A hodgepodge of a column

A second look at a recent column, a vacation note and a lengthy disquisition on a topic of keen interest to some

Topics: Since You Asked, Society, Economics, american life, Writing, ph.d., Graduate School,

A hodgepodge of a column (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

Over this Fourth of July holiday I have been feeling very patriotic. When I feel patriotic, my ordinary life takes on newly grave purpose, as everything I do now, I do for the nation! In that spirit, I wish to announce over the loudspeaker that this is going to be a crazy, strange and wide-ranging column, a hodgepodge and a miscellany in the spirit of America, our hodgepodge and miscellany of a nation.

First the announcement: Norma and I leave July 11 for Tuscany and Amsterdam where I will be leading writing workshops. The column will appear sporadically for a few weeks. I’d like to keep it going at the rate of perhaps one column a week through Aug. 2. Please do expect some downtime. I will try to stay in touch through Twitter and Facebook.

Much excited about the trip, my love to all, do stay in touch.

Now, this involves a former column. Someone writes to say, here is my situation, and by the way, would you please publish the out-takes from a previous column, which I’m doing, along with a voluminous preface and explanation, and some characteristic rambling and meandering and passionate sputtering.

First, the letter:–ct

Hi Cary,

You wrote in a recent column, “I wrote an awful lot in response to your letter, but I’m leaving most of it out because most of it was about the society we grow up in and how it conditions us to believe that succeeding in competitions will bring us happiness.”

I’m writing to ask if you could you share what you left out.

I’ve been a loyal reader for years.  I prayed for your recovery, and I’m not a praying person.  Your decent, loving, honest, direct voice has given me so much comfort for so long. 

But this column, for the first time, hit my nail on the head.  I was the golden child from a difficult home, who sought refuge from my pain and confusion in studies and academic achievement.  Unlike your Lost 20-Something, though, I didn’t bottom out until I started writing my Ph.D. dissertation … where I got stuck for 15 years and am still stuck.  I’m by no means out of the woods — my dissertation is still not done — though with the help of a great therapist, and very understanding advisers, I have made great progress.  But it was only when I started writing that I faced failure and its implications for my self-image.  It was shocking to say the least.

So I would really appreciate knowing your thoughts.

Thanks.  A lot.

Rogue

Dear Rogue,

One of the recurring themes in my life as a writer is my belief that the writer stands in opposition to the world, in stark, raving opposition, that the creative person is always in a state of spiritual warfare with the world and with the status quo and particularly with the world’s great powers — its governments, religions and social groups. So that when we are stuck and failing I find it helpful not to blame ourselves but to lash out, that is, to locate our stuckness in actual obstacles in the real world; it may be in the inadequacy of the thing we are trying to achieve; it may be that the painful truth is that for you getting a Ph.D. is a kind of professional compromise; a high social honor but not the deep personal dream; something that you do desire but which is also about ego and doing for others, to appear a certain way. And in fact though it is not the deep personal dream, it plays upon that deep personal dream, it takes its energy and can thus enervate the writer; it asks us to distort that deep personal dream and put it to social, sometimes alien purpose; that is why sometimes I think we get stuck. We get stuck because we must go to the core of our intellectual being to prepare for the thesis but the thesis itself forces so much compromise upon us.

I cannot prove this, and many will as usual say I don’t know what I’m talking about, but this is not for them. This is not for people who want to argue. This is for those for whom it rings true. That means that this is for you: Is the reason you are stuck on your dissertation because there is something about it that you really do not want to do? Is there something odious and self-murdering about the process? Is there something that at some level just seems rankly untrue? If so, that may be the source of your stuckness.

I think often because the Ph.D. is more often than not a ticket that must be stamped, that it is riddle with soul-destroying compromise. It is a document that in the end you may not even stand behind; or it may bore you so fatally now that you can barely look at it. You may have come to hate its very premise.

So, what I would say, is that you have the very right to these feelings, that it is OK to despise your thesis, that it might help you to say out loud that you despise your thesis and your thesis advisers and the whole bloodying process of constructing the thesis. Something in you rebels against the very enterprise, and this something is healthy and vital.

