S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
- Dante Aligheri, The Inferno
“If I but thought that my response were made
to one perhaps returning to the world,
this tongue of flame would cease to flicker.
But since, up from these depths, no one has yet
returned alive, if what I hear is true,
I answer without fear of being shamed.”
This is a post that I have had to drag out of me like a man born lame, scoffing at the one who tells him to take up his mat and walk. And be forewarned– there is no purposeful striding herein. Only the limp of my years.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
For a long while now, I’ve been wrestling with the spectre of hopelessness. Maybe it’s the daily encounters with the hopelessness of my clients, maybe it’s year after year of more bad news finally coming home to roost. But one recent Sunday, I finally turned to my wife and said, “I’m unhappy.”
I was quick to follow that with “but it’s nothing to do with you or the kids.” And it isn’t. But after engaging in what I had hoped would be a distraction away from the way our world seems to be going– and seeing my favourite football team continuously lose in ignominious fashion after decades of consistent strength– I sat in my woundedness anew. Nothing, I realized, would be enough to numb the constant ache of the difficulty of our time. Everything feels too big, too complex, and intractable.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
As a child of Gen X, I suppose I am no stranger to existential angst. One of my earliest memories of this kind of fear of meaninglessness was at age 10, seeing an image of a mushroom cloud on the cover of a Maclean’s magazine. I don’t remember the title, but the intent was clear: we faced death by fiery annihilation at best, by nuclear winter-induced famine at worst. I am told that growing up with a proverbial sword dangling over our heads resulted in my generation’s marked cynicism, though the only way I think we’ve arrived there is by means of disappointment in our fellow human beings and the structures we’ve created.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Yet, lest you think my childhood was an endless slog through fear after fear, I also was a child of hopefulness. As long as I have been alive, there have always been elements of resistance against the fear that we will ultimately doom ourselves with fire or slow poison. I remember Earth Days and recycling clubs in high school. I cycled and fasted through my 20s and early 30s to test myself, save money, and to reduce my carbon and consumption footprint before it was even a thing. (And yes, I am well aware that due to costs of living, “fasting” is a bougie way of speaking of starvation.) I undertook these in hope that such practices were somehow making more good. And on: one of my favourite songs is still Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, which I listen to with no small measure of guilt given the apparent character of the man. (The refrain, if you are unfamiliar, is that if you cannot stand the way things are, begin by making changes to yourself. It was, not coincidentally, the song that the children’s choir in The Lego Batman Movie were singing as noted narcissist Bruce Wayne strutted in front of them.) Even this current project of mine was conceived in hope, which remains alive despite its smallness. I began writing and podcasting in this vein because of the faint idea that maybe I have something to offer.
Yet now I feel a dwindling of hope.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
A refrain that has been knocking about my head for months now has been, “am I just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?” As a therapist, it is my life’s work to attempt to help people resolve difficult or problematic emotions. In places I have worked where there is a bias towards short-term solution-focused work, this is even more pronounced as we put behavioural Band-Aids on the psyches of those who seek our help. I may be able to help people feel more comfortable with everything, but evidence of a lack of will for meaningful change on a macroscopic scale abounds. The truth is, the structures we inhabit and the institutions we participate in must change, or what transformations people make while in therapy are meaningless. Governments balk at decarbonization, and carbon capture feels like fantasy amidst the rising dust from rare earth mines that enslave children. Health care outcomes in Canada worsen even as the pandemic is not yet “over”. My rainforest of a city was recently drier than the Mojave Desert, and then was closely followed by a series of atmospheric rivers that makes one question whether God is a toddler at the tap turning on too much or too little. In the future, our children will not be able to afford to buy real estate in the place they have grown up, and I wonder about how to divide everything to give them a chance of having a place to grow roots. There seems to be no end to increasing mental health and addiction problems, which I think are outworkings of an unconscious response to the incoherence and madness of our days. Meanwhile, despots declare themselves presidents for life and muse on whether using a nuclear weapon might just be necessary in order to save face.
It’s a lot. And I’m feeling it. For once, the dispassionate blank slate feels your pain.
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep… tired… or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
And yet, I am not dispassionate. If anything, the idea of compassion as “suffering with” is that in the practice of compassion, we do feel– deeply. And I wonder, if we do not feel deeply, are we compassionate at all? I am still moved, thank God. But the moving drains me, making me wonder whether my pain plays a part or whether it is simply the cost of doing the best you can with what you have. Is there no better way of doing this? Perhaps, but at whose cost? I might be saved, but I wonder if the good of the work might also be lost. I know quite a few Cognitive Behavioural Therapists. I don’t know how they do therapy. But very often, it seems that for them the work is simple, and that the universe is flat. A friend of mine who knows trauma therapists well told me that their perception is that working with trauma is “quite straightforward” and that it is more step-wise than you’d think. Hearing that saddened me more, as I’m not sure if I was looking to recover from trauma that I’d want a person to put me through their meat grinder program. I know that I’ve done it myself in places where the emphasis was on short term, solution-focused therapies. Address symptoms. Help them sleep better. Help them quiet those voices that tell them they’re losers. Then, send them back out into the crushing circumstances that precipitated those symptoms in the first place.
