How I missed the war

I get a lot more done when Peggy is away because her presence is a distraction. During this absence, I’ve been roofing our new deck during the day and making crackers and soups at night. When I’m working in the kitchen, I watch films one after the other. Tonight, I watched two war documentaries. The first was The Corporal’s Diary, which was about an American soldier who died in Iraq, and the second was Heroes of Iwo Jima. In a few minutes, I’ll go to bed and continue my nightly reading of a newly-released book entitled Survivor: Auschwitz, the Death March, and My Fight for Freedom, which is surely the last first-person account of a Nazi death camp that the world will ever see.

When I was younger, I sometimes experienced regret that I had never gone to war because I saw it as a rite of passage like no other, and because it enables men to bond closely with other men. Yet, I went to great lengths to avoid the only war I had a chance at. I’m not sure whether I did this because I thought that only suckers voluntarily went to Vietnam, or because I had no stomach for any war. I suspect the former because, unlike World War II, which made at least a little sense to me, and during which those who didn’t fight were viewed with suspicion, I never felt the least inner desire or societal pressure to go to Vietnam, although I felt a lot of pressure from the draft board, which was forever eliminating my latest exemption in what seemed like a cat and mouse game with me being the mouse. When it seemed as if the cat finally had me cornered, my doctor wrote to the draft board saying that I had passed several kidney stones, so I was reclassified from 1A (kiss your ass goodbye) to 4F (we wouldn’t draft a worthless fucker like you no matter what) for a year, and by the time that year ended, the war was winding down. I was surprised to learn that I had suffered from kidney stones, but I wasn’t about to argue.

Tonight, as I cried my way through Heroes of Iwo Jima, I glanced over at Brewsky and was startled to discover that he was watching me with an expression of consternation unlike any I had ever seen in him, and I knew it was because he didn’t understand my tears. I very much wanted to tell him what was going on for me, but how does one describe feelings about war to a cat? Not very well, I shouldn’t think. When the war films were over, I watched another documentary, The Cruise, which was about a NYC tour bus guide. This guy had depth, honesty, creativity, sensitivity, eloquence, and a unique world-view, which is to say that he was everything I would like to be when I’m around people but am not. Of course, it’s a lot harder to be all those things given that I mostly avoid people. Like this morning, I got to feeling lonely, what with Peggy being gone, so, it being Sunday, I thought about either visiting the new Unitarian Church or calling someone about getting together, but I decided against either because they seemed like too much work. That decision being out of the way, my friend Cliff called to ask if he could come over, but I didn't answer the phone. About an hour later, I called him back, and we took a walk. It was good, but there’s such a wide gap between myself and others that I sometimes think about seeing people in the same way I think about taking medicine. I know it’s good for me, but it’s not altogether pleasant, although it can sometimes be very pleasant indeed, which is another parallel between people and drugs.

They will be like the morning mist, like dew in the morning sun, like chaff blown by the wind, like smoke from a chimney. Hosea 13:3

I saw life as predictable and everlasting because time moved so slowly that I couldn’t imagine myself growing up. Days were alike except for weekends and holidays, which seemed so far apart that I once tried to hurry Christmas by pulling leaves from September trees. I knew that real change would someday come, but the time seemed so far away that thinking about it was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I lacked the words to say so, but I regarded change as theoretical rather than actual in the same sense that the earth someday being obliterated now seems theoretical rather than actual, although it will certainly happen.

My concept of life as more or less a status quo affair lingered into my fifties because, while many changes had by then happened around me, I stayed constant within myself. Then, my health changed in ways that left me with pain and limitations, and once a person can’t trust himself to stay right, and other people can’t make him right, life becomes more serious. Now, when I look back upon all the people and events that I once knew and experienced—and are gone forever even though it once seemed that they would continue forever—I become panicky and nauseous because I know that the people and events that are currently a part of my life will also cease to exist, and that the time before it happens no longer seems like looking through the wrong end of a telescope but through the right end of a microscope.

I have an 87-year-old friend who says to me every time I see him: “Growing old isn’t for sissies.” He says this with a solemn voice and baleful eye as if it’s his own original and profound discovery even though he’s been saying it for years, as have millions of other people. He says it this way because it is his own discovery and it is original and profound, although the bromidic words with which he expresses himself can’t begin to impart his private realization that life can and will go horribly wrong no matter what we do, and that, all too soon, everything will be lost. All the work, all the years in school, all the relationships, and a million little things, will soon disappear in the same way that light disappears when the bulb blows.

