Thursday, May 28, 2009

Did You Know?

Mimi Smartypants occasionally writes no-edit Tuesday (or maybe it's Thursday, but it's definitely a day that begins in a T and ends in a y) posts where she doesn't edit. At all. I could never do that. Ms. Smartypants can do that because she's a) an editor and b) a genius. I would just end up cringing all over the place. My version of editing is mostly deleting long passages that I figure are over the limit in terms of self-indulgence. And I have a pretty high limit for self-indulgence. There is likely a therapeutic value to writing many many many many words about subjects of no interest to anyone but myself, but those benefits remain even after I delete the text. Deletion is the better part of valor. I should be even more valorous, but I'm not.

I remember feeling the foundations of my intellectual/word choice world shaking when, one day, I came across what seemed to me an error in a Smartypants post. The divine Ms. S had used the phrase "give free reign" instead of "give free rein," and I was nonplussed.8 I kept trying to justify the use of "free reign" as a metaphor derived from politics and monarchical oppression instead of the usual metaphor derived from animal husbandry6,7, but I couldn't quite get there. I emailed Ms. Smartypants to explain that I was having trouble seeing how "reign" was appropriate but that I took it as an a priori truth that she was incapable of error, so I would appreciate if she could explain her thought process so that I might be enlightened. And she responded, fairly quickly, with something along the lines of "Oops. That's just wrong. I'll change it." Talk about your mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was glad that the whole reign v. rein matter was settled. But then there was that whole my-god-has-feet-of-clay! thing. Mimi Smartypants fallible. How can anyone believe in God in such a world?

But then I was also feeling kind of bad ass because -- whoa! -- I found a Smartypants error and got it corrected. It's sort of how I'd feel if God actually existed, and I had sent him an email saying, "Excuse me. I know I don't really understand your overall plan and that I should be prostate and eating dust and all that, but I really don't get how Newt Gingrich was a good idea," and he had replied to say, "Sorry, TED. It's a really big universe and sometimes things slip through the cracks. Thanks for bringing the Gingrich matter to my attention. You'd be surprised at how reticent people are to tell me when I've fucked up. I guess they think I'm going to strike them with lightning. As if! Then again, that might be appropriate for Newt. Or I could arrange for a very public autoerotic asphyxiation 'accident.' Tell you what: your call! Thanks for writing, and forget about eating the dust: it's bad for your allergies. BTW, the allergies? Not my fault! LOL." And then I'd be all, you know, God's not such a bad guy, but what's with the scare quotes?

Mimi Smartypants occasionally uses scare quotes, too. It's very disheartening. Whenever she does it a small part of my spirit dies, but I haven't emailed her to complain. I don't want to sound like (even more of) a crank.

If there were a God, I'm pretty sure that he or she wouldn't choose to live in Chicago, but perhaps my notions of deity are misguided. They are certainly more fluid these days. On NPR recently, I heard a couple of reports wherein various people suggested that our experience of the divine may be an artifact of brain chemistry. Hmmm. Part of me believes that matters that can never be either proven or disproven are not appropriate matters for scientific study. This part of me also reckons that if people didn't stop believing in the Bible as the literal word of God after Darwin, nothing's ever going to convince them otherwise.

Recently, two or three days after I learned that my father was terminal, I received some other extremely disturbing news from someone else who is close to me, and it made me very upset. That is to say, it made me very upset after I got over being numb about it. Because, you know, your psyche only puts up with so much at one time. My psyche had already cried uncle so that when this person delivered the news (along with "I know this is a really bad time to be telling you this"), I had to tell him, "Listen, I'm really really sorry to hear that, but my ability to grieve is a little overtaxed at the moment, so if I don't sound devastated, it's just a coping mechanism." But then a few hours later, I was in the car, heading somewhere, and the numbness lifted enough for the wracking sob sort of devastation to start, and I realized that this was the sort of unpleasantness that normally leads people to call out to some deity or other for some sort of assistance. So I started to think what sort of prayer a person like me could legitimately offer, and it would have been something along the lines of, "Hey, you know, I really don't believe in you, but if you're out there, then surely you're big enough not to mind my disbelief, so if you want to offer up some help here, that'd be great, but absent an actual parting of the clouds and a hand descending, you probably shouldn't expect me to attribute any good news to your actions. Sorry about that." But I couldn't say that. What I could, and did, say was, "Listen, if you're out there: FUCK YOU." Then there was more of the sobbing, but I felt better.

