A Compassionate Cynic's
Guide to Survival
*originally published in The Wayfarer: A Journal of Contemplative Literature,
Vol. 3, Issue 2 (Summer 2014)
I’m writing this in a dark place. Physically and emotionally. My living room shades are down well into the afternoon. It’s gloomy out there anyway. Physically and emotionally.
Jack Johnson Radio plays on Pandora. Matisyahu’s “One Day” at the moment. I listen to this station because the music on it–with the exception of all the John Mayer songs (I fucking hate John Mayer)–makes me feel good. Most of the time anyway. Occasionally–like today–it reminds me of ways the world fails to live up to my ideals. Ways I fail to live up to my ideals.
I’m writing this because, here in the dark, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that by writing this I can save my life. Or maybe someone else’s.
Today is the third Monday in January. The day designated to honor the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. You’d think that’d be a good day for me. But it’s not. You’d think I’d be out attending community celebrations. But I’m not. And that gets to the crux of my problem. My dilemma. Paradox even.
I care so much about the world that I can’t see the point of … well, most everything.
I fucking hate John Mayer. But I don’t tell Pandora to skip his songs.
I admire the folks out there trying to follow Dr. King’s teachings and bring about a more just world–including those who do it only this one day a year. But I don’t join them.
It’s not laziness. It’s learned behavior. Or belief. And what is behavior but manifested belief? (Even if those beliefs are often unconscious.)
I’m not some alienated teenager going through my “rebel without a cause” phase. I’m not some “sad sack” who never had a chance or some “square peg” who can’t fit in or some former “eager beaver” who was treated unfairly by the system. (But I can identify with all those types.)
I’m a well-educated white male from a middle-class, progressive family who’s excelled at–and been rewarded for–most of my endeavors over the course of my forty-six years.
I’m aware of my privilege. Or at least some of it. The parts I’ve learned to see.
Compared to many people in the world, my life is very good. I never doubt that my basic needs will be met. I have fulfilling relationships with others. I feel a lot of joy. And gratitude.
But, man, when I slip into the pit of despair … it’s an abyss.
My belief–the belief that often stops me from taking actions that might improve my existence or the existence of others and that periodically propels me into the abyss–is that, in the grand scheme of things, in the overwhelmingly unjust and seemingly cruel world we live in, the impact of any action I might take would be so negligible that it’d be a waste of energy.
I’m well acquainted with the “celebrate small victories” maxim. I think it’s bullshit. One more way the structures of power in our civilization channel potentially revolutionary impulses into activity that presents no real threat to the status quo. Impotence you can feel good about.
But I don’t believe in bloody revolution. I’m a pacifist. I won’t even kill insects.
Sometimes I think I need help. I don’t mean psycho-analysis. I’m perfectly capable of conducting my own analysis, of myself included. Too capable perhaps. (Also, I can’t believe that shedding whatever “baggage” I carry from my upbringing would alleviate the weight I feel over the state of the world.) The help I mean is the help offered by Big Pharma. Better living through chemistry. But I can’t stand the thought of being comfortably numbed on a permanent basis.
Instead I medicate myself–usually through alcohol–on a “need-to-numb” basis. I know it doesn’t really help. In the long run, it worsens my depression. But I do it anyway.
I know the answer. Not just to my problem. To the world’s. It’s quite straightforward. I’m by no means the first person to articulate it. Humanity must evolve–spiritually–to the point where our collective values shift. To where everyone truly appreciates the interconnection between all forms of life. That–and only that–will end hunger, violence, and our other ills.
The catch is that collective spiritual evolution seems highly improbable in a world where so many people struggle to survive–in terms of material existence–on a daily basis. When your very survival is at stake, you’re most likely not too concerned with the “big picture” of earthly life. And rightly so.
So … we need a spiritual evolution to develop values that will alleviate human suffering. And … we need to alleviate human suffering in order to be in a position to evolve spiritually.
Another fucking paradox.
Maybe they have to happen together. Maybe small steps forward really are all we can hope for. Maybe we do each have to “heal” ourselves in order to heal the world.
Or maybe those are comforting lies that allow us to carry on in the face of hopelessness.
Or maybe that’s a self-defeating mindset that keeps me from acting in a way that might make a real difference in the world and actually helps maintain the status quo.
Or maybe …
Or maybe …
You get the idea.
Welcome to the vicious circle of my compassionate cynicism.
It’s Tuesday afternoon.
I just ate lunch. Veggie potstickers with a Sriracha sour cream sauce, followed by a mint-crème-filled chocolate. Sensations of cool and sweet and salt and heat linger in my mouth.