In late adolescence, I began to think of life as the product of how one looked at it, which meant that if I looked at it as a game, I could avoid suffering. Yet, even then I knew what it was to step on a nail, to fall ill with strep throat, and to bend double from food poisoning, and I would guess that no one ever said that life was a game while he had a nail sticking out of his foot, or was having diarrhea in a toilet while throwing-up in a trashcan. There are even books that promote the view that life is a game, but I very much doubt that any of them were written in Palestine or Darfur or by people who were in intractable pain. The irony of life is that the same brevity and powerlessness that make it meaningless also make it profound. Indeed, when I was able (on my better days) to view life as a game, I had yet to understand that life is more akin to a gasp that bursts from the eternal blackness of the void only to be sucked back into it. Once that thought reached my core, life became a tragedy. As my IOOF ritual put it:

“I have seen the rose in its beauty spread its leaves to the morning sun. I returned and it was dying upon the stalk; its grace and form were gone; its loveliness was vanished away; its leaves were scattered to the ground, and no one gathered them together again. I have seen man in the pride of his strength. He walked; he ran; he leaped; he rejoiced in that he was more excellent than the rose. I returned, and life was departed from him, and the breath from out of his nostrils.”

All but one of the nine men who used to stand around a coffin with me as we performed that ritual are dead. “Death is in the world,” they said; “All who are born must die,” they said, and so they died, leaving only my 87-year-old friend and me.

Given such a reality, I can understand why people turn to religion and spirituality, and even today, I wish that they could be true. Yet, from adolescence, I viewed their content as so fanciful that I could but cling to them desperately in order to enjoy even the fleeting illusion of a permanent hold. I asked the darkness around my bed why, if there really exists an Eternal Beneficence that reaches out to us as eagerly as we reach out to it, doesn’t that Beneficence reveal itself equally and undeniably to everyone rather than leave us to interpret the words of dead men in contradictory ways, all of which promote hatred in the name of a thousand different Gods of Love. Finally, I couldn’t go on believing in God anymore than I could go on believing in Santa Claus, there being so few things that make life bearable that the rest must of necessity fall away. What could possibly make life bearable for an atheist, some might ask. Kindness, integrity, intimacy, art, music, literature, good health, simple pleasures, adequate resources, writing, reflecting, studying, time in the woods, and, most of all, truth. Given that there are so few, none can be relinquished without the loss outweighing the gain, and religion and spirituality required that I relinquish truth as I believe it to be within my deepest self.

The truth of which I speak is that the existence of certain persistent questions regarding the possibility that our lives possess an ultimate purpose, doesn’t suggest the existence of answers, but rather a need that there be answers, and so it is that answers are invented—both by religion and philosophy—not to satisfy a truth need, but rather a psychological need. Some people are satisfied with these answers; others appear to have been born with a lack of interest in the questions; and still others are left with the questions despite the absence of any hope that there be answers. They are left to feel that religion, spirituality, and philosophy have all failed to satisfy their needs and, indeed, that their needs are unsatisfiable short of death. Wittgenstein expressed philosophy’s failure as follows. Religion and spirituality are unable to address their own limitations so humorously.

“The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science—i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy—and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person—he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—this method would be the only strictly correct one.”

In case his words are obscure, I will tell you what I think they mean. The only truthful tack that philosophy can take is to say nothing about that of which it knows nothing. If it does this, its remarks will be limited to natural science, a field unrelated to philosophy. If someone should come into a philosophical circle and make a remark about the existence of a reality that transcends natural science, philosophy can but dismiss his or her remark by breaking it down into its constituent parts and pointing out that they suffer from a lack of clarity and specificity, and are therefore nonsensical. The person who made the remark will not find this approach satisfying, and won’t even understand what it has to do with philosophy, yet those who offer it can take comfort in knowing that they have presented the best that philosophy has to offer.

To put it another way:

“Even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course, there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein

Post; the latest.

The Cascade Ranges (sometimes referred to as Eastern and Western, and sometimes as Old and New) have thousands of rock formations that consist of magma which hardened underground and was exposed when the surrounding rock eroded away. Like nearly all of them, Symbol Rock (pictured) sits quietly to itself, for that which would be the centerpiece of a park in most places is commonplace in Oregon. Indeed, Symbol Rock and dozens—if not scores—of similar formations can be found within fifty miles of here, although few people know of them because few people venture into the wilderness.

As was true elsewhere in America, most of Oregon’s indigenous peoples died of European diseases without having ever seen a European, the diseases being introduced by a relatively few pre-settlement explorers, traders, and missionaries. This makes it impossible to know what the original Americans thought of most intrusions, but they generally regarded impressive natural features as possessing healing powers, and they created anthropomorphic myths to explain the origins of such features. I believe that natural features (along with art, music, friendship, literature, placeboes, and various other things) can indeed heal people, but I have no thought that tales of warring spirits or trickster coyotes are relevant to explaining their existence. For this, we must turn to science.

Many western Oregonians would disagree because the region is attractive to those who take a mystical view. Many of them view both science and mythology as nothing more than culturally-based interpretations of nature, with science being inferior to mythology in that its mechanistic outlook, its human centeredness, and its faith in reason and evidence, deny the possibility of a spirit realm and therefore of ordained purpose. My animus toward such people comes from the fact that they take obvious advantage of the fruits of the science that they profess to hate while the fruits of the spirituality that they profess to love remain anything but obvious. Indeed, I think their claim to heightened respect, insight, sensitivity, compassion, and morality, are simply the products of their narcissistic imaginations. Our one area of agreement is that we both view the dominant forms of Western religion as wicked and depraved.

