Sunday, November 28, 2021

Either/Or

Lately I've been in the bad habit of not quite finishing books. I get antsy toward the last twenty pages or so, distracted like a fickle lover by the thought of what I'm going to read next. Normally, I can at least power through the last chapter before I move on. But over the last month or so I keep bookmarking the final pages of whatever I'm reading and then reaching for the next book.

Kierkegaard and pirate ships? This blog has everything

Well, enough is enough. I decided to take advantage of the holiday break this week to finish a few of these abandoned books, including The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and The Sickness Unto Death by Kierkegaard, neither of which had more than ten pages left. I think Boethius especially suffered from the delay – his whole book builds a certain sweeping momentum, and if you bail right before the conclusion it really throws a wet blanket on things.

Kierkegaard suffered less. When I finished Sickness, which ends with some pretty harsh words for the ol' Danish church, I was curious about its reception, and so I poked around on Wikipedia. I didn't find what I was after, but I did stumble on this quote from one of Kierkegaard's critics:

"There are two types of the artistic soul. There is the one which needs many varying experiences and constantly changing models, and which instantly gives a poetic form to every fresh incident. There is the other which requires amazingly few outside elements to fertilise it, and for which a single life circumstance, inscribed with sufficient force, can furnish a whole wealth of ever-changing thought and modes of expression. Soren Kierkegaard among writers, and Max Klinger among painters, are both great examples of the latter type."

William Shakespeare; A Critical Study, by George Brandes

It was an odd little synchronicity, coming on the heels of Austin Kleon's Friday newsletter in which he linked to his blog post, “The Pirate Gardener.” In it, Kleon lays out several versions of a theory very similar to Brandes's. Here's one example that Kleon gives from the critic Dave Hickey:

“I am going to explain this to you very simply. All human creatures are divided into two groups. There are pirates, and there are farmers. Farmers build fences and control territory. Pirates tear down fences and cross borders. There are good pirates and bad pirates, good farmers and bad farmers, but there are only pirates and farmers."

I'm always skeptical of this kind of thing because it seems so deliberately hard-nosed. There are days to be a farmer and days to be a pirate, and it seems a lot more useful to try and figure out what kinds of problems each approach can help you to solve. Why restrict yourself to a role that's only going to work 50% of the time?

But in the view of Brandes and Hickey, these roles aren't tools so much as they are the fixed qualities of a person's identities. You are born a this or a that, and you're only causing yourself trouble if you don't accept your lot in this life. A farmer who thinks he's a pirate will be miserable at sea, just as a pirate who thinks he's a farmer will get nauseous at the sight of a plow.

In a funny way, though, it's fitting to read about this theory after reading Sickness, which spends a lot of time talking about despair as a function of identity. Despair, for Kierkegaard, is the result of a misalignment between how you relate to yourself. It can be the result of both wishing to be someone else and wishing to be yourself. The former is probably the most intuitive – if you spend all your time wishing you were somebody else, then yeah, you're going to feel pretty shitty.

But what about “wishing to be yourself?” Isn't that a good thing?

Done correctly, yes, actually, it is, which is why Kierkegaard has to qualify what he's describing. Wishing to be yourself isn't despair until you over-identify with something that's actually harmful. It's like you've misunderstood who you are, and now you can't let go of something that's hurting you.

A concrete example here would probably help: Imagine a person with serious anger issues. They yell at cashiers, they cuss out their boss, they scream at family and friends. They gradually become more and more isolated as their anger drives everyone away, and it's no exaggeration to say that anger is ruining their lives. Yet they refuse to change or seek any help because “that's just who I am.” This, Kierkegaard says, is a form of despair.

But what he doesn't do is argue that it's an either/or situation. There are different kinds of despair, sure, but a person may move from one to the next throughout the course of his life. One experience is not mutually exclusive to the other, and Kierkegaard never argues otherwise. 

