Pride, Despair, and Things That Are Wonderful

I keep thinking about something I saw recently: that pride and despair are two ends of the same spectrum and thus equally correctable. I realized I had thought that pride was something to overcome but despair something to endure: pride could be checked, but despair was unavoidable.

The idea that they are two sides of the same coin makes some sense. And if despair consists of the same stuff as pride, then I can counter it the same way: by seeing it as an overinvestment in a single set of changing circumstances . . . and reinvesting.

A zen quote I saw yesterday helped: something like, “To eliminate suffering, eliminate its cause.” Sounds simple and obvious, right? But when I really thought about it — when I applied it to the brutal “natural order,” which has plagued me for some time — I found something profound in it.

A few days ago, I watched a spider on my deck — or rather, above the deck, beginning a web. I marveled at how much silk can come out of such a small body, and how the spider could make such an amazing thing by instinct. A lot of the process looked random, like when the spider hung from a thread and waited for a breeze to blow it to attach a string to something. I wondered if it might run out of thread, and what would happen if it did. I watched for a while and then went inside.

The next morning, the web was complete: perfect and huge, glistening with rainbow colors in sunlight.

By that evening, the spider was gone but its web remained, squirming with insects caught and unable to die or break free. A beautiful terror. I tried rescuing a couple of them, but the web was too sticky. What a waste, I thought. What horrible suffering, for nothing, repeated in countless webs all over the world. My old despair welled up.

When later I saw the quote about suffering, I applied it to that situation. If I were God, tasked with eliminating suffering, how would I remove its cause in this case? The obvious response is to eliminate the spider, but then insects would get out of control and cause suffering to other creatures or cause their own resource depletion (and thus greater suffering as they starve en masse). It’s classic interdependence.

Were the insects even suffering, for that matter, or just having a bad day until they died? Did they achieve surrender and release as they eventually came to rest, tired of struggling?

Spiders and insects are one thing, but what about human suffering? Say we eliminate our predators and killers, many of whom act out of mental illness or instinct. That’s even harder to think about, because we’re us. But we are out of control, causing suffering to other creatures and depleting our resources.

I have a friend who lives outdoors. He fought with the cold this winter as though it were an enemy. But then one day he realized it was just cold. It had nothing against him. He stopped fighting it, and he was fine.

If you don’t take something personally, is it really suffering? Is pain necessarily suffering? I don’t think so. You just have to be okay with letting go of anything, including your life. It seems like that’s when you live most fully.

I’ve also been applying all this to my employment situation. I’ve been working six or seven days a week for three months, with three months to go before Ireland and no guarantee (though good indications) that I’ll gather enough funds to afford the year-long master’s program I’m slated to attend there. The old weariness is coming on — the feeling of merely trudging through life. Ireland seems so far away (though I carry it within me). Will it even be the same? My dreams for the future keep changing shape. Why don’t I cut away some of the work, if it’s so draining — keep from counterproductively running myself into the ground?

Well, I could scale back. It’s good to consider putting a stop to a devitalizing activity or association, to weigh the options. But it turns out I am doing what I want. This is just a spot of drudgery on my way to where I’m going, and I’ll be glad for it. I am glad for it. If I were to work less, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I’d be exactly where I was before I decided to go to Ireland last year: stagnated and dim. I’d be permanently stuck in a temporary situation, which is a kind of hell.

There’s an end to this. I know it. I’ve seen it. Sometimes I get tired of the often-false promises of hope, and I forget how good this life can be . . . but when things are bad, they always do get better. Even at the very worst — say, if you’re in the grip of torture — at least eventually death or someone releases you. My employment situation is very far from the very worst — in fact, it’s quite good, because I get to spend time with my grandma through some of her last days, I have time to write things like this, and for my other job I make joyful mementos for people at special occasions. In the bigger picture, I’m doing all this for something. For someone. Somehow.

After so much intense introspection, I want to close on a lighter note: a special installment of “Things That Are Wonderful.”

Things that are wonderful: the singular peace encapsulated by sports playing on TV in the background while one’s grandma rests, sparrows, kittens, cats, cottage cheese, free food, living in a treehouse, sunlight on greenery, wind, hope, hot tea, caffeine, whiskey, four-legged (or six-legged, or eight-legged, or hundred-legged) roommates, being marked by an animal, dreams, life mysteries, music, good work, water, rivers, oceans, breathing easy, white things floating in the air, spider webs, tattoos, physical photos of loved ones, good relationships, possibilities, good food, rainbows, conservationists, clear progress toward goals, financial independence, fun clothes, hair colors, plants, trees, tying up loose ends, anticipation, Love . . .

