Monday, April 29, 2013

Not A Competition

Tonight a friend was complaining to me about something that had happened that made her have "a meltdown" (her words). Plans she had been looking forward to and depending on were cancelled at the last minute by someone who didn't realize what a big deal it was to her. And while I could understand frustration, the level of anger and emotion she was displaying ("Fuck this. Fuck today. Fuck absolutely everything.") seemed so far past the point of melodrama that I found myself literally rolling my eyes. I didn't let it on to her when I responded, stuck instead to the Supportive Friend script of, "Oh no! What's wrong? I'm sorry... That sucks," and so on. But inside my head while this all was going on I kept thinking, Your life isn't really as bad as you think it is. Why are you whining so much?

But then I remembered one of my last conversations with Mandy. Mandy is the former friend I referred to anonymously in some of my blog posts back in November and December of last year. I don't have any qualms mentioning her by name now, because fuck it, what's she going to do? Not be my friend anymore? That ship has sailed. Anyway, Mandy was going on and on about how I had no reason to feel sad or upset because at least I had parents who were alive and cared about me, unlike her with her dead dad and "racist" (her description, not mine) mom, and siblings who were nice, unlike her "asshole" brother. She was basically trying to make me feel guilty for not having had bad things happen to me, and trying to make me feel like I could never possibly have anything to complain about because her life was so much worse.

And I didn't reply to that part of her message. By that point communication had dissolved a great deal and would soon cease altogether. But this is what I wish I had said to her:

Pain is not a competition. Even if the conditions in your life are worse than mine, that doesn't cancel out my feelings or make them any less legitimate than yours.

Here's the deal. Feelings of frustration, weariness, helplessness, sadness, anger and dissatisfaction - they happen to all of us to varying degrees depending on the situations we face. Everyone's experiences are different, but our emotions and reactions are often very similar and that's part of what connects us as human beings. The death of someone you love is a terrible tragedy. Feeling trapped by debt to the point that you work yourself literally to exhaustion week after week to pay it off is wearying and sad. If you compare the two, obviously death is going to outrank debt in most people's minds, but honestly what do we get by comparing? What purpose does it serve? It doesn't help anything. Both experiences are legitimate. Pain is not a competition.

So thinking about it that way... Losing your job and having to live at home with parents who think you're a Jezebel and a demon-worshiper and do what they can to constantly remind you of that must be frustrating and emotionally traumatic. So of course the opportunity to escape this for a little while would be the sort of thing you get your hopes up about, and if it were to fall through I can see being upset. The histrionics? A little much, sure, but who am I to dismiss the pain behind them?

So I'm glad I at least went through the motions of being a supportive friend instead of being bitchy and sarcastic. No one needs that. No comparisons or rankings. How about just plain old compassion?

Sunday, April 21, 2013


Almost everything on the news this past week has been about Boston, and we've gone through the normal pattern of questions....

Bombs went off at the marathon on Monday. People died and were seriously injured. What exactly happened here?

This was a purposeful act, not an accident. Who did this?

The city is placed on lock-down. Where are they?

Two suspects are identified and located. In the shoot-out to follow, one suspect is killed. Soon afterward, the second suspect is captured and seriously injured. Which means that after all these other questions, we come to the most haunting one of all:


Dzhokhar Tsarvaev is in the hospital in critical condition and isn't going to be answering that question anytime soon. Even when - if - he is able to clarify his role in all this, to put into words the motivations that led to his alleged actions and the alleged actions of his brother Tamerlan, it is doubtful that his explanation will really tell us anything. It won't be enough. It won't be anything we can wrap our heads around. Because to the average person, this makes no sense.

We seem to only hear that word, "senseless," tossed around in the media after some overwhelming act of purposeful destruction. The earthquake that happened today in China that has killed over 150 people is a terrible tragedy, but it is not "senseless," because we do not expect a force of nature to operate within rules of logic and morality. The plant explosion in Texas that occurred earlier this week and has killed at least 14 people is a devastating accident, but it is not "senseless," because dangerous chemicals and machinery do not follow any sort of creed or code. And even if the cause is revealed to be due to human error or negligence, this is different than intentional design and can at least make a sort of sense to us. To use a fictional example we can look at Life of Pi. If Pi were to be eaten by the tiger trapped with him on the lifeboat, it would be sad and horrifying, but not "senseless." Because again, though animals have intelligence and emotion, we understand that they are more often driven by instinct and impulse and do not hold them to the same standards of human interaction.