For my part, there have been times when I wished I was somebody else, just like there have been times when I over-identified with harmful beliefs and behaviors. Having experienced both is a big part of the reason Kierkegaard's writing resonates with me. Likewise, what I like about the "pirate/farmer" theory is that it describes two different but familiar ways to be in the world. There are times when I love to get lost in a new city, wander around, and discover; and there are other times when I need the solidity of my boring, daily routine to do my best work. To say that a person must be one or the other feels short-sighted and limiting.

As for Brandes's binary, I don't like it any better. As Flannery O'Connor said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Kierkegaard's own life, though brief and confined mostly to Copenhagen, was nonetheless as fully colored by love, sorrow, joy, and grief as anyone's. His day-to-day may not have taken him far from home, but his “varying experience” came in the form of conversations with strangers in the streets of his city, every encounter a chance to learn more about somebody else. While I see what Brandes is trying to get at, it's hard not to feel as though his categorizations lessen the actual human beings he's talking about, rather than helping us understand them.

Binaries like these are so tempting because they make the world seem so much more ordered. It gives us a story to tell ourselves and to others about why we are the way that we are. If we must be this or that, then the narrative of our own lives is much neater. If it's up to us to decide when to be this and when to be that, things can feel a lot messier. But the latter is richer and more interesting, I think, and also more true to life.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

On Circular Tracks

On Friday afternoon I went to get my booster shot at a grocery store twenty minutes away. It was the nearest location with any appointments, so I expected to find a long line. When I got there, though, I was the only person in the pharmacy who'd come to ask for the shot.

“Are you in a high-risk job?” the pharmacist asked. “Do you have a preexisting condition?”

“Ex-smoker,” I admitted, and she laughed.

“I got mine because I'm obese. We both need to make better choices.”

I couldn't argue with that. Just the other day I bought a pack of cigarettes and smoked two while wandering through Fountain Square alleys, killing time before an appointment. November, man. I don't know what it is about this month in particular but it always seems to crack things apart.

The pharmacist ushered me to a waiting area, and I killed a few minutes trying to install Microsoft Teams on my phone before someone came along to give me the shot. It was quick and mostly painless. The man with the needle looked very young, and wore a pair of leather slip-on loafers. He complained about the sticker placement on my vaccine card – “There's not really room for me to add another one” – but was otherwise cheerful. I sat a few minutes to make sure there'd be no adverse reaction, then went off to do some Thanksgiving shopping.

As with my last shot in April, the side effects didn't really kick in until late that night. I woke up sweating and shivering, then stumbled into the bathroom to pee. I was about halfway finished when I got very lightheaded and nauseous. I took a few deep breaths and tried to pee harder while clutching the side of the sink. Hurry hurry, I thought, get it all out. If I was going to faint, I at least wanted to minimize the bodily fluids my wife would soon find me lying in.

But I managed not to pass out or vomit, and made it back into bed to keep sleeping. Finally I woke up aching and tired, and killed most of the morning watching Night Court reruns. When I was a kid, the local Fox affiliate started rerunning Night Court at four o'clock in the morning. I would set my alarm clock so I could wake up, watch two episodes, then go back to sleep before school. I'm not sure why, exactly, except that Judge Harold T. Stone appealed to me in the same way as Groucho Marx or Bugs Bunny. I loved the idea that you could excuse yourself from adult reality with a few quips and card tricks. I still do.

After a little coffee and breakfast I began to feel better, and so went back to the book I've been reading, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson. Right now in the novel, Revie's mother has left her husband and son to pursue her dreams of acting, and Revie is trying to figure out how to pull his family back together. He ends up in his local church, where Hip Pastor Mike tries to offer him some advice:

“Here's what I'm driving at,” he said. “God builds the universe on circular tracks. The bad part of this deal is that what we love goes away – our faith slips, we turn our backs on God's grace, we lose the ones we love.”

He paused, looking at the drum kit so long it seemed like he'd lost the thread of his thought. Then he leaned back and draped his arm over the pew again. “But the good news is that the track bends. Sometimes so gently that we start coming around without ever realizing it. Seasons change. The runner turns onto the homestretch. The son comes home and the father runs out to welcome him.”


