THE THING IS

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you down like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

ELLEN BASS

When I was going through a painful break-up some years back, a friend of mine suggested prayer. Not to a deity per se, but rather the idea was to take a few tunes I liked, that touched on how I was feeling, create a playlist with these on Spotify, and then to use the “Recommended Songs” algorithym to listen to other songs that had been accessed prior to me in my woebegone iteration by hundreds of thousands of other lovelorn fools who had turned to the collective, folk wisdom of popular music for the seeking of their solace and consolation.

“You know in the Bible when Moses is out grazing his father-in-law’s sheep?” the friend who made this suggestion explained. “And he comes across this plant or bush that’s on fire and then, hey presto, an angel suddenly appears to to him out of the flames, and gives him a little pep talk.”

“Yes,” I say, although I’ve never though of this angelic intervention as a pep talk.”

“But it is,” he asserts. “It’s like: Moses, dude, I feel for you. I feel for the sheer misery of your enslavement. Enslaved to a thought, or a belief, enslaved to a person, or a substance. Enslaved to the Egyptians, or any other self-defined nationality for that matter. Enslaved, most painful of all, to a certain sense of yourself.
Dude, the angel says-”

“Why does he talk like a surfer?” I ask my friend, interrupting the monologue.

“I don’t know, that’s just the language of angels, isn’t it? So anyway, you know the story, him going onto say that there are different ways to spin this whole enslaved-suffering thing: a sort of “milk plus honey” option.”

“I’m not sure I’m following you,” I say to my friend. “What has the Biblical land of milk and honey got to do with the emotional pain of a break-up?”

“Well, that Angel, existing in the timeless realm of Now,” my friend goes onto explain, “knows that in a few years, some Greeks are going to come along who will state that this this serene and peaceful place without any unnecessary worry tormenting us, this almost-Paradise, Eden-reclaimed, heaven on earth that the Palestinians and Israelis are still fighting historical battles over, might be better discovered in the non-material realm of the mind. In consciousness: that weird sense you have, that Moses has, that we all have, of being under the desert’s merciless midday sun (aka LIFE), listening to me, or the Angel, or whoever is uttering these words. But watch out Moses! The Greeks, are soon going to turn this whole burning bush bible story into a kind of metaphysical cure for the soul, just you wait! But until that happens, dude, you might have to do something PHYSICAL and SOCIAL to manage your suffering, using your words, going to the Elders of the tribe and saying, Hey, listen up! There’s this I-AM who spoke to me from a burning bush in the desert, this I-AM force who got it into my head that instead of fucking around on a hillside with a herd of sheep, I’m going to go and ask for a meeting with Pharoah, yes me the shy one, friend of quadrapeds, ungulates, and feathered creatures, watch me demand that Pharoah grant our freedom: a physical freedom, but one which also points to a metaphysical one: free from our thoughts, beliefs, magical potions, cultural indoctrinations, free from our selves.”

Well, who knows. Perhaps something did happen to Moses out there in the dessert. Either through meditative trance, or by consuming some green goodness, he managed somehow to tune into something, something rough-hewn, flame-fed, but transcendent, out there in the desert; something bigger than himself; some kind of fate-accepting Born To Be Moses part of the creature he is or was. For it was true what they said about Moses, not a natural politician or leader: the shy one, the one with a speech impediment; by nature a listener, rather than a rhetorician. Which is maybe why only Moses could hear voices, inner voices we might now attribute to the psyche, which in his time, was thought of as “God”. The Inner God that gives him guidance, or might offer a new kind of momentum to his life, propelling him towards a kind of striving that the early philosophers believed all human striving should ultimately partake, a striving we moderns are equally obsessed with: the striving for well-being, serenity, the good life.

I was going to make this episode mainly about how the Spotify algorithm did indeed provide me with healing songs, each of which had a message in it that I really needed to hear at the time, a message from God, or a Higher Power, if we’re going to use some kind of word to denote a force or energy that feels large enough to encapsulate the Everything of consciousness, of the not-I, not-you, not-the-human-race in all its demanding, clamoring, broken-hearted neediness.

