Nietzsche’s Playbook

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This is a picture of an Andrew Wyeth. I stared at it, at this particular angle, for a long time; examining it with head tilted, then through the camera lens, then squinting, then wide-eyed. This picture renders paint and canvas invisible. They are no longer the mediators of this curtained scene. It is just me, tucking myself behind the curtain to stare at trails and trees. It is me breathing in the fresh air, no paint residue to stale it. It is me observing the pastoral scene sans canvassed limits.

I would argue that Realism (as a genre) succeeds when it removes the obstacle of the medium (paint, canvas, clay, metal) to reveal the transparent image. Well done, Andrew Wyeth.

I would also argue that we’re attracted to Realism because of this very ability to suspend our disbelief; this art feels true to every fiber of our beings, and we want it to be so. It’s serene, crisp, and lovely. It’s better than believing that we’re observing a flat panel fixed to a matte wall. In literature, we call this suspension of disbelief verisimilitude—when an author helps us ignore his fabrications because he has given us a reason to believe, against our better judgment, that his words are true.

In our daily lives, there’s another name for this phenomenon: functional nihilism. “If I don’t think about it, it doesn’t exist.” This is a suspension of our disbelief through willful ignorance. We are choosing to ignore part of the story.

If I don’t think about the canvas barrier that separates me from Wyeth’s pastoral scene, then it doesn’t exist, and I’m whisked away to a world of my own making, one where I don’t have to leave the wooded shelter…ever. You can see the appeal, here.

Freud would call this denial. But that word is overwrought and misses the juxtaposition of violence and pragmatism. We do violence to our memories by sentencing them to oblivion; and we do it practically as a survival mechanism—so we can function.

The heart-wrenching pain of ending a relationship can turn the best of us into functional nihilists. We want to annihilate the beautiful new beginnings that are now sickening and painful. We also want to crush the painful endings that leave us feeling vulnerable and hurt; because to replay them daily, to allow them to be a part of our moment to moment experience leaves our nerve endings perpetually exposed. Who can function when they are perpetually replaying a traumatic scene?

This pragmatism is enacted without discrimination. We willfully forget embarrassing moments, immoral decisions, and guilty feelings as well as major failures, childhood traumas, and relationship endings. This nihilism also applies to procrastination. If we don’t think about what needs to be done, we aren’t obligated to do it.

As with all of our defense mechanisms, we believe the benefit outweighs the cost. But we are blinded to what that cost is, to ourselves and others. Last year I met a woman who shared that she had gone through a bitter divorce. She was happy to declare that she was now “over it”. Intrigued, I asked how she had accomplished this. “I moved across the country.” She said. “Now I don’t have to think about him anymore.” As I listened to her story it became apparent that she had given up a huge support network, a great job, and an established life to get away from her ex-husband. Sadly, in her attempt to avoid one man, she lost almost everything else. And if the payoff was to forget him, it didn’t work. He consumed most of our conversation.

My heart goes out to this woman. Her story, though a dramatic example, is similar to our own. We are oblivious to what we’re sacrificing in our attempts at annihilation. We may not have moved across country, but we have lost out on meaningful living, nonetheless. As for this woman, whenever we engage in functional nihilism it can’t help but impact our relationships, our work, our sense of well-being–our lives.

If we take a page out of Nietzsche’s Playbook, we will find our nihilism expanding beyond the borders. We will find that, over time, what seemed functional now consumes us.

What are those events, relationships, beliefs that you’ve done violence to? If you’re honest, what have you lost in the aftermath of your annihilation?

So as not to leave us in the abyss, this is only part of the story. We can move beyond functional nihilism to embrace growth and healing. We can overcome our propensity to avoid. When we do, we no longer have to suspend our disbelief, because the healing is tangibly, palpably, and delightfully real.

Sound the Barbaric YAWP

Oh Captain My CaptainI sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.