But Revie isn't convinced.

 
“You should stick with God,” I said, getting up to leave. “Leave that universe business to the scientists. You obviously don't know what you're talking about.”

I walked toward the big swinging doors, leaving him, I hoped, dumbstruck. And maybe he was. But not long enough for me to make it out of the sanctuary.

“Hey,” he called. “Why'd you come here today?”

I glanced back, tossed up my hands. Even if I'd known, I wasn't about to confess anything else to him.

“Everything orbits,” he said, turning his back on me. “Even you.”

 

My wife also got her booster on Friday, and also went out to buy groceries. Being so close to the holidays, and with all of the ongoing shortages, we agreed we would shop the same list and get whatever we could. If we ended up with a few duplicates, so be it, but at least we'd cover our bases.

We ended up with doubles of everything, including oddballs like smoked paprika. We laughed a little at the absurdity of it all, like for an afternoon we'd been trapped in two parallel universes, living the same lives at a distance. Her side effects from the shot were minimal, though two days later there's a swollen spot on her arm the size of a walnut, while mine has no swelling at all.

While I was chewing up Tylenol and watching Night Court on the couch, my wife went next door to check on our neighbor's ducks. By evening I was feeling much better, so I went to help her put them away in their coop. The ducks are no more used to this routine than they were when we watched them two months ago. They still run around back and forth like they have no idea what we expect them to do. Then one of them will finally get the right idea and run inside of the coop. After that, like a charm, the rest of them follow. It's the same routine every time.




Sunday, November 14, 2021

Concluding Unscientific Podcasts

Profile photo of Soren Kierkegaard
Kierkegaard at his iPad
So! You've been reading “Either/Or” by Søren Kierkegaard and it's all got you feeling a little bit stumped. Why is he using all these pseudonyms? What's the deal with aesthetics and ethics? And why does Kierkegaard bother to mention that he's built like a small kangaroo?

Lucky for you, I share your concerns, and decided to go find some answers. After sifting through podcasts for shows that talk about Kierkegaard, I am now prepared to rate and review my discoveries.

You're all very welcome.

The Panpsycast Philosophy Podcast

Podcast Description

“A weekly 'informal and informative' philosophy podcast inspiring and supporting students, teachers, academics and free-thinkers worldwide.”

Episode Review
This was by far the best of the bunch, for a whole lot of reasons. Panpsycast dedicates a full three episodes to Kierkegaard, which gives them the space to engage with everything from formative biographical details to Kierkegaard's “big ideas” in religion and philosophy. Throughout all of it, their approach stayed in keeping with Kierkegaard's own spirit of humor, irony, and inquiry.

By spending time on the man behind the ideas, the hosts help contextualize a lot of his work. The episodes paint a complicated portrait of someone eager to engage with the world, but who couldn't resist his own impulses to challenge it at every turn. There are hints of that person through all of Kierkegaard's writing – it's one of the reasons I enjoy reading him so much – but Panpsycast does a nice job of fleshing him out, adding a deeper dimension to his ideas that help ground them in a greater humanity.

This podcast is also just plain funny. The hosts are British and wry, but I especially appreciated bits like the pop quiz at the end of episode one, “Kirk, Guards, or Kierkegaard,” in which the hosts had to guess whether a quote came from Captain James T. Kirk, the guards from Skyrim, or the philosopher himself. When discussing someone whose name translates roughly to “Serious Graveyard,” a little unbridled silliness goes a long way.

10/10


Classical Stuff You Should Know

Podcast Description

“Our aim is to help both educators and laypeople enjoy the classical world as much as they enjoy fine ales and good tales.”

Episode Review
This episode was devoted entirely to “Fear and Trembling,” one of Kierkegaard's most challenging books in the sense that, if you agree with his arguments, you start to feel a nagging concern that you might be in favor of suicide bombers? At the very least, you take a very generous view of filicide.