And so I say, bravo! Bravo to you for being filled with righteous despair! Some white-hot vision burns in you that cannot fit a thesis. Some urgent work calls to you and makes fidgeting with footnotes and references an agonizing delay; your true voice rebels at the language of academe which you must use. I don’t blame you.

So know that as a creative person you are in the camp of William Blake; you are one of the angels, one of the seers and seekers. Of course you hate being bound by the strictures of thesis language and construction. Of course you do. You are at war with the very institutions that are promising you reward. You are at war with the expectations, the family expectations that drove you into it.

Take strength in that. Finish or do not finish, but be a warrior.

There. And. So. As to the language in that column that I deleted: That’s an interesting story, too. For in my own existence, as part crazy man, part visionary, part monk, part disciple, part criminal and part hero, I often have thoughts that arrive with great force but no pedigree. I have intuitions that do not fit into an argument of sufficient force to weather the storms of controversy that rage across the Internet.

You can see what happens when I venture even the briefest remarks on certain topics. So you can see why I am sometimes reluctant to write in a free, natural way; I am always watching my flanks. I try to make as much sense as possible, which is hard for someone like me, who barely lives day to day in the world of consensus reality, who is always cribbing from a reality notebook in which “reality” appears in “quotes.”

That is why reading my email is sometimes like walking down the street and having things thrown at me out of windows. I often am made out to be a fool. And that seems to be part of the job — to be in the dunking pool and sometimes in the stocks on the public square, to be slandered for speaking with the wrong accent on matters as dearly held by some atheists and progressives as are the laws of the Catholic Church are to believers.

So it’s like, whatever. I continue to try to connect with individuals in my strange semi-literary way through the static and the storms and the danger of misunderstanding. In the course of which — and I’m getting to the point here — I often write far more than I publish. Thoughts occur to me that are not logical, responsible, sensible thoughts but more like visions that belong in a novel or a screed. Sometimes they snake their way into the column anyway because it is, unbeknownst to some, an ongoing and evolving literary experiment. Those readers who do not realize that this enterprise is not a public service but a literary endeavor of varying quality and intent seize on such random thoughts as evidence of my instability and unfitness for the job, mistaking what the job actually is, thinking that the job is to be an arbiter of public morals and taste and a preserver of the status quo as it lurches from revolution to mundane and back to revolution. Witness the recent furor over words and gender.

At least that is my unfashionable belief.

I am as thin-skinned as the next person and so we go on insulting each other often by accident.

So as a side note interesting to some but not all, I’d like to say that many pieces I write in the course of writing a column I cut and do not publish. Most often, these flashes of temper or vision, these bits that do not constitute an argument are easily removed from the final product. But sometimes after they are removed the final product consequently has a dull, condensed deadness about it. This happens through the journalistic habit of compression. In print journalism we sought compression. This habit persists. And this habit of compressing for space and eliding for logic sometimes makes for dull work. Much is left on the floor that may have been incendiary but could not fit.

It takes work to string together these random pronouncements to give the illusion of a cogent argument. I say “illusion” because often we are just making the illusion of argument. We are not actually stringing together organically connected pronouncements. We are making stuff sound like cogent argument.

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In fact: In my secret, harshly ironic heart, many solidly appearing arguments appear to me as mere fictions of surface logic, and actual truth seems to live strangely, in vast natural poolings of absurdity, in realms of poetry and vision; I mean, I do not put too much weight in what everyone says makes sense. Much of that seems journalistic shorthand. What seems outlandish is often more useful and more true.

So here is what I will do — and thank you for asking. I will pull many of those paragraphs to which I refer out and display them for you here. For many of these things I do believe, and I assume others believe them and will recognize their common sentiments here in my sometimes breathless and uninformed pronouncements. I think these things to be true because this is how it feels to me.

These arguments do not feed nicely into each other. It is just a hodgepodge, but it is your hodgepodge. It is for you, O thesis-writing person, since you asked for it.