But I am lazy in certain ways, and the thought of having to comb through that playlist of 150 songs again and weed out the good stuff, or the God stuff, felt like an interminable chore which would probably get me into trouble with the Copyright Cops to boot. Instead I thought I’d focus on just one track that came up, not a musical one. Perhaps this is also why it caught my attention and led me on a little quest of sorts. For imagine you’re listening to some sad-eyed song by Nina, or Carole, or Joni, thoroughly enmeshed in your own misery, and suddenly a German-inflected voice that sounds like it is coming from a small pointy-faced gnome, starts speaking these words into your ears much like that voice from the burning bush two thousand years ago or more:

The word Yes takes you through the gateway of this moment. Say Yes to this moment, and immediately you can sense an increased aliveness in the body. Accept this moment the way it is. Why? Because when you argue with What Is, you suffer you are not at peace. With a Yes to this moment, no matter what this moment brings, you are out of the prison of the mind which lives in and through denial of this moment. The thinking mind lives through No to the moment. So this is the gateway of the Yes to Now.

I wasn’t sure how the algorithym had landed on these words. Perhaps because one of the songs I’d put initially into the break-up equation was Elliot Smith’s Say Yes, which has in it this wonderful Beatle-esque moment reminiscent of A Day In The Life, heaving itself tenderly through the painful, conditional binary of Eros (“They want you or they don’t”), a knife-edge binary, which would eventually kill him. But there again, in that song, the invocation to say Yes, not in this case counseling us to to accept the moment as it is, but rather to live through the approval or compliance of another:

I’m in love with the world
Through the eyes of a girl
Who’s still around the morning after

As you are probably aware when someone suggests Acceptance as a route out of suffering, this can sometimes sound to human animal undergoing profound physical and mental distress as a bid silence us. Stop crying, accept what life is currently offering you, and get on with it.

And don’t we all struggle with that invitation, which can sometimes be given by someone close to us who is tired or bored or overwhelmed in some way with our suffering, who is looking, as are we, for a magic make-it-go-away bullet. And if it doesn’t go away, well then put an acceptance plaster over the wound and focus on something else!

Of course this is not what the more gracious forms of “acceptance” we admire in others might look like. You might even find a version of this in yourself Think of the things about yourself or others, about the world and your relationship to it, that you struggled with a great deal in the past, but have fundamentally (in some almost-magical way) accepted as being your fate, your destiny, of sorts, and maybe no bad thing about that either. I’m thinking here, as someone who recently hit 50, about all the FOMO-ing I did as a younger person about not dancing the night away in outdoor raves and other bacchanalian blowouts. Did we not come to our yes-saying with regard to the lack or deprivation of certain thing (or at least a no-to-No saying) by a continual process of relating to this conflicted material, and ultimately trying to make peace with it? And was this not a fairly drawn-out process (weeks, months, years, maybe even a lifetime) in order to come to terms with some wounding, or loss? Ideally this hard, long acceptance route might be sped up in some way, made more available to us when we most need it, but maybe not.

There’s a poem by Ellen Bass called The Thing Is that speaks of this process, underlining the almost humdrum, low-key switch that occurs within us when we stop fighting the pain that is clamouring to be felt so that it might play itself out in us like a series of sad chimes, allowing the unwanted experience to be taken in (that’s all that “accept” actually means: to receive something, as you would a gift) without the mind getting coralled into using most, if not all of its energies, to fight whatever it’s decided can’t be accepted for now, or ever.

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you down like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Thinking what it might mean to love this bedraggled, obese, plain, uncharming experience and say Yes to it, a loving-Yes, as opposed to a resigned one, is ultimately what led me to another German voice, a more strident one, who came up with an “experimental philosophy” which he called Amor Fati, a Latin term which translates as “love of one’s fate”.

I’m talking here of course about Friedrich Nietzche, someone who struggled all his life with chronic physical and mental health conditions (“blinding headaches, suppurating ears, ‘stomach catarrh’ – whatever that is – vomiting, and nausea”, cf. Prideaux), who spent many an hour lying in a darkened room with leeches fastened to his earlobes to suck the “bad blood” from out of his head. ‘I am neither body nor spirit, but rather a third element. I suffer everywhere and for everything,’ he wrote.

