Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Reality Check

I've been working on another Qube Question but am awkwardly reminded each time I look at the blog that I promised to share the outcome of my inquiry into the integrity of my own life. (Why did I do that?)

It is difficult to distill. Examining myself with the question, "Do I live like that's true?" has enabled sundry observations, and stimulated thoughts of remedies as diverse as moving to Alaska, going back to school, swearing off electricity, moving into an urban area, writing more, writing less, planting a garden. I honestly think my particulars would bore you, so instead of telling you where I fall short and what I'm going to change, I want to talk a little bit about living with integrity, a word which has become integral to the discussion on this blog. "Integrity" is defined as "wholeness or completeness", and the word "integral" means "necessary to the whole". We extend this to compliance with moral standards, because in order for a thing to be whole, there mustn't be any missing parts. Our actual lives must be congruent with the idea of a right life.

Up until now we've talked about ways to stuff ourselves into congruence (habits) and we've flirted with conceptions of the original or ideal shape we should measure ourselves against. Taking the idea of integrity as "wholeness", I'm going to suggest that a true definition of integrity is more than alignment with one's personal philosophy or "world view", although achievement of said alignment would be impressive, indeed. I do believe in absolutes of some kind; I believe there are more and less healthy environments for human growth. I believe there is such a thing as proper growth or, health. Some things are true about the human condition and others are false, and it doesn't really matter how we feel about it. But personal integrity is also more elusive and individual than searching out these “health components”. All plants need light and nutrients, but in varying kind and degree.

Oliver Sacks' book, Awakenings, explores health and illness through the experiences of twenty post-encephalitic patients treated with the drug L-Dopa, during the summer of 1969. In it, Dr. Sacks notes the personal nature of disease. Illness is not a thing in itself, but rather its manifestations and character are defined by the individuality of the person. Illness grows out of our personal environment. It is an unnatural growth and becomes a weight, heavy enough to create a dent in wellness or wholeness. We acknowledge our intuitive grasp of this idea when we describe our state of health with the common phrase, "out of shape". So, while it is possible to say, for example, that I "have the flu", it is perhaps more accurate to say that the particulars which constitute "me" are interacting with (or yielding to) a particular viral strain, resulting in my being bent out of shape. The shape I manifest is similar enough to the one most other people exhibit when confronted with this same virus, so we can lump individual reactions together and call them "flu-symptoms". But, Dr. Sacks points out, “...modern medicine, increasingly, dismisses our existence, either reducing us to identical replicas reacting to fixed 'stimuli' in equally fixed ways, or seeing our diseases as purely alien and bad, without organic relation to the person who is ill. The therapeutic correlate of such notions, of course, is the idea that one must attack the disease with all the weapons one has, and that one can launch the attack with total impunity, without a thought for the person who is ill.” So, treating the flu as something separate from the individual, focusing only on eradicating it, is misguided. The flu, as we know it, never occurs outside a unique, living entity.

Integrity, like health, is a state of wholeness. I asked a friend, years ago, what she wanted to do with her life and she said, simply, "to live well". Most of us would echo her sentiment, even if we haven't formulated it in as straight-forward a way. The question which has plagued me, since, is the obvious retort to her answer: "But what is living well?" or, as we have explored, "what counts as success?" I've spent much unproductive energy and time trying to sort this out philosophically; looking for a way to diagnose and treat the disease that bends us all out of shape. And while it may be true that there is a disease, it is also true that it takes place in me; not abstractly, but in me.

So, what does it mean for me to have integrity? What if it means living in such a way as to combat or undo the effects of illness in me? In one sense, this sounds very vague; but in another, it is much more specific than I have ever been able to be with this question. What if there is an over-arching structure (or personality) to the world and my movement in it is good or bad in relation to how well I and the things I interact with can retain or gain wholeness? This opens up everything to free will but at the same time holds a firm belief in destiny. I am freed from the weight of choosing the "one right thing" but at the same time, miraculously allowed specificity. I can take a title as general as "mother" or "wife" or "friend" and make it as specific as "Rachael King".