The book wouldn't be so disturbing if Kierkegaard wasn't quite so convincing in his interpretation of the story of Abraham and Isaac. Kierkegaard complains that too many people treat the moral of this story as “we should all give God our very best.” Instead, he argues, the actual lesson is that faith is beyond reason, and the religious choice may sometimes be directly opposed to the ethical one.

No matter what your beliefs, it's uncomfortable to hear someone make these arguments. But Kierkegaard does in this book what all great writers do – he takes something very familiar, a story you may have first heard in Sunday school, and makes it something new and deeply alien.

Okay, so what about the podcast? Well, it does a pretty good job! I had to write all that preamble to explain why I think Classical Stuff You Should Know struggles a little bit with the material. It's hard to lay out Kierkegaard's arguments without a certain amount of knee-jerking. The hosts do a good job of explaining the material and Kierkegaard's views, but they can't stop themselves from editorializing. As a result, I think they undercut some of his arguments and don't quite do them justice.

8/10


The Idea Store

Podcast Description

“When I was 4 years old, my dad decided it was time for my intro to philosophy. So he told me, 'Did you know that I get all my ideas at the idea store?' This didn't sit well with me and I kept insisting 'No you don't!' For the next two years, many car rides were spent talking about the idea store. It baffled my little mind but I kept trying to reason with him the best that I could. At age 6, I found the solution. 'You can't see and touch ideas. You can only buy things you can see and touch. Ideas are different.' My dad was ecstatic. He had just taught his daughter the basics of metaphysics.”

Episode Review
As the description above lays out, the format of this show is a father and daughter talking about philosophy. This particular episode was only twenty minutes long, so it doesn't really have enough time to go very deep. The analysis stays pretty light, and I thought both hosts were a bit harsh on poor old Søren, so I probably wouldn't recommend this as someone's first introduction to Kierkegaard.

However: If you had a certain type of father, the kind who will stay up arguing ideas with you until 2 in the morning just for the sake of debate, then this show will feel very cozy. Having grown up with a dad whose beliefs were very hard to pin down – no matter what position I took, he'd vigorously argue the opposite side – this podcast made me feel right at home. For that, it gets a few bonus points.

7/10


Theory & Philosophy

Description

“This channel is dedicated to the distribution of ideas so that they be made accessible to anyone.”

Review
Unlike the podcasts above, Theory & Philosophy is a solo show, scripted and produced by one-man-band David Guignion. The episode I listened to was on “The Sickness Unto Death,” although Guignion had previously discussed “The Concept of Anxiety” as well.

Technically, I think Kierkegaard and Guignion both would have preferred I start with “Anxiety” and end with “Death” (way ahead of you, guys), but I read “Death” on its own and thought it stood up just fine. Still, the back half of that book got pretty dense, so I was more than happy to have someone as smart as Guignion explain it to me.

And he does a great job! Guignion breaks down Kierkegaard's concepts and jargon into digestible pieces and parts so that I came away from this episode with a fuller understanding of the text. I'll keep Guignion in mind when I finally get around to reading “Anxiety."

The one bummer is that Guignion doesn't seem especially fond of Kierkegaard. After finishing his explanation of “The Sickness Unto Death,” he makes it pretty clear that he's had quite enough Kierkegaard on his podcast, thank you. And I get it – he's not everyone's cup of tea. But Guignion does such a nice job explaining things that I hope he changes his mind.

7/10


Drunken Philosophy

Description

“Dan has a degree in philosophy. Connor has a degree in High School. Together they have a bit of a drinking problem. Each week they explore the work of a new philosopher or a new philosophical idea and do their best to learn something before getting distracted.”

Review
Meh. This was fine? Maybe they suffered a little from the fact they came late in my playlist, but there wasn't a lot here to latch on to. The discussion of Kierkegaard and philosophy stayed pretty shallow, with the hosts seeming much more interested in talking about comedians and comedy. But if you like your philosophical discussion peppered with bong rips, this one might be right up your alley.

5/10


Eternalised

Description

“In pursuit of meaning.”

Review
This podcast is ten minutes long. At minute three, I checked the time to see how much was left.

