What did you think, that joy was some slight thing?
This is the fourth print installment of Kristin Dombek’s advice column. Questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Help Desk archives here.
Dear Help Desk,
I spent the past decade going to war. Seven times, not that I think the number of times matters.
Everyone who’s been to war has their own perspective on what it was and so it means different things and has different effects. Whatever it did mean — and I’m not sure it meant anything, though it did have a certain purity — the war experience has produced some consequences for me which I need help figuring out.
The problem is that I’ve come out of adjustment. There are lots of ways to describe it, but to put it simply I’d say that most things about life feel pretty pointless and the outcomes trivial. Even though the outcomes are not trivial at all. It just feels that way. Everything feels stupid and lame and disconnected from me. I guess there has been a kind of desensitization or something.
It’s more than a purely conceptual problem, however. There is also the drinking, sleeplessness, drugs, violence, and contempt for everything, including the future. Though I believe these are all just symptoms of that first thing, the weird alienation.
I woke up last week in a pool of blood. I don’t remember how the night ended, but I do remember a brutal fight with a drug dealer that didn’t end well. The head wound and all the broken stuff was fine, I was just thankful it wasn’t worse. I mean, it could still get worse.
How to rehabilitate? I’m not sure. Getting more war feels like the best option, but that can’t be right. That’s why I think it’s not PTSD. It’s more like post-traumatic stress dependence. Though I’m probably making that up. Either way, it’s what happens to an adrenaline addict in the time after they hit their highest high. I want more.
Or maybe I want something else. Sometimes I say the names of friends who were killed, then I say my name. It is clear I would rather have their name. Looking back, I guess the preference might have been to die there.
But at the same time I don’t now want to be dead.
What I want is to live in the moment safely. Currently, I feel like I might be so far in the moment that I have no connection to anything, past or future, or even right beside me. It’s just me alone in the moment, being a dangerous idiot. Or maybe I’m living in the past. I don’t know. Certainly, the problem is that I don’t know. Maybe I’m just having a long tantrum.
I drink every night until things get ugly. Most of the people who knew me have left.
Perhaps the “stress” is what does this. Though it’s not stress, really, it’s repeated long-term exposure to the possibility of being blown apart suddenly. It’s the length of the exposure that does it to you, I think. When you’re living with that, it seems you have to stop planning for the future in order to face it. You can’t have dreams and hopes and still operate in a world like that. At least I couldn’t, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Maybe it’s just not that easy to live after you accept your death.
I loved my last girlfriend so much it felt like I wanted to consume her. Instead, she broke apart trying to keep up with me. She started as this beautiful innocent creature, but she spent two years trying to relate to me and then she was too much with me and she nearly did not pull up in time. It reminds me of a story about an American soldier with his Vietnamese girlfriend during the war there who responded to their issues by getting naked in the shower and fucking with a live grenade suspended between them, which they set off as they came. I wonder how much that girl really wanted to be there, objectively. She only wanted to be with him, and it cost her. I guess he consumed her. I hope she wasn’t faking her orgasms.
Maybe it could be a problem of narrative. I was living a story and now the story seems to have stopped and I don’t really care, that’s what it feels like. Like an old ship rusting in a bay somewhere. Or maybe more accurately, just a car accident. I’ve come to a stop, metaphorically. That’s what it feels like. What it looks like is also very much like a car accident.
I don’t know what to do, is the point. What should I do, Kristin? Everything’s all unhooked and I’ve become a hazard.
I’m not going to put my hand up for treatment, so don’t suggest it. Medication isn’t the answer, but it’s the only answer the professionals will insist on. I’ll figure this out or I won’t, there’s not another way, and it’s not a big deal.
Let me rephrase the above: I know what to do — stop drinking, get clean, straighten up, move forward — but nothing I’ve found can make me want to do it. Or I can’t do it. Maybe I’m just delaying the shower grenade.
Still, it feels like a philosophical problem to me. I tried to reread The Myth of Sisyphus but I couldn’t figure out how to get past that first paragraph.
