Saturday, February 2, 2008

On vitriol

I am in a peculiar dilemma: I have, upon reflection, become an angry, bitter, hateful man... and that really pisses me off.

The blame - or the cause, I suppose, to look at it in a more analytic and less resentful manner - lies in at least two places: depression and politics. The former is more or less self-explanatory, I think, and I've discussed it before, but I'll give it a sentence or two here. The gist of it is that, whether the ultimate causes are inherently biological or environmental, I suffer from what's known as dysthymic depression or simply dysthymia. It's a form of depression that's classified technically as minor, but has, in the long run, some of the most destructive effects of any form, because it's low-grade but very pervasive and long-term. Just like a chronic inflammatory infection can be minor in the immediate term but far more destructive than serious trauma in the long run (it's true), dysthymia often goes untreated (treatment is controversial and not always effective) and, frequently not even knowing why, sufferers may wind up alcoholics, career or academic failures, or even suicides (often subsequent to alcoholism and failure). It's a devastating condition, because what it does, in my case at least, is to eat away at motivation. At the most basic level, this is probably just an expression of the fact that it causes dysphoria - dissatisfaction and the inability to be content; this leads to a reduced reward mechanism for success in any arena. Personally, I find that it leaves me a terrible procrastinator and socially a deeply avoidant pushover. I know that these are problems, but, since I'm so incredibly demotivated, I feel like there's nothing I can do about them. I am now, of course, with the support of a number of people, fighting this, and I think in the long term I may succeed, but it's hard.

Anyway, enough about that for now; that's not really what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to discuss was investment, outrage, and just plain rage. Primarily, I want to know if the three can really be separated without sacrificing commitment and integrity.

There are several designs of bumper stickers that read one variation or another of the phrase, "If you aren't outraged, you haven't been paying attention." I am sure you have seen them. While "bumper sticker wisdom" is generally a shallow, lukewarm sea of useless platitude, there is almost always a kernel of some deeper sentiment, and this one speaks to something to which I feel very deeply connected. I think that people are simply not adequately invested in the human enterprise. I am very deeply invested in it; maybe that comes from too much exposure to the grand dreams of future societies in science fiction, maybe it's the result of upper-middle-class-white-kid syndrome (in which the well-meaning parents of an average but well-off child fill that child's head with assurances that he has so much potential and innate brilliance that one day he will grow up to be a great man who will change the world) or maybe it's just youthful liberal idealism, but whatever the origin, I care with an almost megalomaniacal fervor about the improvement of society and the human condition and my role in that improvement. I care deeply about the flaws in our collective endeavor that allow discoveries from the curiosity-satiating to the fundament-shaking to go unmade and hundreds of millions to go unfed.

It is for this reason that I get really fired up about politics. When things go as deeply wrong as they have in the twenty-six years of my life, and especially in the last eight years, in the governance and leadership of the nation that is supposed to set a shining example of innovation, brotherhood, and liberty for the world, I feel it in the pit of my stomach. It's a gnawing, sick feeling, like a cancer that's growing, not inside myself, but in the greater extension of myself in the world as a whole. That's why I feel such ecstatic highs when it seems like something might go right for a change, when Barack Obama gives a speech, and why I crash to such tooth-grinding, sickening, wrathful lows when I think about what Dick Cheney has gotten away with or the absurdity of the idea of a goddamned young earth creationist being President of the United States.

In short, I am paying attention, and "outraged" doesn't really begin to cover it. "Enraged" is closer, and that's a problem - rage is not healthy. It makes blood pressure spike; stress hormones are dumped in the system; in general it cuts years off your life expectancy. And yet what else am I supposed to feel? I've been completely disenfranchised my entire life, not just by Bush and Co., but by a pervasive culture of shallow and dishonest politics. There has not, for example, been a single non-Christian candidate that I have ever had the opportunity to cast a vote for, because Christianity has become an important selling point to the disinterested, attention-deprived people of this nation. Christianity is used as a simple, easy-to-grasp package of perceived values and qualities that obviates the necessity to actually look at a candidate. So that disenfranchises the supposedly Constitutionally protected religious (and nonreligious) minorities in the US? So what? It's easy.

It goes on. Science is, by its very nature, complex and uncertain, and both of those words are almost literally poison in popular media today - the popular media through which the vast, vast majority of Americans and global citizens get their information. Attempting to introduce ideas which are too complex or too uncertain in Hollywood, the major TV networks, or any other mass media outlet will get you not just fired, but blacklisted, because that stuff is harder to sell to people who don't want to put in the effort to think about it. Not surprisingly, the end result of this is that the popular understanding and treatment of science in this nation whose prosperity has always rested on innovation is appallingly bad. This condition cannot persist, and already, in the current recession, we're feeling the first shocks of the coming bad times as our own sad, stubborn ignorance erodes away the underpinnings of our way of life, ironically enough in a way that is far too complex for most people to bother to understand.

I don't really know if there's a way to face these issues without being negative, angry, and very bitter. I try. I am not, deep down, a pessimist; I'm an idealist and a shining, hopeful optimist, who believes in the world promised by generations of practical philosophers and sagacious futurists. I believe we can realize human potential. I just don't know if we will, and most frustratingly, I don't know how I can help make it happen. All the tools are already here for us; I feel like I have a part to play, but no greater whole in which to play it. I want to make things better. I want the best world we can have for everyone, not just because I want my own jetpack and implanted wetware computer.

It's damnably frustrating to want to make the world a better place, only to be rebuffed by reality and told that your type ain't wanted around here. I struggle every day to find a way to stay involved and invested without succumbing to numbing, bittering anger. I know that for some people it seems to be possible, but I always have to question whether those people are really fully aware or whether they're accepting a certain amount of ignorance or denial in order to remain optimistic and functional. Take, if you will, Barack Obama; I have a great deal of hope for the man, but I know, I know that as a politician he is and must be a consummate liar, not only to others, but to himself. He is a contradiction, to me: a man who strives to be an agent of positive change and integrity who must submerge himself deeply in a politics of regressiveness and dishonesty in order to get where he needs to be. Can he make it through intact? I wish I knew the answer.

For myself, I must keep listening to the news and maintain my emotional investment. It's just a part of who I am. I hope that I can find a way to come out of it intact; more importantly, I hope that when the end of my life is near I can look back and actually see a positive, forward trend in human society over the span I lived. I'm no great leader, no Augustus, no Bismarck, no Franklin Roosevelt, so I can't singlehandedly make that happen; and it's hard to rely on a world that seems so stubbornly resistant to becoming better with any sort of efficiency. It's hard to want to do a good job in your role as a tiny cog in a great machine when you care deeply about what that machine does but aren't anywhere in its control apparatus.

But we'll see, I guess. Maybe if I tackle that depression things will look brighter. Maybe if Barack Obama comes through this election in good shape I can start thinking about the next century without going apoplectic. Maybe if I stick with it and do damned good science I really will be able to make a difference of some significant sort. I really don't know. But that's life, right? You don't know.

Boy, for someone who touts the virtue of uncertainty, it certainly took me a long time to arrive at that.

No comments: