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The Overwhelming Present: On Having Too Much To Write About

In Chronic Pain, Class Politics, Creative Writing, Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Identity Politics, Intersectionality on May 26, 2014 at 12:55 PM
"It burns the thing inside it. And that thing screams." - "An Agony. As Now." by Amiri Baraka

“Cold air blown through narrow blind eyes. Flesh,
white hot metal. Glows as the day with its sun.
It is a human love, I live inside. A bony skeleton
you recognize as words or simple feeling.”
– “An Agony. As Now.” by Amiri Baraka

 

Over the past year I’ve come to realize that my constant hesitation to write emanates not so much from anxiety or deep-seated insecurity, but from an overwhelming sense that there’s way too much shit to write about. If you’ve ever had to make a list of all the possible topics you could speak, write, or blog about, then you might have a sense of what I mean here.

Just the other day, heading back home from work in an hour-long trek from one part of Brooklyn (Bushwick) to another (Sunset Park), I was engaged in my most common activity: sitting, thinking, dwelling on issues that seem insurmountable. Even indescribable. Just the thought of putting these experiences and thoughts into writing was exhausting.

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For me, there’s an almost-insurmountable catatonia that comes with writing about the struggles of the everyday. Where to begin? After all, the elusive present is hard to understand without an acknowledgment of history. Do I cherry-pick old historical events, like the wave of destruction that swept over the Arawaks of the Bahamas when Columbus landed his avaricious gold-seeking feet? Do I speed through Manifest Destiny and slavery-fueled industrialization? Or the reproduction of urban savagery a lá Robert Moses and red-lining and… Or do I begin with what I’m seeing right now in 2014: the drastic efflux of white (with the ever-so-often black, brown, and yellow-hipster) faces walking past me at the subway stop near my job.

Goddamn. In a mere six years, the social landscape of this neighborhood has changed at a terrifying pace.

A view of Bushwick (foreground) and a violet-lit Empire State Building (background). Neoliberal urban colonization (aka gentrification) has a surreality to it that is hard to capture solely with words.

A view of Bushwick (foreground) and a violet-lit Empire State Building (background). The multi-story condo to the left was opened just a few years ago and already suggests near-full occupation. Indeed, neoliberal urban colonization (aka gentrification) has a surreality to it that is hard to capture solely with words.

 

In a world with too many wars to fight, to many colonnades to dismantle, reality is jarring. And at the end of the day, here I am…sitting inside a train. Zig-zagging my way out of Brooklyn, then back again. Joining up again where the political meets the personal.

I still have to deal with soul-crushing limitations. Trying to live like a revolutionary in a neoliberal age, my mind slumped after a night of teaching in impossible circumstances. And as much as I wanted to scream, a bourgeois sentiment in me also wanted to make demands and compelling critiques. But the number of topics I could potentially write about (that were also personally embroiled) were staggering:

  • I can write about gentrification, urbanization, and settler-colonialism in the United States. Using the example of Bushwick or Sunset Park to demonstrate how gentrification—a term that has been popularized in the left and right to the point of losing considerable political valence—is really just another iteration of white supremacist, urban colonization. Even in cases where the gentrifiers and the gentrified come from similar ethnoracial backgrounds, a similar logic of invasion, plunder, and proselytization operates, often with indirect repercussions to communities of color.
  • I can write about the linkages between police brutality, mass incarceration, and the reciprocal relationship between carceral regimes and capitalist development (including criminalization and its association with gentrification in Brooklyn).
  • I can write about the struggles of adult education programs, or the constant struggles and physical and cultural violence experienced by my transnational, multi-status immigrant students. The unique, indescribable experience of being a teacher at the crossroads.
  • I can write about the insidiousness of the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC), its ableist romanticization of long hours, commitment, and passion. Its coercive management of dissent. The funneling of revolutionary momentum into the rat race of data-driven bureaucracy.
  • Then there’s the fact that I often feel like I’m being ping-ponged between the NPIC and the (bio)medical-industrial complex. As if I wasn’t already drowning in paperwork and numbers, I also have to keep track of my co-pays, premiums, medications, and insurance policies. I have to manage a deeply crippling, mysterious condition (chronic pain) layered upon another (multiple sclerosis). I have to deal with doctors’ racisms, insensitivities, and general misunderstanding. I have to deal with pharmacists and insurance reps and union reps and social workers and disability lawyers. More days than I can count, I am filled to the brim with sadness and fury and hopelessness.
  • I can write endlessly about what it’s like to live with pain, all forms of spiritual, existential, psychological, physical, collective, or intergenerational pain. And the wisdom that pain provides.
  • I can also join the graduate student-blogger bandwagon and write about my detachment from academia (here comes another industrial complex: the academic IC). I can write about my alienation as an economically precarious “millennial,” or write about intersectionality and identity through the lens of a crippled, queer cisgender working-class man of color.

For me, it feels like the possibilities are endless. I can write substantially about any and all of these things—not simply because they seem fascinating, but because they are integral to my everyday material experience. But unlike those who have the luxury of waging war in one or two battlefronts, I’m living in sheer and utter political cacophony, living with the threat of debt, hunger, and detonations of pain. I’m forced to deal with an amalgam of interrelated injustices, not simply an isolated cause or issue of the moment.

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Fact is, no one embodies single-issue politics; but for some, the layering of oppressions is too adamant, too imperious, to conveniently omit in any writing of personal experiences. For how have I become the sort of subject, the sort of human that I am today were it not for a constellation of experiences that is simply more than the sum of its parts? While disembodied scholarship coercively tempts us into partitioning our lives like specimens under a microscope, life teaches us how beautifully, sometimes agonizingly, complex and unpredictable the world must be.

Glancing back at this list, I am reminded of how overwhelming it all is. It is overwhelming to be alive today—and most of us ignore the telltale signs (sometimes out of necessity). Living through the tyrannies of a globalized capitalist order, sensing that the orderliness of modern civilization, urbanization, and economic development is actually more mythology than a worthwhile endeavor. Putting our bodies through cruel regimens of poorly cooked, chemical-ridden foods and substances while working until we literally drop. Or resorting to a jaw-dropping level of consumption of entertainment, drugs, and alcohol to deal with the pain of isolation. Or lest we forget the weight of ruptured, dismembered, or even annihilated communities and histories.

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Reflecting on the obstacles to produce through writing, I recognize how frighteningly obvious some of the “internal” ones are. With my eyes looking straight ahead to an impending life in grad school, I’m reminded of what Andrea Smith has written about with respect to the academic industrial complex:

“A phenomenon that results from academia’s myth of meritocracy is that scholars feel an undue burden to prove their brilliance. They can never take short cuts. They cannot publish anything unless it is perfect. Consequently, it takes many scholars an inordinate amount of time to finish their work because they suffer from excessive anxiety attacks as to whether or not their contributions are going to be sufficiently brilliant to warrant their publication.”

This resonates: I can be a perfectionist and hesitate to print or publish anything that doesn’t conform to a standard I’ve created for myself. I am also fearful of being “too public” with my thoughts, emotions, and experiences, and fear their resultant social repercussions. I fear being stigmatized, or analyzed, or romanticized and co-opted by well-meaning liberals. I also fear not articulating myself in a way that reflects how I truly think or feel—something that becomes particularly salient in my life with chronic fatigue. Even as I write this, I am constantly redacting my statements, cognizant of the critiques (feeling more surveilled than an object of the Panopticon state)….

Of course, the joint effect of these fears is to avoid writing altogether, with only an inkling that perhaps one day I can do so at a difficult convergence of free time, good health, good energy, and “feeling inspired.”

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So, to what extent are these barriers psychological/individual vs. systemic? And to what extent are these barriers that I have agency over? I don’t think I’ll ever develop a satisfying response to those questions, but I’m very much aware of how I’ve come full circle since my very first blog post on overcoming writing paralysis.

I still believe in the importance of writing, and speaking out against all forms of violence. I even see the importance of writing within political projects, even if those projects cannot be reduced solely to an ideological exercise.

But it’s fucking hard to put all the pieces together, to synthesize an amalgam of experiences that often feel too disjointed and irregular and incredibly messy. Sometimes it’s too much work to synthesize and create a story that fictionalizes a union of the world’s haphazard parts.

And while it’s generally hard for most people to find the time and space to write, the challenges are exponentially worse when you have to struggle with pain, fatigue, and brain fog.

Yet, none of that is to render invisible a more basic conundrum: There is too much shit going on in the world. There is too much shit going on in my life. There are too many fucking things to write about.

Yes, there is way too much shit. 

View of Chinatown from the Manhattan Bridge.  What life in the city feels like to me, all at once: ever-moving, exciting, imprisoning, chaotic, indecipherable.

View of Chinatown from the Manhattan Bridge.
What life in the city feels like to me, all at once: ever-moving, exciting, imprisoning, chaotic, indecipherable.

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How Chronic Pain Made Me a Misanthropist

In Chronic Pain, Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Identity Politics, Life with Chronic Illness on August 14, 2013 at 8:59 PM

living with chronic head pain

When living with chronic pain, it’s funny how you can find joy in the most mundane things. Like being able to go out for a walk. Or waking up not wanting to squeeze your pillow in god-forsaken agony. Lately, I’ve been feeling even well enough to socialize. That’s a big one in my world.