Dr. Sacks briefly discusses health and disease in terms of design. He says, “Health is infinite and expansive in mode, and reaches out to be filled with the fullness of the world; whereas disease is finite and reductive in mode, and endeavours to reduce the world to itself.” Reaching for wholeness, then, involves casting out wide nets into the world to catch mystery and let it fill us; wet plaster seeping into cracks. Disease is inherently pessimistic. The illness in us wants to narrow our sights; like my description of feeling stuck in the valley between myself and the truth—it is tempting to make all the world a monolith of disease. Health is about wideness, but also about specificity, about the specific indentation of disease that we each bear. If we can call disease or immorality or brokenness what it is—a parasite deriving its shape from our individual environment—then we can learn something about the way we should live, about our individual necessity, by noticing what its symptoms are pointing toward.

When I suggested the purpose of my life may not be so different from a fish’s, I think I was on to something. We are both successful by living according to our essence. The fish does what he does because of instinct; because of his essential fish-ness, which isn’t significantly different from the fish-ness of his neighbor in the next coral reef. My essential human-ness, however, dictates not only that I eat and sleep and love, but also that I am an individual; who in this case has a weakness for pasta, sleeps with an arm under two stacked pillows, and would be qualitatively reduced without having borne children. These particular things are not essential to being human, but a terrain made up of particulars, is. Listen to Annie Dillard, in her essay, "Living Like Weasels":

…once, a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?

...I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should. And I suspect that for me the way is like the weasel’s: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.

…We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—even of silence—by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t “attack” anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.

I think it would be well, and proper and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft, even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.


de Silentio said...

Wow. I don’t even know where to begin. I guess I will start with finding wholeness. If I missed the point of your article, I apologize.

You ask the question “What if [integrity] means living in such a way as to combat or undo the effects of illness in me?” To help illustrate the problem I have I am going to give you a description of two people I know, and I will call them John and Carl.

John is a person who continually evaluates his lifestyle to see if the way he is living is the correct way. During his first year out of High School he realized his hedonistic lifestyle was not the proper way to live, he could not find lasting happiness in sex, drugs and constant partying. He began ridding himself of the qualities that constitute what he thinks is an unhealthy lifestyle. He recognized the illness that plagued his eternal happiness. Now John lives what he would call a life as close to wholeness as he can get. (since he rid himself, or is combating, the illness in his life)

Carl is a person who lives in the here and now. During High School he began partying and has not stopped. He feels that a licentious lifestyle filled with drugs and beer make him happy. He even tasted the lifestyle John lives, but the “boredom” he experienced drove him back. Carl sees a life without partying incomplete. It is beer, girls and drugs that make him happy. Boredom is an illness to him that is quelled by living the lifestyle he lives.

Now the question: Does one have less integrity than the other? Both see their life as whole. They both have rid themselves of the illnesses that at one time plagued their lives. But they gained wholeness in contradictory ways. Can one’s illness be the other’s solution to illness?

If this is the case, how does one go about discovering and eradicating the illness in their life? Is something an illness solely because I recognize it as so? If so, how would one give advice to another, would not that advice have the potential of ruining their life and making it less whole?

By the way, you are a marvelous writer and have an insight into life I can only hope to have someday. I once again found myself awe-struck when I read through this post. Don’t let my nit picking detract from the opinion I have of your posts, it is just the way I think.

Rachael King said...

de silentio: I apologize for being so long in responding; I’ve had little access to my computer the past few days and my kids are on Spring Break.

I am glad you enjoy the blog. I welcome additions and challenges to the things I write here. I am happy if my posts act as catalysts of thought and serve to further discussion both on this blog and elsewhere. There is only everything to be gained from collaboration and much to be missed by insisting that our own understanding is complete. Ideas, or attempts to approach the truth, belong to all of us in common. My assertions are perhaps less assertions than meanderings. And it is jolly, indeed, to meander in good company.

Do John and Carl both have integrity? Would ‘whole’ evil be the same as integrity? Kierkegaard provides a way out of this tangle in his book, “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing”. Integrity, to Kierkegaard, is purity of heart. Purity of heart = willing one thing. To will one thing is to be whole. But, if we are to will only one thing, we must will the Good. The good can be willed for its own sake—“I will good because it is good”---everything else is willed for other reasons. No one can will solely evil, because he wills, if nothing else, his own pleasure or grim satisfaction which is a kind of good, albeit twisted. To will good and that which is not the good is double-minded. ‘Double-mindedness’ implies incongruence, which impedes wholeness.

