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The Hardest Word

Some people can’t say they’re sorry. And some people really can.

My daughter and I decided to eat at a restaurant down the road from our house the other night. We rarely eat there. It is a bit fancy, though more in our minds than anything else; a bit pricey, though completely fine for ordering a burger or a sandwich, which was what we had in mind. This was the closest place to get something.

It was unusually hot, we had been on the go all day, and we were hungry. Very hungry. We entered the restaurant and debated whether to go to the eating area near the bar, which was where I thought our attire and slightly disheveled state would fit in more, or the dining room, which, she pointed out, was very casual, really, because it is attached to a humble nine-hole golf course and, well, this is the twenty-teens and Americans tend to be informal most places these days, even when eating dinner out. She was right, of course.

The host welcomed us without looking askance and none of the other diners batted an eye as we entered the dining room. We were shown to our table and all was well. Until the waitstaff forgot we were there and never returned.

We entertained ourselves and waited and waited. Finally, after much deliberation (we had time for a protracted discussion of all of the pros and cons, after all) we concluded that we had better leave and drive a little further to a place where we could just get a slice of pizza, pronto.

In the course of sneaking out of the restaurant, we were spied by a young man who turned out to be the manager. “Did we..forget all about you?!” he asked. Drained, my usual coverup operation fell by the wayside and I confessed gently, nearly inaudibly, with a feeble smile, “Um…yeah..kind of…but it’s really OK…we’re just so hungry…and we came here because you are right by our house…” His response was very unusual in this day and age. He blurted out, “Please stay! I’m so sorry! Please let us feed you!”

How could we turn and leave? The prospect of food had a definite appeal, but even further, it was the nature of his apology that was impossible to resist.

And it turned out to be genuine. By the time he had guided us back to our table, he had somehow arranged for a waiter to appear with a basket of bread and a pitcher of water. The manager also apologized again in the sweetest terms, as did everyone else waiting on us, but they all did so respectfully briefly, so that they could get right to our order. A gracious waitress brought our dinner as quickly as it is humanly possible to make a grilled cheese and cheeseburger. The manager checked in to see if we had been served, stating that of course our drinks–a tall glass of cold milk for my daughter and a lovely chilled Pino Grigio for me–were on him.

It was like a scene in the British miniseries “As Life Goes By,” in which a 50s-something couple has reunited after having fallen in love as young adults and gone their separate ways: he had to go off to war and his letters, through some accident, failed to reach her.  Now that they are back together (spoiler alert) he is preparing to propose something very important, and they go to an elegant restaurant that has just opened up. They are the only ones dining there and he can’t get a word in for hours because of the obsessive ministrations of the waitstaff. No sooner does the couple take a sip of water than someone shows up to refill the glass. You get the picture.

At our restaurant, the waitstaff was hardly intrusive in this way, making all the more clear that they were truly sorry for neglecting us. At every key point they were there with friendly efficiency, and it ended up being one of our best dining experiences ever. The manager returned to see if we enjoyed our meal and suggested we order a dessert. When we said we couldn’t eat anything more, he insisted we choose something to take home, also on him. Over the next couple of days, the huge piece of carrot cake allowed us to savor our experience again and again.

What was it about this particular response that makes it stand out from so many other apologies that one gets, overhears, or makes over a lifetime? It made me reflect on just how meaningful an apology it was and on how, on much more serious, life-altering  (ok, what threaten to be life-worsening) matters, some key person’s apology had fallen short.

What made this apology different?

In these times, between consumerism, advertising, and the service economy, we are all too familiar with efforts to manipulate our emotions. The obligatory “customer relations”-style apology, we know, signifies nothing about whether a particular human being actually feels sorry, bad, remorseful, guilty, or feels anything at all, actually. (Do everything to make Table 7 happy. The woman’s a royal complainer and will threaten to leave if she doesn’t get waited on immediately. [Eye roll. Exit left to kitchen])

It is tempting to see the manager’s apology as different because it was heartfelt, genuine, authentic, or something like that. He saw right through all of those usual layers of encrusted assumptions and expectations interposed between us in such situations. He seemed to see two fellow travelers who were just hungry, but still in good spirits and open to making a real human connection. And this was what was made. All because his apology was real.

It was real because of something else not ordinarily considered an essential part of an apology. The Oxford Dictionaries Online give the standard definition of an apology as “a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.”

True, the simple formulation of words, “I’m sorry,” goes a long, LONG way. As long as it does not come wrapped in an excuse, defensiveness, pointing the finger, failure to take responsibility, or insincerity, the verbal apology helps those relations strained by a wrong–whether large or small, intended or unintended, conscious or unconscious–committed by one of us to the detriment of another.

There are many other tangibles and intangibles that make some apologies better than others. However, the crucial element that can make or break an apology is what comes after “I’m sorry.”

This time, we do want the other shoe to drop. On the part of the person wronged, there needs to be an acceptance of the apology for it to be complete. In the era of immediate gratification and emotional superficiality, we might like to think this is the end of it.

After all, already we are pushing things way beyond what Fritz Perls proposed in 1969 as the mantra best suited to a philosophy of life focused on fulfillment of our needs, which many clearly live by today:

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.

*

In many ways, though, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” is just the beginning. After the two shoes have dropped, perhaps we still need to listen for something else (the coat, a symbol of our self-protection, even from other humans at times?) to drift to the floor. This can take a lot of time, needing sometimes a whole life course, and is quieter and less easily discerned than the certain thud of the two shoes.

One day a year or two ago the same daughter who joyously basked with me in the wonderful apology from the restaurant manager, came out with this: an apology doesn’t mean anything unless the person stops doing whatever it is he or she apologized for.

Chicago’s 1982 song, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” puts it rather simply. Someone heard his lover saying that “everybody needs a little time away”; “even lovers need a holiday.” This wound provoked the apology of the well-known chorus:

Hold me now
It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry
I just want you to stay
After all that we’ve been through
I will make it up to you
I promise to
And after all that’s been said and done
You’re just the part of me I can’t let go

In a restaurant setting, a waitperson can apologize and then fail to provide better service. No huge life-worsening there. It’s a free country and one can always leave, choosing either to sneak out or make a dramatic exit.

But in the plethora of other settings in which we find ourselves living in some kind of relation to others, there is the omnipresent possibility for a slight or hurt of every kind, imaginable and unimaginable.

The rational calculus of self-interested individualism under the guise of freedom and self-fulfillment mistakes the temporary meeting of basic needs for true life-giving sustenance, which can perhaps only be experienced collectively.

If we are unable to give–and accept–a true apology, it is is questionable whether we can ever return to a state of things between us that allows anything good, let alone beautiful, to happen. The tone of an apology can be all artifice, but atonement, making amends, and acting on our words are not so easily and carelessly affected.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

“What Is Modernity?”

There’s fear in his eyes.  His cheeks pucker upward in an awkward smile, the way one smiles before a job interview.  But the wide stare betrays a lack of trust, perhaps guilt.  In either case he can’t control it.  His hands extend asymmetrically around the laptop in front of him, mirroring the disconnect between his eyes and the muscles in his face.  There’s something robotic about this man.  He appears to be sitting on a comfortable sofa with his laptop, smiling over his shoulder at approaching company.  But his crooked posture doesn’t quite look human.  Does he exist?  Or does he represent a particular kind of existence we’re supposed to find appealing?  The ad’s intention is unclear.

