Still woke up too early, which is obnoxious because I spent enough time yesterday thinking, and talking to my wife, that I calmed down, and cheered up. (Is it indicative, do you think, that we use directional words to describe moods? Up and down? In and out? You spin me right round, baby, right round, like a record turning right round round round? Indicative, that is, because all directional words are relative: up is only up from my perspective; from someone’s perspective in, say, Japan, my up is their down. Or their sideways.) But the fact that I woke up too early even though I wasn’t upset should be a clear marker of the truth of the matter:
I’m not in control.
I don’t get to decide how long I sleep; I sleep as long as I need to sleep, and then I wake up. When I need more sleep, I will go back to sleep. It’s not something I can improve: it is what it is. I can try to remove the things that get in the way of my sleep — a new mattress would be swell, but mainly, I should drink less coffee and have less stress — but it’s still going to have the same result: I will sleep as much as I need to, and then I will wake up. Feeling not entirely rested, feeling less than ideal. Because that’s how it works, even though I might want to make it work differently, because I can’t change things that are not in my power.
I’m not in control.
I don’t like when that gets used as a therapeutic argument: you’re upset about things, but you should just remember that you’re not in control, and let it go. It’s true, yes — but it doesn’t do a damn thing to make me feel better. Like the argument that other people feel the same way: I don’t think I’m unique, I don’t think I’m weird — or at least not terminally weird. Knowing that other people feel the same way doesn’t really change how I feel. It sort of makes me feel less stupid, which is comforting; but I mean, if I’m being upset over stupid things (say, things that are out of my control), knowing that other people get upset about those things makes me feel a little better — until I realize that those other people are just being stupid, too, when they get upset about things that are out of their control.
But while the thought that things are not in my control, and therefore I shouldn’t get upset about them, doesn’t make me feel better in the moment, it does help me work on what I need to do to make sure — or at least make it more likely — that I won’t get that upset again over similar things. Because it’s true: getting upset over things that not in one’s control is a waste of time and energy. It is far better to accept the truth and move on, to things you can change or simply to more pleasurable thoughts and experiences.
So the truth is, in my opinion, that life does not have a point. So getting upset over things being pointless is useless: because everything is like that. Everything is pointless. Well, that is, everything is pointless in a specific kind of way: there is no external, eternal, absolute point. (Theists and those who believe God has a plan for us are welcome to disagree.) The universe was not created for a reason, to accomplish a specific goal; life was not created for a reason, to accomplish a specific goal. We are, in a cosmic sense, pointless: random. Just a thing that happens to exist. We as individual humans are the same: I was not created to fulfill a specific destiny; I was created by circumstances. I just happened.
But here’s the rub: if I was not created for a specific purpose — then I am free to find my own purpose. To create a purpose for my existence. And part of me says, “Yeah, but why is something that you made up of any value? I mean, if people can just go around picking their own destinies, then who cares what destiny one person picks? I could just say my purpose in life is to eat Cheez-Its.”
Right. Exactly right. That’s the freedom of being an individual who is not part of a greater cosmic pattern. (Again, theists are welcome to disagree, but then, you all have your own comforting truth to keep in mind, which is that God has a plan for you.) I am free to decide that my purpose in life, the point of my existence, is to eat Cheez-Its. Which is great, because I happen to love Cheez-Its. I was just eating them last night. I shouldn’t have been, they gave me heartburn; but hey, I couldn’t not eat Cheez-Its — Cheez-Its are my destiny.
Of course, the price of having the freedom to choose is that you have to live with your choices: and you have to live with knowing that you made those choices. I got heartburn from my Cheez-Its. I don’t get enough sleep partly because I drink too much coffee. I work in a profession that doesn’t have any immediate, tangible evidence of my success: and I am dumb enough that I am skeptical of the evidence I do have of my success, like when other people tell me I’m a good teacher who made a difference in someone’s life, my immediate gut reaction is “Pfff.”
So this is the point: understanding that I am not in control of most things in life, that I am not in control of this nation’s political circumstances, that I am not in control of the pandemic, that I am not in control of the ravages inflicted on us by late-stage capitalism, that I am not in control of the passing of time, that I am not in control of my students and how much they choose to get out of my class; is not comforting. It is not easy to accept. But it is necessary to accept: because it is the truth. When I have those existential crises that make me question what the point is, I need to remember that there is something — several things, actually, but one that is directly relevant in these moments — that I am in control of: and that is deciding for myself what the point of my life is. What my purpose is. What is my reason for being. And if I choose wisely, I will have something challenging to live up to; and if I can manage to do that, I will have reason to be proud of myself. Which will, hopefully, make me happy and satisfied, and not likely to wake up in an existential crisis.
Woke up too early this morning. No reason: that perfectly awful combination of not quite tired enough, not quite comfortable enough, not quite relaxed enough. So I guess there is a reason, or rather, several reasons.
I also started thinking about my life. Pretty natural, I think, for the first of the year. Transitions like this, especially ones that get hyped as much as the end of this godawful 2020, always makes us think about our lives: take stock, consider what we’ve accomplished, think about what we still want to do.
But see, when I wake up early, when I don’t get enough sleep, I’m instantly about a millimeter away from depression, and about a nanometer away from anger. I wish that wasn’t true: I wish I was constantly floating on a cloud of equanimity, accepting things as they come, aware of what truly matters and that the small irritations of the day, and even the large suffering of the world, is not it. Buddha-like, Christ-like, Snoop Dogg-like. The fact that I am never that calm always makes me feel like I’m failing. Because I think about this stuff, I read books about it, about philosophy, about the meaning of life, about the purpose of me, and I frequently come to decisions and determinations: this is what I should be doing. Yes. I write blogs about those things, try to weave them into my teaching, write stories or novels that use them as themes.
And then I wake up early and freak out because I have to go back to work next week.
That’s no big deal, understand: I’m good at my job — I have a job that I got to keep all through the pandemic and the quarantine, despite my job being paid for by the government that is so badly broken, funded by the taxpayers who are so badly broke, despite my job’s essential task having been voided by the virus because I can’t watch over (Usually I say “babysit” but I’m feeling magnanimous in my obsolescence; since I can’t do the thing any more, I might as well make it seem important) — and because everything to do with my job is so fucked right now, none of it actually matters. I realize all of that. I’m very grateful that I still have work, still have a paycheck (At the same time I hate that I have to be grateful for the opportunity to beat myself to death with frustration, to slowly flense myself with papercuts, just so I can buy food and shelter from other people without skin, all of us looking enviously over at Scrooge McDuck who’s swimming around in an indoor pool filled with rectangular skin-flaps, skin stripped off of desperate people, turned over to banks and bosses, cleaned and tanned and neatly edged, printed with “In God We Trust.”). I was just thinking the other day: this is why I took this job, why I went into teaching in the first place. I never cared about passing on knowledge or affecting change for the future (though I think about that now, especially when I wake up early), and of course I knew it wouldn’t make me a bucket full of money or make me famous. But I knew that it would always be there, that I would always have a job: and here’s the proof. Even when the school building is closed, and we all know how stupid and useless online instruction is, I’m still doing it, still working and getting paid to work. I can’t afford a new car or a big house (or a swimming pool filled with green-tinged epidermis bills), but I can pay the rent on my 2/1 townhouse and pay the upkeep and insurance on my 2011 Kia.
So what if my job is stressful? So is everyone else’s, and it’s worlds better than the stress of unemployment, grinding poverty, looming homelessness, slow starvation. And I get to have two weeks off for Christmas; a friend of mine just worked a full shift yesterday, on what should be a holiday — but we’ve got to keep peeling that skin. Mr. McDuck just added a hot tub.
I know all this. I know I should be happy and thankful for what I have, feel less bothered by things since there are so many more terrible things that could be bothering me.
I’m still bothered. Which means I’ve failed to actually understand what I supposedly know. I know I shouldn’t be upset, but I am. I know I shouldn’t worry about things I can’t change, but I do. I know things will work out for the best, that I’ll make the most I can of what opportunities I have. I still feel hopeless.
The knowledge hasn’t trickled down yet to the sewer underneath the swamp, where Trump lurks, where he festers and spreads like an antibiotic-resistant infection (I wonder if, in classic supervillain style, he unintentionally revealed his secret weakness: what if the only way to defeat him permanently is to inject him with bleach? [NOTE TO THOSE WHO ARE UNFAMILIAR WITH MY WRITING AND PHILOSOPHY: That was ironic; I am a pacifist. Please don’t actually try, or plan, to inject the President with bleach. Not even when he is the ex-President. (NOTE TO THE SECRET SERVICE: I know, I shouldn’t suggest harming the President of the United States. I still think it’s a funny joke, so I’m leaving it. I wouldn’t worry too much about the people who read this trying to actually pull it off. And if they somehow managed it, hey, now you can relax and stop feeling all that conflicted guilt and irritation from trying to preserve the life of a pustulent boil on the ass of America. [NOTE TO THE SUPER-SECRET CABAL WITHIN THE SECRET SERVICE THAT HAS BEEN SECRETLY PLOTTING TO REMOVE TRUMP SO YOU ALL CAN PROTECT SOMEONE YOU ACTUALLY RESPECT AGAIN: Try bleach. (Note to my students and fellow grammar/syntax nerds: this is my favorite part of nesting parentheticals like this:)])]), but it’s true. We won. We got past this hurdle.
So now what?
I’ve been seeing and hearing all kinds of advice about not giving up. Continuing the fight. Now is the time, activists say, to turn that anti-Trump fervor into fervor for new causes, to keep the same energy moving forward into the next fight for change and progress. I heard it on Pod Save the People this week (If you don’t know it, this is a weekly news commentary podcast with a focus on people of color and social justice, very well done and interesting and human — sometimes a leeetle too woke for me, but I still recommend it), I saw it on this Twitter thread shared by a friend on Facebook; I feel like I’ve seen this everywhere. Now, whenever I see something like this, the bottom falls out of my stomach; so I may be noticing this sort of thing more, rather than seeing it a whole lot, but it feels like I’ve seen it a whole lot, and I don’t like it.
Because I don’t think I can do that. I am spent. I am drained. If somebody wants me to turn my anti-Trump energy towards a new focus, the bad news is that I don’t have any of it left. The good news is that I am quite willing to move to the next focus, the next fight. I don’t believe this is the end of the issue; the victory we’ve won is incredibly important, like saving the country important — but it’s not the last victory we need to win. I get that. I am with that. I am onboard.
I just don’t have it in me to fight. Not right now. I feel bad about it, but that is the truth. I’m close to my edge. I have of late had bouts of depression and despondency that I have never experienced in my life before now. I struggle with things that should be easy, my patience is gone, I can’t sleep, I’m not writing or reading much right now. Pretty much everything is wrong.
Not everything: my wife is still my perfect partner, and I love her deliriously. My pets are delightful. My friends are fun and supportive. All these things bring me at least some joy, every day and every week and every month. And though it doesn’t necessarily bring me joy, I do have a job and a reliable income, which gives me a sense of security that millions of people — billions of people — are lacking. I am grateful for all of those things. But still, pretty much everything else is wrong, and so:
I need to stop fighting.
