DAILY BRIEFINGThe Damocles Lemon
Jun. 28 - Things are looking up, so I'm going to allow myself the important psychological release of blogging on an ad-hoc basis until I feel like doing otherwise.
As a writer, I've found that "taking time off from writing" usually only exacerbates whatever irritant I'm trying to overcome. I still haven't gathered my wits enough to do any concentrated work on my "real" writing, but I've reached the point where I can do my freelance work, language studies, and little bloggy stuff like this without feeling like life is a short, cruel, ultimately irrelevant affair that renders anything I write completely pointless. Or rather, I can get back to acknowledging the pointlessness of anything I have to say without counting it against myself.
I've been very anxious this week, almost certainly in the clinical sense. My eyes have been weary. My nerves are shot. My pulse accellerates every time the phone rings—a symptom I tried to address by changing my ring tone, which might have helped if I hadn't set it to "Phaser Ambush."
For several days now I've had an intellectual awareness that the situation was improving: my wife was getting the best possible medical care and my unborn daughter had reached the point where she could, if necessary, become my born daughter without much risk to her health. But at the end of the day—literally—as I finished my little dinners and lay prostrate and exhausted on the couch with the television pouring its soothing balm of stupidity over me, anxiety crept up on little cat feet—and pounced.
I use the past tense, but it'll probably happen tonight as well.
On Saturday night I took the intellectually engaging step of trying to identify the source of all this anxiety. It's my particular pathology: without god, without philosophy, without heroic altruism, without much of anything to believe in at all, I'm stuck with myself as author of my own woes. I have nowhere to forward complaints. There's no universal super to whom I can kvetch about the rattling of the metaphysical pipes. So in times of crisis, I look inward and run a few self-diagnostic routines.
I know you guys. Some of you will want me to try religion. Some will urge me to try counseling. Some—most—are going to ask why I don't just stock up on bourbon. Let me explain why those three alternatives don't work for me right now:
Religion. I believe in the transcendant power of faith. I really do. But I'm a cynical, skeptical, heady bastard, and the very nature of faith makes it a non-starter for me. I can't truly believe in something the existence of which requires me to ignore the very faculties on which my faith is supposed to be predicated.Oh, there are also the usual "exotic" perversions of eastern philosophy. There are herbal teas and aromatherapies and even good old stony New England stoicism. But it seems to me that trying to "cure" anxiety is like trying to tame a cat: you may think you're making progress, but you're really just getting used to the cat.
Counseling. I've tried counseling, and I think it's a lovely indulgence. I recognize the healing power of interpersonal communication. I understand how valuable it can be to share one's innermost workings with a third party whose been sworn to professional secrecy. As someone who almost never knows when to shut up, and a sort of psychological exhibitionist (witness these pages), I can even enjoy it. But it doesn't help me.
Bourbon. Ah, bourbon. Yes, there is always bourbon. It doesn't solve anything, of course, but solutions aren't everything. Not all our pharmaceuticals are curative. Some of them are only intended to provide relief. Bourbon could do that. Bourbon could do that very nicely. But then the phone could ring when I was half-in-the-bag and what then?
* * *
I don't feel bad about my anxiety right now. Here is a list of things I don't think anyone would be ashamed to declare as sources of at least minor anxiety:
Living in a foreign country.We can call those my foundational anxieties. They are the pillars of this current wave of neurosis. Next come the secondary anxieties, each of which is built upon or between those pillars:
Having had no reliable source of income for two months.
Having a pregnant wife.
Enduring the season of "the midnight sun."
Complications to the pregnancy.My current problem, I think, is not so much the product of any particular anxiety, but rather the anxiety of having so many anxieties that my inner psychologist can't even handle the triage.
State-mandated instruction in a language that makes Klingon seem like a lilting tongue.
The terror of facing imminent fatherhood with an empty checking account, five-digit debts, and no full-time job.
The need to "feather the nest" by myself, without any money, and with a still-healing surgical scar that prevents me from doing significant heavy lifting.