I wanted to think he doesn’t exist.  “He could be the amalgamation of a series of stock images someone managed to assemble in the shape of a billboard,” I thought as I biked passed the intersection.  The man’s hair is neatly manicured and his suit is firmly pressed, but he looks undeniably nervous.  The laptop’s screen is blank.  In the background above his head, faintly discernable planes appear to be arriving and departing in the distance.  A web of bright industrial lines denote the antiseptic corridors of an airport terminal branching into space.  Surely the man’s sofa, laptop, and business attire are meant to convey his acquaintance with the ideals of entrepreneurial success.  But the lack of confidence in his face is unmistakable.  As if to make a wry joke, the billboard’s caption stretches across the left side of the sofa beside him: “M.S. in Strategic Leadership, Now Online!”

Both the man and the message sit atop an abandoned building across the street from 7-Eleven and kitty corner to Rent-A-Center in Rochester, NY.  Someone must have thought this was an appropriate way to pay homage to Monroe Avenue.

I arrived at Boulder Coffee and couldn’t take my eyes off the barista’s t-shirt.  White type against black background, “Keeping Providence Drunk One Punk At A Time” was not something one said without meaning it.  I took it to represent the transvaluation of Christian asceticism at the same time it was ostensibly an advertisement for a local punk band.  Glancing at the artful tattoo that graced the right side of her scalp, then the black handkerchief that hung outside her back pocket, I wondered if she’d seen them perform. Clear lines leading back in time, I wanted to know what she thought her punk credentials meant.  I remembered the flag I saw flying outside the anarchist collective a few streets earlier.  “Don’t Tread On Me” it declared in similar bold white type against a menacing black background.  Punishing the punisher, sentencing Him to death; waging war against all manner of restraint.  These are the archetypal trappings of youth who’ve learned to spite.  I could feel her anger press against me as she took my order, but I dismissed it with the same ease that I rode passed the anarchists’ flag without pausing.  None of this is shocking anymore; ordinariness is the modern insignia of conquest.

Riding back up Meigs Street I came to a four-way stop sign.  My normal habit would be to blow right through it without stopping, but in this case I was one of four motorists arrested by arriving at the intersection in unison. We had a moment there, the four of us.  We were part of something just before we ascended toward our respective destinations.  The source of authority that bound us together was impersonal and abstract, but we all observed it, if only for a moment before it was time to proceed beyond the social compact back into our private lives.

The fact that we advanced in near perfect synchronicity made the passage of our little community feel sad.  Once codified into conventions like this, mutual self-interest can be so bittersweet.  The two cars to my right and left streamed passed each other first, then the Dodge pick-up and I moved toward each other almost lovingly, crossing hip to hip for a split second.  We all got what we wanted, but we were each headed in opposite directions.  The inanimate, undiscriminating symbol that established order and regulated our shared movements had served its purpose, and we were free to go; but where?

I for one was peddling fast and headed home.

Out of nowhere, the question came back to me as I pushed passed Pearl Street.  It had been over a year since the day of my oral exams, but the memory of that moment still haunts me.

“What is modernity?” the professor started off in his characteristically sprawling tone.  I knew this was coming, and I had an answer prepared.  But I should have known that it would fall flat the way any answer to that question must in an academic setting.  “Modernity is the recognition and diffusion of autonomy throughout growing sectors of society over time,” I spouted confidently, thinking I’d handled his opening salvo quite well.

To his credit, the professor proceeded to savage me, revealing my ignorance of specifics despite so much hard work unmasking generalities.  As loathe as I was to admit it, I deserved to pass knowing I had failed to grasp the question.

Rounding the last corner before the entrance to my driveway, I told myself again that it was hubris to think I could have answered him adequately.  “Modernity is a feeling, ‘all that’s solid melts into air’ is an abstraction,” I whispered as I approached my empty house. Glancing up at the setting sun, I lifted my bike onto one shoulder and closed the garage door as soon as I was safely inside.

-Michael Fisher

Why Desire?

She tugged at my shirt, but I turned her away. She was an older woman of close to sixty, haggard, her face worn and grimaced, ethereal in her unattractiveness. She wanted me, but I refused her advances. That is, until a minute later, when, in her final plea, I glanced into the depths of her face and gave in. “Ok, yes.” Why I acquiesced, I couldn’t say. But just as I turned to embrace her, she vomited, and announced to me it was a burrito she had eaten earlier.

 My repulsion put a stop to whatever might have happened, and I left the room in disgust. I wandered down a grey hallway, and then into a green room, incandescent yet foggy, perhaps from smoke or dust. And there was my mother. She was sitting in a circle with a number of other people her age, all of whom were playing the guitar and singing in unison. The song was called “W” and it had a beautiful, understated melody that remained in my head as I woke up.

 ***

This was a dream. The melody to “W” was still in my head when I turned laboriously toward my cell phone, only to see that it was two thirty in the afternoon. Part of me felt ashamed. But the melody had a mitigating effect that allowed me to rise from the mat I’ve been sleeping on as of late with an air of calm. I had been up until about five in the morning, talking into the night with friends. The conversation was spurred on by one friend having observed with disappointment a young woman he’d recently been infatuated with walking home past us, holding hands with another man. My own predicament was that I found myself with a young woman who wanted to come upstairs, though I had no interest in that. Typical situations of unrequited desire or feeling, at once mundane and extraordinary, our all-too-human predicaments led to all the things we talk about when we talk about love: commitment, sex, jealousy, monogamy, the idea of love itself. All the contours of the most emotional parts of our lives swirled about the porch in trails and circles of words, foregrounded by the luminosity of the impending sun, who, I can say with assurance, knew all the answers to our questions.

 Through the trail of words, we eventually found ourselves on the topic of the Kinsey reports of 1948 and 1953. I noted that one of the most significant things about these reports was Kinsey’s conclusion that sexual identity itself was something of an absurdity, given his observations that sexual response did not correspond exclusively to the touch of the opposite sex. In the second report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, the idea of “normal” female sexuality was undermined, though Kinsey, despite the basis of his own findings, declared that sexuality was best cultivated in a “normal” heterosexual couple. While certainly not condemning homosexuality, he ignored even his own findings, which held so much promise in terms of upending the psychoanalytically supported institution of heterosexuality, in favor of his own cultural assumptions and bias toward the traditional hetero-normative institution.

 “That’s fine, but one thing I don’t understand, and frankly don’t appreciate, is the embrace by the gay community of their own sexuality. They flaunt it. Children attend Gay Pride parades with men masquerading in thongs. I don’t think that’s right.” I was inclined at once to both agree and disagree with my friend. His argument was one that is exemplified in Jean Bethke Elshtain’s 1982 Salmagundi article “Homosexual Politics: The Paradox of Gay Liberation,” where she argued that the gay liberation movement suffers from an internal contradiction: by demanding recognition on the grounds of sexual identity, the movement simultaneously forecloses the possibility of that recognition as it becomes lost in a histrionic form of separatism, at the expense of democratic equality and civic participation. Elshtain was responding to gay intellectuals like Dennis Altman, Karla Jay, and John Murphy, who were demanding not only recognition, but pronouncing the limitations of liberalism in the realm of culture. And while there is certainly merit to Elshtain’s argument, she missed a fundamental problem brought to light by the writings of these intellectuals: desire.

