Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose

14 08 2014

There was another death, of course, one I didn’t so much skip over as decide to mull.

Robin Williams’s suicide, I mean.

I was a fan, I guess. His flights away from ordinary conversation at first made laugh, later made me uneasy, and thought some of his acting schticky, but when he was focused his characters could be, as with Parry in The Fisher King, almost unbearably human.

But as my fandom was mild, I didn’t have much to say.

And then I heard this:

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Those struggles now ended. He is, as his Genie character in “Aladdin” would have it, finally free.

BLOCK: Well, that idea – that suicide is freeing – has prompted a lot of concern in the mental health community. We heard from a number of our listeners about that. Among them Elizabeth Minne, she’s a licensed psychologist in Austin, Texas, and she joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELIZABETH MINNE: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And you wrote in to express your concern. You said, comments like this make my job difficult. Explain what you mean by that. How is it more difficult?

MINNE: I have found that comments like this can be interpreted by families and by individuals as a sign that they too can attain something positive by committing suicide.

BLOCK: Something positive meaning some sort of liberation from the pain that they’re in?

MINNE: Right. Some sense of freedom or view it as a positive way to find – or an appropriate way to find some sense of relief.

Minnie goes on to note that she tells her patients that “suicide is never an option for working through distress – that there is always a way for us to get to a better place.”

Most of the commenters were, shall we say, unimpressed, calling out Minnie’s credentials, expertise, and even motivation—one accused her of wanting to keep her patients alive just to make a buck off of them—and generally decrying her inability to see how awful depression could be.

Her words pricked my ears, certainly, and had I heard something similar when I was in the midst of my own self-destructiveness, I would have lit my own torch against her: Of course I have the right to kill myself! Of course I can free myself of all of this terribleness!

But I’ll give Minnie half a break: she is a psychotherapist who works with greatly distressed people, so if she’s going to be of any help to them she has to carry the hope that they lost. She has to believe they can get through until they can believe it themselves.

I’ve spoken enough about this before to say simply that that mattered to me, even if I wasn’t at the time wholly conscious that and how it mattered.

But it also helps to acknowledge that suicide is, in fact, an option, and that suffering in life can be so great that wanting to shed that suffering by shedding life makes sense.

It’s about recognition: just as telling someone that they can get through is a way to see that person when she, perhaps, can’t see herself, noting that suicide is on the table is a way to see, to allow one to see, her suffering.

You don’t have to agree with it or like it or encourage it, but if you know you can’t save someone else—and therapists damned well better know they can’t save someone—then maybe you have to accept that he can’t save himself. If his life is in his hands, then his life is in his hands.

Depression morphs one’s mind—I look back to old journal entries and think Who was the person?—but it’s not as if one is a less authentic self when depressed when not, that somehow all one has to do is to scrape off the weight of despair and one’s real life will pop back up.

I don’t know, maybe some patients want to hear that, want to hear of the elasticity of the self, and who knows, maybe for some it’s true.

But for some it’s not, for some the suffering has seeped in so deep that the only way to get rid of the suffering is to get rid of the self.

I don’t know how a therapist deals with a situation like that. I mean, I know that the two who worked hard with me kept working, but I don’t doubt that they knew the limits of that work. Do they see mental illness like other potentially fatal illness? that sometimes the surgery and the chemo and the therapy don’t take? Or is that fact that there’s no hospice care for depression mean that the limits themselves aren’t understood?

In any case, my life was in my hands, and only when I finally, finally, figured that out for myself—only when I knew that death and life were both options—was I able to sigh, Okay.

It could have gone the other way, of course, and that sighed Okay could have been my last word. But I don’t know that I could have closed my fist over life had I not also held death in my hands. I had to hold them both before I could let one of them go.

I am sorry for Robin Williams’s family that he let go of life, and I’m sorry for him for the suffering that led to that letting go.

Okay.





Blames it on fate

29 07 2014

1. Victims are bad political actors.

To act politically is to act power-fully, that is, to wield power. To wield power well, you have to recognize that you are, in fact, capable and in a position to wield power; to wield power wisely, you have to be willing to act beyond the wound suffered, to see that others suffer, and to try to create conditions in which suffering is not the main driver of you and your people.

