Tonight, I read an article in the new issue of Harper's by Tom Robbins, titled "In Defiance of Gravity: Writing, Wisdom, and the Fabulous Club Gemini." It got me to thinking about happiness and beauty in life and art. In it, he describes how his desire to end his life was ended by a reminder of much of the playfulness of existence (a cat's "meow" in his case).
Robbins' essay has special importance to me, in light of my recent (recent = "the last five years) anxiety regarding death. He describes a story in which a police officer responds to the terror of drawing a beat in the worst part of town by seeing it as a challenge and openly embracing it, eventually requesting that shift every night.
The police officer effectively eroticizes the source of his terror. Rather than remaining displaced as a horrible event in the forever unrealized future, it becomes a positive thing that has been successfully integrated into his symbolic universe in a helpful way.
"Although serious playfulness may be an effective means of domesticating fear and pain, it's not about meowing past the graveyard. No, the seriously playful individual meows right through the graveyard gate, meows into his or her very grave. When Oscar Wilde allegedly gestured at the garish wallpaper in his cheap Parisian hotel room and announced with his dying breath, "Either it goes or I go," he was exhibiting something beyond an irrepressibly brilliant wit. Freud, you see, wasn't whistling "Edelweiss" when he wrote that gallows humor is indicative of a greatness of soul.
"The quips of the condemned prisoner or dying patient tower dramatically above, say, sallies on TV sitcoms by reason of their gloriously inappropriate refusal, even at life's most acute moments, to surrender to despair. The man [SIC] who jokes in the executioner's face can be destroyed, but never defeated."
Sometimes, I find it really easy to slip into a state of perennial unhappiness. I think this is pretty well evidenced by the way I've interacted with other people, as well as by the many things that I've written, some of which are currently catalogued on this site.
This may seem kind of contradictory at first. Surely, no one wants to be unhappy.
But there's something strangely alluring about misery and time and time again, I find myself drawn to it: the excessive intoxication every night following days of deadening rote performance... the constant whining and complaints about everything around me... the way I hate every place that I've ever lived... the near total pessimism regarding people and their ability to be kind to each other.
I'm not sure why, but unhappiness is comfortable for me. I know how to hate myself and others. I know how to think I'm a horrible writer, academic, thinker, and debater. Those things don't take any reassurance from others. I don't need to seek out help from another person to tell myself that I can't pen an original poem. I don't have to reassure myself that I'm boring or unattractive. All I have to do is tell myself and it becomes true.
Of course, this leads to a cycle in which I cut other people off from my life, run away from potentially dangerous, antagonistic, or nerve-wrecking situations. I stop trying to produce beautiful or useful things and refrain from sharing my opinion with others. I limit my food intake for the short term illusion and rush of taking control over my life. I withhold myself from my schoolwork because I think there's no way I could possibly understand someone like Quine, rather than throwing myself into it, resulting in a string of mediocre Bs on five of my last six classes. I skim over articles in magazines that spout off things that I disagree with. I run away from arguments in debate rounds when people read responses to them, rather than mounting the response that I'm probably capable of. I act like an asshole around people that I respect and have crushes on, rather than acting like a normal humn and engaging in conversation with them. I leave my phone turned off for days on end, rather than leaving it on and answering it when people call.
This road leads to nothing but death. Maybe not actual death, but a kind of living death. Sure, it makes my life less stressful for the moment, but it ends up making my days gray and uneventful. And when I inevitably have to engage a stressful situation (that's pretty much an undying characteristic of life), it becomes that much more unbearable to take.
I guess that's why I'm trying to change things up a bit. Go out of the house more. Join the debate team. Hang out with people I'd normally run away from. Go on AIM every once in a while. Write and go for arguments that I'm not accustomed to (like politics :). Read genres that I don't normally read, like sci-fi books. Listen to music that I've never heard. Plant a garden. Cook new dishes. Have conversations with people about books and movies and *gasp* disagree with them.
All of this can be really uncomfortable, but I usually come out ahead of where I started. It's a very life-enriching process. Like the detective in the story, I need to embrace the very things that scare the shit out of me. It's going to be a long road, but I guess I'm trying. The only alternative is really unacceptable at this point.