I’ve been a vegetarian for a while now. I stopped eating mammals nearly ten years ago and phased out birds and fish (and shellfish) over time. When people ask why, I tell them it’s for a combination of the standard reasons: health, ethics, environmentalism, and spirituality.
It’s not because I believe my choice makes any real difference in the world. It’s a purely personal matter. And I’m not rigid about it. I’m not a vegan. I sometimes eat things made with gelatin. But I can’t imagine consuming actual animal flesh. I’ve completely lost my taste for it.
It’s snowing here today. The shades are up, and I can see tiny flakes falling straight down or on a diagonal, or swirling, or blowing sideways, depending how the wind gusts.
I even went outside for a while, right after breakfast, to shovel the sidewalk in front of our house and in front of the attached houses of our neighbors on each side. It was my turn. I sprinkled expensive eco-friendly ice melt on the sidewalk afterward. It didn’t do much good.
I’d planned to go grocery shopping this morning. But right as I was getting ready to leave, the snow really started coming down, and I figured there was no reason to subject myself to the cold and wet. We have plenty of food in the house. I’ll go tomorrow. Or Thursday.
I’m considering going to yoga later. I could really use it. Physically and emotionally. But I’ll probably find an excuse not to go. It’s supposed to snow hard again around then.
I did exercise a bit yesterday, after I finished my journal entry. I walked a while on the treadmill, then did some stretching, a little core work, a few push ups. Several years ago I finished a marathon in under four hours. But I’ve been hampered by recurring hamstring and lower back problems the last couple years. I haven’t run for months.
As I age, I relate more and more to the characters in Samuel Beckett’s plays. Especially when it comes to trimming my nails. Seriously. It’s absurd how much of our lives we spend on basic grooming. Existence can be so fucking mundane.
But what I’m really talking about is the slow deterioration of our bodies. And our minds. Although that–by its very nature–is, fortunately, less noticeable.
I suppose the only alternative is death.
I just skipped a John Mayer song on Pandora. Third one I skipped in the last hour. I wonder how many times I have to do that before the program starts to weed them out for me.
As expected, I didn’t make it to yoga yesterday. It wasn’t snowing much when I would’ve had to leave the house, but I was in the middle of watching a movie.
You might be thinking I have too much time on my hands. You might be right.
It wasn’t always this way. I spent many years with my nose to the proverbial grindstone. In my case that often meant with my nose buried in books. Plays, mostly. But history and criticism as well. And cultural theory and philosophy. Nine years earning two graduate degrees (MFA and PhD) in theatre. I learned a lot about drama and about art in general. About the world. About people, and the systems we construct and enforce.
My first year as a tenure-track college professor, I worked eighty hours a week. After eight more years of full-time teaching (and creating art on the side or during summers), I finally walked away from academia. Even though I’d managed, through repetition, to make the workload more sustainable, I didn’t see any point in continuing to labor in that environment. (Also, repetition becomes boring.)
I could rant for quite a while about the numerous failings of our higher education system. I could make a strong case justifying the perks of academic life as well. I’ll spare you both. I definitely had it pretty good in some ways–especially compared to all the adjunct instructors struggling to survive on what frequently comes out to less than minimum wage.
Teachers want to believe they’re making a difference. I no longer believed that. So I quit.
It didn’t matter that I had (some) students who clearly appreciated my efforts and even a few who told me I’d changed the way they look at the world and their art. That did help. At least in terms of my tolerating aspects of the job I hated. Like grading. Or, as I call it, de-grading.
For a while I accepted less palatable aspects of the job as “necessary evils” in an overall worthy cause. But at some point I’d come to the realization that my changing a few lives–or even dozens and dozens of them–would never have a tangible impact on the world. I know, I know: Ripple effect blah blah blah. I wish I could believe that.
I don’t believe it. Nor do I accept the view that change takes a long time, so we have to be patient and trust that justice will eventually triumph. That strikes me as a convenient outlook.
It’s convenient for those working for change. It gives them the impression–an appealing one–that their lives matter.
It’s also convenient for those who prefer that things remain as they are. They can rest easy knowing that none of the work being done actually jeopardizes their power.
My evidence is the world around us. Do I really need to list everything that’s wrong and seems to be getting worse? I wouldn’t know where to start.
Actually I do know where to start. A hot “share” on Facebook this week has been a report that the richest eighty-five people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world.
Come on! I won’t argue that wealth should–or could–be distributed equally across the entire population. But how extreme will we let it get? Fewer than one hundred souls possess the equivalent assets of 3.5 billion–thirty-five million hundred–human beings. It’s obscene.
