Loneliness

“I stretch my loneliness out from eternity to eternity.”

— Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. by Robert Bly, from Selected Poems

One ant, a single bee, an abandoned antelope, and a lone wolf doesn’t amount to very much on their own, and neither does a socially isolated human being.

Some animals have evolved to rely on another set of eyes, another set of hands and minds, to keep safe, find more food, and to raise their young, to receive comfort, care, and guidance. Such a strategy has proven beneficial in the course of our evolution too.

We need strong social ties between every member of our clan and us to help us survive, and when those ties weaken we feel lost, we feel down, we grieve, and we hurt for our place among our people. This separation plunges us into darkness, and we will do anything to get out again.

Think of community as a sort of addiction, a medicine, a supplement to keep us alive, aware, and a part of life and our surroundings. We are addicted to communicating, to mutual intimacy and the exchange of ideas, grievances, and interests. We long to feel safe, seen, cared for, understood, useful, wanted, and connected.

Everyone feels lonely sometimes. Even those among us with big families, lovers, successful professions, money, friends, marriages, kids, even those of us who have achieved fame and secured a place in history, even they feel lonely sometimes.

How could we not? With such a rich inner life and such depth of identity, desire, wisdom, curiosity, and pain and no way to fully convey or share all that we are with another, how could we not lay awake at night wishing for a warm body to take it all away? How could we not long for a friend who might make us laugh, and to hear our pains? How could we not wish to know that at least we are thought of when we aren’t around or that our presence makes some measurable difference while we are here? What is life for if it isn’t for any of those things?

If having a community is an addiction, loneliness is a sort of withdrawal, a symptom, a warning signal of social disruption and spiritual dysfunction. It’s uncomfortable, painful, and we go to great lengths to avoid it. It manifests in a mind that has been cut loose and sent adrift, a mind that has become vulnerable. Loneliness is our reminder to seek out the safety of our tribe again. It’s the solution evolution found to keep us together. Loneliness made other people are our homes.

“Be silent in that solitude, Which is not loneliness —”

— Edgar Allan Poe, Spirits of the Dead

Of course, alone and lonely are not the same things. Sometimes we like to be alone. Sometimes we need to be. Time on our own, to be with ourselves and to shed the expectations and judgment of society is good for our mental health and an important part of our self-care. When we want to be alone, we do not feel lonely. Loneliness is the perception of being socially isolated and alienated when we don’t wish to be. We might be surrounded by people, but if our connections and interactions aren’t meaningful to us, we might as well be the only person on the planet.

We all know what it is but though evolution may have provided the instinct to keep us together the process failed to provide instruction. We want to communicate, but how? We want to connect, but nothing seems to be working.

Neuroscience and psychology have provided perspective by proving that the pain is real, not just mentally making us more fearful, more anxious, and more depressed, but physically making us more susceptible to disease with raised levels of stress hormones, inflammation, and a decreased immune response. Loneliness is not just an emotional malady, it is a physical one, and it most certainly can be fatal.

Science has been able to provide some insight but little balm for the pain. People forget, loneliness isn’t solved by simply surrounding yourself with more people. Despite our rising numbers and ever denser living conditions in our cities, despite the internet and all we to love and hate in common we still feel so alone. We still have no friends, no one to confide in, no one to let us know that while we may be alone inside of ourselves and doomed to be misunderstood for our entire existence, we are at least not alone in the feeling and frustration. We are not alone in our loneliness.

The problem is we expect people to come to us when we are lonely, but the answer is the opposite, we have to go to others. We have to seek out or place and purpose among a tribe of people who will make us feel understood, important, and loved. We have to go out and search for community and when we find it, we have to give of ourselves rather than take what we find and expect to fulfill our longing. Volunteer, share your story, listen to the stories of others, learn something, teach something, get out in the world, or call someone if you can’t and have the world brought to you, reach out, get therapy. When you need people, go to people.

