Suffer To Swim and Dying To Sink

A lot has gone through my mind in the last 10 days, and I’ve struggled to find the words to say. So many people are doing retrospectives and tributes, and so many of them are much better writers and knew him personally. I’m just a lifelong fanboy who loved the work of Chris Cornell. I’m just someone who tried his hand at songwriting and singing and couldn’t hack it—probably due to a lack of self confidence more than anything, really.

The reason I’ve struggled is because when it comes to words to say about Chris, how could anyone do better than he? I know a lot of folks are hanging on the line from Black Hole Sun:

No one sings like you anymore

But I think in order to shine some light on mental health issues (like depression, of which I am a sufferer—and anxiety, which Chris was on medication for), a line from the lesser-known Soundgarden tune, Blind Dogs, that appeared on the soundtrack for the film The Basketball Diaries might be more apt. The song, which is a warning against the dangers of religious fundamentalism, features a bridge (which many of Chris’ songs did. It was one of the ways to help identify a song he may have penned), which goes:

I’m dead on my feet while my nightmare walks
I fell asleep where the freeway talks
Suffer to swim and dying to sink
These things in the air will make you think

I’m not sure what the rest of those lines are alluding to, but I’ll be damned if the third line isn’t an apt description of what it’s like to deal with mental illness. Every day it’s a struggle to keep your head above water. Every day it’s work to just keep living, and every day you think that it would be so much easier and such a relief to just stop treading water. Just give up and sink to the bottom. For the past several days, this is what I’ve been thinking about. Chris finally succumbed to the urge to stop treading water.

Now I’m not sure what role if any Chris purportedly taking more Ativan than prescribed might have played. We won’t know if he actually did until the toxicology reports come out (if they ever do). But what I do know, is that even if you’re a clinical depressive, or suffer from general anxiety to the point that you struggle with keeping on, many people may not even know that about you. You could laugh, joke, make plans for the future—all of that stuff—and then when in a moment of reflection, when you’re alone, things could take a turn. That’s the just nature of those issues. I crack jokes and act silly and laugh my head off all the time, that doesn’t mean that overall I’m not depressed. It just means that I socialize and have ways of compensating. I’m sure that Chris had that skill too.

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That Which Doesn’t Kill You? That Depends, Really.

Working in a retail environment, I have the displeasure of being exposed to many a crappy pop song, and one that’s been playing at my store recently has gotten me thinking of Nietzsche, Mother Teresa, and their shared infatuation with suffering. I’m not even sure who sings the song, and don’t really care. I’m not going to look it up, and I’m not going to link it here, but just know that it involves the line “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” This isn’t the first time a variation of this statement has popped up in popular culture (Megadeth’s Skin O’ My Teeth comes readily to mind, for instance), but hearing it repeatedly every time I work has gotten the gears of my brain turning over it.

Firstly, the quote is a paraphrase of what Nietzsche famously said in Twilight of the Idols:

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

And secondly, I don’t think it’s quite completely correct: sometimes, what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you leaves you in such a broken state that you wish you hadn’t lived. Nietzsche thought this was something to be thankful for, he thought the only authentic existence for a human being entailed suffering and woe. In The Will To Power, he wished suffering on his friends, saying:

To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities—I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures.

As someone who has suffered with depression most of his adult life, and who has a profound distrust of those who seem happy all the time (I always feel like they’re hiding something), I will say right now that I think wishing malady on your friends is a dick move. I don’t think it necessarily follows that just because someone’s life knocks them around a bit that it means that person will be any nobler or better at life than anyone else. Sometimes all it makes you is jaded, broken and unhappy.

I find it interesting that while Nietzsche thought suffering was the bees knees, he abhorred anything that reduced it—like say, alcohol, drugs or religion. Compare that to the likes of Mother Teresa, who seemed to think suffering was a part of being devoutly religious when she said

Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus – a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.

Pain, sorrow and suffering bring you closer to Jesus! Strikes me as odd, since Nietzsche’s main argument against religion’s role in suffering was that it was a sort of balm, lessening pain and sorrow by putting the weight of your woes on God. To me, it sounds like Teresa thought that suffering should be tolerated because it brings you closer to God, and it sounds nothing like she thought that God will lessen your suffering at all (until you’re dead and you go to heaven, of course).

I’d have to say that I don’t agree, at least not in all cases. Sometimes, hardship does seem to build character, and other times it just breaks a person down and grinds them into a shell of their former selves. I think it all depends on the person and on the situation. Sometimes, what doesn’t kill you just makes you wish you were dead.

