time will tell
as the world crumbles to hell
what they created
was a family story no one will tell
it's a photo album too terrible
but the pride and the pallor continue to swell
as the matron silently prays
-- Bad Religion
I've been thinking lately about how so much of what I learned about life is utter bullshit.
Is this just the way it is for most people? Is this due to a generational divide, the differences between people who work explicitly toward healing versus those who do not? Is this the issue of ones twenties, to sort through what one has learned, to find what one didn't learn, and to make choices and changes and find a satisfying way to live? Is this a personal version of philosophical schisms, the way postmodernism mocked modernism's beliefs in originality and genius, the way modernism balked at the enlightenment's optimism around reason?
I suppose my main question is: is this problem general or particular? In other words, is this because daughters tend to be disillusioned by mothers, the younger generation sees the flaws of the older one and wants to correct it, or is this because my background is exceptionally flawed? Is this all our fault? But how unusual is it for a middle to upper middle class family to hide its traumas behind a cultivated facade? Aren't most people delusional anyway? (The Buddha would certainly say so.) Surely it's not just me, but it feels so shameful and so lonely. The happier I become in my own life, the more loneliness I feel. This is a special hole, a unique dilemma, and no other happiness can compensate for it.
Does any of this even matter?
Well, my mind can come up with many reasons why it does not, but my heart is not convinced. My emotions are in a knot about this issue. For them, it is as if no one has even been disillusioned before. There is a special sense of shattering, of mourning, loneliness, confusion, and anger. No amount of rationalization, or even of reflecting on the good things in my past and present, can change these emotions. They insist on their existence and on their enormity. I think it would be useful to do an inventory, not necessarily an exhaustive one, but I'm also scared of the task. I don't want to look at all the rubble. I'm worried I'll feel even more upset by it all than I currently do. But I want some clarity.
I learned that the world is a scary place full of people who want to take you down because you're brilliant. I'm finding that the world has suffering in it, but it's also a fun, dynamic, exciting place to be, and that most people want to help you out, especially when it's their job (professor) or they're struggling in your position too (colleague).
I'm learning that the world's suffering is not usually caused by people who suck and get perverse pleasure out of blocking your deserved path to greatness, but rather is a condition of the world. Suffering is not other people's fault; in fact, people suffer with you, and this is a great opportunity for connection and compassion. Suffering is not inflicted on you by shitty, vindictive people. Rather, it is part of the world, and instead of being condemned to its injustice, you can see it for what it is, you can navigate it, and still be really happy. There's no one to take you down.
At the same time, I also learned that I'm one of the most brilliant people ever and I need to achieve in order to prove this to everyone. And if I don't or can't prove this, I don't count and it's like I'm dead. Now I can assure you that I am not one of the most brilliant people ever, but I don't think anybody is, even the da Vincis of the world. Whether brilliance is "true," it's not a useful concept; it definitely doesn't lead to freedom from stress. What I'm learning is that I don't have to be the most brilliant person ever to be okay and happy. I can still enjoy my intelligence, and I can also enjoy everything else, like my averageness, my stupidity, my humor, my awkwardness, my kindness. I can not be perfect and still do a good job and contribute.
I learned that I have to do "the right thing" all the time, that there's a right decision to be made in every moment and I'm fucked if I don't make it. This is a tricky one for me. I'm learning that there is no right thing to do. That I can make decisions and go with them. That it's just okay. That my happiness is not contingent on every little decision. That I can trust myself, and learn to trust myself little by little.
I learned that there isn't enough to go around. So if someone else is 'smarter' than me or does well, I'm totally fucked. Now I'm adopting more of an abundance mentality. There's no need to compare. Everyone has praise and blame, gain and loss. One person's praise doesn't mean another person can't be praised, for the same reason or for different ones. No one's success cancels out my own, and certainly doesn't get rid of my possibility to learn, which can happen in every moment.
I learned that I need to complete everything really early, because that's the only way to be safe. Now I know that life is too variable for this. Sometimes I can get things done early, but sometimes I'm barely catching up, and that's okay too. I'm safe in the moment and I can allow things not to be ideal. They can still turn out well. And if not, I have refuges. It doesn't mean I'm finished or dead.
I learned that the only way to get good at something is to pursue it single-mindedly. Now I know that dedication is a good thing, but being single-minded adds a lot of stress and doesn't give the mind the space it needs to breathe. It's actually more helpful to enjoy different aspects of life, to have a variety of intellectual, spiritual, psychological, physical interests and friendships. This variety only enhances dedication rather than taking away from it. This is a big new learning for me that contradicts what I grew up with.
I learned that the vast majority of people are soulless, uncultured shits beyond redemption. Now I'm seeing that while people can indeed be annoying, they can also be really great, and can share joy and vulnerability with you, which is nicer than anything. People have their difficulties, but they are worthwhile. I can actually say this now. There is a lot to gain from connecting with people and just allowing that, more than I ever would have guessed.
