Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Response to a Reader's Comments

On my essay, "The Divided Self," a reader left this comment:

Your story is eerily similar to mine. I was leading a completely stressful life - a LOT of drinking, smoking, zero exercise, eating crap. And then, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. I instantly changed, did a complete 180 didn't touch a single beer or a cigarette or a slice of pizza. All I ate were cupfuls of cheerios, protein etc. No more than one slice of bread per day. I exercised 2 hours daily. In 3 months I dropped 55 lbs, and my doctor said my blood sugar was back to normal and I wouldnt need medication to control it anymore. He even wanted to do a case study on how I did that.

And then - I graduated, got my PhD. A month later, it started with one beer. and now a year later, I am pretty much an alcoholic and a heavy smoker. No more exercise and lots of crappy food. I gained back all the weight. I cough, freak out for a while, throw my cigarettes out. and then go search for them in the garbage. I use my asthma inhaler and then go and smoke. I don't even know why I do this. The entire duality of my personality has me beat.

When I was taking care of myself - i was a LOT calmer, reading philosophy, whatnot. BUT I was nowhere as creative as i am now. Iam a musician (stereotypes woohoo), and I find myself writing more often when I am drunk and disoriented and so on.

Now which life do I choose? I guess it all comes down to balance - but HOW? balance seems forced. balance seems complacent. or is it? It seems so to me - the other desperate life is much more interesting - but it just might kill me.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts - a friend suggested your blog to me. If you find balance, tell us how.

I was moved by the comment and wanted to answer the commenter's questions to the best of my ability. Here is my response:

Please do not take this response to mean I have all the answers, I certainly do not. But I'm living as you are, and trying to cope with many of the same things, i.e. quitting unhealthy behaviors and adopting healthy ones.

You say, "I guess it all comes down to balance."

Here I'm tempted to say, "No, it all comes down to timing."

In an ideal world, I think all of us would want to lead more balanced lives--eating moderately, exercising moderately, working less, and so on.

But in the day-to-day business of living, I feel balance is not so much of a choice we have. We just deal. As you said in your comment, any attempt to create balance, feels forced.

I re-read "The Divided Self" after I read you comment. It is very similar to an essay I just posted, called "The Undiscovered Self".

I'm looking at my life now from the perspective of these two essays, which essentially try to grasp the same problem.

It's strange. I don't even think about smoking anymore. I quit. It's been three or four weeks now. I just don't think about it. Which is very strange in light of the essay, "The Divided Self". Because in that essay, I'm describing what appears to be my utter inability to quit smoking.

The thought to have a cigarette will cross my mind, but for some reason, now, I don't act on it. And before I was helpless. So what explains this phenomenon?

I'm reading John Dewey's seminal work, Art as Experience, and he talks a lot about the ebb and flow of human experience, nature, and life. As humans, we really do have to go through these revolutions, these cycles. Granted some people with have more accentuated rhythms than others, higher peaks, lower valleys--all of us are familiar with these cycles.

Listen to how Dewey describes it. He's wonderfully accurate:
Life itself consists of phases in which the organism falls out of step with the march of surrounding things and then recovers unison with it—either through effort or by some happy chance. And, in a growing life, the recovery is never mere return to a prior state, for it is enriched by the state of disparity and resistance through which it has successfully passed.
And here:
Nevertheless, if life continues and if in continuing it expands, there is an overcoming of factors of opposition and conflict; there is a transformation of them into differentiated aspects of a higher powered and more significant life. The marvel of organic, of vital, adaptation through expansion (instead of by contraction and passive accommodation) actually takes place. Here in germ are balance and harmony attained through rhythm. Equilibrium comes about not mechanically and inertly but out of, and because of, tension.
And so, from these passages, you can infer that there is meaning behind our "bad periods"--that is, the periods where we pick up smoking again, have lots of casual sex, drink too much, etc. This does not mean unhealthy, compulsive, addictive behavior is acceptable. It just means that the human being can be understood as moving through phases of order and disorder, but that each stage of disorder has the potential to lead to a higher stage of order, a higher level of consciousness.

I think there is great sense in this philosophy.