This, needless to say, is tremendously difficult: Nelson Mandela is lauded as one of the great political actors because he tried to move beyond suffering and to point South Africa toward a future in which all of its peoples took part.

He is lauded because what he did was so rare.

2. This doesn’t mean that victims can’t ever become political actors, or that the circumstances of one’s victimization cannot justly for the basis of one’s political activities.

There is a history of victims demanding recognition as having been victimized, demanding that victimization cease, and in some cases demanding recompense for their victimization. These causes—poor relief, civil rights, indigenous rights, Chicano rights, women’s liberation, gay liberation, disability rights—are just, and justly fought for in the political realm.

I am not arguing that the issue of victimization is off-limits to politics—quite the opposite.

The promise of politics is that one is able to act on one’s own behalf, to act in concert with others on shared concerns, and to act in service to larger principles and ideals. Politics offers the possibility of acting both for oneself and beyond oneself.

Politics offers the possibility of power.

A good way to avoid victimization is to gain power.* It is not unreasonable for those who first gain power seek to use it primarily in defense of oneself and one’s group, and then to try to advance that group’s interests based on more-or-less-narrowly self-interested grounds.

Note that this is the history of politics in New York City.

Note as well that New York City is not known for its pantheon of wise political leaders.

3. To state this baldly: in order to act well, to govern well, one has to leave behind one’s primary identity as a victim and embrace a wider role.

One’s past victimhood may, perhaps even should, continue to inform one’s political actions, but broadly, rather than narrowly, and based on generally applicable principles rather than solely on one’s own, particular, experiences.

Again, those experiences matter—politics ought not be shrunk to mere procedure—but if one’s own experiences matter, then one ought to be able to recognize that others’ experiences matter as well.

If you think it is wrong that you suffer, then you ought to be able to see that it is wrong that others suffer, such that when acting to relieve one’s own and to prevent future suffering, one ought to seek a wide relief, a broad prevention.

You don’t have to do that, of course—see the history of all politics, everywhere—but if you stick only to your own kind, insist that yours is the only victimization that matters, that even to suggest that others may be victimized, much less that you may victimize others, is to victimize you all over again, then you are a bad political actor.

If you cannot see that others may be victimized, that others suffer, then you cannot see others.

If you cannot see others, then, politically, you can act neither wisely nor well.

~~~

n.b. Recent events in and commentary about Israel and Gaza obviously informed this somewhat-fragmentary post.

~~~

*Arendtian tho’ I am, I nonetheless recognize that power may be gained thru non-political means as well. For the purposes of this post, however, I confine myself to political power.





Gotta keep bars on all our windows

27 07 2014

Israel is us or, shall I say, US, as told by Jon Snow:

I feel guilty in leaving, and for the first time in my reporting life, scarred, deeply scarred by what I have seen, some of it too terrible to put on the screen.

It is accentuated by suddenly being within sumptuously appointed Israel. Accentuated by the absolute absence of anything that indicates that this bloody war rages a few miles away. A war that the UN stated yesterday has reduced 55 per cent of  Gaza’s diminutive land to a no-go area.

Go tell that to the children playing in the dusty streets or the families forced out of  shelters like the UN school compound, to forage for food beneath shells and missiles.

In and out of an Israeli transit hotel for a few hours in Ashkelon, an hour from the steel crossing-point from Gaza, there were three half-hearted air raid warnings. Some people run, but most just get on with what they are doing.

They are relatively safe today because  Israel is the most heavily fortified country on earth. The brilliant Israeli-invented, American-financed shield is all but fool-proof; the border fortifications, the intelligence, beyond anything else anywhere.

This brilliant people is devoting itself to a permanent and ever-intensifying expenditure to secure a circumstance in which there will never be a deal with the Palestinians. That’s what it looks like, that is what you see. It may not be true.

The pressure not to go on this way is both internationally and domestically a minority pursuit.