And that is all well and good, and that will all make it better, but the real problem, the problem we won’t name, is that loneliness is a pain with no cure. It’s a chronic condition prone to frequent flare-ups and no matter what the doctors prescribe, it will eventually fail.

“We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”

— Orson Welles

Loneliness is our natural state and everything else is an effort to escape it, not the other way around. We are not naturally connected creatures, we are naturally longing for connection. We are not particularly good at seeing each other, we are only longing to be seen.

What is best to do is to accept it. What is best to do is to stop being afraid of it. Your pain is natural, common, an expected part of human existence. Loneliness is universal and it is that pain which connects us all. That is what we fail to see in each other, the utter loneliness. Look into the eyes of everyone you meet and you will see it there, that terrifying solitude mirroring your own back at you.

It isn’t easy to maintain relationships. It isn’t easy to keep those relationships meaningful. It isn’t easy to be secure in those relationships either. We all feel lonely and we feel it all the time, deep down. It can’t be cured, but it can be eased, you only have to seek out the pain in others and reveal your own too.

“When so many are lonely as seem to be lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone.”

― Tennessee Williams, Camino Real

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Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge: Letter L under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence.” I am aware that the challenge is over and that I have failed to finish on time, but I am determined not to fail to finish at all. 

Photo by Avgust Chech on Unsplash

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Kinds

“The human mind was set up to categorize, generalize. It makes life so much simpler.”

― Laura Lippman

And humans opened their mind’s eye for the first time, and their power of observation went to work on all they beheld. We saw all that was within and all that was without and desired it all for ourselves, he went about gathering all he could and collecting it back in his home, but with only two hands and his home always on the move, we could not carry or control much. This was not enough, nothing is ever enough, and we went to work finding a new way to claim this world.

Humans perfected the power of categorization, and when our vision fell to any object or concept, whether in our world or in reality, humans gave it a name and with every name came a place, an identity, a meaning, and a purpose and each thing of every variety was collected and stored in “kinds”.

Blue is given a name and a place in relation to red. Cheetah is given a name, and its place near the lion is clear. The Theory of Relativity, the Andromeda Galaxy, π, coffee, Zeus, the Redwood Forest, and the Battle of the Bulge were all given names, placed in boxes according to their kind and laid out in clear and clever patterns. Each one on a web and each one part of a continuum that gave away its connection to all others on each side.

I too was given a name, a place, a purpose, and I learned the names of all the people I knew too. I marked their differences and all the ways they were the same and placed them in boxes of my own according to their kind. Then I gave myself my name, marked my own box, and underneath wrote it’s meaning. I placed myself and my box, smartly labeled, and put it precisely where I was told it should be. Now my name means me and I know what kind I am.

“We categorize as we do because we have the brains and bodies we have and because we interact in the world as we do.”

― George Lakoff, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought

If humans have any superpower, it is surely in categorization. We recognize things by what they are like, and what they are not like. We can recognize, label, and recall thousands, maybe millions, of things, far more I would wager than any other life form on this planet. We have to!

Being hunter-gatherer types who must be able to distinguish food from not food. We are also a particularly fragile species lacking much physical prowess compared to our predictors, so we have to be able to recognize what kind of danger we are facing and use our intelligence to outwit it. And of course, being a social species we have to be able to recognize our tribe from our enemies, our friends from foes, and kin from strangers.

Categorization is our power, and we are so good at it. We walk through the world, doing our everyday thing and living our little lives and all the while, as reliable as breathing, as regular as your heartbeat, your mind is bringing in little bits of information through each of your sense and passing it to the brain to be sorted and stored. All those different kinds of things are examined, their qualities compared and each put in their place across a smooth gradient on the cortex, like kinds with like kinds.

Categorization feels good. It’s our favorite thing to do, a shared hobby of all races, genders, class. We’ve been doing it since long before we looked like we do now, at least as far back as our shared ancestor with the rest of the apes. Were not the only one with the ability, but we are certainly the only ones with the talent and passion. In our world, everything has a name and place. Without categorization the ability to recognize what kind of thing we are seeing, feeling, imagining, describing, without comparison, sorting, storing, and recall by name, description, and past experience, we would never have come so far.

Our world is impossibly complex and often quite dangerous, it helps to have a system that can quickly process what kind of thing you are looking at and react appropriately. Categorization helps us make sense of a world where quick decisions have to be made, and a large amount of information has to be processed. It’s also a pretty reliable system for helping us get through situations that we may have not faced by providing a reference and a good guess. If you’ve seen a brown bear, you’ll have some idea of how to respond to a polar bear. If you’ve seen a mountain lion, you know that a tiger is dangerous.

“No doubt one of the reasons human cognition is so powerful is because we have language in our brains, which exponentially increases the ability to categorize information, to chunk. A whole culture, for instance, can be implied by a name.”

― Joseph E. LeDoux

The system even works whether you have seen a past kind of thing or not. It works because we have language—or maybe we have language because the system works? Categorization and words seem to go hand in hand, a locked loop of information processing each enhancing the other, and with the power of both we can tell stories, share information, give advice and warn against danger, but sometimes the system is overzealous. Sometimes it works too well and not as intended.

If someone you have categorized as the kind of person you can trust tells you that you cannot trust black people, or women, or democrats, your first instinct is to believe them. You categorize people and situations you haven’t experienced yet, and once people have been sorted and labeled it’s tough for us to reevaluate, reliable, and resort and while the entire system is highly subjective, like all human illusions, there are real-world consequences. Labeling people by kinds and reacting to them as such has been the cause of much suffering from the dawn of human societies.

We have labels for what a man is supposed to be, what a woman is supposed to look like, how black people behave, what jobs a 60-year-old is capable of learning, what opportunities a poor person deserves, whether or not Muslims can be Americans. Our labels and categories help us understand our world, but they also put limits on it too. We aren’t good at seeing the shades, the subtlety, or continuity. We aren’t good at seeing the variation between two individual examples of a thing. We are uncomfortable with what doesn’t fit, and if the difference cannot be forced into compliance it will be ignored, and if it cannot be ignored it will be banished, and if it cannot be banished, it must be eradicated. We will defend out categorization to the death and go to our own deaths trying to prove it.

There must be no challenge to the system. Everything must fit neatly into its box to be neatly understood because if even one thing lies outside of our understanding, anything can be anything and anything can be unknown and that we cannot abide.

There is no escaping categorization. Even to decide you have no labels, no name, no kind, even that is a label in and of itself. We can’t help it and to deny this reality is to deny our reality. Trying to delude yourself into believing you can stop seeing things as kinds, as their labels and associated connotations and expected characterization is to cover one illusion with another, even bigger falsehood.

What’s best for you is to be aware of what you are doing and to understand that everything you have named, sorted, and labeled could be wrong. What is best for you is to keep your system flexible and to not be too surprised when you come up against things, and people, and ideas, that don’t fit so nicely. It might make you a little uncomfortable or afraid, but you can still label away without shame. All you need to do is get more boxes and learn to let go of old labels. All you need to do is understand that there are far more kinds of things, people, and idea in the world then we can fathom.

We, as a people, we have a strong need to categorize everything. We put labels on everything and it’s a totally understandable need because we are animals and we need to understand order and where to fit in.

— Armin van Buuren

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Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge: Letter K under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence

Featured photo by Ahmed Carter on Unsplash

Justice

“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.”

— Aristotle

Life is unfair, so they say.

Some people are lucky, they have wealth, health, beauty, talent, intelligence. They were born to parents who loved them in all the right ways and communities and circumstances that allow them to put all that good luck to good use, and then there are some people just have to suffer through life with less, a whole lot less.

