Thursday, September 12, 2019

Farewells and Goodbyes

This has been a hard week emotionally. I just returned from a memorial service where I said a permanent goodbye to a sixteen year-old student and friend who I knew for all too short a duration. Earlier in the week I said a (hopefully) temporary farewell to another young lady I have grown fond of and learned so much from. The grief and sadness is a little easier the older I get because I have learned to accept the choices of others, even when that means I am deprived of their regular company.

Myself, Kaya, and Heidi

Kaya came to one of the Mile High Bug Club events at Cheyenne Mountain State Park about three years ago. She got my attention immediately because she had driven down from beyond the Denver area just to hang out with a bunch of "bug nerds" and look at moths and other insects drawn to the blacklights during the night.

As we got to talking, I learned that she, too, is an only child, with divorced parents, and eclectic interests. The more I got to know her over the years the more in awe I became of her intellect, adventurous spirit, and easy-going nature. She will be on to a new job now, in a far-off city, but I look forward to staying connected, and seeing her again someday should we agree on a place to seek new and fascinating insects.

It occurs to me that while I have genuine affection for Kaya, she embodies qualities I wish I had when I was her age: confidence, mostly, but an even richer analytical mind, a fearless approach to new experiences, trust in others, endless curiosity, and a sense of freedom. Yes, that romantic notion of just going wherever your heart and soul take you. Dream on, live fully, my friend.

My late friend Erin

I met Erin Starkey, her brother Brad, and their mother in August of 2012 when we both turned out for a gathering of entomologists and insect photographers at a research station in southern Arizona. Imagine the surprise and delight to learn that we all lived in Colorado Springs. We got together again a handful of times, once for Erin's birthday if I recall correctly, and I shared books and insect specimens with her. I saw her last on my own birthday, last January.

Little did I know that she was equally enamored with all animal life, rabbits especially, and was a volunteer with our local Humane Society. I had no idea she was also artistically inclined, with a talent for songwriting, acting and directing, drawing, even animation. She was incredibly empathetic to the poverty-stricken, volunteering at shelters and soup-kitchens.

Unfortunately, I also did not know that she suffered from mental illness, and the spirit-sapping lows that come with that. On September 5, the heaviness got too much to bear and she took her life.


She wasn't wanting to leave us, of course, she was attempting to leave herself. At least that part of herself that conjured demons of emotional misery, dominating every part of her psyche. As if that dimension of your soul could be shed like a snakeskin, killed with the equivalent of a silver bullet....but it always takes everything else down with it. Some people try and wash that part of their mind away by drinking. Others smoke, snort, shoot up, or otherwise exorcise one dragon with another. Some people try and outrun their own ominous shadow by literally running away.

The empty, unsatisfying, and self-destructive remedies abound, all of them equally useless, a mere temporary fix that might get you to tomorrow, but still leave you with no future visible to you on your horizon. You have choices only in what Devils to bargain with, what form of suffering is the least painful.

"You could choose to be happy if you wanted to..."

No, that is not how depression works. That is not how anxiety works. That is not how obsessive-compulsive works. That's not how any of this works. As long as you insist that it is "all in your mind," or imply that one has control over their state of mind, you are doing a horrible disservice to those cursed with mental illness. Stop being so damn condescending and free your own mind to contemplate the possibility that others can be "wired" differently than you, you healthy, sunshiny son-of-a-....

Listen, we all have our deficits, our ills, our weaknesses, our genetic uniqueness. I guarantee that you know people with mental illness whether you are cognizant or not. The manifestation of madness is not always what we have been taught that it is. Your job is not to assume, not to dismiss, not to pity, not to stigmatize, but merely empathize.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

What Constitutes Suffering?

I argued in a previous post about suicide that no person should be obligated to endure suffering for the sake of other people, except in cases where there are dependent children or elderly family members involved. What I left out of that discussion was a definition of "suffering." Today, there appears to be a great deal of individual and collective suffering, so what does that mean for you?


To clarify, I am not seeking a legal definition as it applies to litigation and damage-seeking monetary compensation. That may be part of the problem, actually. Societies with a capitalist economy want to assign concrete dollar values to everything, whether appropriate or not. We have come to measure all aspects of our lives in financial terms. That may create more suffering than it solves. It certainly adds unnecessary stress.

Is suffering like pornography, you "know it when you see it?" Maybe you know it when you feel it. There is certainly the pain of physical suffering, what detainees in camps along our southern U.S. border are faced with during their confinement, what the victims of natural disasters experience during and after catastrophic events, and of course the wounds of war, terrorism, and other acts of violence. Any physical trauma is likely to generate suffering of varying degree and duration.

There is also the unrelenting mental anguish during and after violence, the stress of anticipating the next episode of abuse at the hands of your domestic partner, the constant threat of harassment or violence if you are a woman, a person of color, a member of the LGBTQ community, or a practitioner of Islam, Judaism, or some other persecuted religion....the list of potential victims of suffering is almost limitless.

I would contend that suffering does not begin and end with these scenarios. Suffering extends to those who are empathetic to the abused, the oppressed, the undervalued, underprivileged, and poverty-stricken. People with White Privilege choose whether to be empathetic or not, recognizing that they, too, suffer as long as other humans do.

Suffering from empathy goes even farther. Many in our world are empathetic not just to other members of Homo sapiens, but to other species. I myself derive great joy from knowing that there are other organisms occupying our planet, leading fascinating lives and contributing directly and indirectly to the health of humanity in both the biological and emotional sense. Depriving caring people of other species through direct extinction, climate change, and habitat destruction is no less a crime than homicide.

Each of us has a different threshold at which suffering begins, and it is wrong to evaluate the suffering of others based on our own personal standard of what we consider to be suffering. Our American society is still far too entrenched in the mentality of machismo and stoicism when it comes to pain of any kind. "Suck it up," we like to say. Such condescending and dismissive rhetoric, and behavior, will unravel our civilization if it is not properly balanced with empathy.

In these troubling times it is tempting to withdraw, and indeed countless souls abandon Facebook and Twitter and other online communities daily to avoid facing a continuous onslaught of bad news and worse news. Turning a blind eye does not make reality better, however, and also deprives one of the latest positive news from friends, validation of one's own sensitivity, and, of course, humorous memes about pets. Seriously, we need to laugh more than ever.

Perhaps your challenge, like mine, is to not return to negative personal behavior patterns that you once used to cope with mental and social anxiety, fear, and depression. Remind yourself that those are expensive and wasteful exercises, both financially and physically. We need to be at our best and sharpest, and be engaged with the world for as long and intensely as we can tolerate, which is much more than we think we can. This is not the time to run away, turn to substances legal or illicit, or check out altogether.

Most importantly, we need to remind each other that, political and religious differences aside, we recognize our humanity and the need to work collectively. No politician, no corporate leader, no single individual has all the answers. It is us who will succeed or fail in protecting each other and the Earth regardless of what happens in Congress, the Oval Office, the next international summit. Make wise choices beyond the ballot, in your preferences in the marketplace, in how you treat others and how you treat yourself. You deserve positive things, tangible and intangible. We all do. To paraphrase Timothy Leary, we won't get any of those benefits if we tune out, turn on, or drop out. Stay alive, stay connected, heap praise on the worthy, reward true excellence, and think critically. That is how you end suffering.