Let me ask you a purely academic question: Hello?
— Dean Blehert

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Mechanics of Being Right

How does one force oneself?
One must become two to be a problem.
Problems are convenient for those
who aren't the problems, since problems
stay right where they are, expending
themselves against themselves,
part of the landscape. Problems
are no problem at all, but beware
of solutions. Hitler, for example,
was a solution. He had no problem
with himself. We had to oppose him
and be one side of a new problem.

Once, perhaps, Hitler was a problem,
a precarious balance of jaw-breaking
forces, holding himself immobile--and
how clever of him to solve his problem
and become our problem.

That's an old poem of mine. Recently I saw a friend (or one-time friend) go through the conversion described above. While he resisted his cravings (booze, perhaps other drugs -- he admitted to booze), he was both sides of a problem in precarious balance, and thus held himself in stasis. He could become someone else's problem if someone else tried to help him, but left to himself, he was simply a problem, his cravings poised against his social leanings. He spoke softly, tended to mumble, seemed restrained, a bit vague, his communications trailing off into the ether.

Then he solved himself, managed to unbalance the impasse, started drinking (and maybe was "medicated") -- why? Long story, probably, and one I know only a small part of. But having solved his problem, he became the problem of a number of other people, as, rather cheerfully, in a hoarse smoke-and-booze-rasped voice -- with no vagueness or trailing off -- he began to threaten and insult people who'd thought him a friend ("I'm gonna kick you're ass", "You fag!"). He's thus opted himself out of several social circles. He appeared to enjoy all this -- after all, it was action. I don't know if he found the morning after enjoyable. Usually such solutions lead to new problems which lead to new solutions. And usually there's a descent. Each problem is more severe than the last, each solution more desperate, unless something intervenes to reverse the process -- some bit of insight that makes it unnecessary for the problem to exist.

After all, we like games, and it's a game to solve a problem. Games are, in a sense, problems -- opposing forces trying to hold one another motionless, like two football teams. That is, each team tries to be a problem for the other team, and each team tries to solve that problem.

So one way a problem vanishes is if one has other, more interesting games to play, so doesn't have to maintain his minor problems in perfect balance with such dedicated tenacity. For example, people "rise above" their petty problems in a crisis, and, having done so, when the crisis is over, typically are better able to deal with the petty stuff.

But in the absence of some new awareness that enables us to let go of a problem, we solve it, and the solution becomes a worse (more limiting, more gameless, less fun) problem. This applies to all of us, I think, not just the person described above.

This is not about the rightness or wrongness of his actions. Perhaps he was miserable without the booze. Perhaps the people he threatened deserved to be threatened. (At least, whomever he mistook them for deserved it, probably a long time ago.) The point is the mechanics of it: A problem slipped along its fault lines, an earthquake in his psyche that left him able to move. He ceased to be a problem to himself and became a problem to others, who found themselves worrying about what to do with him.

In my poem, above, I use a far more extreme example: Hitler, who went about becoming a problem to the world with high spirited confidence, at least until he began to get beaten back. And the German nation as a nation went through a similar process, moving from post-war apathy and apparent lack of a shared mission, lack of games to play (stopped) to the cheering sieg-heiling crowds in Nuremberg rejoicing at the "Triumph of the Will". Germans ceased to have problems -- nearly full employment, prosperity, armed strength, high standard of living (for those considered to be German), etc. Germany was no longer a problem to itself, but a problem to the rest of the world.

Which led to a deeper defeat, millions dead, etc.

The Germans had a desperate solution: Just kill all the Jews and enslave all the Slavs and... -- well, when you're desperate, any solution seems better than none.

MUCH better than none. That bottle, that snort or injection is gold! Just saying "To hell with them all! What does it matter! I can do anything! There's nothing stopping me!" is exhilarating. Until someone or something stops you.

One way to define the role of ethics in our lives (our taking responsibility for ourselves and others and, in widening concentric ripples, society, mankind, etc.) is that ethics allows us that joy of freedom without making us a problem that others must solve by stopping us.

In other words, ethical action allows the high without the hangover and without the broken marriage, the lost friends, lost job, lost health. This is a riddle to someone who equates ethics with doing what one is "supposed" to do, rather than a matter of integrity, something that aligns with one's own goals and that is not inconsistent with freedom.

That's a mouthful of abstractions. Sorry. Here's another poem on this subject (the brief high of capitulation to a desperate solution):


How is it at our craziest,
thrashing out in rage, screaming -
we feel so RIGHT?
It's sheer electricity,
like the edgy air during a summer storm,
almost a relief,
because what has been tormenting us,
demanding that we act out its obsession,
this ghost we've been wrestling with day and night,
this clenched fist in the forehead -
we've let go,
given it our own voice, body, knuckles,
blood - we've given it what it wants,
and even as we rage,
we are at peace,
riding the wave of our rightness toward
where mist and distance blur
the crash of foam on ragged rocks.

1 comment:

Pam said...

Yes! I know well the feeling of being most RIGHT (as you discuss in "Downhill") when most NOT right! It's such an exhilarating feeling. And oh those ragged rock in the distance!!!