You are born with a losing genetic lottery ticket, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, in the wrong body. You have parents who came from parents who came from parents with bad luck too, and they’ve gone and passed it on down to you. You never have enough of anything, not food, money, or love. You grow up hard, and people hurt you for no reason other than they can. They never let you be. They take what little you have, and nothing is ever done about it. The world is shitting on you. A rain cloud follows you wherever you go. Nothing is ever easy, and nothing ever happens to anyone else.

There is a profound imbalance between what you have, what you deserve, and what everyone else seems to get so easily. It isn’t right, but is it unfair? If it is unfair, who or what makes it so? Is it your fault, other people, the government, God?

When we are talking justice, we aren’t just talking about the modern judicial system meant to prosecute and punish criminals. When we talk about justice, what we are really talking about what is fair, and what is fair has many different meanings to many people. What does equality look like? Does everyone have the same things, or does everyone have what they personally want and need? When a crime is committed how do we set the world right again? Retribution, restoration, rehabilitation?

Justice doesn’t just exist between criminals and law-abiding citizens. It exists between business owners and their customers. It exists in the workplace, in schools, between lovers, neighbors, and friends. It exists between the government and its people, between countries, between races, and genders, class, and age. It is the shape of our society. It’s in everything we do.

We treat others the way we are treated. We treat others the way we want to be treated. We seek a resolution to our pain, by giving others the punishment they deserve, and we seek to make right the wrongs around us by restoring the dignity and peace of others as we judge fit. Between us and everyone around us is a scale and the constant tipping and desire to rebalance those drives much of our lives.

It isn’t just us either. Apes and other primates, dogs, elephants, and other life forms on this planet have an innate sense of what is fair, but it isn’t a rational sense. Not even in humans. Injustice anywhere, but especially injustice personally experiences, arouses deep and intense emotional reaction from us. Unfortunately, those reactions are often exhausting and short-lived.

Justice is exhausting. It’s everywhere, it’s complicated, it requires us to employ empathy and to change, and humans loathe to change. In order to rouse us to face injustice, we have to feel as if we are being, or could be, personally victimized.

We have to put ourselves in the shoes of others and imagine what we would do, need, or want if we weren’t us, but them instead. If we had been born to different circumstances, learned differently, raised differently. What might you need if you were born with a disability, to parents with no education, and in a country that hated you for your skin or your gender? What crime might you commit if you had never known love?

But how do we agree what is right? Who decides? This is the question that has plagued us since we became aware of our social nature. Humans need to live harmoniously, and the requires leaders who can keep us safe, fed, sheltered, and cooperative. Cooperation requires rules and those rules have to foster fairness or what you will have is chaos and revolt. So, why can’t we ever get it right? Why do our instincts elude us? It all seems so simple, if we want fairness, we must act fairly, and if there are those who don’t we must move to act against them, but what if that unjust someone is you?

“There is no justice among men.”

— Nicholas II of Russia

If there is a system of justice in a place that gives us a believable illusion of fairness, we find it very hard to act, even if we aren’t benefitting from the system but especially if we are or hope we will. Justice, we come to believe, is merely everyone doing what they are told to do regardless of what we want or what is right. It’s not making waves. It’s taking your lumps and being happy with what you have, even if what you have is nothing at all. Justice is keeping your head down and waiting until it’s your turn to get over on everyone else. Justice is a tool, it is strategic.

What is fair has to be balanced against our greed, but as sad as that is, that is how I know that deep down, people are good. It’s how I know that we are capable of being far fairer than we are. I know this because the moment a person is out of excuses, and there is nowhere left for them to look to, we suddenly find it in us to do what is right. When we are forced to face inequality, we are forced, through our own guilt and innate sense of what it right, to rectify it, and we do it every single time.

We will fight to the death for what we know is right, as long as we are made to know it. We will protest, revolt, and go to war for others once there is no way to escape our own guilt by not acting, but the moment we can step back into our own lives, as soon as we can stop feeling so much for them, so much like them, we forget.

And that is why life is unfair because there has never been sufficient enough effort made to make it so. We try, time and time again, but the truth is the effort cannot be sustained. Humans are not built to act fairly 100% of the time. We are opportunistic creatures and will weave elaborate justifications for inequality we create and perpetuate to get ahead.

