06 May, 2016

Bullshit and Baggage

The world we live in is far from ideal. As an idealist, this inescapable fact by turns inspires, enrages, and depresses the hell out of me.
They say every cynic is a disappointed idealist, and I'll admit to my fair share of cynicism. The word "cynic" is a fascinating study: it derives from the Greek for "dog" and was an insult thrown at people who rejected the fashions and mores of their age. Rather than let the word belittle them, the Cynics adopted it wholesale, even revelling in it. A dog, after all, is loyal and steadfast, as the Cynics were to their philosophical tenets; the dog is also discerning, and will examine any morsel offered to it. This sort of behaviour was rigorously taught in the schools of ancient Greece, and is woefully deficient today. It goes under the modern name critical thinking.

I also have within me a great deal of hope: hope for myself, hope for those I love, and in my highest moments, hope for humanity. (That's a hard one to achieve, let alone sustain.) 

I have written before, in what is possibly my favourite of the nearly sixteen hundred posts here, about the war that rages within me between the forces of hope and cynicism. I'd like to spiral out from inside my own skull and talk about Hope and Cynicism as tools.

You may have noticed that the world we live in runs on bullshit. (If you don't believe this, you're bullshitting yourself, and thus the point is valid either way: screw critical thinking and logical fallacies, this is the logic of the nerve endings. The stink and squelch of bullshit is impossible to ignore. It permeates the Internet; it infects our relationships; and the working world positively thrives on it.

In order to succeed in a world full of bullshit, we're almost required to spread a little of it. We must, if not actually kiss asses, at least get our noses up good and close and take a long hard whiff of them. This proves to the possessor of the ass in question that we're either comfortable with his bullshit or at least willing to pretend we are. We must also sprinkle nearly our every utterance with little wisps of bullshit...because everyone else does, and we wouldn't want to stand out, would we?

Every now and again I meet someone who is a straight shooter, a hundred percent honest, who neither accepts nor spews bullshit. I respect and admire these people, because they fit my ideal, but oh! how they tend to suffer. Most people don't know how to take them: we're all so used to bullshit that its absence strikes us as the purest bullshit there is. And running through life without a bullshit sprinkler tends to manufacture (and escalate) conflict. Some people seem to LIVE FOR that, and if it works for them, so be it; that mindset is so alien to mine that nothing I say about it would make any sense.

A third issue for the straight shooter is self-distortion. She either goes through life convinced she's beyond reproach...or he's plagued by self-doubt. Often both at once, which tears at a soul.

People like this have a surfeit of cynicism...and it's hard to blame them, because cynicism feeds on itself. How can you blame somebody for a worldview that is reinforced constantly? It's particularly corrosive when that cynicism gets turned on the self: I'm not good enough, I'll never be good enough. It's mighty hard work  to overturn that, because anyone suggesting I *am* good enough is obviously full of bullshit!

Conversely, there's such a thing as too much hope. The word for that is naïvety, and it comes from not recognizing the bullshit for what it is. I regret to inform you I'm still prone to this in many contexts. I so want to believe certain hunks of social bullshit. The hardest one for me is: we should get together sometime.

This is a verbal tic for most people, the end-of-conversation equivalent of how are you? --fine when you're anything but. They're empty syllables nine times out of ten: I find that out when I try to take them up on the offer two or three times and nothing happens. Then I hold it against them. Relax, Ken, it's just bullshit. Not even intentional bullshit. Don't take this personally.

If I'm not careful, and often I'm not careful, it tips over into cynicism, and that kind of cynicism is aimed squarely at myself. They don't like you, of course they don't, they don't even want to SEE your ugly face--


I think most of us oscillate back and forth between hope and cynicism. More and more, I'm coming to believe that one of the secrets of a happy life is to keep those two forces in balance and use each as a tool: hope to rise above the bullshit and cynicism to cut through it.

Your baggage is the accumulated store of bullshit you've experienced. Unless you're a saint born of a saint and a saint, you have at least some; many of us have legions of imaginary bellboys to tote our baggage for us because otherwise we'd barely be able to move for the weight.

"Life's too short, babe
Time is flyin'
I'm looking for baggage that goes with mine"
--Jonathan Larson, "La Vie Bohème", from RENT

Your life's store of bullshit -- your baggage -- determines a lot. It strongly influences how you communicate, what you hold dear, how you live.

It's good to examine your baggage...and it's critical to discern which pieces of baggage are booby-trapped and work to expunge those.
Suppose someone has an alcoholic and abusive father. He grows up to be an alcoholic and abusive father, and says "it's because of my dad." His brother grows up to be a doormat, an abuse magnet, who shuns alcohol entirely and regards every social drinker as a good-for-nothing lush...and says "it's because of my dad." There's a lot of baggage there either way... and of course somebody else may have packed those bags, but they're your bags. Your responsibility. Your bullshit. It's up to you whether to shove that bullshit in somebody's face, or to use it as the fertilizer it's intended to be.

I can read you the tags on (nearly) every piece of baggage I have, from my hatred of violence to my fear of rejection. The only one that stubbornly refuses to be explained is my phobia of driving a car. I've never been in anything worthy of being called an accident. I come from very good to superlative drivers all around, and that includes my wife. And yet I just know, with a dead certainty, that if I try to pilot a motor vehicle for any length of time, I will crash, and I will kill myself and others. There is absolutely no room for dispute in my mind on that score: that's why I know it's a phobia. That and the overwhelming urge to vomit if I do anything other than start a car...

As we move through the river of bullshit that is life -- and if that isn't a cynical image, I don't know what is -- hope is the paddle we use to make headway. Hope in ourselves, that we can rise above this day's allotment of bullshit; hope in each other, that we can learn to remove all traces of bullshit from our relationship (for some sad sacks, this is much softened to "that our bullshit is compatible"); and hope for the world, that, just for today, it shows us something positive for a change.

Hope. Without it, you're stuck...stuck in the river of bullshit.

At the same time, cynicism can be a tool, a bullshit filter that separates the truth out from the effluvia. Like its counterpart, it can be abused, and often is. But a touch of cynicism is almost as important as hope...because it grounds us. Where hope is a paddle, cynicism is an anchor. And sometimes, let's face it, you need an anchor.

The war between General Hope and Commander Cynic may never be over. Maybe it's never supposed to be.

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