Greg was right and I need to lighten up

All right, before you get all worried and start sending me frantic Facebook messages, Twitter DMs, and emails asking me if I am okay, please read on. I’m not completely admitting I’m wrong, here. Just partially.

(And, really, when am I ever okay?)

To read the full hash of the Great Jon Stewart Liberal-vs-Leftist Debate, with the illustrious and formidable Gregory Jacobs-Roseman in one corner and myself in the other, go here. Some of this might not make sense if you don’t.

I don’t take back, or even walk back, anything I said about Jon Stewart and the silliness of laundering insidious and intentionally pacifying centrist laughs with the weak detergent of “just-comedy” or, worse, the heavy bleach of some Sacred Artistico-Comedic Privilege I don’t recognize. But, to get to the heart of the matter, the intellectual, cultural, and creative debt I owe to Greg is at minimum equal to, though probably greater than, that which he owes to me. He’s a brilliant and passionate fellow and a true peer in debates, even when I feel – perhaps less than objectively – that I’ve demolished him.

GJR, in all his gray-suit glory.
GJR, in all his gray-suit glory.

Anyway, previously in this now two-week-old debate that I am just getting around to extending, it’s not merely that Greg scored some points or that some of his arguments were correct while mine were wrong – though I will concede those things to be true – it’s that he was able to lock in on a major internal conflict I’m constantly battling.

Loyal, long-time readers out there will find this theme familiar, almost a trope of mine a this point. I’m not inclined to trawl through the archives and link to my previous related statements so just read this as if I’m saying it for the first time while assuming in the back of your mind I’ve said it several times before: Perhaps my greatest source of cognitive dissonance lies in being a happy mountain-wizard who promotes joy, spirituality, and regular celebration, while remaining a despair-plagued and angst-riddled man who is often spiritually disconnected and hopeless instead of celebratory. I’ve never pretended to be anything other than that, and I’ve always been up front about it, but I just can’t usually practice what I preach.

When I come across conflicting elements like this within my own person, I recognize them as important areas of personal focus and, hopefully, future development. That’s why it’s so important that I call this out and recognize GJR’s assertions for what they are – not just correct, but crucial.

Forget about Jon Stewart. Art and expression are important. They’re not just important, they’re fundamental to our lives on this planet. Greg said that, I smacked it down. He was right, I was very wrong.

* * *

I always like to joke, though not really joking even a little bit, that I was a much more chronically tense and boiling angry kid in my youth, before discovering tobacco and cannabis. The joys of smoking. And it’s totally a true statement. It would be inaccurate, however, to look back on my journey over the many years since and declare my disposition and attitude to take the form of a steadily inclining line. Far from it. Perhaps it can still be said that I’ve never returned to my heathen pre-smoking levels of negativity, but there have been many high points and many lows, and some of the lows have actually come pretty close.

Some years, I’m balanced (well, for me) and I’m feeling the groove. I’m riding it in fact. Skating the air above the floor instead of walking on it. It’s not just that things are going well – although they usually are, when I’m having a year like that – it’s that I am well in ways independent of external circumstances. I’m lighthearted (well, for me), loving, imaginative, spontaneous, curious, and able to joyfully celebrate. In some ways, a purist (such as myself, frankly) could correctly point out that these are the years when I’m least ready for revolution. While that may be true, the counterpoint is that I honestly do far more to legitimately benefit those around me – my world – in those years than when I’m prepared for the uprising. My life itself, at its best, expresses itself as a work of art. I create things with my writing that I put out into the world, to the benefit of myself and (hopefully) those who read and enjoy, but I also create beautiful ethereal forms with nothing more than my words and deeds. That’s the way to live.

I can never hold onto it, though. And if you can’t tell, this is definitely not one of those years for me, and I haven’t had one in a little bit. This makes it all the more important that I hear Greg’s argument and give it the respect it deserves. I need it now more than ever.

* * *

In the brilliant 1959 cinematic masterpiece Ben-Hur, the backstory centers around two childhood friends in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. Judah Ben-Hur was the Israelite noble-boy while his buddy Messala is a Roman kid. They were great friends, thick as thieves, and may have even been romantically involved (no, I’m serious, look it up). So years go by and Messala goes off to do Roman Army stuff and Judah grows up to do Israelite princey things. Judah’s life centers around his family and nation. He’s happy not due to his wealth and position but due to his community and culture, his connection to the divine through faithful worship of his god, and his zest for life and sunshine. That’s when the film begins. Messala, who must have been a kid with potential, comes back as nothing less than a Roman tribune sent to lead the Roman Army garrison in Jerusalem and therefore rule the occupied populace that included his old buddy.

He comes by for a visit and he’s still a great guy to be around, very gregarious and charming. But years spent rising the ranks of the Roman Army – which was nothing if not Reality Itself in that era – made Messala a hard and cold man. Concerned with stone political, well, reality itself, he wastes no time in asking his old buddy Judah to snitch on all his rebellious countrymen. When Judah, of course, refuses, Messala knows only the dictates of pure political calculation and necessity. He has his childhood friend framed for attempted assassination of the Roman governor and sends his mother and sister into a leprosy cave.