Dear Old Ship:
You say that this is a philosophical problem, and I will try to treat it as one, leaving aside the issues you raise and dismiss along the way: whether the number of times at war matters, what war is and what it means, whether you have post-traumatic stress disorder or post-traumatic stress dependence, whether it’s stress or exposure or a problem with narrative, and whether you should be running, not walking, to whoever is left to watch over you through the seventy-two hours of shaking and sweating, the week it will take to glimpse what your mind might someday feel like at rest, and the year or so of learning to live in drag as a civilian in our dull kingdom while you build the fortress of friendship you’ll need to save your life from that first paragraph of The Myth of Sisyphus, the one you can’t get past, which Camus begins with bloodless certainty: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”
I hadn’t read the book, but because you couldn’t, I’ve read it now. Suicide is the only “serious philosophical problem” for Camus because life, stripped of the old metaphysical reasons for living, is like pushing a rock up a mountain. At the top you watch the rock roll down, and return to the bottom to push it up again. You probably don’t need to reread the book to remember: suicide is not, for Camus, an appropriate response to this condition. Awareness of its absurdity is. Accept the world’s silence in the face of your nostalgia for meaning. Refuse hope, fraudulent transcendence, and religion wherever you find it (even existentialist philosophers who are not named Camus are too religious). Maybe this is the beginning of real thinking, the beginning of consciousness itself.
If I am tempted toward advice-column heroics by your question — and of course I am: Could I be the one to answer the question of why to live? — Camus cautions me. “One does not discover the absurd,” he writes, “without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.” He insists his book does not recommend a belief or a course of action; it merely describes “an absurd sensitivity that can be found widespread in the age,” an “intellectual malady.” But Camus does approve of some responses to the absurd more than others, which some people I’ve known have managed to adopt as a belief system. Embrace the repetition, get as much life as possible, count it up. Seduce lots of women like Don Juan, whom Camus admires. Write novels that really get at how hopeless the hopelessness is, as Camus himself did. Gather experience without pretending at meaning. There is an appealing intellectual self-sufficiency to this approach, which Camus suggests might even earn one a measure of contentment, as if Sisyphus at the summit, watching the rock roll down the mountain, “concludes that all is well.”
It was 1942 when Camus published this book, 60 years after Nietzsche had declared God dead. What remained of the grand narratives and ideologies had shattered in bloody war. Twenty-four years later, Time posed the question anew on its cover: “Is God Dead?” If the question, put this way, is less in vogue now, Camus still describes so well the way the world feels when it rubs up against our nostalgia for the old meanings: silent. And empty; the “God-shaped hole,” we called it in Sunday school, assuming this must be what the hearts of nonbelievers always felt like. In your case, I guess it would be a war-shaped hole. There are other names: closing time, the end of the party, the desert of the real. Because whatever the story was about — the God you’d get to be with later in heaven, the cause worth fighting for, your country, your art, your masculinity, your heroism (I don’t know what you did those seven times at war) — it always runs out.
Maybe you even fall in love with someone who is not consumed by you but who is different from you and you can see it, who surprises you every day.Tweet
I don’t know from war, but I know this about despair: its hegemony is to try to make everything look the same, to get you to mistake the hole at the end of one story for the whole world.
But life is so much more various than Camus describes. Some ways of living are more like pushing a rock up a mountain than others. And I don’t think you would have written if you didn’t suspect that this were true.
If you get high as fuck every night and follow the occasion to its logical and bloody conclusion, for example, your life will definitely feel like you’re pushing a rock up a mountain over and over again. But let’s say you stop doing that. Let’s say you stop drinking, get clean, straighten up, move forward. Maybe you have to learn to do something difficult for you, so new it doesn’t feel like repetition, at least for a while. Maybe it’s a new job, and someone there befriends you; maybe you develop friendships with a group of people, and each friend has a life that is different from yours. Say you become as interested in their lives as you are in your own, and begin, despite your hopelessness, to support them. Maybe you even fall in love with someone who is not consumed by you but who is different from you and you can see it, who surprises you every day. Let’s say you begin to find a calling, a way to make not just your immediate life but some broader world more hospitable, more meaningful, and safer for others than it would have otherwise been. At this point, your life won’t feel to you so much like pushing a rock up a mountain as it did before, or not so much like a ship rusting in a bay, to use your image. I would argue that then your life is different, that you’re not rusting in a bay.
