Kim Kierkegaardashian, or, the Art of Balance
I’ve always thought of depth of character, interest or conversation as a pool. At the surface, you’ve got what you ate for breakfast, the Kardashians, remarks on the weather. At the bottom, contemplative explorations of the human condition and utopian ideals and the meaning of suffering. A shallow person may spend their entire energy focused on the six inches at the surface of the pool, never going further down than, say, the relative health benefits of veganism. A shallow person might also spend their entire energy focused on the six inches at the bottom, never going further up than, say, a heated discussion on economic philosophy. To me, depth has nothing to do with where your equilibrium point in the pool is. A deep person is someone who can float up and down through the full depth of the pool.
This is the mindset I strive for. Not only to float up and down throughout the pool, but accept that depth is not an absolute. To explore and appreciate not only the full totality of human experiences, but find that the profound and the mundane are often the same thing. To be able to find soulful meaning in the most trivial experiences, and see the banality and ridiculousness in the would-be meaningful. To me, being able to link the two is the key to not getting stuck in one end of the pool, to being able to apply knowledge and understanding and turn it into meaningful action. To look at the world not only for what it appears to be, but to ask what it is. To ask not only why it is so, but how, tangibly, to change it.
At the root of this all is a strong belief in balance. It’s my mantra, the thing I come back to again and again in annoying and hilarious and frustrating ways. Is the answer this thing, or this other thing? Well, it’s probably both. It’s probably a combination of the two. And it always depends.
Buddhism for Dogs
So in Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths go sort of like this:
- Life’s shit a lot of the time.
- Life’s shit cuz you’ve got desires, and/or you’ve got delusions, and/or you’ve got attachments.
- Life can stop being shit if you stop having the above three things.
- Blah blah Eightfold Path we’re not dealing with this one yet.
Let me say first that I really don’t much care for Buddhism. It’s just not my thing. To me, Buddhism isn’t so much a philosophy as a prescription. You’ve been diagnosed with The Human Condition. Symptoms include: suffering. Would you like to get better? Here’s your medicine: for the most part, it’s non-attachment.
What’s always grated against me about Buddhism is that I don’t think I’m sick. I’m not looking to alleviate my symptoms. I genuinely crave, seek, appreciate, value, and in some ways, enjoy, suffering. Suffering has made me empathetic. Suffering has made me passionate. Suffering has made me A Better Person.
I’m sure, like Jesus, many people have Found Buddhism and feel it to be full of truth and wisdom and genuine help to their lives. Enjoy. Have fun. If that’s your cup of tea, drink the fuck out of it. I’d like a double suffering on the rocks, please.
The reason why Buddhism is not for me comes not only from the fact that I value suffering tremendously. It’s that I also value desire, and to some extent, attachment. Possession – no, not so much. Attachment – it’s nuanced (more on this later). But desire I feel can be absolutely crucial, righteous, and deeply valuable.
I passed a poster on Theobald’s Road once that said “Between our visions and reality lies desire.” This, to me, is why desire is absolutely necessary. To desire something is to wish for what is in your head or heart to be real. Desire can mean wanting to fuck someone pretty. Desire can mean wanting to end systemic oppression. Desire can mean wanting to end suffering.
Try Not to Think of This as Torture
Buddhism and activism to me are both parallels and opposites. They are both seeking to cure suffering. Buddhism looks at suffering in the mind, activism looks at suffering in the streets. The cause of suffering is not only attachment. The cause of suffering is also oppression, cruelty, inequality, brutality. Yes, you can always change your mindset. You can be under horrific torture and try to detach yourself from the delusion that you should not be having your fingernails pried out and fully accept the pain you are feeling as separate from yourself and whatever.
You can. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
Because the cure for suffering in the world is not non-attachment to me. The cure for suffering is a fucking revolution. Tearing down the systems that inflict suffering on so many, that inflict it unfairly and allow the tiniest minority to flourish at the expense of the masses.
And, of course, the cure is balance. It is a balance between doing the internal work to overcome attachment, and the external work of tearing down oppressive structures.