Except that even socializing is fraught with obstacles. And I don’t mean those of the actual living-with-bodily-pain kind. I’m referring to the sort of inertia that needs to be overcome when you’ve been as socially reclusive for as long as I have. Having never been a social butterfly or a happy-go-lucky type, being struck with something like chronic pain makes the task of socializing all the more cumbersome. Here’s a list of obstacles that I need to overcome in a social encounter, many of which are quite common regardless of your current health status, and some of which many of you will never deal with if you’re lucky:

  • Explaining, in spite of your bourgeois academic credentials, that you’ve been unemployed for four months and (even worse) haven’t so much as attempted a job search.
  • Explaining that, yes, you still live in your parent’s basement in an area you actually despise. And that, in fact, you don’t get along with your parents and actually hardly ever talk to them.
  • Explaining why, while technically living in a large metropolis, you hardly ever go out—even on weekends.
  • Explaining that your last job was a complete shit show and that you lasted as long as you did because of health issues.
  • Explaining to certain people why you’ve lost as much weight as you have. Or, to certain other people, why you’ve gained weight. And aggravatingly trying to remember who saw you when.
  • Explaining the trajectory of your condition(s) to people you haven’t seen in years, sometimes even months.
  • Explaining why your “condition” does not conform to any conventional understanding of illness. Whether or not they completely get it, you need to ensure they at least understand that it’s invisible, hard-to-treat, and incredibly unpredictable. (This is the world of chronic pain, folks.)
  • Explaining that you’ve been too hopeless or nihilistic at times to dabble in dreams about “the future.”

All of these interactions, of course, pertain to dealing with people I have met previously and actually like. This is not to even mention the various ways in which you have to tread inexcusably naïve or insensitive questions like, “Have you tried [treatment of choice]?” or “What’s your plan now [that you’re unemployed]?” Needless to say, the interactions with people you don’t like, don’t know, or both, are even worse. (And chances are, I’ve likely fantasized about the hundreds of ways in which to cause these hateful, hateful people the utmost displeasures.)

None of this is to abnegate the incredible privileges I’ve had (e.g. a roof over my health, economically supportive and unquestioning parents, and yes, my bourgie college degree). But living with chronic pain and chronic fatigue really sucks. Really FUCKING SUCKS. Most especially the chronic pain. It makes the simplest, otherwise innocuous moments, like walking the dog, doing laundry, or making a trip to see a friend, incredibly difficult if not impossible. And if you have politics like mine, you start to see how incredibly loaded even the most basic interactions are.

[A quick disclaimer: I’m definitely not apologetic for not making an effort to stay in touch with people. I have enough on my plate to deal with.  And, I ask myself: if they cared so much, why didn’t they make the effort to come see me? Perhaps they don’t think something as innocent-sounding as “chronic pain” merits the sort of attention that a truly serious condition does.  If you have this mentality, well, then, I say: fuck you.]

Outrage aside, there’s a sad part to this equation, which is the gradual (perhaps not-so-gradual) process of reclusion that whittles down your number of friends. To understand how this works, just think about the sort of nuisances someone with chronic pain likely has to deal with. The fact that pain is “invisible” means people will absentmindedly demand or expect certain things of you, such as an expense report, a “light” conversation, or an ability to stand inside a bus. This can true even if you have other conditions that are visible. And although pain is typically thought of as being externally manifest when one makes classical signs of grimacing and such, even these gestures tend to be ignored by people (and most heartbreakingly by loved ones).

People with chronic pain typically need to work, commute, and buy groceries just like everyone else. They may even be very socially active. And you probably see or even know plenty of folks with chronic pain, even if you don’t know of their pain.

For me, “un-friendization” happened faster than I could have anticipated. It was partly facilitated by the fact that I live in a far-flung area of an already disconnected New York City, and partly by the fact that I fell sick during a transitional time in my life when I was still making friends (I was 23 at the time). If the above list of obstacles resonates at all, it’s probably worth emphasizing that it is only specific to social, not physical, hurdles and is not inclusive of other issues that might make the already difficult process of “staying in touch” awkward or difficult (such as my queerness or ever-evolving leftist politics). It’s not even a comprehensive list within these parameters.

Having given up on a pursuit of connecting with “new” people (including potential dates), there are still challenges to just maintaining friendships. For sure, there are the obvious physical limitations: when you have an intractable, unpredictable hammer-like pounding pain inside your head, you’re grateful if you can even leave your bed to take a piss. But even on those hard-to-predict good days, I’m likely not wanting to mess it up by having an intensely awkward and blood-boiling conversation with a “well-intentioned” friend who either 1) doesn’t know or 2) doesn’t get it.

All things considered, the whole friendship* thing seems hardly compatible with chronic pain. No doubt about it: it’s simply lonely as fuck. And unfortunately, this is a rather common predicament for people who have difficult-to-treat chronic pain. It doesn’t surprise me at all when I read that depression and suicidality are substantially higher for us pain-afflicted folks. (And as far as long-term outcomes are concerned, it definitely doesn’t help that our “advanced” western medicine hasn’t found a reliable treatment for it.)

And before you think of some suggestion of “seeking out a community that understands,” maybe you should do yourself a favor and actually read up on chronic pain first. It wouldn’t be crippling, chronic pain if you could easily get up and walk/drive/commute to places where such supposedly understanding people exist. It wouldn’t be crippling, chronic pain if it didn’t leave you feeling powerless and voiceless at least some of the time.

So, yeah, I’ll continue to “reconnect” with people. But it’s with a certain level of acceptance that most of them will never get it.

chronic-pain-graphic

*To be clear, although chronic pain might make it hard to socialize, it’s definitely not impossible (given that the pain is within tolerable limits). Also, chronic pain can also facilitate stronger ties to people you rely on and trust—even if it means losing those superfluous “friends” you only hung out with at the bar. This said, however, it could still end up making you hate everyone outside this inner circle of trust.

Surviving Chronic Pain In the Age of Global Apocalypse

In Chronic Pain, Creative Writing, Geography/ Spatial Justice, Multiple Sclerosis, Philosophical Musings, The Revolution on June 24, 2013 at 1:26 AM

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As you read this, our world is under siege. Unmanned drones kill Third World civilians, industrial pollutants threaten cataclysmic super-storms, government-corporate coalitions displace the indigenous and disenfranchised from their homes. And powerful war-profiteering corporations join forces with the hegemonic surveillance state, creating a totalitarian regime that dominates through greed, terror, and ever-present instability.

If only we had opened our eyes wide enough, listened closely to the sounds of our whimpering Earth, we may have noticed the undeniable: Our world is poisoned. And by poison, I don’t just mean the stab wounds of our ozone layer or the rape of our terrestrial biodiversity. Our terrifying poison is an all-consuming, all-pervasive drug that has intoxicated even our most innocuous fantasies. It has the power to rend entire villages and centuries of tradition. And its seductive, ambrosial qualities infect the highest reaches of corporate-state bureaucracies, building a thirst for power that co-opts, distorts, and desecrates entire histories and labors of love. The imperial capitalism of which I speak, harkening back to the euphemistically dubbed ‘Age of Exploration’ and extending to the present-day global neoliberal order, has never been so mercurial, so efficacious, so omnipotent.

To succumb to hopeless resignation, however, is to feed ourselves into the fangs of the Establishment elite. For those of us who wage battle on the street, in the office, in the home—we are survivors of this centuries-old war, first waged against our ancestors to now become our most unwanted inheritance. And contrary to the actions and beliefs of many left-wing ideologues, this is not merely a war of ideas and abstractions. It is also a war against our livelihood, our spirits, even our bodies.

As we wage battles along multiple fronts (e.g. injustices in the realm of recognition politics, military violence and occupation, poverty and health care inequities, to name a few), a new form of bodily sickness has emerged and proliferated. These are the chronic diseases that are product of our industrialized age, an “externality” in the endless tampering and manufacture of synthetic compounds and the steady onslaught of contamination of air, soil, water, and lungs. As the drive for profit and power slowly destroy us all, chronic diseases are but the most prolonged, penultimate manifestations of this impending dissolution of our species. Chronic diseases are mockingly defiant of conventional medical interventions, are largely incurable and difficult to treat. They challenge our binaristic healthy-sick conceptions of embodiment and produce immeasurable suffering and morbidity. The naturalization of high prevalences for chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, and a whole host of autoimmune conditions, can reasonably be attributed to a deliberate neglect by the corporatist state. Such diseases, after all, are the leading cause of mortality in the world, disproportionately afflict the poor and communities of color, and contribute to untold numbers of death, even in the global North. (In Amerikka, chronic illnesses reportedly cause about 70% of its deaths)

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Chronic pain: a source of corporeal suffering, or a motive for spiritual enlightenment?

Salient among them are the syndromes of chronic pain. Accustomed to the day-to-day scrapes and bruises ubiquitous within the landscape of mortality, pain is often misconceived as being an exclusively acute, short-term experience that can be treated or resolved, organically through the self-healing body or through an artificial intrusion of medical technologies. But there is another reality to pain that has been with us throughout the history of our species, captured in our various literatures and languages and most ominous nightmares. It is the reality of chronic pain—a pain that is, by its very nature, so deeply personal that it eludes the empirical technologies of established modern biomedical institutions. As more and more people around the world can attest to, pain can most definitely be a persistent, long-lasting experience that can cripple you psychically, emotionally, spiritually. Chronic pain can rupture lives and long-lasting relationships. Chronic pain can challenge deep-seated notions of self and prompt a spiritual, existential quest for meaning. Chronic pain can render you helpless and hopeless. Chronic pain can render you formidable and wise.

As far as its underlying pathophysiology is concerned, chronic pain is, for all intents and purposes, an insurmountable enigma. Having perused medical and neuroscience textbooks, overly self-assured self-help books, and numerous philosophical and spiritual texts, I have realized that no amount of knowledge of the neuromechanics of pain will truly afford us access to the deeper phenomenology of this overpowering, individualized and individualizing experience. The very meanings of family and community are altered as a bodily self-alienation takes hold. In isolation and virtual silence, you must take up arms in an epic, life-long battle that pits “you” against the pain-ridden body. And the disruptions are as evident as the heat of the sun. Chronic pain syndromes profoundly limit your engagement in social life, posing yet another obstacle in your struggle for liberation. Such a sinister impediment can even preclude your participation in the resistance movements against hegemonic regimes and the macro-violence(s) of the state, multinational corporations, bio-medical industrial complexes, and the various interlocking systems of oppression—all of which, in their totality, were the likely manufacturers of your disease to begin with.

