Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Anxiety to Utility

“You have the ability to sense and know higher truth.”
--My recent post-fringe fortune cookie message.

Since I wrote a revelatory autobiographical piece for an M Ed class in June, I have been experiencing higher than usual levels of anxiety, i.e. pretty high, like constant low-level anxiety attack. I attributed the main cause of my anxiety to be the realization that I had to tell my parents I was writing about them and then, when I finally got the guts up to do that, and my father wanted to read what I had written, to having to show him. I was also gearing up for being naked and vulnerable in Edmonton for the Human Body Project and knew that was causing me anxiety, as well. I don’t know how much weight I’ve lost but my pants are loose.

But now the Edmonton Fringe is done and I’ve not only shown my dad what I wrote, but have been able to more positively reinterpret the last 33 years of our relationship due to the post-revelation discussions we’ve had. Yet I’m even more deeply anxious. This past weekend I had close to a full-blown anxiety attack. My husband took my kids to Calgary so I could spend the time writing for my M Ed work and I spent most of it trying to breathe.

What’s the anxiety about? I wish it were so easy to give cause and effect. God, the insatiable desire for people and their cause and effect—well, preferably a simple, fixable cause and effect answer, right? Fuck. Good luck.
What if what I believe was true was actually true? We are all connected. Some people feel it more deeply than others. Me, for instance. You know what I’m really, like really really, NOT good at? Compartmentalizing. Compartmentalization is, first of all, a head skill. It requires relegating feeling and other bothersome body-related attributes to separate compartments to be called up usually when there is seen to be some utility and/or when it comes spewing out (as in a personal/health crisis). As someone who has long understood that I am in a healing crisis/process, I am no longer able to call up this skill. So this living in the comfort of my own home and driving my car and buying crap and “getting on with life”/“sucking it up” and being entertained and all that SHIT, does not necessarily work for me. I’m too busy feeling, whether I want to or not. And here’s what I know about feeling, when I feel, whether I want to or not, I am more connected to myself and others.

What if I really am one of those people who are doing the feeling work for others? God knows, somebody has to do it. I cried pretty much every day of my 30s. I often didn’t understand where the grief came from; it felt much bigger than my own life.

I have been ashamed of this, this feelingness, this weakness, this sensitivity. Well, fuck off shameful feelings, I’m coming out more. I am doing big work, not just as creator of the Human Body Project, and that is big work, but as a feeling human being. I am feeling the disconnectedness and the sheer stupid, willfully ignorant wastefulness of love and beauty in this existence. And maybe by feeling it I’m working through some of it, for myself and, yes, for others. This is serious, emotional work and, needless to say, it goes unrecognized and unpaid. Well, at least I can recognize myself and maybe encourage others to start recognizing themselves too.

What if self-love, authenticity, and love of others really did all intersect? What if instead of hiding and surviving, I look after my sensitive self by showing up honestly and vulnerably? What if “look after your own” meant connecting to the world and doing whatever you can do to make it better? Why is it me who is the “whack job”?

One of my professors said derisively, about research, something like: “We can’t deal with world peace [snort, chortle] so we can take on smaller chunks.” Without a far more derisive aside from me about the sheer obtuseness of a great percentage of social science research (the “smaller chunks”), I submit that if you are an adult, perhaps more particularly an adult in an institutional position, i.e. medical, educational, religious, legal, financial, etc., and if what you are doing is not on some purposeful level about creating more peace in the world than you should fucking quit right now. I submit that every job interviewer should be asking every job interviewee: “What are you doing to create more peace in the world?” ESPECIALLY in education.
The grotesque cynicism and stuntedness of adults projected onto children disturbs me more than anything else in the world. Apparently kindness, caring, and sharing should only last until Grade fucking Five. Good, let’s keep the cycle going. Put the burden of caring on children. Never walk the talk. Do as I say, not as I do. It is so blatantly fucked up, yet the complacency and complicitness of adults is seemingly infinite.

What have we learned? Go backwards from that point, well, that must be what we teach. Some North American lessons: Be skinny but drive a big car. Get a big house. Fashionable clothes are really important. Sex is a big deal but shameful but a big deal but shameful but a big deal… Buying stuff will cheer you up. Fast food is easy. We should always be comfortable and never unhappy and suffering should be fixed and is shameful (and boring, too). Criminals lurk everywhere. At least we don’t live where there are earthquakes, famines, no TV channels, wars, female genital mutilations, and our house isn’t on fire, etc., so we must be doing something right. Our kids should be successful. Success = car, house, clothes, big boobs (either you should have them or your girlfriend should), no signs of suffering, etc. A fancy title beats a human connection any day. Look after your own. Guard your heart to the point that you don’t know you have one.

Look, I know people who are never going to get beyond their very few realizations. Job, house, TV, maybe some family connections, is all they’re going to manage. And maybe they manage those kindly, compassionately. I don’t really want to dis where people are at. But for those of us who can get more expansive in our thinking, those of us who hold positions maybe in institutions that are supposed to be serving other human beings, I challenge you to ask yourself every day: “What am I doing to create more peace in the world?” I challenge you to push beyond your usual comfort zone to expand whatever it is you are doing, because from what I know and see and feel, it’s now or never.

