Life Before Death

May 9th, 2013 by Tim Categories: Introducing, Otters of the Universe - Tim's Blog 33 Responses

What happened to me? That’s the question that haunts me in these end of days. What happened, that left me feeling so damaged, so broken, so confused? Why am I so unable to trust? Why are so many of my days filled with anxiety so distracting that my power and effectiveness suffer? Why am I always on alert? Why can’t I find a place to rest? Why do I feel so goddamned fucked up? It doesn’t feel like it should be this way. Is this the design of human being? Is the Earth, the species, the Universe, the Grand Hologram of Reality™ itself, really so indifferent, so hard-edged, so unsafe? Or did something happen to me, way back in the grayness of memory, to knock me out of my birthright as a connected, loving, and belonging human being? What happened to me?

I feel a bit strange, sometimes, pondering these “personal” things in such momentous times. The Doomers™, bless their hearts, are now batting about the acronym NTE – near-term extinction – and not without reason, when one looks at the climate, resource™, and environmental data and analyses. Whether or not we are headed the way of the dodo, we are certainly headed the way of the “Doh!,” the mass deathbed epiphany that what We™ have been doing has not been working, that We™ are not really in control here, and that Our™ chickens, coming home to roost, are now going to have to compete for every last scrap of feed.

But for me, my personal healing journey and the global predicament are intricately connected. It’s not just “What happened to me?” but “What happened to US?,” and the answers and insights can reveal not only cause and explanation for our present predicament, but a possible path forward, ahead, and even through and beyond. We are where we are. It is what it is. “This is water.” So how do we, even in this end of days, even if it’s just a small number of us, even as the present systems twist and writhe and unravel at our feet, learn what there is to learn, do what we came here to do, step into consciousness, clarity, awareness, maturity, and freedom, and find what David Foster Wallace, in this beautiful, moving speech, below, calls “sacred”? Is the greatest affront of death, and extinction, to those of us raised in this crazy world, that it comes to us before we’ve had a chance to fully live? Is it possible, even now, to find our “life before death”? And if we do, what might that mean?

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I sometimes joke that I wish my parents had beat me, so that I could at least understand why I feel so fucked up. Not really a joke, of course. A great part of my pain lies in the self-judgment that, having been raised in comfort as a little prince, having been born male, white, smart, well-fed, and American, I should not feel the way I do. But I do feel the way I do, and it has taken me long years, constant unraveling, tears and rants, blaming and forgiveness, truth-telling (mostly to myself), and apprenticing myself to Sally as Teacher in the matter of both anger and conflict, to begin to understand why. Apart from the occasional spankings that were a widely-accepted part of Sixties child-rearing, my parents were not overtly physically, emotionally, or psychologically abusive. They were good people, trying to be good, trying to do good, doing the best they could with the tools, beliefs, and stories they’d been handed by the generations preceding them. But when I feel my way back to my early experience of family, I’m stopped short by the realization that, buried in the center of it all, lodged in this happy family, there was a chunk of unacknowledged dissatisfaction, disappointment, and rage that, like Kryptonite, poisoned us all, including the four young supermen that were my brothers and myself.

I do not know, for sure, what that Kryptonite was, or how it became lodged in our lives. My mother wore her rage as exhaustion, irritation, and dramatic sighs of longing, with occasional explosions of fury. My father cloaked his rage in affable okey-dokeys, but it was there inside of him nonetheless. Surely they lived the “day in, day out” lives David Foster Wallace spoke of, but I think it was more than that. The Kryptonite had deeper roots, I believe, that shaped the previous generations of our rural farming family. It revealed itself in the quiet, stolid, unexpressive lives of my uncles, and put the lost, pained, angry grimace on my grandmother’s face. It was handed down from generation to generation, this Kryptonite. It was our family’s view of life, the universe, and everything. It was the limitations, absurdities, and betrayals of that worldview. It was the culture itself. It was nobody’s fault.

