The Price of American Exceptionalism

Last night the New York Times had a live interactive thing on Facebook entitled “Me Time”.  It featured yoga, meditation, and Tibetan ringing bowls.  Don’t get me wrong- as a bipolar person I know how important it is to take good care of yourself, and I also believe that yoga and meditation and Tibetan bowls can also help some people.  Still, calling it “Me Time” seemed perilously close to the Trump administration’s anthem of late.

Maybe we need less “me” and more “other people”.

I highly recommend the new documentary “I am not your negro” about James Baldwin.  It calls in to question so much about American life and American ideals, and left me feeling like I was suspended in mid-air.  Like there was nothing to hold on to.  But really, there isn’t any ground, there isn’t any thing to hold on to.  And that’s as it should be.

Americans cling to the notion of American Exceptionalism–that we are somehow more special,  more deserving than any other nation.  That is simply a bunch of hooey.  I agree with a friend, too, that American Exceptionalism is dangerous because it promotes the belief that we don’t owe anyone else anything.  Somehow we are unto ourselves, sufficient as we are, and not connected to people around the world.

In 2005, I left America for China because I was disappointed in my own country.  I thought I could have a better life elsewhere.  I thought people would be better somewhere else.  I know, I know, it was a foolish notion of mine.  After three years in China, I went to Saudi Arabia, and suffice it to say a lot of bad shit happened there (stay tuned for the book I’m writing), and suddenly I realized I was disappointed with the world in general.  I was manic and oh-so- angry.  I, again, foolishly believed it was about the place.  The place was bad.  So then I went back to China, and there, too, I was disappointed.  Again I thought it was the place.  I blamed Saudi Arabia; I blamed China.  But I was wrong.  I was wrong even to blame humanity, which you would think is so much more individual and therefore more blameable.  I was wrong.

After nearly seven years in China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan, I came home in 2012.  It’s taken me years of quality medication and therapy to come to my own perhaps more sensible  conclusions:  the world, humanity, the universe, whatever–they don’t owe me a thing.  It is I who owe the world.  I know these are not new ideas.  Plenty of people have said the same thing, including a farmer-philosopher in the literary magazine The Sun some years ago whose name I wish I could remember now.

Perhaps the only reason I would recommend travel is not to add to your Instagram account, but to see how other people live.  To see that other people work, and strive, and suffer just as we do.  To see how the rest of the world is indeed connected to us.

In the movie, James Baldwin says that America is very immature in its outlook on race, racism, and a host of other things.  This makes sense to me.  Friends from other countries have always mentioned the “innocence” of Americans, but I think what they mean is indeed immaturity.  More and more, I think that Americans may have problems with abstract thought, and in particular, the abstract thought, as a friend talked about recently, of empathy.  Why do so many white people have a problem accepting that racism exists?  Why can’t they accept that one person’s reality is not like another person’s?  I think in part it is this inability to make the leap into abstract thought, and therefore the leap into empathy.

We do not live in a society that promotes empathy.  We do not live in a society that punishes selfishness-in fact, it seems to reward it.  It’s all about the “me”, and increasingly so, with Muslim travel bans, a halt to diplomatic discourse, the dismaying cuts to the EPA and lifting of car emission rules that date back to the 1970s.  I don’t care, I’m not listening, it’s all about me, damn it.  And the world watches on in horror.

I remember a very good friend of mine, who is Chinese, screaming at me “You are so selfish, Americans are so selfish!” in Xinjiang Province when I left the confines of a travel group to find coffee.  Now, I admit to being selfish about coffee.  Mostly I think you don’t want to be around me if I haven’t had it.  But in this case Xinjiang Province was having some political turmoil between the dominant Han ethnic group and the minority Uighurs, and travel was a bit dicey in some parts.  I don’t think I was ever in danger, but my hosts felt very strongly that I should be protected as a foreigner.  This was the same place where I accidentally shut down an entire hotel because it wasn’t deemed “safe” enough. My travel company, at the behest of the local police, moved me to a “safe” (more expensive) hotel which was pretty much the same as the previous one, down to the curtains and carpet.

But I think about my Chinese friend screaming at me, and I think, yes, we are pretty much a selfish lot.  There are good points about individualistic societies, of course, but this is the downside.  We don’t think very much about the choices we make–from the cars we drive, to the food we eat, to the clothes we wear.  We think we have the right to the life we live, when in fact it is due mostly to dumb luck and an indifferent universe.

We are not better than anyone else.

