Don’t Get Mad, Get Even

Here is a nice thought about walking off anger. It’s a poem by Rosemerry at A Hundred Falling Veils blog. The title is “I’m Not Saying We Shouldn’t Be Angry.”

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be angry.
Anger seems reasonable. But perhaps
we will do what I’ve heard the Inuit do—
spend the emotion on walking, walk a line
until all the anger has left our bodies.

There is truth to that. Physical exertion does help an individual to release stress. There are biological reasons one could give, if one wanted to be scientific about it. But the advice stands alone and can be verified in one’s experience. Maybe that relates to a main problem with the internet, too much inactivity. For reasons of mental and physical health, people should get up once in a while to physically move around, which probably is a good prevention for the buildup of anxiousness and frustration that can lead to bad moods.

I’m a curious person, though. The anthropological angle interests me for its own sake. I was wondering about the source that is the basis of the poem. I came across two references to it. In Overlay, Lucy R. Lippard writes that, An Eskimo custom offers an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system in a straight line across the landscape; the point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.” And here is something from the UAB Department of Anthropology“When conflicts do arise, people often express their feelings with hints. Anger occasionally erupts, but when it does the angry person simply walks away. The community may ostracize people who develop a tendency to anger, though that would be done subtly, with the people doing the ostracizing acting more nurturing and warmer than ever.”

It almost makes one want to sing a round of “Kumbaya My Lord, Kumbaya.” Or maybe belt out an old Unity Church favorite, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” I can feel the love already. I grew up with New Age spirituality. I dig it. But… there is always a ‘but’…

There is something in me (cynicism? contrarianism?) that can’t help noting a related piece of info. The Inuit weren’t hippy pacifists. Humans have to be as tough as the frozen tundra to survive in such icy bleakness. They didn’t express their anger because they didn’t tolerate anyone expressing their anger. Walking it off was an act of suppression. Don’t come back until you either are in a better mood or regained enough self-control to pretend to be in a better mood. There wasn’t much room for tolerance of misbehavior and deviance of any sort: betraying community values and social norms, taking advantage and harming others. The Inuit rule was to keep your problems to yourself or else. And you didn’t want to find out what ‘or else’ might mean. Individuals who failed to play by the rules and be members in good standing… well, those people were taken care of, one way or another. As Barbara Oakley explained (Evil Genes, p. 265):

Prior to the advent of agriculture, human groups were small — perhaps made up of fifty or fewer, and perfectly capable of “voting with their feet” to escape unfair treatment. Psychopathic or self-serving Machiavellian behavior would be obvious in such a restricted environment and would be difficult to tolerate long-term. There is evidence that when such behavior arose in those small, ancestral nomadic groups, it was eliminated in straightforward fashion. Harvard anthropologist Jane Murphy, for example, notes that the Yupic-speaking Eskimos of northwest Alaska have a word, kunlangeta, which means “his mind knows what to do but he does not do it.” This word

might be applied to a man who, for example, repeatedly lies and cheats and steals things and does not go hunting and, when the other men are out of the village, takes sexual advantage of many women — someone who does not pay attention to reprimands and who is always being brought to the elders for punishment. One Eskimo among 499 on their island was called kunlangeta. When asked what would have happened to such a person traditionally, an Eskimo said that probably “somebody would have pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking.”

Murphy goes on to describe a similar word, arankan, used by Yorubas of Africa. It is applied to a person who always goes his own way regardless of others, who is uncooperative, full of malice, and bullheaded. Interestingly, neither kunlangeta nor arankan were thought to be curable by native healers. Psychopathy is rare in those settings, notes psychologists David Cooke, who has studied psychopathy across cultures.

They didn’t get lost in anger. Instead, they took direct action to solve the problem or eliminate the cause of their anger. Walking it off was just the first step. Don’t act in anger. But be sure to take action. The problem still needs to be solved.

Consider the ancient Japanese story of the Samurai. His master was murdered and it was his duty to seek vengeance. Having tracked down the assassin and with sword aloft, the cornered man spit in the Samurai’s face. Anger having taken hold of his mind, he immediately stopped and sheathed his sword. It would have been dishonorable to have killed the man out of anger. His act of righteousness needed to be an act of dispassionate duty, not of personal emotion. So, he left the killer there and walked away. My friend who told me this story gave it a different ending that I prefer. In his version, after the Samurai calmed down and regained composure, he once again tracked down the evildoer. With a calm heart and a clear mind, he honorably slayed the guilty party and justice was done.

This has been carried forward into nonviolent practice in the modern world. Gandhi is famous for his advocacy and effective application of nonviolence, but nonetheless he suggested that violence was preferable to injustice. Don’t get mad. Get even. It is ancient wisdom.

* * *

To further demonstrate this principle, let’s place it in the framework of Buddhist useful means. Acting in anger and vengeance would incur karma, as would murder. But sometimes compassion, as self-sacrifice, might elicit a response of preventing harm by taking karma onto oneself. The following is from a sutra about one of the Buddha’s earlier lives as a bodhissatva:

Story of the Compassionate Ship’s Captain

Murder with Skill in Means: The story of the Compassionate Ship’s Captain

132. Then the Lord again addressed the Bodhisattva Jnanottara:

“Son of the family: Once a upon a time, long before the Thus-come-one, the Worthy, the fully perfected Buddha Dipamkara, there were five hundred merchants who set sail on the high seas in search of wealth. Among the company was a doer of dark deeds, a doer of evil deeds, a robber well-trained in the art of weaponry, who had come on board that very ship to attack them.

He thought, “I will kill all these merchants when they have achieved their aims and done what they set out to do, take all possessions and go to Jambu Continent.”

“Son of the family: then the merchants achieved their aims and set about to depart. No sooner had they done so, than that deceitful person thought:

“Now I will kill all these merchants, take all their possessions and go to Jambu Continent. The time has come.”

133. At the same time, among the company on board was a captain named Great Compassionate. While Captain Great Compassionate slept on one occasion, the deities who dwelt in that ocean showed him in a dream:

‘’’Among this ship’s company is a person named so and so, of such and such sort of physique, of such and such, garb, complex, and shape—a robber mischievous, a thief of others’ property. He is thinking,” I will kill all these merchants, take all their possessions and go to Jambu Continent.” To kill these merchants would create formidable evil karma for that person. Why so? These five hundred merchants are all progressing toward supreme, right and full awakening; they are each irreversible from awakening. If he should kill these Bodhisattvas, the fault—the obstacle caused by the deed—would cause him to burn in the great hells for as long as it take each one of these Bodhisattva to achieve supreme, right and full awakening, consecutively. Therefore, Captain, think of some skill in means to prevent this person from killing the five hundred merchants and going to the great hells because of the deed.

134. “Son of the family: Then the captain Great Compassionate awoke. He considered what means there might be to prevent that person from killing the five hundred merchants and going to the great hells. Seven days passed with a wind averse to sailing to Jambu Continent. Without wind during those seven days he plunged deep into thought, not speaking to anyone.

“He thought, “There is no means to prevent this from slaying the merchants and going to the great hells but to kill him.’

“And he thought, ‘if I were to report this to the merchants, they would kill and slay him with angry thoughts and all go to the great hells themselves.’

“And he thought, ‘if I were to kill this person, I would likewise burn in the great hells for one hundred-thousand eons because of it. Yet I can bear to experience the pain of the great hells, that this person not slay these five hundred merchants and develop so much evil karma. I will kill this person myself.

135. Son of the family: Accordingly, the captain Great Compassionate protected those five hundred merchants and protected that person from going to the great hells, by deliberately stabbing and slaying that person who was a robber with a spear, with great compassion and skill in means. And all among the company achieved their aims and each went to his own city.

136. “Son of the family. At that time, in that life I was none other than the Captain Great Compassionate. Have no second thought or doubt on this point. The five hundred merchants on board the five hundred Bodhisattvas who are to niranize to supreme, right and full awakening in hits auspicious eon.

