The True Explorer

Group Portrait of  JourneyIt may seem trite to say life is a journey, but few metaphors are more apt for describing the human experience. Personal insight and awareness often have the same gradual, unfolding nature that mirrors the action of putting one foot in front of the other. Moment to moment we are keenly conscious about the desire to be somewhere else, to know what we don’t know, or to acquire something still outside our grasp. Far from being trite, understanding life as a journey is quite meaningful and useful for facing life’s difficulties. Humans respond to the call for a better life by moving from point A to point B, physically, mentally or spiritually.

The impulse to physically wander is inherited from our ancient vegetarian ancestors, and the need to settle down in a base, cave, den or tribal territory is characteristic of carnivores. So says the legendary explorer Bruce Chatwin in his intriguing collection of essays, The Anatomy of Restlessness. The omnivorous design of our teeth and the versatile structure of the human body hint at the acceptability of both lifestyles: roaming the land in search of sustenance or staying put in one place to construct agreeable ways to cook and eat. Even today for many, nothing says home like a great kitchen and dinner table.

So we have competing desires: the urge to travel, to move, to be curious, as well as the longing to nest and rest. The moment we answer the call to explore we’ve also sown seeds for the yearning for home. There’s beauty in that tension. To wander without a literal or figurative sense of home is to be lost, to be pushed without the stabilizing pull. The explorer may physically go in one direction, but psychologically he desires a round trip; to come back to his familiar self, but with something new added. There is a heroic departure from the norm and a return, hopefully with new gifts to offer, leading to a new and better normal.

Historically, Chatwin reports, the nomad doesn’t wander aimlessly, but follows known paths of migration; the geographic familiarity perhaps compensating for the absence of a fixed address.

You might say the nomad is uncivilized, if we accept Chatwin’s definition of civilized as “living in cities.” The true nomad or explorer is something of a disruptive influence on civil society. His path goes outside the boundaries, but his motives are constructive. His movement seeks provision or insight or economic gain, not escape.

BC-Herodotus-HistoriesChatwin cites Herodotus, himself an exile and a traveler with boundless curiosity. In The Histories Book IV we find a fascinating description of the advantages of nomadic life. Facing military aggression by the Persian King Darius, the nomadic Scythians went on the move. But what appeared as retreat to Darius was nothing of the sort. The Scythians merely acted in accord with their accustomed lifestyle. In frustration, Darius sent a message to the Scythian King: “Why do you always run away?” The Scythian King replied, “I have never fled for fear of any man, nor do I now flee from you. If you really want a fight, find the graves of our fathers and then you’ll see whether we’ll fight. As for your boast that you are my master, go and cry.” Soon enough Darius was the one retreating.

Nomadic traditions are highly spiritual, having gave rise to the great world religions. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed – all nomads. Chatwin, an agnostic, writes, “…no great transcendental faith has ever been born of an Age of Reason. Civilization is its own religion.” Chatwin proposes, however, that the estrangement of physical movement from spiritual growth in civilization contributes to a stagnation we seek to recapture in focused migrations. The Muslim Hajj and other pilgrimages endeavor to balance the loss of human movement inherent to civilization.

Chatwin came of age in the 1960s. In many ways he embodied the daring and progressive lifestyle that typified those times. But he was primarily a freethinking intellectual who didn’t hesitate to call out the posers among his contemporaries. Chatwin disdained the recreational drug use associated with that freethinking age, regarding it not as counter-cultural but as counterfeit and still bound by middle-class material values. This didn’t endear him to “the cool kids” of his time. He saw his own generation as profoundly ignorant of the worth of travel and exploration as purposeful activities, ways to test one’s imagination and develop skills, not as excuses for idleness and indulgence. But since humans must journey, it didn’t surprise him that people were susceptible to seeking inferior journeys of the chemical kind.

Chatwin disrupted his society and spurred his own growth by moving his body. He believed walking was best because, taking his cue from nature, the best thFeetings in life are accomplished slowly and deliberately. Writing in 1970 he said, “All our activities are linked to the idea of journeys… our brains have an information system giving us our orders for the road, and that here lie the mainsprings of our restlessness. At an early stage man found that he could spill out all this information in one go, by tampering with the chemistry of the brain. He could fly off on an illusory journey or an imaginary ascent…. but true wanderers rarely fell prey to this illusion. Drugs are for people who have forgotten how to walk.”

The horizon of the inner journey is where Chatwin ultimately set his sights. His concept of adventure had little to do with adrenaline-pumping risks or gawking at the exotic, though he did take risks and he did witness the exotic. His concept of adventure involved responding to restlessness without surrender to rootlessness. There was boldness and maybe even impulsivity to his adventures. He stepped outside of his known territory but not outside of his consciousness.

His first and perhaps best-known book, In Patagonia, came about because of a conversation with an elderly friend. The friend said, “I’m too old to go to Patagonia now. Please go for me!” Chatwin answered the call and left immediately, famously sending this succinct message of resignation to his employer: “Have gone to Patagonia.”

If life is a journey then to sojourn well we must be in it for the long term and be willing to go beyond known territory. There will be long stretches where nothing seems to be happening. The true explorer is patient and makes peace with the step-by-step nature of the process. I admire the abandon with which Bruce Chatwin accepted those facts.

Do you desire to be a lifelong learner? Think of learning as a long walk. Better yet, take a long walk and explore. You get to know things better when they go by slow.

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Let Me Count the Ways…

444 Daredevil bestWhen I was a little boy I learned numbers long before I could identify letters. I went around “reading” numbers and speaking them aloud wherever I saw them, probably driving my parents to distraction, though they didn’t let on. Counting was the closest thing I had to a superpower.

Numbers also represented a connection to the wider world and access to something grand out there that preexisted me. Of course, I had no concrete grasp of that at the time. I just liked numbers.

One day I parked myself at the kitchen table and stayed there until I counted to one thousand, after which my patient mother rewarded me with a “Wowww! Very good, Jerry.” In my memory it was a monumental achievement that took all day, though I now know it couldn’t have taken longer than 30 minutes.

Another memorable experience with a number has yielded benefits to this very day. I was sitting alone on my bed with a large book, a dictionary I believe, reading the page numbers and searching for the hidden numbers within the scribble-scrabble definitions. I came to page 444.

I said aloud to myself, “I’m four years old and this is my number: 444.” And so it was. 444 was my number for life.  Sure enough, since that day I’ve been inclined to speak aloud to myself the number 444 Kid444 at random times. A year or longer may pass without my thinking of it and then, while standing on line at the bank or eating dinner with friends, up through the jumble of thought will rise, clear and bright, the number 444. Then in respectful solidarity with my younger self, I give soft utterance to my number: 444. My old friend 444 is fearless; it even came to my mind unbidden at the altar on my wedding day.

I never force myself to remember the number, never schedule an utterance, and I never fret that it will go away for good.  Like the wind and the Holy Spirit, 444 comes and goes on its own mysterious timetable. The moment it appears and I acknowledge its presence is a pure moment for me, strangely stabilizing and free from anxiety. I always smile inwardly.

The mystery of 444 has not stopped me from attempting to assess its psychological or even spiritual significance.  I easily reject the “primeval self” hypothesis, that this is a vestige of superstition. My relationship with the number has nothing in common with obsessive-compulsive behavior. I jokingly call 444 a superpower, but I do not call it a “higher power.” I never pursue it and it never has a necessary connection with agitation. 444 is a delightful curiosity that suggests to me how important is a sense of continuity in life.

The realizati444 Baby adulton and the feeling that I am the same person as that little boy sitting on the edge of a bed with a dictionary imparts a welcome self-respect and compassion for myself; outlooks that I intuit are integral to my experience of a meaningful life.

Both sides of my family have researched our ancestral origins. Feeling connected to my dad’s grandmother, who ran a farm in Poland in the 19th century, or sympathizing with the legal travails of a rascally great-grandfather in Italy stirs my soul in a way that’s hard to define. I like being connected to them. What decisions did they make that affect my life today? What decisions am I making today that will affect the lives of others 100 years from now? I like being connected to them too. This is somewhat mind-blowing and pleasing to ponder.

