A Greek temple destroyed in the Late Bronze Age collapse.
I often feel like there’s no escape from my observation of myself. When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, I’d sometimes intentionally get black out drunk in the hopes that it would allow me to access something freer than what I experienced when conscious. Maybe I’d make out with a boy, do something reckless. But it almost never worked. I acted nearly the same blacked out as I did sober, just louder and probably more annoying.
I’m ashamed to say that sometimes I look at people with worse mental illness or substance abuse issues than me and feel a sick envy that they can “do whatever they want”. This is, of course, ridiculous. Severe mental illness and addiction are horrible things. I do not really envy people who can’t control their behavior. What I want is to be free of my own surveillance.
My life sometimes feels like its lived in retrospect, even while it’s happening. When I’ve done meditation retreats, I notice a mental voice another meditator called the “sportscaster”, narrating my every move, reciting how I’ll tell it to others later. I can never simply “be”.
It’s not always that bad. There are times I am free and present. When I’m somewhere beautiful in nature, witnessing great art, or with my good friends, I feel at peace. Being around others draws me out of myself, and gives me less time to refract my thoughts in the thousands of anxious mirrors that occupy my mind.
Like most of us, I haven’t had much time spent in beautiful nature in the past year, and I’ve only seen my good friends on a screen from tens of thousands of miles away. It’s sometimes hard to remember what it feels like to be at home.
I recently watched the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck. I desperately love the idea that an art form could get what’s inside you out. But that’s not easy for me. I’m working so hard to dig down to the part of myself that feels real and unafraid. I’m not sure I can ever get there.
Last week I started listening to the podcast Fall of Civilizations. The relevancy to our moment is obvious. The American empire, though not ending immediately, is very clearly in decline. Like the great civilizations that fell in the Bronze Age Collapse, which the host discusses in the first episode, we are living through an era in which climate change is beginning to create global conflicts that will only worsen with time.
History says things usually don’t get better for long, and many well-intentioned efforts to change things end in tragedy, as Adam Curtis explored in his recent documentary series. I’m not sure what other conclusion I can draw and remain honest. But maybe honesty is overrated. Mark Fisher thought that our collective depression was caused in part by our belief that we can’t change things. I need to find a way to have faith in my agency, even if it’s a lie.
Organizing makes me feel good, whether it works in the long term or not. I’ve been volunteering with a tenants union, and I feel calmer afterwards. It’s small, but feels manageable.
The pragmatic part of me just wants to experience the most joy I can while I’m alive. But I haven’t been feeling a lot of joy recently. I return to the romantic and impossible idea of “giving up,” surrendering in some way I haven’t yet been able to. I don’t know what that would mean.
In a recent New Yorker article on growing up in the grimy underbelly of San Francisco, the author Rachel Kushner wrote:
“…another part of my parents influence was the bohemian idea that the real meaning lay with the most brightly alive people, those who were free to wreck themselves. Not free in that way, I was the mind always at some remove: watching myself and other people, absorbing the events of their lives and mind. To be hard is to let things roll off of you, to live in the present, not to dwell or worry. And even though I stayed out late, was committed to the end, some part of me had left early. To become a writer is to have left early no matter what time you got home.”
I know I’ll never be as good at writing as Kushner, but maybe that identity can help me embrace the remove she describes, the self-awareness that I’ve always wanted to flee. Maybe it could be a power.
There were many late nights in New York when, going from bar to party to apartment afters, I would push the “fuck it” button, as my friend Kaitlyn puts it. But as Kushner notes, I could never fully give in to that impulse. I can’t stop trying. I can’t give up. I have to live.