I've been quiet for a couple of weeks over here. I've started classes again and I'm back to my regular work schedule. And I was avoiding writing, because I didn't know what to think about what's going on with me these days.
With this sober gig, I'm well into feeling things I haven't in a long time. And the lovely parts are fine. Watching the crow on the building outside my window, prancing back and forth cawing like a politician stumping for votes, makes me laugh. It makes me love the world. Or noticing the full soft canopy of green leaves, feeling the sun on my arms or the soft rain on my face when I'm biking to school or to work. That's all good stuff. I love being awake enough to be in that. But I have pockets of rage and despair that are all out of whack with whatever is going on in the situation, and I'm just sitting through those, sometimes trying to figure out what's up with all that and sometimes just sleeping off the exhausting after-effects. Rage. Man, I didn't have any idea how angry I am, or how often I'm angry.
The other day, I was in a school meeting with a group of women and the conversation turned to how people had spent the time between semesters. It quickly turned into what to me seemed a competition, in which a few of the women spoke of how they have trouble taking time off because they feel guilty, and how that guilt is good because you have to produce and the guilt will keep you working and keep up that production. I said that sounded ridiculously unhealthy, that no one could do good work without taking breaks, but my voice was drowned out in the chorus of supposedly amusing examples of obsession and guilt and reassurances all around that it was all part of the academic life. I tell you, I was angry. I had that awful feeling where, at the same time, I felt like crying, and I also felt like spinning around the room smashing glasses and computers and whatever smashable object I could get my hands on. It's disconcerting to sit quietly while feeling this smashing rage. It scares me a bit. I have never, not once in my life, actually trashed a room, and I've never been around anyone who does it, so the strength of it all is weird. But the feeling isn't unfamiliar, now that I recognize it.
At times like this, I don't quite know what I'm so angry about. Part of it is what seems like stupidity among really smart people who are at least sometimes critical thinkers, that they think running themselves into the ground "to produce" makes any sense at all. Or that it's amusing. Part is rage, because pandering to the guilt and production thing only feeds the beast, and makes that foolish busy-ness necessary in the first place, and that excludes people who are smart and have a lot to offer and whose voices need to be heard, but either don't have the physical stamina or they have kids or jobs or other real-life commitments and they can't afford the luxury of academic obsession. (Or worse, they do all that, and trying to do it all, all the time, is part of what's toxic in our achievement culture.) Part of what's going on is I'm angry because I was trying to say that's not the only way to do this, and there was no room for my voice in that slice of conversation, and I guess that feeling of having my experience paved over by people who know "the one true path" has always enraged me.
But you know what? I spoke with one person later (who hadn't said much at the time but who often does avoid sleep and other healthy habits in order to get work done) and she didn't even remember that part of the conversation until I prompted her. It certainly wasn't the point of the conversation. So at the same time, I know my rage is real and it's about something, but it's way (way way way) out of proportion to what's happening at the moment.
I'll give another example, because I think it might make it more clear how this furious anger I'm talking about is disproportionate to the situation, even if it's not entirely misguided. I have been reading Tara Brach's "Radical Acceptance," a book that combines some Buddhist ideas about acceptance and meditation with some standard Western self-psychology. A lot of the book is great, though I have some deep criticism of the author's uncritical adoption of some of Western psychology. But at times, I had that same feeling of utter rage at the author! I was somewhat floored by that, and kind of put it down to a mood at first, but I felt it over and over throughout the book, no matter how often I set the book aside and came back when I was calm and peaceful. Sometimes I hated her, or wanted to shout at her, with all her meditative wisdom and anecdotes about her own obsessions or her patients' problems. What's up with that?
I'm not sure. Yes, I'll admit, I have some inchoate anger going on. I'm paying attention to it, and I'm starting to know what it feels like in my body, so that's new to me and, after decades of not being able to connect body sensation with emotion, I'm grateful for getting to know that feeling, no matter how awful it is. Also, it's no coincidence that some of this rage, and both my examples, are brought on my women I admire who are uncritically adopting what to me seems the most toxic, dehumanizing achievement-orientation of our culture. I'm angry with them for seeming to see success as worth more than anything else, even though, they probably don't really think that way. And I'm angry at our culture for bringing us all to value that achievement above all when we should value the lives of these great women and find ways that they can do the good work they want without grinding themselves down, without seeing family and life and work as something you trade off, one against the other.
And yes, I know this has a whole lot to do with me personally. Probably its this: I'm afraid that I can't find a way to do good interesting work without grinding myself into the ground. I don't fare well without enough rest and sleep (see: those are two separate categories for me!) and time to read for pleasure and eat well and ride my bike and love my partner and do fun things and live in the world, the whole big world. I am a bit afraid of cracking up, because I've cracked up before when I tried to do interesting stuff. But opting out into the slow life doesn't seem to work for me either, because I'm interested, really bloody interested in the ideas I'm studying, and after years of my own private reading and writing, I found that I wanted to be around people who were also interested and reading that kind of thing and working on it, and doing it on my own wasn't going to be enough for me. For all our romantic ideals about the solitary scholar, thinking really is something that happens in a community of books and teachers and other thinkers and writers, past, present and future.
OK, that sounded like a bit of a rant, but maybe I'm getting at something here. I think this might be a longish post that reads more like therapy for me than anything worth saying to someone else. But this is the stuff I really need to figure out. I've spent years drinking when I was stressed or angry. It's more than a bit scary to find that, sober, I'm dealing with more of a bonfire than the occasional cosy campfire.
But there's some comfort in all this, too. A few years ago, the Dalai Lama was in town and someone got me a ticket to go hear him talk. I went, though up to that day I had actually strongly disliked the Dalai Lama. I thought he was just a kind of rock star royalty born into his position and treated like a god, privileged beyond anything a normal mortal could imagine. I thought he was all show. At the event, he was interviewed by Maria Shriver, and I have to say I came away from that event loving both of them! The Dalai Lama kept smiling and eluding her questions--exactly the kind of thing that I disliked--and Maria Shriver called him on that. She called out the Dalai Lama! Sitting in the audience that day, I was kind of stunned. She said something to the effect of this: look, you're sitting there smiling and talking about peace and you won't give me a straight answer about anything I'm asking, but I'm here to talk to you and these people came her to listen and what I want to know is, how can we just accept all this? How can we not be angry when there's so much wrong with the world and we can see what's wrong, and if we just accept it all peacefully we'll never change anything. And then the Dalai Lama took her question seriously. He answered, no, I don't think you must never be angry. It makes sense to be angry. If you look at the world, the way we live, how we treat each other and the planet and all of life, we must be angry. And he said anger is good! It can be the source of the energy we need to make the changes we need to make. He explained that his teachings meant not getting caught in the anger itself, because that's where the danger lies. But feeling angry is good, and necessary, and it can drive some much needed change.
I'm nowhere near as enlightened as all that. And I don't think all my rage is rational. But I think feeling a deep rage, even when it's out of proportion to the moment, might not be so crazy after all. I'm not all that sure yet what's up with it, but it's not completely irrational to me anymore. And that's a start. I'm a week or so past four months sober, and I know that for me, being sober has let me open up to feeling what's going on, and feeling is the only way through it. It's not always easy, this sober gig. But I think it's worth the work.
Now I'm off to ride my bike and meet some coworkers for a tea and cake sendoff. I think the rage will lay low for the afternoon. If you're still here, thanks for reading. Peace and joy to you, and I guess rage too if rage is what the situation brings you. Let's just try to feel it without staying stuck in it.