You mention that since you returned to drinking, you're more creative. In this post, I examine the effect of pot on my creativity.

Everyone is different, of course, in regards to creativity and intoxicants.

I too had the sense when I was taking drugs that I could at times tap into a well-spring of creativity. But for me it was an illusion.

Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, etc., generally occurs during a person's phase of "disorder". And yet, I had a tendency to see order in my disorder. This was part of my distortion.

I began my response to your comments by saying I thought it all came down to timing instead of balance. Reading the passages by Dewey, however, it does seem to come down to balance.

From the point of view of nature, yes, balance is what makes the human being whole. It is the complete cycle, from order to disorder and back to order.

But from the point of view of the human being, I still believe it's a matter of timing. Where you are at in any given moment of your life will determine your "success" at living. But fear not, because according to the philosophy of Dewey, we are all on a self-balancing path, even in our darkest moments.



syrimne said...

I am tempted to agree with this view of extremes in lifestyle and control/lack of control...although with full awareness that this is a potentially dangerous view to espouse, in that addictions of various kinds do actually kill people. And yet, and yet...I was told once that the personality configuration for your average drug addict is remarkably similar as that of your average spiritual master. Connections between artists and psychiatric ward inmates have also been noted over the years. There is some real wisdom in this idea that the expansions and contractions are distilling something in those who approach them with purpose and will, and with a seeking of...something. Depth. What's on the other side. I wonder sometimes if we consciously know what it is, or the cleverer ones of us are simply good at devising stories to explain something that's being propelled by a far more subconscious (or superconscious?) engine. I do believe that there is a way of riding these extremes to the next level of your own consciousness, and therein find at least temporary periods of balance and increased distance/understanding in life. I've often noted the similarity between serious periods of meditation (I mean like a minimum of a week straight, with breaks only to sleep, etc.) and the effects of hallucinogens. I don't ascribe to the notion that hallucinogens are a shortcut to the same states (they aren't!), only that the impulse behind overindulgence in each are similar.

As far as addiction/balance more generally, I'm always at a loss on how to advise on this, maybe because I've known so many addicts over the years and that was such a part of my life for so long that I've come to the conclusion that advise is essentially useless in this area. There are too many kinds of addicts to generalize about them effectively, and often addiction is just one of a set of symptoms for issues that go much, much deeper than the addiction alone. Throw in genetic or other biological predilections, and you have a real mess to untangle.

And, while I agree that some get windows of opportunity where shifts occur that allow for real transformational change as a result of these extremes...unfortunately, at least in my experience, this is by far the exception. I think it would be very dangerous to depend on this to get out of a destructive momentum (I'm not saying you are, just thinking aloud). I also think you can miss your exit pretty easily...i.e., get so strung out you blow out the vehicle. It's a dangerous game, for sure. Maybe the answer is to go intensely extreme again in the opposite direction, create that bridge through an act of will? I know, easier said than done. The problem is, you would need almost no attachment to your current life to really make that work, and that's extremely difficult for most people.

For me, it was definitely timing. Even so, I still seesaw between extremes, mainly with fantasy and sex. I actually can't create while intoxicated...for which I'm very grateful. In fact, substances dull my creativity significantly, which hasn't been true for many of my friends...and it's always a source of tension for them.

This has been an extremely interesting thread, thanks for sharing!

srik ps said...


I appreciate your response very much. You bring up an interesting point with Dewey - while that sounds very much cyclic and hindu philosophy-ish, it seems to offer the point of view of us evolving as individuals and as a species. It makes a lot of sense. However, the problem is that while we might be on a self balancing path, it just might mean that as in evolution, some of us might fall off the tightrope or miss the exit, as syrimne commented. Right?

The fact that our consciousness (I don't know what that is) is affected by chemical, biological, physical, sociological and environmental stimuli, makes the balancing act harder. What it does though, to me, is affirm the belief that we are not separate from each other and from the universe.

For some reason, writing that comment put things in perspective for me. I went camping and all of a sudden I have this new urge to be healthier.

Maybe expressing yourself in the most lucid and honest manner is the only way to stay on the tightrope.

Thanks for your kindness. Your blog comes across as a very lucid and honest form of expression.

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