Seeing and Doing: The Question of Happiness

Tonight, as I sat in the Blue Hour–clean, fed, plenty of ink and paper to take my thoughts, every immediate need satisfied–I wondered how I could enjoy these things when I knew even a fraction of the suffering and injustice endured by so many. How can I pretend to be a creature of conscience when I have seen so much want, if not in myself then in those near or even complete strangers. This is not a passing thought, but something that has been with me for some time now. Orwell is, for better or worse, my Bluebeard. His work is the constant companion that pricks me like an unseen thorn.

   Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.

~ George Orwell

Am I so very foolish to need a space in which I can set aside the consideration of the deep pain of my fellow human beings? Or am I simply a selfish and self-indulged creature to need to go out into the garden, write about inconsequential things, or find the silliest point of a conversation upon which to spin a good belly laugh? These things are not simply pointless fun, but rather indispensable moments of healing. Today, as on many days lately, I question this need to retreat, not from the understanding of suffering or wrongness, but from my reaction to it. Perhaps a bit of context is in order.

 

That Bit of Context You Ordered…

A colleague of mine recently traveled to Brazil to document the community response to the World Cup soccer tournament. Most people are aware that there have been some substantial protests and a general level of upheaval surrounding this celebrated event. But today, and upon several occasions in the past, I watched as police lobbed shock grenades, tear gas, and other “crowd calming” implements into crowded plazas and streets that had been barricaded. I observed the way police in riot gear rushed into an underground train station and began beating people with batons. A train disgorged its load of passengers, some of whom were elderly-the police beat them, as well. A number of horrifying, sickening, and grossly unjust actions were displayed in the clarity that only modern technology can deliver–an armored officer kicking a photojournalist in the face, or a group of stone-eyed policemen surrounding the beating of a protester so that it could not be documented clearly.

As I commented on Cole’s post,

   So I watched this, and I took a moment to absorb what I saw and heard. Then, I watched it again, because something about it simply doesn’t seem to register in my brain in a logical or communicable way. Rather than words, I began thinking in random typographical symbols, textures, and colors. I still don’t actually have anything intelligent to say to this that isn’t spelled with %,*, ! or @, but I’m glad you’re ok5ay. (The five is silent.) Perhaps my rage-synesthesia will eventually wear off.

Dancing With the Devil

Rage. I make light of my inability to cope with it by flopping around like a landed fish, spewing obscenities like one possessed, and in general being hugely dramatic. But what I need you to understand is that this is a pressure valve. It is not the rage itself, simply a bit of comic relief. Because when all the asterisk-karat-percent-pound sign-exclamation point-ampersanding is done, the deep well of absolute blackness, perfect silence, and complete stillness that is the real rage waits. And it would be terrifying if I weren’t so accustomed to its presence.

There is, however, nothing productive about it, no cogent language or proactive idea-creation. In that pit, no solutions await. It is merely destructive. In my estimation, possessing such an emotional response serves no one, least of all myself. So I flail and spout inventive–sometimes hilarious–obscenities, and it helps. But I can still sense the freezing ooze of anger that has no appropriate expression.

 

Reminders of Beauty and Peace

And that’s what the need to go out and have conversations with strange puppies, watch bees tending to their business, or simply to set a garden bed in order is all about. It dissolves that darkness in the same way sunlight banishes shadow. It allows me to breathe and perhaps ponder how I will react in a positive fashion. The issue here is: How can I possibly have any useful reaction to what I have seen? Because it’s all happening so far away, and it’s just a scene in a long-drawn play of the dirty politics of another nation. What could I ever hope to do or say? Facebook posts seem so very lame and ineffective in this instance. They feel limp and inert coming from me. I’m not there. I have no part in this struggle.

   You have to do whatever you can’t not do.

~Luisa Rey, Cloud Atlas

So, I continue to mull over concepts of contentment in the face of uncomfortable knowledge and wonder what to do about it. Where am I supposed to take this double-handful of baffled, unhappy, and painful understanding of my own inability to act? I am so distant, unconnected, and largely impotent. If I could, I would offer what I have, which is small and not particularly impressive. I would offer it anyway if it were wanted or needed or useful, because I cannot countenance knowing–having been denied the possibility of turning away or retreating fully–that such things are happening and not doing something.

