Welcome to Day 7 of 31 Days of Kissing the Wounds, a month of posts about the beauty, longing, and soul inherent in our damaged selves; in the world’s brokenness; in the imperfection, incompleteness, and transience of all that we love; in our recognition of each other as the walking wounded; and in the jagged, messy, splintery, deformed, sullied, unhealed parts of me, you, the natural world, our communities, the culture. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others.
“One may think we’re all right
But we need pills to sleep at night
We need lies to make it through the day
We’re not okay —
One may think we’re doing fine
But if I had to lay it on the line
We’re losing ground with every passing day
We’re not okay.” — Perishers, “Pills”
You could say that most of us are more or less OK, in the sense that we feel we’re good enough, doing well enough, but you could also say that most of us are not really OK, because we don’t feel that all is right, we aren’t contented, satisfied, fully present in each moment. We’re not smilingly “fine!” or even, as I’ve been known to assert, “great!,” though that’s how most of us (Americans, anyway) respond when asked “How are you?” (True, mid-westerners sometimes respond “Not too bad … ” but even that modest assessment is a stretch for many.) We rarely say we’re insecure or neurotic, terrified or bored to tears, confused or aching with guilt and regret. We may or may not need pills, alcohol, hours of TV, daylong talk radio, music playing throughout our waking hours, obsessive exercise, binge eating, constant connection to others, a half-dozen hours per day on a computer or phone (surfing the internet, scrolling social media, playing virtual games), unrelenting busyness, recreational shopping, or some other numbing device, but some of us are barely hanging on, and most of the rest of us metaphorically drive while drunk, i.e., function pretty effectively while numbed &/or distracted.
As un-OK as we are, my experience and my observation is that we usually find a way to avoid noticing this. We keep relatively calm and carry on, distracting and numbing as we go, craving that lasting hit of contentedness. Some of us break beyond repair, but most of us are a collection of hairline fractures, scars, and bandages.
If you’re like me, what draws you to someone else is often the damage he’s hiding fairly effectively most of the time, the damage she may or may not notice and admit but either way seems to rise above and ignore in her daily life, except sometimes. It may be hidden, there may be lies and denial, but you sense the damage, at the core, just like you sense it in yourself. Perfection, I admit, really doesn’t engage me, except to make me want to analyse, intellectually, why something seems so perfect. But emotional connection and a certain kind of salvation can happen among people who are graceless, awkward, difficult, scared, jagged, exhausted by defeat. Leonard Cohen famously sang, “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in” and poet Emery Allen wrote, “Having your wounds kissed by someone who doesn’t see them as disasters In your soul, but cracks to put their love into, is the most calming thing in this world.” When our wounds are kissed, we’re reminded that they’re not disasters, they’re an opening into our shared humanity.
Andrew Sullivan recently published an article about his experience with internet addiction, “I Used To Be A Human Being.” Sullivan is a fan of the online world who realises its limitations and its downsides, which are many. One loss he points to is the damage that our focus on the virtual does to the actual communities we live in:
“When we enter a coffee shop in which everyone is engrossed in their private online worlds, we respond by creating one of our own. When someone next to you answers the phone and starts talking loudly as if you didn’t exist, you realize that, in her private zone, you don’t. And slowly, the whole concept of a public space — where we meet and engage and learn from our fellow citizens — evaporates.”
Sullivan suggests that our “enslavement to dopamine — to the instant hits of validation” that we get from praise and other feedback and which result from social media postings and comments — has not made us happier but has instead “made us less unhappy, or rather less aware of our unhappiness.” … [O]ur phones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety.”
He includes comedian Louis C.K.’s explanation of “withholding smartphones from his children[… :] ‘You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away. … Underneath in your life there’s that thing … that forever empty … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone … That’s why we text and drive … because we don’t want to be alone for a second.'” … As he said of the distracted modern world we now live in: “‘You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel … kinda satisfied with your products. And then you die. So that’s why I don’t want to get a phone for my kids.'” [italics mine]
(I’m reading Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell right now, and that observation about being “kinda satisfied with your products” as a substitution for any depth of feeling dovetails terrifyingly with Mitchell’s imagined future world (the year 2144) of corpocracy, where every citizen’s value to society is measured by his or her consumption, and everyone is forced to spend a certain amount of money on products every month; citizens should never be satisfied, because then they would have no motivation, no desire, to spend.)
When we find ourselves in the midst of silence, or without something specific to do, or to seem to be doing, we start to think and feel those things we have repressed, suppressed, buried, distracted ourselves from. In an interview on “Here & Now” (WBUR) with Andrew Sullivan, discussing the article linked above, host Jeremy Hobson says to Sullivan, about his 10-day stay in a silent meditation retreat center, “As you write, it was not easy. It was very emotionally difficult to disconnect in this way and have to be alone in your own thoughts.” To which Sullivan replies,
“Yeah — There’s a reason we don’t like it. There’s a reason that even when we’re waiting in line for coffee now, or even when we’re in the bathroom, we want to suddenly distract ourselves. And what surprised me — it shouldn’t have, really — was that when you remove slowly all the distractions that you’re using, you come face to face with what you’re distracting yourself from. And that can honestly mean many different things to different people. We all have deep and underlying questions and anxieties in our lives, and we also all have, at some level, an existential dread, a sense that we’re here and then we die. And the modern world has conspired, brilliantly, to enable us to forget about that, constantly, as if we’re not actually mortal creatures, and that we don’t have to ask ourselves what on earth are we doing in this universe right now. Because those questions of course are terrifying. It’s just that we’ve been able in modernity to really anaesthetise ourselves, and the form of the anaesthetic is distraction. And we we have now developed technologically a mode of distraction that is so pervasive and also permanently with you, in that little phone that everybody carries around.”
[italics mine again]
I mentioned Adrienne Rich’s poem “Stepping Backward” a few days ago. Here’s more of it, so precisely and sensitively uncovering the difficulty of being in relationship to each other, to the world, to life, for we who are flawed, cracked, broken, not really OK; we can distract ourselves in many ways, facilitated by technology or not; we can hide in the identity of our roles, our social class, our money, our group memberships, our beliefs; we can pretend perfection, success, popularity, certainty, happiness; we can lie and we can take pills — yet we can’t entirely escape our most profound and deep-rooted anxieties, and we can’t fully escape the knowledge of approaching loss, of transience, mortality, uncertainty.
“And when we come into each other’s rooms
Once in awhile, encumbered and self-conscious,
We hover awkwardly about the threshold
And usually regret the visit later.
Perhaps the harshest fact is, only lovers–
And once in a while two with the grace of lovers–
Unlearn that clumsiness of rare intrusion
And let each other freely come and go.
Most of us shut too quickly into cupboards
It takes a late and slowly blooming wisdom
To learn that those we marked infallible
Are tragi-comic stumblers like ourselves.
The knowledge breeds reserve. We walk on tiptoe,
Demanding more than we know how to render.
Two-edged discovery hunts us finally down;
The human act will make us real again,
And then perhaps we come to know each other.”
So, we ring the bells that still can ring, forget our perfect offerings. We tell the truth about it, lay it on the line, at least with ourselves, at least sometimes. And encumbered, self-conscious, and clumsy as we are, hover at the threshold and perhaps even risk coming into the room where we are face to face with our own inadequacy. And that’s OK.
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.