I might extend this train of thought to wider society. The study of Western Civilization represents continuity with our cultural past, our intellectual and spiritual development as a race, and our connection with our younger selves as a civilization. You could say reading and rereading Plato’s Republic or Genesis or King Lear is a 444 of sorts for our culture; touchstones of continuous development, memory and meaning; each reader a present link between the past and the future.

444 StringfellowI work at St. John’s College and one of its founders, the strangely named Stringfellow Barr, was a strong advocate of admitting talented students to the College before they graduated high school. He said, “The only thing you learn in the last two years of high school is how to dance!” This is not earth-shattering information, but I like that statement. It helps me feel closer to Stringfellow Barr. In its small way this brings greater meaning to my labor at the College.

Speaking out the seemingly trivial “444” whenever it calls to me allows me to feel closer to the boy I was.  This makes it easier to accept myself as I am now, since that boy and I are one and the same human being. It is so odd and wonderful to me that life is like that; that a small, obscure moment over fifty years ago can transcend my hardships and find lasting purchase in my soul.

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Your Sex Life on Porn

Once I was invited to the off-campus home of some male college students.  As I approached the front door I could see through an opening in the curtain of the large picture window.  The TV was on and they were watching a porn film.  I knocked on the door and prepared myself for an awkward moment.  When they opened the door and brought me inside I was relieved to see the TV was off.

laptop-manWhile pornography is attractive to men as ever, gone are the days of taking social risks in public to obtain sexually explicit material.  The Internet has reduced the social and economic hindrances of procuring porn films to near zero.  I read that 30% of women and 70% of men admit to ever having viewed online porn.  My informal inquiries indicate that for college students, that number is closer to 100% for both genders.  A significant percentage of those students assert that viewing porn is a positive and healthy activity.

For many boys, porn was their introduction to sex education.  Naturally curious about the mechanics of sex, boys find basic answers in porn.  Porn also indoctrinates viewers with an ethos about relationships, intimacy and the self.  Most men view porn long before their first real sexual encounter.  By the time a man engages in sexual activity with another person, he has likely received hundreds, if not thousands, of images into his psyche of other human bodies having sex.

Even if watching online porn is now the norm, we do well to ask if viewing porn is healthy for the sex lives of men and women.  Do these films provide essential knowledge that leads to satisfying sexual relationships?  We all agree viewing porn can be a powerful experience. But being moved by something is not sufficient proof of its goodness, as Aristotle cautions us in his Nicomachean Ethics.  How does one make a clear-eyed assessment of the overall effect of porn on a human being?

The desire for sex is primal and mind-bending.  Jokes are legion about how the sex drive can distort a person’s rational powers.  We chuckle in agreement when comedian Robin Williams says, “God gave man a brain and a penis – but not enough blood to use them both at the same time.”  Add the effects of alcohol consumption, and sexual self-governance can be nonexistent.  I’ve known many who were wounded by such situations.

imagesNo one disputes that the human sex drive can overwhelm the rational mind as it cries out for satisfaction.  But there is another cry that may accompany the sex drive, one that is more substantial if not as boisterous.  This is the cry for intimacy.  What then is the relationship between sexual desire and emotional intimacy?

Clark Gable, one of the preeminent movie stars of the 20th century, was once caught with a prostitute.  He was asked, “Why would you, Clark Gable, who could have your choice of women, pay a woman for sex?”  He said, “I don’t pay a woman for sex.  I pay a woman to go away after sex.”  What a striking example of sex without intimacy.

Intimacy, I dare say, is the precious pearl we all desire from our love relationships.  The need for emotional intimacy is the substance behind the longing for love expressed in practically every romantic song or poem ever written.  To be utterly known by another, and cherished for it, may be at the top of the list of things we desire beyond individual survival needs such as water, food and safety.  Long after sexual desire passes, the need for intimacy persists.  No one commits suicide over an absence of sex, but some do kill themselves over an absence of intimacy, which is loneliness.