(Never fear – Judah eventually runs Messala the fuck over in a chariot race, killing him very much.)

No need for me to go any further into the plot, there – the point is that I often feel like Messala. It’s not because I want to be Messala. But there are times when the curiosity and honesty which are my assets in the light years turn their blades inward to stab me. It’s my experiences and the things I learn that make me Messala. I want thoughts to be material tangibles, as Greg put it; I want Arthur Fiedler’s stone head to actually talk to me, as I put it. But the information I am receiving, on the small scale as I go about my day and personal life, with all its little deaths and disappointments and tragedies, and on the large scale as I look out at the world, tells me that I can hope all I want and it’s not gonna change a thing. Reality is dark and cold and hard – an environment that calls for a Messala even when I want a Judah.

Again, this applies very much to the present. I’m very much in Messala-mode. I know time is likely to progress and some unknown series of events will snap me out of it and we’ll ascend again to a halfway positive attitude (well, for me). For now, though, I’m weighed down so much that only a forceful and insistent reminder like the one Greg issued at great risk to his own person can even get me to acknowledge it most of the time. Mostly, over the years, it’s the same shit that keeps me down. I can articulate it better now than a decade ago, but the answers aren’t any different. It’s three main grievances, and I’ll be very brief in describing them – I could talk about each of them for several thousand words apiece.

  1. Lack of meaningful societal structure, cohesive culture, and shared values in our lives. That’s a statement that could easily be interpreted as highly conservative, but it isn’t meant to be. I am, however, like some raving red-state Christian, saying that our hyper-individualism is a self-inflicted cancer. It gives us the illusion of some kind of personal expressive freedom when in reality we’re left on our own without structural support on the one hand, and bereft of enough meaningful liberty to actually prosper. We drift, bouncing helplessly off the sides of some narrow channel, unable to really see where we came from or where we’re going. With money and commerce being the only life activities worth mentioning anymore, with the blessing of mobility morphing into required migrations to ever-shrinking job centers, with no narrative for citizenship or even adulthood, we have no ties. We have no ties to land, we have no ties to our neighbors, or each other more broadly, and we have no true ties to hardly any of our decaying institutions. There’s very little, if anything, considered more valuable than one’s own self. Far be it from me to advocate for nationalism, but we’ve gone too far in the other direction: we have nothing around which to rally.People often scratch their heads and furrow their brows trying to figure out why so many people get divorced now, why so many relationships fail. Of course, you’ve got to throw a substantial amount of credit to the fact that the state used to be set up to try and legally prevent divorce (especially those initiated or attempted by women) and this is no longer the case. An increase in divorce can reasonably expected when you start allowing people to get divorced. As for the rest of it, however, I purport the answer is simple. Marriage works when conducted within the framework of a meaningful higher narrative. The participants in an ostensibly lifelong partnership, without having a role to fill in the design of a larger tapestry, have no real stake in their own partnership. For some, religion – if practiced with the resources of a sufficiently large religious community – can serve this purpose, but with organized religion so chronically degenerated from its original intent and with its current forms so ridiculously inadequate for the present world, this is impractical on a large scale. Nationalism, with its generally attendant focus on baby-making as a virtue and its constant emphasis on the broader unit, the nation, can also contribute mightily to lasting unions between people. They feel like they’re doing it for a reason and part of a bigger tale. But I’m not going to sit here and advocate for nationalism, in all its ignorance and blind rapaciousness. Large extended families – clans, essentially – can also contribute to a feeling of shared higher purpose. After all, the nuclear family is a brand new idea, and for pretty much all of human history, “family” extended outward a fair distance. But it’s not so much due to declining birthrates that this is a problem, not nearly as much as it is the fact that we’re so scattered all across the land. If family is not considered a reason for choosing one’s place of residence, how do we expect it, on a smaller scale and without inter-generational support, to be considered a reason for continued matrimony?

    Marriage is just an easy example, but it also provides a good glimpse into what’s really making me mad, here. Without the support of even a functional society and actually existing community, we will be forever separated from the people we love – the places and things we love, too. Our hearts will forever break again and again, and we’ll forever be disappointed in any aspiration because just as soon as we realize to what it is we should be aspiring, it vanishes into the cloud of impotent nihilism, unattainable because it’s not supported by the lack of any sort of structure.

    This makes me not want to create things, because I see creation as an act of love, and I don’t love any of this. I’m pissed about it and feel generally cheated. It makes me appreciate art, expression, and spirituality less because I know there’s some futility in the fact that there’s never any lasting shared experience of anything beyond the fluff of pop culture.