Look, podcasts are like any other kind of media: they can be made well, or they can be made really poorly. This one sounded like it was recorded in a bathroom made out of Campbell's soup cans, with a non-stop plinking piano track in the background that was loud enough to be grating but too quiet to add to the mood. I have no idea what this guy thinks about Kierkegaard because I was too irritated by every aspect of this podcast's production to pay much attention.

2/10

Sunday, November 7, 2021

After Receiving 100 Rejections


In my senior year of high school, I only applied for a scholarship once. I wasn't what you'd call a great student. My four-year GPA was mediocre at best. Any hope that the SAT might reveal some untapped natural genius was dashed once I actually took it. And the one class I did pretty well in, AP English, was too little, too late to resuscitate my academic career. 

I tried searching online, just in case some eccentric billionaire had set up a fund for middling students from the Midwest, but the results were mostly discouraging. 

Still, that AP English class did a number on me – it showed me firsthand how the right instructor can shape even the most unpromising clay. So deeply did I love the class that it began to feel like direction. Maybe, if I became a teacher, I could help other students feel the same way.

As luck would have it, a couple teachers at my school had gotten together to fund a $200 scholarship for future educators. It wasn't much – just enough to pay for 2/7ths of a textbook – but if I could win that scholarship it would prove I was headed down the right path. It would mean I'd figured things out.

I completed the application, sat through interviews with the scholarship sponsors, and then waited until Academic Honors Night. That was when the school awarded its own scholarships, including the one I'd applied for, with a ceremony based on the Oscars. No one knew in advance who had won. We had to wait until a presenter opened the envelope and announced from there on the stage.

When the night arrived, I didn't tell anyone in my family I was going, let alone that I was up for a scholarship. I wanted to be cool and casual about it – I figured I'd come home with the certificate and leave it on the kitchen table for my parents to find.

Oh, that thing? I would remark over breakfast, as my parents marveled at my award. Just a little something I won at Academic Honors Night. Didn't I tell you? It must have slipped right out of my mind.

I got to the school and found a seat in the back of the auditorium, where I impatiently flipped through the program. Once the awards started, I could see how it flowed: I wouldn't be asked for a speech, but I would shake a few hands, smile, graciously acknowledge the crowd. Maybe I could find out who I'd beaten, then offer them words of encouragement. It's a shame we can't all win. I think you're very deserving.

Finally, after forty minutes, my category was up: The Future Educators' Award for a Graduating Senior. My speech coach, who I knew for a fact adored me and was one of the interviewers during the applicant process, approached the podium. The twinkle in her eye confirmed what I already knew: She was pleased as punch to personally deliver my $200.

“Tonight, we're very pleased to award this scholarship,” she said, leaning into the microphone, “to our very own Ashley Krulinski.”

I sat there stunned in the dark auditorium, watching as Ashley walked into the light of the stage to accept her award. I would learn, much later, that she'd spent all four years of high school tutoring students, far more hours spent volunteering than I'd ever worked for a paycheck. I couldn't argue she didn't deserve it.

But as I left the auditorium that night, never to speak a word about it to anyone, it felt as though I had failed some crucial referendum. Not on whether I deserved $200, but on who I was as a person. That, I knew, was the real reason I didn't tell anyone I was going. The only thing worse than leaving a failure would be to leave as a failure with witnesses.

*

So many of our failures happen alone. Quiet and unremarked, barely a ripple in the status quo of our lives. It feels inside out. Because while your circumstances may not have changed, in one way or another the failure's changed you. Is it better or worse if nobody sees?

I started this year with a finished novel manuscript. It's not the first time I've finished a book, but it's the first time I thought, “I'm ready to look for a publisher,” rather than, “Well, I guess that was good practice.” I also started the year with some new writing goals. I wanted to submit more, write more, improve how I managed my time. I also wanted to get more rejections.

"One hundred" was the number I landed on, thanks in part to an article that posed a hundred rejections as a significant milestone. You have to work pretty hard to get your ass kicked that many times, and I wanted to work hard. I also wanted the inevitable byproduct of racking up that many failures, which is the thick skin that comes with rejection becoming a standard part of your day.