So, life is unfair, but not because of God or the laws of the universe made it so,  it’s unfair because inequality benefitted human evolution at some point and now we struggle to overcome ourselves.

Now we have to suffer generation after generation for so little progress. We have to do the exhausting and endless work of hurting each other, then healing each other, distributing and redistributing wealth and compassion, then punishing and rehabilitating ourselves for getting it wrong again and again and again.

We do it because we must. For every impulse to harm, there is also one to help, and for all our destruction and cruelty, there is in us a dream of a blind, universal justice where every human knows their place, has what they need, and never knows indignity. A world where the scales in our minds weighing right and wrong, have and have not, are always in perfect balance.

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge: Letter J under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence

Photo by Andy Omvik on Unsplash

Desire

“All suffering originates from craving, from attachment, from desire.”

― Edgar Allan Poe

We are born, and then we die, and in between, we desire.

Desire is in all of us. The desire for food and water, the desire for health, the desire for love, family, and community, for a home, the desire for beauty, for knowledge, for money, success, and fame that lasts beyond our days. We desire power and control. We desire perfection.

We desire to be good, and sometimes we desire to be bad too. We desire the bodies of others, the lives of others, to be other than what we are. We desire pain upon the ones who have wronged us. We desire the destruction of those who possess what we desire most.

We desire people, things, and results. We crave, we covet, we yearn, and we long for. We are desperate. We’re excited by the very thought of having our hearts desire. Our every move is to be nearer to the thing we want most. We wish, we hope we toil, plot, and scheme endlessly, and we are never fulfilled.

There is none among us who can say they are beyond desire. Even the enlightened had to desire to move beyond such base needs as these to attain such a state, and for this reason, I believe we all, even the so-called enlightened, suffer in this world.

To be human is to live with a black hole of need inside of you that can never be filled. This is simply who we are. We want more than another other creature on this planet, and this is why we have come so far, conquered so much, and destroyed everything we have touched. Not even the best of us can say they are utterly beyond the owning and devouring of their home and their fellow humans. Each of us has felt some incessant need, and each of us has headed its call.

Each of us has suffered for it too.

“Why was I holding on to something that would never be mine? But isn’t that what people do?”

― Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park

To want is not inherently bad. Desire wakes us up, it moves us to imagine and act, but desire without thought, self-control, or direction can mean disaster. We have good and bad desires, and the pursuit of fulfillment is a positive and negative too.

We may long for a world with more peace, justice, and prosperity of all humans. We may desire awareness, equality, and wisdom for ourselves and others. We may desire that other people will have what they desire and that what they desire might be as positive too, but wanting is still wanting, and the world, for good or bad, will always fall short and leave us frustrated, anxious, and depressed.

Desire denied is the cause of suffering but desire denied is simply our reality. In all our longing and dreaming we never stop to consider the inherent imperfection and impermanence of reality.

What you want just does not exist. The woman you want, she has flaws. The relationship you long for will be fraught with disagreement and misunderstanding. That job won’t pay you enough and will ask more of you than you will have to give. That house will fall apart, and you will find you hate yard work. Your children will not love nor respect you as much as you wish. Something will always be missing. Some part of your world will not live up to what you had imagined it would be, and you will go on trying to get it. You won’t be able to stop yourself.

Even if for a moment you get ahold of what you desire you will still be left unsatisfied because everything is always changing. The world changes, we change, the things own, control, and covet change too. Nothing is permanent, consistent, or fixed. Nothing lasts exactly as it is in any moment and your failure to accept this fact leads to your frustration and sorrow. Life changes and your desires must change with it. You will not have everything you want and what you will have will not be as you want it.

So how do you find peace? How do you let go of all this wanting? The short answer, you can’t. The long answer, desire is always in you, but it is nothing to repress or be ashamed of. Desire is in you for a reason. To be human is to want. You should not want to rid yourself of desire, you should want to observe, understand, and direct it.