Surviving chronic pain today is, in the midst of global apocalypse1, a profoundly psychological and corporeal odyssey. If anything truly dismantles the viability of Cartesian mind-body duality in the legacies of the “West,” it is most certainly the phenomenon of pain. A truly distinctive, subjective experience, pain defies compartmentalization. When it comes to pain, there is no one structure that the Foucauldian “medical gaze” can isolate, analyze, classify, and pathologize. (At least, not with our current devices.) Yet for those who are revolution-prone, the aggravating dialectic between the personal and political becomes disproportionately magnified before the tortures of pain. Between one’s phenomenological experience of pain on the one hand, and the disturbances to freedom and harmony induced by myopic capitalist self-interests on the other, personal resources and the will to live take preeminence and are often exhausted without a source of replenishment. An ideological debate around the importance of entrepreneurialism or the relevance of historical materialism simply disintegrate in the face of this most real, most compromising, of embodied experiences.

There is something almost mystical about pain, something that surrenders no secrets in its apparent simplicity. Wherever it emerges, pain is pain, simple and true. It is a distinctively organic experience that many of us believe precedes the evolution of our species. It is linked to the vastly intricate webbings of a poorly-understood nervous system. And in its ever-primordial phenomenology, it even transcends the constructed histories of imperial civilizations and the blood-stained conquests of the oppressor. That pain has been a salient motif in the literatures of disparate civilizations, across different epochs and generations, makes it seem—if anything accomplishes this in the postmodern zeitgeist—universal to the human experience. This is made all the more remarkable given that, among those it tortures, pain bears an indescribably individualized, unshareable and unknowable quality that strangely complements its power to unite and annihilate at once. Even in the absence of conscious access to the phenomenology of another’s pain, we’ve still managed to produce an intersubjective consensus on its existence.

To live with chronic pain is to be a survivor among war-weary heroes. Although I vehemently disagree with Nietzsche’s oft-quoted assertion, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” I nevertheless agree with the notion of honoring the integrity of our freedom fighters. And in our Age of Apocalypse, chronic pain may just be the vehicle of “disclosure” our world needs in the fight for the liberation—a fight that is encapsulated, in more spiritual terms, by the concept of moksha (“liberation” in Sanskrit, as in the liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth). In my more optimistic moods, I hold out hope that the chronic pain that currently holds me back from the battle lines of revolutionary resistance will, in the end, provide me with a moral and spiritual guidance that brings me to that coveted goal of freedom. After all, isn’t liberation from mortal suffering a mutual goal of radicals and spiritualists alike?2 And can pain, in its alpha-and-omega Vishnu form, with roots in both the body and mind, dissolve this oppressively deceptive and imprisoning binary? What better way to transcend the superficialities of our constructed socialities than to “accept” (put link to other post) the unavoidable, not-easily-distractible realities of pain and concomitant suffering?

So while our world seems to be going to shit, with all aspects of life being infected and polluted by the products of our hubris, it makes a lot of damn sense that many of us would fall victims to the world’s growing pains. Quite literally. And this is not, of course, to imply that the material suffering of people the world over is an inevitable, cosmic tragedy of which we’re simply pawns. However often it leads us astray, our agency is a core component of our humanity—the very humanity we have to embrace if we are to reclaim our freedom.  We created this mess. And now Apocalypse rains heaviest on the most oppressed, the most marginalized, and the least responsible.

Those of us with chronic pain must somehow survive amid the chaos and destruction that is fundamentally unjust. And while we’re forced into surviving against difficult odds, why not embrace a Hope that is, in Freirean terms, our “ontological necessity”? After all, if we’re to survive, we need to embrace an optimism about a life under siege. What better way to do this than to hope that, one day, our knowledge as the oppressed will become the beacon to a new, freer, and more humane society? Our knowledge will unveil the hollow promises that poorly disguise the glorified ethos of the self-interested consumer. Our knowledge will unveil the enormity of the violence wielded at the hands of imperial, expansionist capital in the service of a tiny, global elite. Our knowledge will unveil what is truly behind those hegemonic fantasies of the fetishized Commodity: the blood-stained walls of our prison cells. And it is our embodied knowledge that will break those walls.

So, yes, we have a lot of pain in this world. But if, or when, we must recollect the pieces of a humbled humanity, it is us, the survivors, who will need to educate ourselves about a better way.

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Such an apocalypse need not necessarily denote “the end of the world,” as is often implied in casual conversations. Etymologically speaking, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek apokályptein, to “uncover.” As such, “apocalypse” can be re-interpreted as signifying a “revelation,” “disclosure,” or “uncovering” that develops at a critical juncture in human history—such as the climate catastrophe currently unfolding from the persistent onslaught of industrial pollutants and human-made distortions of the natural environment.

This is quite arguable, but nevertheless a parallel I felt necessary to make. I suppose some could disagree and say that, rather than running away from suffering, we should be embracing what is possibly a necessary, perhaps noble, experience. Even so, if you accept this sort of spiritual reasoning, the ultimate telos of the suffering experience itself is freedom and bliss in the after-world.

Additional worthwhile articles exploring the linkages between chronic pain and capitalism:

Living with Chronic Pain ‘In the Kingdom Of The Sick 

Sick of capitalism: the chronically ill body as a site of resistance

Capitalism Makes Me Sick

And just for general clarification from the mainstream medical community: WebMD’s Info on Chronic Pain

An Activist’s Struggle with “Acceptance”

In Chronic Pain, Health Justice, Philosophical Musings, The Revolution on January 29, 2013 at 12:39 AM

In Buddhist lore, there is a story about a woman named Kisagotami who suffered from the death of her only child. In her grief and desperation, she went to the Buddha hoping that he would know a way to bring her child back to life. As the story goes, the Buddha told her to bring him a handful of mustard seed—and that such seed needed to come from a household where no one had ever died. The woman agreed to this task and immediately went about going from house to house in search of the mustard seed. However, after visiting one household after the other, she realized that there wasn’t a single one where death had not visited. Acknowledging this sad fact, she returned to the Buddha who in turn told her, with great compassion, that she was not alone in her grief. Death—the ultimate sign of life’s impermanence—was a natural part of human existence.

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Kisagotami coming to the Buddha with the desire to resurrect her child.

This now-mythic story appears at the beginning of a chapter on suffering in a book entitled The Art of Happiness (1998), co-written by the Dalai Lama and psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler. In the book, Cutler interviews the Dalai Lama to examine the Buddhist prescription for finding happiness in a life badgered by constant stress and suffering. Regarding the story summarized above, they write: “Kisagotami’s search taught her that no one lives free from suffering and loss. She hadn’t been singled out for this terrible misfortune. This insight didn’t eliminate the inevitable suffering that comes from loss, but it did reduce the suffering that came from struggling against this sad fact of life… Although pain and suffering are universal human phenomena, that doesn’t mean we have an easy time accepting them.” [emphasis mine]

As I’ve noted in previous posts, I began looking into Buddhism seeking answers: a way to deal with inscrutable health issues that created an impassable chasm between my current sickly living and the life I had become accustomed to. For sure, my life before was filled with struggle—but it was one where I found fulfillment and hope in the very process of struggling. Being in the thick of a fight gave my life meaning—even when I knew I was up against impossible odds.

Today, my chronic pain prevents me from moving forward the way I once secretly envisioned. Whether I acknowledged it to myself or not, I hoped that at this point in my life I’d be more engaged in explicit activist efforts, working side-by-side with my communities, developing old friendships while making new ones. And while some of that has occurred, my invisible pain has kept me bed-ridden more times than I can count. My entire worldview has been altered by a web of health conditions that makes simple survival—getting by day to day—a struggle. To avoid slipping into a seemingly inevitable abyss of loneliness, I sought a philosophy that dealt directly with the issues that now mattered to me most: coping with pain and illness, finding a sustainable way of living in peace without compromising my revolutionary integrity. The dharma seemed to bear that promise, and I’ve been adamantly trying to learn as much about Buddha’s philosophy ever since.

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Front cover to the 1998 bestseller co-authored by the Dalai Lama

All of this said, I quickly found myself dealing with an internal turmoil. An earnest desire to learn more about the dharma resulted in many questions on my part, and I sensed a common motif between many of the issues I was confronting. Namely, I sensed a friction between struggle and acceptance, two paths of action in a world filled with decision-making junctures. The story of Kisagotami highlights the role that both struggle and acceptance play in Buddhism and in our daily lives. Are there struggles—like the internal struggle Kisagotami had against the death of her child—that should be tempered with acceptance? Is acceptance always the way to finding peace and happiness in this world? The more I examined the questions of when to struggle, when to accept, the more I realized that this was an incredibly nuanced discussion that merits explicit attention.

Below I will attempt to explain the emotional/philosophical quandary in question, first by examining how I came to the quandary in the first place. As the discussion is highly detailed, I fragmented this written exploration into parts meant for easier access and readability. It is part autobiographical, part historical, part philosophical, and part social and political commentary. I encourage readers to read or skim through sections as they see fit.

My Path: From Revolution to Dharma

I hesitate to use the word “revolutionary” to describe myself, largely because of the ways in which that label has become colored with meanings that seem to obfuscate more than clarify, but I would most definitely say that I see a need for “revolution.” Having grown up in a working-class immigrant family in the heart of Empire, seeing daily the costs of our run-amok capitalist world on the very livelihood of my family—and my own personal suffering—it’s hard for me not to desire change. Not some pennies-and-nickels reformism, but a veritable radical revolution that will bring an end to elite favoritism and greed, and lessen the unjustifiable suffering of the world’s oppressed. So before I became severely ill, I had already suffered and struggled through depression, suicidality, and constant efforts to prove myself in academic environments where who you knew was more important what you knew.

But things changed as I became involved in political struggles, building an activist’s optimism that infused my life with meaning. Although I battled depression and fatigue while I worked long hours, it all seemed worth it. As Victor Frankl notes in Man’s Search for Meaning, individuals who suffer with purpose are more likely to survive through the most hellish circumstances. And having spent years working around immigrants’ rights, housing, and labor rights, and building a career in political education, I felt fulfilled in being able to fight the good fight. Things were never easy. Everything seemed to be a struggle. But I was at least healthy enough to put up a fight.