I learned that learning involves being really good at something all the time and just getting better at it. I learned that learning is like "winding up a watch," where you may move backward a bit at times, but only to get further ahead (which is proof of your innate superiority). Now I know that learning isn't so simple and believing it is is a set-up for disappointment and anxiety. Learning is not to be taken for granted. It is a complex, moody, contingent process worthy of attention and reverence. I actually think reverence is a wonderful word for learning. Learning involves a lot of not knowing, cluelessness, forgetting, the brain getting overfull, being confused, feeling like you know less than you did an hour ago and even a year ago, feeling overwhelmed at how much more is out there. Learning is growth and growth involves pain. Learning is the farthest thing from a linear process. And learning does happen. It has fits and starts. Dedication and getting help, breaking it down and sticking with it and allowing it to be hard and full of failure actually gets you there. As you stay with the bumpy process, you do learn and grow and have ideas and contribute them. There is a fun and rewarding, eye-opening and even exhilarating aspect of learning, but learning is part of samsara, it is a conditioned thing, and that involves suffering, too.
I learned that bodies, especially female ones, are supposed to be thin and pretty, demure and ladylike. I learned that it is refined to eat vegetables, avoid carbs, avoid sauces because they are "bad" and always leave food on the plate. Now I'm seeing that fat bodies are awesome. They can and should be accepted. I'm seeing that ideas about 'bad' foods and restricting yourself and punishing yourself at the gym are crap. Instead, I get to enjoy lots of different food -- including loads of awesome vegetables -- eating intuitively, moving my body as I like to, appreciating my body's hunger and fullness signals. Fat positivity and health at every size are amazing worlds that are the opposite of everything I learned about my body and how to treat it.
I learned that women should look ladylike, that this matters for whatever reason, that even pinstripes are 'too masculine.' I now see this is absolute bullshit. If a woman likes feminine fashions, this is fine, but I've always been a tomboy, and if I want to wear adidas shirts, horizontal stripes, silly cartoon t-shirts, pants with flared or wide legs, and sneakers, that is fucking excellent.
I learned that people are incredibly volatile, that it's fine for them to yell at you and degrade you whenever they want because they have authority over you. I now know that this is abuse. No one gets to yell at me, degrade me, shame me, blame me for any reason. I can expect kind treatment from others and I can protest when they don't give it to me and choose to avoid certain people. I don't have to be the scared, angry, confused child I once was and just take it because I have no choice. I now have the pleasure of being in lots of relationships, especially my romantic one, where people are kind and fun and not about to yell at me. This makes humanity a lot more tolerable to say the least!
I learned that it's fine for a man to bark at all of his relatives and humiliate and shame his daughters and constantly worry about the prestige of everything. The fact that he was a prominent surgeon, as well as a fine violinist and artist supposedly made everything wonderful. I know now this is crap that has deeply wounded everyone in my family, even though most of them are too busy drinking the dead man's kool aid to admit it. I know that a man's talents do not come close to compensating for his cruelty.
I learned that suicide is caused by being too smart, sensitive, kind and wonderful for this world. I know now that suicide is a choice, and one that can be sadly spurred on by taking some strong medications. The world is not to blame for suicide, and it does not make the dead person a saint. I know that those levels of pain deserve compassion, and that suicide is not a good solution to anything; it just creates more pain for the living. There is a special place in my heart for this knowledge.
I learned that the way you deal with anything unpleasant, especially anxiety, is by immersing yourself in your chosen field and 'ignoring' everything else. The happiness this immersion, and the resultant success, gives you compensates for everything else that every happened to you and to your family. I now know this is total nonsense. You deal with anxiety and trauma by facing them, by working through them, and by seeking out community that can help with that. You deal with difficulties by developing resources, and therapy, meditation, Buddhist practice, focusing, nvc, even fat positivity are all amazing resources for processing life and dealing with adversity.
You can't drown out your issues through brilliance and hard work. Those things are largely irrelevant to the enormity of your pain. There is no substitute for working through it and developing meaningful human connections that help you do that. I don't buy the idea that art, music, science, academic inquiry can heal you. They can help, they can be ways of working through things, and they are definitely profound in their own right, but they are necessarily incomplete. Only doing the work of healing heals you. There is no way around this. When people tell you that they channeled all their frustrations into something, like their art, their music, and that this redeemed their life, they are completely delusional, they are buying into romantic myths that can't make you happy. Caspar David Friedrich was not known for the cheerful quality of his paintings, after all.
The intellect is wonderful, but nothing is better than working toward your own healing. And doing the work of healing only enhances every other area of your life, including your intellectual life. This is the most powerful thing I have learned in my twenties and it is the opposite of everything my family seems to stand for. They seem so sure you can ignore your hurt places and just surmount them through force of will. This is untrue and it harms you and everyone around you to believe otherwise.
I learned that it's important to be disciplined at all costs. I know now that discipline can be effective, but it can also hurt you and backfire. Nothing is more powerful than pleasure. I do things because I like them, I care about them, and I try to do things from a place of self-compassion and self-regard instead of to punish myself and hopefully reach a higher plane. This is a more relaxing way to live.
I feel like Hedwig at the end of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, where he's not in drag anymore, where he's naked and stumbling in an alley. I'm stumbling into lots of great things. It's not all uncharted territory anymore, but it's adventurous and rewarding territory despite the dukkha in it. I'm not sure how my sadness and anger and mourning are going to continue. I would like for them not to be completely stuck and I think that's what motivated me to write this. But I can't determine their timetable. I wrote earlier about this lonely hole that keeps commanding my attention. Sometimes it does feel like that, but the problem with that metaphor is that it's too solid. The territory is always changing. The lonely hole doesn't necessarily get filled up, but it is part of the shifting sands, the empty, ever-changing aggregates of being, and I can only wait to find out what its next shape will be.