  2. Economic and political repression. All the reasons we have to do all the things we find most unpleasant in our lives can be traced back to economic choices, pre-made decisions which happen to favor those at the top at the expense of those at the bottom. Like it or not, everything we do in our day rotates around this economic structure. Our needs are defined in accordance with it, and we spend the majority of our waking lives jumping through hoops in order to meet them. Here’s a horrifying thought – the idea that we should be able to band together at work, agree on things, and protect ourselves against being taken advantage of, this is a controversial idea. Worse than that – most of the time we are not allowed to do that, the penalty being having no money for food or roofs and things. We’re bereft of choices and anything resembling true liberty because we are disenfranchised from any true power or agency. We depend solely on luck and fate – whether that’s the luck/fate to be born privileged to begin with or the luck/fate to do halfway okay for yourself financially. It’s never anything more than that. Even the people who make less money than you are working just as hard. It’s not a hard-work-to-dollars ratio. It’s luck/fate and rigged dice.This spurs me on to revolutionary thinking, but such explorations burn me out very quickly. Futility stares me in the face. Everything seems Quixotic. During a good, lighthearted year, I enjoy the Quixotic nature of things. During a heavy Roman Messala year, it makes me want to be dead. I neither appreciate nor make good art when I want to be dead or are otherwise filled with despair.
  3. We’re going to go extinct. That’s it. That bums me the fuck out. We’re rapidly causing the ecosystem that makes all the living shit on this planet – the only space-rock we’ve got, as of yet – to collapse in a spectacular show of death fireworks. Looking at the facts on the ground, we’re not going to turn this around, and the best case scenario from a global perspective will be if only the humans die off and manage to avoid taking all the other, you know, life with it. That’s depressing as fuck, and it’s not me being a space cadet wizard, it’s me listening to the scientists at NASA. Regardless of what the denial freaks out there say, NASA scientists, being employees of the US government, are not communist conspirators designed to take down the global financial system (though it’d be great if they were).I am less inclined to explore spirituality, art, and creative expression when I think we are about to go extinct. Without even a collective memory to carry on much past my own death, what’s the point?

And so I become Messala. Cold, unloving, unfulfilled – but calculating and realistic to a fault.

To a fault, indeed. For, to reiterate for the 27th time, Greg was right and his reminders did me a great service. As Karen Armstrong writes in A Short History of Myth, “The Neanderthal graves tell us five important things about myth. First, it is nearly always rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction.” In other words, as long as we’ve existed as a species, we’ve faced extinction, and that’s what myth – and, by extension, art, faith, spirituality, expression, creativity – are for. Extinction Eve is no time to be silent and expressionless, it’s the time when it’s most important to create the brightest blaze we can because it’s the only hope we have.

When we lack societal structure, we may not be able to fully correct this on our own or in our lifetimes, but the only way we’ll ever fix that shit up is by contributing positive mythos to fill the void. That’s done through art, faith, spirituality, expression, and creativity. When faced with seemingly omnipotent political and economic repression, the only thing that will lead to the kind of unity, defiance, and determination needed to overthrow that monstrosity is that which is rooted on the level of the spirit – art, faith, spirituality, expression, creativity.

More Greg - here, truly, in all his essential glory.
More Greg – here, truly, in all his essential glory.

* * *

I’m all for revolution, especially during my heavy years, but even then I always like to say I’ll never support any revolution that attempts to advocate or enforce sobriety. What the hell would we be fighting for? Talk about a Pyrrhic victory, even if we were to win.

In the middle of my Facebook sparring with Greg, my buddy Brother Bob jumped in with five very simple words that actually made GJR’s point better than GJR did, at least when it comes to speaking my language.

“If my words did glow…”

Brother Bob, in all HIS glory.
Brother Bob, in all HIS glory.

These, of course, are the opening words to the immortal “Ripple,” the Grateful Dead classic penned by Robert Hunter. The song speaks to the ethereal nature of life itself, how we’re likely always to lack understanding and align imperfectly with one another, but there’s more out there than what we can touch and what we can “know.” If I can put words in Bob’s mouth, his reference so very gently conveyed the high truth that if we respond to the conditions of life by relying solely on the cold, hard calculations of Messala’s Roman Reality, we’re compounding our tragedy by neglecting an equally – if not more – important component of our moments in the brief spotlight that is being a living thing.

I need to remember this. I need to lighten up. I need to laugh. I need to let go. I need to celebrate, to appreciate. Just as much, I need to create, to shout at the sky and the crowd, to express, to feel.

I need to not be Messala. No matter what struggles and disappointments come my way. And if we are to struggle and be disappointed, we damn well better laugh and make and admire beautiful things along the way. Otherwise, there really is no point.

Thank you, guys, for reminding me. I could never do it all alone.

I’ll close out with the full lyrics to Ripple, but first, let me just say:

Listen, Deepak, fuck Jon Stewart. (With much love.)

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung,
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken,
Perhaps they’re better left unsung.
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,
If your cup is full may it be again,
Let it be known there is a fountain,
That was not made by the hands of men.

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

You, who choose to lead, must follow
But if you fall you fall alone.
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home.

La dee da da da,
La da da da da,
Da da da, da da, da da da da da
La da da da,
La da da, da da,
La da da da,
La da, da da.

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