–Walt Whitman

As an English and Psychology major, one of my favorite Robin Williams’ movies is Dead Poets Society.   I remember watching it for the first time and being smitten by the idea of “sucking the marrow out of life”.  Carpe Diem was incarnated in the passion for adventure and for existential questions.  And one of the most universally stirring scenes began with sounding “the barbaric YAWP”.  For those who haven’t seen it, in short summary, Ethan Hawke is the shy, repressed high school student eager to learn from Robin Williams, the avant-garde English professor serving up Walt Whitman’s poetry with a side dish of radical ideas on free thinking.  These ideas are met with tremendous resistance from the powers-that-be at their college prep school.  And the decision to agree with the intriguing, radical professor comes at great peril.

In the storyline, the English professor (Williams) asks the introverted student (Hawke) to utter his own barbaric yawp—a guttural cry, an incantation, giving voice to deep-seated and long repressed emotions.  The barbaric yawp is primal, poignant, and cathartic.  This scene is climactic in the story line as Ethan Hawke’s character begins with barely audible stuttering and slowly gains courage until he finds his voice for the first time in that guttural scream.  His barbaric yawp is met with the applause of his fellow classmates as they recognize how that cry resonates with their own desire to unshackle what has long been chained, and their own hope of discovering their audible voices.


On the day that Robin Williams died, this champion of the barbaric yawp, our culture uttered its own, collective guttural cry.

I’ve read and skimmed countless articles about Robin Williams’ death over the past week and a half.  In the two days following his death, reactions poured in regarding his depression, his struggles with addiction, his suicide, his contribution to the world, how the media handled the news, and how everyone on social media did or did not handle the news.  Seemingly every angle was covered and the overwhelming theme was championing greater awareness of mental illness and suicide prevention.

Then, two days later, more news came.  Robin Williams had Parkinson’s disease.  The landscape of the conversation changed a bit, and the blogs and newsfeeds quieted.  Maybe this was because they had already exhausted that guttural incantation, or maybe it was because the diagnosis of Parkinson’s really did change their view of the events surrounding his death, and maybe it changed their grief response to follow.

Whatever the case may be, the content of the posts and the trends toward conversation or silence were all important diviners of human nature—the nature of those responding to his very unfortunate death.

Those bird’s-eye eulogies, the responses to depression, the responses to addiction, the responses to impressions made:  “I met him once…” or “My favorite memory of him is…”; the created platforms to champion psycho-education about depression, or provide numbers for suicide hotlines, or criticize other media responses to the news; the many and varied reactions told me so much more about each author’s own grief than about Robin Williams’ life and death.

Grief tumbles out of us in a barbaric yawp.  In the instance we hear the grief-inducing news, all of these emotions course through our bodies in various states of consciousness until we’re left screaming on blogs, or crying out through articles, or Facebook posts to friends, or stream-of-consciousness ramblings into leather journals.  Grief leaves us searching for an outlet for all of the conflicting emotions—a welcome release.

Like the barbaric yawp, grief is also one way we find our own voice.  It brings out the primal fear, anger, sadness, despair, and the other, sweeter raw emotions surface as well: compassion, love, respect, and the ever beautiful–hope.

I saw every one of these emotions cutting through these bird’s-eye eulogies in articles–dissecting sentences into distinct emotional categories.  Here’s one of my favorites, a quote from author Anne Lamott (who grew up with Robin Williams) to her friends on Facebook:

“Here is what is true: a third of the people you adore and admire in the world and in your families have severe mental illness and/or addiction. I sure do. I have both. And you still love me. You help hold me up. I try to help hold you up. Half of the people I love most have both; and so do most of the artists who have changed and redeemed me, given me life. Most of us are still here, healing slowly and imperfectly. Some days are way too long… Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity. You know how I always say that laughter is carbonated holiness? Well, Robin was the ultimate proof of that, and bubbles are spirit made visible.”

Unexpected moments of grief are not to be taken lightly.  They are tremendously emotional because they reflect the gravity of the situation at hand.  And yet, if they’re vessels for carbonation, they demonstrate how levity can come while standing on holy ground.  Our instinct to sound the barbaric yawp should come with the knowledge of what we’re sounding.  The death of a celebrity often comes with collective cultural stirrings.  Add the tragic circumstance of suicide to that, and the cultural response is amplified tenfold.