Things radically changed in a short period of time as a tornado wrecked havoc on my body, leaving irremediable changes in its wake. My brother’s paradoxically long-but-young life of suffering was over, but a new set of struggles had only just started for me. As if the Universe had left me with the pieces of his unresolved struggle. Like my brother, I started a downward path of debilitating symptoms, a lessening in quality of life, a withdrawal from the communities that gave me a sense of personhood and hope. Chronic pain had set in, and as months rolled by and as one medical treatment after the other failed me, my future started to seem bleaker and bleaker.

“What kind of a life had I in store for me now?,” I thought. One where I was in constant pain, unable to pursue the dreams that once brightened the landscape of an already-arduous life?

I couldn’t find solutions for my intensely personal struggle in the activism or revolutionary politics that became embedded in my identity. At best, perhaps a theory for understanding how my autoimmune condition arose, an understanding of the larger picture of transgenerational suffering and marginalization that led to where I am now. But reading Marx or Alinsky or any other revolutionary writer provided no prescription for what to do with my body, mind, and spirit. (And, of course, the literature from mainstream biomedical industrial complex only offered weak suggestions.)

I felt like a soldier down, too wounded to fight side-by-side other activists, taken away from the battlefield when that was the very experience that gave me energy. I became a homebody for once in my life as my pain made spending time outside too uncomfortable. And much like anyone else first learning to cope with chronic pain, I wanted to treat it and get it over with. I wanted to think that it was like a terrible flu or a broken bone, something that could heal with the proper assortment of pills, diet, and exercise. And given that this was pain, I wanted to put the healing process on turbo-drive so I could go quickly resume life as normal.

Time made me realize that this was nothing like a flu or a broken bone. Whenever I felt any relief I was quickly slammed against the cold concrete of interminable pain. I came to truly recognize my former able-bodied privilege—and to this day, I feel stuck in a perpetual straddling of an amorphous line between healthy and unhealthy. Most disturbing of all was my realization that I wasn’t going to be soothed by the answers of our dominant, seemingly effective system of medical institutions (what many recognize as the primacy of allopathic medicine). Since I was already critical of the medical industrial complex, and since I had already opened my heart to yoga and meditation, I chose to trust my gut and move from there.

In my research I learned about very different paradigms of health and healing. I learned that unlike the positivist approach that underlies the allopathic medical establishment (feigning absolute “objectivity” in its efforts to maintain power over human minds and bodies), other forms of medicine—such as homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, or Ayurvedic medicine—were very overtly affiliated with philosophies that examined the entirety of human experience and the interconnectivities of the Universe. Unlike the current Western medical establishment, embedded as it is within a capitalist-postmodernist zeitgeist, the other forms of medicine I investigated treated the body holistically, as being connected with something vaster and more Supreme. Rather than treating the body like a machine with various interchangeable parts, these other medicines saw the interconnections between mind and spirit (way before the emergence of ‘psychoneuroimmunology’). They saw how stress could impact the body, and how practices like meditation and yoga could remedy these impacts—all without the need for potent, potentially harmful pharmaceuticals.

Reading about the medicinal practices of yoga and meditation that originated in India, I was slowly drawn into studying Buddhism. I was intrigued by the dharma’s focus on impermanence and its willingness to examine dukkha (translated as suffering or stress). I found a way of thought that directly addressed illness and suffering and gave a prescription for how to cope with these. It gave me a sense of optimism much in the same way that activism did for me before. Although I had done yoga and meditation before, I started to take these very seriously now that I understood, more intimately, how stress can deteriorate one’s health. For certain, I started these practices for quite selfish reasons: improving my health. But over time I was drawn to the worldviews that these practices emanated from, and so I kept reading and researching vigorously.

Unsurprisingly, what are likely naïve questions on my part began to surface. Having come to see struggle as a part of our existence, a part of our survival, even a part of our happiness, I started to have issues with the way “acceptance” was discussed among certain Buddhist writers. Wasn’t acceptance, after all, a form of complacency? How does acceptance of suffering lead to peace and happiness, for is it not the struggle against suffering that enables us to overcome it? Furthermore, the mantra-like focus on changing one’s “perspective,” “looking inward,” and “taming the mind” all seemed to explicate larger socio-political problems onto highly individualized cognitive appraisals (this is a point I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with, but lack of space prevents me from engaging this point any further). I was baffled and intrigued by this seemingly large conundrum.

I once asked for advice from an energy healer (an obvious act of desperation if one ever existed). His suggestion was that I shouldn’t seek to change the world. “There’s nothing wrong with the world,” he said. The world is full of beauty and goodness, and there’s no need to change it. His very suggestion implied passive acceptance.

All of this seemed to go counter to my education as an activist. I never questioned whether there was suffering in the world, and I never questioned the importance of struggle. Collective struggles are what enabled us to achieve certain victories that many of us (really, the most fortunate among us) take for granted today: an eight-hour workday, weekends, the ability to work without fear of injury or the ability to go to a hospital if we do get injured. Of course, many of these victories are being curtailed as we speak, but fighting seemed to be the key to seeking the world of peace and happiness we wanted. In my mind, sitting back and devoting our energies to accepting our suffering—interpreted in the wrong way—could lead to the sort of interpretation given by the healer who offered me “advice.” Coming from a place of affluence and privilege, it was easy enough for him to suggest an individualistic path of focusing on one’s own mind, on acceptance. But that struck me as completely unacceptable.

And I started to encounter a similar sort of advice being propounded by more self-identified Buddhists in essays and films. It was as if collective struggle was worthless, or at least, not the right way to solving the world’s problems; rather, it was turning to our minds, learning acceptance, that was crucial. My confusion was augmented when I read about Buddhist activists who held views that were admittedly more palatable but nevertheless question-raising. Briefly put, I encountered what seemed to be a dialectical friction between struggle and acceptance.

What’s in a struggle?

Having become accustomed to a paradigm of ‘struggle’—both in my personal life, and in my way of understanding social conflict and power dynamics—I recently started thinking more deeply about its relation to suffering and how it was playing out in my disease-ridden life. Upon questioning myself on the matter, I immediately realized, in spite of their oft-accepted conflation, that struggle is not suffering. At the very least, they’re not equivalent in the way we typically understand these terms in the English language. One can struggle for higher wages, respect, security, love—and these struggles, while they may involve some level of suffering, can be exercises that confer fulfillment and purpose to our lives. As an action, struggle can involve contending with a difficult situation or challenge; suffering, on the other hand, is an experience that can result from loss, failure, or mental unrest.

I also realized that although the concept of struggle was constantly on my mind, the very term finds form in different meanings. We have collective struggle and personal struggle. We struggle against issues within ourselves (against illness, confusion, fear or general unhappiness) as well as without (against an abusive boss, a hot-headed partner, environmental injustice and war). Struggle can be conscious and voluntary (as when we choose to fight back against the police) or unconscious and involuntary (as when we struggle to remain alive after being beaten). A ‘struggle’ can be a small tussle in a boxing ring or a large-scale power play between forces of corporate domination and the preservation of people’s livelihoods. Additionally, what I realized for myself was that being able to struggle with community meant something far different than this more personalized subjugation of struggling with chronic pain and health issues. And it is this difference between collective and personal that I want to give a closer look.

Undoubtedly, written history is rife with examples of collective struggle, almost invariably a struggle between those with less power and those with more. Whether we examine the examples of historical interplays between plebeians and tyrants, slaves and masters, it is clear that people have long forged common bonds and fought against mutual enemies. Although history is always written by the powerful and winners of wars, lurking beneath is the undeniable truth of people’s revolts, battles, and struggles against the oppression of emperors, monarchs, and entrenched elites. Occluded from mainstream history texts are the individual plights and perspectives of those of an oppressed class, whether they be the plebeians of Rome, the untouchable castes of India, Japan, or Tibet, or the peasants and slaves of the Mesoamerica. In spite of what we’re taught in schools, the brutal examples of global imperial colonization and domination that resulted in an immeasurable loss of life and culture among indigenous Americans, Africans, Asians, and non-continental nations did not occur without protracted wars, rebellions, and individual mutinies. Certainly, the very many people’s revolts have left indelible markers on the historical landscape, but were quickly suppressed and forgotten via the willful dictates of the powerful in particular times and spaces.

Of course, one need not look deep into the historical canon to see examples of collective struggles of what we commonly call the ‘common folk’ or ‘the people.’ The American and French Revolutions would have been impossible without the vital support of the supposed commoner (although, as critical historians have seen in both cases, the more powerful of the ‘oppressed’ quickly gained the helm while the individual plights and perspectives from the lower classes rarely made it into the history books). The protracted labor struggles that came in the advent of industrialization in Britain and the United States gave rise to new reconfigurations and models of organizing that we continue to utilize today. And although many today look to the revolutionary movements of the late 60’s and early ‘70s to find examples of collective struggle (from antiwar demonstrations to women’s rights to black, indigenous, Asian and Latina/o struggles for liberation), the socially-aware observer will find all sorts of examples of collective struggle in our “postmodern” informational age in the form of multiscalar progressive organizational coalitions and networks (e.g. Right to the City Alliance, Take Back the Land,  the various independent struggles lumped under the ‘Arab Spring,’ Occupy Wall Street and its offsprings, Yo Soy 132, and Idle No More).

The examples of collective struggles are endless and I can do no justice here trying to engage them all. But as a non-religious person trying to critically engage with Buddhist thought, I couldn’t help but wonder what Buddhist scholars thought of collective struggles, particularly people’s resistance struggles, much of which was necessarily violent. If, as I hinted earlier, acceptance meant compliance with an unjust brutal world that was shaped (and could be changed) by humans, then this was an acceptance I wanted nothing to do with. It reeked too horribly of thoughtless compliance and bourgeois ideology. But when I thought of historical examples of Buddhists fighting in the trenches against ostensible injustices, I began to really question whether Buddhism (a religion or spiritual system of thought that has as many varied interpretations as any other religious/spiritual system) had a single, homogeneous understanding of acceptance—and, for that matter, struggle and suffering.

Buddhists in Collective Struggle

In thinking about Buddhists in collective struggle, the first example that came to mind was the famous role of Buddhists in the Southeast Asian War (aka Vietnam War). I thought back to the memorable account of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in a public square in Saigon (June 1963) to protest the U.S.-backed Diem regime. This, of course, was all I was taught in my high school U.S. history course. Researching the topic further, I found information that resonated with my knowledge of history and politics in the Americas—information that is deliberately ignored, obfuscated, or suppressed in the most accessible outlets of public media. Although I make no claims of being a historian (let alone an “objective” one, which does not exist), I will try to briefly narrate what are verifiable accounts:

Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street June 11, 1963 to protest alleged persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. (AP Photo/Malcolm Browne)

Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street on June 11, 1963 to protest persecution of Buddhists by the U.S. puppet government of Ngo Dinh Diem. (AP Photo/Malcolm Browne)

The history of Euro-American imperialism in Southeast Asia dates back to the so-called Age of Exploration, becoming most clearly manifest in the military conquests of France in a period between 1859 and 1885. As with other examples of imperial-colonial domination, the people of what was then called Indochina fought endlessly for self-government and basic civil liberties. After generations of struggle against French rule, another imperial power (Japan) came into the fold following the defeat of France to Germany during World War II.

It was under oppressive Japanese occupation that a communist-nationalist liberation movement, the Vietminh, came into power with a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, as its leader. As Howard Zinn (1980) writes in his renowned chapter on the Vietnam (Southeast Asian) War, the Viet Minh successfully defeated the Japanese and its puppet government in 1945, celebrating their victory by issuing a Declaration of Independence  that modeled the U.S.’s. This proved to be a short-lived victory, however, as French forces (now liberated from the Third Reich) began bombarding communist-led Vietnam in 1946. This was the beginning of the First Indochina War that lasted until 1954.

The Geneva Conference of that last year dissolved French Indochina and partitioned the region into four independent countries: Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam (under the Viet Minh government), and South Vietnam (under Emperor Bảo Đại). It wasn’t long before this partition of nations led to conflict, primarily in a Cold War geopolitical environment that drove the McCarthyist U.S. into “defending” its Southern sphere of influence. After a U.S.-backed coup d’etat by then-Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, a staunch anti-communist who blocked efforts for democratic elections, the socio-political atmosphere of South Vietnam quickly became heated. In a nation that consisted mostly of poor rural laborers who were Buddhist, rule under a Catholic U.S.-puppet president (who had recently moved back from living in New Jersey) was completely insufferable. By siding with large landowners, much-needed land reform for most of the population was never implemented. He imprisoned and killed communist-supporters and critics of his corrupt regime while replacing locally elected leaders with his own men. In 1960, a National Liberation Front was formed in South Vietnam that united various strands of Diem’s opposition, including (most importantly) disgruntled peasants.

By 1963, Buddhist discontent circulated after Diem (who for years implemented policies favoring Catholics) placed a ban on flying the Buddhist flag. In droves, Buddhists had protested the ban by publicly flying their flags and facing government gunfire (and in many instances, death). A turning-point was reached when Mahayana Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, with the support of several other monks and nuns, performed a self-immolation that was publicized around the world. Many Buddhists thereafter followed his example, following his last words in a letter written immediately before his death:

“I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”1

In the ensuing years, a number of other monks set themselves on fire in a flagrant dramatization of what was truly a people’s oppositional movement. Given the vast abundance of literature about the Southeast Asian War, there is no need to recapitulate the obvious facts. However, it is noteworthy that a largely rural peasant counteroffensive in South Vietnam with a substantially weaker military arsenal defeated a Goliath superpower. This is perhaps one of the greatest testaments in recent history to the power of collective struggle against inhumane injustices.

Another prominent example of Buddhists engaged in collective struggle is showcased in the fight for Tibetan independence. Much like with Southeast Asian Buddhists, the struggle among Tibetan Buddhists involves a long history of fighting against imperial powers. For centuries, Tibet’s autonomy was challenged by nearby Chinese and Mongolian empires as well as by a brief effort by British forces (in 1904). The year following Mao Zedong’s takeover of China in 1949, the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet and immediately began to assert influence on the Tibetan government, headquartered in the capital city of Lhasa. In 1951, under significant duress and following defeat at the Battle of Chamdo, representatives of the young Dalai Lama signed onto a seventeen point agreement with Mao’s regime. The agreement affirmed Chinese sovereignty while claiming to provide for some degree of Tibetan autonomy.

In the years following, however, considerable unrest brewed under oppressive Chinese military rule, most especially in the eastern Tibetan section of Kham. There, the native Khampas faced starvation, beatings, and imprisonment as many of them (numbering in the tens of thousands by the late 1950s) chose to join the resistance. Kham leaders, without the explicit approval of the Lhasa government, contacted the CIA under President Eisenhower to request support—which it did, by training and arming Tibetan guerrillas. Needless to say, this strategic U.S. support was given as part of a larger effort to subvert the imperial foe of Communist China.

As the Tibetan resistance movement spread, many Tibetans in Lhasa started to agree with their local Tibetans in Kham. On March 10, 1959, after years of Chinese military intervention and a fear that the Chinese would abduct their Dalai Lama, several thousand Tibetans gathered around the Dalai Lama’s summer palace 2. This launched an uprising (celebrated annually by Tibetans) that was eventually crushed and led to the exile of The Dalai Lama and other Tibetans to Dharamsala, India. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans who stayed in Tibet were executed in the guerrilla warfare that ensued (again, with the intrusion of the CIA). Along with the extreme and brutal loss of life came a replication of an oft-seen pattern that has persevered since the early 16th century: colonization in the form of territorial occupation and cultural co-optation, marked here by the destruction of thousands of Tibetan monasteries and cultural institutional as well as the coerced influx of Chinese from the interior.

Tibetan-uprising-17-March-001

Tibetans gather around the Potala Palace in Lhasa on March 17, 1959.

A recently produced documentary, The Sun Behind the Clouds (2010), examines in-depth the contemporary issues facing Tibetans, torn between clashing interpersonal views and divergent spheres of imperial influence (those of China and the United States). Although the detailed politics of Tibetan independence are beyond the scope of this review, what’s clear is that there exists an ongoing collective resistance among Tibetan Buddhists against Chinese imperial rule. I find that my attempt to understand the dialectic between acceptance and struggle within a Buddhist paradigm is illuminated by the conflicts exposed in this film. Whereas the Dalai Lama demonstrates a willingness to negotiate with (and even forgive) the Chinese government, those supporting the Tibetan independence movement, including many Tibetans and non-Tibetans, within Tibet and beyond, seem willing to engage in further collective struggle. This schism that places many Buddhists at odds with a Nobel Peace Prize-winning spiritual leader makes it clear that choosing between when to fight back and struggle, and when to forgive and accept, is a highly contentious terrain.

The Meanings of Personal Struggle

As with individual Tibetan Buddhists who must choose between resisting, accepting, or finding a middle ground, all humans are challenged to make decisions about when to fight and when to stand back or run away. Although there can be no collective struggle without personal struggle, I’ve come to understand the importance of acknowledging the latter as something in itself, as something quite different. Of course, there is much that intertwines collective and personal struggles: as two examples, personal issues can be shared by others in the community, helping build cohesion; and community struggles, which often work to create mass consciousness, may challenge individuals to take sides. However, I may also deal with personal struggles that others may not share. This is something that requires much nuance to explain, but briefly put, even if I suffer from conditions (chronic pain and multiple sclerosis) others do share, the uniqueness of my symptoms, medical history, etc. makes this an incredibly personal struggle. (You can even choose to see this as another dialectic, between the personal and the collective)

Of course, this notion of personal vs. collective is nothing new. There is a widely-held belief that through our inherent humanity we are also all unique individuals with unique needs, unique relationships, and unique histories. Canonical history itself shows us that, even when we forge common bonds and build collective struggles, there are almost always cracks in any surface of homogeneity. One need only consider examples of well-known historical struggles (e.g. women of color in the feminist movement, blacks in the early U.S. labor movement, trans-people and other marginalized queers in the gay and lesbian movement) to see that movements are often fragmented by sub-group differences. At the more micro level, divisions are also fostered by personal differences, even within well-organized political groups (e.g. the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Wobblies, Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers).

Figuring out how to navigate a social landscape of strategic political coalitions and nuanced viewpoints is never easy, as any one actively engaged in community struggles can attest to. Identity politics, philosophical views, spiritual beliefs, and economic well-being all collide in our conflict-ridden world. This is not to say that unity and solidarity are impossible—just that they are contingent upon a recognition of each other’s intrinsic humanity and individual differences. Even when we are seemingly well-situated in a group, collective, or movement, each one of us must contend with problems that are intensely singular, sometimes threatening to any belief in shared humanity or “one-ness.” In my case, the very real threat of loneliness emerges from intensely personal medical/socioeconomic/spiritual struggles around which it’s hard to foment movement or solidarity. In my brother’s case, I saw how a rare ailment and a set of conditions very few could relate to brought upon despair and social withdrawal.

It is all this, of course, that led me to seek answers beyond a conventional Leftist political paradigm. I’ve started to wonder what happens when we no longer have the energy to fight. What do we do when we’ve exhausted all our possibilities of struggle? What do we do when (physical) struggle is no longer viable? What if compromise, submission, or downright resignation are the most rational choices?

Moments of Acceptance

I have no doubt in my mind that I am conflating many issues from multiple scales of experience. But my own experiences lent themselves to a very complex understanding of what struggle and acceptance mean, and it is the latter that I turn to next.