Later, I felt bad about the outburst. Not about the substance, but surely it's possible to curse God in a more polite manner. I didn't apologize, though. I don't reckon he's out there, and if he is, he's heard worse, right? Or at least he should have, given his record. But mostly, the whole meltdown-while-driving (one of many that happened around that time) made me wonder how non-drivers survive modern life. If you're driving alone in your car, you can sing (well or badly), you can shout at the traffic, and you can have all manner of emotional outbursts, and no one's the wiser. I find it entirely acceptable, even therapeutic, to tell people how difficult of a time I've been having, but actually showing the devastation is something that I can't handle. If you live in Manhattan (or Chicago) and don't drive, all you have is the subway, and while experience has shown me that some people are perfectly willing to have all manner of emotional outbursts in public, most of the people there are stuck with lives of quiet desperation. Or maybe they fall to pieces during power outages, but that seems like it would be hard to coordinate. Granted, non-drivers don't have to deal with traffic, which -- at least when nobody's dying -- accounts for about 85% of all that oppresses me. But they have transit failures, and I understand that city life in general is not without unpleasantness.

Anyway, my anger at the non-existent Judeo-Christian deity notwithstanding, I've been more open to the notion of non-imagined divinity lately. Imagined divinity has always been relatively easy to experience: I just have to sing well or walk through some particularly beautiful countryside or have good sex. But my father's easy and absolutely certain cheerfulness in the face of death makes me consider that there might be something more out there than wonky brain chemistry. It seems to me entirely obvious that if there is such a thing, it doesn't take a predictable or comprehensible form. It's the most human of impulses to reduce that which we do not and cannot know to myth and law, and this impulse explains the specificity and frequent stridency of so many religions. The specificity and stridency used to bother me considerably. But I've decided, recently, to view those religions (or at least the ones that aren't attacking or trying to convert me) as quaint, rather than evil. If going to church gives you comfort, then I don't mind, so long as you don't mind that I comfort myself, in times of torment, by curling up in a ball and singing "Lord Won't You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz." (Really, try it sometime.)

So, my early and intense religious indoctrination notwithstanding, I no longer fear that when I die (many many years hence), I'm going to end up in some celestial courtroom where I'll be found wanting. Just as I don't think any amount of faith and practice would result in my hearing "Well done, my good and faithful servant."

Of course, there are powerful incentives to believe what we want to be true, so perhaps my acknowledgment of the possibility (calling it a belief is about six degrees too strong) of the existence and endurance of the soul is simply another coping mechanism. I can't help thinking that Mimi Smartypants would find the whole matter silly, suggesting instead beer and loud music as superior insulation from the perils of contemporary existence. But I say: whatever works. Ultimately, the white light that so many survivors of near-death experiences report might be the portal to a superior plane of existence. Or it might be the brain's way of powering down painlessly as we dissipate into nothingness. From my point of view, the destination isn't nearly as important as the hope and the painlessness.

6"Animal husbandry" is really not the right term here, but I really like writing "animal husbandry." A day without writing "animal husbandry" is like a day without sunshine, and today needs all the animal-husbandry-related help it can get.

7There is no footnote 7. I just thought that having only one footnote was a bad idea, and there was originally no footnote 8. There are also no footnotes 1 through 5, and the footnotes that do exist are not in order. Expecting a cogent explanation for all this tomfoolery would be foolish, yet you persist. What's up with that?

8Do I have to rant again about the near constant misuse of "nonplussed"? It means that you're unsettled and taken aback. It does not mean that you're taking it all in stride. Stop using it to mean its exact opposite, people.

1 comment:

  1. I saw a show where they tickled (please note my restraint on the scare quotes) a certain area of the brain with a laser and all the subjects reported seeing (note again the restraint) god. I don't know what to make of that but there it is.

    It sucked crying for my dog in the food court at lunchtime.

    But wait, you've got to teach them Ted, they need to be saying "unfazed" instead.