“Son of the family: For me, Samsara was curtailed for one hundred-thousand eons because of that skill in means and great compassion. And the robber died to be reborn in a world of paradise. The five hundred merchants on board are the hundred future Buddhas of the auspicious eon.

137. “Son fo the family, what do you think of this? Can curtailing birth and death for one hundred-thousand eons with that skill in means and that great compassion with gnosis of skill in means be regarded as the Bodhisattva’s obstacle caused by past deeds? Do not view it in that way. That should be regarded as his very skill in means.

—quoted from Mark Tatz’ Skill in Means Sutra, pp. 73-74

12 Years a Slave, 4 Centuries an Oppression

I watched, along with some friends, the movie 12 Years a Slave. We all enjoyed it or rather appreciated it, in spite of the depressing and horrifying quality of the narrative. Part of its impact is knowing it is based on an autobiography which is being portrayed with as much historical accuracy as is possible in a mainstream film, gruesome whippings and lynchings included.

There is great power in a story. Even a fictional story like Uncle Tom’s Cabin was able to spark a political transformation across an entire nation. An autobiographical narrative is able to cut even deeper.

It put into context the books I’ve been reading about race and racism. Many of them are great books, but even the most insightful analysis can’t compete with a compelling and heart-rending personal narrative. Only Black Like Me by Griffin comes close to 12 Years a Slave and it does so by coming from a very personal angle.

This is the challenge of non-fiction. I love knowledge. There is nothing greater than truth expressed, most especially an uncomfortable truth and even moreso when it challenges power or breaks a oppressive silence. At times something can be explained and given voice so as to make it tangible and real, something that was only vaguely felt before.

A book as I describe can be found in the example of The New Jim Crow which is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long while, but I wonder how many people it will reach simply because it is a dense book filled with data. If the world was just or if most people cared enough about trying to make the world more just, The New Jim Crow would be read far and wide. Yes, it is dense with data, but oh what mind-blowing data it is and what a damning case the author makes with that data. What many only suspected before is made absolutely clear with this book.

Still, even that book doesn’t even come close to the soul-despairing indictment made in the best books by Derrick Jensen, an author not part of my present reading project. He doesn’t as directly focus on the issue of race and racism for his scope is more broad while also being more personal. I was thinking that only Jensen has ever touched me as deeply as a movie like 12 Years a Slave, more deeply actually in that he shows how the horror of violence and oppression isn’t a thing of the past or even just an issue of a single race.

We need someone equivalent to Jensen with a more direct focus on race and racism. A closer equivalent would be What’s the Matter with White People? by Joan Walsh. She connects personal experience and larger issues in a way that is useful, but nowhere near as profound or insightful as Jensen.

There are many good books and movies out there. If anything, we are swamped in worthy works. In the past, many people were ignorant because of a lack of info or lack of access to info. But that is no longer the case. No one has an excuse to not understand the problems of our society, the racism and other prejudices, the oppression and violence, the victimization and impoverishment, etc.

One of my friends I went to the movie with made a comment that I thought was problematic or misses something important. She said that those slave-owners had to have been insane. No, they weren’t insane, well no more insane than most people at that time and I’d argue no more insane than most people today. We all are largely blind and indifferent to the immoralities and injustices all around us, even when they directly involve us. If we were to face the immense suffering of our society, we’d be overwhelmed by despair (or that is the fear). But maybe there is no way forward except through that despair, scary as it seems.

Even more than that, we are afraid of the guilt that would follow, guilt about what has been done and continues to be done, guilt about what hasn’t yet been done and should be done. This is our shared society. We are all responsibility for the way things are. None of us are innocent. There is no place in this world for innocents. Only those who are able to feel guilt will be able take moral action. As there is power in a story, there is power in guilt. Shame is disempowering, but guilt when deeply felt creates a moral imperative.