We are allowed to make mistakes, and to be disappointed.  We are human, after all.  I think many people struggle with these issues, and that’s important.  Thinking about it, struggling with it, these are beginnings.  We are certainly right to start with ourselves in making the world a better place, and if that means yoga and meditation and Tibetan ringing bowls, so be it.

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The Cat’s Just Fine: Creativity and Curiosity

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When I lived overseas, I had two cats – Genghis and Bisa.  Bisa was the naughty one – the one who would get into everything, knock things down, jump on me just to get my attention, and so forth.  I loved her dearly.  I have to say, the age-old adage “Curiosity killed the cat” is just not true in my experience.  To this day, she is doing just fine, following her new owner to the market and wreaking havoc in her house just as she did in mine.  I’m glad.  Curiosity has served her well, as I believe it does for most people.  And naturally, there is no doubt that creativity is directly correlated to curiosity.  Perhaps they are two things that have benefitted humanity most.

I think there may be a belief out in the ether that only certain jobs or hobbies require creativity.  I think all jobs and other activities in life require creativity.  Humans are problem-solvers, and to solve problems we need to be creative.  I wish I were more creative more often.  For people on medication, like myself, there is often a fear of losing creativity.  In Diana Spechler’s article, “Reducing my Dose, Unblocking my Muse” in the New York Times, she writes that her writing was hampered by all the drugs she took for anxiety and depression.  “From the time I started taking medication, until recently, the words were stuck inside me.  I had to force them out,” she writes.  “On meds, I’m sealed off:  nothing can come out of me – graceful sentences, anger, tears – and not much can enter, either; nothing can hurt too badly.  I don’t want to live like that.”

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I’m guessing she’s on the wrong drugs or the wrong doses, as some suggested in the comments section.  Instead of taking all the drugs she was supposed to, she decided to go to a medicine man in Mexico where she spent a lot of time in sweat lodges.  She admits it’s not a permanent fix for depression, but for a time it works.  She says she can’t rely on one remedy.  And, after the sweat lodges, she says she can write again.   I can understand her quest, especially since she hasn’t found a cocktail that works for her – one that allows her to be sane and to write.

Sometimes I worry that I’m too doped up to write anything good.  I am loathe, however, to mess with my medications knowing how long it took to find the right doses for my level of insanity.  Some people think being manic must be great – all that unbridled energy.  It’s true I was energetic, but it was unproductive.  The more manic I was, the less I would write.

If you’re struggling with medicine and creativity, I recommend Ellen Fornay’s book Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me.  Terri Cheney’s book Manic: A Memoir about what it’s like to be bipolar and not being able to find the right meds is also good.

I was at a writing conference a few weeks ago, and during a panel I overcame my shyness and asked of the authors – Did they write every day?  Should a writer write every day?  Their answer:  Yes and yes.  I confess I don’t write every day, and I feel shitty about it, but I don’t function that way.  It’s true that I’m always thinking about how I could phrase a moment, or trying out story ideas in my mind.  Sometimes, though, I feel like my creativity is at low tide.  I don’t think I can blame my medication.  I think creativity just ebbs and flows, and it’s hard to control – at least for me.

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On the bright side, I think I remain curious.  Since fiction is made from life, it’s good to stay curious about the world around us, the people we know and meet.  “People live so differently,” a character from an Anthony Trollope novel says.  This should be a source of inspiration.  Even though lettuce and humans share the same DNA molecules, the sequencing makes all the difference.  Vast differences in just a little bit of code.  It’s fascinating.

I was struck by a toast my father made at my younger sister’s wedding.  He wished them to “always be curious”.  That is a happy blessing for anyone.  Be curious.  I don’t mean be curious in a petty, mean way – I’m not talking about gossip and judgment.  Curiosity means being interested in someone’s life, their mind, how they tick – because knowing someone more fully can help you know yourself, help you know something about humanity.

Some people are not very curious, and this is sad.  An example:  I was talking with someone about online classes, and he was saying that the biggest problem was Chinese students cheating.  I said I could understand that since that was what I had experienced in five years living in China.  He kind of talked over me, even though I was sure he heard me, and didn’t stop with what he was saying.  In fact, he just kept repeating what he had already said.  I admit, I was a little surprised that he wasn’t even a little curious when I said I had lived in China.  Now let me be clear – I didn’t need to talk about my experiences in China or anywhere else.  I have enough conflicted feelings about living overseas that I don’t like to talk about it very much.  It just seemed strange that he glossed over something interesting and was more concerned with what he had to say.