“He exists like Gulliver in Lilliput,” writes Stefan Zweig of Nietzsche, “constantly assailed by the swarming little people of his sufferings. His nerves are always on the alert, he is continually on the lookout, keeping watch, his full attention monopolized by the debilitating and all-engrossing needs of self-defence”.

He tries every conceivable method and cure for his suffering: electric massages, dietary regimes, water therapies and medicinal baths; “sometimes he blunts his excitability with bromide, then he stimulates it again with other potions” (Zweig). As with all external forms of assistance (substances, medicinal or therapeutic procedures) their efficacy is somewhat erratic if not negligible.

Loving this sickly, suffering fate is undeniably a counter-intuitive stance to take. For generally speaking, as the philosopher in question understood, we often get stuck in a place of suffering, and when we do, our natural defences often cause us to “halt at a negation, a No, a will to negation”. This also creates a kind of layer of suffering on top of the physical or emotional pain we are already dealing with, the experiential-avoidance we feel, this not-wanting to “receive” the experience we don’t like, is a kind of a cul de sac into which we enter to escape the pain (physical or mental) even if the escape tactics or default stress response to discomfort, often makes our lives feel more conflicted, confined, or cramped than offering a bona fide route to freedom.

We are not to blame for doing this. The human organism, just like any other organism, including even single-cell entities, moves towards things that feel good, or are perceived as pleasant and life-enhancing, whilst moving away from (experiential avoidance) the things, thoughts, body sensations, memories, people -especially people- that feel threatening or upsetting, or “bad” in some way. Often, this serves us well, keeps us out of harm’s way, in the clear.

But as the psychologist Steve Hayes reminds us, we can get trapped in this binary set-up (pleasant feelings good, unpleasant feelings bad) without recognising that from the mixed bag of pleasant-neutral-unpleasant, we are hardwired to some extent to find pleasure (if we seek it, or frame it thus) in all three. Think about all the other animals who don’t put their experience into categories of valence (good, bad, neutral) but somehow seem to find a way of dealing with lifes many ups and downs, even with all the pain that being alive often occasions for them.

We come into the world wanting to feel. You can certainly see that if you watch babies. Babies will feel, sense, lick smell everything to the point where you’re going: “No, no! Don’t put that in your mouth!

They just want to experience what’s in their world. And not just objects and putting them in their mouth, or something. You toss a baby in the air, as long as it’s not done in a way that shows an obvious indication of danger, they’re laughing. Swinging them around, or tickling them, or hugging them, or giving them pats – babies yearn to feel. Not just human babies, but other species too. But we’re darn good at it.

As you get a little older, that continues. Is there any emotion that you can name that you don’t pay good money to produce?

“Ooh, embarrassment I hate that!”

No, that’s not true. We watch silly comedies that are based on embarrassment humour.

“Sadness, I don’t like that.”

We buy tear-jerker novels, come on!

“Fear, I don’t like it.”

You ride rollercoasters…

There isn’t any emotion that you can name that you don’t occasionally pay good money to produce. And there are artists, book writers, and songwriters who fully know that, because they will give us a diet of almost all of them. And they’re helpful to us as human beings.

But it’s really easy in that problem-solving mode of mind to sort them into good and bad, that’s what we do.

So here’s what happens: we have a yearning to feel. We naturally use it to explore and sense our world. We metaphorically want to reach out and feel the table in front of us, which means we have to have the fingertips all set up so that we can feel what’s rough and what’s smooth. But then the mind says:

“Uh, I only want to feel what’s smooth.”

“Well how are we going to do that.”

“Well, let’s just distort the world so that we can only feel the good stuff. We want to feel good, don’t we?”

We have a name for that process, it’s called “experiential avoidance” which can be seen as the effort to eliminate the form, frequency, or situational intensity of thoughts, feelings, memories and bodily sensations – even when they cause behavioural harm to do that. Even when you know that only having the “good ones”, the “good feelings” is harmful for us, we still keep doing it. That’s called experiential avoidance. What we’re going to do instead is what we call “acceptance”, from the root that means “to receive”, as if to receive a gift, and it’s the process of actually augmenting our “feelers” and then metaphorically it’s right reaching out and feeling the table or desk that might be nearby you right now, or the chair you’re sitting in.

Let’s reach out and feel. So instead of “I get to feel when I feel good”, it’ll be more like: “I get to feel, when I feel good”.