Maybe from the satellite perspective of philosophical objectivity, you’ll still look like a dude pushing a rock up a mountain no matter what you do. But let’s look more closely. Go to street level, look again. Some rocks are heavier than others. So much so that some should barely be called rocks. There may be some allegorical resonance between the existential labor of making meaning of one’s life and the actual drudgery of forced, repetitive manual labor, for example, but I doubt anyone who’s actually doing forced physical labor, anyone consigned against their desire to domestic labor, any wage slave, would mystify the difference between the two.
You asked for philosophy and I am bringing it, late-night dorm-basement style. But I’m not just splitting hairs. This variety in our actual experience suggests — I think — that Camus got the question wrong, or that the question itself is the problem. The only important philosophical question isn’t why we each, individually, might choose to live. It’s how to live with each other, given that the facts of our lives are contingent on the facts of others’.
The truly depressing thing about the world isn’t how quiet it is, in the face of our nostalgia for old-time religion and nationalisms and conventional gender categories and essentialist philosophies. The world is noisy, and overwhelmingly various. The truly depressing thing is our unequal access to the possibility of living free and in community, to finding meaningful work, to choosing to live in ways that are less like pushing a rock up a mountain.
Sometimes I say the names of friends who were killed, then I say my name.
I don’t know what you mean when you call war “pure.” But this may be one way in which it is: it lifts the veil, shows you’re interchangeable, in a world that is heartbreakingly unfair. It could have been you at the other end of the gun, the drone, the bomb. It could have been me, exposed every day for ten years to the possibility of being blown up. But it wasn’t, and if my life as it is now depends on it not having been me, it depends, too, on your suffering. Your friends who can no longer deal with your nightly car crash probably look at you and see it, too. Your anger, this accident you’ve become, could be theirs, and how then could they live? They turn away.
The question of suicide, Camus’s question, turns away, too. It pretends it’s your individual existence that’s important, and isolates you from this truth of the world. To be a civilian depends on others going to war. The creation of wealth depends on the creation of poverty. The privileges of whiteness depend on the construction of “race” through violence both spectacular and banal. The heterosexual paradigm depends on the denial of the actual variety of our desires, and on and on — and you might have been born into any other position than the one you were. I’m ranting, I’m sorry, but my point is that any question that tries to isolate the individual from this mess — to pretend that anyone’s position in the world is autonomous and individually earned — seems to me, right now, false. The mess is depressing, but the question that keeps us from living in it (Why live at all?) is a prison.
The better question is less elegant. Given the violent ways we as humans try to control our contingency and exchangeability and vulnerability, how should we live, and act toward others, whom we otherwise might have been? How do we shake the persistent illusion of our own unique centrality and stop fighting for it at the expense of others? It’s a very big question about the world, but it’s also a better question for you: how do you get to the end of the story of war, get the war out of your body, and yet remember what is important about what you have seen? My friends’ names, and then my name.
You want a philosophical principle to give you some motivation to get out of the bay in which you’re an old ship, rusting. You want the clarity, the rigor, and the strength of philosophy to give you a reason to do what you have to do next. But ever since I read your letter I have been thinking about poetry — specifically a poem by Mark Doty called “Visitation.” In the poem, a man hears that a young humpback whale is stuck in a nearby harbor. The man is depressed, grieving something or someone. What he is grieving is unnamed in the poem. The world is “dark upon dark, any sense / of spirit an embattled flame / sparked against wind-driven rain / till pain snuffed it out.” He assumes the whale is experiencing the same pain; it is stuck in the bay, helpless, its ability to navigate its way out confused by sonar or who knows what human technologies and environmental atrocities. In language that treats the whale as a metaphor, Doty shows us that the speaker is projecting only his own pain:
. . . grief
has seemed to me itself a dim,
salt suspension in which I’ve moved,
blind thing, day by day,
through the wreckage, barely aware
of what I stumbled toward . . .