Everything else I might point out–corporate control of our dysfunctional and divisive political system, environmental degradation for the sake of shareholder profits, abuses of power by police and other authorities, widespread lack of basic civility and at times horrifying disregard for human life–flows from that basic reality. From the values inextricably linked to that reality.
I do understand why so many people put up with such injustice, even though they themselves struggle to survive. They’ve been trained to think that they don’t have a choice or that they don’t deserve better or that it’s them against (most) everyone else or that fortune might suddenly smile on them and catapult them into the ranks of the affluent.
I get it. It drives me absolutely bonkers, but I get it.
Here’s an inconvenient truth. Whatever effort you or I might make to “level” the economic playing field, or to help those less fortunate or more oppressed than us, at best temporarily alleviates a tiny bit of suffering.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it. But let’s be clear: You do it because it makes you feel good. Not because–in the big picture, in the grand scheme of things–it makes a real difference. Even if millions of others did the same, the impact would be superficial. A band-aid on a deep wound.
Here’s the worst part. What you actually do when you give your hard-earned money to a political group or charitable organization–or to a panhandler–is allow people who truly can afford to give up some of their wealth to not be forced to do so. In doing your perceived duty, in demonstrating your humanity, you let them off the hook from doing and demonstrating theirs.
By the way, I do that sort of thing anyway. Give to charitable organizations. Sometimes. And–more rarely–even to panhandlers. But I don’t feel good about it.
Here’s why I can’t feel good about it. Whenever we’re permitted–and especially if we’re encouraged–by the structures and institutions of our civilization to do something, that’s a sure sign that doing it only perpetuates the status quo. All efforts to work within or slightly around–or even to reform–any of our broken systems ultimately support the overall set-up and waste energy that might be used to re-imagine, more meaningfully, how we live.
This perspective is why I quit my job. I simply couldn’t go on wasting my energy. I was, in fact, training students to become cogs in the machine, even though I also tried to teach them how to examine the machinery with a critical mind. It all seemed–and seems–so futile.
Anything you might say to try to change my perspective, I’ve most likely already heard. From the Serenity Prayer to Buddhist philosophy, I’ve heard it. I’ve heard it, I’ve considered it, I’ve made a concerted effort to embrace much of it, and I’ve rejected all of it. I’ve rejected it as propaganda for the big picture status quo.
“That’s the best we can hope for” doesn’t cut it with me. I hope for more. I demand more.
I consider anything short of a total transformation of our collective existence an unacceptable compromise. And I consider anything that encourages me to accept such a compromise an attack on my integrity. An attack on my humanity. Even when it disguises itself as the opposite, as an appeal to my humanity.
I still–sometimes–do “political” things. I attend select rallies and protests. I occasionally produce theatre events with an activist thrust. When I’m in the midst of those things I’m often able to lose myself in them. To get caught up in a sense of communion. Of purpose. To feel good about what I’m doing.
But at some point, after the moment has passed, the rush wears off. I come back to the feeling that none of it matters. Nothing really changes. The world reminds me of that every day.
Much of what we do is done simply to make ourselves feel better in a world we can’t control. Sometimes we realize that’s what we’re doing. Other times we engage in willful ignorance. Signing petitions? Sending letters to elected officials? Are you kidding me? Who the fuck cares? (And, yes, I do those things, too. Not often, though. Only when I can’t not do something.)
Anyway … for the last two years I’ve been voluntarily unemployed. That’s been possible only because my life partner continues to toil away within the system and we reside in a place where we can get by on a single (non-profit even!) salary.
So I do have a lot of time on my hands. Even more than usual lately, as my partner has been putting in especially long days between her job-related responsibilities and various volunteer commitments. (She doesn’t share my cynicism. But, thankfully, she understands it.)
I fill the hours in various ways. First and foremost, I manage most of our domestic affairs. I do nearly all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry. A blow for household gender equity!
I also take freelance jobs–as a theatre artist, teacher, or editor–from time to time. (I have two such projects underway right now.) And even though I’m no longer a career educator, I read manuscripts for former students and give them (literally: I do it for free) feedback. I do the same for professional associates and sometimes even for strangers (if they’re friends of friends).
And I write. This week it’s a journal of sorts. Mostly it’s drama. Screenplays in particular. I’ve completed four feature-length scripts since I left academia.
Last fall I started pitching the stories to Hollywood managers and producers. Several have requested scripts. But I’m under no illusion I’ll ever sell one, much less see one filmed. Although my screenwriting competition results (finalist or semifinalist more than a dozen times) might indicate that I have some recognizable talent, the “coverage” I’ve gotten from industry professionals has made it clear that my artistic vision–much like my political and spiritual vision–doesn’t quite fit into the mainstream (commercial) mold.
