Sorry about the long hiatus – again.* My accustomed afflictions raised their unlovely heads — again. You’d think they’d get bored with this game, but no; they are constant companions, committed to keeping me off kilter.
What energy I have had has gone into writing more Get Out The Vote letters, this time for the Georgia Senate run-off races. (Just when we thought is was safe to go back in the water….) For now, I am writing letters for Vote Forward:
These letters have to go out ON the seventh of December. Apparently that’s a magic date. I’ve managed to write one hundred so far, and will plug away as best I can until the seventh. If anyone wants to join in, I believe it’s not too late to sign up and download letters of your own. (If you’re a fountain-pen user, invest in some sugarcane copy paper. It’s much more welcoming to fountain-pen ink than run-of-the-mill copy paper.)
I have no idea whether there’s a chance that the Democrats might take those Georgia seats; in fact, I rather doubt it. But if they don’t, I have no idea whether our new president will be able to effect any meaningful change or get any useful legislation passed. So I’m writing.
And in the midst of the pandemic and the politics and the personal perturbations, there was Thanksgiving week. When I was a kid, Thanksgiving was a simple holiday, purportedly celebrating the amity between Indians and the settlers in the “New” World. Now the day is rightly complicated by the realization that the stories we were told as children were heavily skewed to support the colonial hegemony about to displace, enslave, and murder the indigenous populations, to justify the actions of the white people who would corral in reservations the Native Americans who survived, while attempting to eradicate cultures, languages, and identities of the civilizations that were here for millennia before any Europeans stumbled upon these shores. And yet my family celebrates the day because it is a family occasion — except not this year. And that was hard. Zoom just doesn’t replace prescence.
Moreover, this week, for us, held the anniversary of the death of my husband’s mother, the wedding anniversary of my parents, and the birthday of my mother, so it was a week of remembrance.
And here I must segue into a mention of an app that provides me with a Shakespeare quotation for each day. Why do I have such an app? Well, aside from the fact that everyone should have such an app, my mother was a Shakespearean actress at the Pasadena Playhouse in her youth and she passed on her love of Shakespeare to me. I majored in English lit, emphasis in Renaissance drama, and so, between my mother and my major, I must have this app. It often serves up eerily appropriate passages, like fortune cookies that seem to have an uncanny awareness of what is happening in the lives of those who area about to consume them.
And so, into this poignant week, on the very birthday of my mom, the daily Shakespeare quotation was
which pretty much sums up the last eighteen months for my family.
*A perpetual question is whether to apologize for something that isn’t my fault. I certainly didn’t choose to have depression or M.E., and a number of my fellow-sufferers say we should not apologize because doing so makes it seem that we are choosing not to do whatever it was we were supposed to have been doing. Nevertheless, these conditions affect other people, too. So, in case there’s anyone out there who might have been kind enough to hope that I would have posted something new sooner: apologies.
Preamble I want to take back the word ruminate. The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that the word “ruminate (v.)” dating from the 1530s, means “’to turn over in the mind,’ also ‘to chew cud’ (1540s), from Latin ruminatus, past participle of ruminare ‘to chew the cud; turn over in the mind,’ from rumen (genitive ruminis) ‘gullet,’ of uncertain origin.” Merriam-Webster Online gives the definition of ruminate as
transitive verb 1: to go over in the mind repeatedly and often casually or slowly 2: to chew repeatedly for an extended period intransitive verb 1: to chew again what has been chewed slightly and swallowed : chew the cud 2: to engage in contemplation : REFLECT
But psychology — and in general I have real respect and genuine gratitude for the healing and support psychology and psychotherapists provide; if I kept a gratitude journal, my therapist’s name would be on every page — has come near to ruining this abundantly apt word that perfectly expresses the way many of us need or choose to take the time to ponder and deliberate rather than hasten to judge or get embroiled in the consequences of an ill-considered decision. Psychology, as a field, has decided ruminate should mean obsessively thinking about whatever is bothering one, over and over, round and round… ¹
I think one of the reasons that this definition has become popular, not only among psychologists, but in the general public as well, is that we have such short attention spans and have come to prize speed over all else. We rush to embrace technology that robs us of our privacy, we don’t stay to watch the credits after a movie (unless there’s an added scene), we expect to know the results of every election before the votes are all counted.
Take a breath, people.
Being ruminative used to be a positive attribute, one that indicated one was a careful, thoughtful person, not inclined to fling one’s self pell-mell off a cliff. Now it is a weakness, a character flaw that indicates one brings one’s misfortunes upon one’s self because one can’t control one’s thoughts.
Join me in my mission. Let’s rescue ruminate. Start using it in its proper sense. Fling it with abandon into your philosophical conversations: “I was ruminating upon the meaning of life the other day and wondering just what 42 really has to do with it.” If someone tries to push you into making a snap decision, say, “You know, in order to give you the thoughtful answer you
deserve, I need to ruminate on that for a day or two.” When next asked to describe yourself, pause for a moment,then declare, “I am an attentive, measured sort of person with a ruminative cast to my mind.” (Just don’t tell anyone you’re a ruminant. That will totally undermine our goal.)
And after we save ruminate, we’re coming back for you, enable.