Might it really be possible to “cross over to the opposite of this protective [No to Life] response to our suffering? Not just as a head-hanging, world-weary, resigned acceptance of our fate, but rather to what I am going to call in this episode AcceptancePlus, my version of the more high-falutin Latin of amor fati.

Here’s what the usual form of Acceptance, let’s call it Resigned (also Schopenhaurian) Acceptance might sound like:

When he attempted, after a period of renewed misery, to grow a beard, the stubble, to his horror, was sprinkled with gray, so he abandoned it.
Q. “What have I done to deserve my fate?”
A. “I am worthy of no other.”
He saw in the strewn garbage of his life, errors, mishaps, ignorance, experience from which he had learned nothing. He was as a man inadequate, in the sense of being powerless to achieve the most meager happiness. He had been left far behind by Purpose—those chances for self-fulfillment that spring up around the man who is not fortune’s fool. Whatever strayed into Levin’s orbit wrecked it. He could not make happen to him what happened to all but the poor bastards of the world, a use of the better choices of life; with, sooner or later, some sense of accomplishment—however slow if visible.

(Bernard Malamud, A New Life)

Nietszche’s response to being fortune’s fool (aren’t we all?) rest of a “Dionysian affirmation of the world as it is, (which is to say: an affirmation that appeals to the emotions and instincts, as opposed to the rational, “Apollonian” mind) without subtraction, exception or selection.”

“This discipline [of yes-saying]”, he writes, includes understanding that the previously negated aspects of existence are not only necessary, but desirable; and not only desirable in terms of the previously affirmed aspects (perhaps as their concomitants or preconditions), but for their own sake, as the more powerful, more fruitful, truer aspects of existence….”

Little soul,
you have wandered
lost a long time.

The woods all dark now,
birded and eyed.

Then a light, a cabin, a fire, a door standing open.

The fairy tales warn you:
Do not go in,
you who would eat will be eaten.

You go in. You quicken.

You want to have feet.
You want to have eyes.
You want to have fears.

(Jane Hirshfield)

You’re on an aeroplane. Someone comes along and says do you want fish meat or vegetarian. You say I’m vegan, they say oh that’s okay it’s also vegan.

Your vegan platter arrives, it doesn’t taste very good.
Your vegan platter arrives, it tastes wonderful.
Your vegan platter arrives, it tastes so-so.

Excuse me you say to the air hostess, this vegan platter tastes so-so. Why have you served me this?
Excuse me, you say to the air steward, this vegan platter really doesn’t taste very good at all, why have you served me this?
(We never ask the cabin crew or flight attendants why a platter of experience tastes wonderful. We usually just get on with enjoying it.)

Why this? Why me? Why?

Everything Nietzche ever wrote on Amor Fati could probably be read out loud in in a couple of minutes.

He first writes about the idea in the early-1880s. These years were especially painful for him—distinguished by a number of breaks with previously important relationships and friendships as well as “the little fusillade” (as he likes to call it) of ongoing health issues: the headaches“which for days leave him prostrate on a couch or a bed in a state of fruitless delirium; the stomach cramps, along with vomiting of blood, migraines, fevers, loss of appetite, dejected mood, haemorrhoids, intestinal stagnation, fever shakes, and night sweats” (Zweig)

The Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig in a wonderful chapter on Nietzche’s torments and his audacious amor fati cure, calls him a “martyr in reverse”, for like the rest of us lily-livered creatures, “he does not at first possess the faith to endure his torments; it is only from experiencing the torments themselves that he acquires this faith.”

First though, he does what we all do, look for a kind of magic-bullet remedy or corrective for his migraines, insomnia, gastric spasms, hip pains, cattarh, ulcers, hypersensitivity to light, fits, faints, and all the other expressions of the Pain Body that torment him. Even leeches, the trendy panacea of the 1800s are tried, as well as rectal flushing every morning with cold water.

From the embers of these losses and traumas, the embers of his often pain-ridden “fate”, the idea of amor fati, phoenix like from the flames of suffering, presents itself to him, and he relays this to us initially in his book The Joyful Wisdom or Joyful Science, which is often translated in English as The Gay Science. I like to imagine the Queer Eye guys (Jonathan, Antoni, Bobby, Karamo, and Tan) in stylish lab coats and spectacles doing Nietzchian makovers on the Sy Levins of this world.