Loneliness is abysmal, and yet intimacy is risky.  Authentic emotional intimacy between two people involves an exchange of vulnerabilities, including the vulnerability to rejection.  And rejection plucks the dreadful chords of abandonment and shame in most of us.  This makes emotional nakedness far more perilous than mere bodily nakedness in sex.

teun hocks warmthThis is a conundrum we all face regarding intimacy; live with loneliness or risk rejection.  The ever-present sex drive is all too ready to step into that void to provide a soothing connection.  But to surrender to sex while still emotionally defended further isolates the self that hungers for real intimacy.  It may feel less risky to rely on fantasy, or one may seek to detach the emotions from sex.  But then the sex act becomes little more than a pantomime of human closeness: sex without intimacy, pleasure without authentic meaning.  That was how Clark Gable handled the dilemma.

So what’s the problem with that?  Are there not simple pleasures that are perfectly fine without attachment to meaning, such as feeling the sun on one’s face?  I would argue that all pleasures, even the sun on one’s face, are enhanced by a connection to a greater significance and are diminished by the lack of connection.  This is all the more true for far more complex pleasures such as sex, which influences one’s concept of self on many levels.

Mad-Men-Don-DraperSexual pleasure unsustained by meaningful intimacy eventually drifts towards emptiness.  The sex that once thrilled becomes ordinary, the pleasure more thin, failing to gratify in quite the same way as before.  Nobody wants this, so the experience must then be artificially boosted to imitate depth and sustain excitement: more novel, more edgy, or more reliant on fantasy.

In contrast, the textures of meaningful pleasure are abundant, and become more accessible over time, not less accessible.  We don’t develop tolerance to meaningful pleasure; just the opposite.  We savor meaningful pleasure with deepening sensitivity as time passes.

Consider the excitement of true love and devotion, where the mere touch of the beloved’s hand may elicit long-lasting, passionate delight.  The term “pleasurable” is inadequate to describe the contentment of sex nourished by unfettered emotional intimacy.  This is a full and highly personalized experience.

Which brings us back to the use of pornography.  Porn’s essential feature is that it provides the user with a vivid experience of depersonalized sex, utterly bereft of intimacy, the thing we desire more dearly than sex.  In porn viewing, nothing is demanded that would actually create intimate meaning between living human beings.  Loneliness is temporarily soothed, rejection is avoided, but at a cost.

dummiesThe viewer must see the sex actors, from the outset, as mere objects among many other objects that are used until their usefulness is used up.  By emotionally attaching his sexual self to objects, the viewer objectifies not only the porn actors, but himself as well, so that a non-threatening, fantasy version of intimacy can be held in the mind.  And when the porn image that excites becomes banal, as it must, the viewer is progressively desensitized to sexual pleasure.  Porn seems to yield benefits in the short term, but it is a losing strategy in the long term for pleasure-loving people.

Porn use is hostile to the examined life.  It leaves one progressively dependent on untruth, the crutch of fantasy, and, over time, more lonely and less capable of emotional connection with a true intimate.  Being insulated from our deepest emotions is living small, which increases the risk of anxiety, depression, and old-fashioned unhappiness.  As an overall contributor to life satisfaction, porn is a thief disguised as a philanthropist.

The path that values emotional honesty and intimacy is admittedly risky and requires persistent courage, but the rewards have to do with true love.  Love is sublime, based on the truth, and very likely the best thing out there.

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The Discovery

My first alcoholic drink changed my life.  It was the summer of my 14th year. Our town held a festival every July called The Feast of St. Anthony.  It was not so much a religious event, but a raucous carnival; the kind where the normal rules of conduct are loosened.

At a booth I managed to knock down the milk cans with a baseball, and the grown-up running the booth, a classmate’s father, put a bottle of wine in my hands.  Normally he would never have given me alcohol, but this was The Feast, so even though I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was startled to now be the owner of this cool, mysterious bottle.  I cradled it in my arm like a football and hurried through the crowd to find my two close friends. After hacking through the cork with a pen knife, the three of us drank the whole bottle.

A Superman risinghappy, rosy glow overtook me.  “Ohhhh, I get it now,” I said to my friends.  “This is why people drink.”    Until that moment it had never entered my mind to seek out alcohol.  If you asked me what I did for fun I would have said going to the beach, sports and reading.  I didn’t know such elevated emotions were available to me.  This wasn’t merely an insight, but a discovery.