In a word, madness.
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
It would be easiest to write this off as “compassion fatigue.” Maybe it is. And maybe it isn’t, because there are still many moments when I am lanced by the pain to which I bear witness. But I am inclined to wonder if this is not just the difficult part of being a therapist: that even when you’re doing your work well, there are always much larger things that you cannot fix. Very often, I wonder about why we gabble on in an abstract way about depression and anxiety when it often seems like these are reasonable reactions to having your eyes open and your mind switched on. How is a clearminded, tender-hearted human being not to feel anxious or sad given how it seems that everything swirls around an inexorable void from which there is no return, let alone hope? Maybe the issue is that the feelings become overwhelming, and we become unable to conceive of a life where we no longer need to be afraid or in despair. Maybe we are too long in our cages, and have not the strength to stand when finally freed.
I feel it now as a function of my age. No longer spry enough to bounce back from injury, no longer looking to some bright personal future. If this is the zenith of the geography of my life, I am content. I am where I would like to be and doing what I want to do. My family are stable in many senses of that word, and likely will remain so. Those are no small things. I am content now in a way that I have never felt, and I am grateful for that. And yet, that contentment does not seem to work its way down. I remain discontented, maybe in a holy way, but certainly in a way that saps my strength and belief in what I do and how I do it. It has been long since I have felt as though I make the kind of difference I want. Long departed is the excited idealist who traipsed through his early adulthood. In its place? Just the disappointing realization that the response of so many of my peers in living from purchase to purchase or lurching from vacation to vacation may be the only way to preserve the illusion that we are so very small, and that making a real difference is thus a fool’s errand. I wonder if, in the end, they are not wiser than I in muting bad news sources and being busy in making sure the dim sum and Teslas still flow. As the Teacher once wrote, “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.” Maybe they’re right. Why try, when disappointment does not seem in doubt?
These years are a precipice. They are the apex of a life lived in building for one’s self and kingdom, and in peering over to the other half of this journey, there is a daunting realization that before me stands a decision about the sort of old man I shall become. There is not one final decision, there is only the pilgrimage of self, one weary foot in front of the other, deciding this day and the next to follow the path that leads to greater love, greater openness and oh, were it not so–greater humility. That is the thing! There is only that further leaning into the way of love, or else detachment, dissipation, and disaffection. And the disaffection is the abyss. It is the loss of the will to be curious and the love for which we have longed. But love, said the poet, is not a victory march. It is the facing of one’s self and kindly, gently, whispering “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is the allowing of my self-determinative self to die in my own arms, like a good friend.
Humility, humiliation, humus. Are they not all the same?
I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
This is my lamentation, the cry that does not so much wail in the public square but whimpers in grief when I consider my suffering. It feels obscure to share this, and I do not know if this all makes practicable sense. But it makes sense for me, a man who is bearing the consequences for attempting to live in love and hope. Love at times may feel like skipping along a sunshine-dappled path. But, I think, love is also the willingness to bear the pain of deep discouragement and the assaults of fear. Loving requires courage, and courage, though at this moment viewed from afar, seems like a steely-eyed temerity in the face of deep doubt and fear. I have not seen that temerity in the mirror. I see pictures of myself and wonder, “will a mere weekend of rest might remove those shadowy bags under my eyes?” And then, I have a weekend of rest and realize: they aren’t leaving.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
I have chosen here to intersperse passages (in italics) from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Bidden, though perhaps by forces I do not comprehend, it again arose to my consciousness some while ago. Along with his Four Quartets, it’s a verse that returns and returns, bearing new (but maybe bitter) fruit every time I recall it. In my former years of waning youth and singleness, it elucidated the recognition that this could be the state of my life– to be unmarried. But now, married and with children, I hear it now as a dirge of a man confronted with hopelessness and despair upon realizing that, despite all the goodness, what underlies it all is creeping decay.
Where is the wisdom to meet the moment? And is wisdom itself not a kind of courage, where we must turn our contemplation to the dread that this might not work out at all? Is wisdom then found in welcoming the ambiguity of holding both good and evil?
Yet when you hold both in hand, how does one bear the tension? Better to place your hands on live electrodes and be assured of your destruction. To hold both good and evil feels less spectacular, and only whispers of a way of wisdom, not worthy of neon signs announcing your demise. But I am older now, less assured of my worth for the things I do or have done, more assured of my being beloved for no other reason than that I am. Is this not the most blessed way to feel? And yet, there are long moments when I wish those mermaids to sing to me, drawing me nearer to being scuppered on perilous rocks. That is the paradox of my moment, caught as a cork in a barrel, holding it all in, even as it all holds me.