 As the conversation continued, the consensus was that Gay Pride parades may pass on, arguably becoming a faded symptom of a much needed revolt against standards of sexual deviancy and normalcy. By this reasoning, we could see the Gay Liberation movement, like the other liberation struggles of the late 60s and early 70s as the playing out of a dialectical struggle, Hegel’s spirit coming into consciousness of itself through necessary reconciliation, until the achievement of full equality. So we could see the necessity in such separatist tactics, their tactical or strategic importance, while situating it as a historical moment toward fulfillment.

 But I want to say that this way of thinking is in keeping with exactly the liberal sensibility that so values progress that it misses the larger historical significance of profound expressions of desire as a potentially positive symptom of the collapse of the public and private spheres.

 The personal has always been political, insofar as the political is motivated by certain visions of the good life. That vision derives not only from a valuation of healthy political debate and public participation, but, ideally, from the desired ends that motivate such debate. But it is precisely those ends that we see coming into question in our so called post-modern age. This may be the root of our pluralistic, interest group based politics that led Theodore Lowi, in 1969 to pronounce The End of Liberalism. But desire, I think, should not be conflated with self-interest.

In 1964, Norman O’ Brown emphasized the importance of desire in his psychoanalytic revision, Life Against Death. Brown argued that the initial separation from the mother in which individualization and identification with the same sex parent was the cause of great anxiety, stemmed primarily from a fear of death. This was what led to the establishing of heterosexual relationships as a culturally sanctioned way of keeping the desires of polymorphous perversity at bay as a denial of finitude. But, as Brown argued, it was exactly desire, as the fundamental embrace of life, that mitigated these anxieties, and so pointed not to the cultural contingency of heterosexuality, but in fact the profound fear of death that attended the institution, manifesting itself as a neurotic emphasis on autonomy. Desire is an embrace of life, a way of reconciling oneself to death, and calling into focus the fact of death underlying our cultural practices, while bringing to light the arbitrarily rigid distinctions in sexual identity and steadfast autonomy.

The embrace of personal desire in a public forum may be, for some, an encroachment on privacy. And this is point is certainly understandable. But I want to say that the reactions to such embraces speak to a certain liberal tendency to over-value privacy, as though we seek to keep the fact of our humanity as desiring creatures shrouded in secrecy, as though we’re ashamed of the Dionysian rites we’ve abdicated in order to put emotion, at a remove. For Nietzsche, these orgiastic rites were thought to invoke the Gods, but as we lost connection with the perceived reality of such invocation, tragedy was born, and our rites became only symbols, representations at a remove from our emotions in a way that separates our words and works of art, our desires, from our human concerns, our human tendencies toward desire. And as the values of bourgeois morality place a premium on privacy and an “equality” that comes at the price of the soul, these invocations of desire are perceived as not only misguided, but shameful.

So can we think about desire in another way, as not simply the narcissistic embrace of one’s own sexuality as so many assumed of the Gay Liberation movement, but as an embrace of life against death, a profound public recognition of love and emotion more generally against the stultifying constraints of liberalism? Can we think about the Gay Liberation movement as a public expression of the limitations on emotion and feeling that our Lockean liberalism and Calvinist work ethic, which dictate the good life in terms only of bourgeois middle class life, impose? As a political expression of the personal, can we think of our contemporary Gay Pride parades as celebrations of desire so lacking in public life?

***

Immediately after awaking from my dream, I thought of the seriously Freudian implications it held. But as I thought more, I found that the ostensible incest message contained in my probably meaningless dream was overshadowed by the importance of its fantasy, strange and bizarre and uncomfortable as fantasy sometimes is, as the placid dirge of “W’s” melody, birthed in desire, put a smile on my face and a faith in the day to come.

-Erik Hmiel

The Unkindness of Acquaintances or Baby’s First Heartbreak

On a recent five hour train ride from Rome to Turin, a young boy of about eight years walked down the aisle and stood at my shoulder. “Ciao,” he said. “Ciao,” I replied. He said his name was Giovanni. I smiled and told him mine. He turned and left, summoned by his mother, who was whispering something to him.

A minute later, Giovanni walked down the aisle again. This time, he walked past me to the seat across the aisle, where a young girl was coloring away industriously in her coloring book.

Giovanni had clearly been told by his mother that she had intended for him to introduce himself to the young girl instead. He repeated his opening line to her. Unlike our communication, which consisted of bemused albeit pleasant enough silence, the exchange between Giovanni and the girl took off immediately. Soon the girl’s mother and Giovanni exchanged seats so the children could sit next to each together. Giovanni sidled into the seat. He confidently took what he clearly thought was his rightful place, picked up a colored pencil, and got to work on the page facing the one the girl was working on. Soon, her name, Miranda, studded his every sentence.

It was an adorable scene. They hit it off instantly. The boy had a rare charm. His shining eyes were full of humor and he was quick to smile. The girl, remarkably self-possessed for someone so young, kept steady at her work even when he began slowly to inject humor into their interchanges. All of the adults in earshot followed the charming scene, the picture perfect portrait of childhood bliss.

In their early moments together Giovanni and Miranda worked in silence, only looking each other’s way shyly once in a great while, when the other wasn’t looking, talking only tentatively about what colors different parts of the picture should be, asking for a certain
color pencil, and the like. Giovanni saw that the rules were Miranda’s, and the coloring book, pencils, and seat were too. Then he began subtly to bring some playfulness into the conversation. She responded to the overture. At first sight, Miranda appeared to be an extremely serious child. Short but solid, sporting thick glasses and an unflattering haircut, her appearance alone did not draw the eye the way his did. But Giovanni’s conversation made her come to life.

Miranda was transformed. His wit was quick and sophisticated. As they colored away, he would make a quiet observation that made her laugh with pure joy. Both then returned to their initial, serious, working posture, until she would say something that would make him giddy.

After a remarkably long time, the coloring gave way to pure joking, and the quiet tones of their conversation predictably shaded into gleeful noise. Now they were weak with the hilarity of what had become an elaborately funny conversation. Perceiving that their interactions were too rowdy for the train, their respective mothers reclaimed them, returning everybody to the original seating arrangement.

The girl never fully recovered. Giovanni, who didn’t like the arrangement either at first, adapted more quickly. After a few minutes, he could be heard laughing with his mother, playing some kind of game involving clapping. But Miranda, who had before he arrived been completely absorbed by her coloring, which she clearly took much more seriously than he did judging by the differences in the quality of their results, could not now get her mind off of him. When the girl was out of earshot, checking on Giovanni, our traveling companion marveled over Miranda’s intelligence and learned in Italian from her mother that she was unusually gifted intellectually. We could tell her mother faced some challenges that go with that territory and was happy and proud but exhausted.