And that’s enough of me…

How Do You Do It?

To those people who wake up every morning ready to take on the day, how do you do it? I usually spend several minutes lying in bed upset that I regained consciousness. Sleep is the only respite I have from this repetitive, day-to-day monotony we call living. When I’m asleep, it’s like I’m switched off. Darkness and quiet. No thoughts, no dreams (that I remember), no acknowledgement of perceiving anything, just quiet blackness. And then… I wake up and that is all dashed to pieces. I’m switched on again. Bombarded by experiences and thoughts. Conscious of my breathing in and out.

I know what you’re saying: “you have a shitty job and no family, nothing to look forward to in the morning,” but I think it’s lower order than that. I’m not saying I don’t have a shitty job, I do… but to my way of thinking, all jobs are shitty. Merely trading your time for money that you just roll over into the bare act of living because you don’t have time for anything else (thanks to your job) makes all jobs shitty. The fact that society is based on a job system of economics – the mere fact that there are things like societies and economies renders things like jobs shitty. They all fit into the same absurd, meaningless, repetitive machine.

Digression aside though, my complaint is a lower order than say jobs, or families, and certainly something as complex as society or the economy. What I’m saying is that the activity of living in itself is sort of a prison of monotony. Day in and day out, the activity of being alive grinds oppressively into your mind. Respiring, eating, excreting, sleeping, waking, rinse, repeat. Every day gets absorbed into every other day until they all become one entity (which technically speaking, they are. A “day” is a made up measurement of time. Technically, it’s been the same “day” since the earth first formed and the sun first shone on it). “Same shit, different day.” Bullshit. Same shit, same day. Thousands of wake/sleep cycles in a human lifetime. Thousands of mastications. Thousands of pointless, forgotten conversations. Hundreds of thousands of breaths and heartbeats. Thousands of hours spent viewing the same surroundings, waiting for something different to happen. Filling your time with pointless activities, like a job, or reading, watching TV, playing games, having sex, all so you can try and distract yourself from the utterly hellish experience that is consciousness.

Sartre thought Hell was other people, and to some extent that’s true, but I think it’s much more accurate to say is that Hell is the activity of being alive.

There’s a Hole In This Story

And then, another voice in me said “well, what’s the big deal, right? I mean, if you’re going on and on about ‘we’re gonna die, you know, there’s nothing you can do about it, and you’re sure that there’s something just waiting for you, then why don’t you just go back to sleep, and just let it happen?'” And I could feel, I could feel this, this thing inside me, this thing inside me that was resisting that, and that was me. It wasn’t a parasite, it was myself. And there was this drive that I felt. I was not going to let myself fall asleep again. And it’s a drive that we all have. We live; we keep living, and if death comes into the neighborhood, we’re going to fight it. And that is true. That’s a rule, and it’s real.

— science writer Carl Zimmer, in a 2011 episode of Story Collider called “Holes in the Net,” also a Radiolab episode entitled “Sleepless In South Sudan”

     Over the past few weeks, after having learned about Radiolab, I’ve worked backwards, starting with the newest episodes and getting to progressively older ones. Earlier tonight I heard that short, which is a live storytelling that Carl Zimmer gave for his podcast about four years ago. Carl has been on the show multiple times, and they’re always great, but this one struck a particular chord.

     All of my life, I’ve kind of struggled with depression. It’s a common story with people now, since people are sort of “coming out” more about it, but for everyone who lives with depression, you understand how lonely and… trapped inside your own head it makes you feel. Listening to Carl talk about his descent into this sort of spiral of morbidity and death after a really huge loss felt very familiar to me. In my life, I have been no stranger to death. By the time I was in my 20s, I had been to more funerals than I cared to try and count. Some of them were more devastating losses to me than others, but all of them were losses just the same. In the span of two years in my teens, for instance, I lost my dad and two friends. Two to accidents, and one to suicide, and there’s only been continuing losses as I’ve gotten older (as would be expected).

     So I suppose it’s sort of odd to lose so many, and feel sort of lost yourself—to the point where maybe you think the world would be a much better place without you in it—which is where that bit of Carl’s story pulled me back to. Years ago, sitting in my room, dragging a pocket knife across the flesh of my wrist. Wanting to end it all because of sheer loneliness, but that drive he spoke about? It kept me from cutting deep enough to do any irreparable damage. It’s a very conflicted feeling to want to die, try to die, and not want to die all at the same time. It’s not a case of “well, you obviously weren’t really suicidal. You were just trying to get attention.” Not true. I really did want to end it… I just… couldn’t.