To-day everyone takes the liberty of expressing his wish and his favorite thought: well, I also mean to tell what I have wished for myself today, and what thought first crossed my mind this year,—a thought which ought to be the basis, the pledge and the sweetening of all my future life! I want more and more to perceive the necessary characters in things as the beautiful:—I shall thus be one of those who beautify things. Amor fati: let that henceforth be my love! I do not want to wage war with the ugly. I do not want to accuse, I do not want even to accuse the accusers. Looking aside, let that be my sole negation! And all in all, to sum up: I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yea-sayer!

Already in this initial formulation, we get a sense of what this might involve. It’s not necessarily, as it may first appear, simple a language move (becoming a Yes-sayer) but rather a perspective shift towards seeing “what is beautiful and necessary in things”. As if by finding some beauty or grace in the unchosen, circumstantial Is-What-It-Isness of our lives, we might arrive at or maintain, even when in a little bit of pain (or a lot) a certain level of serenity and joy. And who doesn’t want that, right?

There seems to be some kind of link here between finding beauty, or wonder, orienting ourselves towards the subjectively repellant object in an uncovering or unearthing frame of mind that offers more freedom and mental flexibility when thought, emotion, or physical sensation that seems to be pulling us into its orbit becomes Pharoah-like in its tyranny. “Making [the thought, feeling, memory, or body sensation] beautiful” suggests a radically alternative route once our defensive, default fight or flight has kicked in, and been acknowledged for what it is.

Again, that quote: “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things, then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But is there not a suggestion here thta there may be livable and augmentably livable consequences to this fate-loving stance, as opposed to just heady ideals?

The philosopher Beatrice Han-Pile refers to the crucial “then” that knits together Nietzcsche’s crucial sentence as an unconditional form of love (the kind some parents might model for their children, or therapists for their clients) versus the more conditional form of love that we might have for a girlfriend or boyfriend.

The main difference seems to hinge on the relation between loving and valuing. Both forms of love involve a valuation of the love-object, but they part ways when it comes the source and nature of such valuation. For the more conditional, friends and lovers’ “love”, our acceptance is motivated by the perceived value of the object itself: “I love you because I value you. In this moment, and (hopefully) going forwards.

By contrast, the more unconditional form of love bestows value on its object “regardless of the value previously attributed to it : we value someone or something because we love them”, Han-Pile writes, and not only for the ways in which we personally benefit due to their being-in-the-world.

Han-Pile sees Nietzsche’s amor fati stance to life as an attempt to love something which is difficult, if not impossible, to value in relation to our own needs or wants, to love something in ourselves, or others, or our circumstances, that resembles the unconditional love or acceptance of the world that we maintain for natural phenomena or non-human creatures.

We are familiar with this love from our religious traditions, but also from our day-to-day experience (think how unconditionally we love certain social goods like the NHS, warts and all, or certain key western liberal values such as individual freedom of movement, thought, and speech, alongside the removal of socioeconomic obstacles that hinder this such as disease, poverty, discriminationa and ignorance ). Han-Pile distinguishes four main features of this love:

1) it is modelled on more spiritual or transcendent values than out grabby-grubby human animal appetites, even if we never fully reach these more lofty aims
(2) it is spontaneous: in the sense of not being wholly externally motivated – but rather an undeserved gift which we receive or give
(3) it is not motivated by the value of the object (Christ came for sinners and the righteous alike, our Western spiritual tradition tells us); and finally
(4) it creates value by transfiguring its object. The “sinner” or physically/mentally “unwell”, “unworthy”, or “broken” person becomes worthy by virtue of being loved by God, or The World, or Our Selves, including Them Selves).

Any idiot can become a genius if she wants it badly enough.
One must study how the crow flies.
One must say to oneself as the crow flies so fly I.
In the dream I am an empty tree.  One by one my branches fill with silent crows who have travelled great distances to reach me.  Each crow contains a golden seed of knowledge locked in its craw and by containing them all in my humble crown I contain all knowledge of the kingdom.
My attempts to remember are proof in themselves.
At times one must accompany a shadow like the moon above a field of bitter greens.
In this wretched spirit the pilgrim applies herself and is rewarded.
I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, she explains, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.
I can’t help what I want.
There is no such thing as a dream that comes true.
Every dream is already true the moment it is dreamed.