 

Like Dogs Waiting for a Walk (addendum)

This morning I woke early to thoughts fully formed, all sitting expectantly by my bed and making noises to encourage my waking. I questioned whether my distress was simply a particularly aggressive manifestation of American Helperism–you know, that urge to jump in and shove helpfulness at any crisis or atrocity that came to my attention, in spite of the understanding that this is often far from actually helpful. An excellent example is America’s urge to force feed a famine–sending food relief supplies to famine stricken areas of the world. Analysis has shown that this actually makes suffering worse, creating a black market for food supplies and deflating the demand for local labor initiative. The key idea to take away from the these statements is that often, the first impulse is not the correct one, but the urge to assist should not be discarded, simply subject to more careful scrutiny. In other words, when we wish to help, we should make sure that our actions are actually helpful.

My feelings of smallness and utter helplessness do persist, though perhaps they are not exceptional to this instance. Rather than viewing my reaction as one to the current cause celebre, I see it as a figurehead for all the blatant cruelty and injustice I have become aware of. Pick a handful of horrors–Gaza with its political and cultural tensions, Egypt with its political upheaval, the Sudan with its ongoing genocide, famine in portions of East Africa, Venezuela, Columbia, Southern Mexico, the issues with American border paranoia and small children seen as a threat to national security, Myanmar and the reinstatement of harsh political oppression of journalists in tandem with the aggressive apartheid and Burmese Muslim populations.

The list is endless, prolific, and both foreign and domestic. All these are things about which I can do nothing, a part of me whispers. In light of this almost overwhelming awareness of suffering, what can any single individual actually do. Is there any hope for our species? Orwell grumbles in a corner of my brain about boots and faces. Indeed from that vantage point, it does all look rather bleak. And then I understand better my reaction, my need to retreat from the world. When I look at America’s popular media, what I see is a rather unsettling tendency to make a great deal of fuss about an issue and then to move on, drop it, and sweep the entire mess under the carpet of the latest social scandals.

But I have not forgotten, and I think I’m not alone in that. I take the understandings and the hopelessness into the garden, the kitchen, down to the river on a walk, and I do not forget. I still feel helpless this morning. I still feel almost unbearably small and ineffective against a drowning flood tide of oppression, hunger, war, disease, greed, and strife. Rather than naive, I think I have to believe that my insistence on seeing the beauty and peace at hand is a psychological survival mechanism.

What can I do for the people taking to the streets of cities in Brazil? Probably absolutely nothing, any more than I can assist those who are being entirely dispossessed, abused, and murdered in a number of places. That’s a pretty grim thought to ponder at 7 a.m. any day of the week. And it’s now that my own personal post-modern Buddha comes around and coyly slides an idea my way.

   Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’

~Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater

And so I look at my collection of despairs over the state of the world, the fate of humanity, and I put them all neatly in a basket. Mr. Orwell is right. There’s nothing to be done. Life is suffering, plain but rarely simple in the end. But Mr. Vonnegut is right, too. He is always going on about human beings and our silliness with a sort of hopeful despair or a despairing hope. I think, as I take my thought-dogs for their morning constitutional, that I have to continue as I have begun.

That there is not a great deal that can be directly done to impact any of the things I’ve talked about is quite true. But I promise, I’m not forgetting about you, World. What I can do is be kind to the people I encounter and try to be better at thinking before I speak or act. What I can do is pull that weed, plant that flower, trim back those bushes. What I can do is allow my understanding of human suffering to inform my enactment of compassion on a daily basis. I suppose, when all is said and done, this is my small gift, my naive and hopeful contribution, to the effort to make the human world a slightly less awful place than it can often be. The other option is to give in to soul-consuming despair, wind down, stop moving, writing, eating–and that doesn’t do anyone much good at all at either end of the equation.

 

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