But when he goes to visit the harbor, he sees the actual whale, and begins to realize that for the whale, it may not be “that way at all.” He begins to perceive, or interpret, this whale’s own experience, and realizes what he’s witnessing might not be a helpless, trapped thing, but a joyful being. Maybe the whale is playing, greeting the humans gathered along the wharf by swimming near them and breaching. It teases the edges of the harbor, blows exuberantly, moves in ways the speaker can’t help but recognize as pleasurable. “Enough,” the speaker writes to himself, to his way of seeing things only in despair. When the young whale is done checking out the harbor, he or she swims out into the sea, not stuck at all — just visiting. And this visitation — “Holy Infant, Little Marie” — inspires the poem’s ending:
. . . even I
couldn’t help but look
at the way this immense figure
graces the dark medium,
and shines so: heaviness
which is no burden to itself.
And the last lines, which I have been wanting to write to you since I read your letter:
What did you think, that joy
was some slight thing?
For you, given what you’ve experienced — the war still going on in your body and mind, a war that demands repeating every single night — for you, joy would not be slight or sensible, either. I doubt it would be prefaced by some philosophical realization, some calm progression toward a principle that meant you, as an individual, should live. Compared with war, and in the context of the unfairness of the world, joy is ridiculous, impossible, unreasonable, absurd, an apocalypse of the way you’re living now. It would be heavy and it might even be frightening. It escapes you now precisely because it is such a big fucking deal, because it doesn’t make the kind of sense you want, because it is radically different from violence but also from certainty, from what you already know. And it will come only if you realize that it is not just about you, your life. It comes in being able to feel others again, as Doty describes feeling the whale, to recognize when others are visiting you. I don’t know what to call this. “Communion,” says my friend Matt, who is writing quietly, too, a few feet away. So let’s call it that: communion.
I first heard this poem years ago, when I interviewed the poet Kathleen Graber. She is a friend, and I knew that in middle age she’d abandoned her job teaching public school and her well-appointed suburban home to live meagerly and dedicate herself to learning to write. I was interested in the question you’re asking, at the time — how do people change their lives, their beliefs, completely? — and was interviewing people across the country who had. I knew that before this conversion experience there had been a series of deaths in her family, and then she herself had a cancer scare, but I didn’t know what she’d say:
I had been a philosophy major as an undergrad and I really, because my parents were so volatile and my mother was so . . . Reason had no impact on her, right? She was just not open, you could not reason with her. I had really dedicated my life to being a reasonable person.
One year she got roped into taking a bunch of kids to a poetry festival in New Jersey. At the time, she says, “if someone had come in and put a gun to my head and said, ‘Name a living American poet,’ they would have had to shoot me.” After a long and complicated bus ride, she arrives at the festival and sees Mark Doty read:
I remember very clearly — he read a poem called “Visitation,” about a whale coming into a harbor at Cape Cod and being stranded, and his thinking that it could only end badly, and at the end the whale does leave the harbor, and it ends with the rhetorical question: [with wonder] “What did you think, that joy / was some slight thing?”
And I think that what that poem did was it asked — there was something about that poem that was very, very wise, but it was a kind of wisdom that wasn’t about logic. It was a wisdom that was of another species entirely. And I had not realized how desperately hungry I was for this other kind of wisdom that wasn’t a wisdom that had its root in something you could reason your way toward.
And I was just totally blown away by this poem, I just thought I want to learn to do that. Whatever that is — oh, that’s a poem? I wanna learn to do that.
As in Doty’s poem, the change in Graber’s story about Doty’s poem comes as the result of a visitation, an illogical communion that introduced a wisdom of another species entirely.
Both Doty and Kathy were mourning. To grieve is to become vulnerable to feeling, to acknowledge what you’ve seen of the world’s worst violence, to mourn the buddies you’ve lost. Mourning is awful, but it is also hopeful, because it acknowledges that a story could matter that much, that the lives of others matter that much.