I was confused by the phenomenon of drinking alcohol because it seemed mostly negative, making grown-ups I respected act stupidly.  I was embarrassed for them when they drank.  Stupid was the one thing I knew I didn’t want to be.  But now, having felt the buzz, I determined that the next chance I had to drink alcohol, I would do it.

That moment came about two years later at age 16.  A recently graduated high school friend was able to sneak me into a college bar.  The drinking age was 18 then.  He bought me a beer and then left me alone, as he went off to talk with other people he knew. I stood off to the side and surveyed this bar scene in wide-eyed wonder.  People were fast times 2happy and having fun, Eric Clapton music was playing, and there were pretty girls everywhere.  Did that one just smile at me?  This was awesome.  I drank my beer like water.

Pretty soon my friend came by.  “Hey JJ, you gotta nurse that beer along.  Don’t drink it fast.”  He bought me another.  I felt manly, thinking I had found an essential ingredient for a life I would really love.

The bar scene added a thrilling social dimension to the buzz.  Whatever made me feel like an awkward outlier in life ceased to exist in the festive drinking scene, as long as I drank.  So I sought it out whenever I could. Even when people started reporting back to me idiotic things I said or did the night before, I thought the drinking was worth it.  Yes, I winced when told how I annoyed people with my argument about the merits of disco, and I didn’t even like disco.  And yes, I was mortified when I woke up on my friend’s sofa, having passed out and pissed on it.  And no, I didn’t like having to apologize for my obnoxious behavior the day after some heavy drinking.  But drinking was great, right?

Fast forward to age 21.  I was at a bar with my drinking buddies, eight of us.  We were the best of friends and knew each other well, or so I thought.  There were three pitchers of beer on the table.  As I refilled the cups around the table, the guy next to me, Harry, said no thanks. Het!

“Not drinking tonight?”  I asked.

“No, I never drink,” he said. I was surprised.

“What do you mean you don’t drink?”

“I don’t drink.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t care for it,” he said.

I was amazed that I had been out in bars and at parties with Harry for many months, and I never knew he wasn’t drinking right along with the rest of us.  Just because someone at a social event has a cup in his hand, doesn’t mean he has alcohol in the cup, I discovered.

Ridicule is often a form of questioning and so even though I was curious, I poked fun at Harry at the time.  Secretly I admired him for being so self-assured, for following his own star.  The truth was I didn’t feel comfortable with the way I drank, but I lacked the self-possession and wherewithal to follow my star, or even see it.

You may be expecting me to say how I eventually stopped drinking and found a better way of life.  I did find a better way to manage my emotions, and that did involve “breaking up” with alcohol, in a sense.  But the road to honest examination of myself – who I was, what I wanted, and why my life mattered – was more complex than deciding I no longer wanted to use drinking as a spiritual and social crutch. I now see that from the beginning I was on a path of discovery, but for me that path led far beyond the primitive and unmanly bounds of seeking to get “buzzed.”

My path had to do, not only with the large questions of truth, goodness and beauty, but also with quotidian questions such as, “How can I comfortably interact with people and still be myself?” and “Why do I care so much about what others think of me?” and simply, “What makes a good day?”  Drinking became a hindrance to me, so I merely chose to take alcohol out of the equation as I sought answers to those compelling questions.

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Extremism At Its Finest

DownloadedFileWhen Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s, another radical social movement was gaining ground in the United States.  This movement had to flop, many believed, not only because the problem it addressed was so intractable, but also because the solution it advocated was so unorthodox and counter-intuitive.  Their founders had to be crazy to think they could succeed.

But they did succeed, beyond their wildest dreams.  Within a few years Alcoholics Anonymous was front page news, though one of its founders, Bill W., refused to be photographed or give his full name when Time Magazine asked to do a story.  The man was serious about anonymity, not celebrity.  AA has remained true to that principle, and the group is still growing and thriving into the 21st century.

