death. week 18.
city. oslo, nyc
I made a mistake about a year ago that I can’t stop ruminating over.
It wasn’t a huge mistake. It was actually rather small and innocent. No one got hurt. And honestly, if I went back in time, knowing what I knew then, I probably would have made the same decision.
But still, every now and then, I’ll slip into that cold river of regret, my mind drowning in waves of what ifs and if onlys.
This was one of those weeks. I lay in bed each night, staring at the ceiling, calculating everything I could have done differently. Running over a play-by-play of each decision I made, again and again again.
I know this isn’t helpful in the slightest but I just can’t stop. I refuse to let the past become the past. I insist on keeping everything right here in the present. I hold my regrets up to the light, highlighting all the ways in which I’ve become deficient. If only I’d made the right choice, everything would be so different. Everything would be so much better.
I keep running the numbers, attempting to justify myself before some imaginary tribunal. My inner accountant takes out his finest ledgers; he’s been looking forward to this.
When describing the death drive, Freud would always point out the way in which trauma victims continue to relive their disaster. There is a mysterious compulsion to experience horror, to hold onto our suffering; indicating to Freud that there is some deep basic desire within each of us that seeks destruction, chaos, and death. As much as we like to convince ourselves otherwise, death is not a mistake. Death is not a sickness. Life, unchecked, is the sickness. Death and destruction are natural components of a healthy human organism.
Who isn’t fascinated by natural disasters, crime scenes, brushes with death? Aren’t we just thrilled? It’s hard to look away, isn’t it?
I feel stuck in an infinite loop. On one hand I know that my feelings of regret are irrational. My mistake really wasn’t that big. Certainly nowhere as significant as the emotions I now feel eating me alive. It also wasn’t really my fault. There was no way I could have known the future. And even if it was my fault, I’m just a human, for gods sake. I’m trying my best.
But none of that matters.
I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve made some horrible mistake. That I’ve gone ahead and fucked it all up. The only two things that give me some peace and quiet are sleep and work. So this morning, I jumped out of bed early and rushed to the office.
When I got to work, I texted my friends to ask how they deal with regret. It’s something new to me (or at least, it fortunately hasn’t been a major theme in my life yet). But I know that it will be. I know that the larger my life gets, and the larger the decisions that I make become, regret will be all but inevitable. And I’d like to use this “small” example as an opportunity to begin learning about it.
Shlomo called to talk about it. Here are three themes we settled on:
Identify what is making it reappear: It’s not a coincidence that regret chose this moment to reappear. What triggered it? What am I afraid of regretting at this present moment? Is there anything I can do about it?
2. Acceptance/experience: Allow myself to just experience the thoughts and emotions as they are. Feel the energy, sink into it, and allow it to wash through. Avoid labeling it as bad or dangerous. Think of it as a friend who is coming to protect me, or warn me to take extra care.
3. Forgiveness. This, I think, is the key. The other two responses are simply a bandage. Only forgiveness can heal. The reason that I keep returning to this specific regret is because I just can’t forgive myself. After all these years, I continue to bear a grudge against myself. I must learn to forgive myself.
It strikes me that regret bears a lot of similarities with grief. I refuse to let go of what I once had. I continue to hold it close to my heart, feeling the pain that its absence creates.
I am most afraid that the sting of regret will lead me to stop caring in the first place. The simplest way to avoid feeling regret is to avoid feeling, period. But I know that while it can sometimes feel inevitable (and downright relieving), regret does not need to slip into disappointment.
So, this coming week, I will try to practice forgiveness. It is Yom Kippur after all.
P.S. In regards to recognizing the things in the present that are triggering the regret over the past: I noticed that there were two things that were triggering it. And this afternoon, I was able to take a concrete action to fix one of them. ‘Fix’ is not even the right word. It was more like a token action to just channel the anxiety I was feeling into something concrete. Like, here you go. This one’s for you. [Coincidentally, this may be the hidden power of the shofar to wipe away guilt. The symbolic action par excellence.] And I have to say, it worked wonders. Felt like a huge weight off of my shoulders. And I think this has generally been the case for me. Whenever something is taking up a ton of mental space and energy, if I just go ahead and channel all of that pent up energy into some action, any action really, it allows the angst to somehow release itself. It allows the energy to flow through my mind, out of my body, and into the world.
Sam Harris, The Power of Regret:
“Regret can be like contemplating death. It can make you morbid or it can energize you and help you get your priorities straight. Regret can seem unrelated to gratitude or even seem like its opposite, but they’re really connected. In fact, regret can be a springboard into gratitude in nearly every moment. You can actually feel grateful to see your missteps and learn from them and you can feel grateful to have a chance to start again in this moment."
