Saturday, August 10, 2013

Wu Wei (無為)

If all culture is poison, as I have come to believe, then it is also to some degree healthy.  This is true even of the most awful culture anyone can imagine.  Health is a matter of dosage, not substance.  From this it follows that the most dangerous poison in my life is the one that appears to do no harm.

When I first experienced my faith crisis, there were many contributing factors.  One of them was the terrible shame I felt as a result of contemporary Mormon teachings about sexuality.  As a young man experiencing puberty in the LDS church, I felt that my existence as a sexual being made me inherently evil.  Every time something occurred to remind me of sex, I felt evil, and there was nothing I could do to escape the horror of my own judgement (a judgement that I found confirmed by Mormon leaders, rightly or wrongly, on purpose or not: it doesn't matter).  I was wounded a great deal by my experience with puberty, and the church did thrust some daggers in those wounds, causing them to fester.  This is my story.

Moving out into the world, I meet people with stories like mine, people broken by some toxic encounter with culture.  Occasionally, we victims like to imagine a world in which our personal monsters don't really exist--a world in which no young man is ever ashamed of his sexuality (in my case), a world in which authority is never abused, a world in which perfect justice is something impossibly good rather than awfully evil.  The older I get, the less I believe in the utility of such imagination.

The reality of life is that something will always hurt you.  Something will break you.  Something will kill you.  And no matter who tells you otherwise, there is no silver bullet.  There is no Fountain of Youth, no panacea for human suffering that will make it all vanish or reduce it all to something universally benign (let alone pleasant).  Life is hell.  The trick is not to deny this reality, not to escape it, but to meet it head-on in the best manner possible.  If heaven is a place where nobody gets hurt and nothing goes wrong and it does not matter what you do, then heaven does not exist.  To the extent that I am serious about engaging with the world as it actually exists, I must give it up.  I must make hell minimally painful rather than try to replace it with something else impossibly pleasant.

The problem with people who are hurt (people like me), is that we see only what hurt us.  We don't see how what hurt us helps someone else.  We don't see how banning the drug we OD'ed on will not improve universal human health.  We see life narrowly, generalizing from our own experience naively into the experience of others (who are not like us, not even when they appear to be so).

I cannot tell you how to live.  I cannot tell you how to meet the unique and personal hell that you will face in your existence.  I can support you.  I can be a resource for you.  I can offer sympathy and respect.  But more than that would be immoral--harmful to both of us.

Back to sex.  What saved me in the end from the crippling weight of my own judgement was not a sudden lift in universal human sexual taboos.  People continue to have sex today the same ways they have for eons: my story was never about them.  What saved me was meeting people who supported me, people to whom I was not ashamed to bare my soul.  As long as there are people like this somewhere, people like me will be fine: we just need to find the healers.  We don't need to make everyone practice the same kind of medicine.  We don't need to ban sexual shame, no matter what harm it has done us. How could we?  My shame was interior and autonomous.  The LDS church did not put it there.  Its mistake was to treat me with a generic soul-medicine against which I experienced a severe allergic reaction.  Some people need the kind of medicine that the church practices.  Some people need external shame (lacking the kind of massive internal inhibition that I have, not because I am better than anyone else, but because I am me).  Shutting down the social therapists that dispense external shame will not fix the world; a few guys like me might feel a bit better (for a while), but other guys out there will be suffering for lack of the shame they can no longer find.  My life is not worth more than theirs.  My suffering is not worth more.  They have the same claim to health that I have, and we cannot live by the same lights: our health is not the same.

The ultimate lesson I take away from my experience is that I cannot speak for other people.  I cannot tell them how to be happy.  I cannot pretend to design a single regimen for human life that will "maximize utility" (to borrow the convenient expression) for all and sundry with more benefits than deficits.  I don't believe that this "single regimen" exists (anywhere).  There is not one good way of life.  There cannot be.  All attempts to build and enforce such uniformity end up being more evil than good, hurting more than they help.

This means that people have to be wary.  We have to mistrust others and ourselves.  We have to diversify.  Never trust one institution or regimen with all your soul.  Don't worship one god.  Don't attend one support-group.  Don't bet on one stock, one company, one government.  Don't depend on a single career.  Within whatever career you have at the moment, don't depend on a single path to get the results you want.  Be redundant.  Be inefficient.  Doubt everything.  Don't be quick to identify yourself positively with any group or group ideology, even if you like it.  Be yourself.  Have multiple friends, but not too many, and never burden any of them with more trust than they can bear.  Own yourself (including the reality that you have no concrete self, no permanent essence that persists through all the various permutations other people call "you").  Know your limits, and don't let yourself think you can transcend them.  Don't make others dependent on you.  If you must be a leader for some reason, ditch that role as soon as you can (especially if you are successful at it: success attracts people to court ruin, their own and that of others).  Don't hate the things that hurt you (even when they hurt you really badly, even when you have to defend yourself by attacking them head-on).

Be hard like water: hard enough to break rocks, but not so hard that they break you.

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