This organization runs exceptionally well even though it has no leader and no centralized administration.  It costs nothing to join.  Contrary to popular belief, there is no dogma; all teachings of the organization are regarded as suggestions.  A person could attend an AA meeting three times a day, every day of the year, not take a single suggestion, and still be considered a member if they chose to be so considered.  To participate it is not required to give your name at any time and neither is it required to speak at a meeting.   You can join AA while still drinking heavily; the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.

With such loose standards for membership and participation you might expect Alcoholics Anonymous to be ineffective as a plan for facing problem drinking.  The exact opposite is true.  The AA approach remains, for over 75 years, the finest, most effective, and most embraced strategy in the world for facing problems of compulsion.  Only two times will you see money exchanged at an AA meeting.  One is when a basket is passed and a member may put in a single dollar if they wish, and another is if someone purchases AA literature, which, if not given away, is sold at cost.

I’ve attended meetings in four countries on three continents and the meetings were remarkably consistent.  Alcohol problems affect human beings the same everywhere, and my-name-isAA’s fail-safe approach is the same everywhere.  The talk at a meeting in New Delhi, India, sounded to me just like the talk at a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, if it weren’t for the accented English and occasional dip into spoken Hindi.

The dependability of AA is rooted in the group’s absolute reliance on two documents: organizational guidelines called “The Twelve Traditions” and a sobriety approach called “The Twelve Steps.”  There are no promotions, no advertising, no fundraising, and no political ties. It is an impressive feat that AA is beholden to no one except the people the organization exists to serve.

I find AA useful for issues besides problem drinking.  For example, at a meeting I heard, “Men are willing to die for an idea, provided the idea is vague enough.”  This remark may sound cynical but it speaks to how deeply human beings desire their lives to be meaningful.  So much so that the pursuit of the signifier can become more important than what it signifies.  That leaves one susceptible to delusional thinking, as that perceptive comment suggests.

One could say that drunkenness is the embrace of a signifier bereft of anything truly signified.  That is to say, the feeling of intoxication imputes false meaning randomly to events.  If you’ve ever heard the inane conversation between two drunk people, you know what I mean.  The effect of alcohol is often pleasurable, but it is a meaningless pleasure, in itself.  And meaningless pleasures fade over time.

Despite AA’s stellar success and complete openness about how the program works, snide criticisms and misinformation abound in public opinion forums.  It is astonishing how much pain and humiliation caused by drinking some people will accept, while feeling ashamed to be seen at an AA meeting.  Why is this?

Every one of us venerates our own sense of agency and autonomy. Problems caused by Man in Mirrordrinking – social embarrassment, legal trouble, physical danger, financial worries, health problems – can pale in comparison to the crushing sense of shame associated with being “out of control” of one’s life.  If sitting in a chair at an AA meeting is considered a public admission of shame, then no wonder it takes deep suffering caused by the drinking to override that shame.  Some call this moment when shame is overridden, “hitting bottom.”

Is suffering necessary for one to understand the truth about one’s place in the world, the limits of one’s autonomy?  No, not always.  If true learning could not happen vicariously, we’d never profit from reading a book, or gain insight from history or from any story well told.  But to obstinately insist on learning lessons the hard way, through personal experience only, is to welcome misery as the only teacher.  I am grateful for the vicarious lessons I’ve learned, and the misery I’ve avoided, by listening carefully at AA meetings.

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The Anxiety Club

images-3One warm September day in 1998, five of us from St. John’s College went for a swim in the Chesapeake Bay at a beach about ten miles from campus.  It was so much fun we kept going back, even into October.  We were pleased with ourselves, swimming in what we thought was pretty cold water.  It may have ended there, but then someone asked, “Why don’t we swim outdoors every month of the school year?”  Feeling flush with hope or hubris, we formalized our agreement.  The St. John’s College Polar Bear Club was born.

The air temperatures that November were balmy.  It was 65 degrees the day we took our third plunge as a group.  The water was cold, but not cold enough to keep us from laughing as we swam around.  Still, the swim felt like a great achievement.  At dinner that evening we exchanged knowing glances, as if we were soldiers who survived combat together.

For some reason we were in no rush to get our December swim accomplished.  As the
temperatures began to drop, someone would say in passing, “Hey, we should get our swim in before it gets real cold.”  But we kept putting it off.