(Susan Buffam)

Imagine yourself driving in a car, and everybody who slightly annoys you, slightly gets in your way, cuts you off, you have a little dialogue in your head about, or maybe even some kind of outburst. Not everyone is like this in a car, but I think we are often like this when it comes to the journey of our lives.

Reality bites, we cry ouch and then we go into some kind of Experiential Avoidance Dance, some kind of negotiation with reality. Anything resembling acceptance usually falls way way way way way way way way way way way way way way way way way down on the list.

And yet, as with the tricky drivers, when we ask ourselves to accept something that is happening to us, that we are experiencing in a certain way (usually, in this case, aversive), what we are really asking ourselves to do is to let whatever aversiveness, abrasiveness, avoidance in ourselves that we experience at the same time in meeting the world, to subside, fall or drop away, to become a Past Now, or even a Now-Now, but without the struggle. Why can’t we just let it slide, let it slip a bit? And focus instead on what is rich and good and worth celebrating in each moment?

Your guess is as good as mine.

But what is clear, I’m sure we’d all agree, that we are missing out in some way, on some kind of life-giving experience, by not accepting (taking) this moment as it is?

What is lost by being, more often than not, lost in thoughts about things, events or people, or thoughts about thoughts. We know we are missing out, but to stay on track takes energy and focus, and we are in the final reckoning but animals, programmed to survive our lives, even if that means a constant struggle, mortal (which is to say fallible) in every which way you can imagine.

TOLLE QUOTE: loss always happens in one’s life

Every morning for the last two weeks I have gone into the garden to check on the robins’ nest. The Ruskin Garden Robins, as I like to think of them, had built their nest underneath a green seedling tray, within a plastic plant pot.

Six eggs had been in this nest, but this morning there were none.

I suspect that the baby robins had hatched last night or the night before, and whilst making cheeping noises in expectation of food, had signalled to a squirrel or some other animal their presence, and had been eaten.

For some reason, staring in shock and sadness at the nest, emptied of its treasures this morning, I think of that 2018 film The Quiet Place where a family living in a post-apocalyptic world are stalked by a group of monstrous aliens who aren’t able to see their prey, but have ultra-sensitive hearing to make up for this, creating a cat-and-mouse set-up where even the tiniest noise can give one away. If they HEAR you, they HUNT you reads the tagline on the poster.

I imagine a world where human animals don’t have the consolation of therapy, but birds do. Bereaved Mama and Papa Robin relating to their bereavement counsellor the awfulness of having painstakingly built their nest into which eggs would be laid, a young family raised until they were able to fend for themselves. Now all destroyed, decimated, in a matter of seconds. The added layer of protection, the seedling tray that covered the entrance to the nest, torn aside by the squirrel or cat, or rat, the little chicks, just-hatched out of their protective shells, gobbled up like we human animals might eat other birds out of a box (or bucket) of KFC.

I imagine their therapist lost for words at the telling of this tragedy: six infants, eaten by a Monstrous Squirrel or Cat.

Because robins don’t have language to shape and share their trauma, I can only imagine what it must feel like to have everything one has built taken away from you in a moment.

“Before you know what kindness really is,” writes the American-Palestinian poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, “you must lose things”:

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Maybe it is a kind of kindness not to have this thing we call language which insists on telling us our stories of loss and despair over and over again? Maybe it is a kind of kindness, that after a day or two (or maybe even a week or two of helpless, hopeless searching for their lost infants) the robins will start laying eggs again, start creating new life forms, even if there is the almost inevitable possibility -due to where there nest has been built, and the predators that patrol this space- that they will lose their next brood too.

We accept (if that is the right word for it) the suffering of others. We shake our heads in upset, and throw out mantras like “nature, red in tooth and claw!” and yet we are hardly ever as sanguine about our own lives. Why do we take everything that happens to us so personally. Only because we experience it as happening to us, I guess, rather than us happening as part of every other happening in this moment.