At the one end, in our Western world, there lie the beliefs and practices of those whom I have referred to, people who embrace such titles as pagan, spiritual, and mystical; at the other are those like myself who uphold reason and evidence as humanity’s only shot at objective truth; and between the two, the dominant forms of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; authoritarian religions all that proclaim the earth accursed and treat it accordingly even as they pursue worldly wealth and power. As much as they hate one another, pagan/spiritual/mystical people and mainstream religious people are alike in that they share a contempt for reason and evidence, at least in regard to such things as they themselves believe in the absence of reason or evidence. Truly, once rationality is declared a hindrance to the discovery of “higher truth,” people are free to believe whatever they please without the least embarrassment.

Yet, in the case of the mainstream religions, if two people worship different Gods of love—each of whom demands that he (they are invariably male, you know) alone be worshipped—how are they to resolve their differences in the absence of reason and evidence? They cannot. They can but agree to disagree or, as usually happens when one or both sides thinks it can win, resort to intimidation and violence.

“A religion, even if it calls itself a religion of love, must be hard and unloving to those who do not belong to it.” –Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, 1921

If Freud was right—and I think he was—there can be no peace among religions; there can only be lulls in the fighting, and never any love. 

"And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death." Shakespeare

I can’t save that which I love; I can but ameliorate the damage for a short time even while knowing that I myself am sometimes the cause of that damage. For instance, no one has hurt Peggy more than I, yet I am the very person most devoted to her welfare. If I have damaged other people less, it was only due to the emotional distance that separated us, for I have often been needy even while taking a hard line. I wish I could have been warmer, more caring, yet I imagined at the time that I had given them all things good, and that it was they who had failed me.

I awakened just now pondering one such instance that has haunted me for 38 years. It concerned a friend who often brought me small gifts. One night, soon after giving me such a gift—I have forgotten what—he said that it would be nice if I sometimes got him something. I became outraged and accused him of only buying things for me so that he might get things in return. I later realized that this was a hard line indeed, but maybe I believed it at the time. As with the form of his gift, my interpretation of his words has been lost; I only remember that he had made me happy with a gift and then taken away my happiness with a complaint. We both could have spoken better, but what haunts me is not the feeling he expressed, which was reasonable, but my response, which was unconscionable. We remained distant for five years, and he died a possible suicide soon after we rekindled our friendship. Long reflection upon incidents that I never imagined I would remember has shown me that, where I was a victim, it was often to my own petulance and obstinance. I didn't realize how soon I would run out of time to grow-up and set things right, or how quickly my life would be littered with corpses for whom my remorse is meaningless.

Last week, I went to a Harvard-trained Korean neurologist who has honors and credentials out the ying-yang. We discussed two issues. One is a hellacious tingling from behind my right shoulder to the thumb of my right hand, and the other is my failing memory. He told me that the tingling originates in my fifth cervical vertebra, which I killed (literally) several years ago while taking Yoga in a failed attempt to alleviate the pain in my shoulders. As for my memory, he said that it isn’t bad enough to be labeled Alzheimer’s, but that it’s bad enough to suggest a 10% chance that it will progress to Alzheimer’s within five years. I reminded myself that pain, stress, depression, and drugs all have an adverse effect upon memory, that some such changes are reversible, and that it’s often unwise to put much stock in a diagnosis that appears to have been hastily made. He ordered an MRI of my neck and drew six vials of blood, half of which were immediately wrapped in tin foil. I won’t see him again for two weeks, but I went online tonight and got the results of the blood tests. One of my abnormal results is rare in the absence of liver disease, but then again, it sometimes indicates a disease of the nervous system or connective tissue. As with spot diagnoses, I know that it’s unwise to put faith into one test once done, yet the result is consistent with my increasing worries about my liver and kidneys due to the years that I’ve taken strong drugs daily for pain. In fact, I am awake now because of pain. The night being half over, I would ordinarily take an Ambien (narcotics keep me awake), and it would enable me to doze in and out a little, but because I’m determined to take fewer drugs, I’m unwilling to allow myself to take anything.

What with these concerns about dementia, liver failure, my customary pain (which, without the pills, seems to be enveloping my entire body), and my more recent tingling, I’m finding it harder than usual to maintain a positive outlook. I regret this for my sake, but also for the sake of those people who care about me, particularly Peggy. Even with all that I’ve gone through, I never lost sight of the fact that I was still able to bring a measure of good to her life, and I worry that this might not continue. If it doesn’t, I would be left without a viable option, a thought that brings me back to where I started this post. Not only can I not save the person I love most; the worst pain she will ever have might befall her because she loves me. I can but do my best to spare her as much of it as possible.