Consider: as the Danish Moronic Goddess continues to improve, there is enormous relief. But there is also additional stress: if she continues on this pace, she may be discharged from the hospital in a day or two, which would of course be magnificent. On the other hand, my work and schooling (and shopping, and laundry, and so on) will require me to leave her home alone a minimum of five or six hours a day. In the face of an emergency such as we faced last Sunday night, what would she do? How could she get herself to the hospital in time for the kind of emergency surgery we've been told would be required?
This, my father assured me on the telephone, is a Baroque Worry. "There's always something to worry about, if you get really creative," he advised. And of course he was right: I was neglecting, for example, the fact that we're in the middle of the biggest civizational conflict since the second world war and we're almost sure to see a western city go up in a mushroom cloud before my unborn daughter hits puberty. Why trouble myself with Baroque Worries when there are so many of the postmodern variety to choose from?
* * *
I know I have control issues. My anxieties are almost certainly being compounded by the fact of my powerlessness to do anything for the DMG or the Bean, to conduct a simple conversation with a grocery store clerk, to make the sun set a little earlier, or address any of my other anxieties in any meaningful way. When life gives you lemons, you can make lemonade. When life suspends an eight-hundred pound lemon over your head there's not a goddam thing you can do. And that chafes.
* * *
But isn't all this anxiety in itself a sign of strength? A sign that the organism I call my self is functioning correctly, responding appropriately to the stimuli bombarding it? Ought I not to revel in my anxiety, to explore it inside and out? Does the conquest of my anxieties not begin with understanding them?
C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that "you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in." (C.S. Lewis also came closer than almost any human being of any era to winning me over to religious faith.)
I'd interpret that, in this case, as meaning that defeating all this anxiety requires not that I "come to terms with it," but that I figure it out by means of a sustained cognitive siege.
On the other hand, in Fear and Trembling, celebrated Dane Soren Kierkegaard observed that "to strive against the whole world is a comfort, to strive with oneself is dreadful." And he's right. Facing anxiety head-on may be the best way for me to deal with it, but it's certainly not the most pleasant. That would be a little trick called denial.
Maybe I ought to give that a whirl. . .
A Matter of Princip
On June 28 of 1914, the Austrian Archduck was touring Serbia with his wife, the Mallard Sophie. The purpose of his tour was to get Serbia to calm down, it having become extremely irritable for reasons known only to itself, possibly having to do with Austria's occupation of the region. (Either that or gas.)
During their tour the Archduck and Mallard Sophie became lost and stopped to ask for directions from a young boy on the side of the road. The conversation went something like this:
"Say, lad, I'm the Austrian Archduck Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, and this is my wife, the Mallard Sophie. We seem to be lost. If we don't find our way back I might never have the chance to take the Austrian throne and continue the ruthless and relentless persecution of the Serbian peoples. Could you give us a hand?"
The boy was Gavrilo Princip, and he had just started World War I. The war ended exactly five years later, on June 28, 1919, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The Treaty of Versailles is best known for having caused the second World War.
Gavrilo Princip died of tuberculosis in his jail cell. After his death, the following graffiti was discovered on the wall:
Our ghosts will walk through Vienna
And roam through the Palace
Frightening the Lords.
(That's not especially moronic or anything—I just always found it kind of creepy.)
June 28 is also notable as the birthday of nefarious American philosopher John Dillinger, born in 1902. (He is also believed to have been born on June 22, 1903.)
At the age of twenty, a precocious young Dillinger attempted to illustrate the transient nature of material goods by depriving a stranger of his automobile. When a warrant was issued for his arrest by Indiana police disinclined to accept Dillinger's delicate epistemological point, the young man cleverly joined the navy to demonstrate the redemptive power of patriotism.
Philosophers have historically encountered resistance from the military, and Dillinger was no exception. He fled the service, returned home, got married, and robbed a grocer. The robbery went awry and Dillinger went to jail for nine years.
Jail hardened Dillinger and made him a very bitter man. Upon his release, he began robbing banks almost immediately. He quickly became Public Enemy Number One, which enabled him to be shot to death by the FBI outside the Biograph movie theatre in Chicago.
His philosophy, however, endures to this day, and is practiced widely and successfully by various tax authorities around the world.
Birthdays and Holidays
John Dillinger shares his June 28 birthday with John Elway (1960), Kathy Bates (1948), Gilda Radner (1946), and Mel Brooks (1926).
© 2004, The Moron's Almanac