TOLLE quote: Before you are able to accept

Two teenagers are walking ahead of me towards Stanmore Common. One of them it’s practically shuffling along, self-disabled by fashion, their trousers hanging about halfway down their emaciated butt-cheeks. At any moment now, it seems as they will fall. The wearer of these low-hanging trousers is struggling to walk freely. The waistband of their trousers has created a kind of cloth-manacle, restricting the normal scissor-like separation of limbs required for unencumbered striding. It is the hottest day of the year, and this shuffling, sausage of person is struggling to reach their destination. They don’t seem to be emotionally affected by the impediment at all: remaining cheerful and animated for the ten minutes I’m behind them. For me, continously prevaricating over whether a pair of trousers or shorts feels “right” (comfortable, not unattractive), but also light and easy to walk in, this deliberate attempt to impair one’s ease of movement seems self-denying or fussy in some way, but for this young person it is a price worth paying to be “cool” – which is to say, accepted, maybe even respected, by those whose acceptance and admiration they seek. And maybe, being the hyper-social as well as hyper-solitary (funny that) species we are, we seek this from everyone who crosses our path, in some way, whether we know it or not. “Admit something,” writes the 14th Century Persian poet, Hafez: “Everyone you see, you say to them, / Love me.”

Of course you do not do this out loud;

Otherwise,
Someone would call the cops.

Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us
To connect.

Presumably the need to challenge a certain category of Adult Propriety and Practicality is more important to this human animal in this moment than being able to walk comfortably up a hill, and for this reason they have accepted the way in which their fashion choice has disabled them. And not only have they accepted this, they seem to be loving it too. In some way, amor fati, is no more or less than this.

ROVELLI: How does my observing of reality…

My father, who I haven’t seen for some decades, sends me via DHL my grandfather Solly’s sketch book for my 50th birthday. There is a moment of discombobulation when I open this book, almost a hundred years old now, and see my own name (S.Wasserman) and a place I’ve never been to (Bloemfontein) written on the first page.

This is how a certain kind of haunting feels. I never met my grandfather. He got fired from a factory job he had worked in for all his life, got depressed, lost the plot, committed to a mental hospital where he probably received some kind of psychoanalytic treatment from a man or a woman who had read lots of books; left the hospital with a bag full of pills, went home and took an overdose.

My father says in a WhatsApp message that he regrets never having asked his Dad more about his life, never having got to know him as an adult.

I see this as an opportunity for the next generation (him and me) to connect a little bit more than he was able to do with his own Dad. I have been trying to convince him that it might be enjoyable or stimulating in some way to have the odd Zoom dinner together, or a call.

I turn psychotherapist (a tad) on him and say something like: “Well, I have this feeling of regret with regard to you too, funnily enough. Wouldn’t it be great if I’m not left with these kinds of losses when you go?”

He doesn’t address this point in his WhatsApp message back to me.

Instead it is all about his conflicted relationship with Judaism (I’d suggested, mainly tongue-in-cheek, that we do a kind of secular Friday Night Dinner, with a nod to our tribal affiliations) and how the time difference with me in the UK, him in South Africa would make things tricky. It is a classic Leon fob-off.

After fifty years of relating to this man, I still have the notion that one day he will surprise me, that he will become a slightly different version of himself, that he will become someone who wants to engage in a way he says he does, but never does. I have not yet fully accepted that my father is not this man.

I have more work to do on the A-front, I guess.

“Though he preached equanimitas and amor fati,” writes Will Durant of Nietzche, “he never practised them; the serenity of the sage and the calm of the balanced mind were never his.”

TOLLE: The origin of suffering

A painting by my grandfather (Solly Wasserman) of Bloemfontein (South Africa) in 1900. He arrived in the country, a refugee from Lithuania in his early teens.

So what might the search for this peace that knows no understanding look like, in a very practical way. Well for me, a couple of things I’m trying at the moment. One of them is deliberating bringing to mind, as often as I can my conflicted, sometimes suffering life in the grand scheme of things. Were it not for a random asteroid storm 65 million years ago which wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs (birds are considered to be the great-great nephews and nieces of Pterosaurs and Pterodactyls), we’d still be scurrying around as rat-shaped early mammals to this day.