We could all feel the Kryptonite, I think, we sensitive little boys, all in our own ways. It manifested, first and foremost, in my opinion, as a bantering, competitive, teasing family system, where joking, baiting, insulting, one-upping, and put-downing, all under the guise of “going for the laugh” and “just in fun,” provided the only safe and approved avenue for the release of tension, the processing of poison, and the expression of our anger. We were all terrified, you see. Terrified of conflict. Terrified of anger. Terrified of love and deep feeling. Terrified of being hurt, and of hurting others. And rightly so, perhaps. Because we knew, we sensed, we felt, that should we pull the cover from that chunk of Kryptonite, it might burn so brightly that it would kill us all. And we knew, deep in our bones but not in our minds, that we’d lost our healing arts, and did not even believe that healing was possible. The Kryptonite was there, tucked into a duffel bag in the back closet in the basement. We could feel its poisoning, irradiating effects. But we could not approach it. We could not move it. And we could not render it harmless. We did not know how.

“It feels impossible to counter,” I said to Sally this morning, tears welling up in my eyes. “I was raised in an intermittent reinforcement schedule, the most difficult type of conditioning to extinguish.” Sally knew what I meant. Good people living with Kryptonite in their basement were prone to occasional, unpredictable, and surprising outbursts of anger, blame, and judgment which, erupting up out of the constant, underground, tightly-contained magma of dissatisfaction, would knock me completely out of myself. I lost all trust. If good people could be so bad, if the people who said “I love you” could so betray me, if “mother” could also be “terrifying punisher,” then this little alien visitor would never be safe. Not ever. No matter how long they might appear to be my friends, people could turn on me. And sometimes they did. And so many decades later, I’m still suffering. The trigger for Sally’s and my morning’s conversation was that some good friends had stopped by the day before and hung out to eat their lunch in our front yard while I was building some new porch steps. Far from being unsafe, these friends were actually aware of my avowed “introversion,” and gave voice to knowing how their arrival might throw me off, and tried to actually care for me. It didn’t matter. The alerts sounded, the sirens screamed, the panic rose, and I lost myself. And after that loss came shame, feelings of weakness, and upset. “It doesn’t mean anything about you!” I wanted to cry. “I’m just… hurt.” But in such moments of social panic, I am unable to speak the what’s so that might bring me some measure of comfort. All I can feel is the Kryptonite, reaching out from the past and poisoning the present.

I write today because it is my daughter’s birthday. I found out because Facebook told me so, and suggested I buy her a Starbucks gift certificate. I write today because Mother’s Day is coming, which I know because of the spam ads that show up in my in-box. I write because I no longer know how to have a relationship with either my children or my mother, because I have no idea how to make or send or buy or be a gift, because I cannot seem to find a way to be the gift that I am in their lives, because I am so disconnected now that I get my family news from spam email and Facebook. In my faltering attempts to speak the truth of my experience to my family of origin, I have now managed to pretty much alienate them all, save for one brother who keeps hanging on, who seems to understand some portion of my experience simply because he understands some portion of his own, similar experience. I broke the most fundamental rule, you see:  I tried to expose the Kryptonite, even though I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I tried to speak of the things inside of me that still poisoned me. I tried to interrupt the basic rules of the family system that hurt me, and which hurt me still when I am inside of that system. I set off to face my own terrors and find my own healing. I set off to face the truth of the world we have created for ourselves. I went off to find the water, to see it, to feel it, to know it. I set out to save my own life, because the pain was killing me. But the only way I could find to do that was to walk away from where I’d been.

I write today mostly because I don’t know what else to do. And I write, in the end, with the faint hope and utter certainty that Wallace is right, that love and connection and the sacred can be snatched out of this cold, hard Universe by a simple human choice, even in the face of the NTE. Can I choose to find my own life now, and then live it before I die?  Is it okay now, to do that, even though I was raised with Kryptonite in the basement? Even though I got so poisoned? Even though I’ve made so many, many mistakes? Even though I’ve had to walk away even from my own children in order to save my own life?  Can I pay the fine for the crime of having been born into this insanity, as Jeff Bridges asked in The Fisher King, and go home?  Can I just choose?

I’m certain that I can.  And I have my doubts.

I wonder: did David Foster Wallace find this for himself before he died? He hanged himself, you know, just as we humans seem bent on hanging ourselves in our quest to rule the world. He found his death. But did he find his own life before death? I hear in his voice that he did.

And if he did, can I?

And if I can, can We™?

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