How do we as a society move past shame and denial? How do we let go of our fears and face what must be faced? We are filled with potential more immense than any despair. We can continue to re-create the same old problems and failures or we can find a new path forward. I’m not alone in understanding this choice. In many different contexts, I hear people saying the same thing across the political spectrum. We feel stuck, but the necessary insight is to realize that we are stuck in a trap of our own making. If whites were to let go of their shame and blacks to let go of their anger, how might we redirect our focus on solving our shared problems?

Response to a Response About DFW

Illustration by Harry Aung

I noticed a blog post about David Foster Wallace’s suicide.

It’s the one year anniversary of DFW death already?
By junkdrawer67

I should begin by saying I’ve never read much of DFW, but I plan to.  I think I may have read a short story of his and I barely started Infinite Jest years ago.  However, I’m impressed by how much people are impressed by him.  I should check out some of his essays.

The reason I’m writing this post is because of the emotional hurt this blogger was trying to communicate.  The blogger said he was angry but seemed to be expressing a complex emotional experience.  I’ve seen similar responses to DFW’s death by other bloggers.  I was trying to get a sense of what is at the root of this response.  Why anger?

For very personal reasons, I have a strong emotional reaction to such strong emotional reactions.  It makes me feel sad to know that people feel anger about anothers’ sadness… or something like that.  I mean these people who are angry consider themselves fans of DFW.  From reading about DFW, it seems to me that he gave his heart and soul to his writing.  He gave all he had to give which (going by the responses) was immense and apparently he had nothing left to give.  What more do his fans want from him?  It’s not a matter of judging DFW’s angry fans as being selfish for having wanted more from DFW.  Rather, it just makes me wonder how well these fans actually understood him… but I shouldn’t be critical.  These fans, of course, have every right to feel anger or any other emotion for that matter, but… I don’t know.  It just makes me feel sad.

As for suicide, my perspective is different.  I can feel anger towards a world that leads someone to suicide, but I’m incapable of feeling anger for anyone who commits suicide.  In fact, I’m constantly surprised more people don’t end their lives.  There is a whole lot of suffering out there in the big bad world.  The desire to end one’s suffering is a completely rational response and I suspect it’s because people aren’t rational that they go on living in despair.

My usual response to suffering is compassion or at least sympathy.  For me, suffering is a personal reality as I’ve had depression for a couple of decades and little has been of help.  Many years ago, I attempted suicide.  As I personally understand the absolute suffering and desperation someone feels before a suicide attempt, I just don’t have it in me to feel anger.  There is nothing wrong with feeling angry and anyways there isn’t much use in judging an emotional response no matter what it is.  It’s just not my response.  I feel plenty of anger towards many things, but not towards suicide.

A while back, I heard in the news of a young girl who killed herself (which I wrote about in my post Suffeing… two responses).  It may seem odd, but my immediate response was a mix of sympathy and relief.  The emotion I felt was almost positive in that I was glad someone had escaped a life of suffering.  If someone is already feeling suicidal at a young age, it’s quite likely life is only going to get worse.  Maybe I’m a cynic, but it’s the way I experience the world.

Killing oneself is one of the hardest things to do, harder than killing another person.  There is somewhere between 8 and 25 attempts for every suicide death.  So, quite likely DFW had attempted suicide a number of times before and it was probably constantly on his mind for years.

I must admit I feel a desire to defend DFW… and all the other severely unhappy people in the world.  If I were feeling suicidal and I personally knew someone who felt anger towards someone who had killed themselves, I very well might feel even more suicidal.  Nothing makes a depressed person even more depressed than the sense that others don’t understand their despair.  Depressed people generally already feel enough anger towards themselves that they don’t need any help in that respect.

I do have a hard time understanding anger towards suicide.  I understand it in a sense, but I just can’t feel it.  I’ve come across a number of people who were angry at DFW for his suicide and it truly bewilders me.

I wonder if part of it is fear.  After all, if one admires someone like DFW whose writing was grounded in his emotional experience, then that brings up some difficult issues.  Is there danger in admiring someone who killed themselves?  If someone truly understood DFW’s suffering, wouldn’t that lead one to despairing in the same way?  We all have the potential for suicide and that can be a scary thought when considered seriously.  It might take the wind out of one’s anger and I’d guess that many people feel anger so that they won’t feel despair.