“It is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most men live only for the gratification of it.”

― Aristotle, Politics

It is beneficial for human survival that desire be put, for the most part, beyond consciousness. The body needs the mind to work for it, for food, for water, for shelter, for family and community, and desire is what keeps us working. Desire makes machines of us. If the mind cannot easily stop wanting it can’t easily stop achieving and in turn benefitting the biological needs. Evolution found a way to trick us all by giving us a drive we couldn’t turn off and if we tried we would feel uneasy, bored, depressed, useless, and stressed.

Sometimes we want things we cannot understand. The meaning and origin of the goals we set often beyond our comprehension and control. We can have desires we aren’t even aware of and act to fulfill needs and achieve goals that make no sense to us. Worse still, our desires can be manipulated. Our desires for love, happy homes, attention, belonging, and material things are twisted, warped, and redirected every day by politicians, social media companies, and ad agencies. Wherever we go want are told to want something but no matter where we turn, by natures accident or by human design we are taunted and never given release or peace.

Desire denied or unfulfilled makes us feel unsettled, uncomfortable, and often, angry. Who hasn’t lashed out or acted in cruel or shameful ways to get what they wanted. What compromises have you made with your soul and with society to fulfill your desires? What have you done to others and let them do to you to fill a need? What do you give up, what do you put yourself through? What have you pretended to be? Who among us can say they haven’t operated under less than honorable standards to manipulate or force a person, an object, or an outcome?

“Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”

― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Still, I reject that all desire is detrimental. Desire is what got us this far. What is detrimental is desire unchecked, desire undirected, and desire misplaced. I say only that you must choose your desires wisely.

Work to understand your desires and be aware of the price you pay to chase them. Consider what you might be missing about the objects, people, and an outcome you yearn for and ask yourself what flaws, unforeseen stresses, and frustrations might come with achievement. Ask yourself why you want what you want and what benefit anyone might have in convincing you that you want it?

Most of all, be aware that being human means never being satisfied. Humans want what they can’t have and in their quest devour and destroy everything they live including what they progress to love and long for, including themselves, but the truth is, the desire to live without desires is futile.

Freedom from desire is not possible, and even if it were, it might not be what you want. Wanting is part of who we are, and attachment is key to our happiness. To stop desiring would require you to cut yourself off from your humanity. It is through longing and wanting that we strive to be better, build better, and learn all that we can. Your desires do not make you weak or evil. Your desires give your life meaning and lead you through growth to wisdom. Your search for happiness—no matter how futile—is what your life is made of.

“Though surely to avoid attachments for fear of loss is to avoid life.”

― Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin

 

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Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge: Letter D under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Choice

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

― Jean-Paul Sartre

We are alive, though we’d rather not feel so. We are our bodies, though we’d rather not be so. We have free-will, though we’d rather not act so.

Humans posssess the gift of choice, but we’ve been cursed with linear time, memory, humiliation, and regret all working against us. It’s hard to choose when you might make a mistake, and it’s hard to make a mistake when you can’t go back. It’s easier to go with the flow, let fate take its course, let Jesus take the wheel, and let people made of stronger stuff than you choose the course. Better to simply forget you ever had a choice in the first place, right?

Most of our choices are considered arbitrary or unimportant. What color shirt to wear, what to have for dinner tonight, read a book or watch a movie, coffee or tea, text back or not. We make those without thinking much. These choices are more like habits and are made without us even being conscious of them, but too often we make our big choices this way too.

We do what we are used to, what is easy, what everyone else is doing or expects us to do. The jobs we take, the things we buy, the debt we rack up, the friends we make, the way we vote, the way we raise our kids, the way we treat people, the way we let people treat us, these are just a few of the choices people make every day without a conscious thought. And every day we lie to ourselves and say “that’s just the way it is. I have no choice”.

The truth is there is always a choice and only you can make it, or not, and no matter what you decide, or don’t, you are responsible.