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Needless to say, there are a lot of self-absorbed people in the world.  I realize that’s a little hypocritical of me to say, since I have a blog.  But I am curious about people, and I do care about what they have to say.  Not everyone is like that.  Is it because they’re just not interested in others?  Or are they threatened by other people?  Worried that other people have a better life than they do?  I don’t know.  It’s just too bad, because I think they’re missing out on a lot.

Maybe my cats have the best life – ever-curious, ever-creative in how they approach things.  I would wish that for everyone.

On Joy, Happiness, and Being Bipolar

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(photograph by Arthur Sasse)

Two weeks ago, I had a moment of euphoria.  There was no particular reason for it – I was only running errands on a nice early fall day.  But the feeling was notable for its intensity and randomness, and the fact that I hadn’t felt that way in years.  I am bipolar, and once upon a time, euphoria was a sign that I was spinning into mania.  And mania is dangerous – dangerous because it can quickly change into either an angry, uncontrollable mania, or it can switch to the depths of depression.  Either way, the desperation you feel can easily lead to suicide.  Euphoria, as lovely as it can be, is a warning sign to me.  But I didn’t slip into a manic episode.  I am fine – not euphoric – but fine.  Mostly that is thanks to some very expensive drugs that I take – Abilify, Effexor, and Lexopro.  I may curse pharmaceutical companies for their extortion from people badly in need of life-saving medication, but all the same, I am grateful for the drugs I take. They keep me on an even-keel.  They have probably saved my life.

So euphoria, or joy as some may call it, is something I cannot entirely embrace.  I feel that loss, because I remember the good times of mania, when I was crazy-happy, when everything seemed possible, when I thought I was witty and brilliant and full of life.  Now, joy must come more quietly.  It comes in small, manageable bites – whether it’s hearing stories about my three year-old nephew, or a particularly fruitful trip to the public library, or when I successfully help a student at my job.  There is joy in my life, but it’s not the rush that I used to have.

Some people, bipolar or not, may be equally wary of joy in their lives, as Anna North points out in her op-ed piece “Beware of Joy” in the New York Times Opinion Pages (Sept. 29).  “Fear of Happiness” is something normal people experience, she writes.  “Fear of happiness is that creeping feeling that you shouldn’t get too comfortable, because something bad is bound to happen.”  Interestingly, North interviewed researchers and found that “fear of happiness” is more common in less developed countries, where life is more uncertain.  North also poses the question – “Does looking for the sorrow around the corner actually make it easier to handle it when it arrives?”  The short answer is no, it doesn’t help you deal with hard times.  In fact, ” . . .countries where this attitude is common have lower levels of happiness overall.”

North also points out that people with mental disorders may have this fear of happiness more than average people, and that they suppress both positive and negative emotions.  For me, fear of happiness is really fear of TOO MUCH happiness (or euphoria).  It’s not a fear that something bad will inevitably happen.  It’s not a quid pro quo for me – if I get one happiness I get one sadness.  I don’t think like that, but some people may.  And that’s too bad.

A researcher also pointed out that in some cases, you have to be careful with your happiness.  “In a culture where harmony is a supreme value, achieving this ideal has lots of material and psychological benefits.”  North adds, “Seeking one’s own happiness at the expense of harmony of others might cost one those benefits.”  I don’t think America qualifies as a place where harmony is a “supreme value’, though.  I think we’re too individualistic, and we’re supposed to swallow someone else’s happiness (or success) with grace and equanimity.

If you are more naturally a pessimistic person, or suffer from depression, there is some good news.  According to these same researchers, sadness may improve our memory and may help in deducing lies.  An “. . . uninterrupted sense of happiness and positivity may at times come with some costs – unrealistic optimism and diminished sustained effort to achieve long-term goals.”  This jives with me, because when I am maniacally happy, I am ultimately less productive.  I don’t write as much, I can’t focus on any one thing, I am scattered and messy in my head.

The pursuit of happiness – elevated to a right in this country – can be taken to extremes of hedonism, and that may lead to greater unhappiness.  We have a problem with “MORE” in this country – as if the more we have, the happier we will be.  Obviously, this isn’t true.  Personally, I think people should strive for contentedness, not happiness.  Life is full of grief.  The best we can do is to doggedly try to reach the golden mean of “middleness” where we are sane, and just, and can appreciate the foibles and greatness in others.  I don’t think I’ve reached this “middleness”  – life still rattles me.  But at least I’m not swinging from extreme euphoria to the depths of despair, like a monkey in the rain forest.