Miranda was furious that she and Giovanni were separated. She did not mince words or body language when it came to letting her mother know how angry she was. From elation, her demeanor transformed into discontentment, disapointment, and dejection. She was like a flower which, suddenly blooming beyond its wildest dreams, wilted just as quickly…and was now beyond resuscitation. Finally, her mother, grasping the gravity of the situation and patiently persevering in reading a book aloud to her–a book that looked very advanced for a child that age–eventually managed to get Miranda interested. Only then did she start to look a little less glum.

Soon it was time for both of the young children to get off the train, coincidentally at the same stop. Miranda went over to say goodbye, asking Giovanni if they could be friends. “No,” he said, “I can’t. I already have a girlfriend.”

***

It was amusing to hear this interchange, considering that Giovanni was hardly old enough for a real girlfriend, even by the rushed standards of today. If I had to guess, I would say he was about seven to ten. But some of us had observed the entire acquaintance develop over the previous couple of hours, and noticed an affinity rare even for children, whose friendships often seem to come more easily than those of adults. So it was impossible to feel anything but pain.

We winced with empathy on Miranda’s behalf. Who among us had not experienced some radical rejection that had left-at best!-an emotional scar. Perhaps we were projecting, but we wondered, why on earth couldn’t they be friends? Or maybe Giovanni was just joking around and she knew that.

***

What do we conclude from a drama such as this? Are we all just cruel by nature? Were nature, fate, or the gods up to their cruel games again? Or was this boy, who seemed so sweet before, encouraged to behave this way in a culture that makes friends into commodities and categories, shrinking the possibilities for deep connection by pigeonholing us into mutually exclusive types of friends (girlfriend, friend of convenience…) and giving us a script for how all of our interactions will play themselves out? Doesn’t the post-modern Western culture of selfish individualism reward those for whom friendship, and even what passes for romance among more mature adults, has little intrinsic value?

I recently saw the movie “Young Adult” (Dir: Jason Reitman, 2011). The main character, destabilized by divorce, job loss, and a feeling her life was going nowhere, decides to return to her hometown to win back her teenage flame, who is now happily married with a newborn baby. He is making all the right choices these days, while she is drinking far too much and doing everything wrong. “I think I’m an alcoholic,” she announces to her nonplussed parents. She swears, she’s cynical, she’s out of touch with reality. She’s a person of poor character, or a clinical narcissist, it’s hard to tell. We are clearly supposed to think she is superficial, and she is that-par excellence. But her ex-boyfriend, portrayed as the good-hearted family man, only stares blankly when she tries to summon up memories of their wonderful times together in sexual communion. Is he missing some vital depths as well? His stance toward her is rigidly moralistic, uncompromisingly therapeutic: you have no right. You are messed up. If anything, we all just feel sorry for you.

Well, two can play this little game, whether of morals or health.

Is it so right or healthy to be able to leave someone behind like this, with no sense of the tragedy that involves for the other person, whose heart is left hanging?

Even if the parting of ways was necessary by exigency or fate, or without doubt for the best, should there really be no backward glance?

Declarations of love, in action and words, mean something to the one who truly loves, who takes that ultimate of all personal, intimate risks. Though that was not the situation for the jaded drama queen in “Young Adult,” certainly it was the case for Miranda, whose encounter with the abrupt withdrawal of Giovanni’s affections was horrible to watch. This withdrawal was aided and abetted by his mother, who suggested he introduce himself to her in the first place but now had no words of wisdom to share when it came to protecting the feelings of a child other than her own. No helpful whispers from her now.

Surely Miranda deserves better.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

The Maté Factor

I was looking for something to eat, or drink.  Preferably a commercial establishment that would afford some measure of placid comfort, versatility, relief.  But simplicity takes strange forms these days in Ithaca, New York.

Made with organic spelt and topped with butter and real maple syrup, it was the colorfully illustrated Belgian waffle ad that first caught my attention.  “Hmm.  This might work.  Yes, I think it will.”  Moments before my brisk walk through the Ithaca Commons ended in vain, I stumbled upon exactly what I was looking for: the Home Dairy Company, the innocuous-looking sign above the waffle ad proclaimed.  Satiation was now within reach.  I didn’t exactly want a Belgian waffle just then, but I was comforted by the fact that I could have one if I wanted to.  That seemed important, or at least decisive.

Inside, the solid wood tables, dim lighting, and sprawling green decor reminded me of the Rain Forest Café, the Amazon-themed equivalent of the Hard Rock Café we used to go to on special occasions when my step-father felt like driving to Arizona Mills Mall.  Going there for dinner was a lot like going to Knott’s Berry Farm, only the gift shop was a little smaller.  The Home Dairy Company, by contrast, was what the Rain Forest Café should have been like.  Its rustic atmosphere was on par with the Moose Lodge at Magic Mountain, except there were no singing moose heads on the walls.  The floor was neatly swept and most of the tables were empty.

As I approached the counter, the aura of hip, eco-friendly entrepreneurs I’d felt outside in the Commons began to give way to something more difficult to place.  The older woman behind the counter clearly did not recognize me as a regular, and her coldness made me feel slightly ill at ease.  I ordered an iced coffee and paid $1.70 for it.  “That’s a good price,” I said cheerfully when I handed her the money, hoping to add color to our otherwise colorless transaction.  If she registered the gesture at all, she seemed not to register it as a friendly one.  I considered that she might be inexperienced, but I couldn’t help thinking that a customer shouldn’t feel spurned this way.  It wasn’t good for business.  And I might want to come back.

At the other end of the counter I found my first clue that I was not in the Home Dairy Company at all.  It looked like a basket of newspapers at first.  But when I opened one of them, I discovered a religious pamphlet called the Twelve Tribes Freepaper.  “The Radical Life of Acts 2:44,” it professed in bold type.  “All who believed were together and shared all things in common.”  Behind the caption a panoramic photo showed a group of people clasping hands and dancing in a circle.  Some appeared to clap, others to sing.  I noticed they were all wearing the same plain garb the older woman behind the counter was wearing.  In fact everyone around me was wearing the same plain garb.

Just then a younger woman behind the counter handed me my iced coffee.  She smiled and asked if I had any questions about the pamphlet.  I learned that the café I was standing in (formerly the Home Dairy Company) was cooperatively owned by an international network of communities called the Twelve Tribes, or the Commonwealth of Israel, who sought to live like the first disciples in the book of Acts.  “We share all our possessions in common as they did,” she explained.  “We work together, share our meals together, we worship together, and all the money we earn in our businesses is shared so that there are no poor among us, just as they did.”

In other words, this was no ordinary venue for placid consumption.  Because I’d seen that waffle ad, I had stumbled upon an authentic source of early twenty-first century countercultural praxis: the Maté Factor.