I recognize that it is a privilege that I can talk about not fighting; because my life and my freedom is not at risk. It is somewhat at risk because we are living through a pandemic and the situation is deteriorating; I am at a bit higher risk than some because I work for a school that insists on staying open and having students and teachers in person in the classroom every day. But also, I am healthy and I have insurance — and I am not wedded either to glorified ignorance nor superstition, so I listen to the warnings and take reasonable precautions — so the risk is as minimal as I can make it. It’s easier for me to step back from fighting for police reform or environmental action or to protect reproductive rights than it is for people who are at risk from those dangers.
That makes me feel bad, that I can allow myself to step back from the fight while others can’t: but that guilt doesn’t give me the energy or the wherewithal or the resources to fight. It just makes me feel bad, which adds to my current emotional burden.
(And if anyone reading this is thinking, “Pssh, get out of your feelings, Snowflake” — I mean, considering my writing and position and my probable audience, it seems very unlikely that anyone is; but I think there may be some people who still subscribe to the image of men hitching up their gunbelts and soldiering on, because I still think that, a lot of the time — let’s recognize that all the strong silent men of the past drank and smoked themselves to death by age 65. So let’s be clear about what actually works and what we think sounds like it should work, maybe, but really doesn’t. “Sucking it up” is fine when you’ve stubbed your toe. Sucking up your looming despair just makes everything worse.)
I don’t mean to whine (And again, my probable audience probably doesn’t see this as whining, but I watched Westerns when I was a kid, so I feel the need to address this) because I also realize that there are people who are having a much harder time with the same issues I’m having right now, the stress and anxiety and depression, which for others is compounded by other and greater dangers and problems, problems that I don’t have. I want to do two things: I want to be honest about how I feel, as that is the healthiest thing for me to do for myself; and I want to let other people who may feel the same way know that they are not alone.
If you are exhausted, you are not alone.
If you want to join the fight, to keep fighting, to do the right as you see the right, you are not alone.
But if you just can’t do it right now, you are not alone.
So that’s where I am. I want to do a lot of things. I want to write to politicians and urge them to do the right thing. I want to join organizations and show up and participate — and I suspect that my writing skills could actually prove an asset to those fighting for the causes I believe in. I don’t want to join phone banks or knock on doors or fundraise, but I want to want to do those things, and if things were different I’d do them whether I really wanted to or not. I want to donate lots and lots of money to lots and lots of causes.
But instead, I’m going to stop fighting. I’m going to take care of myself.
It sounds stupid to me (Again, trying to be honest, and I grew up watching Westerns, and also wonderfully chauvinistic and hypermasculine shows like Buck Rodgers or The A-Team — and, yes, The Dukes of Hazzard, too) because I don’t fit into a category of people who have problems and need care. I’m a healthy straight white American male with an upper-middle class upbringing: I should be fine. I’m afraid to take care of myself, too, because there are others who rely on me, and it feels to me like I can’t take time for myself without leaving them hanging, and I don’t want to do that: it feels like I’m compounding my — what, my negligence? My dereliction of duty? What is it when a teacher doesn’t take care of his students, when a husband doesn’t take care of his wife, when a pet-papa doesn’t take care of his sweet little 60-pound Boxer-mix princess? When a liberal/progressive doesn’t take part in the fight for social justice and a functioning democracy? It’s my sin, right? My wrongdoing? After all, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. If you’re not part of the problem then you’re part of the solution. All those memes about the German people allowing the rise of the Nazi Reich, the passage in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” when he talks about how the listless superficial support of white liberals is a greater danger than the vigorous opposition of white racists; how can I stop fighting in the face of all that? How can I do nothing right now? However tired I am, surely there is something else I can do? However upset I am, however anxious and depressed, surely there is something I can do? And people are full of advice: if you can’t march in protest, then join a phone bank, write letters, donate donate donate. Take action. Don’t lose the momentum. Don’t stop.
Enough. I must stop listening to these idiotic voices in my head telling me to ignore how I feel and press on forever. They are not telling me the truth. They are not the voices that matter to me, not the people who I care about and who care about me; all of those people tell me to take care of myself, to take it easy, to not put myself under too much stress. Another moment of honest truth: my wife tells me this all the time, and my friend and fellow teacher Lisa; but they are the only ones because I never talk about how I feel to anyone else. Anyone asks me how my day is, and I say it’s — fine. Doing good, I say. Sometimes, with my students, with my parents, I will share that I am not in truth doing that great, but I also immediately get angry and defensive about it, or I breeze right through and change the subject, and don’t allow anyone else to sympathize with me or tell me that it’s okay to not be okay. It is also true that my parents make me feel bad for feeling bad, and my students respond to my sorrow with their own sorrows rather than sympathy for mine; when they do that I feel the need to sympathize with their sorrows, which is hard and draining, and just makes me feel more hopeless and helpless, and also bad for feeling that way; so there’s not a whole lot of impetus to be honest about my current state, most of the time. So I’m usually not. But I want to be, and that’s why I’m doing this, and ignoring the discomfort I feel in writing an entire blog this long about how I don’t feel very good right now.
I don’t feel very good right now, and that’s why I’m writing this, and why I’m not writing much of anything else. That’s the truth.
Here are some other truths:
I spend too much time on social media, particularly arguing on social media. I shouldn’t do it, because the people I’m arguing with are never going to change their minds because of anything I say. I do think there is value in pushing back against ignorant or dangerous or harmful ideas; and I recognize there is some audience reading those arguments on social media who may be more thoughtful and may get something out of my arguments more than my actual opponent will; but it is draining. I spend time on social media because it feels easy and it feels like relaxation — I see memes and laugh, I see videos of cute animals and smile, I see that my friends share my likes and dislikes, my passions and skepticisms, and I feel connected — but I spend a fair amount of that time trawling for arguments, and then continuously going back and arguing again and again and again. I suspect I do this because I am not doing other and more important things, but it’s not a replacement for good and useful action: it’s a waste of time and my limited resources, and a source of unnecessary and unproductive frustration. So I need to stop. That’s the truth.
Being a high school teacher is both very stressful and draining, and also very important; it feels like a copout to say I don’t spend more time fighting for the causes I want to fight for because I spend all my time fighting to make my students less ignorant, but it’s also true: it is a fight, and I fight it hard, every day. They don’t like to read, they don’t like to write, they don’t want to do work, they don’t know how to relate to and understand other people; every day I try to help them do all of those things better, and also understand why they should do all those things, and I try to find reasons that are specific and personal to them. All of that takes energy and passion, and hope and determination, and confidence and faith that what I am doing is the right thing. Meanwhile my school and my society seem bound and determined to tell me that it is not the right thing, determined to get in the way of my and my students’ success: and so I have to fight them, too, have to keep them from shifting my priorities and effort away from what matters, have to avoid the pitfalls and traps they set for me, have to discern when they are genuinely trying to help and when they are just trying to look good at the expense of the real work. All of that takes effort, too. I spend that effort every day.
I think it is vitally important that we recognize that none of us have it easy: that all of us are fighting in our own lives for our own success, every day; taking on other causes is already dipping into our reserves, taking from our reservoir of strength and hope and resolve what may not be there to take for much longer.
We all fight in our own ways, and with our own capacities. I will not be joining phone banks or door-knocking because I am an introvert, and what’s worse, I’m an introvert in an extrovert’s job, so I have to use up all of my socializing energy just to get through my day. If I was still a janitor (And I frequently ask myself why I am not still a janitor — but the reason is because what I do now is important) then maybe I could participate more; but I’m not. If I was an extrovert then I would be happy to go out and talk to people about causes I believe in; but I’m not. If I was rich I would give all kinds of money away; but good grief, I am most assuredly not. And many if not most of the people out there who tell me, who tell us, to fight and keep fighting are not in situations like mine. They may, as I said, be closer to the issues, in more danger because of the problems than I am in; but that doesn’t mean they have jobs as hard as mine is, or proclivities as unsuited to organizing and rallying as mine are. Wishing it was different, or even just pondering what it would be like if it were different, is a waste of time and energy: this is the situation. This is the truth. I’m not lying to myself, and it’s not a dodge or a copout: I am an introvert, and I work very hard at being a teacher, and I am tired. And I need to take care of myself, no matter how stupid or guilty it might make me feel to say that, because if I use up everything I have, if I fail, if I fall: then — and only then — will I be letting down those I love, and those who love me.
And my sweet little 60-pound Boxer mix princess needs her daddy.
So what’s next?
You need to think about what’s next. Think seriously, think truthfully. Think what needs to be done, yes — but also think about what you need, and what you are capable of. If you are ready to start the next round, then get in there and start fighting, keep fighting. If you have to pause to take a deep breath, then do it: breathe as deeply as you can. Keep breathing. If you have to take a few hours for a meal and a glass of wine and a bath and a nap, then do all of that. And do it again next week. If you need a few days for a vacation, or for a retreat and a rest, then do that. If you don’t know what you need or how long you need — and in my case, I do not; part of my struggle with this is that this struggle is new to me, has never been like this, has never been this hard before, and so I do not know what to do, I do not have a ready answer for what is really wrong with me or how to deal with it — then don’t try to decide in advance what you need or how long it will take to take care of yourself. Just take care of yourself until you feel better. Just do that.
Take care of yourself. For me. And I will take care of myself. For you.
Tomorrow’s a big day. And if you have work to do today and tomorrow, then thank you, and know that I support you. Go get ‘em.
Remember, though, that change doesn’t happen overnight. The events and influences that got us here didn’t arrive yesterday, and they won’t disappear tomorrow.
Things change incrementally. And there are two things we all have to keep in mind because of that.
First thing: don’t expect everything to be different all at once. No matter how momentous tomorrow may seem, remember that tomorrow is not change: tomorrow is an opportunity to move one step closer to change, or to move one step further away — which probably just means standing where you are, unmoving. Tomorrow may turn out that way: standing in place. No change. But whether that happens or not, it won’t make a big difference; not tomorrow. Tomorrow plus the next day plus the next day plus the next hundred days, the next thousand — those will make a big difference. That’s when we’ll see change. If we look back a thousand days ago, things appear very different from now: but only because we’ve made a thousand choices, taken a thousand steps. No one step is going to move us very far. Not even tomorrow.
So stay patient. Don’t give up hope, and don’t fool yourself into expecting more than a single step.
And the second thing is, if you want to make change, great change, momentous change — or if you want to ensure that there is no change in the things you want to conserve, if you want to fight off all those who want to push you off of the ground where you stand — then you must be persistent. Patient, as real change takes time; and persistent, because though it takes time, still you need to take that step, tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. If you want to take a thousand steps, then you need to fight every single day for a thousand days. You need to fight against the people who don’t want to take any steps, and the people who want to stop after a hundred steps, and the people who want to take a thousand or a hundred steps in a different direction.
You need to fight all of them. Every day. For every step. And the more often you win, the harder they will fight.