I would argue that Carl’s life motto is flawed and makes him double-minded. He may insist that drunkenness, philandering and carelessness are virtues, but he would be standing against the mighty stream of human morality that has rushed toward us and our time since the inception of our race. That wine gladdens the heart, that intimacy is a delight, that excitement is a pleasure—has always been recognized, but we have always recognized, too, that an excess of good things becomes not good. Oliver Sacks described illness as possessing a ‘narrowing’ or ‘restricting’ tendency. Hedonism is an illness; it is narrow—it sees only itself. It relegates honor and courage and love to fairy tales, without taking pause to wonder where fairy tales come from in the first place. Perhaps Carl’s boredom with good things is a good starting point for him to ascertain the illness in himself.

I want to address your other questions, but will have to wait, as I am being divested of my computer by my children, who want to play a movie on it.

Rachael King said...

You ask, “Can one’s illness be the other’s solution to illness?” I tend to think we all have the same illness, but it works on each of us differently. Each of us is a unique environment, in which health and illness cohabit. In specific situations, one man’s remedy can be another man’s downfall. Some people really need to stop and smell the roses, whereas some others probably need to weed and prune the rose bush. Understanding which one you need to do at any given moment isn’t easy, but I do think we develop a sort of intuition with regard to our needs, as we struggle with our disease and learn from our past. How do we know what is illness and what isn’t? I don’t know. I know that I don’t usually have a hard time sensing when something is amiss. I become sad or depressed or angry or ‘tired of’ everything. If I am lucky, this acts as a shock to my immune system and prompts me to uncover the cause of that feeling. I haven’t made near as much progress on the eradication front. This is why I wrote that hopelessly impenetrable paragraph,

“What if there is an over-arching structure (or personality) to the world and my movement in it is good or bad in relation to how well I and the things I interact with can retain or gain wholeness? This opens up everything to free will but at the same time holds a firm belief in destiny. I am freed from the weight of choosing the 'one right thing' but at the same time, miraculously allowed specificity.”

I’ve often labored under the misconception that I had to find the one right career or the one right embodiment of the word, 'mother’ or the one right place to live and that if I messed it up or missed the boat I was out of luck. But actually, many things and many paths can administer the medicine I need; so I am free to choose a specific one, and I am free to improvise along the way. To inform my choices, I have the idea of wholeness: mine, that of the people I interact with, and the world’s. So I arrange the elements of my ‘motherhood’ to enable me and my individual sons to grow straight. Kidding is an effective levity inducer with Eliot, but only makes the situation graver with Micah. And sometimes I should restrain a joke, even with Eliot, because my attitude is flippant toward something I should feel more deeply.

This all sounds complicated and akin to counting calories (which entirely strips eating of its pleasure). But in real situations, this sort of evaluation occurs much more intuitively, especially if you’ve established a ground-work of habits and self-disciplines centered around truth and goodness.

Giving advice is tricky. It seems to me it is best done in the context of a mutually caring relationship. In the case of John and Carl—if the two of them were friends and John wanted to help Carl understand the anemic nature of his lifestyle, he could best do so by sharing his own life with Carl. Consistent use of alcohol (or sex or drugs) to escape boredom or mental anguish, is only slapping a band-aid on a festering sore. Carl’s preferences are not sustainable, and sooner or later he will begin suffering the symptoms of illness added to illness. An itching rash does not require scratching. Though it provides the most immediate relief, it will only complicate the rash. When this happens (hopefully before it happens), Carl may want to know some of the 'lasting happiness' that John has found. It is hard, because when someone is living solely for physical pleasures, he/she is so saturated with ‘flavor’ that nothing tastes, anymore. It may take a long time and a lot of patience on John’s part before Carl could appreciate the simple yet complex, slightly sweet flavor of an unadulterated carrot.

de Silentio said...

Rachael, Thank you for your response, you have given me a lot to think about.

So much in fact, that it is taking longer than I expected to write a response.

I just wanted to let you know, one is on the way.

Rachael King said...

Okay, no hurry. I've posted a new Qube Books question, but I haven't left this conversation. In some ways, the new post carries on from this one.