You are asking how to get out of the bay, but you keep leaving it, choosing the car crash, the pool of blood. Your problem, I think, is not how to get out, but how to stay there long enough to let the story run out, so that you can actually begin to mourn. This is more hazardous than putting the bender on repeat, in a way. It puts you at risk of caring again.
You say you’ve come to the end of the story, but I think you’re stuck in the middle of one. And by writing me, you’ve written yourself into another story, in which an angry and despairing man (my father, a boyfriend, a male friend) calls on me (or so I believe) to name a philosophical principle that will make life seem worth living again. Can I be heroic, stronger than the woman you consumed, the one who nearly didn’t pull up in time? Am I smart enough? Are real orgasms worth all the violence? Given the timing of your letter and the familiarity of its language, I suspected that you were not who you said you were, not someone who’s spent time at war at all, but one of my depressed fiction-writing friends, fucking with me by posing the great white whale of advice-column questions: Why live?
For a while, I blocked this question, turned away from the temptation to pretend to know, better than you, better than anyone, why and how to live. After a while, I even asked my friend if he was you (he said he wasn’t). But the suspicion, the way your letter was so familiar that it read like fiction, was what eventually helped me see: it doesn’t matter whether you are who you say you are. Your story is familiar, whether it’s fiction or not. If it’s not fiction, it’s still a story, you’re still in one, and I have something to say in response. It’s not that smart, what I have to say, and it’s not that heroic. It does come from a place of knowing what it’s like to wake up morning after morning unsure of whether it would be better to be dead or alive. It’s that it’s in precisely the vulnerability you’re trying to escape, not in strength or certainty, that you might begin to see why and how to live.
There is a feeling in the body that is just the feeling of physical well-being and it connects you to all humans and other animals and maybe even trees.Tweet
Nearly every morning, bloody news. To love the world hurts the heart. Your letter hurt, and then, when I began writing to you, my boyfriend had just had a dark night of the soul, wishing for death, and the next morning I woke up and learned from the internet that an old, dear friend of mine, someone familiar with despair and with the logical conclusion of a bender, had disappeared completely. Then I learned that a man had walked into a gay club in Orlando and shot down half the dancers. Instead of writing to you, I had a go-to-pieces on the couch for a few hours.
Love is love: it began to flood the internet as I lay there. It’s probably why there were religions in the first place. As if it’s true, as it says in the chapter from 1 Corinthians I kept reading that morning as I watched the news scroll by, as if it could be true: love never fails.
I understand, as much as a coddled civilian can understand anything — my rocks are pebbles, kicked up the slightest slope — that it must feel the most compelling thing in the world to continue to choose violence, to your drug dealer, your friends, your mind, your own body. But sometimes we have to do things without knowing. With the body, at least for me, you have to take a leap, have faith that if you can hold on and make it one or two weeks without a constant hangover, you will know things you don’t know now. There is a feeling in the body that is just the feeling of physical well-being and it connects you to all humans and other animals and maybe even trees. The war will always be there, but you have a choice of what to give your attention to. The familiar story, the car crash, or the thing more radical and more frightening and wiser than strength: to grieve, to renounce the story and that paragraph you can’t get past, to make peace with your contingency and interchangeability so you can see the other side of it, to the connections that make it a joy, sometimes, to be alive.
In other words, it does sound like you need to get clean. But don’t do it for the sake of health, or morality, or to submit to some new system of discipline. Do it so that you can begin to grieve what’s happened to you, and what you’ve done, and the people you’ve lost, and the stories you’ve lost. Do it so that you can prepare your body and mind so that when joy comes, you’ll recognize it. Do it so your friends return, and when they start to tell you why they don’t despair, you can actually hear them. In place of the story that ran out, then — instead of crashing the car, instead of getting out of that bay — my suggestion is to find some way to stay in it. There’s no other way to find out if you’re just visiting.
The Help Desk