Oh — and as long as we are just talking, let me say this: Another reason much material gets cut from columns is that I may take off on some tangent that has nothing to do with the letter writer’s problem. And I do, no matter how it seems, remind myself to stick to the letter writer and the letter writer’s problems. It seems self-serving and sometimes annoying or cruel to just always be going off on my own stuff. I do want to address people’s problems, both as a journalistic enterprise and also as a literary and spiritual discipline. So I try. And so when I have gone off on some revolutionary rant I often cut it. But it often arises, actually, in a spirit of solidarity with the letter writer. It just may not seem that way. So it gets cut.

And I cut redundancy. Usually. Not here, obviously, as I feel I have been granted some license by your request. But usually I cut redundancy. Usually. Did I say that already? (That was humor, thin but still humor.)

In fact, perhaps that is another title for the occasional deviation of a column: “Since You Asked For It”

Or it just may be interesting for you to read. What it amounts to is a whole different answer to the same question. It also amounts to a somewhat disjointed and repetitive response. But there is much passion in it.

Much passion ends up on the cutting room floor. That is the nature of the process.

So here now is the original letter, radically cut; read at the peril of boredom, confusion and a sense that it is all somewhat repetitive:

Dear Cary,

I am lying in bed right now sobbing, which I’ve been doing a lot lately, and writing to get these twisted feelings out of my head and onto paper. … etc.

Lost 20-Something

And here is my original, unedited and very clumsy and wide-ranging response:

Dear Lost 20-Something,

You matter. You matter regardless of your grades. You matter regardless of your accomplishments. You have worth and grace and divinity that cannot be taken from you and that are present all the time within you. You can contact your own worth and grace and divinity any time you want. You have already been in contact with it in the jungles and the forests, and when flying through the air on a bungee jump, and when sitting alone in the night around a fire.

Your divine nature comes alive when you give it a chance. It came alive recently when you went away. Being away from this society worked for you. Now that you have returned you are back in the very thing that you had to get away from. You have fallen back into the hole.

But there is nothing wrong with you. You are living in a warped, competitive, cold, punitive society geared to harness by force the labor of the powerless and harness by seduction and betrayal and bamboozlement the labor of the privileged. You have lived in this machine and have believed its blandishments; you have been led to believe that if you allow your labor to be harnessed in the right way, you will find the happiness and satisfaction you crave.

This is a lie. It is a lie told to millions. It is a lie that is partly responsible for your unhappiness.

This is not your fault. You didn’t create the surroundings in which you were raised. You didn’t create this cruelly competitive, vacuous society. You didn’t create the conditions under which wealth is taken from some nations by force and given to the people of other nations as if it were a gift. What we live on here in America is stolen goods.

You are innocent. You merely had the fortune to be born here. You didn’t cook up these schemes. You didn’t make this world. You are just trying to live in it the best you can.

You are innocent.

You don’t have to excel in this world. No one will come and torture you or put you in jail if you don’t make the right grades. You are safe in this world of privilege.

Nor do you need to excel to be loved. You don’t have to excel to be loved and to be a worthy person.

It was being away from this society that worked for you. It worked because this society has something wrong with it. Now, back in this society, you have fallen prey to the very thing that you knew you had to get away from.

It is hard to see the workings of the machine until you leave its grasp. That is what you did, for six months. You were out of the grasp of the machine. Upon returning, you find yourself in trouble. That is not surprising.

You returned without a conscious critique of the system you intuitively came to see was harmful and wrong.

The machine held you in its grip and had almost devoured you when you escaped. Right when it was about to take you into its mouth and swallow you, you escaped to Central America and lived a pure and sensible life for six months.

Then you came back. No wonder you feel shattered. No wonder.

Now you straddle two worlds. In one world you work for honest, moral causes and your work makes sense. In another, you are … chained to the same murderous, soul-killing, gladiatorial combat you fled.

It is OK to feel that life is too much and is slipping away. It is good to feel that. It is OK to feel that you want to do everything. It is good to feel that. But it is also good to feel that no matter what happens, you are loved. No matter what happens, you have a place in this world.

There is a spirit in you. You can reach that spirit when you need to, by finding quiet time and breathing, by getting out in nature.

That’s the “You are OK” part. Now comes the “Society is messed up” part:

It helps to have a critique of society. If you do not have a critique of society then you may think everything is your fault. But you were born into a certain kind of world that is not perfect and is not your fault.