According to the Twelve Tribes Freepaper, the Maté Factor Café in Ithaca is one of dozens of cooperatively owned businesses spanning nine countries across four continents.  The Twelve Tribes bases its social philosophy on what it considers the original teachings of Yahshua, the Son of God.  Yet like other fringe religious sects, it is equally informed by hostile alienation from the modern world, which infuses its call for “A New Brand of Culture”:

We live in an age of oppression—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.  We are oppressed from without and within.  Screaming out for justice in an age of supreme injustice on all sides spawns the revolutionaries who strain every fiber to make a blow to the system.  Everything is dark and twisted: poverty, genocide, generations under medicated tyranny, political corruption, endless war, pollution, and ecological nightmares…. The ultimate act of revolution is to respond to the call that strikes to the core, to the very essence of the world system itself…. The call of the gospel is the ultimate solution to all the injustice that this sick and dying world has ever seen.  It is the only antidote to the oppression and aggression of this age.  There is nothing that exposes this self-centered consumer society more than a people who wholeheartedly band together, enduring through thick and thin…

“Where did I fit into this equation?” I wondered.  Motivated by Pavlovian conditioning and Huxleyan convenience, I was the self-centered consumer who happened upon the Maté Factor in spite of myself, entirely by chance.  In theory, I’m happy to support the Twelve Tribes’ cause; but aren’t I technically part of the problem, not the solution?  In all seriousness, shouldn’t they keep people like me out of their little café lest the whole enterprise be soiled by association with the enemy?

The paradox of my presence in the Maté Factor underscored the extent of the problem I was reading about in the Twelve Tribes Freepaper.  I responded to an advertisement, and a few minutes later I was drinking an iced coffee while contemplating the ultimate act of revolution.  How could the two experiences run together so smoothly?  How could they permeate each other so effortlessly?  And what, if anything, did this say about the prospects for the kind of revolution the Twelve Tribes prescribed?

I was at a loss by the time I finished my beverage.  Part of me wanted to leave the Maté Factor, but the image of that Belgian waffle was still fresh in my mind…

-Michael Fisher

Garrulous Men

I walked in as I normally do, into the dimly lit bar. It’s lit by the soft glow of neon signs and the stale hue of the plain green and brown tables that vaguely remind you of an alcoholic’s cafeteria. On any given night you’ll see businessmen relaxing, reflecting over the day’s or week’s activities, young people trying to forget about their jobs altogether, and a generally friendly, all female wait-staff which quickly becomes the object of male attention, sometimes to the benefit of their gratuity, sometimes to the detriment of their dignity. Or somewhere in between. I walked into these familiarities to be greeted by equally familiar faces. Only there was one I didn’t recognize.

He was the archetype. Or anyway, he became the archetype, in the same way that Thoreau says we create our fate. Our conversation began amicably enough, quickly moving to the topic of politics and then to income redistribution, ending with a friendly “let’s agree to disagree” sort of resolution, despite his having jokingly referred to me a fascist. Perhaps this was the warning sign of his archetypical character; perhaps equating my beliefs with the greatest horrors of the twentieth century was an ironic way for a stranger to diffuse the distance between us, a playful transgression to break the dimly lit ice? But as the thaw continued, it became increasingly apparent that it wasn’t our getting to know each other acting as the catalyst, but his drinking.

The hum of people talking around us grew fainter. And the light of the neon beer signs converged in a spotlight on this increasingly garrulous man. Despite his still participating in conversation with others, all voices were subsumed under his, the certainty in his questions and answers and statements belying any traces of genuine discourse. A tyrant with words, every utterance began in earnest and seemed to blend into the next, to the point where there was no beginning, no spaces between statements or words; just a din that resonated with the bleakness of this, my favorite bar, unveiling its grey hues so conducive to quiet conversation and mediation, to reveal a loud black–no color, no solace, just noise.

And as this descent continued, as he continued to speak with slurred certainty, as the voices were drowned out, as grey faded to black, the female wait staff came into the realm of his conversation. It was one bar-tender in particular. A bartender I’d like to think I know, albeit superficially. She smiles to me outside work; she undercharges me at work; she’s my age, trying to get by. She’s also particularly beautiful, a fact quickly seized upon by this garrulous man, as he made it known that his expertise in the domain of women, the simple fact of his being a “man,” warranted his ugly suggestion to another friend of mine, an injunction that ended a night already thwarted.

“She just wants you to plug her little hole.”

The words came out of his mouth with vital fluids dripping down his chin–bile, and blood assuring that these were his true colors. The statement gushed out onto the floors, unknowingly flooding the bar and its inhabitants, who were unknowingly drowning in his male bravado. I sought respite but struggled to swim. I was gasping for air and swam for the door, passing tables full of people, passing the bartender, all oblivious to the rising waters. I thought, as I was struggling to swim, of this man as an archetype, his relation to women distorted by a sense found in certain men who have a poor relationship to themselves, a fear of death that manifests itself as a particular orientation to truth, an anxious ontology of claiming that seeks to reconcile one’s mortality through the certainty of statements that subordinate others, particularly women, to the psychic certainty of patriarchy. The resonance of his statement was filling the room quickly as it became clear that this attempted reconciliation could never fulfill itself; it could never find that higher relief in the dialectic of death and assurance. And so the bile and blood continued to effuse in the wake of his disgusting, self-assured assertion.

Finally, I found the door amidst the disgusting fluids of a garrulous man and found relief outside in the relative quiet. I lit a cigarette and placidly inhaled, watching my exhalation dissolve like our identities and mortal lives, seeing in the diaphaneity no words, no self-assertion, no pretense or certainty. And I walked home in silence, listening only to the rhythm of my footsteps, exhaling smoke into the night.

-Erik Hmiel

Lava Lips

Out walking with my twelve-year-old yesterday crossing a busy street in Rome, we were forced to step around a couple standing directly in our path, half on and half off the curb. Tall-ish, stylish, and twenty-ish, they were caught up in a major lip lock. I have never used the term before, but that ugly phrase actually does seem apt here. In the split second before my daughter and I consciously registered what we were seeing and could look away, we were treated to an un-sought-after, all-too-close-up image. Their lips literally seemed unable to get free. The kiss resembled a large lava-lamp globule slowly pulling apart as if to separate into two but then, as if through rewind, re-merging. In other ways, it was reminiscent of that childhood experience some have had (or heard about) of putting lips on a frozen pole in winter or on an ice cube. This causes lips so painfully stuck that it would take an outside substance–in this case, warm water–to separate them from the object in question. The hope is to keep the delicate skin covering one’s lips intact, without too much bleeding.

In another time and place, or for a different couple, the outside substance, in this case, might be self-consciousness (with embarrassment as the emotional trigger) at being observed in public in such a private activity. Our half-laughs and shared observations once out of earshot indicated that my daughter and I agreed it felt too close for comfort.

The initial stage of infatuation, we all know, often causes the usual barriers to drop, and even afterward, true passion for someone can make us lose that ordinary workaday self-consciousness we exercise when preparing ourselves for public consumption. Love, or lovers anyway, can be shockingly self-important in acknowledging no bounds, sometimes wrecking everything in sight–either without even meaning to or knowing full well they are doing so. Of course the trappings of love aren’t always the real thing, for performance of something is not the same as the thing itself. Passion’s publicity is always a bit suspect. As anyone who has ever experienced the genuine article knows, love needs no audience. It is itself, regardless.

The question of love aside, witnessing this Super Size kiss between two strangers made me think of the way we experience life. Of time. Of the quality of a given moment of our lives. Of the relation of self-consciousness to that quality. Of the nature of human interaction–and the strangeness of the physical aspect of it.