     I suppose now, looking back, that I’m glad that I didn’t. I’ve met a lot of really great people (lost a lot, too) and learned a lot of really interesting things. I’m still mostly bummed out the majority of the time. Life is a never ending cycle of drudgery, it really is, but it’s also a never ending cycle of wonderment, laughter, silliness, intuitions, discoveries, victories, friendships, weirdness, and myriad other things. Life is this giant, absurd, chaotic ride, and as a human being I view it all filtered through a meaning engine. The brain takes all of this random shit and tries to smash it together into this coherent, purposeful story. Even when I know there isn’t a purpose to be had other than the one that I manufacture, I still can’t help but be a prisoner of that meaning engine. Drug along against my will, and finding things to stick around for on the way.

Podcast or blog? I guess we’ve figured that one out.

I’ve always lived by the maxim that if you don’t have anything worth saying, you should keep your mouth shut. I held to that so much in my younger days that some folks in my home town wondered if I was mute. I’m not. I just don’t think that passing air over my vocal cords to say “hi” is worth the effort when a simple nod will suffice. When I first started working at my current retail job, I would come home physically exhausted from the effort of saying hello to every customer I waited on. I shit you not, that was the most draining part of my job in the beginning. I guess that sort of classifies me as somewhat of an introvert, I don’t know.

I spent a long while deliberating over whether this should be in spoken or written formpodcast or blog, and after a few times stumbling over my own tongue, even with liquor to “lubricate the tongue,” so to speak, I think I decided that I should just write it down. Talking isn’t my thing. It seems too far removed from thought for me. Typing on the other hand? That seems like a direct line into my psyche. Opposed to speech, typing seems more sophisticated and much less clumsy. It’s easier to say what I mean, and edit what I mean, by just typing it out.

I suppose an introduction is in order. I mean, it’s only the third paragraph, I suppose I should give people some idea of who I am. I’m a Caucasian male, pushing forty (I’m thirty eight), born and raised in southern West Virginia. I’m a liberalextremely liberalalmost militantly so. Years ago I took a “Political Compass” quiz and it classified me as a Social Libertarian/Libertarian Socialist. I like the socialist part, let’s just leave it at that. My political opinion is that Democratic politicians are spineless pussies and Republican politicians are insane idiots. That’s about the long and short of that.

Another bit of info about me is that I’m an atheist. I’m what some folks refer to as a “Weak Atheist,” although I prefer to think of it as an intellectually honest atheist. “Weak Atheism” is basically at its root agnosticism. We say that there is no definite way of knowing whether or not there is a God, but based on the evidence (or lack thereof), we feel fairly confident in saying that there probably isn’t one. Of course, the existence of Weak Atheism implies that there is a “Strong Atheism.” There is indeed. Francois Tremblay is one of the major proponents of that flavor of non-belief. Francois even wrote the Handbook of Atheistic Apologetics (I have a copy of the Short Handbook of Atheistic Apologetics), and it works as far as it goes, but I think that Strong Atheism fails for much the same reason that Pascal’s Wager fails: it’s a far too limited idea of God. Basically in the Short Handbook of Atheistic Apologetics, Francois expends the majority of his efforts against the God of Philosophers, the so-called “Omni God” (omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omnipresent)a god concept that I think defeats itself (I may get into that and the Problem of Evil in a later post), so it doesn’t really need a whole handbook of Atheistic Apologetics devoted to it. Posit a God that isn’t all powerful, or everywhere at once, or all good… a pantheistic God, panentheististic God or even a deistic idea of God, and those arguments fail to work.

I’m a self-described Skeptic, and as such am in love with science, facts about science, science news and the scientific mode of thought. That being said, I suppose it’s obvious that I’m somewhat of a materialistically-minded empiricist. I’m not of the same opinion of a lot in the science community about the role of philosophy, though. I understand that the underpinnings of the workings of science and the scientific method are naturalism, materialism, and empirical philosophy, without which there would be no basis at all for science. There would be no benchmark for evidence. Contrary to the recent thoughts and writings of Michael Shermer, I don’t think science has a damned thing to say about morality and other value laden modalities. In my opinion, those are better left to ethics and aesthetics. I’m not scientistic, but I am scientific, if that makes sense.