But we expect more of one another. We expect our fellow humans to operate with a certain respect for themselves, each other, and the species as a whole. Theft, rape, even murder - they are disgusting and evil acts, they cross the line, but even so they still make a kind of twisted sense, because at least we can understand what it is to selfishly want something (even if the majority of us would not go about such totally wrong means of getting it) or to be driven by an overwhelming emotion (though for most of us, self control wins in the end). But when someone comes along and purposes in their heart to completely fly in the face of this innate respect for fellow human life, and to act in such a way not for personal gain but simply to make some sort of statement or attract notoriety - it makes no sense. None at all.

Why? Why?

In a blog post four years ago entitled "Musings on Entropy" I wrote this: "I hate how easy it is to destroy something. I think this is a fundamental flaw in the universe: the fact that it is easy and immediate to kill, to destroy, to take away, to injure, to break, and that it is often difficult and slow to grow, to build, to repair, to create, to heal, to restore." I still hate it. Two years later in 2011 directly following the London riots, I wrote another reflection on the exact same topic, calling it the "dichotomous relationship" between destruction and creation. But pondering it now, yet another two years later, I don't think "dichotomous" is the right word. It talks about a split into two mutually exclusive groups, but actually I'm beginning to realize that creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin.

It is unsurprising the me that Adolf Hitler, the man whose name is perhaps as synonymous with evil as Lucifer himself, was first a painter. Unsatisfied with limiting his vision of the world to still lifes of scenery and flowers, he went on to commit some of the most senseless atrocities in modern warfare, and, let's be honest, in human history. And you know how he brought this about? Imagination, ingenuity, talent, hard work, effort. All these words we post up on motivational posters, that conjure in our heads images of great artists and inventors and humanitarians, people who create and inspire and add something beneficial to the world - well, guess what? They are the tools of dictators and terrorists as well. (Yes, I know, they have other tools we refuse to use: fear, manipulation, etc. But still...)

There is power in ideas. There is power in imagination. And this isn't The Wizard of Oz where you're a good witch or a bad witch. Imagination is a neutral force that can be funneled toward any cause or any point on the moral compass. Plenty of people figured this out long before me. Nearly two hundred years ago, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "Words - so innocent and powerless they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good or evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them." (Emphasis mine.) Last year, musician Amanda Palmer released a song called "Ukulele Anthem" in which she notes: "It takes about an hour to teach someone to play the ukulele / About the same to teach someone to build a standard pipe bomb / YOU DO THE MATH." And back in 2008, giving her commencement address to the graduates of Harvard university, author J.K. Rowling explained that "unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's places. Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise." Which is why, she went on to explain, it is so very important that we learn to "imagine better."

Boston is just the latest knot in a long string of senseless violence, and I fear this string will only grow more tangled in years ahead. We may get answers to some of our questions, but that last one, the most important one, is one I don't think there will ever be an answer to.

So instead I'll choose to ask a different question: if evil can be "senseless," why can't good?

I think the best way to fight back against such inexplicable destructivity (look it up - it's a real word!) is through acts of kindness and compassion that defy logic. People don't always deserve love - we can be cruel and downright terrible to each other, and many of us, even on our best days, are still ultimately self-serving and small-minded - but what if we do the radical thing and give it to them anyway? Go out of our way to do things to add joy and beauty to other people's lives, even people we really might not like that much? Even if it was inconvenient or meant putting someone else's interests ahead of our own? How senseless would that be?

...and how wonderful?

I don't really have some neat way to wrap this whole thing up. It's long and rambling and all over the place and I'm not even sure if I've said what I'm trying to say. Just, don't get discouraged. And don't be afraid. I read these books nowadays - Hunger Games and others of that ilk - and wonder if people respond to them the way they do because there's that fear there in all of us that the world really is sinking into such a hopeless state. Well, I don't believe it. Not for an instant. For all the hell we see in this world, there are also shining glimpses of heaven.

There are two sides to every coin.