I again refuse to compromise.
It was important to me to give it a shot. I’ll continue marketing my finished works, but I don’t see any point in generating new material that will inevitably elicit the same response.
All of which is to say I watch a fair number of movies. Partly for diversion, partly as research–to study the craft.
The movie I was watching when I bailed on yoga yesterday is called The Way. It was written, directed, and produced by Emilio Estevez. It stars his father, Martin Sheen, as a man who goes to Europe to retrieve the remains of his adult son (played in flashbacks and visions by Estevez) and spontaneously decides to make an 800+ kilometer pilgrimage through northern Spain to complete a journey his son had barely started before dying in a freak accident.
I found the story compelling because I’ve experienced the loss of several loved ones recently.
Last June, a dear friend and artistic collaborator died of a brain tumor diagnosed about eighteen months earlier, not long after we closed a run of her solo show about–in an eerie coincidence–a young mother dying of cancer. She was forty. She left behind a husband and two small children. I went to their house Sunday evening, with food I’d made, to watch football and play with the kids.
Last August, a friend from graduate school died, also of cancer and also in her early forties. She left behind a husband–whom, prior to her diagnosis, she’d been in the process of divorcing due to his ongoing substance abuse–and two pre-teen children. They don’t live anywhere near here, and I have no idea how they’re doing. My last (only) attempt to reach out to him got no response.
Perhaps the hardest loss for me to deal with has been the death of one of our cats last November. She was ten and had suffered from chronic health issues for several years, so we knew her days might be numbered. But she’d been doing quite well for a while, and she died suddenly from an unrelated condition (undetected cancer). More accurately, she died from euthanasia. In my arms.
The depth of my combined grief has been overwhelming. It’s brought tremendous pain, and considerable perspective. My compassion for all who experience similar losses, whether of pets or people, has expanded infinitely.
So I guess, in a way, by watching that movie I was doing yoga after all.
My partner stayed home sick today. She’s working from the house, though. It takes a lot to get her to agree to even that. She’s been battling a cold-like illness since early December–for nearly seven weeks. Every time she seems to have shaken it, she has a relapse, usually after a string of her not-so-unusual twelve-hour days.
She hasn’t seen a doctor and probably won’t. Even though her employment provides her with a decent health plan–much better than my individual policy–she’d still owe a copayment. Why spend thirty bucks and waste an hour of her valuable time to be told what she already knows? It’s (most likely) a virus. Drink fluids, eat right, and–this is the tricky part–rest.
I’m glad to have her here. It gives me a chance to take care of her–physically and emotionally–the way she does for me on a regular basis. I don’t know what I’d do without her support and affection. I try to return them but rarely feel like I’ve given back enough.
I do keep her well fed. I make us a healthy and hearty breakfast almost every morning. I cook us a nutritious (and usually delicious) dinner most evenings, generally with sufficient leftovers to send her off to work with lunch the next day.
Feeding people is one of my true joys. I like to say that the secret ingredient of everything I make is love. And it really is. I’m not at all sorry if that sounds cheesy. (I told you I’m not a vegan.)
Having her home also gives me a good excuse to put off grocery shopping for another day. (It’s snowing again and quite cold out today.) I don’t know why I dread going to the grocery store. It’s most often a painless–and sometimes even pleasant–experience and rarely approaches the frustrating scenario described by David Foster Wallace in his “This Is Water” essay.
If you’re not familiar with that piece, I highly recommend checking it out. Originally delivered at a college commencement ceremony in 2005, it was published–posthumously–in 2009. You can find it–in text, audio, and probably video versions–online.
I read it again this morning. I don’t find his advice about surviving the day-to-day routine of adulthood any less incisive just because he ended up killing himself. On the contrary, I find his death a tragic illustration of what he identifies as the difficulty–and the necessity–of adjusting the way we think about our experiences in order to reduce our own suffering. He saw the mental struggle of human existence so clearly, and he still lost.
After reading the article today, I did a little research on the author. It turns out he graduated from Amherst College the year I graduated from Amherst Regional High School. So we inhabited the same small town in Western Massachusetts for much of the early 1980s. He was about five and a half years older than me. He committed suicide almost five and a half years ago, at age forty-six.
Studies around the world have found that–in the U-shaped curve of happiness over a lifetime–depression typically peaks at age forty-six. I will turn forty-seven in September.
I finally made it to the grocery store this morning. In hindsight, waiting until Friday may not have been the best decision. At least I went early. It was crowded, but my patience was never really tested.