Not surprisingly, like the term ‘struggle,’ ‘acceptance’ has variegated meanings that shift from one moment to the other, one space to the next. Unlike ‘struggle,’ which has been a forceful word in my vocabulary for years, ‘acceptance’ echoed strangely within the pre-articulated limbo of my mind. When I conjured up examples of how the word could be used (“to accept one’s fate,” “to accept payment,” “to accept one’s apology”), I realized that my understanding of the word “accepting,” as used in the Dalai Lama’s Art of Happiness, could be entirely muddled or even misguided. I thus decided to look up its definition on dictionary.com:

Needless to say, the alternate definitions of acceptance left me confused. In the context of Buddhism, I was left with many possible interpretations: When writers talk about acceptance of suffering, do they mean that we must receive suffering with approval, like a gift from the heavens to help us reach enlightenment? Do they mean that we must take it like foul-tasting medicine, awful to bear but good for the soul? Or does it simply mean that we must believe that suffering is a fact whose undeniable veracity we must assent to? All of these may be possibilities, and for all I know, maybe all true. Certainly, the evident semantic issue is not helped by the fact that these writers are translating ideas from Japanese, Chinese, Sanskrit, and Pali texts which were in turn written by scholars who did not write in the Buddha’s (unknown) native tongue.

Yet, even in contending with the confusion, I came to certain realizations about what acceptance does not mean. Acceptance does not mean complacency, subservience, or willful ignorance. Acceptance does not mean admitting defeat. Acceptance does not mean falling into despair. Acceptance does not mean giving up.

I realized these things when noting that resignation, complacency, and defeat are nowhere in any of the writings or videos with Buddhists discussing ‘acceptance.’ And the word ‘struggle’ (which has the less-ambiguous meanings of “to contend with an adversary or opposing force” or “to exert strength, energy, and force”) bears no apparent conflict with the meaning of acceptance. Wanting to resolve the issue, I decided there is no contradiction between struggling and accepting, and that, in fact, the two often work in tandem. For instance, when accepting the fact that you’re up against an incredible enemy (whether that be your mother, your boss, your partner’s ex, your government, or advanced neoliberal capitalism), you may decide that struggle may be useful if not blatantly necessary. Likewise, when struggling against a difficult situation at home, you may choose to accept the situation, accept its difficulty, and accept the fact that you are only human.

During the time I had my first significant MS flare-ups, I had to deal with a number of experiences that coerced me into acceptance. The first notable instance was accepting the fact that my brother was approaching death. I saw how hard my parents struggled with this notion, and though their reactions were understandable, I couldn’t help but feel as if it was (like Kisogatami’s story) a struggle against an undeniable fact of life. When they chose not to disclose to my brother the doctor’s intention of putting him in a hospice facility, I yelled at them because I thought it was dishonest and unhelpful in the long-term. None of this, however, gets at the fact that each one of us was dealing with my brother’s impending death in different ways. We were united in our suffering—and yet our responses, our struggles, were markedly unique.

Shortly after news that my brother’s life was as visibly short-termed as the sands at the top of an hourglass, I suffered a flare-up that gave me intense vertigo for a week. After recovering and going back to work, I experienced severe dysesthesias that made getting by on a day-to-day basis excruciating. From my desk in Manhattan I read about the encampments at Liberty Square, feeling at once disconnected from the world and my body. Just months after playing an organizing role for an earlier demonstration on Wall Street, I was angry that my body was not letting me join the fight. The stress of my brother’s health, my parents’ reactions, my alienating job, and my newly-formed health problems began to unravel in my body. Rather than voluntarily accepting issues that were boiling up for years, I was forced—finally—into submission. At that time, I was too caught up struggling against my new stressors (my disease, my disabilities, my parents’ failure to accept the undeniable) to continue my struggle against the old (“the system,” corporate greed, the non-profit industrial complex, and my internal propensities to loneliness and depression).

In my continuous turmoil and struggle that slowed the pace of time, the months of October and November trudged on by painfully. I was incapable of walking during one week in November, during which time I wondered what would happen to me, my brother, and my family. Shortly after my brother was transferred to a hospice facility in Brooklyn, I was able to make my way down there alone, albeit with obvious impairments: my feet and hands periodically numb, my energy drained. Making my way into the hospice facility, I was surprised by how unfazed I was at the sight of dying bodies. I found my brother cold asleep in his room and chose to take advantage of the time by reading my book on a hallway bench. It wasn’t long before an elderly white woman—presumably a volunteer from the church—sat next to me and asked me who I was waiting for.

In my typical, New York-conditioned skepticism, I gave her a curt and somewhat-dismissive answer: “My brother.”

I just didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t even want to speak. But she persisted.

“What’s his name?”

“Anthony.”

“How old is he?”

“Twenty-six.”

Before long I was telling her that I was dealing with MS, that I had just suffered continuous flare-ups in a short period of time, and that I wasn’t sure whether I would be at my brother’s bedside when he moved on. My voice felt monotonous, detached, cold.

And in an attempt at a conciliatory tone she said, “There’s only so much any of us can do. We’re only human. And sometimes we just need to accept what we’re able to do.”

It was a painful learning experience, for sure, but I did learn to accept—in a post-superficial way—that I was person with a body and that I was thus prone to illness, aging, and death. Slowly, too, I saw my mother’s anxiety-ridden face melt into a calm obeisance, as if she understood that the inexorable mysteries of God were beyond her. As if this particular struggle was found to be no longer sensible and worthy.

And it is in what we both experienced that I’ve come to appreciate another (emancipatory) meaning of acceptance: letting go. Letting go of an obsessive need to control all aspects of life. Letting go of views that no longer make sense in our actual spatio-historical context. Letting go of what we think our lives are, and letting go of who we think we will become.

The Middle Way

In thinking about this turning point in my life, I realize that struggle and acceptance have always coexisted. After all, my struggle to get by with illness continues, but I accept that this is now a part of my life.  You can accept the existence of struggle, or (as Kisagotami did) struggle against an acceptance of our impermanence.

Thinking in a way that acknowledges a dialectical co-existence between acceptance and struggle lends itself to all sorts of transformative analysis. For instance, although Buddhist monks in Vietnam struggled against the Diem regime for years, it was likely an acceptance of death that enabled some of them to set themselves on fire. And in Tibet, while many continue to struggle against the oppressive Chinese regime, many also accept that the fate of the country is beyond the workings of a single player.

Acknowledging such co-existence, however, doesn’t offer the definitive resolution one might seek. As I’ve noted earlier, the problems with mere semantics creates an issue with framing a struggle-acceptance dialectic, and trying to untangle meanings from context and using them for practical ends is an incredibly arduous challenge whose purpose may ultimately prove worthless. With respect to the semantics issue, we can easily find ourselves in a rut of arbitrariness if, say, we can accept our struggle, or struggle with our acceptance, or accept and struggle at the same time. We can easily find ourselves reconfiguring meanings ad nauseum, shifting the meaning of ‘struggle’ and ‘acceptance’ at will while moving about like a pendulum in frictionless space. And once we’re able to reconfigure meanings in a relativist fashion, cherry-picking which definitions or meanings we choose to utilize in a particular context, we have to contend with undesirable consequences, such as the ambiguities of how to decide and act. We can, for instance, interpret the Dalai Lama’s (and other Buddhists’) advice on accepting suffering as implying, by the very fact that it was even suggested, that acceptance is itself a struggle—and, absurdly, a struggle we must accept. This potentially infinite regress reeks of nonsense and vacuous non-sequiturs that give us no basis for action.

Although all of this reads like a perplexing koan, I do find a saving grace in Buddhism’s very understanding of impermanence and the cyclical nature of life. Within this view is a recognition of the world as both changing and immutable, something shaped by one’s point of view and consciousness. As we are susceptible to highly polarized views, we are advised, in our search for peace, to find a “middle way” between extremes in thought and feeling. Much like a synthetic resolution to a Hegelian dialectical quandary, the “middle way” might be more than just an approach expounded by the Dalai Lama around the issue of Tibet. It may actually mean that no one perspective can give us Truth, and that our peace and happiness lies in an art of balancing (and shifting between) decision-making polarities: whether to be violent or non-violent, to be forgiving or unforgiving, to be struggling or accepting.

To be sure, this is a most irresolute of resolutions—but so is the nature of philosophizing on life. What bothers me most, however, is how such inconclusivity will be understood. I can’t help but hear a Left critique that says that any “middle way” is automatically a compromise in a war between enemies, a most despicable form of concessionary politics that uses divide-and-conquer to pare the edges of a revolutionary momentum. Maybe. Maybe not. Although I’m prone to be sympathetic to such a view, would it really apply in all cases? I’ve come to think that “middle way” approaches are more likely to be de-radicalizing accommodations in the context of collective struggles, but when it comes to personal struggles, a “middle way” approach may offer a much-needed balance in the aim for mental clarity and corporeal health.

And when it comes to the question I first presented—of when to accept, when to struggle—I will deliberately avoid universalizing maxims of ethical behavior (even at the likely expense of seeming like a post-modern relativist). As simple as it sounds, I find this to be true for me: I don’t think we will find an answer that makes sense for all of us all of the time. There is a certain relief that comes from this recognition, this letting go of a need to control the world under a paradigm of universal truths. Realizing this, I’ve decided that I need not find answers in Buddhist thought, but can rather allow new thoughts and resolutions enter through the personal dharmic road that led me here.

I’ve thus decided that there are moments when it makes sense to struggle—often with all the passion our bodies and souls can muster. I’ve also decided that there are moments when we must accept that, as humans, there is only so much pain, suffering, and injustice we can bear alone.

Doing a bit of word-play, I would also like to end by adding that we can also accept into our hearts not only the truths about illness and death, but also the beauties and joys of simple living. We can live with a revolutionary acceptance of different forms of life, one that goes beyond a superficial multicultural tokenism to a realization that all humans have a right to freedom. By accepting such freedom, we allow room for a diversity of tactics, a diversity of views, a diversity of ways in which to live and love. Such is an acceptance I can truly embrace.

Cleaning out the Closet: Thoughts at the End of a Year

In Chronic Pain, Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Identity Politics, Life with Chronic Illness, Philosophical Musings on December 31, 2012 at 7:04 PM

Rusted silver keys to locks unknown. Endless black wires and cords to equipment that no longer exist. Several black, gray, and beige jean jackets folded haphazardly in a large brown box. Impossible stacks of unopened letters, some trite credit offers, others with peremptory statements like “Immediate Response Needed” and “URGENT.”

All of these are items my brother left, making me the unexpected inheritor of many useless objects. And I was finally able to organize them. This past week, I finally finished a task that was a year in the making: cleaning out my brother’s closet. Fear and fatigue had kept me from accomplishing this task sooner. It was much easier to keep the closet doors shut and ignore what things I would see, and feel, upon opening them. While I had created a space of my own in this basement apartment, this particular closet I left untouched…until this past week. Yes, there is a sense of resolution, but the questions surrounding his fate, and mine, will always reverberate against the walls.

It was last year—the week following my brother’s death—that I started the process of cleaning out the basement. I was definitively overcome by the seeming impossibility of the task: sifting through items that were a reflection of my brother’s quarter-century existence, determining what would survive (the furniture; the movie and video game sets my younger brother coveted; the fiction books that intrigued me) and what would face the black death of a thrash heap (the useless, nearly interminable wiring; the empty DVD box cases; the notebooks scrawled with mathematical equations from now-useless college courses).

Those were the easy decisions. But what to make of the boxes and boxes of brand-name clothing (a logo-galore of Guess©, Armani Exchange©, Old Navy©, Levi’s©, Rocawear©)? What to make of the now-outdated technology he once prized—bulky digital cameras, digital planners, digital everything? What to make of the billiards sticks and the one…two…three…four different air ventilators? What to make of the off-white dirty sheets with the irremovable stench of bed-ridden sweat? What to make of the metal cane with the soft Hyaplon grip? The PortaBook© Notebook stand? The DiscoveryKids© Animated Marine Lamp? The McKesson© powdered latex gloves? 

That one person could accumulate and hoard so much stuff was breath-taking. I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt overwhelmed, and a bit despondent. Actually, it was downright depressing. The objects that filled the various closets, drawers, shelves, and various nooks and crannies were all things that entered and exited through his life in some way or another. Some were clearly transient—like the DVDs he played once, only to stash away in some corner I would later have to inspect, prying their utility with my own eyes. Others were clearly indispensable parts of his sickly life: the Samsung© flat-screen HD TV, the Asus© desktop, the Pfizer© meds. There was also the beige leather recliner where I always found him sitting on—nay, resting on, at a 60 degree angle, since his deformed spine could no longer support his body weight when sitting up. It was his relaxed posture, and it is how I most remember him: slouched on his recliner, staring at a flat-screen TV.

There is no way my brother could have collected so many things without money—and quite a lot of it. When my brother was still in middle school, in the late ‘90s, my parents sued Lutheran Medical Hospital for an excruciating misdiagnosis (they said meningitis) that prevented him from receiving the proper treatment for his later-diagnosed histiocytosis. Years later, when he turned 18, he finally had access to what was rightfully his due: a quarter million dollars. One can imagine what it must be like to be teenager with an immediate access to so much cash. A quantity most people on this planet will never possess, most definitely not at once. And for a kid from a working-class immigrant family, this was nothing less than hitting the lotto. With the money came a sense of power, a sense of being able to achieve the American dream that we see repeatedly in the media. At last, success through wealth.

As a teenager, this money was the conduit to a dream world he long harbored, after years of let-downs and humiliations. By the age of 18 he had overcome the brutality of chemotherapy, forced home-schooling, and years of standing at the sidelines while his peers played basketball, ran a mile, participated in Phys Ed. Although I was too consumed with my own issues at the time to see it, I later developed a clear picture of what he used his money for: wooing a girlfriend with presents, buying a hardly-used car, buying an almost-limitless number of video games (one of his favorite hobbies). Perhaps his wisest investment was helping with the down-payment of the house in which my family currently lives in. Back then, I was a passenger in a car my brother and parents were driving. Their vision of the American dream. A little house with an iron fence and a backyard. In some liminal urbanscape between the inner-city and the suburbs. A house that was blocks from the subway, a 45-minute ride from downtown Manhattan.

And so it was: with my brother’s help, using the endowment he received from medical malpractice, we were able to “escape” a working-class immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn and become homeowners in a mixed-income neighborhood in far-out section of Queens. In hindsight, there are some things that I think we all failed to see. We were so caught up in the allure of this experience—this sense of accomplishment, this sense of moving forward—that we failed to anticipate the impermanence of our materially-based happiness. After the paint had dried, the furniture moved in, the marble counters installed, we found to our chagrin that the house required more fixing than we anticipated: leaking pipes, an old boiler, an impossibly difficult basement. That year, my brother’s car was hijacked twice for its prized parts. And the neighborhood we were living in had experienced extensive white flight and depressing property values, creating a still-ongoing tension between the remaining, settled whites (mostly Italian, many living in the more decorated houses in the southern portion of the neighborhood) and the recent arrivals (immigrant families hailing from countries like Guyana, India, Puerto Rico, and Peru). In this leap “forward” we also moved so far away from our respective schools, workplaces, and old friends that we were spending countless hours simply commuting.

My brother’s condition also worsened over time. The pain from his deformed spine was finally forcing him to quit school, and he finally agreed to a spinal fusion surgery—a surgery I later learned has inconclusive signs of success, with many patients experiencing complications , needing re-operation, falling into permanent disability.1, 23 None of us knew this. We just held hope. The surgery was done in 2007, but it was followed by ruthless procession of additional surgeries, hospitalizations, and treatments. I was absent for much of this: I was studying away in Rhode Island, where I could conveniently ignore the problems that festered at home. I was too absorbed by own unhappiness to really take on anyone else’s.

While I tried to overcome my psychic pain by consuming myself in my studies, part-time jobs and volunteer gigs, hoping to overcome the pain of isolation through activism, my brother consumed himself in the realms of fantasy: video games, movies, TV shows. While I tried to run head-first into my reality, trying (if vainly) to change it, my brother tried to avoid it at all costs through digital displays of worlds where indigestible problems were nonexistent. Worlds that satirized family problems (think of animated shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy), focused on ones that could be turned comedic (movies with plots about chasing “the girl” or dealing with some pesky sibling), or were too unrealistic to touch one to the core (think zombies, warriors, gods, heroes and aliens in our newest supply of sci-fi movies and video games). After learning about the countless efforts my brother made to improve his health, to survive in a world that seemed isolated, cruel, and unjust, I can’t blame him for using his available resources—his money—to purchase endless distractions and escape routes. But his life in these last years offers an invaluable lesson about the role of material goods in our lives. Even at their best, they only brought him a brief sort of happiness, a brief escape from the present, a turning away from social realities. Although it is oft-noted cliché, something we often nod our heads to before we proceed to worry about our financial problems, relationships, and work, the material objects in our lives do not confer happiness. From a Buddhist perspective, it is our mind’s interaction with the world that can make us happy, or make us suffer—but the objects in and of themselves do nothing.

When my brother died the objects remained. Hard and lifeless, they were nevertheless reminders of a life long lived. And they only possessed a reality through others’ perceptions. Sick of the materialism of an affluent society such as ours, one that operates on a deliberate oppression and displacement of the world’s poor, I was more than eager to give it all away, either through donations or ecologically-friendly removal. My younger brother coveted the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and large stacks of DVDs. My mother insisted on going through the objects I tossed into thrash bags to reclaim their supposed worthiness and relevance, only later to realize that there were too many things to reclaim. It would have been pointless to keep so many things that would hardly ever be used again. A few days after that, when I was finishing up what seemed to be an interminable project of cleaning out the basement, that my mother finally conceded—with a sigh of impenetrable grief—that my brother had wasted so much of his money on material vanities. It’s like he was trying to fill the emptiness in his heart, my mother said in her soft Spanish. Her chilling words have never left me, for they signified the coldest truth I have ever heard. The resigned despair in her voice was almost unbearable—much worse than the months of wailing that preceded and followed his death. At week’s end, several large garbage bags littered the sidewalk in front of our house.

For me, this was all a new form of social awakening. I had become “socially conscious” and “politicized” before. During my last year of high school, I had been agitated by my work with an organization of queer youth of color, and I became excited about the prospect of future activism. Midway through college, I was agitated again—except this time I was filled with anger. I was filled with animosity against the rich, white kids I was surrounded by in school, against decadent late-night indulgences and convenient ignorance of university staff, against the rhetoric of leftist radicalism that never left the walls of the ivory tower. During this time, I was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—what I felt to be a final insult after years of feeling isolated and excluded from dominant society. All throughout these experiences, I felt like an activist, even when I least wanted to be. It had become an integral part of my identity. It was all about how I saw the world around me.

But my brother’s death brought about a new kind of awakening, one that was tinged with a gray sadness and a sense of death-is-imminent urgency. That my health started to deteriorate as my brother was dying was more than just a wake-up call—it was an emergency drill, a realization that I needed to see what my brother finally saw. Yes, there is sadness all around us. But there is also greatness all around us. Our lives can be ephemeral and tragic, but also long and immensely gratifying. These may seem like platitudes, but I think there is something quite profound in these polarities. One lesson that I’ve learned the hard way: if we continue to zoom through life with our minds locked onto the future, or dwelling grudgingly on the past, we’ll fail to see the beauty of things in the present. It all relies on our perceptions.

Trying to reconcile my leftist political background with my new-found appreciation of Buddhist philosophy, I’ve come to realize that it is all a matter of perceptions. Our mind interacting with the world. We react based on what we see—or at least, what we think we see. North American conservatives may see a destruction of traditional ways of living that they see as superior as spelling doom. Liberals may see a diverse multiculturalism and the expansion of voting rights as signs of progress. An affluent person, blindly bound to his wealth, will likely see an increased percentage in taxes as unjust. And so it goes on and on. Our perceptions of our social reality shape how we respond to the world, to one another, how we treat the beggar on the street, the European tourist asking for directions, the activist shouting against war. It is always a worthwhile question to ask ourselves why we hold the beliefs we do, whether we see the world as hopeless or full of possibilities.   

Cleaning out my brother’s closet—over a full year later—made me think deeply about what I was really seeing. The anti-capitalist in me saw a hoard of brand-name clothing, digital hardware, and corporate logos that made me feel both angry and empty. It was the same unsettling feeling I’ve experienced many times before, a feeling of fighting a war that cannot be won. Of being hurled down by the gods after reaching the mountaintop. As my pain medication kicked in, however, a subdued, neglected child surfaced. He saw these same objects with fascination—as if each told a fairy tale of dreams and desires. Tales of unresolved wishes.

I realized just how discerning my mother was in seeing through my brother’s youthful “vanities.” As I thumbed through my brother’s old but hardly-used jean jackets (which I assume he bought when he was a teenager and quite loaded), I started to wonder what he imagined when he purchased them. Although we grew up in the same household, the same working-class and poor neighborhood (Sunset Park, Brooklyn), my brother and I grew up with different tastes. I went through different phases in my adolescence and young adulthood (from penniless Goth to preppy gay to I-don’t-give-a-flying-fuck to whatever-I-feel-like), each phase reflective of how I understood the world and where I stood in it. My brother, on the other hand, went to schools near our neighborhood and dressed in ways that were popular in the late 90s and early 2000s: a hip hop/urban fashion that consisted (for the male-identified) of heavy jean jackets, baseballs caps, bandanas, and gold chains. The image of “P. Diddy” Combs and his Sean John clothing line comes to mind as I picture the sort of images my brother was likely emulating, and which stands out in the two dozen jackets (!!!) he had purchased, along with countless shirts and baggy jeans. Of course, one can easily attribute this spending spree to youthful naivety, peer pressure, or the like. But it seems equally, if not more, reasonable to trace the sources further upstream: to the incessant barrage of commercials, music videos, magazine ads, etc. that he and his peers watched, glazed over, and responded to. It was a coercion of marketing impacting a community: either buy the commodities that are given cultural valence in your world, or react by rejecting.

There is a story that I read recently has gotten me to think about the role of media imagery and materialism in our world. Actually, it was an account given by a Buddhist activist and linguist, Helena Norberg-Hodge, who documented the changes she saw in Ladakh—a region in northwestern India that was isolated from Western influence up until the 1970s4. As the account goes, the Ladakhis lived, for hundreds of years, as Buddhist farmers. As Buddhist monk Jack Kornfiel relates: “They lived simply, with rainfall enough to grow their crops and time to tend to their temples and follow the sacred rhythm of their year.”5 In the early years of the cultural invasion, they told visiting Westerners about how rich their lives were, how their basic needs were always met. Over the course of twenty years, however, Norberg-Hodge noticed startling changes. The capital of Leh transformed from a rural community of 5,000 inhabitants to a congested, urban sprawl. And after years of exposure to television, music, and fashion from India and the U.S., Ladakhis started to complain about how poor they were. As Kornfield tells it, “many Ladakhis have left their villages to live in crowded, impoverished quarters in the city, seeking the happiness promised by the modern world. There are blessings in modernization, and we can understand the villagers’ desire for running water and electric lights. But we can also recognize the costs of materialism when desire becomes out of balance.”

Desire-out-of-balance was what I saw in those jackets my brother bought. At one end, what I saw was a dream unfulfilled: a desire to look strong, healthy, popular, powerful. Whether I wanted to indulge in them or not, the images of the Sean John ads flooded my mind, showcasing a world of affluence—and black affluence at that. Who can blame a young man from wanting to indulge such a dream? At the other end, I saw something extremely perverse and unjust: clothing stitched and hemmed by Third World women at paltry wages and substandard working conditions, then marketed to working-class youth of color in the global North and sold at substantially higher prices. My head hurts trying to keep track of the whirlpool of insanity our modern capitalist world has wrought: the commodification, the marketing, the buying of our media, our education, our government. We don’t see all this in our everyday lives; instead, what we see are people leaving their homes, driving their cars, entering their workplace. And in the course of any given day we pass by countless ads meant to sell us something—on the subway, at the bus station, on our favorite Internet sites. Ads intended to sprout a desire for things we don’t need. Before we realize the extent of this sensory deluge, these commodities have entered our fantasies and desires exactly as corporate headmasters wanted. And so we continue to struggle—sacrificing our livelihood at times—for those items that will bring us the lifestyle we covet. A house. A car. A flatscreen TV. Those incredible jean jackets P Diddy wears. We put our bodies through incredible stress to achieve these things, our minds latched onto the rewards. And when the rewards finally come, we feel ecstatic. One would say happy. Until the novelty wears away and we’re left wanting more.

Such was the cycle that I saw in that heap of things my brother had bought over the years. It was as if there was something clawing inside him, a craving that was augmented by darkness. Like an addiction. Like filling an emptiness (as my mother put it) that would never go away. And isn’t this precisely what capitalism thrives on? The incessant, insatiable desire for more? (More capital, more consumption, more land, more war, more, more, more…) A system designed on quick fixes, on short-lasting highs that we then need to keep feeding to prevent a convulsion of our crack-addicted bodies. Yet, as much as instant gratification is an assumed part of our “American culture,” it is not the commodities themselves that trouble me (and, as it is, many of the commodities are things we absolutely need for our survival). For me, the more insidious aspects of our capitalist world have nothing to do with the things themselves. It is about how capitalism digs deep into our hearts and minds, shaping our mentality about the people around us, the houses and streets, the earth and the sky. It is about how we come to think of everything—from a vacation trip to a seashore spot, to the food we eat and the clothes we wear—as quantifiable entities. As things with a price. From there we see a system that runs off dog-eat-dog competition and notions of ‘success’ predicated on wealth and power. We then feel as if we’ve failed when we don’t achieve the sort of ‘success’ that is flaunted at us in television shows and movies: a high-paying job, a nice house and car, a spouse and children. We live out our lives always in the future, our minds always several steps ahead. And we suffer from anguish, stress, disappointment, loneliness. And a vicious cycle begins: drowning ourselves in work, abusing drugs and alcohol, surrounding ourselves with acquaintances, entering into superficial relationships that ultimately disappoint us…

To be clear, none of this is a denunciation against work, making friends, or building relationships. In fact, these are the activities that have the potential to suffuse our lives with meaning—even contributing to a long-lasting happiness. But there’s a significant difference between fostering genuine relationships (either with people or our work) and the run-amok bigger-is-better attitude where we try to force our lives to fit some pre-compartmentalized box we were sold on TV. Although my trip along the dharmic road is in its infancy, I’ve already come to sense Buddhism’s deeper appreciation for self-destroying impulses. Dukkha, an ancient Pali word, is often translated as “suffering” and “stress.” And the dukkha we experience in the chasing of dream-lives, like those we see on television, has a distinct classification in Buddhist tradition: the dukkha of conditioned states (samkhara-dukkha), a dissatisfaction based on things never measuring up to our expectations. I like to think that my brother, in his wisdom, latched onto to this concept in his final days. Speaking like an old guru viewing children at play, he commented on the hilarious vanities of the rich he saw on television. He also came to humbly accept his own old vanities. Certainly, the suffering he experienced from bleeding to death (dukkha of ordinary suffering) was unavoidable. But he understood, in hindsight, how much of his earlier suffering was based on expectations of a life he desired. A desired life built on expectations mediated by his surroundings. A desired life that always made his actual one seem inferior, festering holes of loneliness and disappointment.

As I’ve noted earlier, perception is key. We saw an extreme case of capitalism-mediated perceptions in the case of Ladakh. And it goes to show that if we are able to see what is good in this world, see what is good in all of us, we can avoid feeling as if our lives are somehow deficient. In short, we can avoid the suffering from our unhealthy desires. Likewise, although it is a moral imperative to take notice of the evils of our modern world—the destruction of the planet, endless wars, the violence against the poor—we should also take notice of our vast potential for good. Our ability to laugh at our follies. Give a lending hand to victims of a climate disaster. Resist neoliberal alienation by coming together, sharing our resources, dispensing with the obsession of personal ownership. In emphasizing the importance of the mind in constructing our worldviews, Buddhist philosophy shows us that we can have agency in our lives. We can choose to become passive recipients to corporate conditioning, or we can choose to find those things that will bring us genuine happiness. We can find goodness in our lives in the moment. We can find goodness in simplicity.

 Organizing my brother’s closet this past week, I came to realize that I had undergone an incredible change over the past year. It’s still unclear what the legacy of his life will be, but I already have a lot to be thankful for. To say I have a new-found appreciation for life is an understatement. I breathe in a new air, see a new sky. Walk on a new earth, in a new body with new feet. Even my relationship to objects has changed. Rather than a means to an end, I try to experience them as they are. As objects.

 So now, while I try to figure out what to do with those jackets, and the many other things that stayed behind, I think back to the time my brother and I spent together. To how we enjoyed each other’s company while watching a few of his movies. Or the worlds of video game fantasy he showed me on his flatscreen. Yes, we were using material things. But in those moments, it wasn’t the material objects in themselves that brought us joy. Nor were they being used as means of escape or forms of distraction.

 This time, they were being used wisely, moderated by a mindfulness of life’s impermanence. A mindfulness that this moment won’t last forever. So it was best to enjoy it.

 

1) Deyo et al. 2004. “Spinal-Fusion Surgery—The Case for Restraint.” New England Journal of Medicine 350:722-726.

2) Smith, J.C. 2011. “Back Surgery: Too Many, Too Costly, Too Ineffective.” Dynamic Chiropractor Vol. 29, Iss. 8.

3) Nguyen et al. 2011. “Long-term outcomes of lumbar fusion among workers’ compensation subjects: a historical cohort study.” Spine 36(4): 320-31.

4) Unfortunately, given that this is an account by a “Westerner,” I have to leave discussion of the Euro-American imperial gaze for some other time.

5) From Jack Kornfield’s essay, “The Transformation of Desire into Abundance,” as found in In the Face of Fear: Buddhist Wisdom for Challenging Times (2009).

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