Persistence is the key. Never give up until you get where you want. And if you can’t keep fighting, find allies, and help them take one more step than you, and then another step after that. No step is all-important. But every step is important.
Let’s take the next step in the right direction. Please.
Food: it’s what’s for dinner. And breakfast, and lunch. Supper. Second breakfast. Elevenses. Afternoon tea. Dessert!
I suspect we can all relate to the hobbits from The Lord of the Rings. They think in a way that we consider acceptable: they love home, and peace and quiet, and friends and family, and food. (Also beer and smoking a “pipeweed” that seems not to be tobacco, exactly… But those are less commonly accepted habits. Still not the worst habits to have, though.) J.R.R. Tolkien used these qualities to make the hobbits relatable because that served to present part of his message to his audience: he wanted people to understand that single individuals, even the smallest and least significant people, can change the world, if they act with courage and honor and loyalty. Not a subtle man, he made the “smallest” literal, and the evil the hobbits fought against as monstrous and demonic as he possibly could. Subtle or not, though, he was right on the money with his ideas on how his audience would feel about the hobbits; and Peter Jackson, bless his heart, was able to capture the same feeling in the movies. And right at the heart of that affection we all feel for the hobbits is food. They love it, we love it. Even when we’re a bit stupid about it, such as when Merry and Pippin steal from Farmer Maggot, or when Sam joins the other two in cooking at night on the side of Weathertop, broadcasting their location to the Nazgul. Of course they don’t think about the consequences of getting or making food: they’re hungry. As someone who has eaten garbage like weeks-old bagels, month-old popcorn, and years-old candy, I can relate.
But the more impressive task that Tolkien and Jackson both tried to accomplish, and I think did accomplish, is creating sympathy for another character who is not cute, who is not friendly, who is not relatable (at least not in the same way), and who does not eat sausages and tomatoes and nice crispy bacon and, most famously, PO-TAY-TOES like a hobbit: Gollum.
Gollum is everything the hobbits are not: he is disgusting to look at, with his stringy hair and his stringy body that he twists into impossible postures, with his broken teeth and twisted features, with his disturbing voice and mannerisms. He is selfish where the hobbits are generous, untrustworthy where they are loyal — evil where they are good. Most importantly, Gollum eats disgusting things, when he eats at all. His preferred meal is fish, which he likes “raw and wrrrrrrrriggling,” as he tells Sam Gamgee. There is more than one moment when Gollum is shown eating fish in a particularly animalistic and disgusting way; one scene that sticks with me is when the film is showing the origins of Gollum, and gives us a slow-motion close-up of Gollum’s rotten teeth sinking into a whole, raw fish, with water — or saliva? Maybe just slime? Which is the most disgusting? — bursting out of it, oozing over his discolored lips and gums. Gives me the cold shivers every time.
Which is, of course, the intent. We are supposed to be disgusted and appalled and horrified by Gollum, first viscerally, and then as the story reaches its climax in Mount Doom, morally and spiritually. But that is not so that we can hate Gollum, because Gollum is not the villain: Gollum is the victim. We are meant to pity Gollum. Gandalf, who knows all, points this out to Frodo in the Mines of Moria:
Frodo: ‘It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance.’
Gandalf: ‘Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.’
And, indeed, it does: when Frodo falls victim to the same corruption that twisted Gollum, it is Gollum’s own corruption that saves the day, that leads to the destruction of the Ring, and Gollum’s own destruction. And it is those same rotten teeth, his willingness to eat what should not be eaten, that allows him to take the evil away from Frodo, while sparing Frodo’s life: by biting off Frodo’s ring finger, Gollum saves him from sharing in Gollum’s fate. If Bilbo had not pitied Gollum, if Frodo had not repeated that same generous response to the vile Gollum and also spared Gollum’s life as Bilbo had done — and if Gollum had not been willing to eat (or at least bite) part of Frodo — then Gollum would not have made it to Mount Doom and taken the Ring, and not only would Frodo have been lost, but the world might have been lost as well, since the Nazgul were at that moment winging their way to the volcano to retrieve their master’s property.
We are to feel sorry for Gollum, who was destroyed by the corruption of the true villain, Sauron and his Ring of Power (Another un-subtle symbol, which simply represents: power. The power that corrupts.). It is not Gollum’s fault that the Ring destroyed him, and so we should not hate him for that; we should pity him for being destroyed. Tolkien gives us some help with that, through the depiction of Smeagol, the hobbit that Gollum once was (and all the associations with the beloved hobbits that come with that history), and the depiction of the beloved character Bilbo’s similar corruption, particularly the moment in Rivendell when he tries to take the Ring from Frodo, and in Peter Jackson’s movie, Bilbo’s face for a moment takes on Gollum’s features (Notice the teeth).
But for the most part, Tolkien makes it very, very difficult to pity Gollum, because he is disgusting, because he is contemptuous, because he is vile. And that’s the point: the people who most deserve and need our pity are the people who are most difficult to pity. They are the ones we find disgusting, contemptuous, even vile. Though Tolkien understands our struggle, and gives us a voice through Sam Gamgee and his hatred of Gollum (and the mini-victories Sam wins when he is proven right by Gollum’s betrayal, and when he gets to beat up Gollum, on three separate occasions), he insists that we find it in ourselves to sympathize with the creature: because that is what is required to defeat evil. Pity for those who are hardest to pity is the only way for good to win. Everything the hobbits are is necessary: their courage and generosity and loyalty, even their smallness, are all vital as well; but the pity for the unpitiable is the last requirement. We must find the way to treat Gollum with dignity and respect, no matter what. We must.
Another author, another story, that makes the same argument, and makes it, if anything, even more difficult, is Franz Kafka’s classic story The Metamorphosis. In it, the relatable and even admirable human Gregor Samsa becomes a disgusting, contemptible, vile creature, generally depicted as an insect, but only named as “einungeheuerUngeziefer,” an unclean vermin that is “unfit for sacrifice.” Essentially, something that is too disgusting to eat, if we take sacrifice as the ancients did, in the sense that the sacrifice provides food for the gods. And just like J.R.R. Tolkien, Kafka insists that the reader pity this unpitiable man: that we find a way to see him as a man, as worthy of our sympathy and our love, no matter what.
Just as Gollum is introduced to us first as the creature, and only later as Smeagol the hobbit, Gregor is transformed into his monstrous self in the novel’s very first sentence: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin (“einungeheuerUngeziefer,” that is).” No explanation for this transformation is ever given, or even guessed at; Gregor himself spends that first morning worrying about being late to work, and how his family will survive if he loses his job — a real question, as Gregor is the only wage-earner for his family of four. But still, one would think that the most prominent thought in the mind of a person who just turned into a cockroach would be something along the lines of “Hey — I just turned into a cockroach. Wonder how that happened?” That is not Gregor’s main thought, and part of the reason Kafka wrote him that way has to be so that he remains relatable, even while he is apparently in the body of an insect: here’s a man who wakes up annoyed because he slept through his alarm, and because he has to go to work; who doesn’t like his job, and doesn’t feel fulfilled. Just like so many of us. He just also happens to be an unclean vermin, for some reason or other.
Regardless of what happened or how it happened, the important fact in the story is that Gregor is now disgusting. He is unacceptable. When he emerges from his room, the other people — or perhaps I should just say “the people” — react with horror and revulsion:
He had first to slowly turn himself around one of the double doors, and he had to do it very carefully if he did not want to fall flat on his back before entering the room. He was still occupied with this difficult movement, unable to pay attention to anything else, when he heard the chief clerk exclaim a loud “Oh!”, which sounded like the soughing of the wind. Now he also saw him – he was the nearest to the door – his hand pressed against his open mouth and slowly retreating as if driven by a steady and invisible force. Gregor’s mother, her hair still dishevelled from bed despite the chief clerk’s being there, looked at his father. Then she unfolded her arms, took two steps forward towards Gregor and sank down onto the floor into her skirts that spread themselves out around her as her head disappeared down onto her breast. His father looked hostile, and clenched his fists as if wanting to knock Gregor back into his room. Then he looked uncertainly round the living room, covered his eyes with his hands and wept so that his powerful chest shook.
The chief clerk (come to Gregor’s home from his employer to see why Gregor had not arrived at work on time, and to be honest, I find that much more bothersome than the giant insect) shows a gesture of disgust and nausea; Gregor’s mother faints, his father weeps. Perhaps this is not exactly what the audience does when we first see Gollum — but imagine how Gollum’s family would have reacted to him.
As the story goes on, Gregor is given a number of traits that show him first as inhuman — from the rest of that first paragraph, which includes: “He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections”, and, “His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked” — and then as disgusting, when, at the height of his strangeness, he starts crawling over the walls and ceiling, which habit is detected because “he had, after all, left traces of the adhesive from his feet as he crawled about.” Gregor makes us most uncomfortable, seems the most alien, when he presses himself against a framed picture on his wall to keep his family from taking it away from him, for which we are given the strangely inappropriate description “He hurried up onto the picture and pressed himself against its glass, it held him firmly and felt good on his hot belly. This picture at least, now totally covered by Gregor, would certainly be taken away by no-one.” His mother collapses in a faint after seeing “the enormous brown patch against the flowers of the wallpaper.” Gregor has been reduced to a stain, a patch of dirt; still, he is so upsetting that his mother can’t bear to look at him even though she loves him and has hope that he will somehow return to his former state — a redemption that Gollum is also offered through the recovery of his Smeagol personality, though of course, Smeagol is physically no less disgusting than Gollum, and his short time onscreen is soon ended when the Gollum-self returns and takes over once more, and for all his remaining time.
But never is Gregor so disgusting as when he eats. Gregor is first given food after his first shocking emergence; he is driven back into his room by his father, who actually wounds Gregor (and gives us the rather upsetting description “One side of his body lifted itself, he lay at an angle in the doorway, one flank scraped on the white door and was painfully injured, leaving vile brown flecks on it, soon he was stuck fast and would not have been able to move at all by himself, the little legs along one side hung quivering in the air while those on the other side were pressed painfully against the ground.” Nonetheless his father is pitiless: “Then his father gave him a hefty shove from behind which released him from where he was held and sent him flying, and heavily bleeding, deep into his room.”), and it is not until late that evening that Gregor’s sister, Grete, tries to reach out to her brother with food.
Her first attempt is bread soaked in milk, a common food for children and invalids, and one of Gregor’s favorites. At least it used to be.
By the door there was a dish filled with sweetened milk with little pieces of white bread floating in it. He was so pleased he almost laughed, as he was even hungrier than he had been that morning, and immediately dipped his head into the milk, nearly covering his eyes with it. But he soon drew his head back again in disappointment; not only did the pain in his tender left side make it difficult to eat the food – he was only able to eat if his whole body worked together as a snuffling whole – but the milk did not taste at all nice. Milk like this was normally his favourite drink, and his sister had certainly left it there for him because of that, but he turned, almost against his own will, away from the dish and crawled back into the centre of the room.