It takes a lot to get me worked up these days. Since quitting my job I’ve been able to maintain a much more even keel as I navigate the world and interact with people operating on what David Foster Wallace calls our default–“It’s all about me”–setting. With few exceptions–like the local tradition of using “parking chairs” to reserve street space in front of a house–I just smile.
Even when my perfectly able-bodied but overly entitled neighbor down the block uses a parking chair, I usually smile as I remove it from the street. Of course, that’s a mischievous smile and not the friendly one I wear while running errands.
Before I left home, I shoveled the sidewalk again. I stopped my next-door neighbor from doing it so I could take another turn. We don’t follow a formal rotation. The chore falls to whichever resident of these three houses feels motivated–or obligated–to step up and do it. It seems to work out to everyone’s satisfaction. Ours is frequently the first stretch on the block to be cleared.
It’s cold again today. But every now and then the sun shines through the winter haze.
The shades are up. I’m listening to Jack Johnson Radio. It’s having the desired impact.
I noticed something on Pandora the other day. Right below the option to skip a song are two icons: thumbs-up and thumbs-down. Apparently that’s actually how you customize a station. It takes a little extra effort–a couple more button presses–but it’s extremely enjoyable to give John Mayer a thumbs-down. (It’s not like it hurts his feelings.) Time will tell if it’s effective.
By the way … I didn’t mean everything I wrote the other day about your efforts not making any real difference in the world. Well, no, I did mean it. When I wrote it. But I don’t mean it today. At least not fully.
Of course they make a difference. And even if it’s a small one, it’s important.
We each have the ability to choose how we participate in the system. As far as I can tell, there’s no right way. But–at the risk of moralizing (even more)–it should be a choice and not a default action. And the choice should be an informed one. With as much awareness of the implications–short- and long-term–as we can fathom. There may be no right way to participate, but there are wrong ones. It’s up to each of us to determine–based on our individual values and circumstances–the ones that are wrong for us and to do our best to avoid them.
Helping other people is never a wrong choice. Even if in some abstract and convoluted way it ultimately hinders the kind of total transformation I want–so desperately–to see in the world. I know that. When I’m not mired in the abyss, I even believe it.
If I had the right computer skills, I’d join Anonymous. But I don’t have those skills.
I’m already starting to get the hang of this Pandora customization thing, though. I just gave a thumbs-up to a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. “Parallel Universe” sounds good.
Lately I’ve been on the lookout for opportunities to more fully employ the skills I do have. When I left academia, I hoped to share my radical spiritual vision with the world through screenwriting. Maybe that will still come to pass someday.
In the meantime, my personal status quo is not sustainable. When I have a writing project underway–such as this one–I do fairly well. But I’m not the kind of writer who can write a few hours every day. I work intensely on something until it’s done and then need a break before starting the next thing. And it’s in those lulls that the gaping mouth of the abyss beckons.
(In case you were wondering, those lulls can occur any time of year.)
I’m open-minded but selective in considering possibilities. Taking a job just to have one is not an option for me. That is, unless it becomes absolutely necessary–phynancially (sic) or emotionally.
I applied for an academic gig (teaching theatre for social change) with an early December review date. At this point, it’s probably safe to assume I didn’t make the short list of candidates. I also applied for a full-time position (educational outreach) at a local non-profit with a social mission of special interest to me. I didn’t get an interview.
My partner and I are exploring less conventional paths as well. One would reduce our participation in the system significantly. In March we’re going to Belize to investigate several small lodges for sale in the mountain district. Apparently it’s possible–for a much less substantial investment than I expected–to live simply and well there, almost totally off the grid.
It’s a long shot we’ll actually make the leap. Buying even the least expensive of the available properties would tie up pretty much all our assets. We might decide it’s too big a risk. Either way, we’ll have had an adventure. And, for now, dreaming about it helps me get through the day.
Yet, if I weren’t such a dreamer, maybe I wouldn’t be so susceptible to disappointment.
I’ve labeled myself a cynic. I wonder if that’s the right word for someone with the heart and soul of an idealist and the eyes and mind of a realist.
Truth be told, I feel a little ridiculous for having written this, even though I needed to do it. My privileged ennui seems laughable when people are out there in the world struggling to survive.
Then again, in a way–perhaps lesser, perhaps just different–here in my living room, so am I.
24 January 2014
Epilogue: A John Mayer tune just came on Pandora. I quickly gave it a thumbs-down–without even considering the particular song. I realized after the fact that I actually do kind of like that one. It’s called “Waiting on the World to Change.” Maybe you know how it goes?
AUTHOR BIO: Karuna Das lives, with his partner and cat, in Pittsburgh–a city of bridges (which he crosses regularly without jumping), where even hearts are forged of steel.