Saturday 4 April 2015

Resistance and rage: why I don't always trust peace and calm

The last few posts I've written a lot about listening and acceptance. But in many ways I feel as if, for me, getting sober is a tug of war between acceptance and resistance, peace and rage. Talking about acceptance in sober blog circles goes down well, but I'm not always so sure it's OK to talk about resistance. But I'm going to try, as I want to see if I can make some sense of it: what I'm resisting, and why it matters to me.

So what am I resisting? One of the things I've learned about getting sober is that a person goes through a lot of changes. Of course, I am the same person, but I am also becoming a new person. That's wonderful. There's so much promise in it. But there's danger, too. Who do I want to become? I need to think about that, because I believe the methods I use to take care of myself will in part fashion the self I am becoming. Foucault calls this sort of thing "technologies of the self," and after railing against Foucault for ages it turns out I like his work a lot. But you don't have to go to French philosophy to see that the kinds of things you do to change affect the person you become. That's what's at the heart of the "I want what she's got" approach to getting sober. You find someone who you want to be like, and do what they did to become like that.

But often, I seem to need to do the opposite. I have a big dose of, "Please God don't let me end up like that!" Not when I see someone who's struggling. For some reason--and that's what I'm trying to figure out in this post--I react that way when I see someone who has been set up as a guru, someone who I am supposed to want to emulate, a beacon of peace and calm and so on. Confronted with these gurus, all I can see is their faults, and I recoil. And I rage against that as an ideal.

Here's an example. So many of the sober bloggers seem to love Tara Brach. Sometimes I want to love Tara Brach. People I really respect love her and find her helpful. What can't I just love Tara Brach, dammit? But the thing is, I can't stand her. I have tried listening to her online. I bought her book and read it, and a while later I took another look to see if I could take up what I couldn't get the first time. But she tells a story about her kid interrupting her meditation session because he needed a ride to school, and she sounds so precious and feeble, and I wanted to yell at her, "Get a grip lady! Drive the kid to school, admit you're pissed with him, and move on!" Reading her, I get the feeling I'm supposed to beat myself up when I'm not perfect and then use this meditation stuff to alleviate that self-flagellation. But I think, no, just don't beat yourself up in the first place! Clearly I will once in a while be annoyed with the people around me. I don't want to have to set myself up in a protected bubble where I am calm as hell all the time. To me, Brach performs the most horrific mix of Western psychology and self-indulgent buddhism and sanctimoniousness, all in one calm and patient show. And I don't believe her. To me, she looks like she is as tense and angry as all get out. When I watched her video, I want to get her to walk out of that quiet room and come stand on top of a cliff with me and rage at the ocean and the sky for a while, and maybe then when we got tired of yelling we could sit down and laugh at how ridiculous it all is.

I felt the same years ago when a friend gave me her Eckhardt Tolle book to read. His pious calm enraged me! (I didn't want to take Eckhardt out cliff-yelling, so maybe my Tara Brach reaction is a kind of progress.) Ditto  my attempt at yoga class. My blood pressure actually increased in the class. I had to go for a walk or a bike ride afterward to calm down. I have tried several times to get back to being Catholic after years away, but the stuff I hear makes me want to stand up and yell at the priest, and I know that's not on. At the AA meetings I've attended, I wanted to call sexism on the chairman's side comments, and the fact that everyone laughed enraged me even more.

Similarly, a lot of what passes as the "science" of psychology infuriates me. So much simply doesn't stand up all that well to criticism, and so much is takes as true because it's spoken by experts. For example, one hears a lot about the virtues of "self-regulation" but self-regulation has a lot in common with becoming more docile, more easily governed. Maybe a little chaos is healthy, then?

Now this might sound like I'm filled with rage all the time. I'm not. But I have a healthy respect for anger and I appreciate that tension and conflict are helpful and productive at times. Anthropologist Ruth Behar writes about "using your subjectivity" as an analytical tool, and maybe that's what I'm trying to do here. One of the things I know about meditation is that I'm supposed to notice my own reactions. Behar adds to that and says, don't just notice what you feel, use your feelings to help give yourself a new perspective on a situation.

And yes, I know, part of the thing is not being attached to those feelings. But aren't they me? How am I supposed to have a personal engagement with the world if I accept that all my feelings and hopes and fears are all going to pass like so much water under some bridge. Yes, some day I'll be dead, but I'm alive now. How do I know I'm alive? I guess in part because I feel something. So come on feelings! Bring them on! Years ago when I was depressed, I didn't have a whole lot of preferences or feelings. These days I have them in spades. And I welcome them. I think they are probably how I know what to make of what's going on around me. I sure don't want to distance myself from all that!

So I guess the resistance I'm talking about is integral to all that listening I've also been talking about. I pay attention when I am enraged, because in that rage I start to get a sense of what I am actually thinking and feeling.

Sometimes I agree with what I read. Recently, I read an article by Simone de Beauvoir in which she rejects the idea that personal happiness is a good basis for a life, on the grounds that happiness is often conflated with "being at rest," which is a kind of death. Instead, she argues from an existential ethical standpoint that freedom is a more worthwhile basis for life decisions. De Beauvoir writes that liberty "is achieved only through a continual reaching out to other liberties" and she seems to condemn acceptance when it means "the brutish life of subjection to given conditions" (in New French Feminisms, edited by Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, 1980, p. 55). Instead, she talks about possibilities. Now that lifts my spirits! I worry about the project of psychology and the ongoing exhortations to psychologize ourselves. What if it just make me docile? Do I really want to accept the world as it is?

Here's my real worry. I am so bloody happy that I quit drinking. It's been almost 15 months now (hooray me!) and I feel a deep sense of the possibilities that life might have that I simply couldn't get to before. That's fabulous. Now that I'm here, I don't want to stagnate in a mire of self-indulgent concerns and shallow self-improvement. I want to find a good way to live, make good choices, contribute to the world. I'm not sure how to do it, but that's my project. I think it's worthwhile. And I think resistance and rage is helpful to me in this. The world is moving in some scary directions, and it might take some spitting rage to help me push back against what feels like a pressure to be calm and docile and accepting.

So for me, that's the other side of acceptance. It's less pretty and poetic, and it's not likely to be popular. And as always, it's possible I'm wrong about everything and I'll learn that in a while. OK. I'm fine with that. But for now, I want to stand on my cliff and yell and say I don't always want to accept things and I will not calm the fuck down and even in my rage I have to say that I am very, very happy about that!

Wishing you love joy and maybe even a healthy dose of rage.