David Whyte, Anger and Forgiveness:
After telling a story in which he failed to give his friend a sweater on a cold night, David commented:
“I left him freezing on the platform there. I was getting into a warm train, my dad was picking me up. I’ve regretted not giving that sweater to him all my life. I did spend an hour once with it, where I just fully inhabited not giving him the sweater, and ever since, whenever I found myself in that position, I’ve always been able to give what’s needed, even if I’d been wearing it and even if I loved it, because in a sense, I went to that part of me that couldn’t give. I came to understand why I couldn’t give, because I felt as if I never had enough. That was the wound in me. But there was another part of me that was able to say, “You’ve had more than you need.” A moment of forgiveness that’s suddenly a platform for generosity.”
Lessons from Sam:
Notice how the regret does not contain me.
I have freedom outside of it
Allow regret to flow (naturally?) into gratitude
Lessons from David:
Spend time with regret. Listen carefully to what it is trying to tell me. Try not to grow frustrated or impatient with it.
I don’t need to heal it. Often, it cannot be healed. It is protecting something that it cares very much about.
But at the same time there is another side of me that is ready to forgive.
Find a place where I can respect the regret while also forgiving myself. This is called growth. I often rush blindly forth; regret helps guide my steps more carefully.
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
October 5 - Oslo
To write is to confess.
Or better, to pray.
For what is prayer, but an endless confession of one’s deepest loneliness.
To write, then, is to become intimate with an unbearable solitude.
There seems to be a surprising connection between confession and intimacy.
It strikes me, suddenly, that I have never formally confessed my ‘regrets’ to myself. I have never stopped insisting on my own innocence. No wonder, then, that I have trouble forgiving.
David Whyte says that forgiving can only take place when the forgiver ceases to live within the wound, and begins inhabiting a larger, more complex universe. It is therefore not a matter of letting go of the hurt, but of opening myself up to it. I have trouble forgiving myself insofar as I perceive myself as a victim. Even worse, I perceive myself as a crime.
It seems possible, however, to not only understand but also to feel myself not as a battlefield where different sides of myself go to attack each other, but as a meeting place where cosmic forces come to play. I have the extreme privilege to bear witness to the games of the gods. Even more, I allow the gods to confess their sins, and in so doing, forgive them.
P.S. It’s now a few days later and I’ve started to take inspiration from Whyte’s story. The regret I’ve been experiencing is tied to the way that I spend money, and the ways that I hold myself back from buying things because I’m afraid I can’t afford them or don’t think I deserve it. Now, when I’m caught in the balance and don’t know what to do, I place a finger on the scale in favor of spending the money, and so far I think it’s been good for me! Let’s see how it goes.
I’ve actually been sort of scared of turning 30, and have been trying to come up with some big gift to buy myself to celebrate. I’m pretty anxious about turning 30 without having accomplished any of the major milestones like having a house or family or even a girlfriend. I guess I still feel like a child. I’m guess I’m feeling ashamed. Like I failed my 20s. Anywayssss, rather than making some grand purchase or spending two months traveling around the world, I’ve instead decided to shift my overall perspective regarding money (and travel). And charity. I want to give more charity. I want to spend freely without always worrying like I can’t afford it. I’m turning 30 for god’s sake. I can’t take it to the grave with me!
William Shatner on his return to Earth from outer space:
We got out of our harnesses and began to float around. The other folks went straight into somersaults and enjoying all the effects of weightlessness. I wanted no part in that. I wanted, needed to get to the window as quickly as possible to see what was out there.
I looked down and I could see the hole that our spaceship had punched in the thin, blue-tinged layer of oxygen around Earth. It was as if there was a wake trailing behind where we had just been, and just as soon as I’d noticed it, it disappeared.
I continued my self-guided tour and turned my head to face the other direction, to stare into space. I love the mystery of the universe. I love all the questions that have come to us over thousands of years of exploration and hypotheses. Stars exploding years ago, their light traveling to us years later; black holes absorbing energy; satellites showing us entire galaxies in areas thought to be devoid of matter entirely… all of that has thrilled me for years… but when I looked in the opposite direction, into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold . . . all I saw was death.
I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness. It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep, enveloping, all-encompassing. I turned back toward the light of home. I could see the curvature of Earth, the beige of the desert, the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky. It was life. Nurturing, sustaining, life. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I was leaving her.
Everything I had thought was wrong. Everything I had expected to see was wrong.
I had thought that going into space would be the ultimate catharsis of that connection I had been looking for between all living things—that being up there would be the next beautiful step to understanding the harmony of the universe. In the film “Contact,” when Jodie Foster’s character goes to space and looks out into the heavens, she lets out an astonished whisper, “They should’ve sent a poet.” I had a different experience, because I discovered that the beauty isn’t out there, it’s down here, with all of us. Leaving that behind made my connection to our tiny planet even more profound.
It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness. Every day, we are confronted with the knowledge of further destruction of Earth at our hands: the extinction of animal species, of flora and fauna . . . things that took five billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will never see them again because of the interference of mankind. It filled me with dread. My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral.