Shoving his face into the milk up to his eyes is not a great image; but it almost has a silliness to it that makes it acceptable, even close to funny. Not so Grete’s second attempt to provide for her brother (after she first disposes of the uneaten milquetoast, “using a rag, not her bare hands”):
In order to test his taste, she brought him a whole selection of things, all spread out on an old newspaper. There were old, half-rotten vegetables; bones from the evening meal, covered in white sauce that had gone hard; a few raisins and almonds; some cheese that Gregor had declared inedible two days before; a dry roll and some bread spread with butter and salt. As well as all that she had poured some water into the dish, which had probably been permanently set aside for Gregor’s use, and placed it beside them.
One attempt to offer Gregor his favorite food; and then it’s straight to garbage. But it seems to have been a good choice, as Gregor finally digs in:
“Am I less sensitive than I used to be, then?”, he thought, and was already sucking greedily at the cheese which had immediately, almost compellingly, attracted him much more than the other foods on the newspaper. Quickly one after another, his eyes watering with pleasure, he consumed the cheese, the vegetables and the sauce; the fresh foods, on the other hand, he didn’t like at all, and even dragged the things he did want to eat a little way away from them because he couldn’t stand the smell.
Once more, the leftovers are, for Grete, untouchable — corrupted:
“[H]is sister unselfconsciously took a broom and swept up the left-overs, mixing them in with the food he had not even touched at all as if it could not be used any more. She quickly dropped it all into a bin, closed it with its wooden lid, and carried everything out.”
Another trend continues as well: that Gregor is not to be seen. His first attempt to emerge from his room is met with horror and violence (And perhaps it is unimportant, but since my topic is food, that first time his mother faints, she falls onto the breakfast table and knocks over the coffee pot; Gregor, in response, “could not help himself snapping in the air with his jaws at the sight of the flow of coffee.” So maybe it is not a matter of his new self being incapable of eating proper human food.), and immediately afterwards, the doors that had locked the family out of Gregor’s room are now locked to keep him in what has become his prison. Even there, Gregor finds a hiding place for whenever his sister, and then later his mother or the cleaning woman, come into his room: he goes under the couch, and lest they spy even a small part of him, he takes the sheet from his bed and drapes it over the couch as a privacy curtain. Gregor’s safe space gets smaller and smaller. Whenever he does emerge from it, he suffers terribly: after his mother faints when she sees the large brown patch on the wall, Grete leaves the room to get smelling salts, and Gregor, horrified at what he has caused, follows her: he startles her, and she drops a bottle of medicine, cutting Gregor’s face with a shard of glass and splashing caustic liquid on him, as well. She then rushes back into the room and locks Gregor out — the usurpation of Gregor’s once-secure space is now complete — and Gregor, panicking, crawls all over the walls and ceiling in one of his most insect-like moments, and then collapses — atop the dining table. It’s hard to know if the point here is that Gregor is at maximum visibility, and therefore at his most unacceptable, or if Kafka is making explicit what is only implied: that Gregor himself, while he may now be an unclean vermin unworthy of sacrifice, has up until now been sacrificed — devoured — by his family, who have lived off of his work and his suffering, who have absorbed his kindness and generosity without giving any in return. Perhaps Gregor transforms into an unclean vermin as a defense mechanism: they alienate and abuse him, but at least they no longer consume him.
Whatever the meaning of Gregor’s collapse atop the dining table, the real danger in this moment comes home with Gregor’s father. The proud patriarch had been fading away, his authority reduced along with his income, his power apparently transferring to his son when Gregor became the sole breadwinner. He still had influence: it is he who decides that breakfast should be extensive: “The washing up from breakfast lay on the table; there was so much of it because, for Gregor’s father, breakfast was the most important meal of the day and he would stretch it out for several hours as he sat reading a number of different newspapers.” (Is it petty to note that breakfast is a meal Gregor, who wakes at 4am to get a 5am train to work, is sure to miss every day?) and much of the family’s daily life revolves around him; but he himself had grown weaker. Not any more. As his son becomes incapacitated, the elder Samsa regains his former power, and now when he arrives home, Grete runs to him for help in this crisis, and the father goes to deal with his son:
He took his cap, with its gold monogram from, probably, some bank, and threw it in an arc right across the room onto the sofa, put his hands in his trouser pockets, pushing back the bottom of his long uniform coat, and, with look of determination, walked towards Gregor. He probably did not even know himself what he had in mind, but nonetheless lifted his feet unusually high. Gregor was amazed at the enormous size of the soles of his boots, but wasted no time with that – he knew full well, right from the first day of his new life, that his father thought it necessary to always be extremely strict with him.
That last sentence is questionable, at least where Gregor ascribes his father’s strictness to his new situation post-metamorphosis; after all, this is our first introduction to Gregor’s father:
[S]oon his father came knocking at one of the side doors, gently, but with his fist. “Gregor, Gregor”, he called, “what’s wrong?” And after a short while he called again with a warning deepness in his voice: “Gregor! Gregor!” At the other side door his sister came plaintively: “Gregor? Aren’t you well? Do you need anything?” Gregor answered to both sides: “I’m ready, now”, making an effort to remove all the strangeness from his voice by enunciating very carefully and putting long pauses between each, individual word. His father went back to his breakfast…
Note, again, the father’s real priority. This scene shows us that Gregor’s words are apparently incomprehensible to other people, so his father seems not to get an answer to his question; but having delivered a warning and heard some kind of response, his work is complete and he goes back to his food. Now, in the later scene, Mr. Samsa is once again not interested in what Gregor has to say, why he is where he is; he just wants to put him back where he belongs. It is impossible to miss his attitude towards his insect son in the way he lifts his feet so high, as if preparing to stomp the bug flat (The first time he chased Gregor back into his room, he did it with a folded newspaper; another anti-bug strategy, it seems.).
But he does not, in fact, stomp on Gregor: instead he attacks his son in a particularly unusual way: with food.
[T]hen, right beside him, lightly tossed, something flew down and rolled in front of him. It was an apple; then another one immediately flew at him; Gregor froze in shock; there was no longer any point in running as his father had decided to bombard him. He had filled his pockets with fruit from the bowl on the sideboard and now, without even taking the time for careful aim, threw one apple after another. These little, red apples rolled about on the floor, knocking into each other as if they had electric motors. An apple thrown without much force glanced against Gregor’s back and slid off without doing any harm. Another one however, immediately following it, hit squarely and lodged in his back; Gregor wanted to drag himself away, as if he could remove the surprising, the incredible pain by changing his position; but he felt as if nailed to the spot and spread himself out, all his senses in confusion.
The most interesting element here is the description of the apples “knocking into each other as if they had electric motors.” It’s hard to know what to make of that. Perhaps the apples represent the essence of the modern, industrial era, nature turned into machinery, turned hollow and cold and efficient — and, of course, inedible. Gregor clearly doesn’t belong in the world of industry, with his reluctance to work himself to death, his general indifference to the conspicuous consumption that signals wealth and prosperity, his anxiety where his pugnacious arrogance should be, the arrogance of a man of business: a man like the chief clerk, and like his father. Gregor is far too apologetic, far too concerned with other people’s happiness, far too willing to sacrifice himself; perhaps that is why he is seen, and sees himself, as something unworthy. It almost feels as though the apples have the right attitude: bustling about, bumping into each other, constantly on the go; they become weapons so easily, turned against one another, against a harmless innocent — because whatever else Gregor may be, unclean, unworthy, unacceptable, he is also harmless. Maybe he is too much like the actual fruit, too little like what they become in his father’s hands.
Then again, if we may see mechanical, electrical fruit, turned from sustenance into a weapon, as corrupt, then perhaps the one whom the fruit represent is not Gregor: but his father. Perhaps this is another depiction of the idea that Tolkien represented with a magic ring: power corrupts.
After this, the Samsas reach an uneasy sort of truce, with the family paying less and less attention to Gregor, and he, in turn, having a bit more freedom, as they open his doors so that he can observe the family. But he observes them turn even further away from him, focusing in more and more on the father, whose self-centered willingness to be coddled, to be the center of attention, lets him allow his wife and daughter to literally carry him to bed every night. The family also, more interested in money and in presenting a proper appearance to outsiders, allow those outsiders in, in the form of three renters who move into a spare room in the flat; these three now become yet another focus for the family’s attention and desire to please, yet another person (Because they are clearly a single unit, like a Greek chorus of citizens) who can stand between Gregor and any care his family might offer. Gregor’s sister and mother cook for the renters: they give Gregor more garbage to eat, spending less and less time thinking about whether Gregor is happy and his needs are met, cleaning apathetically and indifferently, clearing away his leftovers without caring if he ate or not. Gregor, roused at last to anger by his treatment at the hands of his family, wishes to return to eating human food, at least as a symbol of his value (though notice that this is only at some times; at other times, in other moods, he still, still, wishes to look after his family):
Other times he was not at all in the mood to look after his family, he was filled with simple rage about the lack of attention he was shown, and although he could think of nothing he would have wanted, he made plans of how he could get into the pantry where he could take all the things he was entitled to, even if he was not hungry.
Garbage, in fact, comes to define Gregor, and his space eventually becomes a storeroom, and then simply a rubbish heap:
They had got into the habit of putting things into this room that they had no room for anywhere else…many things had become superfluous which, although they could not be sold, the family did not wish to discard. All these things found their way into Gregor’s room. The dustbins from the kitchen found their way in there too. The charwoman was always in a hurry, and anything she couldn’t use for the time being she would just chuck in there. He, fortunately, would usually see no more than the object and the hand that held it. The woman most likely meant to fetch the things back out again when she had time and the opportunity, or to throw everything out in one go, but what actually happened was that they were left where they landed when they had first been thrown unless Gregor made his way through the junk and moved it somewhere else.
Their indifference and neglect seems to drain Gregor’s energy, and he becomes more and more inert — though perhaps it is because of his injury, which is never dealt with; but whatever the reason, the result is that Gregor stops eating, though he never stops wanting to eat, particularly when he sees how well his family feeds their lodgers:
The gentlemen stood as one, and mumbled something into their beards. Then, once they were alone, they ate in near perfect silence. It seemed remarkable to Gregor that above all the various noises of eating their chewing teeth could still be heard, as if they had wanted to show Gregor that you need teeth in order to eat and it was not possible to perform anything with jaws that are toothless however nice they might be. “I’d like to eat something”, said Gregor anxiously, “but not anything like they’re eating. They do feed themselves. And here I am, dying!”
Gregor wants to eat because to eat means that he has been provided with food: in his case, because he cannot provide it for himself, it shows that he is cared for, that he is valued enough, to be fed. Of course: providing food for another is one of our most basic gifts, one of our most symbolic acts to show that we accept another, value another, enough to give them what they need to live. Sharing food is creating a connection, not only through the gift of a necessity (which means the giver must sacrifice some of their own necessary sustenance, an act of altruism that defines our survival strategy as a social animal rather than as a pure individual), but through the recognition that you and I eat the same thing. It is no accident that Gollum is incapable of eating the food that sustains Frodo and Sam; since Tolkien had a strong pro-Elf bias, it is a symbol of Gollum’s corruption and impurity that everything Elvish is anathema to him, including the lembas and Sam’s rope, which burns his skin. But this is our sign that Gollum is not good at his heart, that he is dangerous: he won’t eat the food. Indeed, it is food that Gollum uses to betray Sam and corrupt Frodo, who is already being corrupted by the Ring: as they climb the Black Stair towards Shelob’s cave, Gollum throws away the hobbits’ remaining food and then blames Sam, saying Sam ate it rather than share it with Frodo. This (false) betrayal of their partnership pushes Frodo to turn on Sam and send him away, because the way out of a man’s heart is also through his stomach.
Doubly true of hobbits.
Food is one of our defining characteristics, one of the clearest cultural markers; and thus, also, it is one way we separate ourselves from others: what we eat, versus what they eat. And in this case, it is more than simply a matter of different tastes: Gregor is given items that his family no longer recognizes as food. It is waste, it is refuse.
And we are what we eat.
So Gregor is not properly fed, and so he does not eat. He grows weaker and weaker, suffering more and more pain and exhaustion. Finally, Gregor himself becomes little more than garbage:
[H]e was covered in the dust that lay everywhere in his room and flew up at the slightest movement; he carried threads, hairs, and remains of food about on his back and sides; he was much too indifferent to everything now to lay on his back and wipe himself on the carpet like he had used to do several times a day.
And then at last, mercifully, he dies. He makes one last attempt to come out of his room and connect to his family, when Grete puts on a violin concert for the renters, and Gregor is enchanted by the music; but he is spotted, and the renters use the opportunity to reject the Samsa family entirely, declaring that they will be moving out and they will not be paying any rent, due to the shocking imposition of having had to live in the same apartment as that thing. Grete turns on her brother, now calling Gregor “it” and saying, “It’s got to go!” Gregor returns, one last time, to his room, and is locked in for the last time.
“What now, then?”, Gregor asked himself as he looked round in the darkness. He soon made the discovery that he could no longer move at all. This was no surprise to him, it seemed rather that being able to actually move around on those spindly little legs until then was unnatural. He also felt relatively comfortable. It is true that his entire body was aching, but the pain seemed to be slowly getting weaker and weaker and would finally disappear altogether. He could already hardly feel the decayed apple in his back or the inflamed area around it, which was entirely covered in white dust. He thought back of his family with emotion and love. If it was possible, he felt that he must go away even more strongly than his sister. He remained in this state of empty and peaceful rumination until he heard the clock tower strike three in the morning. He watched as it slowly began to get light everywhere outside the window too. Then, without his willing it, his head sank down completely, and his last breath flowed weakly from his nostrils.
In the end, Gregor is quite literally thrown away by the charwoman who had been filling his room with garbage. And when he is gone, the family is at last free, and happy. Happy ending! Hooray!
But of course it isn’t a happy ending. That would only be possible if the heroes of the story were the Samsa family, and the villain were Gregor, the monstrous insect who ruins their lives, but who they are eventually freed of, to live out the rest of their lives in bliss. Of course that’s not it: the message of the story, the point Kafka is making, is not that the family would have been better off without Gregor; nor that terrible freak occurrences, such as the spontaneous transformation of a man into an insect, lead to terrible outcomes.
The point is this:
No-one dared to remove the apple lodged in Gregor’s flesh, so it remained there as a visible reminder of his injury. He had suffered it there for more than a month, and his condition seemed serious enough to remind even his father that Gregor, despite his current sad and revolting form, was a family member who could not be treated as an enemy. On the contrary, as a family there was a duty to swallow any revulsion for him and to be patient, just to be patient.
Kafka says here, outright, how Gregor should be treated: insect or not (And I believe he is not, that he does not actually transform, but merely sees himself as his family sees him, as unworthy, as contemptible, as a monster: as inhuman. But I think that no matter how much he may feel like an ungeheuerUngeziefer, he remains, both in his essence and in his actual physical form, human. Notice the original cover image, which does not show a bug.), incapable of earning money or not, he is a member of this family, and he should be treated with patience, and kindness. Instead, the family attacks him, harms him, refuses to feed or care for him, locks him away from them, and then ignores him in his pain and suffering, his sadness and loneliness, until he dies; and then they are relieved to be rid of him. I think it is especially telling that Kafka says “no one dared” to remove the apple from Gregor’s back; whether they are too disgusted by Gregor’s appearance, or too afraid to stand in opposition to his father’s will, they are ungenerous cowards. They are not the heroes of this fairy tale. They are the villains.
All people, all of us, have a share of this duty to all others who do not actively treat us as enemies: to treat others with kindness, to swallow any revulsion we may feel, no matter how monstrous they may be, and to be patient, just be patient. (And my God, what a small and simple request: only for patience. And my God, how we fail to give it.) Gregor shows us the right way, when, even as he is dying from his family’s neglect and violence, he thinks of them with empathy and love. While they let him be thrown away, first when he is alive, and then when he is dead. They do treat him as an enemy: and he loves them to his last breath.
I think it is clear, then, who in this story is truly human — and who is garbage.
But no: I can’t say that. Didn’t I just say that our duty as humans is to be patient with each other, to ignore the revulsion we may feel for those who act differently, look differently than we would want them to, and to treat them, even the most monstrous, with kindness and love — or at least with patience? Aren’t we all members of one extended family, really, considering how very much we have in common with each other, in comparison to how little we have in common with everything else in the universe? After all, we all breathe the same air, we all walk the same Earth — we all eat the same food.
I do not want to be like Gollum: he is a murderer. I don’t even want to be like Bilbo, who wants the Ring more than he can admit to himself, though at least Bilbo doesn’t attack Frodo and bite his finger off in order to get the Ring. I admit that I don’t want to be like Gregor, either; I pity him, in his suffering, in his contempt for himself, in his attachment to a family who doesn’t deserve him. Most of all, though, I do not want to be like the Samsa family; and so I will be patient with them. I will resist the temptation to turn away in disgust. I will treat them as fellow humans. As my family.
I said Don’t stop. I said Don’t give up. I meant it.
But also: you need to relax. Actively relax, and do something nice for yourself.
Take a day off. Can you take a day off? Then do it. Do it now: if you were saving a day off, now is the time. It is a rainy day. You need some time to yourself.
If you can’t take a day off, then set aside some time. Play a game. Play with someone fun: play with your kids, or your partner, or a friend. Play something silly, and don’t play to win. Play for fun.
It’s Halloween on Saturday. Get a costume. Dress up. Make something to wear. Make it silly. Sit around in it and watch TV and make cookies, take pictures and walk around your neighborhood in your costume. Wave to people who drive by.
It’s tough, I know. Tough for me, too. So very tempting to just let it all go. Just say “Forget it.” There’s too much to deal with, and too little that we can do to deal with it.
That’s pretty much why I haven’t been writing. I can’t find the confidence, can’t find the belief in myself and the value of my writing, to commit the time and energy to it, when there are so many other things I need to spend time on — and so many more things that take my energy away from me, that drain my faith and my hope. So many voices whispering in my ear, telling me to just– stop.
This is not a sprint. It’s not a one-shot. Nothing is. Ever. You never get only one chance. Maybe only one chance at a specific target on a specific occasion; but there’s always another occasion, another target, and though it isn’t the same, it is as good.
So you never give up.
Certainly not now.
And not next Tuesday: nor in the days following. Whether we win or we lose, don’t stop. Just don’t stop. Keep pushing until we have what we want, what we need. If we keep going, we’ll make it. We’ll do it.
When I was six, I was walking through the woods on my grandparents’ property in Washington, and I stepped on a yellowjacket nest. I remember the sensation as my foot came down: pushing through the humus of dried leaves, a moment of resistance, and then I crunched through what I thought was solid ground, and fell lower than I thought I should have, on that foot. That’s when I heard the buzzing: z z z ZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzz It hit a fast crescendo and then lowered to a purposeful, ominous hum, as if I had prodded a sleeper who did not want to wake and who growled resistance at me.
Then the stings started. One, two, three, each more painful than the last, the infuriated insects stitched their revenge up my leg as I stood, frozen, suddenly unsure of the ground beneath me — was it more hollow still? Would I fall through again? — obeying my training that told me to stand still when bees landed on me because they didn’t want to sting me, after all.
But these weren’t bees: they were yellowjackets. And they wanted to sting me. Understandable, really, since I had just destroyed their house and maybe crushed some of their family members; but that didn’t make me feel good about the fiery needles jabbing into me.
Fortunately my mother was there, and having grown up on that place named for her family, she was familiar with the sound of angry bees and yellowjackets: and she realized this was not a good time to just stand still. She scooped me up and ran. Of course I realize now that she was running to get us both away from the yelllowjackets, but at the time, I was suddenly sure that she was running me back to the house because I was going to die: my father is allergic to bee stings, and even at that age, I knew the potential danger of those tiny packets of venom which I could feel throbbing in my shin — and maybe moving up through my bloodstream? Was this the end?
It was not. It was about to be my first encounter with witch hazel (a name that still feels mysterious and alchemical to me), the rapid soothing of the burning stings, a cookie or two to soothe my burning tears, and the disappointing reckoning of a mere six stings, none higher than my knee. Not enough damage for a good I-stepped-on-a-beehive story, though it’s a damn good indication of my mother’s reflexes and quick thinking.
That moment of stepping down onto, and then falling through the ground and into a sudden attack: that’s what 2020 feels like to me. The hollowness of the hive beneath me, incapable of holding me up, echoed in the middle of me as I realized what was going to happen, a hollowness that seemed to swell and expand even as it grew more empty and dark and cold, as if my fear were a black hole inside, swallowing more and more and growing larger with each terrified thought that fell into it: that’s what I feel like inside, right now, and for the last six months. It’s a much slower process, this time, lasting months instead of seconds; but I feel very much as though my reaction is identical: I am frozen, panicked, trying to figure out what to do and coming up with no good ideas, just standing and watching as the danger swirls up around me.
At the same time: I am not just the kid walking through the woods, this time. I’m the yelllowjackets. The hollowness inside me is the hive, and the shell around that emptiness is too weak, and can’t hold up the weight of the world that is stepping on me. And as everything going on around me crushes through me and into me, I lash out, angrily — maybe understandable, but really, useless — and I sting, and I bite, and I attack. I have never been so short-tempered, so cranky, so bitter, so apt to strike, so apt to sting with my words and my tongue, as this year. I hate it. I can’t stop it. I can’t: I don’t have the strength. That’s what was hollowed out of me. And I can’t just set myself and bear up under the weight: because the hollowness is under my feet, too, and I am being stung even as I am stinging.
I don’t know what to do. I’m just standing here. I have been for what feels like forever.
And I’m so tired.
And this time, my mother can’t scoop me up and run me back to the house for the twin magics of herbal remedies and baked goods.
This time, I might just get stung to death.
Probably not. I’m aware that as high as the number of Covid-19 cases is, it’s still only a fraction of the population, and that while my state is not handling the pandemic well, I am taking reasonable precautions that should keep me safe; I will most likely come out of this with an unremarkable tally of suffering. I do not mind, this time. I would very much prefer a half-dozen stings, no permanent scars, no need for a doctor. Just some soothing liquid and a cookie or two.