By my tally, I'm on track to hit a hundred by the end of the year. To date I've received 58 rejections on my novel, and another 36 on various short stories. Given that I've still got 48 active submissions waiting for a response, I feel pretty confident that I'll hit my goal. And you know what? Rejection still fuckin sucks!

How did this catch me off guard? Why did I think by the end of the year it wouldn't faze me anymore? Have I ever met me? I don't get over things! That's my whole schtick!

So at the start of last week I was beat. A rejection arrived in my inbox on Monday and I just thought, What the fuck am I doing? Why do I keep sending queries? Why not just invite strangers to hit me in the face with a shovel, if I'm feeling so masochistic?

It's a funny thing – no matter how many times these thoughts come around to gnaw at your edges, it always somehow feels new. Yet any writer with the least bit of self awareness knows you have to keep some kind of lid on it. I'm getting rejected at least twice a week, and believe me, no one in my life needs to hear my thoughts every single time. I don't even want to hear my thoughts, I just don't have a choice.

Thank God for Bonnie Friedman.

I've written before on this blog about her essay Glittering Icons, Lush Orchards: On Success. I actually read it for the first time at the start of this year, so it's fitting that I'm circling back as this year starts to wind down. What stands out to me now is not the same as what stood out to me then. Like this paragraph, which now jumps off the page:
“We expect when we are successes we will be changed. We will be different from who we are now. We will live more intensely when we are successful, and our joys will be magnified, and our frustrations and sadnesses fewer and more meaningful because set in the context of our more significant lives—as if fame itself, or whatever we mean by success, establishes a force field within which everything counts, everything matters, simply because it has happened to us. When we are successful, then we will have reason to love our lives.”
What did I expect from that $200 scholarship? Surely not that it would mean anything tangible for my college career. But as a symbol of success and validation, yes – on the other side of that, everything would be different. My poor grades and academic frustration wouldn't mean quite so much, because I would be setting sail toward a bright new horizon. Where I had been bad, now I would be good, marked by that small first success.

Sometimes you fail and the world still goes on and yet, somehow, you are changed. Losing that scholarship was not the end of anything, because the spark I found in those English classes wasn't really about teaching. The real spark, the one I would fan into flame, was a deeper, more critical love of the language. Of reading and writing and thinking. Of how a certain kind of study and close observation can unlock things you never knew were there.

It would take me years to understand that writing, in itself, was enough. That it could be a career and a calling, that I could write as a job during the day and write as a passion at night, and that I would find both of these things deeply rewarding.

All those years that Ashley was tutoring her students, I wasn't thinking about teaching – I spent those same years writing. Obsessively, joyfully, relentlessly, even at the expense of my grades. I never wondered where it might lead because I didn't see how it mattered. Jobs were what you did to make money so you could survive to do what you loved. That's what I believed, and surely that's what my speech coach heard when she interviewed me about that scholarship.

Our failures teach us things. Although I majored in English Education, it never became my career. What I kept going back to, no matter how futile it seemed, was the fact I was desperate to write.

When I remember this, the rejections don't sting quite as much. They're no longer the demarcating line of the “force field in which everything counts.” Instead, they're only posing a question: “Are you sure you still want to do this?”

And a hundred times or a thousand, I'll answer exactly the same.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Existentialism the Easyway®

After a few too many sleepless nights of doomscrolling, I finally buckled and bought a copy of “Smart Phone, Dumb Phone.” I'd been putting it off for a while, because there's something fairly pathetic about being a compulsive phone person, but willpower alone wasn't doing the job. It was time to call in the experts.

In this case, the expert is Allen Carr, whose Easyway® method to quit smoking has grown into a cottage industry of … well, what would you call it? Cessation techniques? Carr's adherents claim that his methods can help with everything from smoking and drinking to gambling and weight loss to, well, just about any other compulsive behavior you can think of. Best of all, the programs promise no willpower required – just follow the steps and you'll be free of your problems in no time.