Isn’t this moment of the merging of the lips just one variant of what we all spend so much of our time seeking? A kind of apex; an exemplary moment; the desired loss of self; intense connection with something greater than ourselves; the longed for absence of boundaries? Surely we seek something like this when we go to the ocean, walk in the woods, worship the divine, drink wine, and the list goes on ad infinitum…right? No, but we think we do.

In his posthumous book, My Life among the Deathworks, the classical sociologist Philip Rieff gives a searing condemnation of precisely this breaking down of interpersonal boundaries which my daughter and I witnessed in the overly publicized, inside-out intimacy. Rieff discussed this urge between lovers to collapse their separate selves into one, the tendency not only in love but also in politics and culture that is the psychology of our age. This merging helps explain why, when we have arranged a consumerist world ostensibly catering to every whim, we can be so anxious and depressed.

Rieff explained that it is not the disappearance of the distance between our selves and what we want that brings us closest to the divinity and infinity of loving or being loved. Rather, it is in the “sacred space” between ourselves and the desired one that true fulfillment lies. Only by carefully maintaining and treasuring this space can we sustain the sacredness of our connections with one another.

There is no other way to explain how someone can possibly endure without the one he or she loves actually present. Yet this feat can be and is achieved as a kind of everyday heroism, usually unacknowledged, taking place as it does completely under the radar of today’s collective life.

This runs contrary to the thinking of our age. And I am not ready to condemn public displays of emotion as always a case of more is less. Naturally the particulars matter. Far be it from me to cast dour judgment on those swept away by genuine feeling for one another. Strong feeling of so many kinds seems to be lacking in the affective desert we seem too often to inhabit now.

Yet the oasis, according to Rieff, is not in the possessing, or the absorbing of the other into onself. This is sheer infantile fantasy, in which we want other people to serve as mere extensions of ourselves and our every need and wish to be gratified thusly.

Instead, it is through the deep, loving discipline of appreciating the space between us that one paradoxically finds the ultimate union. Rieff’s example is the scene of Adam’s creation in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, in which the fingertips of God and Adam do not actually touch. For Rieff, in this miniscule gap lies all mystery, all that is sacred, and all potential for human communion. Where we realize two beings cannot be one, the capacity for mutual respect for all that is precious in the other person is generated; this results from the recognition of another person as a being whose uniqueness, integrity, and dignity are inviolable and irreducible. There is no genuine bridging of the vast chasm that can exist between us without diligent preservation of this other, sacred space between us. Without this protected space, love is not love, but just a distorted form of self-obsession, in which all that seems valid is the satisfaction of one’s own needs and desires.

Appreciation of the sacred space between people, even–or especially–by those passionately in love with one another, makes one realize one can forego satisfaction of even the most urgent needs and desires. This may be why silence, sacrifice, and solitude, more than inseparability, might be necessary to make us realize most fully the divinity of love.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

The Will to Believe

A sordid solitary thing,
Mid countless brethren with a lonely heart
Thro’ courts and cities the smooth Savage roams
Feeling himself, his own low Self the whole;
When he by sacred sympathy might make
The whole ONE SELF! SELF, that no alien knows!
SELF, spreading still!  Oblivious of its own,
Yet all of all possessing.
 
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1794

Everyone in my family is now a yogi.  Except me.  I’m still holding out, guarding the gates of rationalism against the onslaught of what I presume to be fanciful belief.  Is it an excess of decorative sentiment I object to?  The blighting earnestness of pious people pretending things could really be that simple?  I don’t know anymore.  I used to be so sure when I was 20 years old.  Now I’m a little older, and a little less inclined to argue with my mother during the holiday season (at least about whether or not God exists).  In my spiritually fruitless early adulthood, I am little more than an agnostic in search of an elegant synthesis, a humble nonbeliever hoping someone will still want to be my friend.

*

Growing up, I don’t think my step-sister and I fully realized that we belonged to a legitimate religious minority.  We lived in a nice part of Phoenix, Arizona, and going to “church” always felt natural.  The chanting, the energization exercises, the brief spurts of meditation we learned to tolerate in Sunday School were merely things that came before the occasional ice cream social afterwards.  In form and content, enough of our parents’ religion was relatable to Protestant Christianity that we could feel normal when the topic came up with friends at school.  Our parents had jobs; they drove cars; they dressed and spoke like ordinary white middle-class Americans.  But they also happened to meditate between 1-2 hours a day and believe that the universe is governed by immutable cosmic laws like Karma and reincarnation.  In the course of any given dinner conversation, the word “Master”—the traditional Hindu designation for one’s guru, or spiritual teacher—would issue from our parents’ lips as effortlessly as the words “work” or “school” or “discipline.”  The world our family inhabited was at once secular and deeply religious, and this happened to align perfectly with the spiritual principles my step-sister and I imbibed from a young age.  In a certain light, though my mother may object to this, we were New Age Protestants, only slightly more culturally distinctive than the Evangelical Christians she and my step-father vehemently disagreed with politically.

According to the “Aims and Ideals of Self-Realization Fellowship As set forth by Paramahansa Yogananda, Founder,” SRF—the acronym everyone in the church uses—seeks what all millennial faiths seek: to change the world for the better.  Its founder’s mission was “To disseminate among the nations a knowledge of definite scientific techniques for attaining direct personal experience of God.”  In his words, SRF, founded in Los Angeles in 1920, taught “that the purpose of life is the evolution, through self-effort, of man’s limited mortal consciousness into God Consciousness.”  That’s right: the evolution of God Consciousness.  Most profoundly, Yogananda sought to “reveal the complete harmony and basic oneness of original Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ and original Yoga as taught by Bhagavan Krishna; and to show that these principles of truth are the common scientific foundation of all true religions.”

Even as children we got wind of the fact that this was heady stuff.  We absorbed the mundane trappings of Protestant morality, recognizable to any American child touched by the shared legacy of Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin.  (SRF emphasized “plain living and high thinking,” “the superiority of mind over body, of soul over mind”; it sought “To overcome evil by good, sorrow by joy, cruelty by kindness, ignorance by wisdom,” etc. etc).  But there was always something grander, dare I say more modern, just beneath the surface of each Sunday School lesson.  In keeping with his view of the fundamental affinity between original Christianity and original Yoga, Yogananda aimed “To unite science and religion through realization of the unity of their underlying principles.”  He was in some sense another American pragmatist, though certainly a more devout one than the likes of William James.  As soon as he arrived in the United States in 1920, he began advocating “cultural and spiritual understanding between East and West, and the exchange of their finest distinctive features.”  He came as India’s delegate to an International Congress of Religious Liberals taking place in Boston, and he became something of a religious celebrity almost overnight.  As kids we heard the story of his first speech in English many times.  Spontaneously, we were told, the words just came to him on the ship; he electrified his audience without knowing a word of English, and from then on he wrote and spoke in an eloquent English vernacular for the rest of his life.  This was God Consciousness in action.  We believed the story when we were young.