A young friend of mine told me she quit university because she felt like it was “sucking the soul out of my body.” She said: “I couldn’t believe the passionlessness. I couldn’t believe that this was a place where we were coming to learn how to change the world.”

She made a mistake, didn’t she? Universities are not for people who want to change the world. They’re a place for people who want to be a “success.” That nebulous, phony, unreachable goal as defined by our society and explicitly marketed to us by our institutions of higher education.
I am in the extremely uncomfortable position of being a teacher in what is virtually a monopolistic system, a system that I have deep issues with. Worse (better?), I am an uncredentialled teacher in this system. I am extremely uncomfortable with the status quo. I am extremely uncomfortable! How can so many people be content going on like this? Sometimes I can just do what I do and sometimes it just completely boggles my mind. (This is one of those times).

I am a well read, well informed person who, when it comes to whole-self health, have never experienced an iota of assistance from the medical system, so I look very dubiously at mental health diagnoses, even though I know a fair bit about them. When I think of all the possible categories that I might fit into (depression, bipolar, ADD, one or all of these might work), post-traumatic stress disorder fits my scenario the best. Like that paradigm of exile that I’ve written about, I think we actually live in a paradigm of PTSD. I would characterize my trauma as birth; I’m still working on the trauma of being born. By saying this I do not mean to denigrate the extreme traumas that people experience from being victims of violence and oppression—just as by saying that I understand the feeling of exile, I cannot compare my experience to people who have really experienced the upheaval of war or disaster.

But there are parallels. As a deeply feeling human being and one who is trying to come to terms with being a deeply feeling human being, I find the disconnection and lack of heartfulness in our current condition together as humans on this earth, a condition that is completely unquestioned and acceptable on so many levels to so many people, traumatizing. (I believe it is only acceptable and unquestioned because of the way humans are taught to compartmentalize.) On a simple physical/energetic level, I have never been okay with it. (Of course, I’m not alone but, for the purposes of this piece, I’ll just use my own example.) Even before my intellect or even an emotional reaction can get in there, my being rebels; case in point, my current not very pin-pointable, PTSD-like anxiety.

I understand that it is my own job to work on my own self. But the tools at hand, particularly the acceptable tools at hand (e.g. Prozac, going for a walk, alcohol), are close to useless, for me, anyway. The best medicine for me is to show up as authentically as I am able. It’s hard! It’s socially unacceptable or at least socially challenging to admit stuff like this. I can’t just cut it off when I leave the privacy of my own home. Like my ex-university-student friend observed, passionlessness is more acceptable, in fact more worthy, than feelingness. Blurting, singing, dancing, screaming, running naked through the hallways throwing eggs (an activity I may eventually get enough guts to espouse since I think it’s what every one of us involved in a school should be doing) and other socially unacceptable/socially challenging outlets are not readily available to me as a person who still struggles with not wanting to appear too crazy. Either way, I’m stuck with discomfort, which may also contribute to the anxious/depressed/fatigued feelings that I often experience.

Feelingness is acceptable in art, or at least it used to be. For a variety of reasons—one being that the artist establishment has bankrupted feelingness in art, visual art particularly—I’m kind of sick of art. I’m for sure sick of separations and, anyway, I’m no longer able to put those dams or walls or rooms up in myself. Painting a picture is not enough for me anymore. Art, even great work that moves me to tears, isn’t enough for me anymore. In the cultural/economic milieu of commodity and entertainment that has seriously compromised creativity, I have a desperate need for authenticity. I crave allowing it in myself and I am honored and buoyed to meet it in others. When I am authentic, when I share an authentic moment, I feel connected. When I feel connected, I am not crazy. (Writing, as in a blog post piece like this, is a kind of halfway compromise between being feelingly connected and being socially acceptable. Even being naked for the Human Body Project is a halfway point—it’s in a walled-off, separate, compartmentalized, therefore, mostly non-threatening, place.)

I hate using the word crazy but let’s examine it for a moment. Recently, I was fondly called a “whack job.” I honestly can’t take offense because I get it. My admissions, my beliefs, my way of being, my sheer social unacceptability equate with crazy/whack job way in advance of me even considering buying the eggs and running naked down the U Hallway. If I can use an analogy, it’s like my insert politically correct adjective here students (I was going to say rural) who are 20 years old and have never tried an olive. I’m the olive. Too weird. Out of the comfort zone. Nope. Down goes the wall. Crazy.

It’s another Catch-22, isn’t it?
How do you get people to connect with you when they think you’re crazy? Well, you don’t win them all. Especially in, say, a 90-minute Human Body Project event. But I have found that even the most resistant students eventually get something from my classes. I teach public speaking, communication, and writing but what I’m really doing, and what I think is every teacher’s job and what I wish I got some fucking credit for and what I really really really wish was something that we as a race and as educators would seize as an idea to build upon, is I am teaching (and learning) humanity, community, connection, respect for self and others, empathy, the possibility of peace. How do I do that? Primarily by allowing myself to be as vulnerable and authentic as I am able. Am I perfect at it? No. But I am purposeful and passionate.