But I’m not just standing still with my foot in the danger zone; I’m still walking forward through the woods. In fact, since school starts tomorrow and goes to in-person classes in four weeks, I may be stepping onto the hive, and then continuing on into it, like walking down into a hive the size of a subway tunnel, with yellowjackets the size of Shelob. (At the same time: those goddamn hobbits are coming into my home, fumbling and ripping through my webs, and they are goddamn well going to pay for it. Nasssty little hobbitses.)
What precautions do I take then, as I move deeper and deeper into this hive pit? My school is trying to stay on top of things, having offered fully online learning as an option, instituting new protocols — social distancing, mandatory* masks, sanitizing spray to be applied every two hours**, fever checks on arrival — intended to prevent the spread of the disease. I don’t know how well it’s all going to work, though; and I have no idea what to do about that. I can’t quit. If I raise too great a stink, they’ll fire me. I guess I just have to stand there. Maybe the small things hovering around me don’t want to sting me, this time.
*Mandatory here means just what it does everywhere: masks are required until someone raises a loud enough political objection, and/or presents a doctor’s note. Then, not. Hope the virus takes doctor’s notes, too.
**Said sanitation to be applied by me, every two hours, in between classes. On a side note, the spray requires four minutes to take full effect. Time between classes is four minutes. Hope the virus will wait out in the hall.
The danger, though, is not what is haunting me. Perhaps it should be, but the thing that is building a growing ball of hollow darkness inside me, the thing that makes me feel as if my next step will land on an equally hollow surface that will drop me through and out of the world, while at the same time the weight on top of me punches through my thin outer layer and into the hollow within, is this:
I am tired.
The hollowness inside me is not just fear. It is exhaustion. I am so very, very tired. Tired from fighting, tired from standing watch, tired from holding up others as well as myself. I’m tired of watching the pandemic grow, and watching my country wallowing in ignorance and selfishness like a pig in shit — just as filthy and twice as proud of ourselves — as we deny science, and raise alarms for problems that aren’t real, pointing to imaginary dangers that somehow block out of our sight the very real danger of this virus. I am so tired of being angry about it. I am so tired of fighting with people who smugly ignore every fact and every reasonable thought because it doesn’t make them feel safe, or worse, it doesn’t make them feel strong and fearless. Saying they’re not afraid of Covid, that makes them feel strong and fearless.
It’s as if when my mother rushed to scoop me up out of the yellowjacket hive, I had pushed her down, spit on her (Because the people who think this way are some of the rudest, most inconsiderate, most contemptuous hooligans I’ve ever interacted with. And I teach high school.), and then stood with fists on hips, chin jutted, nostrils flaring, and said, “Don’t you tell me where I can stand, I’m an American. You run if you want to, you and all the other sheep!”
While the yellowjackets swarmed around me.
And of course it’s not only the virus. I am so very tired of racism. I am tired of being ashamed of what people who look like me have done to people who feel like me for centuries. I am tired of confronting the same angry, willful ignorance about the protests or about opposition to police violence. At the same time, I am tired of being treated like the people I look like by the people I feel like — and I am tired of knowing that I have no right to complain about any treatment I may suffer, because my world has been built to prop me up, and whatever I may have to go through pales in comparison to the ordeals of those who are less pale than I. I hate that people tell me I have no right to speak my opinion, to take a stand; that all I can do is get out of the way and let better people take what they have been denied for centuries, because people who look like me oppressed them, which has enabled me to become everything that I am — all of it tainted by centuries of crimes against humanity. Not my own gifts and efforts, but my privilege, I am told, is why I am who I am and can do what I can do: and that means I don’t deserve what I have, and using that privilege to try to help solve the problem earns me a sort of sly sneer from those who know that my actions on behalf of the cause are just white guilt, and really, I am still the enemy,still perpetuating the problem if I do anything other than get out of the way.
That’s how it feels. It’s maybe not true that people working for social justice think that way of me, but — that’s how it feels. Of course, maybe that’s just my white guilt talking. And my white privilege thinking that I should be the one to speak up and fight for the cause: because that means I am centering whiteness in a movement that is not intended for the benefit or the recognition of white people or white suffering. It’s so easy to fall into the same patterns that have existed unrecognized throughout my life; how can I tell what is genuine and what is instilled in me by institutions of oppression and privilege? Is everything about me broken and wrong because of the world I grew up in? Is there nothing that is me? No, I want to say; I am good, I am worthwhile, I want to help and I am capable of helping. It is not right that I get pushed aside and marginalized, stereotyped, included in sweeping generalizations, based only on my skin color, my nationality, my gender —
And how pathetic do I sound saying those words.
I’m so bloody tired of irony.
I want to help, is the problem. I don’t want to be like those ignorant yahoos I fight with. I don’t want to be selfish.
But so many people need so much help.
I can do a lot of it. I am happy to do a lot of it: happy to support my family, my friends, those who rely on me. They are struggling, too, because this year has not only been hard for the pandemic and the riots: it’s hard financially, and crippling politically, and my family has had a series of tribulations fall on us like Biblical plagues, one after another and each worse than the last, mostly medical and due to my parents’ generation reaching the stage of life where things go badly. And of course, I can’t do anything. I can’t go help them because I might infect them, and that would kill them — and that would kill me. I worry about them double, because I realize that, on top of everything else, the pizza delivery man might give them Covid-19, and then I wouldn’t be able to visit them in the hospital while they coughed their life away.
And I can’t talk about this, can’t complain about this: because everyone else has it harder than me. Everyone. It’s not just white privilege, not just male privilege; I am healthy, and have remained fully employed, at a job where I am respected and well-liked, and I am generally well-balanced emotionally. I’m not well-balanced this year, of course, but since I started off having an easier time than most, and we’ve all gone down together, I still have more of my head above water than others do who were half-drowning before 2020. So I have no right at all to complain, and if I open my mouth to do it, the response I get back (the response I should get back) is something along the lines of, “Yes, I know, I’m going through that too — and a dozen things that are worse.”
Part of me can’t stand myself, right now, for complaining that I have it too easy in life to complain. And normally, the fact that I do have it easier than most would keep me from complaining because it would keep me from suffering. And even when I do suffer, I don’t have such troubles that I need to vent, need to talk them out. Normally I don’t need much support.
But this year is not normal.
I need to vent. It helps, you see, even if you don’t see how it could possibly help, even if you don’t know why it helps, talking about your feelings helps. I need that help. I need to say how I feel, even if how I feel is gauche or insufficiently woke. (“See that? That’s white sensitivity right there. He needs to grow a thicker skin, learn to deal with being told what he’s doing wrong. It’s just that he’s never been criticized much before, not in this society built for people like him.” Yes. I know it. But this is still how I feel.) Because people need my support, and so long as I am this tired, and feel these hollows under my ribs and under my feet, I can’t give them what they need.
This is what I need: I need to talk. I need to write. I haven’t wanted to do it, not for months now, for all the reasons I’ve been talking about here. There is too much, and I need to figure out what the hell I’m really feeling; I hate to ramble and blunder and sound like I don’t know what the hell I’m getting at. But one of the difficult Catch-22s of being a writer is that writing is exactly how I figure out what I’m feeling; I usually don’t know what I’m getting at when I start writing, I just get there when I get there, and I have a pretty good idea of when to stop. I have no doubt that this blog is irritating and confusing for people who read it. I expect you, too, are short-tempered, unable and unwilling to put out a whole lot of effort helping someone else deal with their shit when you’re sitting there with both hands full of your own.
I’m sure you’re tired too.
It feels strange to write this, because it makes me feel better, and so maybe I want to share that; but I don’t want to be a bother, don’t want to be a burden.
Which is also how everyone else feels, too.
So I’m just going to say it. If what I’m saying is wrong, please feel free to correct me; but first, I need to say it. Actually, I take that back: if you have something you want to say about something I’m doing wrong, put a pin in it. We’ll circle back around to it later. For now, I just need to talk about how I feel. And I won’t ask people to listen to me, because I know you’re all struggling, too — but it would mean a lot if you did.
We all need help. We all need support. We need to ask for it for ourselves. Just asking makes us feel better: because it validates how we feel. Being willing to ask for help, from those whom you are willing to give help to, shows that you consider yourself as important as they are, as worth helping as they are. It shows them that they are not a burden on you, that they can help even as they ask for help for themselves. And everyone feels better when they can help.
I need help. I’m standing on unsteady ground, in a country that is tearing itself apart, and I’m about to go back to work where I will be surrounded (Virtually, for the most part, but still) by students — who all desperately need all the help they can get.
That’s what made me actually open this post and start writing. That’s really what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of the virus, afraid of what’s going to happen in thousands of schools across the country to hundreds of thousands of teachers and millions of students; but what scares me right now is the knowledge that those students will come to me, and they will need me. They will need me to listen to them, to understand them, to take them seriously, to help them. They are bottomless abysses of need, just like I was at their age, as we all are in that terrible time of adolescence. They will need me even more now, because their world is on fire, too.
I don’t know how much I will have to give them.
I’m so very tired.
I’m just standing here: hoping I don’t get stung.
Can someone please pick me up and run me away from the swarm?
Or if not that — can I have some witch hazel and maybe a cookie or two?
And so, because this is what I do, I asked: why? Why is freedom more important than safety?
He couldn’t answer.
He replied that freedom was the very fabric that the U.S. was drawn on, which is a lovely statement of sentiment — but not an answer. That tells me why freedom might be so important to Americans, if we accept that freedom is indeed what the U.S. was drawn on; but it doesn’t say either why that is the foundational principle of this country, nor why that foundational principle (or this country) are especially important — nor does it answer my first question, about why freedom is more important than safety. (Heh — I just wrote “freedom is more important than slavery.” Not only pretty close to a tautology, but also a pretty good indicator that my subconscious is damned libertarian, if it equates safety with slavery. Actually, I was just listening to the 1619 Project podcast about the foundations of this country, and I have an argument against freedom being the fabric this nation was drawn on. But that’s another subject for another time.)
Understand that this is a good guy, a really good guy. A generous plenty of his posts are focused on telling his friends that he loves them, especially his male friends, explicitly using the word “love” and supporting them in every way he can; sharing his own struggles with depression and alienation; telling anyone and everyone that he is always willing to listen. Basically he is an antidote to toxic masculinity. He is masculine antitoxin. (Also hilarious. Also a frequent and fully self-aware shitposter. Also a boogaloo boi: his second response to my questioning was a citation of the Second Amendment as the only necessary source of safety. People are complex, aren’t they?) He wasn’t attacking me, calling me a coward or a libtard; he wasn’t even treating me as a troll commenter, which would be an understandable response to my asking philosophical questions on a meme. He was really trying to answer my question, and in so doing, revealing at least some of his ideals, if not his explicated arguments for his ideals.