He notes the security demands and commands from behind windows and walls, disembodied voices demonstrating control over voiceless bodies:

“Feet apart!” they said. “Turn! No, not that way – the other!” Then, in the next of five steel security rooms I passed through – each with a red or green light to tell me to stop or go – a male security guard up in the same complex above me shouted “Take your shirt off – right off. Now throw it on the floor… Pick it up, now ring it like it was wet” (it was wet, soaked in sweat).

From entering the steel complex until I reach the final steel clearing room where I held the baby, I was never spoken to face to face, nor did I see another human beyond those who barked the commands through the bullet-proof windows high above me.

Is this not how we in the US approach the rest of the world? We send drones over deserts and bombs into buildings and we sit in our sumptuously appointed country pointedly ignoring what we do and how we are.





I hate the asshole I’ve become

9 08 2013

No, wait, this guy probably doesn’t even know he’s an asshole:

In a video of the event posted by ThinkProgress, the freshman Republican [Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.)] said he was in Crystal City, Va., buying groceries in a nice but crowded store when he noticed something strange.

“Every lane was open and it was backed up and I noticed everybody was giving that card,” Mullin said, apparently referring to the electronic benefit transfer cards most states use to distribute food stamps. “They had these huge baskets, and I realized it was the first of the month.”

In Virginia, food stamp benefits are automatically deposited on the first of the month for anyone whose case number ends in zero, one, two or three.

“But then I’m looking over, and there’s a couple beside me,” Mullin continued. “This guy was built like a brick house. I mean he had muscles all over him. He was in a little tank top and pair of shorts and really nice Nike shoes. And she was standing there, and she was all in shape and she looked like she had just come from a fitness program. She was in the spandex, and you know, they were both physically fit. And they go up in front of me and they pay with that card.”

Mullin knew what he’d witnessed. “Fraud,” he said. “Absolute 100 percent, all of it is fraud. There’s fraud all through that.”

That’s right, because if you’re poor you must wear rags and have your bones poking through your skin.

Also, no one who’s ever not been poor becomes poor, so there’s no way that those people could have bought that stuff when they weren’t poor.

Nor did they get them as gifts, or at an outlet, or from a clothing give-away.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be acceptable for that couple to have purchased that stuff because, goddammit, poverty sucks and once in a while you just want something, anything, nice to remind yourself that you’re not worthless and deserve to live as a human being.

No, if you’re poor, you must visibly suffer in every way.

So that the not-poor can feel righteous in their generosity.





I’d like to sing a song of great social and political import

26 01 2012

I missed her birthday.

Not that she’d know, given that she’s been dead for over forty years, but I used to know and celebrate the day Janis Joplin squalled her way into the world.

I think I’ve written this before, but what the hell: My friend K. and I taught this to a half-busful of Forensic [speech, not mortuary] Society high schoolers on our way back from some tournament or another. It was dark, the bus was old, the trip long. And if our high-volumed rasping pissed off the faculty adviser, all the better.

Janis was like that: the big personality you could hide behind.

I fell for Janis in high school, aping her in drink (Southern Comfort, when I could afford it) if in nothing else: I couldn’t sing like her, had no appetite for heroin, and was never as outrageous as I would have liked to have been.

Janis was too much, in every way. She was too loud, too drunk, too high, and way too sexy for someone who in no way fitted any conventional notions of sexiness.

You could see that, too, in those old photos and reels of her performing. She knows she’s performing when she sticks out her tongue or her chest or when she struts across the stage. She’s covering.

She never thought she was enough, but man, when she snugged that mic up beneath her lip, her voice spilled out and over her and everyone who heard her and then all her too-muchness was just as it should be. No cover, then.

There she is, in all her feathers, a few months before her death.

Of course, that she died was part of the fascination for my teenaged self—she suffered for her art!—but it was the fight in her, even more so, even if back then I could only valorize the suffering-unto-death, not that she suffered in the fight to stay alive.

I was listening to her recently, and came across a line I used to write on notebooks and bathroom stalls: Tomorrow never happens, man, it’s all the same fucking day, man.

Janis Joplin, absurdist. She would have been 69.