Any death can bring up many negative emotions.  This is especially true when a person’s life ends when they still have much potential.  I can think of a few favorite writers I wish had lived longer lives.

Somewhat comparable to DFW might be Philip K. Dick.  PKD died at the top of his game.  His name became very well known and his family grew rich off of his writings.  He knew much suffering and struggle, and he attempted suicide about 10 yrs prior to his death.  His years of drug use probably led to his dying at the peak of his career.  I could be angry that he flirted with death a bit too much and didn’t live long enough to manifest all of his potential, but I’m not.  His disturbed state of mind led to a precarious life and it led to a depth of insight that is rare.  I’m not sure there is a way to have one without the other.  Artists often suffer for their art and often die young… that is no new idea.

But why anger towards an artist who sacrificed himself in plumbing the depths?  Artists like DFW and PKD give more to the world than most people who live twice as long.  Why not instead feel anger for the vast majority of people who don’t even come close to living up to their potential?  Or is that it?  Do people feel anger when their heroes fail because they know they couldn’t do any better?  Is the anger some of DFW’s fans feel in actuality anger towards themselves?  I suppose I could understand that… but if so, why not just say that?  Is it hard to admit what that means if you feel anger for a person who you realize even in failure is a greater person than you can ever hope to be?

Is that being too harsh?

When our heroes fail, we realize that they too were human.  An artist, no matter how great, is first and foremost a human just like the rest of us.  However, the fan knows and loves the artist as an artist.  It’s strange the ways someone tries to communicate the loss of a hero.  Junkdrawer67 was himself responding to another blogger (John Moe: I Did Not Read Infinite Jest This Summer) who used two analogies.  That other blogger described it in terms of a superhero:

We’re an urban metropolis that’s collapsing under the weight of corruption and moral degradation, gangs are everywhere and no one collects the garbage. Dystopia, right? But! We do have this one super hero who occasionally rescues us and occasionally he can’t quite rescue us but even then he provides us with the idea of hope, the idea of salvation and redemption being possible from our little hell. Only now David Foster Wallace has hanged himself and so our superhero has just announced that screw this city, I’m moving to Australia and you’ll never see me again and so we’re just left with rot and sorrow and no one will even collect the garbage and the cops are shooting people for no reason and everything’s on fire. Wallace left us.

That is what a good artist does.  They make themselves feel present.  This blogger hadn’t ever met DFW or even read his greatest work, and still he felt that DFW had somehow personally left him behind.  Ultimately, though, that is an illusion the artist creates.  We don’t even hardly know the people who are immediately in our lives.  For the reader of DFW, he has never left for his words remain and words are all a reader has.

It’s interesting that people look to artists with hope.  An artist offers the possibility of redemption, the possibility of saving us from our drab lives.  In participating in the artist’s creation, we fill inspired by the potential of life.  Creativity, after all, is a seemingly life-affirming activity and so the suicide of an artist hits even harder.  What the blogger doesn’t mention here is that not only couldn’t DFW rescue us but couldn’t even rescue himself.

Before this description, the blogger began his post with another analogy:

I’m still upset at the author for being a thief. Ever been robbed? Like had your house burglarized and your stuff rummaged through and stolen? There’s this period right after it happens when you can’t believe that someone got into where you live, the space where you sleep and bathe and eat, and just took stuff you had bought and taken care of. David Foster Wallace hanged himself and robbed us of all the work he would have produced in the future. Our homes were stocked floor to ceiling with the promise of the best goddamn writing people could make and Wallace fucking ripped it off. I’m still walking around wanting to punch someone. Don’t bother calling the goddamn cops, they won’t do anything.

There is a sense that a fan has toward an artist.  It’s a sense of ownership.  When an artist puts his work out into the world, it stops being simply his own and becomes something like public property.  Along with the sense of knowing the artist, there is a sense that the artist’s life is public property.  Even in death, someone like DFW lives on in the mind of his fans.  That has happened for me as well with a few writers.  PKD is very much a living person to me even though he died when I was beginning elementary school.