And I don’t think they’re bad ideals. I think this country should be drawn on the fabric of freedom; and though I don’t agree with The Libertarian Cartoon Head (And I find it kind of hilarious and very telling that it is so very Nordic and square-jawed, with furrowed brow and shaped beard and curled ‘stache, blond hair and blue eyes), I also don’t agree with the woman with the sign. (I will give her slightly more credit in her argument because she put “freedom” in sarcastoquotes, which implies that the debate is set on false premises as these debates often are and maybe have to be by definition; but also, I have no idea where this picture is from or if it is even real, so I can’t say if she knows how to use sarcastoquotes or meant those for emphasis, or if she ever really held that sign in the image, or if it was Photoshopped. So.)
Let me tell you what I think: I think both safety and liberty are, quite simply, vital. They are necessary. Both. I’ll actually throw in the pursuit of happiness, too: all vital to our continued existence as thinking, feeling individuals. That’s why they are unalienable rights.
There’s a deeper and harder conversation about what rights are and where they come from, and what it means to have them, which I am not qualified to have; I have a lot more reading to do in the philosophy world before I can take that on. But for this conversation, the layman’s understanding of rights should be just fine.
A right is what you have simply by virtue of being an individual, a specific human being: a person. Your rights are essentially a list of what is required for you to experience and explore that existence as a person, as an entity with reason and free will. You must have life, because if you’re dead, you can’t experience your existence as a person. You must have liberty, because liberty is essentially the opportunity to have your own thoughts and feelings, to express your own thoughts and feelings, and to act on your own decisions, which are based on your own thoughts and feelings. Without liberty of thought, of speech, and of action, you are not able to explore and experience your existence as a unique individual. It’s pointless to say you have reason if you are not allowed to think your own thoughts, and then express what you think (Because freedom that is only locked inside your head is not freedom: a human being is capable of expressing and communicating their thoughts, and that expression and communication of thoughts is a fundamental part of being a human; you cannot be a human if you can only think but never speak your truth.); it is untrue to say you have free will if you cannot act according to that will.
You must have life to be you, and so you have the right to life; you must have liberty to truly be you, and so you have the right to liberty. Either without the other is meaningless and empty. The pursuit of happiness, the third unalienable right listed in the Declaration of Independence, is the realization of these two rights extended forward in time: if I have life and liberty right now, I can be myself; and if I can be assured that I will still have life and liberty tomorrow, I can begin planning and acting with that understanding in mind, seeking most likely to achieve a greater happiness for myself according to my wishes. Also necessary, I would argue — although the argument for this one is a bit more fraught, not only because Thomas Jefferson, after cribbing these rights from John Locke, changed Locke’s third unalienable right into the pursuit of happiness; Locke said the third was the right to property, meaning the right to own the fruits of your own labor. That’s a different conversation. It’s also fraught because Jefferson was one of history’s greatest hypocrites, writing that all men are created equal while being attended by James Hemings, his wife’s half-brother — Jefferson’s own brother-in-law, who shared a father with Jefferson’s wife — whom Thomas Jefferson owned. Jefferson also, of course, owned James Hemings’s sister (And Martha Jefferson’s half-sister) Sally. And he owned his and Sally’s six children until his death. All men are created equal, eh?
Regardless of who wrote the words, though, the ideas are sound as written, if not as Jefferson embodied them and helped to codify them into the founding documents of this country. All people are created equal: each and every one of us is a unique individual, essentially capable of thinking and feeling, and in possession of free will. Therefore each and every one of us has the unalienable right to life and liberty, both.
That’s the trouble with this argument. It’s not that life (which I would argue is represented by safety; I’ll get to that in a second) is more important than liberty, nor that liberty is more important than life. It’s that you cannot separate the two.
Is safety the same as life, here? I don’t want to argue a red herring, to make a false equivalence between the safety in this argument and the right to life in the Declaration of Independence. But what do we mean by safety? Safety, I think, represents the assurance of continued life; like the pursuit of happiness, it is the right extended into the future. If I am safe, I not only know that I am alive right now, but I expect that I will continue to be alive in future, and so I am confident and comfortable in that expectation. In its essence, safety is about the preservation of life over time — and also the preservation of liberty, without which life is meaningless and so too is safety. I know that’s a circular argument, but really: if you were sure that tomorrow you’d be alive, but you’d be in jail, would you say that you felt safe?
And on the other side, if you were free to do as you wish, but you knew you would die tomorrow, would you really feel free?
I know the knee-jerk answer to that second question, from people who agree with the meme (probably my friend as well), would be a resounding HELL YEAH BROTHER! Because part of this argument is based on a quintessentially American/(toxically) masculine ideology that not only honors, but pursues and relishes, death, especially death by martyrdom on the altar of freedom. But while self-sacrifice is honorable and noble, and I am grateful for those who have sacrificed their lives for me — those sacrifices did not ensure the continued existence of liberty. They (depending on the specific situation) may have helped to eliminate a present threat to liberty with their sacrifice — probably also a threat to life; while the Fascist regimes in WWII were certainly a threat to liberty, they were clearly a much more dire threat to the essential existence of millions if not billions of human beings — but that doesn’t ensure, cannot ensure, that liberty will continue into the future.
Only safety can do that.
Now: it is certainly true that some attempts to limit liberty are presented under the guise of promoting safety; those must be guarded against. But that is not, despite the fanaticism of some liberty-lovers, true of every single attempt to ensure safety, nor even every attempt to limit liberty — some are presented as morally correct, for instance, regardless of whether they create more safety; like certain White House occupants sending certain Federal troops to certain cities to, errr, safeguard statues. That is certainly an attempt to limit liberty, but there’s not really a way to claim that keeping Robert E. Lee atop his horse atop a marble pedestal will make us safer. (There is some attempt, in the name of law and order, to claim that those who would pull down statues are threatening to create — or actually creating — chaos and danger for Americans. But let’s not buy into the bullshit, yeah? The only safety really being promoted there is the safety of the monuments, and the comfortable white supremacy they generally represent.) It’s like the argument that every single gun law is an infringement on the right to bear arms: that’s not really true. The essence of the Second Amendment is to preserve the right of self-defense — which preserves both life and liberty — and so long as one is able to do that, the right is uninfringed. Slippery slopes are not an argument, they’re a rhetorical scare tactic.
It is also true that some attempts to create safety also bring an unacceptable limitation on liberty; I think that’s the argument against lockdowns as a measure against the pandemic. As I think this year has made clear, though, temporary limitations on liberty become more acceptable when they are more effective in preserving life; the way to avoid a restriction of liberty is to find a way to have your cake and eat it too, to ensure safety while also preserving liberty — which in this case would be: masks. Masks are a way to effectively preserve safety by stopping the spread of Covid-19 while also not infringing on liberty, because so long as everyone wears a mask, we can continue with almost all of our preferred activities.
Brief aside to squash this nonsense: Liberty does not mean an unlimited right to do whatever the hell you want, to say no just because someone else says yes, to insist that somehow you don’t need to wear a piece of cloth on your face just because you don’t wanna BECUZ THIS’S AMURRRRRRRICA. It means the ability to control your own actions based on your rational decisions, so long as those actions don’t harm anyone else’s ability to do the same. Anyone making a rational decision not to wear a mask — i.e., “I have claustrophobia and the masks cause panic attacks, so instead I MAINTAIN A STRICT SOCIAL DISTANCE AND MAYBE WEAR A CLEAR FACE SHIELD” or “I don’t enjoy wearing a mask SO I DON’T GO OUT IN PUBLIC” — is fine; those are rational decisions, and I doubt anyone would have a real problem with those. That’s why exceptions for health reasons are written into every mask ordinance, and why no mask ordinance mandates people leave their homes. Now, it is certainly true that, all else being equal, the individual should be the one to decide for themselves what is a “rational” basis for their own decisions; but in a pandemic, the actions of individuals have outsized impacts on the life and liberty of others, and therefore some limitation of an individual’s actions is reasonable. The outsized impact on others means that one cannot make a determination of a rational action depending only on one’s own individual will. It means a reduction of one’s ability to choose for one’s self.
To preserve safety. And liberty. Because that’s what it means to live in a society. People who want to be so fanatical about their liberty that they accept literally no restrictions on their liberty imposed by others can still make that choice: they just don’t get to be a part of our society. Society requires compromise. Them’s the breaks. Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins, so if you want to swing your fists without any boundaries, get the fuck away from my nose. And then go nuts. Feel free.
Benjamin Franklin gave us one of the more popular arguments about this issue. He said,
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Now, this quote, like everything else from the Founding Fathers — and, well, everyone famous ever, in this age of disinformation inundation (™) — is pretty regularly misquoted. A Google search for this one gets me this meme, which changes the quote pretty appreciably:
(I also really want that not to be a portrait of Franklin, but it probably is. Oh, well.)
But case in point, the comments on the meme that my friend shared had this image in them:
Which really represents what happens when people stop thinking about this stuff. Nothing wrong with wearing a t-shirt, of course; but this is not an argument, any more. Now it’s silly. Now it’s a meme.
But the best and most important thing about Franklin’s actual statement is this: it doesn’t mean what we think it means.
WITTES: The exact quotation, which is from a letter that Franklin is believed to have written on behalf of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, reads, those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. [emphasis added]
SIEGEL: And what was the context of this remark?
WITTES: He was writing about a tax dispute between the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the family of the Penns, the proprietary family of the Pennsylvania colony who ruled it from afar. And the legislature was trying to tax the Penn family lands to pay for frontier defense during the French and Indian War. And the Penn family kept instructing the governor to veto. Franklin felt that this was a great affront to the ability of the legislature to govern. And so he actually meant purchase a little temporary safety very literally. The Penn family was trying to give a lump sum of money in exchange for the General Assembly’s acknowledging that it did not have the authority to tax it.
SIEGEL: So far from being a pro-privacy quotation, if anything, it’s a pro-taxation and pro-defense spending quotation.
WITTES: It is a quotation that defends the authority of a legislature to govern in the interests of collective security. It means, in context, not quite the opposite of what it’s almost always quoted as saying but much closer to the opposite than to the thing that people think it means.
SIEGEL: Well, as you’ve said, it’s used often in the context of surveillance and technology. And it came up in my conversation with Mr. Anderson ’cause he’s part of what’s called the Ben Franklin Privacy Caucus in the Virginia legislature. What do you make of the use of this quotation as a motto for something that really wasn’t the sentiment Franklin had in mind?
WITTES: You know, there are all of these quotations. Think of kill all the lawyers – right? – from Shakespeare. Nobody really remembers what the characters in question were saying at that time. And maybe it doesn’t matter so much what Franklin was actually trying to say because the quotation means so much to us in terms of the tension between government power and individual liberties. But I do think it is worth remembering what he was actually trying to say because the actual context is much more sensitive to the problems of real governance than the flip quotation’s use is, often. And Franklin was dealing with a genuine security emergency. There were raids on these frontier towns. And he regarded the ability of a community to defend itself as the essential liberty that it would be contemptible to trade. So I don’t really have a problem with people misusing the quotation, but I also think it’s worth remembering what it was really about.