When you look at it, the desire to overcome desire is itself a desire. It’s a feedback loop. To me, there isn’t much of a reason to settle at any point on the loop, but to flow around through it again and again.
In dealing with suffering, there is a place for all things. There is a place for attachment. There is a place for non-attachment. There is a place for flowing through attachment.
If someone breaks your brand new Williams Sonoma wineglass, maybe the best reaction to have is “Ah well, so it goes.” If someone breaks your heart, maybe the best reaction to have is, “I will feel this suffering, let myself feel it, learn from it, and then move past it.” If someone is systematically slaughtering your entire people, maybe the best reaction to have is, “I will not rest until I stop this. I will allow this experience to consume my entire existence. I will live and bleed and die for this.”
This is not to say that all methods of dealing with suffering are ideal at all times, nor that there is any one ideal, or that there is even a given ideal for each potential situation. The question of how best to deal with suffering comes down to: what are you trying to get out of it?
Would You Like To Be Eaten By This Tiger?
A dear friend told me recently, “Take the word ‘should’ out of your vocabulary.”
Let’s ignore for now the paradox that this statement is a demand and has an implied ‘should’ in it. I’m gonna stick to the part where it’s also bullshit.
To change the way you use the word ‘should’ is certainly important, but to get rid of it entirely? Of course not. Because sometimes, there are things you should do. It just doesn’t work how we’re often conditioned to think it does.
Like, if you’re deep in the wild jungles of wherever a ferocious tiger is chasing you, should you run away?
Well, that depends.
I’m not being facetious.
Do you want to avoid being eaten? If you do, then yes, you should probably run. Or climb a tree. Or whatever. If you don’t mind too much either way, or you’re thinking, “Hey, everyone’s gotta die sometime, and this is a pretty cool way to go,” then go ahead and walk up to the tiger and try to shake his hand.
The question of “should” comes down only to what you’re looking to get out of a situation. Before I try to decide what I should do, I try to ask myself: What do I need? What needs can I meet here? How can I meet those needs here? Once those questions have been asked and answered, and only once they have, then is the time for wondering what I “should” do.
Make Attachment Righteous Again
The day out of this year that I felt the deepest emotional suffering was the 9th of November. I’ve had many days and periods of intense happiness and sadness, but the absolute worst (so far, knock on wood) was waking up early on the morning of the 9th to find that Donald Trump was the president-elect of my country.
I have never before gone into physical shock from something I’ve read on the news. Anger, sadness, sickness, fear, yes, of course, I’ve felt these all before. But shock so deep and total it physically fucks up your body, I hadn’t felt that. I woke up, stared at the Electoral College vote count on my phone for about five minutes, ran to the bathroom, vomited, and spent the next two hours shaking under a duvet, too emotional even to cry.
I suffered so much that morning because of attachment. Because even though I’ve left my country, even though I hate so many things about my country, I am very attached to it. I was born there. I grew up there. My family is there. My friends are there. Beautiful land and beautiful people and amazing possibilities are there. Because my country is worth fighting for. Because, maybe, it’s worth being attached to.
Like all things, there is a place for attachment, and a place for non-attachment. When beginning a relationship with a new lover, attachment can be a poison. It can be pressure and assumption (which, to me, is just expectation without consent) and can lead to all kinds of possessive, clingy, jealous behaviors.
But when fighting for something, being attached is essential. It keeps the fire burning. Against insurmountable odds, against a world full of cruelty and horror, attachment to the possibility of a utopia can be the only difference between fighting the good fight and killing yourself, between making a difference and giving up entirely. Attachment can cause tremendous suffering. But suffering can cause tremendous transformation, change, evolution and growth.
Should we suffer, or not? Should we try to escape from suffering, or embrace it and learn from it? Should we try to alleviate the causes of suffering within our minds, or within the structures of society?
The answer is yes. The answer is balance. The answer is serving the needs that need to be met in that situation. The answer is figuring out what those needs truly are.