So make peace with your past and make war on the society that has lied to you. I don’t mean go become a violent terrorist or something. I mean make war in the Blakean sense of “spiritual warfare.” Know that the society you grew up in is the enemy of your own spirit, your own true nature. Know that its solutions — of maximum achievement and superiority — will not work for you. What you need is to be loved and to love yourself. You will not be loved for your achievements. You will be loved for who you are and how you carry yourself with dignity and compassion. You will be loved for admitting that you are ambitious but not perfect. You will be loved for admitting, in a moment of confusion, that you don’t really completely totally know what you’re doing.

None of us knows. None of us knows completely what we are doing. So we turn to each other in kindness. We offer each other sandwiches. We are all bozos on this bus. It’s a long ride. We let people rest their heads on our shoulders. We try to keep out of the sun. We look for a comfortable spot where we can lay down our burdens.

Imagine being born in to a world that was on fire. Would you think, “Oh, I must have started this fire, this must be my fault”? Yet you were born into a world that is profoundly misshapen and lost. You were born into a world repressing its own genocide and racism and terror by diverting the attention of youth with technological tricks, like the tricks an uncle plays with a coin, making it disappear to delight the children.

There comes a moment of reckoning as you approach adulthood when you see that the world you live in has been hiding its true nature from you. You see that the rules you have been obediently living by will not bring you happiness. You see that the rewards you seek are not necessarily going to come no matter how well you do on tests. You see that the world is full of competition and willful misdirection. You see that the world is not fair. You see that you have been tricked just like a child who sees the quarter in the uncle’s hand and tries to guess where it has gone.

The world in which you were raised filled you with illusion designed to extract from you certain behaviors. This unprecedented whorl of persuasive, manipulative imagery, this advertising and technology sensorium in which you were raised has a purpose. It  works to condition a vast population to behave in a way that maximizes the flow of money and goods. Unfortunately, those goods are not then distributed equally. They do not benefit society as a whole. The flow of goods your conditioned behavior enables mainly benefit a powerful class of business, government and technology managers and owners.

This machinery of advertising and media is unprecedented in scale. It was previously impossible to build such a thing but it now operates 24 hours a day around the globe. It must be the greatest propaganda apparatus ever constructed. Can you think of anything larger and more pervasive? If a god descended on the planet and set up an advertising shop could even a god have such a great reach? Even a god would have to buy network and server time — unless, being a god, he could write his tweets on the clouds — which, in all fairness, a god probably could.

But, I mean, short of a god descending from the heavens to make global communications, the world’s current media infrastructure is pretty near total.

And you grew up in this. And you had a hard time in your family and have looked around for the right way to address that. And it seemed to  you that the best way to overcome these feelings of uselessness and valuelessness and emptiness was to achieve, to stand out in this great media arena, to show your stuff. To excel. To progress. To win. That will show them that I have worth, that I matter!

At least, that is the message one receives in the culture.

But it is not a true message. It is not going to work.

It is a message that serves the machinery, not the people. If all the unhappy souls of the world believe that working hard in this society will bring them the peace and happiness they crave, then this society will hum along nicely and will continue to do the destructive but profitable things it has been doing for many years.

Who questions the foundation of this system? We all need to.

The massive advertising and technology sensorium in which you were raised works to fill you with illusion. Advertising and modes of social control permeate our atmosphere; programs of persuasion attuned to individual consumption habits run by brilliant mathematicians with pinpoint accuracy resemble the diabolical ploys of comic book villains. And yet this system of persuasion and propaganda is real. It, in fact, is a major and respected part of our modern economy.

Who questions this? What prominent leaders question the foundation of this system? What intelligent commentators ask, for instance, when appearing on television or on the Internet, Isn’t there something fundamentally insane and murderous about the sensorium itself?!

Such reticence is understandable, since this sensorium pays the bills, supports the media we work for, pays the salary I make, pays for the equipment, the servers and office space and management that makes it possible for me to write this column every day.

Those of us whose livelihoods depend on the great advertising and media borg do not routinely question its existence or whether it is a moral good or evil or whether it can possibly be morally neutral. Duh.