Sometimes both options cause you pain, sure. Sometimes the pressure of biology, psychology, or society is too great, sure. Sometimes it is your own fear that is getting in the way. Sometimes you feel too connected to family or faith to see a choice but look closer, look here it hurts, where there is shame, where the unthinkable exists, and you’ll see there is most certainly is. There is always a choice.

I’m not talking about the legal definition of freedom or freedom from morality, what I’m talking about goes beyond all that. I am talking about you recognizing that you are free no matter what anyone tells you. No one can reduce you to one course. Even when the choice is life and death, you still have a choice.

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.”

― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

A friend of mine, J, once told me a story in which another friend of his was lamenting over her station in life. She was sad that she had been so unlucky and had gotten pregnant and become a single mother while she was young. She hadn’t been able to finish high school, go to college, or work in a field that paid better wages and now she was struggling. While J was sympathetic to her situation, he didn’t see her as entirely blameless in it.

She had made choices that led her along the path she’d lived. She’d chosen not to use protection when she and her boyfriend became sexually active. She’d chosen to have her baby and to keep her baby. She’d chosen not to seek help from the father through the court system or other means. She’d chosen not to pursue her education, even part-time. She’d chosen not to seek help from friends, family, or social programs. She may have been impacted by family, society, education, and peer pressures, but she’d had some choices. He told her all this, and she couldn’t accept it.

Granted, this probably wasn’t a good time for J to inform his friend of her responsibility and blame, but in his defense, he thought he was helping. He thought he could show her that at any time she could take control of her life and change things. He wanted to show her that she’d had a choice all along and still did, she only needed to make it. He thought she would understand and maybe even thank him. Instead, she lashed out.

I believe at that moment his friend was confronted with anguish and anxiety. She was faced with guilt and regret and shame. Her choices had been hard ones, I’m sure, and she had been afraid too, I’m sure, and my guess is she found it easier to choose not to make them. Then she convinced herself that all of her choices had been taken from her.

We all do this. We lie to avoid regret. We lie because we are lazy. We lie to hide our cowardice, our weak wills, and our mistakes from ourselves. We give away our free agency because we’d rather do what is easy and never have to deal with what we should’ve, could’ve, or would’ve when there no chance to change it.

“To be or not to be. God’s gift to animals is they don’t get a choice.”

― Chuck Palahniuk, Zombie

A few weeks I watched an episode of Hate Thy Neighbor in which a Christian “hate preacher Ruben Israel” spreads intolerance and homophobia in the guise of helping his fellow man reach heaven. Every time his sermon was rejected he would announce that “a choice had been made” to put the onus of future damnation back on the condemned.

Of course, I don’t agree with this man’s message—me being a gay myself—but the phrase tickled me. At first, I went around repeating it to make a mockery of the man, but I grew to like it after a while. Every time I said it I saw clearly that I had indeed made a choice and the more I saw the choices I made, the more I could see opportunities in which I could make more choices, and it has been liberating, exciting, and terrifying.

Now that I can see it, I can’t stop seeing it. In my head, I hear a running monologue of choices I am making all the time.

(I’m choosing to write this now, to write about this now. I’m choosing to write from my phone because I did not choose to write this last night. I am choosing not to be upset about that and to continue writing these posts the day of because the pressure helps me think and a daily habit helps me grow.)

I’m not saying you always have the choices you want or that it’s easy to make choices. I’m not saying your choices aren’t limited by your surroundings, your upbringing, your education level, how much money you have or need, where you live—when you live—the color of your skin, or your gender. I’m simply saying you have at least two options at every moment. I’m saying you have some say in the course of your life and some responsibility for where it has been. I’m saying you need to harden your will, wake up your mind, let go of what you must and take control of what you can.

I’m saying you must give up this illusion that you are trapped and powerless.