Here’s Neil De Grasse Tyson explaining just how contingent and random our whole species is, let alone us as single living versions of that, selected through one feisty fast-swimming spermatazoa who made its way to a viable egg ahead of its 100 million other buddies contained in an average man’s ejaculate:

DE GRASSE TYSON QUOTE

On my Casio watchstrap, I have painted a white A in Tippex so that I have, out of the corner of my eye, a contstant injunction to love my fate, in the Nietzschian sense, even whilst some part of my psyche might be loathing it too.

How do I further encourage myself? Part of it is by noticing my No, my resitance to what-is (it’s often there): and sprinkling on top of that resistance a few colorful cognitive sprinkles:

“Is there any way Steve, for you to disentangle your mind’s reactive commentary to this painful physical or emotional state (i.e. the suffering) from the pain itself? To suffer the pain, but jettison the suffering?”

To help me do this, I might attempt certain creative responses to the pain (I do this quite often with clients too), seeing if I can re-describe it to myself via an experiential simile (what colour is this pain? what size? what kind of animal is it? what sound might it make? how might it move?) – anything to drag the pain and suffering out of the realm of language where it reigns in a wholly binary (painful/pleasurable, good/bad), word-fixed stuckness into something that has a more evolving, unfolding, open-ended relationship to it. Something I can have a kind of relationship with, write a poem about, sing to, rant about, put into perspective vis-a-vis other pain, as well as other’s pain, something shareable.

Self-acceptance and self-compassion are important too, acknowledging that when the mind and body kicks in with some kind of thinky, experience-avoidant response to pain and suffering, this is not my (or its) fault. I am just made this way, hyper-evolved roden that I am. Anything I can do, I guess, to bring myself to that moment, where I might again be able to receive the experience, like my own face, or that of another, held between the palms of my hands:

a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and I say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Audio used in the podcast version of this piece (in order of occurence):

-Jon & the Nightriders – Rumble at Waikiki: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41YvSrk5paQ&t=81s
-Can’t Stop The Feeling (Justin Timberlake) – Original Piano Arrangement by Maucoli: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MpOfn4rDcU
-ET: https://open.spotify.com/album/1Wcggztq9SspsBeXcrnHZo?highlight=spotify:track:3VVilIGlUJ6tIirr7GGCHs
-Night Flight – Say Yes (Elliot Smith Cover): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnQ0ac8A8hk
-A Day In The Life (Orchestra Overdub): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecybFp71bnc
-Reading of The Thing Is (Ellen Bass): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JONWgsZ6vm8
-Steven C. Hayes talking about Feeling & Experiential Avoidance: https://www.soundstrue.com/collections/authors-steven-c-hayes/products/acceptance-and-commitment-therapy
-Extract from Bernard Malamud’s A New Life: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Life-Penguin-Twentieth-Century-Classics/dp/0140186816/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=a+new+life+malamud&qid=1624180687&sr=8-1
-Jane Hirshfield reading her poem Amor Fati: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/92039/amor-fati
-Extract from The Gay Science: https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/The-Gay-Science-The-Joyful-Wisdom-Audiobook/B01EWAXDI4?qid=1624180836&sr=1-1&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_1&pf_rd_p=c6e316b8-14da-418d-8f91-b3cad83c5183&pf_rd_r=ZN7BMAJ44S0DHR5PPNXE
-Susan Buffam reading her poem Amor Fati: https://www.lyrikline.org/en/poems/amor-fati-4435
-“Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, A Poetry Film by Ana Pérez López: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFLQOOiAqxQ&t=15s
-Elliott Smith ~ Say Yes (Live in Stockholm): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOnHEApbjV0
-Itzhak Perlman plays Fiddler on the Roof (John Williams Los Angeles Philharmonic): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h745la-Lo1I
-Neil De Grasse Tyson giving an overview of our 65 million year-old hominid evolutionary history: https://samharris.org/podcasts/252-alone-universe/
-Can’t Stop The Feeling by Justin Timberlake Live (Downbeat LA Cover): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGz7Nbaavgg&ab_channel=DownbeatDownbeat
-Hakeem Oluseyi waxing lyrical about astrophysics: https://www.startalkradio.net/show/a-quantum-life-with-hakeem-oluseyi/

 

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