough never to have enough stability to coast; I had an abusive mom and a rare genetic disease. But I was also popular and funny and had a decent serving of wits and resourcefulness. Every time I thought I had a handle on things, some radical shift in the dynamic of life would occur and I’d spin out of control. I have had to change my approach to this quest for a good life more times than I care to count. But fortunately, each time I still had enough reserves to get me by whatever obstacle and through the unexpected turns life threw at me. But like confronting my fear of a hard destiny, I knew eventually I’d have to confront the empty stores.
Can you live without anyone’s investment? Even your own?
Throughout all of this the questions have been more valuable to me than the answers – which are themselves sparse and uncoordinated. If there’s any one thing I value about myself It has to be my ability to ask questions. It was a vague feeling, a sense of urgency coupled with a roughly sketched picture of an adequate life that started me on this journey four years ago. I wasn’t motivated by a clear epiphany or a well thought out question. Four years ago I was certain it was turtles all the way down, but now I have no idea what question lies beneath the next answer; what problem lurks below the newly solved problem.
Most of my fears have come true; I’m disabled, I’m very ill, I’m dependent without anyone to depend on, I don’t have any friends, and I don’t have any reliable family members. I can’t say that all of my fears have come true, because our fears aren’t born alongside us; we find them and we create them. What I can say for certain is that I now live a life that requires me to constantly face my fears.
Like digging for turtles, I think that the big fear that underlies many of our common, and even uncommon, fears is the idea that we’re going to be left behind. Not just by our friends and family, but by life itself. We fear death, but we fear a pointless, prolonged death even more. We fear loss. Not just the loss of friends, family, good grades or social status, but the loss of our selves. I fear the things I’m afraid of but I fear more the idea that they exist independently of myself. Pointless suffering is a heavy burden to bear, but when all else fails a person can still find peace in the truth that other people don’t have to go through the same thing. The weight of that peace is felt as justice; perhaps a pointless life isn’t a law of the universe, but a product of the chaos humans bring to life. It’s a part of the great trick our minds play on us when we think perhaps we could have been born as someone else.
That’s where my problem lies right now: somewhere between the last turtle and the worst suffering. I feel the whole weight of the world on my shoulders, but the promise of hope just one more layer down keeps me searching. But it’s always one more layer down, isn’t it?
I don’t know if I can keep going. And even worse, I don’t know if anyone could keep going. If it’s a law of the universe that some people’s lives are going to inevitably trend towards pointlessness then I need to find some way to counteract the forces of nature and the chaos people bring to life. Maybe my life to myself is forfeit. But my life is so much more than my experience. It’s an idea. Consciousness exists between immortality and mortality; in the land of the ideas. That’s where we really suffer. It hurts to stub a toe, but it would hurt more knowing you have to go on stubbing your toe forever than it would to actually stub your toe forever. Maybe the two need each-other; who knows.
Every ‘pointless’ human life matters to every other human. It doesn’t seem that way when you’re standing on their shoulders, but when you suffer you fall down into their ranks. And when that happens you realize that the real problems we need to fix are the ones you need to go looking for. It’s a law of the universe that there are going to be people whose parents hate them, who are disabled, and who have nothing but time to suffer and decay in existential terror. No one thinks they’re going to be that person – partly because of our penchant for denial and partly because that life is so uncommon most people rarely consider it a possibility; a fear to stumble upon. But every life is left wide open to suffering. When you suffer, the gap between what you think it means to be one person, versus what it means to be a person shrinks. And it keeps on shrinking until those two ideas meld. Then you know what real fear is, and why it’s so important not to thoughtlessly throw people away.
We need to help people who suffer, but we need to address suffering more. We need to make sure that people just don’t slip between the cracks as I have, to rot and decay alone. Partly because it’s the moral thing to do, but also because It could have been anyone. Most people are safe from the stuff I have to go through because fate dealt them a decent hand. But their strength is an illusion. Maybe I’m just trying to make meaning out of meaninglessness, but maybe you’re all just asking the wrong kinds of questions.