For those who didn’t feel that strongly about Robin Williams, you may still have been impacted by the nature of his death, or his experiences with depression, or addictions, or Parkinson’s.  And, simultaneously, you may have been impacted by his effervescence.  There’s so much to be impacted by in his story.  When we experience grief and sound the barbaric yawp, we are searching for meaning, and for some way to make sense of the painful tragedy we’re experiencing.  We’re looking for hope.

Is there hope for you?  Is there meaning behind the carbonated holiness, shaken and stirred?

(Spoiler Alert)

At the end of Dead Poets Society, the boys rally around their beloved Professor.  In a display of solidarity led by the once-shy boy turned man, they stand on their desks defying the powers-that-be, and call out to him one last time: “Oh Captain, my Captain”.

They would follow him anywhere, risking the “abyss” because shaken and stirred, they have hope.

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Write What You Know

 

–Write what you know—

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It’s probably the most common advice handed down to the novice writer, often with the cold austerity of a principal handing off a diploma.  It’s a symbolic statement and a rite of passage.

It’s communicated with a nod that suggests: “You seem like you might someday know something, so when you get to that point, write it.  In the meantime—just fumble.”

 

My question.

 

–What if you don’t know anything and never will?—

 

It’s a dewy, wide-eyed look that accompanies this question.  It’s the look of a novice, scared to death.

This is a good question.  It’s one that occurred to me twenty years ago when I first received the advice to write what I know.  It still fits.

I don’t know anything.  Sure, there are things I understand, some things I have a decent grasp of, but I don’t know anything, not really.  At least not the way advice-givers mean.

To write what you know implies expertise.  And to be an expert implies arrival.  Those who are experts have reached a destination.  The problem is that if you’ve reached your destination, you’re no longer moving.  Arrival is static.

To be in process is dynamic.  To be in process implies perpetual motion.  There are no trappings of finality to entangle us there.

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I remember times in my life when I was an expert.  The arrogance of that belief is astounding, and it came with all the immovable stubbornness that accompanies static living.  Because I believed myself to be an expert, there was no room for community; there was no room for growth.

What did I miss?  Perspective.  Alternative views were lost on me.  Views that were robust and expansive.  Views that had flesh and bones, not just thoughts and words.

I thought I was an expert on grief, which is absurd.  Anybody who has experienced grief knows that you can’t even begin to understand grief until you feel like your body has melted so far into the wood panels of your floor that you’ll have to be scraped up, bit by bit.   And at that point the industrious hand of another–one that scrapes you off the floor–is invaluable and it’s the only option.  And even then, you don’t know grief.  You’ve just begun to learn.  I’ve only begun to learn.

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Nowadays, for so many reasons, I’d rather be dynamic than static.  I’d rather be a novice than an expert.  I’d rather be dewy-eyed and eager to experience the world with curiosity, hunger, awe, and ever-so-many questions.

So, in the unlikely event that I’m asked, here’s my advice to anyone, like me, who wants to fumble at writing.

Write what you live and breathe and love and fear.  Write what you stumble upon and sit with and run away from.  Write what you don’t know but are trying to understand.

And if you don’t care about or want to write, then learn anyway.  Learn from what you live and breathe and love and fear.  Learn from what you stumble upon and sit with and run away from.  Learn from what you don’t know but are trying to understand.

Maybe then expertise will be usurped by a different and, dare I say, better goal.  Maybe then what you know will be replaced by what you desire.

 

 

11:59 PM

I burned my pizza to the stubborn consistency of a hockey puck the other night.

I was so absorbed in an essay on writing (or, rather, absorbed in emerging self-exploration through writing) that I left it in the oven for 9 1/2 minutes too long. Whatever charms may be possessed of frozen pizza are lost on the gluten free variety, and leaving a naturally parched crust in the oven 9 1/2 minutes too long is akin to 20 minutes too long for regular pizza.

I ate it anyway–reflecting on its original shape, form, and substance, now obscured by layers of charred cheese and disintegrating sauce. It was a pale reflection of whatever former glory it possessed.

As I glibly chewed, I pondered what else meets obscure ends. The minute 11:59 pm on December 31st of each year. It is, inevitably, obfuscated by the anticipation of the coming minute, pregnant with hope for renewal, transformation, change.