You grew up in this vast, terrifying machine. It is still being built. We are falling into its maw. It lies to us. It promises us things. It is vastly diverting and I mean that in both senses, that it is both entertaining and also works wonders of ceaseless misdirection, like a brilliant magician.

It is the Great Machine.

It is hard to think when the Great Machine is running.

Young Americans are growing up in a world of illusory promises. Your task as adults will be to sift through the promises and do the painful, agonizing work of facing the fact that not all these promises can come true. You will have to face the fact that you have been lied to and that you have been accomplices in these lies because these lies have been sweet. You have been treated well but you have not been told the truth.

I can’t tell you all the truths you need to uncover. The depth of lies and deceptions you have been fed makes that impossible. Your task, over the next 20 years, will be to uncover these lies and set the world straight on what is possible and what is not possible, and to use your brilliance and your energies to solve the problems my generation has not been able to solve and has therefore left to you. They are not just technical problems. They are moral problems, problems of belief and perception and thinking style.

One of the chief problems will be fundamentally how to separate truth from fiction in a postmodern media sensorium. That is, how to seek truth. This didn’t used to be an issue. We knew how to seek truth. It was just a matter of deciding to do so. My generation learned truth-seeking methods in a different world. We had photographs that were true. We had a journalistic test of truth in which an utterance could be deemed true if it met certain criteria. I feel that tradition is being challenged and perhaps eroded by new modes of collectivist media that are not built with fool-proof checks for veracity. There will need to be new standards of truth. Perhaps new ways of perceiving what is true will evolve.

Now, as to your own personal history: Your abuse was real. Your adaptation to it is understandable. You want to show everyone. Once you show everyone you think you will feel better. But you won’t. You’ll always be trying to show everyone if that is your method. You will always be trying to show everyone and you will always be in pain.

For underneath that desire to show everyone is the pain you endured as a child. Now you are starting to feel some of that pain. That is good. It is good to feel the pain. The pain tells you what actually happened. What actually happened is that you were mistreated and abused. It was not your fault. You have done your best. But your whole being is now telling you that your course of absolute achievement and maximum effort in all things is not the best course. It is not the best course because it cannot be sustained. You are not superwoman. No one is superwoman. We are all flawed, limited creatures. We are imbued with divinity but we are not all-powerful. We are divine but only in our small ways.

So we exist in the world as we are. We adjust. We take stock of who we actually are — creatures that require rest and sunlight and air and water and food and the company of others.

It is understandable that anyone who benefits from this machine would hesitate to question it. We are all implicated, for we all benefit. I benefit.

So we must find ways, within this ravenous system of labor exchange, to live at peace with our own hearts and our own histories. How do we do that?

We spend time examining how we have reached this current moment. We find a wise person and a safe setting in which we can view ourselves with detachment and ask whether our received beliefs are true. We ask what we assume and question whether what we assume is true and whether it will bring us happiness. We do this over a long period of time because it is a slow and detailed process.

It sounds like that is what you are doing, or what you are beginning to do. You fell into a depression and had to seek help. The depression itself is a sign that what you are doing is not working. I fell into a depression as well, and had to seek help. And now I am on the greatest journey of my life. Now decades of dark, unexamined assumptions are peeling away and I am beginning to see many things about myself and the world I live in.

I will be 60 in December. When I was 18 I did not not expect to reach 30. When I was 20 I thought if I do not have a novel published by the time I am 21 I am washed up. When I was 25 I thought I still have time but better get to work. When I was 35 I thought I’d better stop drinking because falling down is no longer funny. When I was around 40 the beginnings of a novel came to me. When I was 45 I started work at Salon. I have been working at Salon and working on the novel and praying and meditating and figuring things out for a long time. At 56 I got sacral chordoma, a rare cancer for which I had major surgery and radiation that took a long time to recover from. The cancer has gone away and likely will not return soon. I think I will make it. I think things will work out. But certain periods of life, and certain projects and dreams which we assume are sprints turn out to be uphill marathons.

Life is long. So take care of yourself. Slow down and pay attention to what is happening in your therapy sessions. Do the things that matter. Let the rest go.

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