Every so often, the New Yorker slips a suggestion for an archived article into the inbox of my e-mail. That how I came across Andrew Solomon’s article, “Anatomy of Melancholy,” that appeared in New Yorker’s January 12, 1998 issue. It’s a pretty harrowing description of the depths down to which depression can pull person and of the biases that still pertain when it comes to admitting to others or to ourselves that we have a mental illness and, worse, might be so “weak” as to need chemical (or electrical) interventions. As I moved through the essay, I came upon this proffered bit of wisdom:
Accuracy of perception is not an evolutionary priority. Too optimistic a world view results in foolish risk-taking, but moderate optimism gives you a strong selective advantage. “Normal human thought and perception,“ Shelley Taylor writes in her 1989 book, Positive Illusions, “is marked not by accuracy but by positive self-enhancing illusions about the self, the world, and the future. Moreover…these illusions are not merely characteristic of human thought; they appear actually to be adaptive.” As she notes, “The mildly depressed appear to have more accurate views of themselves, the world, and the future than normal people. [They] clearly lack the illusions that in normal people promote mental health and buffer them against setbacks.”
So — why are those of us with depression and accurate perceptions the ones who are mentally ill, while the “normies” with their illusions are the ones who are considered sane? Why are we the ones who are seen as less evolved? Am I the only one who thinks this assessment is a little bit off?
In a recent car commercial, actor and apparent guru Matthew
McConaughey ruminates (see how easy it is just to slip the word right into a sentence?) out loud about the process of identity formation.
“Knowin’ who we are is hard — it’s hard. Eliminatin’ who you
are not, first, and you’re gonna find yourself where ya need to be.”
OK, first: shouldn’t the thrust of the first sentence — the search for identity — lead to a statement about finding out who one is rather than where one is? I guess that’s what happens when one infuses manufactured sagacity into an advert for a vehicle. And never mind the lack of parallel structure in the second sentence.
But what I keep thinking is, “What if we, as is recommended by Mr. McConaughey, eliminate all the people we are not, only to realize there’s no one left?” That’s kind of who-where I keep finding myself.
An ethical dilemma: At the recommendation of a friend, I picked up Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, by Daniel G. Amen. M.D. I haven’t read very far into it, but so far there are some sensible observations about the practicality of having one’s brain scanned for damage so one knows whether medical or psychotherapeutic remedies are most likely to be beneficial. However, on page twenty-nine, our friend the doctor discusses things that hurt the brain and things that help the brain. Under malign influences, Dr. Amen notes that “even spending time with unhealthy people [is] bad for the brain.” OK: I can see how that can work; we are the company we keep.
In the next paragraph, Dr. Amen lists things that can boost the brain. This list includes the point that “In many ways, the best thing you can do for your brain is to spend time with healthy people. As we will see, they are contagious. I often say the fastest way to get healthy is to find the healthiest person you can stand and then spend as much time around him or her as possible.” That also makes sense.
Aside from the difficulties of fulfilling this prescription in our COVID-19-riddled age — and you may already see the problem here — consider this: Let’s say I’m a healthy person. I know an unhealthy person, someone with, say, depression, someone who would immensely benefit from spending time with me. Yet if I do spend time with that person, I’ll be engaged in an activity that will be detrimental to my own grey matter. On the other hand, if I choose to protect myself by shunning the depressed person, I’m selfishly depriving her or him of my beneficial “contagion” and preventing that person from attaining the flourishing cerebrum she or he deserves. (Unless, of course, that person has been ruminating. In that case, she or he deserves all the melancholy that infests her or his soul. [That’s an example how NOT to use the word ruminating.]) I’m either allowing harm to come to myself or withholding aid from another, which makes me a pretty lousy human being, and knowing that I’m a pretty lousy human will depress me.
Now let’s imagine that I am the unhealthy person, and I know a tremendously healthy person, in whose salubrious presence I never fail to rally. I have a lot of time on my hands. I easily could spend days with this person and notably sharpen my dulled mental functions and ameliorate my debilitating mood. However, by latching on to this bloom-imparting person, I will be causing harm to that individual’s well-being and will likely disrupt her or his equilibrium. That would make me an insensitive parasite, sucking the life out of someone for my own ends, and being such a draining leech would make me feel horrible and depressed.
So what to do? I hate lose-lose, damned-if-you-do-or-don’t, caught-between-Scylla-and-a-hard-place options.
Revenge Bedtime Procrastination, which has a much more beautiful name in Chinese (the literal translation for revenge bedtime procrastination means “suffering through the night vengefully.”), is a phenomena unique to people who feel out of control in their daily lives, so we refuse to go to sleep early, to exert some control over our lives, and to enjoy some quiet time alone, when the rest of our people are sleeping.
I should confess, straight up, that I am, by nature, a night owl. It runs in the family. But I love both this concept and its name. Between the depression and the M.E. and the State of the Union, I’m having an increasingly hard time getting any sleep. I just wish being AWAKE YES I’M AWAKE YES I DO KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS OH ISN’T THAT A LOVELY SUNRISE? would wreak some actual vengeance on the conditions and people who are responsible for my near-insomnia.
I hope, dear reader, that my ruminations provide some conceptual cud for your synapses to masticate at the pace of your choosing. And don’t forget: enable is still waiting for us… _____________________________________