By whatever logic, my step-sister and I distanced ourselves from SRF as we grew older.  I think we’d both stopped going to church by the time we were 16.  She became something of a young leftist, picketing Paradise Valley Mall with anti-consumerist pamphlets and dabbling in the writings of Valerie Solanas until she fell in love with French midway through college, while I pursued a less auspicious route.  What became my mature (18 or 19-year-old) rationalism evolved slowly over the course of many warm summer nights sitting outside my friend Jeff’s garage.  Through our philosophic wanderings, I began to piece together the makings of a secular worldview, the details of which I filled in haphazardly over time.  I wasn’t entirely comfortable confronting my mother with my unbelief while I still lived in her house.  But by the time I’d spent a semester in college I had become a very arrogant young man.

The details of our arguments are fuzzy now.  Everyone would leave the room.  We were never angry, exactly.  Just committed to the truth of our respective positions.  She had been meditating for upwards of 35 years when I was just discovering Nietzsche, but she had never read Nietzsche.  Hence the stalemate.  I could never get past the knowledge claims embedded in her spiritual assertions; she could never get past my insistence on boiling everything down to knowledge claims and rational assertions.  Around we went, to the chagrin of my step-sister, my step-father, and anyone else who had to listen to us at length.  Thanks in part to my mother’s quasi-Protestant work ethic, this became an irrepressible part of our dynamic after I went to college.  She was of course helping to pay for my education every step of the way.

We were usually hiking in the desert just the two of us when we got closest to resolving our basic disagreement.  Especially at Christmas time, when it was relatively cool out, we liked to take long walks that allowed our common verbosity to vent.  The bleak expansiveness of the desert terrain proved an ideal setting for the dialectical match that would inevitably get lit, and we may have been on one of our familiar trails when we finally decided one fine day to stop arguing about God.

However the realization came, it settled things once and for all.  It was so simple that we (or maybe just I) had missed it for years.  My mother and I were speaking two different languages.  Our terms were incommensurable.  There was no way for us to agree, and no way for us to convince each other without agreeing to the terms of each others’ specific language and worldview.  She was arguing from the experience of meditation; I was arguing from the crush of largely impressionistic intellectual musings.  There was little common ground between us and even less willingness to budge.

So it was futile to argue.  We might as well agree to disagree and talk about things that brought us closer together instead of repeating the same loop of discord.  That was that, and forevermore holidays were happier times (for everyone concerned).  We could all accept the epistemic/spiritual rift between our two family factions in the same way we accepted that there were divergent opinions about art and film—until the holiday season three years ago when my step-sister announced she was going to an SRF retreat in Switzerland just after the New Year.

*

In all honesty, “What?!” was my first thought when I heard the news.  But I was understanding by then.  I had grown to appreciate the fact that people thought about faith differently than I did, and I had intellectual reasons to justify my view that this was OK.  I’d also come to recognize that SRFers are some of the kindest, warmest, least dogmatic people I know, and that meditation involves a very profound effort to discipline the mind.  The loving dynamic we’d developed as a family was partly the result of work we’d all put in to get to know one another.  But it also followed from the spiritual practices they sought to realize in their lives.  So we proceeded; I watched as our parents delighted in the steady growth of my step-sister’s conviction in the tenets of SRF, and slowly I was enveloped in a new alienation.  What was I missing?  I wondered.  Why did I lack the capacity to believe in what they believed?  Deep down, I wanted the accolades of parental acceptance too, and fewer seemed to be coming my way for reading books and scratching at the surface of historical knowledge.  By this time I was a graduate student, and my ego strength had diminished considerably after weathering the storms of that particular form of modern existence.  At my most desperate, I wanted terribly to belong to what they did; there were even moments when I felt my commitment to Nietzsche wavering.

Last weekend, my step-sister and I Skyped across the Atlantic ocean.  She’s lived in France for years now, and although we don’t talk as often as either of us would like, we catch up at considerable length when we find the time.  We talked about various goings on in our lives, our parents, and the recent French election.  After about an hour and a half I thought to ask how her meditations were going, almost in passing.  She knew what I was asking (we know each other pretty well), and in the kind, thoughtful voice she always describes her SRF practices, she told me all about them.  Just before we ended the Skype call she said something she’s said before, also almost in passing.  “You know you should really read the Autobiography of A Yogi some time.  Just to see what you think.  I mean you might really find something in it.  Something you might not expect, you know?…”

For some reason that day, the thought was oddly terrifying.  I knew I had a copy on my shelf.  This was the book that everyone in SRF read at one point or another, often as a prelude to entering the spiritual life Paramahansa Yogananda teaches.  It is his autobiography, after all, and I can’t help but regard it as a quasi-sacred text.

This was Mother’s Day.  I’d not read the autobiography before and something felt right.  I decided I’d take it down from the shelf and just start reading.  Just read it.  What else did I have to do that day?

Lying comfortably in bed, I opened my copy for the first time since my mother and step-father had given it to me as a Christmas gift in 2007.  I read the note they wrote in the front flap and felt a mix of warm nostalgia and firm resolve wash over me.  Yes.  I was going to do this.  I was going to start reading the first chapter, “My Parents and Early Life,” word for word.  The way one reads a book.  Not to get the argument, but to read the book.

OK, so the writing wasn’t very good.  The impressions of his childhood sounded like a bad Victorian novel, and his piousness was already starting to grate on me.  I continued, growing frustrated.  This wasn’t working.  I had other things to do.  There was “real” reading I was putting off.  I started to skim, then skip ahead.  A few minutes later I reread the table of contents to see which sections of the book might be especially worth reading.  I flipped through “I Go to America” and found the part where he describes his experience spontaneously learning English.  It wasn’t very convincing.  It was overly sentimental and clearly embellished.  Why was I reading this?  This is why my parents and step-sister believe in miracles?

I put the book down; my room was quiet.  Remorse wafted over me.  I was incapable of joining them still. Whatever they had I lacked, whatever I had they lacked.  The two were incommensurable.  Nonetheless I felt alone.  My intellect intact, my soul…

“What?!”

-Michael Fisher

Debt and Work

I’m in debt. Somewhere in the neighborhood of seventy thousand dollars, although I still don’t know the exact amount. In fact, I recently took out another loan to live for the summer, before my teaching assistantship begins again in the fall, simply because I’d rather spend the summer reading and writing than working forty hours a week to make ends meet. Like millions of those of my generation, I look forward to a lifetime of paying this money back, a perpetual bill unto death, most likely. Thankfully, the enactment of president Obama’s student loan legislation will make bearing this burden mercifully less painful. But this still won’t unhinge that chain, the barrier to so called financial freedom.

I repeat, I’m in debt. And somehow I don’t care. Not really. Because somehow there’s comfort in the fact that I know I’ll never pay it off. Ever.

I’m fully aware of the fact that I’ve inherited my mother’s inability to deal responsibly with money. I’m not what you would call “financially literate” (though, funny enough, I have a strong interest in the economy). But I don’t consider myself any sort of voracious consumer either: I have no affinity for gadgetry. I hate iPhones. The only new items I like to keep up with are records and books–my artistic and intellectual indulgences. The rest of the time I’m spending my money on experiences, some of which are healthier than others: social experiences like nights at the bar and restaurants with friends, sometimes current or hopeful lovers. I like to spend money on what keeps me most sane-rest and relaxation with others.