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There Are Different Kinds of Tired

Sometimes I hesitate to write posts that are about less-than-happy topics, because I’d rather uplift people than bring them down, but I’m inspired by “The Healing Power of Sadness” by Juansen Dizon (Lonely Blue Boy), to which I can relate from past experience and new nigglings of old emotion. None of us always feel happy. Yes, it’s good to feel better if we can, but not feeling good is all part of this massive experience. To suppress the latter is to make a lie of the former.

At the times in recent years when I’ve stared at the aftermath of exploded dreams or in the face of horrors, I have felt so weary. Soul-tired. Sapped in a way that I cannot replenish with sleep or movement or hope. And I wonder why I’m doing all this: toiling toward Ireland, living in and on other people’s property, struggling to make sense of senseless things. Well, what on Earth am I supposed to do? There’s nothing else, no other calling of my heart to action.

For now.

So I wake up to the alarm again, and I fill out survey after mindless survey, enter one sweepstakes after another, do another day of work, day after day — all, I hope, toward some better place that the so-called gurus say is already within me. Fuck them. What’s in me —

And my grandma distracts me because she needs to pee and has vehement opinions to share about her little world. Haha! So it goes.

Between Bombs and Bath Day

I hit a rough patch a couple days ago. It started on the way home from work, with my carpool friend grimly but energetically recounting the world’s ills. Underlying that diatribe, I was dreading the next day: Grandma’s Bath Day.

My main job is caregiving for my grandma, who has dementia. For her, Bath Day is torture. No one really knows why, but anything resembling even so much as a foot soak makes her screech as though she’s being stabbed with hot pokers. Even if it’s all in her head, she’s clearly suffering. This week, it was my turn to assist when the bath lady came. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through it, because it had been horrendous the three previous times (despite being called off once: the dread on Grandma’s part and thus mine was that intense).

Back to my friend, railing on about Trump and bombs and whatnot. My tolerance reached its breaking point: “That all gives me so much despair, I want to die.”

“Oh, yeah,” he cheerfully agreed. Then he kept on.

I withstood it until I was this close to jumping out of the car. Then I interrupted: “I SAID THIS IS GIVING ME DESPAIR! Please stop! I don’t want to be like an ostrich with its head in the sand, but I can’t stand it! I have to limit how much I think about all that, or I just want to die.

“Point taken.” He fell silent.

I stared out the window and let my soul fly out of it, into the trees, to merge with the play of sunlight on green leaves. I guess that’s escape. Then again, isn’t beauty part of reality, just as much as innocents dying in Syria?

It’s hard to write this, but I think it’s good.

After a few moments of the trees and sunlight, I spoke again. “I’ve struggled with suffering so much, and I still don’t know what to do with it. I mean, I know it sounds crazy, but at one point I was thinking about how even walking on the grass is causing suffering to all the critters — the insects and things in it — that I’m stepping on, and I felt like it would be better if I didn’t exist at all. So I stopped to meditate on that, and I realized that if I believe in love the way I do — and I do — then the very essence of Love is with all those critters like a million times more than I can be. And I, too, am meant to be happy, to enjoy my life and not worry about every step I take. I can only do as much as I can.”

My friend understood.

Once I was safely in the golden white sanctuary of my room, I sat on the step with my favorite local organic beer (Eel River Acai), my feet on warm old concrete. I gazed at greenery, felt the breeze, and scrolled through social media for funny cat posts. I felt better, not thinking much at all.

Then I thought about how everything that dies returns to the embrace of the Earth. In that way, the Earth loves everyone the same, even the horrible people — even me, killing things with every step. All the horrible things pass — are neutralized and then transformed into grass and vines and dandelions growing out of sidewalks cracked by impact.

A couple bits of seed fluff floated by. Then one danced in through the doorway beside me, as though it were a faerie there to tell me it’s all right. Everything can somehow be all right even if it’s not.

So even though I couldn’t stand it, I could, and did.

Then I took up an invite to go to town, to my favorite bar (at the local not-for-profit market), and got drunk in that beautiful place with its beautiful people. And I felt better yet. Sometimes that’s the best I can do.

When the next morning came, I drove to Grandma’s, again caked in dread. When the call came from the bath lady, I told her, “I just can’t do it. I’d rather Grandma never have a bath again and die from being filthy than have to go through that.” The bath lady, an absolute saint, completely understood, as did the equally saintly hospice nurse, as did my equally saintly aunts. I don’t have to do bath days anymore.

In a way, I wish I had the wherewithal to “do my part.” But maybe I am doing my part. As Brett Dennen sang, “Sometimes all that you can do is say no.”