Something can always be done. We may be denied any do-overs. We may he asked to make choices before we know better. We may make choices and then change our minds and find ourselves in a world we regret, but the ability to choose is worth it. You may not be able to go back there is always another move you can make. They can never pin you down or take away your freedom. You have to choose to give it away. Luckily, you can always choose to take it back.

Freedom of the mind and will is something that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. We have the power to examine our base instincts and harmful patterns and override them if we choose. We have the power to choose our fate and with lives so short and time moving so fast, why would you ever—no matter how terrible or difficult it is—want to give that up?

“Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

***

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Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge: Letter C under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence

Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash

C is for “The Cigarette”

I ran out into the night and fumbling in the dark for what I needed, the half crushed Marlboro pack I’d been carrying around for months. I dug for the last cigarette, nearly squashed in half from having waited so long to be smoked. I frantically searched every pocket twice before I found my lighter. I lit it quick and take a deep drag. Yes, this is what I needed.

I exhaled and felt relieved simply by having something to do that took me away from you.

I’d come here to drink and dance, not to smoke this cigarette and certainly not to see you. I’d been doing better but only a little. My friends, who used to be our friends, had invited me, hoping to get me among other people and socializing. They really hoped I would stop moping and bringing them all down. They thought it had been too long for me to still be acting like this. I really had been doing better, just not that they could see.

I went like they wanted me to, and I tried to be pleasant. I knew I wasn’t fooling anyone and I resolved to leave soon. Just as I was finishing what I had promised myself was my last drink I looked up and there you were.

There you were, standing in the corner with a beer in your hand. You hated beer. You were smiling like our world hadn’t imploded just a few months ago, that hurt. It didn’t hurt as much as seeing you flirting with that asshole. The one who’s jokes you were pretending were funny. The one who put his hand on your waist…It had been a punch in the gut seeing you like that and I felt sick, and angry, and hurt, and….I needed a cigarette.

I’d been moving on but only because I thought you had moved away. I had been climbing out of that hole and I had seen a tiny bit of light. I had even quit smoking.

I took another drag and with the exhale looked at the thing I had been carrying with me all this time and that would soon be gone.

I’d missed smoking. I missed the way each cigarette gave themselves to me, the way they just wanted to make me feel good. That’s the way you had been, and that is why after you left I wrote your name on every one I smoked. This one still said it, Alice.

You had been there for me and I thought you always would but you were only using me. Taking care of me meant making you feel important. Making you feel important meant you had to keep me needing you. You would never let me get better. You kept me needing you until the end.

To be honest, I was using you too, I was only mad that you had done the same. You distracted me from all the bad things. I clung to you rather than working on myself.

Part of the getting better was seeing that we were both fucked up and we’s been fucked up to each other. I guess you’d just had the sense to quit me cold turkey first. It took me a little longer and a few more tries. I missed you still, but I thought about you less, and the cravings were growing fewer and farther between.

I watched the smoke drift and disappear with every exhale. The cigarette had started out stale and pretty damn disgusting, but it was beginning to be like more the old days.The ones that comforted me when you left me. Not to mention the ones I smoked before, back when I drank too much or after we’d spent hours slinging insults at each other.

This one was doing its job, I felt better now, it just took some time to get used to again.

I heard voices to my left, and under the buzzing street lamp I saw you getting into the funny-not-funny guy’s car. I had a feeling that he would end up gut punched too. Poor guy. I looked at you again and this time, it hurt a little less. Maybe I was going to be okay.

I took one more drag and tasted the burning filter. The cigarette was gone and so were you. I flicked it into the street and watched small embers fly. I didn’t bother trying to crush it out, it would burn out on its own.

I turned to walk the long way home and considered stopping for another pack. Or maybe not.

***

Author’s note: The plan for this challenge was to post small pieces of fiction that read more like excerpts rather than stories with a true beginning, middle, and end. I think instead, these have turned into something in between, some more, some less. Please bear with me, these are my first attempts at writing fiction. You can find them all under my AtoZ2016 tag.

Featured image by Denis Defreyne