01 December 2010

The thinking person's tonic

Private communication is precious, and like books with pages you can smell and leave fingerprints on, not as much appreciated for its worth as it should be. The most important quality of private communication is the light. Honesty between two people lights lives more than any public communication can. Of course, without confidentiality there can be no honesty. In the past year especially, I've been struck by the number of people who have told me privately, how unhappy they are.

One said to me,
"I keep looking at the [X.... X....es] & the [Y.... Y.....s], in their million-dollar homes, & I despair."
Now, that lightened my life. One person less to communicate with. I have no sympathy for this wasted sensibility, not to mention brain cell activity.

But these words below, from someone else entirely, stunned me because they came from someone I'll call ∞, who I admire probably more than anyone else—and who I, in my ignorance and thoughtlessness, never imagined as unhappy. is living proof that wisdom and age have no relationship. reminds me of another brilliant mind and great heart I admire greatly. They live in old ambassador, a real ambassador who I thought for several days when I saw him shuffling down the halls, shoulders bowed, head down, was a janitor with a bad back. That was before he got up and spoke. He could have possibly written the letter from , but he didn't. could be his grandson.

I'm printing part of it here, regarding the confidentiality of as sacred. And I'm printing my reply, revealing more personal stuff than I feel comfortable with—in the hopes that our private communication will help someone else. Not someone who wants to be famous or rich. They're human pollution. No, this is for the someones who are more likely to be envious of someone else's experiences exploring the mind and world, for the someones who try to be able to think more clearly. The someones who are unhappy because their own strivings to learn, to communicate, fall so short of their ideals. The someones who are barraged constantly with the "goal" that we're all supposed to have: Happiness—and thereby, lose confidence because they aren't striving for that at all.
"I feel as though I should explain fully why I've barely picked up a pen until recently. Only since this summer have I become interested in writing again - I spent much of 2008-2009 in a longish period of melancholia and self-doubt during which I lost nearly all interest and confidence in myself as a writer."
Dear ,
I must reply immediately to what you say about melancholia, and your feelings of self-doubt. I wish you'd let me know about this, for I had no idea. Indeed, if I think of a single person who I have found most inspirational, it is you. You're both incredibly thoughtful, intelligent, and talented. And you have continuously surprised me by your lack of egomaniacal and I-want-to-be-famous thoughts, especially when contrasted with your altruism and the extreme talents and capabilities you possess. You struck me from the first time I saw your writing on that bulletin board, as an exceptional human being. Part of the unwanted innards that comes with that exceptionalism is, unfortunately, self-doubt even unto self-hating, melancholy (I'm so glad you didn't call it 'depression', the mislabeling that really means in our business-oriented world: prescribe and medicate). I have been almost wanting to write about this sort of thing in public, but haven't for a number of reasons. But the fact is, there is a huge pressure put upon everyone in 'modern' society, to be 'happy'. Indeed, happiness is touted as the goal of life. Studies show that religious people are happiest. Of course they are! Not questioning anything, swallowing dogma, and being told that you are right and all you have to do is follow, is great for making someone free of doubt, especially if doubt is decreed as bad. This kind of people keep doubt-free by going out and shoving dogma down other people's throats, kind of like the way Ponzi-schemes work, or chain letters. Don't ever stop. Don't ever get out of it, and everything'll be sweet. It's soma under a different name.

But the fact that you picked science--questioning, thinking, not accepting any dogma. The fact that you are deeply interested in the world at large, in all its conflicting reality and confusing manifestations of conundrums. These facts don't add up to you being a happy, dull, boring and useless, or--as many religious people are, downright destructive--person.

You are creative and questioning in your bones. You deeply feel. You have an ability and wish to get in other people's shoes, even when they hurt. You want to contribute something of yourself that is useful, not only to the world theoretically, but to people in real flesh. These abilities and characteristics and ways of life that add up to YOU are not going to give you a happy life, but they could give you a very fulfilling life. You will always, if you stay true to who you are, have times that come upon you that are black as the pit below deepest Pitsville. You won't think that there is any way out, but there is, and you will find yourself out of there again, and somehow invigorated and creative again. Sometimes you need to find that others think of you quite differently than you view yourself. Even when you want to hide away, you are being thought of, though you probably don't know it.

We live in an extremely tough time for a person who really thinks, who isn't just just a reactor. You are way too intelligent and creative and thoughtful to find the public sphere electronically speaking, supportive and helpful to you as a person. You could find that it makes you feel insecure, that it makes you feel like a failure. That you think you are irrelevant. That is because the public sphere of talk is peopled by extroverts who find thoughtfulness a detraction. They couldn't think if they wanted to, most of them. And the ones that do, don't. So if this has anything to do with your feelings, I hope this gives some perspective.

As to [the venue you submitted a manuscript to {well argued, witty, unique, and formatted to perfection of course--I know because I read it]}, after their invitation to you personally to submit, to which they never replied], damn. One of the worst aspects of life today is the casual rudeness. You put a lot of thought and viscera into something, only to be discounted, not even considered. Just not communicated with at all, even after initial enthusiasm. This can lead to severe depression. I say this from a great deal of personal experience, as everything else I've said here is, too. The only thing to do is to chalk it up to people who are less than you, and move on.

I hope I can give you some confidence that you surely deserve. You weren't specific with anything and I'm not asking you to be, as I don't want to pry. But I can tell you that I have suffered from what you are talking about, for longer than you've been alive. I go up and down with it, yet I would rather be this way than be a happy ignorant bible basher or some idiot that believes John Boehner when he says, "America has the best health care in the world". I'd rather have angst. … Remember always that melancholia is a thinking person's tonic. It tastes bad, but it works.


JP said...

I have to say that I completely identify with everything your infinite correspondent said. Melancholia may be a tonic, but self-doubt is a paralytic.

I wish him/you/all of us luck. It's worth persevering. I think.

anna tambour said...

Your wish might be a better cure than any other, for this paralysis. I agree completely with you about this terrible state of being. Without self-doubt, there can be no discovery, but with too much of it, there can be no movement. If all creativity were thought of more as science, then there might be more enlightenment inherent in creative acts, and less ego involved that disguises the worthwhile from the gimmicks and the pre-loved sold as new.

In last month's Scientific American, Scott O. Lilienfeld mulled over what he called the "Fudge Factor". As he wrote, "Eminent scientists tend to be more arrogant and confident than other scientists. As a consequence, they may be especially vulnerable to confirmation bias." Then he contrasted this with the spirit of science, with: "As astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife and co-author Ann Druyan noted, science is like a little voice in our heads that says, 'You might be mistaken. You've been wrong before.' "

Now, creative types in other fields might think, what does that have to do with me? No one has ever given me the break to know I'm right." Or they might have got something "right" once, and then do it over and over again as a career, for fear of getting something new and wrong. So then we end up getting a choice of new! breakthrough! discovery! that isn't, produced in a culture of many-party-orgy of fear of failure and people who have had a success and the industry that feeds them and off them, fed in turn by a public that likes, rightly or wrongly, no surprises, and certainly no discoveries.

Even in science, paralysis and deep melancholia at least, must combine to kill many a fresh idea. We all must therefore be thankful that the scientist who swallowed mouthfuls of "bacteria" that he couldn't talk about in dinner parties, discovered the link between that stuff, and ulcers. Though he eventually won the Nobel Prize is nothing compared to the vindication he must feel, for sticking with what he first theorised and then experimented with, and finally proved, to be right, in the face of ostracism and ridicule.

As with anyone who does something worth doing, the focus was away from the ego, the value was correctly judged in the idea, and the creative impulse managed somehow, to keep its head above the waters of self-doubt, probably because the critical measurement was true. The search and focus was detached enough from the self to survive, whatever problems the self suffered.