Christmas came and went, and still no swim.  Everyone was still in town, so a meeting of the Polar Bear Club was called to order.  The air temperature was now consistently around freezing, 32 degrees.  Mary, our leader, pointed out we were in serious danger of failing our mission as an organization and also of invalidating any previous claim to toughness.  Dave, our Second-in-Command, objected, asserting that swimming in this weather could lead to death.  Mary and Dave were dating, and I thought I noticed a contentious glare exchanged between them.

My anxiety about whether to take the icy swim made me unusually passive about the decision.  We all deferred to Mary and she determined we would swim the next day, New Year’s Eve, December 31st at 6pm at the same beach.  This was not quite the 11th hour, but it was awfully close.

The next evening we piled into my car and headed out to the beach.  The mood was subdued, a far cry from our earlier swims.  Outside it was 24 degrees, with wind gusts up to 20 mph.  The normally tranquil beach had waves as big as ocean surf.  It was dark and as uninviting a setting for swimming as you can imagine.  We stood on the beach, images-2miserable; shivering in our bathing suits and winter coats, huddled tightly to protect against the wind.

We argued again about whether we should risk this.  Mary was for it.  Dave was against it.  I was wavering.  I wanted Mary and Dave to be my mommy and daddy and tell me what to do.  It was so cold.

Finally Mary took charge, ripping off her furry coat and shouting, “I don’t care!  I’m going in!”  She sprinted to the water and dove in.  I mechanically followed her into the water.  One of the others followed me in.  Dave and the last member remained on the beach.

When you plunge into water that cold, two things happen in an instant.  One, your body heat gathers to your core, which leaves your outer body, from head to toe, throbbing in pain.  Even your face hurts.  Two, panic takes over.  The rational mind shuts down, except for one thought: MUST GET OUT NOW.  To linger in the water after the initial shock of submersion would take an unnatural resolve.

We emerged from the water, screaming.  But then a wonderful thing happened.  Within 15 seconds of leaving the water, my body heat rushed back out to my skin and limbs.  This produced an ecstatic sense of well-being.  The images-6same happened to the others swimmers.  We stood on the beach without our coats, laughing, warm and happy and feeling, most amazing of all, a sweet absence of anxiety.  That moment remains one of my fondest memories: a transformation of one of my most anxiety-ridden moments ever into one of the most magical.

Later, when I pondered this peak experience, I became upset at how my anxiety had
incapacitated me, and how passive I had felt.  Soren Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”  If he is correct, then the human inclination to escape anxiety could very well be an attempt to escape from freedom.  A desire to escape anxiety by escaping freedom; did that explain my passivity?

One could argue that polar bear swimming is a frivolous activity.  But my anxiety was real and dizzying because real freedom was involved.  I had two choices, swim or not swim, and both were painful.  Saying “I wanted Mary and Dave to be my mommy and daddy” was a wisecrack perhaps, but on that beach I dearly wanted them to choose for me.  It is truly frightening that all it took for me to be willing to forfeit my freedom of choice was a certain sufficient level of anxiety.  This contradicted what I thought I stood for in the pursuit of a free life.

Our society regards anxiety as an enemy to happiness, not an ally.  It feels so good to make anxieties disappear that there is widespread sympathy for removing them through almost any means, such as prescribed medications, alcohol and, increasingly, marijuana.  I understand that sometimes incapacitating anxiety requires direct intervention.  But I wonder how often we slavishly blunt anxiety to flee the “dizziness of freedom.”  What disturbing irony it would be if activities we pursue in the name of freedom, may in truth accomplish a flight from freedom.

Get BusyExamining the origins of anxiety may reveal our present needs that are unfamiliar to us, but still deeply felt.  What a rich source of self-knowledge is that state, if we can learn to tolerate it.  For freedom’s sake, are we willing to attend to our anxiety and learn its lessons instead of blotting it out?  What if the resolve to do so is unnatural?  Would that mean that, for all our talk about cherishing personal freedom, we are more inclined to choose comfort and security?