For Human Body Project events I show up naked. I am constantly reevaluating if this is necessary. I am not comfortable naked, though, admittedly, it seems to get easier. Nakedness also makes other people uncomfortable. But the essential reason is still there; my nakedness allows me to be as defenseless as possible. This is important because in defenselessness, in vulnerability, my heart is more accessible. Similarly, I do not script or prepare any material for Human Body Project events. Again, I am constantly reevaluating if this makes sense. So far, it has. When I show up defenseless and unprepared, I can let go of a willful agenda, which, for me, probably fits into the category of bitingly critical social commentary. The as-defenseless-as-possible stance, along with the in-the-moment allowing and trusting that whatever is meant to happen will happen has been unfailingly powerful for me and for, I believe, most audience members. (One man in Edmonton ran into me after he had been to my first show. He said something like: “I didn’t totally get what was happening when I was sitting there but it sort of exploded in my brain afterward.”)

This piece of writing is a more harsh and critical side of me than has yet shown up in a Human Body Project event. I am an angry person, motivated by my discontent and ill health and, most especially, my desire to see a kinder, deeper, more creative and connected world for my children. I’m not saying this angry/crazy piece of writing isn’t my truth but perhaps it isn’t my highest truth. I believe what happens at Human Body Project events is a higher truth or a more heartful truth and I am pretty sure that energetically, on a real world-changing level, it makes more of a difference than getting people to read this post. So perhaps you can understand my frustration with my inability to figure out a way to expand the project. (And maybe that contributes to my anxiety, as well.)

In different ways I keep saying the same thing. Heart: heartfulness is the bottom line. Vulnerable: by allowing yourself to be vulnerable you have more access to your heart. Feel: reassemble your compartments. Connect: we are all in the same boat. I am no paragon of heartfulness. But because of how I feel, I know—in that deep sense as a human being who is an instrument of knowing (Vicki Kelly)—how desperately we need to do this.

“You have the ability to sense and know higher truth.” No shit. With that knowing comes a responsibility to share that knowledge at the very real risk of being labeled crazy, egotistical, and most certainly, non-academic and unscientific. But I take my responsibility very seriously and feel it very urgently. There is rarely a moment that goes by when I am not trying to figure out a more effective way to share my wisdom.

Until we acknowledge the role of the heart, our conclusions, our learnings will continue to be faulty. I have written: “If everyone felt the same way that I do, the world might actually change.” I have been asked: “Can you better describe these feelings?” This is my attempt at describing a time of serious anxiety and the way I make connections in myself and to the world to understand where that anxiety comes from. For those who prefer the more limiting but easier to swallow medical model, go for it and, again, good luck.

For those who prefer the cynical response to my authentic, heartful, vulnerable, emotion and feeling-tinged argument, I get it. Until I became a mother I, too, took the cynical exit and am still habituated to take that route. I was not implicated in my own life because I barely gave a shit about myself, but I sure as hell care about my children. I woke up for and with them. I am implicated and so are we all, especially at this juncture in history. The cynical response may be the easy and socially acceptable response, but it is a harmful response.

I’m not saying we should start a movement of naked egg-throwers, although anyone interested in starting one, I might like to know about it. I’m not saying my argument is the exact olive you need. I’m not even saying that everyone should get beyond the habitual, destructive passionlessness of our culture and try a fucking olive, though I am suggesting that more of you might want to do that. Just give the olive some fucking respect.

If you’re getting a bit lost with my olive analogy (as even I am but I still kind of like it), I’ll be more explicit. Let’s say you’re a guy who understands hard facts and linear arguments. Let’s say it’s important to you that columns balance and “t”s are crossed and other orderly, explicable things occur. Let’s say you are perfectly happy never trying an olive. Let’s say you do a good job, love your family, and are a really decent person. Let’s say that what I have just written above may be way out of, not only your comfort zone, but also your understanding of how the world works. I would like you to consider that my understanding is just as deserving of respect as yours. I would like you to consider that I am not necessarily asking you to propagate or convert to my view.

Mostly, most fervently, I would like you to see—given what I know you know because we all know, whether we want to or not: the overwhelming scientific, documented, empirical evidence of climate change, diminishing energy reserves, poverty, violence, war, misogyny, etc. on the globe that we share with more than 6 billion others—the utility of my argument.

1 comment:

  1. I came here because I'm a nudist, word gets around, and I was curious. ...but this essay was pretty fucking naked.
    I've always counted my PTSD from the weeks before I started third grade, not birth, and that means I've been in crisis (albeit frequent denial) ever since 1957. You're right about the way we unfeelingly threaten ourselves, but I don't want to run down the corridors naked and throwing eggs. I want to run naked down the corridors throwing fucking olives.