I learned later that I was not alone in this feeling. It is called the “Overview Effect” and is not uncommon among astronauts, including Yuri Gagarin, Michael Collins, Sally Ride, and many others. Essentially, when someone travels to space and views Earth from orbit, a sense of the planet’s fragility takes hold in an ineffable, instinctive manner. Author Frank White first coined the term in 1987: “There are no borders or boundaries on our planet except those that we create in our minds or through human behaviors. All the ideas and concepts that divide us when we are on the surface begin to fade from orbit and the moon. The result is a shift in worldview, and in identity.”
It can change the way we look at the planet but also other things like countries, ethnicities, religions; it can prompt an instant reevaluation of our shared harmony and a shift in focus to all the wonderful things we have in common instead of what makes us different. It reinforced tenfold my own view on the power of our beautiful, mysterious collective human entanglement, and eventually, it returned a feeling of hope to my heart. In this insignificance we share, we have one gift that other species perhaps do not: we are aware—not only of our insignificance, but the grandeur around us that makes us insignificant. That allows us perhaps a chance to rededicate ourselves to our planet, to each other, to life and love all around us. If we seize that chance.
October 16 - Elizabeth St Garden
The idea that wisdom or happiness can be attained only through suffering, has been appearing and reappearing all weekend.
I first stumbled on this while rearranging my shelves. I picked up Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses and just randomly flipped through it. It landed on a talk entitled “The Narrowness is the Way," in which he expands on this notion that “the way” (I.e. that which ought to be done) is not narrow by chance. But rather the narrowness itself—difficulty and suffering itself—is the way. More than that, Kierkegaard says that unlike a physical path which reveals itself in geometric space, the spiritual way is a “how” not a “where”. One does not need to walk a path, but rather one must learn how to walk.
“For it is indeed true: two men may be sleeping in one bed, the one is saved, the other lost; two men can go up to the same temple, the one goes home saved, the other lost; two men can recite perfectly the same confession of faith, the one may be saved, the other lost. How does this happen, unless just because, in the spiritual sense, it is a deception to know where the way goes, since the way is: how it is traveled?”
And the “how it is traveled,” for Kierkegaard, is “in narrowness.” In suffering. In this way, Kierkegaard seeks to offer consolation for the sufferer. If you are suffering, you are already on the path to salvation.
I have endless respect and love for Kierkegaard, but I gta say that I have no clue what he’s talking about. I can’t find the virtue in suffering. I don’t see the consolation. I am blind to its redemption. All I see is suffering.
He talks of suffering as god’s test of our faith. Not that god needs to test us. He already knows the truth. But rather a test which demonstrates to us (and for us) the truth of our faith. In this way, taking a narrow step is akin to taking a faithful step. I am stepping there. Precisely there. Not because it is easy, but because it is true.
Emunah means both faith and truth. Amen.
Similarly, I woke up on time this morning and actually got my ass to Mass at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Nolita.
The priest talked about how god could only guide the Jews out of slavery by way of the desert. Freedom cannot come by itself. It must come through trials and desolation. It must be tested, and it must be earned. Only in that way do we become free. Freedom is not a state, it is a shape. Just as the path is not a space, but a stance.
Today’s entrance hymn reads:
Souls of men, why will you wander
From a love so true and deep?
Foolish hearts, he still will find you
Though the way be rough and steep.
There is mercy for the sinner,
And more graces for the good,
There is welcome with the Savior;
There is healing in his blood.
There is healing in his blood.
Frankenstein’s Last Speech:
Turning towards the men, he said,
“What do you mean? What do you demand of your captain? Are you, then, so easily turned from your design? Did you not call this a glorious expedition? “And wherefore was it glorious? Not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terror, because at every new incident your fortitude was to be called forth and your courage exhibited, because danger and death surrounded it, and these you were to brave and overcome. For this was it a glorious, for this was it an honorable undertaking. You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species, your names adored as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honor and the benefit of mankind. And now, behold, with the first imagination of danger, or, if you will, the first mighty and terrific trial of your courage, you shrink away and are content to be handed down as men who had not strength enough to endure cold and peril; and so, poor souls, they were chilly and returned to their warm firesides. Why, that requires not this preparation; ye need not have come thus far and dragged your captain to the shame of a defeat merely to prove yourselves cowards. Oh! Be men, or be more than men. Be steady to your purposes and firm as a rock. This ice is not made of such stuff as your hearts may be; it is mutable and cannot withstand you if you say that it shall not. Do not return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brows. Return as heroes who have fought and conquered and who know not what it is to turn their backs on the foe.”
“Death is beautiful,” said Katy, as she sat across from me at the bar last night. It releases your loved ones from their suffering.
In this way, death and suffering are diametrically opposed. Life, not death, is suffering. Life, not death, is dark and empty.
Buddhism teaches us to die each moment, the better to avoid suffering and transcend life.
The Question: is life worth living? Is there any justification for suffering?
Christ on the cross tells us to embrace suffering. Christ brings the dead back to life, inviting them to suffer once again. Even more miraculously, Christ brings god to life. Inviting the divine creator to join in our suffering.