Nearly every beginning arises out of an ending; it struts out unabashed sometimes with little regard for how the ending preceded its existence and even less regard for how it overshadows that predecessor.

Not all endings are created equal, either. Some are stodgy and unkempt, others dressed with panache, still others modestly attired. But all endings have one thing in common–they meet the same fate. And since endings have to, well, end, in order to become the harbingers of future beginnings, we’d do well to pay a bit more attention to them.

Along with their mutual fate, all endings share an extremely important feature: relinquishment. Experiencing an ending means we are letting go of the possibility of sameness.

This is no small feat in a culture that avoids closing the door on possibility. Take evolution, for example. Culturally, we want to believe that what’s inherent in evolution is a perpetually growing greatness that layers on more and grander development while losing no essence of the former self.

We are a culture that wants to gain without losing. True gain only comes after relinquishment–sacrifice. Our beginnings have deeply painful, personal predecessors known as endings.

How many of you have wrestled with the pain and grief that accompanies endings? Your grief implies there’s a loss associated with that end. Parents grieve the transition of a child into kindergarten, or middle school, or graduation from high school. They know there are changes associated with those transitions that involve giving up their former experience of connection for a new relationship. A child going to Kindergarten may mean she is no longer at home with mom every day. A high school student graduating may be the precursor to moving away for college. Often we fight the relinquishment that accompanies endings. We deny or avoid or rage against the changes, only to be overcome by them anyway.

This week marks an important ending for me. It marks the end of my website, as is. It’s about to go through a bit of restructuring, which I will talk about next week. As I made the decision to embrace that change, I knew it meant giving up aspects of the former branding. Whether it’s nostalgia, naïveté, or resistance to giving up something that feels like a bit of my self, I wrestled to relinquish version 1.0.

Like that charred and partially disintegrated pizza, this website is only a parched translation of what I really want to say (much is lost in the space between my mind and the open page). Version 2.0 may or may not represent a closer approximation of what I would hope to share with you.

For better or worse, I’ve made the decision to move forward, and in that transition I accept the necessity of the end as a harbinger for a beginning, not the start of an ultimate and metaphysical reality but one small beginning in a world of rippling changes heralding the further emergence of self and community, forever altered by the uncomfortable finitude that preceded it.

What is your 11:59 PM? What will it take for you to end well as you transition to the new beginning?

 

The Many Layers of Grief

20130311-194328.jpgI’ve walked alongside many clients through the loss of loved ones. I’ve sat with them as they wept, questioned, doubted, feared, and accepted. I’ve walked alongside many more as they have grieved other losses, losses that are more subtle, but very debilitating.

Grief is often viewed in very limited terms. People contend that it’s defined by a “significant” loss of a family member or friend. In each loss, however, there are a thousand smaller losses. In each experience of grief a thousand ways that the pieces of that loss converge and develop into a significant process.

Some of those layers include the loss of unmet expectations or dreams, when we expect our marriage to go a certain way and we wake up out of a fog to find it a thin representation of our robust hopes. We can experience the loss of time, recognizing that what we wanted to accomplish has eluded our grasp, and left us disillusioned to the reality before us. Others feel the acute sting of lost health, where our hope of good physical, emotional, and spiritual health is disrupted by the reality of sickness, emotional pain, or spiritual numbness.

Grief is an infinitely more complex process than we often realize. And its a process that we all face daily, in some form or another. These layers of grief can derail us if we’re unaware of their formation and the magnitude and sway they hold in our lives. What are the layers of grief you’re facing today? How do they affect you?

When understood well, these losses can walk us through a process of evaluating and understanding ourselves. They can have the impact of highlighting how we’re lost, and where we could go to experience transformation. They can be gentle guides, rather than startling disruptions.

My own losses have guided me along, at times gently, and other times more sharply. I expected that my life would look very different than it does today. I expected my work, my family, my health, and my spiritual life would all have a different type of vibrancy. I couldn’t have anticipated the twists and turns my life would take. What I do know is that the more I surrender to those changes, the more freedom I have to come through them well, and to appreciate the vibrancy that is currently there. I hope you are able to experience that same freedom. I invite you to dialogue with me, share your own stories, or consider what the many layers of grief are teaching you today.