I'd heard of Carr before, but always had him in my mental Rolodex between Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey, pegged as one of those self-help gurus beloved by people desperate to be told what to do. Unfortunately,  after spending too many nights reading about the collapse of Western democracy until 3 a.m. in the morning, I had to accept I was one of the damned. So, the hell with it: Tell me what to do, Allen Carr! I'm desperate!

Carr's Easyway method works the same way regardless of your substance of choice. He describes it as undoing the “brainwashing” that got you addicted in the first place, which you might have received from any number of sources: family, friends, advertisers, the culture at large, etc. Regardless of how it happened, Carr argues that your addiction is proof that you have, in fact, been brainwashed.

Why? Because addiction fails to deliver. Every time you reach for that cigarette to calm your nerves, Carr points out, what you're really doing is relieving the anxiety caused by smoking itself. He compares it to wearing tight shoes for the relief of taking them off. If you really wanted to be happy, you wouldn't wear such small shoes in the first place. 

So when you take a drink, puff a cigarette, or spend five hours scrolling through Facebook, you're actually causing the anxiety these things are meant to relieve. Your entire baseline shifts: instead of living in a neutral state with occasional big spikes of happiness, you spend most of your time feeling awful and needing help to climb back up to neutral.

With me so far? Good, because that's the key to this thing. Carr's method is based on the idea that once you understand the lie of addiction – once you see that it doesn't make you feel good, and can only make you miserable – you'll be able to un-brainwash yourself and stop. When you reach for a drink, you will no longer believe it can ease your anxiety; instead, you'll see that it's actually to blame.

You get the impression Carr never drank himself sick for weeks at a time. He probably never looked at his own bloodshot eyes in the mirror and thought, This is what you deserve, you piece of shit. In Carr's worldview, addiction is all just a misunderstanding. There's no room for the person who wears painful shoes because they believe, deep down, they deserve it.

Now I know what you're thinking: What does Kierkegaard have to say about all this?

Lucky for you I've been reading The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard's book on despair. Now, for Kierkegaard, despair is a very particular thing: “to be unaware of being defined as spirit.” In other worlds, "despair" means to think of yourself as strictly a material thing, no different from any other object or animal.

There are different flavors of this, of course, and since this is Kierkegaard he naturally spends much of the book cataloguing each different kind on painstaking detail. There is despair caused by over-attachment to material things, and despair caused by wishing you were somebody else. But there's one kind of despair in particular that I think might be useful here: the person “in despair to will to be oneself.”

Well, wait, what does that mean? He describes someone so attached to their own idea of who they are that they refuse any kind of outside comfort:
“And to seek help from someone else – no, not for all the world does he want that. Rather than to seek help, he prefers, if necessary, to be himself with all the agonies of hell.”
Kierkegaard continues:
“[A person] is pained in some distress or other that does not allow itself to be taken away from or separated from his concrete self. … Once he would gladly have given everything to be rid of this agony, but he was kept waiting; now it is too late, now he would rather rage against everything and be the wronged victim of the whole world and of all life, and it is of particular significance to him to make sure that he has his torment on hand and that no one takes it away from him – for then he would not be able to demonstrate and prove to himself he is right.”
In other words, the despair here arises from identification with misery. Instead of letting pain go when relief finally arrives, it becomes a core part of that person's identity. And so when you threaten the misery, and you threaten the person.

There's a saying I've heard in recovery meetings, and that I've quoted before in this blog: “Poor me, poor me, pour me another drink.” Self-pity, self-flagellation, self-inflicted wounds; all these things are as much drivers of addiction as the belief that a substance can offer some happiness. Carr's method addresses the hope for pleasure, but in my experience it's sometimes the misery that addicts hold the most precious. And although there doesn't seem to be an easy way to fix both, that doesn't mean that it can not be done.

Either/Or

Lately I've been in the bad habit of not quite finishing books. I get antsy toward the last twenty pages or so, distracted like a fickle...