Embracing freedom means facing our anxiety with courage and curiosity, when everything inside us would rather flee that encounter.  This is one of many fascinating and fruitful entrances to the well examined life, and the well examined society.

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Learning From Lepers

imagesOne of the most gruesome and intriguing books I’ve ever read was written by a British physician who specialized in treating medical conditions commonly referred to as leprosy.  In The Gift of Pain, Dr. Paul Brand tells the poignant story of a young man named Raman, a patient at his clinic in India.

Raman’s leprosy, called Hansen’s disease, rendered him utterly insensitive to physical pain.  Desensitized to injury, “lepers” are extra susceptible to wounds, infections and gross disfigurements of the skin and other features.  The social stigma and practical difficulties of treating this condition are so formidable that many patients lose hope and stop complying with treatment.  These despairing souls are true outcasts, occupying the lowest social stratum of any society they live in.

Raman, as Dr. Brand noted, possessed the courage and diligence to comply with the medical program.   As his hands responded to treatment and became more dextrous, he experienced an expanded sense of self, giving him great hope for the future.  He was eventually certified negative for leprosy.

Even though he still couldn’t feel pain in his hands, they were functional.  If he was careful to maintain his visual self-examination discipline, he would do fine.  He went back to his hometown, eager to show the family that had ostracized him that he was all better.

Two days later Raman returned to the clinic completely defeated, with his hands bandaged.  Despite his best efforts, both hands had been severely damaged on consecutive nights.  One hand was gouged by a rat that had eaten his flesh while he slept, and the other hand had burned when it fell against a hot lamp, also while he slept.  In deep despair, Raman, once he could speak about it, exclaimed, “I feel like I’ve lost all my freedom… how can I ever be free without pain?”

The perception of pain, known as nociception, is essential for developing the physical and emotional boundaries that allow all of us to survive in the world.  Without it, human beings descend into a nightmare of painless confusion, emotional contraction and isolation.

The experience of pain is both universal and intensely personal.  When another person understands our pain we’re soothed because we feel less isolated.  When another dismisses our pain as insignificant, we may feel humiliated.  Understandably then, we disdain the experience of pain and react cautiously, even cynically, towards its proffered lessons about who we are and what connects us with our fellows.

Strange as it may seem, we need the instructive realities of pain to not only warn us of danger and injury, but to bring definition to our identities: our sense of where we end and the world begins, physically and emotionally.  This is how our suffering can be redemptive: being attentive to its lessons brings not only physical welfare but also emotional safety.  Making the pain go away without gleaning the fruit of self-knowledge, squanders the opportunity to trade misery for insight and freedom.

When a leprosy patient has no sensation in the limbs, an unfortunate psychological shift may take place.  The patient’s sense of his physical self contracts; it no longer includes the parts he cannot feel or use well.  When the use of limbs are restored, a delightful emotional expansion takes place.  That which the patient regards as his “self” has grown and is more available to him.

Our emotional lives are similarly connected to this dynamic of expansion or contraction.  When we recognize and accept the full range of our emotional experience, especially the emotions that are unpleasant or shameful to us, then more of our emotional selves becomes available to us, and our inner lives are pleasingly expanded.  When we do things to avoid, repress, or blunt emotions we don’t approve of, we experience a contraction of our inner lives.  Fear-driven behavior, depression, anxiety and addiction involve contracted inner states, often leading to greater isolation.

This hints at the curious relationship between human limits and freedom.  Within healthy physical and emotional boundaries, a human being grows, thrives and expands, as seen in child rearing.  Without healthy boundaries, a human personality becomes distorted, as with a tyrant who has no restraints on his behavior.

A life without pain is a life without limits.  A life without limits is unhealthy and undesirable, sad and sometimes monstrous, and always tragic.  I’m not arguing that we deliberately seek out pain.  Life itself doles out quite enough struggle for all of us to learn essential lessons about ourselves.  But what a sweet relief it is to draw a truce with our pain, when we’re ready to do so, and be inquisitive about what it says about our places in the world.

When we discover that pain, though terrible, is also a gift-giver, then all our experience becomes imbued with meaning.  This is one of the exquisite consolations of philosophy.

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