I guess my sense of PKD is a bit different.  Maybe it’s different because he was already dead when I discovered his writing.  His suffering was something of the past.  I never thought PKD would rescue me.  I quickly understood the dark path down which PKD’s writing could take me and I accepted that whatever redemption PKD offered me it was a redemption mired in suffering.  Also, I’m not sure I feel either that I possess PKD’s writings or that I’ve lost anything, but maybe that once again has to do with his death being a foregone conclusion.  I never had the hope of having anything more from PKD.  It does sadden me that he didn’t get around to finishing the stories he had in mind when he died, but it’s just the way it is.  Death, even when chosen, rarely comes at a convenient time.

My sense is that the anger about the loss of a hero is about a loss of hope.  In admiring an artist especially a living one, maybe it’s always a risk that we end up expecting too much from them.  But this is the problem of all of life.    Everyone starts off in life with more expectations than life itself can meet.  It’s the fate of being human.  The artist for a moment helps us to believe in something greater.  Nonetheless, the artist shares our fate in being human.

I’ll give the last word to DFW:

File:Infinite jest cover.jpg

A quote of David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (p. 695-6) from willhansen2’s blog The Ambiguities:

Hal isn’t old enough yet to know that… numb emptiness isn’t the worst kind of depression.  That dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain.  Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria.  Instead of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of soul…. Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.
It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it.  It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence.  It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels.  It is a nausea of the cells and soul.  It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself…. Its emotional character… is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.
It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed….  Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution.  It is a hell for one….
The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square.  And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing.  The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise…. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.

Fear-mongering and Scapegoats

I don’t have much to say other than to share a simple observation about human nature.  In the online comments section of my local newspaper, many people seem angry, even righteously angry.  Quite a few people are aggressive to the point of trying to start arguments.  People bicker and act dismissively, and civil behavior apparently is the exception to the rule.  The majority of posters comment already posturing for a fight and everyone is constantly trying to draw the lines of who is on what side.

All of the negativity depresses me and I feel myself drawn into it.  It’s not a matter of whether I can hold my own.  I’m a better debater than many of the people commenting, but I’d rather just discuss than argue.  Why is that so difficult?

My sense is that there is a lot of fear.  That is basically what I get from all of the bickering.  Look past all of the intellectual rationalizations, ideological justifications, social game-playing, and psychological personas… look past all of that and what lies beneath is a bunch of people afraid of the world.  And it’s not just here.  People walk around with this fear all day long and it usually remains hidden behind a social facade.

It’s understandable.  There is much to be afraid of.  The world is a scary place.  I’m full of fears myself.  The problem is that the fears seem misplaced or rather projected.  People begin with their fears and then look for something to explain why they feel so afraid. look for something to blame, to scapegoat.

I realize this is completely normal human behavior.  People have been doing it for at least as long as civilization has existed and probably longer.  But it’s still sad.

It just seems like humans always need an enemy, a bad guy.  It really doesn’t even matter who gets tagged ‘it’… except to the person who gets to be the scapegoat.  The even more weird part is that it’s also a part of human nature to embrace the role of scapegoat.  When someone is seen as an outsider, they start acting that way.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s a play and there is a role for everyone.  We fall into our scripts and the show begins.

 – – –

In case anyone is interested, my thoughts are loosely inspired by the ideas of Arnold Mindell. I’d recommend Mindell’s books, but you can find some info about his ideas on the web (Amy and Arny Mindell website). He analyzes relationships and social roles, and he specializes in conflict resolution both on the small and large scale.

His basic theory is that there are basic roles that have to be fulfilled in any social situation or else the social dynamic gets stuck. The problem is that oftentimes there are certain roles that nobody wants to play. This either leads to collective frustration as this aspect has no outlet.

If no one willingly accepts a particular role, then sometimes it’s forced onto someone. Or people sometimes find themselves acting in a way that seems out of character and it could be because they’re unconsciously playing some role in that situation.