In the end, the things we need to remember are these: safety is important. Preserving life is important. The reasonable assurance of future safety is also important — I don’t want to get into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but liberty is waaaay up at the top of the pyramid, around “self-actualization,” and safety is at the base, the second level just above food — and, dependent on circumstances, justifies a limitation on individual liberty. The preservation of liberty is equally important — but because liberty is more abstract than life, it requires more careful thought to reasonably determine what is, and what is not, a threat to liberty.
The whole reason we have the right to liberty is that we have the ability to reason. If we want to protect that right, then we must use that same reason to know when it is actually under threat. We have to think.
And stop taking memes too seriously. You know: like I just did.
The one question I ask more than any other is: Why?
I’ve done this to my students so much they get sick of me. “Why do you think that? Why do you think the author thinks that? Why does that evidence show what you think it does? Why do you think this is important?” I can keep going for an entire class period, really. And one of my favorite responses is when they try to turn it around on me, and start asking me “Why” over and over again: partly because I can usually answer the question for as long as they want to keep asking it (Well, almost: when they’re doing it to be perverse and mess with me, they ask “Why” without listening to the answers, and they’ll just keep asking it, and snickering, for as long as I let them, so I’ll cut it off after four or five repetitions. But if they’re actually listening, I’ll keep talking. Actually, that’s true all the time, and not just in my classroom.), which pleases the obnoxious competitive side of me, and partly because when they ask me “Why,” and I tell them my reasons — I often have the answer already in hand, especially if they’re questioning something like “Why are we reading this”; and when I don’t have the answer in hand, I can usually think quick enough, and speak confusingly enough (I just came across the word “obscurantist” to describe someone who intentionally obfuscates the meaning of things, and I aspire to it), to answer the question several times in a row — it helps me to figure out my reasons. I think best when I am putting thoughts into words; if I just try to think, without speaking or writing what I am thinking, I am too easily distracted by too many thoughts: what I’m doing right then, or seeing or hearing or feeling; what I have to do, what I should be doing instead of whatever I’m doing, and so on.
I ask this question so much, and appreciate the answers no matter where or who they come from, because I like thinking about why. I think reasons are mysterious, and mystifying. I think we have them for almost everything we do, but we hardly ever know what our own reasons are. Think about that: it’s not that our actions are meaningless or purposeless; it’s that we have some fundamental disconnect between the determination of those meanings and purposes, and the actions themselves. Why is there this disconnect? Maybe because the same is true of the world around us: there are reasons and purposes for everything. There are reasons why trees exist, why the sky is blue, why scratching your back is satisfying; and purposes for electric fans and floors and nose hair. Sometimes one, either a reason or a purpose, exists without the other; sometimes they are one and the same: the reason something exists is to achieve a purpose. But — and this is the important point — we don’t usually know what those reasons and purposes are. I mean, I sort of know why trees exist, but what about the tree outside my window? Was that one planted when my neighborhood was built? Or was it here before, and they chose not to tear it down when they built these houses? If it happened naturally, why did that tree thrive when other seedlings perished? If it was planned by the developer, why was that species of tree chosen? If it was planted as a seedling, why was that particular seedling picked out of all the others?
These reasons exist; but we don’t, and usually can’t (and maybe shouldn’t) know them. It’s maybe different with purposes, because we can deduce them pretty specifically based on evidence and logic: the tree across the way, if it was planted by a person with a purpose, is placed to cast shade on a house, and it is an evergreen so it doesn’t drop leaves that need to be raked; I don’t know much about trees, but if we say it’s a pine, or a spruce, then maybe that would tell us if it was picked because it was cheap, or because it would grow fast, or because it would thrive in the Tucson heat. And so on. We mostly know what people want, and what they need, so we can sort of reverse engineer a lot of their choices, figure out the purpose of things that said humans have built or manipulated.
I’ve maybe made a distinction (and maybe lost it already) that doesn’t work well, in talking about reasons and purposes as if they are different things. I’m thinking of a reason as an explanation of how something came to be, the cause and effect that describes its origins; a purpose is here the justifications for a thing that exists, the goals behind the choices that led to its creation. A purpose, of course, requires a will and consciousness to make choices and have goals, and then the ability to cause something to be created. The reason for something can be just that purpose, especially if we think about things that exist as including simple actions: I made coffee this morning because I wanted to drink it. Then we can get into the reasons why coffee exists and why it came to be the thing I wanted to drink. And then, maybe I have larger purposes for wanting to drink coffee, things like wanting energy and focus, wanting to get things done that may require caffeine; if it’s something simple like “I like coffee and how it makes me feel” then I would argue there’s not a purpose for that coffee, but there is a reason.
I would also like to point out that my reasons for drinking coffee, my purposes if I have those, are probably not very interesting. Honestly, it’s a trio of reasons, only one of them purposeful: one, I don’t sleep well and am usually tired in the mornings, but I have to get up early because I have to walk my dogs before it gets hot, so I need caffeine to counteract my tiredness (Also I’m addicted to it, so I need coffee to keep myself from going through withdrawal, and to satisfy my psychological craving); two, I like the taste of coffee and am pleased by my reputation as a coffee drinker; three, I want to use my morning time to accomplish things, and coffee helps me do that. None of those are terribly interesting — though also, even those mundane things, when we get into the honest reasons and purposes, can lead to interesting conversations: why do I like my reputation as a coffee drinker? What does that mean to me? Why don’t I sleep well, and why do I use caffeine to deal with that, instead of solving the issues that ruin my rest?
See what can come of asking Why?
With human beings, I would argue that there are reasons why we exist, both as a species and as individuals, but not necessarily purpose. (I will note that people who believe in a God who created us think that there is a purpose for our existence — though again, we may not know that purpose. I’m not going to argue either way on that one. Not now, at least.) What’s fascinating and unique about us as a species, because we are the only animal that can reason, is that we can find or create our own purpose, and thus redefine ourselves and our very existence. That’s amazing: that we can change who and what we are, by changing our Why. By turning reasons into purposes. And then past that, taking up something that was created for one purpose, or even no purpose, and finding a new purpose for it, one that serves our own goals regardless of whether or not that thing still serves its original purpose. What’s even more amazing is that we can take bad and terrible and evil things, and turn them into good things, or at least the causes of good things, by finding a positive purpose even in our suffering. As a minor example, I read constantly and ravenously when I was a child, because I was shy and awkward and therefore lonely and bored; books saved me from all of that. But now that I am a writer and an English teacher, that childhood spent reading has been turned to a valuable purpose. Two, really, because I have different purposes in those two pursuits, my vocation and my avocation. Though sometimes they serve the same purpose: because of course our purposes change, especially with those actions which we do continuously, repeatedly, and also always affirmatively: every day I go to work, I choose to continue teaching, and I have to choose, over and over again, how I will teach. As with my writing.
I have found that knowing why I teach, why I write, makes those choices easier. And that’s why I want to ask that question, and why I want to discuss it with my students and with my readers: so that they — you — can make choices as well, and achieve your purposes while helping me achieve mine. I forget my reasons sometimes, and lose them sometimes, and that makes it harder to keep choosing to do the same things. I wanted to be a successful novelist by the time I was 25; didn’t even come close. I realized that was actually a pretty dumb purpose for writing, because of the essentially randomly chosen age deadline, so moving past that reason wasn’t too hard. But twenty years later, I’m still not a famous novelist; (Notice how I changed that term, from “successful” to “famous?” I didn’t, not when I wrote these sentences; but I decided to add something, and looked back to see where the best place was to add it, and I realized what I did. This is also, I think, how we get confused about our purposes –or maybe it represents that confusion, that I haven’t defined well what “success” means, that I didn’t do that when I was 25. And maybe that’s why it didn’t happen, or at least why it didn’t hurt me much when it didn’t happen.) and I’ve also realized, in learning more about what life is like for people who are successful and famous novelists, that maybe I don’t want to be that.
That’s fine. But then, why do I write? Why should I write?
On some level I have a reason now: I am a word guy, as I said; I think best when I put thoughts into words and sentences. And there are plenty of explanations for why I am this way, some interesting, some not. But I think we are not defined by our reasons. We are defined by our purposes. (Unless we don’t have a purpose, in which case we are defined by our reasons.)
So what’s my purpose? Why do I do what I do?
This piece actually started as some kind of explanation for a thing I’ve started doing: I’ve started reading philosophy. Well, I guess I didn’t start; I’ve been reading philosophy for a very long time. Starting, I guess, with Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which I read in high school; I took a couple of philosophy classes in college, and I’ve been reading Bertrand Russell for quite a while, mostly because Ray Bradbury mentioned him in Fahrenheit 451, which I’ve read so many times that I got curious about who this Russell guy was — and then when my wife and I lived in Oregon, we made regular trips to Portland to go to Powell’s City of Books, I used to go wander through the FIVE FLOORS THAT COVER A FULL CITY BLOCK in search of things to buy and read, and Russell’s books of essays were short, and cheap. And interesting.
But I haven’t ever read philosophy purposefully: it’s interesting, and sometimes useful, but mostly I have had reasons but no definite goal with it. A couple of years ago, I started reading philosophy for a purpose, but I didn’t like the purpose, so I didn’t keep it up; the purpose was reinvigorated once or twice more, but never sustained the pursuit, so I kept dropping it.
I guess I’m looking for a sustainable purpose now. I’ve found another tool to help me with reading philosophy, because unlike Bertrand Russell, who was an amazing wordsmith, most philosophers are actually crappy writers. Well, I don’t know if it’s “most,” but it definitely seems a trend. I got a general philosophy book from my local Tucson used book store (Bookman’s, and they’re great — but they’re no Powell’s. I miss Powell’s.) and the writing is awful. But I found a podcast that explains the basics of philosophy, and it is both extremely easy to follow and understand, and also interesting–and, I’ve found, thought-provoking. So that makes me want to keep reading philosophy, and even read more; every episode I listen to makes me want to read more philosophy, because the show (It’s Philosophize This, with Stephen West) covers a new philosopher every episode, and so I keep adding to the list of books I want to read.
It’s a big list now. And, I’m afraid, it will be a hard list to get through. Hard to get through even one of those books, probably.
So is it worth doing? It’s a lot of time and energy I’m looking to dedicate to this. At this point, my reason for doing this is mostly — curiosity. And that’s probably not enough of a reason.
I tried to explain my reasons to my wife the other day, and she pointed out that the reason I was giving, which I mostly made up on the spot, really just trying to figure out why I was doing it by putting it into words — it was a bad reason. I came to my blog here intending to work out a better reason why I want to do this difficult thing, why I want to spend my time on it; instead I have now been talking about why I want to ask why, for better than 2000 words.
(I hated those commercials, by the way. Even when they were first on, before I had read any philosophy or ever really thought about Why in any serious way. Why ask why? You just fucking asked it in the question, goddammit. Stupid Bud Dry. What the hell kind of product is that, anyway. Stupid name. Stupid beer.)
But you know what? I think that is the answer. I think that’s the reason, and the purpose, for reading philosophy. Because I love to ask why. Because I want to know why. And maybe the best way to figure out why, all my whys is — philosophy.