But I’m in debt. And by the standards of our legislators on both the right and left, our austerity proselytizers, I should live within my means, not enjoy the possibility of freedom in these experiences with others but work harder, save my money, chip away at my debt like a financially responsible citizen of a fiscally responsible state. But I want to say this: get bent. Because my debt isn’t real to me; my experiences are, my relationships with and feelings for others. My debt is yet another fact of reconciling myself to material necessity, another bill I’ll soon be forced into paying for the rest of my life, soon to resemble my phone and internet and electricity bills, practically appendages required for my normal life, incurred all the while with no sense that my contribution to society will be considered productive or meaningful.

And yet I continue to exist as though I’m not in debt, or anyway as if there might be something more to it.

 Of course, I’m not yet forced to pay back this debt because of the clemency of deferment that higher education brings. But the reality is that this “higher” education of mine will likely land me in the position of an adjunct professor without health insurance, because education does no longer a middle class citizen make. For me, it will make an educated, indebted citizen who will perpetually pay to play the game of life, that best game in town. And throughout the course of this game, paying off my debt will work in an inverse relationship. The closer you move toward death, the more your net worth as a person increases. As your body decays, your financial status improves, as if working to ward off damnation in the afterlife, only paying to ward off the financial damnation of the here and now, for a sense of freedom that inches closer with every payment made, as though it’s truly attainable through my effort and hard work.

***

This feeling, that one is perpetually working to be somehow whole, or free because unburdened from without, speaks to a liberal sensibility that places a premium on autonomy; the sense in which one must struggle in the game of life against material necessity to reach a place of self-sufficiency, the freedom of autonomy. It is the psychology that motivates the desire to own a home rather than rent. It is the psychology that allowed predatory lenders to prey on aspiring homeowners who had been led to believe that home ownership is the key to freedom; translated: the key to paying down a mortgage for nearly the remainder of one’s life, building equity against which to borrow in case of a financial emergency. How ironic.

In any case, the psychology of being in debt as akin to being in chains is not the same as the reality of debt, the reality of individuals and families struggling to pay their bills because their wages have not kept up with the cost of living since the early 80s. But the psychology of being in debt now is different. Given the fact that many of us know we’ll never pay off our debt, we’ll take the burden to the grave.

But what is it we’re taking?

Ok, maybe the reality of being in debt isn’t mutually exclusive from its psychology. Many of my friends struggle to make ends meet; this surely affects their psychology somehow. But absent this unfortunate reality, I want to say that our aspiring to be financially unfettered, motivated by our yearning to hang onto the money we’ve worked hard for is the last thing we need in our dire circumstances, in reconciling ourselves to the reality of debt, the reality of material necessity, and in trying to change that reality. It is this aspiration that underlies the psychology of work, that nebulous activity we’ll (maybe) do to pay down our debt; the thing some of us used to do in the hopes of finding meaning or freedom.

Like being free from financial burdens, work can never bring freedom, despite any and all affinities for what we do. “But I love my job, it brings me great pleasure!” -I believe you might, but many don’t. Many hate their jobs, and will continue to hate their jobs, as those adjuncts with PhDs who find themselves on food stamps, chasing the specter of a “professional” life of the mind are painfully learning. The keyword here is “professional.” And it has to do with the attachment of income to work, what makes so many of us hate that we have to work to live, that we must reconcile ourselves to material necessity in order to prove our worth as autonomous persons, self-sufficient creatures.

That is, when our lives are constrained based on the need to keep ourselves alive, we internalize the values of productive work as a virtue, alienating us from those around us. Our sense that we’ve mastered material necessity through our own efforts, through our hard work, leads us to value productivity for its own sake, as a virtue we equate with freedom, with autonomy. We derive from our dependence on necessity, and our attempts at overcoming that necessity through laboring, a psychology that leads us to believe that hard work builds a sound character. Herbert Marcuse said as much in his writings about work in his 1933 article “On the Philosophical Foundations of the Concept of Labor in Economics,” and in his famed 1955 book Eros and Civilization. He argued with Marx that our freedom is only attainable when we attain the means to transcend material necessity. Only then can we rethink the meaning of work itself, blur the distinction between work and play, and re-organize society through the release of our libidinal impulses. Such a release is not tantamount to chaos or narcissism, but involves rethinking the psychology that keeps us enslaved to necessity instead of each other, moving toward a psychology that values human creativity through cooperation, rather than the autonomous mastery of nature through hard work. “The true spirit of psycho-analytic theory,” he argued, “lives in the uncompromising efforts to reveal the anti-humanistic forces behind the philosophy of productiveness.”

Productivity is anti-humanistic. Only when we remove the fact of necessity from our lives, through means like a guaranteed income removed from one’s choice of vocation and socialized higher education, can we begin to rethink the nature of work itself, and thus find freedom in our dependence on others rather than ourselves.

***

 But what does this all have to do with debt? As we consider the reality that many of us will be paying back our debt for the rest of our waking lives, we are reminded of the values that society places on education. We no longer educate our citizens for sake of their cultivation, for democratic citizenry, but in order to harvest useful, productive citizens for our technological ascent upon the mountain of progress, students increasingly imbibing the values of autonomy and self-sufficiency rather than cooperation, dependence, and emotion. Those of us who have found recourse to the humanities, and those of us who can’t afford college, are left behind with these effete sensibilities, left in piles, mountains of debt, thrown to the dogs of material necessity.

But if we have, in theory at least, transcended material necessity as a society, we are reminded in our indebtedness of the fact that we can never transcend the necessity of our emotional dependence on others. Paradoxically, some would say spiritually, it is in this reminder that we find freedom in our dependence.

The debt we students have collectively incurred attunes us to the value that the U.S places on education: that it has a high price and you probably can’t afford it. But for this reason we are also attuned to the fact that this experience is now commonplace, we all share it. And it is only in such attunement that we come to realize that this collective experience binds us together; we become dependent on each other to change the reality we’ve inherited, and so the emotional fact of our dependence acts as a moral imperative against the “anti-humanistic forces behind the philosophy of productivity,” the forces that place a premium on autonomy and hard work, the forces that put us in debt in the first place.

This is the point to which we’ve been driven, what fuels Occupy Wall Street, what should lead the Left to find the moral imperative for the redistribution of income away from corporate profits, and toward healthcare, and education, and a guaranteed, livable, minimum income. Then we might begin to reverse the ethos that leaves us all so indebted, left to fend for ourselves, to work our lives away just to live. And so, perhaps, reconciling ourselves to debt, on an individual, psychological level, may be the first step to overcoming it, meanwhile overcoming the compulsion to work. The first step toward a democracy, unlike what James Madison or the Pragmatists had in mind, should not consist in balancing our interests by pitting them against each other. Rather, it should attune us to our interests in, and utter dependence on, our neighbors.

-Erik Hmiel

Make Your Own World

For this week’s post I am presenting the links to two pieces I posted this week on the award-winning U.S. Intellectual History blog that I think might also fit well here and be of interest to our readers. These meditations touch on topics we have been exploring here on our blog, including technology, community, and precarity.

http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.it/2012/05/new-contributor-introduction-elisabeth.html#more

http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.it/2012/05/from-rome-with-love.html

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn