Not Good for the Heart (?)

I’m not a huge fan of confrontation. Or stress. That’s probably not surprising for anyone who knows me. If you don’t, you may wonder why I wandered into the depths of politics and religion with the last two articles I wrote. I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess. Nothin’ like “a waste of time” to get the blood pumping. I always find a way to stretch the barriers surrounding my own emotional containment. I’ve been told this is a good thing, but I’m not too sure about that. I feel like I’ve learned a few things this week, though, and I thought I’d share (if only to help me process my own feelings).

Hemingway once said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” If that’s the case, then writing is a biopsy, and the reader is a doctor. Deep inside, you hope the reader is trained to process the results. You hope the reader has a decent bedside manner. You hope what you have isn’t terminal.

Oop, it’s terminal.

It’s the big word in the middle, it’s wonderful; I’ve never had someone critique my work with something so specific before. Kind of exciting, actually. I was looking for “preachy”, but “tendentious” is fantastic. At first I thought he misspelled “tangentious”, like, going off on endless amounts of tangents. And boy, do I ever (I love parentheses). But no, that’s not what the word means.

Tendentious: “expressing or intending to promote a particular cause or point of view, especially a controversial one.”

Thank the Lord, someone actually recognized what I was doing! It sounds like I’m being facetious when I say this, but I’m not: I’ve been waiting years for someone to give me feedback that’s so specific. I’ve spent the last ten years of my life working for marketing agencies where the only feedback I receive is if the details of the content I write need clarification or correcting. And if they do need correcting, I don’t often get specifics about adding things so much as deleting. Having worked for the last two-and-a-half years as a remote freelancer, I don’t get to discuss content writing much with people who do the same work, since, well… I don’t have co-workers.

I’m pretty used to being wrong, though. And I’m very used to being boring.

But “tendentious”… I never get to be tendentious, much less get recognized for it.

Hypocrite? Well, yeah, I mean, I mentioned that I was in the article. I usually assume everyone is, but it’s good to play it safe. I mentioned the possibility of being wrong many times, too, so I’m happy to get confirmation. The review even made it to the last line in the article, too, which makes this even more exciting; I only mentioned invoked Reagan’s name once, and despite agreeing with the sentiment that he was an evil hypocrite (just as every mortal who ever lived in this world is), I still believe the quote is useful, if not an actual truth.

You know how many times I’ve told myself that I’ve been wasting my time, though? That’s old news, my man; you and my brain both. And not just here, on this blog. I’ve mentioned in the past how I’ve felt about my own work, how none of the hundreds and thousands of pages of content I’ve written over the course of my life will ever be seen by human eyes. Even now, the words I’m writing amount to a fart in the wind. Nothing besides a bit of traffic from URL bot trawlers on search engines and blog scammers.

To be honest, though… I’ve never really had anything I’ve wanted to say before. Not really. I’m strange that way. I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, writing silly stories for myself and never for anyone else. Only in the last few years have I reached out to my own family members to see if I had anything worth saying. Not until early 2021 did I realize how hard it was to love writing while being too scared to show people the metaphorical blood on the typewriter.

When I chose “atheism” and “religion” as two of the keywords that would be attached to the last blog post, I knew what I was doing. I knew the kind of people I was inviting to the party. And I want to thank him. Honestly. Your feedback, while not the first deconstructive criticism I’ve ever received, told me more than I ever hoped for about an article that I knew was a throwaway from the start. You recognized I gave it effort, you recognized its purpose, and you read it to the end. Not a lot of readers have given my work that much attention, much less that much recognition.

Okay, it was… mostly a throwaway. I don’t enjoy writing things that aren’t meaningful to me, in some way (it’s why I didn’t get my bachelor’s, after all). Like I’ve said, thinking gets me into trouble. No matter how heartfelt I start things, the more I bleed across the metaphorical page, the more I realize that I’m just making a mess, and not a pretty one.

But, as a writer, I am duty-bound to bleed. And the more time and effort I waste in this profession, the stronger I become as a writer and as a person. Now that I’m no longer shackled to my medications and caffeine, I am able to accept unwarranted (and delightfully-specific) heat when it comes my way. And that is a wonderful sign of progress.

This all being said, however… I’ll take my refiner’s fire by degrees, thank you. I’m still a wuss. A wuss in remission, but still certainly one.

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Something, Not Anything, and Especially Not Nothing

These words have power, even in fiction. And they’re worth holding on to.

A video appeared in my Facebook feed recently by Brad Stein entitled: “Ricky Gervais Atheism Rebuttal (Part 1)“. And it got me thinking. I know I get in trouble when I think out loud, but I can’t help it. So I’ll throw my two cents out there, mostly to help me form my own understanding.

One of the main points of atheism that I understand the least is the desire to throw away all of man’s collected theological arguments, philosophies, and development. Just get rid of it, they say. All of it. Immediately. We don’t need it anymore. If the world could just “get over” God completely, they argue, we might actually start making sense to each other. After all, now that we have the scientific method, what do we need faith for?

The thing that gets me is that they speak as if a religion-less world would solve more problems than it would cause. You know the phrase, “throw the baby out with the bath water?” To get rid of all religion and God, you might as well be throwing the whole bathroom out of the house. Yes, the bathroom often smells bad, and yes, it needs cleaning more than most other rooms in the house. In fact, sometimes the sewage comes back up and explodes out of the toilet, and sometimes we have to call the plumber or even the disaster clean-up crew to come take care of things.

But no one would argue that building a house without a bathroom is a good idea, at least not in the modern world. Even if it’s an outhouse on the property, outside of the house of society, it is something man can’t do without, and to say that they can invites trouble.

But there’s more to this analogy than comparing religion to waste disposal, because the bathroom is used for much more than this. The bathroom is where man comes to become clean. It is the one place inside the home where man is renewed, when man begins and ends each day, mostly out of necessity, but sometimes… just because. (Apologies if this overstretches the analogy. But really, what parent hasn’t retreated to the bathroom for a moment of solace?) A home without a bathroom is a miserable place, and even if you’ve chosen to build your home without one, there is somewhere in your home that you wash yourself and do your business.

If not, well… I hope you use dry shampoo, at least.

Hopefully you’ve noticed by now that I’m not really talking about the optimal type of bathroom, whether you should have tile or hardwood floors, or whether a bidet is preferrable to toilet paper. Which religion is true isn’t the question here (although, due to my inexperience, my argument is from the Christian perspective, as it is the one I am most familiar with). It’s the question of, on a societal scale, whether religion is preferrable to none at all. And, like it or not, believe it or not, religion has been an absolute necessity in mankind’s development, and will continue to be, so long as man requires a source of moral integrity.

And I submit that he does.

(Yet another aspect of atheism I don’t quite grasp. They insist that man is capable of being a moral creature on his own, that left without restrictions of belief, he could make manifest a modern and moral society. All I ask is: moral to who, exactly? The greatest amount of us, or a select few? The society that accepts stories such as The Lord of the Flies, 1984, and hundreds of other godless dystopias as societal possibilities states this “fact” with a straight face, and that has always confused me.)

Let’s be fair: if it wasn’t for the very Christian founding of the United States that believes that speech is a sacred gift that ought to be protected, even if the speaker is factually or morally wrong, there are a lot of other discussions that we wouldn’t and couldn’t even be having right now (as an aside: you can, in fact, shout “fire!” in a crowded theater, especially if the theater is actually on fire, in which case you probably should, and remember to help everyone find the right exits. In fact, to expand on this analogy, in my opinion, it is the sole purpose of the religious to shout when they see fires, i.e. moral dangers, stamp them out when they can, and help the weak and downtrodden escape with their lives, sometimes quite literally.) I submit that the very site that hosts this blog and others like it would not exist without it (the fact that there are countries that block Wikipedia, of all things, or at least interfere with the free editing of its content, is astounding to me. But not unexpected, and telling of cultures and, yes, religions that do not agree that you can simply say things).

The scientific method and all the vaunted sciences which atheism loves so very much were developed by God-fearing men and women who sought to understand all the facets of creation, and might not have done so with such feverish dedication and curiosity had they not felt a moral obligation to do so (a moral obligation that arose, I might add, often because of their faith, and not in spite of it). From the ancient Greeks to the Islamic Golden Age, from Galileo to Sir Issac Newton, the search for knowledge and truth has never been separate from faith and belief until these most recent two centuries. The Renaissance, for instance, was financed and forwarded as a whole by men of faith; only now, in these days, would we question the worthiness of a scientist by his belief in a higher power. Even men like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking would not have been able to perform their work without standing upon the moral foundations laid by men who at least publicly believed in God.

Yes, men and women are foolish, and very imperfect. Petty, often, and gullible. We always have been and we always will be. Man’s religions especially so. But we would not be as “advanced” as we are without them, and, in my humble opinion, we would be dramatically worse off without God and religon existing within our societal framework. Indeed, God and religion is the framework we build on, and to rip it out and start from nothing would be both ill-advised and (in my opinion) probably impossible anyway, so long as people exist in this world who seek to help and love others.

That’s not to say that atheists are incapable of love or giving to charity. But I am saying there is a correlation between goodness and religion that is undeniable.

An article entitled “Can societies abandon religion and continue to prosper?” was written for MercatorNet by Michael Kirke and lays out a few points of evidence for this. I’ll highlight this main point:

“In a world where people often lived near starvation, religion helped them cope with severe uncertainty and stress… as economic and technological development took place, people became increasingly able to escape starvation, cope with disease, and suppress violence. Does this, however, mean that their faith in a higher power was necessarily illusory?

“…if the overall thesis is that the only factors governing the future of mankind are those recognised by the materialist modern mind, then it is a very limited one. Uniting good political science and sociology with the entire corpus of theology and Christian doctrine as it has developed down through two millennia will give us a much more useful reading of what the future might look like than will a Babelesque go-it-alone mindset. The corpus of the Judean-Christian Scriptures — with their prophesies, parables and accounts of historical events —  still gives us essential resources for interpreting and coping with the events, and follies, of our times.”

In my opinion, it couldn’t be less illusory if it tried. That starved, desperate, violent world is the world that our modern one was built on, and if popular media tells me anything, it’s the one we will return to if society should ever collapse under its own weight. And, in the end, you can’t get away from that. You accept the most good that you possibly can, remember it in the history books, and move on, else we go back to square one with nothing and repeat the suffering in ignorance.

Perhaps the most common argument for atheism I encountered was the argument that man is never more bloodthirsty, murderous, and trecherous than when serving a god. And yes, it’s true: under the banner of religion, man has murdered their fellow man in untold numbers, from the days of Babylon to the planes that struck the Twin Towers. But it wasn’t until we managed to get God out of the way that man made murder an industrialized endeavor. From the Holocaust to the Holodomor, from Mao’s glorious revolution to the killing fields of Cambodia, man gets awful good at killing other men and doing terrible things when they put God aside, often with the aspirations that life will be better once the undesirables are gone.

Because the first undesirable removed, inevitably, is God Himself. And that is hardly God’s fault.

The silliest argument I’ve ever got into with someone about the intrinsic value of religion was about the total death toll of the Crusades, how the conflict that spanned two centuries would not have happened had God and religion not been involved.

Such a simple theory of a simpler time, as if the greater religions of politics and desperation were not as active and far-reaching.

At the time, I didn’t have the numbers in front of me, but here they are. They’re rough, of course; anywhere from one million to nine million soldiers and civilians dead due to the 200-year, octuple-pronged conquest of the Holy Land. It’s impossible to be accurate these days, but even with rough estimates, and with all due respect for generations of people that died under terrible and barbaric circumstances, these are baby numbers.

The Third Reich was able to kill just as many people in a period of ten years. The Soviets’ five-year plan did it in a single year. Mao did four to eight times more, in only four years. And without a god to be found.

But, naturally, when you use the word “conquest”, it makes it sound so one-sided, when it was very much not. In fact, most of the “crusades” were failures, and overall they certainly were. Could I just submit the possibility that such a conflict was, in fact, not ordained of God? That, in fact, the majority of reasons the conflict began actually first conflicted with the very commandments God gave His followers, namely “thou shall not kill”? That it was men and power, not religion, that was the problem? Because, again, let’s be honest: even some Christians thought it wasn’t a good idea to continue sacking the East in 1114, and Christians were slaughtered for getting in the way. There’s a reason they started, though, that wasn’t “because God told them to”. The First Crusade began because Emperor Alexios of the Byzantines (who was not Catholic) no longer had control over the region and asked Pope Urban II to intervene, which they might have done anyway because of the massive military victories made by the Muslims in Spain in the mid 1000’s. There’s a board game about it, for Pete’s sake. Europe was in trouble, and needed to stand up for themselves. Too bad it took eight crusades to realize they didn’t need to take it that far; by then, it was just a thing to do to prove yourself a decent Catholic ruler.

Of the ten worst genocides in modern history, only the genocide that took place in Bangladesh in 1971 was committed solely on the grounds of state-sanctioned religous bigotry. All the other man-made cataclysms were performed with different primary motivations in mind, many of which were actually state-sanctioned genocides of specific religious groups, or became worse for those that followed a particular belief system.

Is that fair to say? Even as I write this, I know how complicated history is, and how uneducated I am. Even now, I have trouble believing that someone would care so much about the things I believe… that they wouldn’t merely prefer I didn’t exist, but would go out of their way to kill me, my family, and everyone who dared to share my worldview. That if I were Jewish in Poland in 1942, an SS officer’s first reaction to learning of my existence would be to reach for their gun and not shrug in indifference. That if I were Muslim and living in Cambodia in 1975, that the first reaction of an agent of Khmer Rouge to seeing me across the room would be a knee-jerk execution by machete and thrown in a mass grave with the bodies of my friends and loved ones. After all, I’ve been told so often that it’s the religious people that love killing people so much. Why would a non-believer act like this?

If this sounds naive, it’s because I’m being so on purpose. That’s my point: people are awful anyway, no matter what they profess to believe.

Yes, people are terrible. And people with power are even worse, especially when made desperate. But that does not mean the whole of the system of belief that a powerful man holds is a net evil, especially when the system is judged only by the actions of those in power.

So what is religion, then? Is it opium for the masses, like the Marxists say? Is it merely an allowance, a shield you can wield against all forms of criticism, especially if you’re able to fool enough of those terrible people? Is it an oppressive and unnecessary system of rules and regulations that forbid you from thinking for yourself? Is religion merely “the effect of a frenzied mind… [a] derangement of your minds [that] comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so”?

If that’s all it is, there’s great news. The philosophers have spoken: “God is dead, for we have killed Him.”

But what would you put in His place?

The haughty answer is: “nothing.” I think the honest answer is: “anything else.” I believe the more complicated answer is: “everything else.”

How long will that last, do you think? In this world of popularity contests and symbolism, how long can you hold together a world of people with “nothing”? With “anything”? I know from personal experience that “everything” can distract for a good couple of years, at least. But is that all I get in return? A distraction?

You’ve got to be able to make us all some promises with your “anything” and “everything else”.

If we dropped everything we believed, right now, would fewer of us die in the short-term if we followed your “everything”? And I do mean all of us, all people living right now, because that is the endless demand I hear. How about long-term? Would fewer of us encounter a broken heart, or heal from heartache and separation faster? Would fewer of us have to suffer from depression, sadness, and doubt? Would your “anything else” make us all less lonely? Would your noisy “everything” help us find meaning in our existence in this staggeringly uncaring universe? Could it protect us from hopelessness? Could it save us from sorrow? And if it could not, could it at least explain why we are destined to live in such conditions?

In my own life, I have felt abandoned by those who shared my faith. When I was at my lowest point, I did not know how to ask for help, and they did not know how to give it. But it is a commandment in my religion to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort”. Yes, those that share my faith may have failed to follow that commandment sometimes, due to inexperience or insecurity.

But they succeeded far more than they failed. Nothingness didn’t have an answer for me. Atheism doesn’t care if I attempt suicide again. My one small life means nothing to nothingness, and it means much less than that to “everything” and “anything”. But my faith tells me that my God does care. A lot, actually. And because of that, I am still here.

Does your belief system compel you to act the same towards others? Does it urge you to reach out the those you love, even when you don’t know how? Or even to reach out to those who mean nothing to you? It’s likely to. If so, where does the system you follow originate?

Just as the worth of a man’s thoughts are best judged by what he thinks when he is alone, so too is a man’s beliefs. Therein lies the difficulty, because although religion and faith affects the whole fabric of society, it is a very personal thing, a very individual thing. A difficult-to-control thing. A difficult-to-explain thing.

But none of these traits make religion wrong. Or even useless. Far from it, actually. It’s only a shame it has taken this long to reach a view of individualism that we can have honest and peaceful discussions about what makes our beliefs different. And it’s a greater shame that believers are often shamed for doing so (and I share these examples because of how easily I can see them being mocked on the social media cesspool that is Twitter; I have no desire to look up examples).

Talk about “comically” missing the point. The artist has proven only that he has made the slimmest of mental effort, throwing away the whole of “white American Christianity” by lumping them with terrorists, murderers, and child traffickers. I don’t care how you feel about any of the groups portrayed, though, honestly: caricature and mockery like this removes our willingness to understand each other. Be they enemy or friend, saint or sinner, 85% of the population of the world affiliates with a religion. Like it or not, believe it or not, you do yourself a disservice by ignoring and discarding it without learning why.

Whether you believe in God or not, you must acknowledge that everything we cling to, everything we love, and everything we consider beautiful stems from something: a system of belief, a tradition, a source of morality. Even if you don’t believe it, it’s likely someone you love does, and it’s likely they were taught by others that believed. If a man removes from himself a fundamental source of morality, he allows for his children to believe in anything.

And “anything” is one of the most terrifying things someone can believe in. This article, entitled: “Believing In Anything” by Dale Ahlquist, is a wonderful read, as is G. K. Chesterton as a whole, if you ever get the chance.

I’m not asking you to believe in the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I’m not even asking you to believe in the god I believe in, really. I’m only asking you to watch your child’s actions and behaviors if they do believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, and ponder what use that belief serves. I’m only asking you to judge how the man who believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster lives his life, and if he and those he associates with are all the better for his mockery.

I’m only asking you to judge our society and people the way my God did, and if any of it has value, to not discard the whole of it, and ask why:

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

Matthew 7:16-20

That’s why I can’t throw it all away, like the atheists tell me to: because there is goodness there. It is personal. It is difficult to explain. It’s also why I don’t blame those that have, if that is truly what they have experienced. But, as the Gipper once said, freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. And like it or not, believe it or not, faith is an inextricable virtue of freedom. Square one is not a place I want to raise my own children, no matter how flawed the people who stand on square forty-two might be. Because, for all I know, those strange people with strange thoughts on square forty-two might have something of real value.

If you’ve got a bridge you’d like to sell me, I’ve got a bathroom remodel I can offer you in return. All you need to do is ask.

The Price of (My) Education

Sorry if politics isn’t your thing. But this really gets my goat. My gander. My dander? I can’t remember the phrase, but this grinds my gears.

This opinion article by Deseret News recently appeared in my Facebook timeline. It’s titled: “President Biden forgave my student loans — I wish he hadn’t“. It really hits on how I feel about the U.S. government’s attempts to provide “charity” to its poorest citizens (or so our political leaders loudly insist).

I’ll be the first to admit it: I am on government welfare. I am on Medicaid, as I have a mental illness that has severely affected my ability to live, much less hold a job and pay my bills. I am not on food stamps, and never have been, despite my attempts to ask for it. I am not a wise person when it comes to money; I have filed for bankruptcy in the past, and I get the feeling that even if I was rolling in funds, I would be spending more than I would be making. If I were to win the lottery, I would be one of those fools that would manage to blow 500 million dollars right out the window (and having researched examples of lottery winners who lost it all, I don’t hesistate in saying that my 20-year old self would have done the same).

Yes, I am a fool. Yes, I am a hypocrite.

But, for all my faults, my country’s current leaders are making me look good.

One commentor on Facebook mentioned: “Well, what have the republicans done to improve the price of education? Haven’t they made the problem worse?”

Uh-huh. They did. It’s why the Republican party is no better than the Democratic party when it comes to forcefully funding “help for the poor” initiatives. They do it just to look good. There are no frugally-fiscal Republicans (none who would who use such a title), and very few fiscal conservatives. Look at me, becoming a fan of Ron Paul. Who knew?

Either way, I fell for the scam and made poor decisions, taking out loans for a degree I couldn’t finish due to poor health. And even if my health would allow it, to be honest, I refuse to finish it because my liberal arts English degree is taught only by communist quacks (yes, even at UVU/BYU/BYU-I, in the heart of supposedly-conservative Utah and Idaho). I didn’t want to learn about postmodernism, race theory, gender theory, or the dozens of other -isms and theories that liberal arts proports to make the college seem more scientific when it is ANYTHING but. I just wanted to learn how to write. And nobody suggested I learn how any other way (praise God I’ve been able to start my career without it).

Do I value my post-high-school education? Sure. Was it time well spent? Not really. Did it teach me to think critically? You could say that, yes, mostly about how crappy my overall experience was. Mostly about how I should have gone to a trade school and become an electrician. I love electrons more than I love Foucault, Derrida, and Marx, that’s for sure. By far, the most important lesson I learned in college was that some teachers just don’t give a damn, no matter how much you want to learn from them. No, I’m not going to name the teachers. I doubt they even know who they are, and that’s fine. Let’s just say, if you’re not the favorite, your will doesn’t really matter, no matter how expensive the tuition. The student is the servant, the peasant; feudalism hasn’t gone away, it’s moved to academia. You’re just another face in a wide sea of faces. And woe to you if your face becomes recognizable. Hell hath no fury like a professor scorned.

I’ll give a more concrete example.

One of the things about college education that really gets me these days are attendance rules. The worst class I ever attempted (yes, worse than postmodernism) was an HTML class that said, in no uncertain terms, that if you miss three days of class, even nonconsecutively, you fail, no questions asked. Well, I couldn’t find the damn class the first day, so there’s one. And then my illness hits me, as it tended to do, and there went two more. The class was held Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, held throughout the semester, so it wasn’t one of those fast-track courses that had only seven classes total or something. I might have agreed that missing MOST of a class would outright fail you, since you can’t learn anything in that case.

Worse, the class was not difficult. At all. It was a 200-level HTML class for liberal arts majors, and I had already done HTML and CSS the year previous, as I had changed my major from digital media to English. Just my luck that the credits didn’t transfer. I had even done the assignment that was due the day after my absences. But despite even attempting to communicate with the teacher why I missed those three days, the teacher wouldn’t accept my reasons, my completed assignment, or my attendance in his class. He wouldn’t even discuss the possibility of me staying, and he wouldn’t sign any papers that would let me drop the class to save money (I ‘failed’ the class well before midterms, but after the date that would allow classes to be dropped). He said: “it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else in the class.”

Oh. I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that my education was anyone else’s buisness. I wasn’t yet aware that college was a communistic affair. Now I know better.

I get that an employer would have fired me for three “no-show” days. But I submit that a good employer wouldn’t have cared had the work been done on time and correctly. Besides that, I feel like some teachers and professors create unbreakable, unbendable rules that sound good on paper but leave no room for the possibility that someone who might break them is still capable of learning.

…did I mention this was an HTML class? It wasn’t Hemmingway or Shakespeare, missing three out of the thirty-some-odd classes wouldn’t have set me back. I was taking the class in person like a lemon because they didn’t offer the liberal arts version online… because of course they didn’t. Not in that major. Not before the pandemic, though I’ve heard that covid-19 has made university attendance policies somehow less amenable, not more.

By the end of my college experience, I became too scared to attend class. Part of that was the illness, but part of it was the realization that no one cared that I was there, especially not the professors. Sad that these sentiments are the great-big asterisk hovering above my college days.

One of my favorite lines from a Medium article by Elliot Swane, speaking of Foucauldianism (yup, that is an ugly-ass noun): “…because affirming pointlessness, and then just doodling words around on the page and drawing faint connections and dropping them, is pointless, and pointless shit is pointless, ad infinitum.” That’s how it felt to take my postmodernism class. And I took it twice, from two different teachers, because I just couldn’t handle the bullshit. And each time, someone in class would ask: “Why are we learning it if everything is meaningless?” And each time, I would fully agree, and walk away.

Don’t even get me started on Derrida. That guy couldn’t philosophise his way out of a wet paper bag.

I couldn’t afford school at 18, I can’t afford it at 34, and now that the government has assumed complete monetary control over education, even if I wanted to, I don’t think I can justify taking out another set of loans to try again. Morally, I can’t do it. Otherwise, I’m going to end up forcing my friends, my family, my acquaintances, my enemies, and all the other American taxpayers I don’t know to pay for something I don’t really even want.

Maybe I’ll be one of those centenarians who goes back to get their degree. With how the future is looking, though, I doubt it. I wish I could refuse this “help”. I really do, even in my financial state. Great Lakes (the originator of my loan) does not give me the option to refuse, because they’ve already taken the money. But, then again, maybe Biden was aiming at me when he decided to spend your billions of dollars.

In that case, I guess I’m flattered. But I’m still not voting for him in 2024. Sorry, not sorry.

Again and Again and Again and…

I want to cry.

Yes, it’s been about 10 years since I last had kidney stones. Well, they’re back, and with a vengeance. I walked about a mile this morning before I had to stop, collapse on the cement for about ten minutes, and turn right back home. Little wonder they decided to “show up” now; I’ve walked about thirty miles in the last two weeks, so whatever stones I’ve got dancing around in there finally came loose. I’m like a freakin’ maraca, and I can’t even stand up without feeling like I want to die.

And yes, they’re on my left side, meaning they won’t be passing without surgical assistance.

*sigh*

Do I have a job yet? No. But if I manage to get one this week, I guess I know where my next two or three paychecks is going: straight to paying for another round of lithotripsy.

Guh.

Examining the Wounds Without the Bandages, Part One

I don’t talk about my mission much. When I do, I usually only talk about it long enough to mention where I went, when I served, and how much it affected the person I have become. If you’re familiar with that person, then it’s probably safe to assume that you think I absolutely hated my mission and wish I’d never gone. I’ll admit, I have said those exact words before. Many times, actually. But I don’t think that simple statement helps illustrate how I really felt about my mission service. After all this time, after dealing with depression and bipolar disorder in all the wrong ways, I feel like I should revisit some of my memories, especially now that I’m slowly removing all of the “band-aids” that I shoved over the wounds attempting to ignore them instead of treat them properly.

I served as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Los Angeles Mission from 2007-2008, my time cut short due to a major bout of kidney stones that required surgery to remove (twice, actually, separated by a few years). To say that those 14 short months were “formative” to my present life would be like describing the excavation of a craver via a nuclear explosion as “repositioning some dirt”. I’ll explain why, and why I believe, ultimately, that it was a good thing I chose to serve.

On Top of the World One Minute…

I graduated from Timpanogos High School in Orem, Utah in 2006. Right from senior year, I had a full-ride scholarship to Brigham Young University, Idaho, and I was super excited to dive into life and learn as much as I could about everything. I did not yet show any symptoms of bipolar disorder, and only minor signs of depression stemming from the typical teen angst. During junior high and high school, I was the goody-good Mormon boy (at least I felt that way). I never had any really good friends in my family ward, but I had a group of close friends from school that expanded as time went on. I ended up pretty confident and optimistic, all things considered, especially going into the transition to college.

I was able to live with my grandparents while I attended BYU-I at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, which became a wonderful learning experience; my grandpa, Richard Bird, was previously a watercolor/oil painting teacher at the old Spori building on campus, and I was able to take advantage of learning from him when I took a few art classes.

It was during this time that two major health issues revealed themselves.

I intensely remember sitting down in the living room of my grandparents’ house one morning, turning on a marathon of The Lord of the Rings trilogy that was showing on TBS, and being unable to rise off of the couch for the entire marathon. And it wasn’t because I felt any strong desire to watch them, either. For those of you who know me, sitting down, willingly, to watch a fifteen-hour marathon of anything on a channel that made a nine-hour, non-extended-edition experience that much longer because of commercials… I wouldn’t do that, especially not the week of midterms, not when there were things that needed to get done.

It was my first brush with what I called “depression” at the time, but now realize was my first manic/depressive downswing.

I also began feeling the first twinges of pain from my left kidney. There’s a story there, beyond the kidney stones. I was born two weeks early, which doesn’t seem like it should have been much of a problem. But, hey, I’m a problem child, and I came pre-packaged as one. Not only could I not breathe on my own right out of the gate, my left ureter (the tube that connects my kidney to my bladder) was formed incorrectly. Surgery was performed to fix the blockage when I was a few months old, and I’ve got the scar to prove that the doctor tried their best. Unfortunately, while my ureter is large enough to process water, the scar tissue on that dang little tube doesn’t allow kidney stones to pass on their own.

Why is the ureter so dang thin and long? Asking for a friend.

I did not realize this before my mission. Nor did the doctor who performed my physical and approved my physical ability to serve. This will become important later.

…Crashing the Next

It’s not too hard for me to point to why I feel like my mission was the worst thing evar. The difficulty arises in admitting that I don’t actually feel that way. So, if you’ll allow me, I’ll lay it all out in the most awful way possible and then attempt to build up from the lowest point.

Growing up in Utah, it’s not difficult to see how I was able to feel confident enough to serve a mission. I was surrounded by friends, family, co-workers (for the most part), ward members, and even complete strangers that believed in exactly the same things that I believed in. When I made the decision to serve a mission, this was celebrated, and expected. So expected, that I was not aware I had a decision to the contrary. I had family that decided not to serve, certainly, and I didn’t hold that against them; I still don’t. I felt I had no reason not to serve. After all, in the LDS church, it is expected that every able-bodied and worthy young man should serve a mission. For all I knew, I was able-bodied. And I felt worthy.

So I did.

I can’t even begin to describe what it feels like to go from a pure and understanding environment where you have been taught to value a single ideology with your whole being, to enter a place where no single person believes anything remotely similar to you. To go from a place where you are one of a comfortable majority to one in an intensely singular minority. But not just any minority. A minority that belongs to one of singular scorn and contempt. To most people on the street, you become something less than human. Less than a telemarketer calling during Thanksgiving dinner. Less than a teenager going door-to-door selling pest control, because at least they can easily explain the purpose for why they knocked on your door. Less than a Jehovah’s Witness, because at least they know what they believe. What was I? A scrawny white kid from a creepy cult who couldn’t speak much Spanish… and frankly, not much English either, at least not with any great charisma.

When I put on the badge, that black missionary tag with the name of the church and “Elder Bird” engraved on it, I became a target, for better or for worse. Combined with the white shirt and tie, a very visible target, one that made an excellent backboard for 64-ounce Big Gulp soda cups and drunk people who wanted to let off some steam. People go out of their way to cross the street to avoid talking to you. Those that do want to talk to you usually begin the interaction as a confrontation instead of a conversation. Sure, you get doors slammed in your face. But I began to prefer that. It hurt much less than talking to a very tired elderly mother with four mentally-handicapped adult children (all of whom she still cared for) that demanded to know what a nineteen-year old boy could possibly explain to her about the unfair god that “blessed” her in such a way. How could I explain to a woman who, in an effort to show pity on a deluded and brainwashed young man and tried to convince that I had fallen for a “delusion”, that I had chosen to believe of my own free will and choice, and that it was my choice to teach the gospel I had grown up learning, knowing, and, yes, loving with all my heart? How could I even hope to convince a veteran that had fought in the killing fields of Vietnam, whose lungs had inhaled enough Agent Orange to cause serious and life-threatening damage on its own, that I knew something that could put his heart at ease, in any way?

When Christ healed the man with palsy, he asked a very pointed question to the scribes: “For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?” Growing up, I used to equate the two in “difficulty”. I don’t equate them anymore. Palsy, leoprosy, blindness, deafness, even the condition of death itself. The human heart is infinitely more difficult to heal.

It’s one thing to give blessings. It’s one thing to baptize. It’s one thing to administer the sacrament.

It is an entirely different thing to look someone in the eyes and tell them that they will never hear something that will matter more to their eternal happiness or misery than what they will hear from me. To do so with a straight face. To do so with as much sincerity, clarity, and quality as such a discussion demands. And to do so for fourteen hours a day for two years.

And Then It Ended

And then I came home early from kidney stone issues. Remember the ureter problem? I had two dime-sized kidney stones that made any movement painful and missionary work impossible. And for the next fifteen years, the bipolar got worse, I never found a medicine that could make the mood swings tolerable, and I lost my grandparents before I ever found the courage to really look at the choices I’d made.

Logically, as a missionary, I knew two things. That the Savior was asking me to help Him carry His cross, and that He promised that His burden was light. But I was not wise enough to realize that the “burden” he was asking me to carry was not merely the one I carried as a missionary. It was the whole of my life. True, He was asking me to carry what I could, enough that I could “walk and not faint“, that I ought not “run faster or labor more than [I] have strength“. I’ll be the first to admit it, I always bite off more than I can chew. I always pick up heavier rocks than I know I can lift. I’m not a wise individual. And I’m a show-off by nature. I added an unnecessary amount of pain to my healing process.

But I did it because I thought I was supposed to. Returned missionaries are always stronger when they come home. Or so I thought. Returned missionaries always return victorious, triumphant, with a greater conviction. Or so I insisted was the case for me. When I came home, no one really asked why I was ten months early. I assume those who cared already knew why. I didn’t really talk about my mission because no one really asked me about it. And when I did, only these negative emotions rose to the surface. Only the bad times came to mind.

I was in a lot of pain. Physically, because of kidney stones. Emotionally, because I had been a psychological and sometimes physical target of ridicule and abuse for fourteen months. And spiritually, because I thought I had utterly failed as a missionary. I had baptized one person personally. A mom who wanted what was best for her and her child. A mom that I had felt guilty teaching (whether or not that guilt was warranted, I don’t honestly know; in my view, the circumstances of it were strange and kind of hard to explain).

I didn’t stay in contact with anyone I met on the mission, besides old companions. I feel bad about that. It was easier to hope that everyone I knew had forgotten about me. Better that they stayed in contact with missionaries that were stronger than me, better examples. Better with the language. More confident in sharing the message. Less ashamed of the good fight. Even now, I’m scared to reach out, even just to say hello. Even now, it hurts to even contemplate improving my Spanish, so ashamed I was (and still am) at my feeble attempts to speak it in the mission field. I did my best in that regard, so I know the shame is unnecessary. But when has necessity ever dictated what I felt?

Was It Worth It Or Not?

The Lord and the prophets have called the trials and tribulations we live through a “refiner’s fire”. The process of ore purification requires a ton of heat to separate the pure metal from the impurities and dross that make the material otherwise unusable.

I like the analogy. The mission is certainly a refiner’s fire, a never-ceasing application of intense heat and pressure. But I feel like we then equate all of life to the same process. But it isn’t. On the whole, life can be spicy, and the conflicts of day-to-day living can get pretty hot. But it’s much more situational. There are episodes of extreme conflict followed by long stretches of relative calm. Life is much more the potter’s game, a longer period of sculpting and formation, with much more emphasis on patience and practice. The mission belongs to the blacksmith, endless hours of heat, hammering at an object that does not like to budge. An intense period of time where chunks of yourself are sheered away in explosions of sparks and flame, and you’re never quite sure if the metal will bend or shatter.

Me? I was pulled out of the forge early. I wasn’t given time to anneal. I hadn’t adjusted to the pressures and the pain that the hammering was inflicting before it all just… vanished.

But just like there are many forms of refining, there are also many different versions of annealing, hardening, or “finishing” metal. The Lord knows my specific alloy. Maybe instead of annealing, I needed another form of finishing to “harden” the faith I had formed.

Maybe my finishing required a process such as this:

Believe me, the narrator in the video stating that the usefulness of the age hardening process depending on the alloy is not lost on me. My kidney stones were a time bomb that went off precisely when it was meant to (whether you, the reader, believe that or not is irrelevant, by the way). For me, the refining process was specific and intense. What it meant is left for me to interpret, the purpose of the final form known fully only to the Master.

Well. That’s only partially true.

Elder James E. Faust shared President David O. McKay’s words of what happened to the survivors of the Martin Handcart Company during a conference talk in April 1979. He stated:

Some years ago president David O. McKay told from this pulpit of the experience of some of those in the Martin handcart company. Many of these early converts had emigrated from Europe and were too poor to buy oxen or horses and a wagon. They were forced by their poverty to pull handcarts containing all of their belongings across the plains by their own brute strength. President McKay relates an occurrence which took place some years after the heroic exodus: “A teacher, conducting a class, said it was unwise ever to attempt, even to permit them [the Martin handcart company] to come across the plains under such conditions.

“[According to a class member,] some sharp criticism of the Church and its leaders was being indulged in for permitting any company of converts to venture across the plains with no more supplies or protection than a handcart caravan afforded.

“An old man in the corner … sat silent and listened as long as he could stand it, then he arose and said things that no person who heard him will ever forget. His face was white with emotion, yet he spoke calmly, deliberately, but with great earnestness and sincerity.

“In substance [he] said, ‘I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited was there, too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.

“‘I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it.’” He continues: “‘I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.

“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.’”

I wish I could say that I had never complained. I wish I could say that I never asked the Lord to tell me why I was feeling so devastated and hopeless, when I did what I knew was right. I wish I could say I always had the right mindset, or had the right perspective. I even wish I could say with certainty that angels had guided my steps in that City of Angels.

But I can say, with absolute certainty, that I have become acquainted with God in the time since. I know that Jesus Christ is my savior, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is His ministry, and that there is more to life than the fire.

In that way, I can say with equal surety, that I am glad I served a mission. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That, or the wonderful memories that I’ll share in my next blog.

Playing With the Percentages

A lot of famous (and infamous) men have had things to say about percentages and statistics through the years.

“There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

Benjamin Disraeli, former prime minister of Great Britain

“I couldn’t claim that I was smarter than sixty-five other guys–but the average of sixty-five other guys, certainly!”

Richard Feynman, theoretical physicist

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns- the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense under President George W. Bush

I’ve actually got my eye on writing a whole other article about that particular quote (a serious one, too; as nonsensical as Rumsfeld’s words may first appear, there’s actually a solid chunk of truth there). But my personal favorite, and the idea around which I want to form my current hypothesis, is this:

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”

Mark Twain

My hypothesis is this: there are things about myself that I cannot change, and that will never go away. But I can increase or decrease the likelihood of negative circumstances occuring through small actions I can take right now.

I call it the XCOM Strategy to Mental Fortitude.

Why In the World Is It Called That?

If you’ve ever played the pc game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2, or any one of the myriad titles in the series, then you know that the game is all about calculating percentages. When one of your soldiers aims at an alien on the battlefield, the game calculates many different variables and provides a percentage chance that your soldier will hit the enemy with whatever weapon they’re using.

It looks something like this:

I apologize for the size of the image; the important details are in the bottom left.

In XCOM 2, the system gives you the details of what will increase or decrease the chances of your soldier hitting the enemy. If your solider has good aim, the chances go up. If your soldier’s gun has a scope, or they have a height advantage over their target, the chances go up further. If the enemy is behind half-cover or out of range of your soldier’s weapon, the chances go down. If the enemy is enshrouded in smoke, or has specific resistances, chances go down further. If they’re behind full cover or invisible, you may not have any chance to hit at all.

There is, however, one option that (almost) always works: go AOE and make it explode.

Of course, going explosive is dangerous. The grenade could damage any allies in the area, or bring down local infrastructure (I’ve lost quite a few fights to poor explosion calculations). It also has the nasty habit of destroying your enemy’s weapons if they die, leaving you nothing to salvage after the battle is over.

So, in XCOM, you’ve got some facts. The enemy aliens want to turn you into goo, and there are more of them then there are of you. Your opponents know how to use the terrain, and they have technology on their side. Unless your soldiers are well-trained veterans, their aim is going to be poor and you’ll want to give them every technological and psychological advantage you can scrape together to make them more effective combatants.

In a similar way, although I have been at this mental health business for well over a decade, I am a novice. My ability to stand up to this disease is lackluster. Medicine, the one “advantage” I thought I had, instead smokescreened me to the reality of my situation, and I used it as a crutch that hindered my own desire to make any real changes. So, instead, I’m currently doing (or planning on doing) a number of things to increase the possibility that I will have fewer depressive episodes, and when I inevitably do, increase the likelihood that I can rise out of them faster.

Why is it called the XCOM Strategy, then, instead of just the Statistical Strategy? Mostly because of this:

And this (keep an eye on those percentages):

And this:

As in life, even if the statistics say you have a 99% chance of making something happen, life has a funny way of making the improbable occur instead (if in doubt, consult Murphy and his related laws). Nothing I do will give me a 100% chance of allaying a depressive episode. But that doesn’t make playing with the statistics a poor decision. Life is life, for both pessimists and optimists. No matter what happens, the more I improve my social, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being, the better the depressive episodes will be when they happen.

What I’m Doing Now

  • At the worst of things (March 2021), I weighed 265 pounds. I am now 222 (as of August 2022), aided by the fact that I no longer need to eat all the damn time because of my medicine.
  • I am walking regularly, at least three miles a week. Also aided by the fact that I can now exercise without being blinded by a waterfall of sweat that only seemed to fall from my forehead and absolutely nowhere else. It’s very hard to walk while blind. While this may sound silly, it really was an issue, and the main reason I never wanted to exercise. While taking my medicine, my body just “ran hot”, and I’d have hot flashes more often than I care to admit.
  • I’m writing more. Here, specifically. Fiction and non-fiction.
  • Increasing my workload with my freelance. I get to write two articles about muay thai kickboxing this week. Rock on.
  • I’m submitting applications for full-time employment. While starting a new job runs a bit contrary to my present efforts of resisting depression, the social and monetary benefits outweigh the downsides.

What I Want to Do, Immediately

  • Start studying scriptures again. One conference talk (I’m LDS) and the week’s sunday school lesson’s worth of scriptures a week. I’m still not strong or brave enough to go back to church, so I need to restart somehow.
  • Eat a protein-heavy and fat-heavy breakfast every morning. A lack of energy is currently my mood’s number one enemy.
  • Sleep better, and more regularly. Mentally, I know I function better at night. I’ll have to make adjustments when I do find a job, but this is an important one.
  • Make someone I know happy, every day. I try too hard to make strangers happy, all the while ignoring the people that I love. Strange, isn’t it, how the more depressed you feel the stronger the desire to reach outwards? And when I mean “outwards”, I mean in the wrong direction, towards the internet and total strangers who have less of an incentive to truly care. I was on Twitter a lot before March 2021. Let me tell you where that led me:
No hyperbole here, either.

What I Want to Do, Eventually

  • Make a stranger happy, every day. By this, I mean “try” to, make the world a better place one person at a time. In-person is preferred, but online too. Compliment someone for an idea, thank someone for saying something. There’s far too much tearing down online and not enough building up. I’ve sort of started doing this, but I know I’m not strong enough to endure if I do it wrong. The trigger is still very much alive there. I consider this one my AOE strats: if it works, it really works. If it doesn’t, it REALLY doesn’t.
  • Return to church. And by extension, return to the temple. I need all the assistance I can get, and if I can improve my social health and the lives of others along the way, all the better.
  • Get my weight below 180 lbs. My current goal is to get to 200 by December 31st, 2022. For a five foot, eleven inch tall man, the optimal weight is 155 – 189 lbs. I just want to have a pointy chin again. Not a round one, and certainly not more than one. With less weight, I’ll also have more energy, which will hopefully mean fewer depressive episodes related to not being able to do the things I love.

What I Want All This to Lead To, In Orders of Magnitude

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to enjoy Dungeons and Dragons without anticipating a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to roll with the punches and take surprise events without increasing the likelihood of a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to contemplate dating again without having a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be strong enough to finish my stupid book.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to go on an actual date.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to get married, start a family, have children.

And maybe one day, I’ll be able to look back at my life and say, unequivocally, that I resisted the urge to end my own life, and make it one worth living.

There’s always an XCOM chance that it won’t work. But there’s also an XCOM chance that it might. Either way, a blaze of glory is better than a fizzle.

When You Love What You Hate

One of the hardest things about mental illness is feeling pain and anxiety while doing the things you love, to an unbearable degree. But you have to do the things you love. You have to. You have to serve those you love, because the alternative is to give up every good thing you have. So you do your favorite things, and you help your friends and family, and all while your mind is screaming at you to stop.

The Trigger

Disgustingly accurate meme about choosing depressing shit over the things you love.
It’s too real.

During depressive episodes, even as I’m going through life as usual, things affect me in ways they shouldn’t. Or, I should say, they affect me in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.

Yesterday was already off to a rough start. In fact, the whole week was, because a depressive episode had started brewing on Monday, skipping a day to begin properly beause who-the-hell-knows-why. I had just finished editing the first four chapters of my book, posting them here on my blog and inviting people to read them if they wanted to. I didn’t get a whole lot of feedback, as usual. I don’t know what kind of audience my book is really for, besides myself. And honestly, not many people have the time to read these days, and even less have a desire to read on a screen instead of on paper. That, I totally get; it’s why I use a text-to-speech program, I always miss punctuaction and spelling when writing online, and that’s when writing, never mind reading. (EDIT: I messed up the previous sentence while writing it, case in point.)

By the afternoon, my sister had stopped by the house to see my mom and dad, and I told her about my writing. I had told my mom about it the day before, and she had started reading it, noting that she hadn’t noticed too many differences in the first two chapters she read. Which was to be expected; chapters three and four were the chapters to receive the greatest amount of change in terms of plot and conversation.

After talking to them about it, I thought I would then message a few online friends about it, to see if they would want to read something I wrote.

And that was the moment it started. That was a trigger.

What the Trigger Triggered

Though my “career” as a writer (if you can call it that) has been rocky because of mental illness, I’ve come to a certain level of awareness about the type of content I produce. In online marketing and content writing, the true purpose of content isn’t necessarily about the meaning of the words you type on the page. SEO marketing (or search engine optimization) depends on the writer using the right keywords and keyphrases to attract people to read whatever is being presented. If I’m doing work for a puppy grooming salon, I write to the topic they want me to advertise, I write the words “puppy grooming” a certain percentage of times, and mention a location, usually the town or city of the business’s physical location (let’s say Burmingham, Alabama). So if people in Burmingham, Alabama look up “puppy grooming” in a Google search, the fact that I used those words tell the search engine to suggest they click on that page, as it may hold the information to the service they’re looking for.

In all likelihood, the person searching Google for “puppy grooming” is not going to read the 600 words I wrote for the page that appears. Unless it’s a blog (and a pretty good one at that), they’re likely going to skip ALL of the words on the webpage to find a phone number, an address, something specific, especially if it’s for a small business with a specific product or service. No one reads the marketing. And why would they? I don’t know anything specific about the businesses I write for, and it’s specifics people are always hunting for.

In other words, you might say that I have spent the majority of my adult life writing for search engines, not for an audience, and certainly not for myself. That’s not to say that I’m not grateful for the paychecks, and it certainly isn’t to say that I haven’t learned how to be a better writer by proxy.

But search engines don’t easily demonstrate appreciation. I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve received any kind of feedback from my work, negative or positive. Of those, the majority were because I colossally messed something up. That’s not to say I’m a bad writer. Or, at least, I don’t think I am. It’s just the nature of the beast. Even though I always try to find the interesting details, try to throw in some humor with the professional copy, when it comes right down to it, I’m not being paid to be interesting or humourous. I’m being paid for a word count.

I’m a performer for machines.

So, when I finally have the chance to show off a story, a narration that I’ve had locked in my brain for more than a decade, and I’m nervous as hell to do so…

It hurts when I hear nothing back but the same echoing silence.

Cue the Pity Party, Right?

No. That’s the part that I hate the most, actually. I’ve never written anything besides the SEO stuff. I shouldn’t expect anyone else to care even a fraction of what I do for the story I’m trying to tell. Everyone I love, all of my friends, they have their own lives to live, and I should not expect anyone to drop everything they’re doing to read 80 pages of what is likely to be hot garbage. Besides, this is the hobby portion of the thing I love, there is no time limit on its creation or its editing, and I’ve said many times to those of my friends and family who have taken time out of their busy lives to read it that this is a personal project with a target audience of one.

Me. I’m writing this story for me.

But that’s the thing. The story is personal. There are many aspects of the main characters that are facets of myself, or the person I wish I could be. I’ve tried to design these characters to have needs and desires that make them unique. They tell stories to each other, and crack jokes that made me, as the writer, actually laugh out loud. I’ve spent a lot of time crying with these characters, even, and poured a lot of my self-doubt and hatred into a few of the scenes in the book. Perhaps more than I should have, seeing as how I wrote much of the book while dealing with the worse moments of my own life.

Writing is one of the few methods I have at my disposal where I can truly express how I feel. How I see the world. How the world affects me, and how my mind interrupts and distorts the proper flow of information, both in and out. For the majority of words I’ve ever organized into coherency, my writing has been written to be ignored. Sure, word count and percentages aren’t the only things that matter. But I can guarantee that I’ve posted incorrect information that got the job done anyway. And like an electrician, or a plumber, my goal is to make something that works. I only get feedback if I do a bad job wrenching the pipes together.

Just for once, I want to create something that makes people happy for having read it. I want to make someone want to know what happens next. Hell, I want someone to tell me, flat-out, that they read my story and thought it was one of the most boring things they’d ever come across. I would love someone to tell me that my work put them to sleep. That it wasn’t their thing, but they read it because they knew I wrote it.

I’ve performed for machines for so long… and I just want some feedback.

So What Did the Episode Look Like?

Pretty deep depression. The suicidal type, for about a day and a half. Me, wondering if it’s even worth my time to be here. Me, wondering if I’m worth anything more than my physical presence. Me, desperately wanting to talk to someone about it all, but knowing that I will make zero sense, especially if they assume I want “solutions”. Me, wanting a purpose in life but seeing none if I can’t rise above this. And, worst of all, me, wondering what the conversations would be like between my friends and family if I did actually end it (the fact that my diseased brain finds that shit in any way cathartic being the number one reason I should be seeking professional help, but being too scared about money and time to do so).

A lot of “me”. It always is.

At about 11 o’clock P.M., the episode finally lifted. I went downstairs and made some oatmeal butterscotch cookies. Then I jumped on here to write about it.

What I’m Learning

Being off of medication has flipped things one-hundred and eighty degrees, and not in the direction you might think. Not upside-down, but right side-up. I can more easily recognize that it isn’t ME that hates the things I love, that wants me to stop writing, that wants me to hurt. It’s the imbalance. And it has always been the imbalance.

You know what? That’s what you are, officially, with a capital “I”. You are the Imbalance. You are the stain in the mirror. The shadow on the wall. You are the reason I hate myself, and want my time on Earth to end. But you are not me. On medicine, that distinction was so blurred, I could not see where I ended and my shadow began. The window was so blurred, I couldn’t see that the reflection had fangs, and the face of a fallen angel.

You are not me. You are this.

I haven’t learned how to fight back yet, but just the fact that I can recognize the difference… maybe it’s a step forward.

Hint: It’s Not About the Grapes

The Fox & the Grapes

“A Fox one day spied a beautiful bunch of ripe grapes hanging from a vine trained along the branches of a tree. The grapes seemed ready to burst with juice, and the Fox’s mouth watered as he gazed longingly at them.

“The bunch hung from a high branch, and the Fox had to jump for it. The first time he jumped he missed it by a long way. So he walked off a short distance and took a running leap at it, only to fall short once more. Again and again he tried, but in vain.

“Now he sat down and looked at the grapes in disgust.

“‘What a fool I am,’ he said. ‘Here I am wearing myself out to get a bunch of sour grapes that are not worth gaping for.’

“And off he walked very, very scornfully.

There are many who pretend to despise and belittle that which is beyond their reach.”

Aesop

I grew up reading Aesop’s Fables. Sure, they’re silly. Sure, they’re not always applicable to life. The one about the satyr getting mad at the traveler for blowing both cold and hot from the same breath always makes me laugh (there’s a christianized version where the satyr is the devil; imagine Satan getting mad at someone for being two-faced).

Ever since I was a little kid, though, I’ve thought about one particular fable more than any of Aesop’s others, and that is the Fox and the Grapes. The fox, angry that he’s unable to obtain something, rationalizes to himself that they must not be all that great. You know what they say when you “assume” something, though: you tend to make an “ass” out of both “u” and “me”, and this world is just filled with those kinds of assumptions. And asses, come to think of it.

Anyway, before the metaphor breaks down into silliness, let’s expand the fable a little bit. In fact, let’s go for a Brothers Grimm fable instead of Aesop. Let’s say that the grapes, even though they indeed looked beautiful, turned out to be the most rancid grapes imaginable. That the fox spent the next week until he was starving mad trying to find a way to reach them. At last, he found a way to climb up and just managed to grab a mouthful before plummeting to earth and getting impaled on a tree branch on the way down, dying a horrible and bloody death with the taste of bitter wine in his mouth. The grapes weren’t worth it and everything is terrible.

What do you think of the fox with this ending? Was he a greater or lesser fool for having learned the truth? For trying so hard to obtain something unknown, and ending up with less than nothing? Life has always felt like this; you never know if the grapes you reach for will taste glorious or poison you. I mean, that’s a given, of course. But even attempting to reach for those grapes comes with conditions: will the effort be worth the reward? Is the goal worth the price of admission? Will the very attempt prove fatal?

Let’s flip it again. This time, the grapes once hated were actually the tastiest and juiciest grapes in the history of vineyard-dom, and the very taste of them would grant the fox everlasting life. That’s right: these grapes are Holy Grail grapes. Let’s say the fox starves himself and fights and rants and raves, eventually finding a way to reach them. He impales himself on the way down, same as before, but swallows those grapes just in time to attain immortality.

Was the fox any wiser or dumber? He didn’t know what the outcome would be, any more than before. Maybe he was just lucky this time that the grapes were literally heavensent.

Another flip. This time, there are two foxes. One of them succeeds in eating the grapes, the other can’t figure out how to reach them. In this version of the story, it turns out the grapes are just grapes, neither all that good or bad. The fox that managed to reach them leaves the vineyard satisfied, while the other grumbles against his friend for obtaining something he couldn’t: “Eh. What a loser that other fox is. I bet the stupid grapes were bitter.”

That sounds familiar. Starts to step into the territory of another of Aesop’s fables, too.

Let’s be honest. Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes wasn’t ever about the grapes. It wasn’t ever about the result. It wasn’t even really about the fox’s meager attempt to eat them (do foxes even eat grapes?) It was about the fox’s outlook about something he thought he couldn’t have. If he couldn’t have it, then it must not have been worth getting.

One more story flip. Two fox friends enter a vineyard and see a beautiful bunch of grapes. They agree to race each other to see who gets to eat them. During the race, one fox trips the other and gets there first, chowing down without another word. Unfortunately, the grapes were poisonous, and the cheater fox dies. In response, the fox grumbles: “Ha! Serves him right, he deserved it.”

If a neighbor, a friend, or even someone you care about manages to obtain something you’ve been wanting, does it make you feel better to hope that they choke on that thing? Would it make you feel better if they actually did? Psychology tells us that schadenfreude is very much alive and well.

But remember, the story isn’t about the grapes, or the effort, or the foxes. It’s about the fox’s reaction to what life presents him. If there’s something I can’t have… maybe I shouldn’t worry myself about not having it.

Wait, wrong lesson.

I guess I’m not offering any big takeaway by remixing Aesop’s fable like this. Just food for thought. Like the fables themselves, really. It always amazes me to think that a Greek storyteller from the 6th century B.C. continues to influence a 34-year old American in 2022 A.D. There’s power in story, no matter how old or silly the story might be.

Backstage Tales – Gaming Confessions

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My brain isn’t fully healed, and won’t be for a few weeks while the medicine my doctor prescribed slowly builds in my system. But it’s National Video Game Day, dang it! I must celebrate it! And I’m going to do that by writing down my Gaming Confessions in a precise and well-organized list (if, by precise and well-organized, I mean as organized by my brain right at this minute). It might not be in as much detail as I want for lack of time (I have a class to get to tonight unfortunately), but it’s fun regardless.

A Game Everyone Loves (But You Can’t Stand)

Sorry, all the people.

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I’ve tried. I really have. Dark Souls 2 and sit lonely and cold in my Steam library just waiting for me to try again, but I can’t. I know in my heart of hearts that the Dark Souls franchise just isn’t for me. The sheer joy that comes from clinching a boss with 1/4th of your health and no Estus remaining just doesn’t compare with the sheer disappointment of losing thousands of souls again and again after struggling through masses of vicious enemies only to get jumped on out of nowhere by that one dude you didn’t see. It’s like you’re choosing to play a game where your memory card gets corrupted and deletes your progress every time you die or rest at a bonfire. Combined with the lack of a clear jargon-free narrative and a menu and combat system that takes serious time to comprehend, I’ve just never been able to get into it.

Maybe it will click for me one day, and will hop on the bandwagon for Dark Souls 6. I hope so. Everyone seems to be having such a good time with Dark Souls.

A Game Everyone Hates (But You Love)

Yay!

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I played Spore way too much. I bought my first graphics card specifically so I could play this and Fable (I guess both games could tie here). This was before I had any idea the kind of shenanigans Peter Molyneux could get himself into with his big mouth. I knew nothing about Spore before purchasing it except that it looked like a truckload of fun, and it was. I’ve played way too many hours of this to count.

Looking back, I probably should have avoided this game and its broken promises. But when promised a “galaxy-in-a-box”, I tend to overlook the negative. I’m a sucker that way.

An Older Game You Haven’t Finished (And Probably Never Will)

Makes me sad.

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Kain’s betrayal, Cecil’s redemption from Dark Knight to Paladin, Edward the Spoony Bard, Palom and Porom’s sacrifice… Final Fantasy IV was a special game to me. Unfortunately, I didn’t play it until it was re-released with Chrono Trigger as Final Fantasy Chronicles, and Chrono Trigger got the better part of my fandom.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have time to give the game the attention it deserves, but if I do, you’ll hear it here first.

A Guilty Pleasure Game

This. Just this.

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Holy crap, I’ve gotten into this game this past weekend. It is so much fun. And I don’t even have a Playstation Plus account. If I had the money, I would seriously consider picking up the PC version and hook up my PS4 controller to it just so I could circumvent Sony’s stupid online connectivity and play with other people.

Yes. A game that I would willing play with other people.

Don’t get me wrong, Monster Hunter World is totally solo-able. But I don’t see me getting up there too high in rank without some help. Despite this, I will still happily long sword the crap out of rathians, radobaans, and nergigantes until my thumbs fall off. I came into the series on my PSP, and I’m loving every second of this complex slice-and-dice-the-monster simulator.

PETA, eat your heart out. I prefer to capture, anyway.

A Game You Really Love (But Haven’t Played in Years)

Oh man. Zelda time.

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I was 12. It was April. It wasn’t Christmas. My birthday had passed. I begged my Mom to get this game for me.

She actually did, Expansion Pak and all. I thank her to this day.

I haven’t played it in many years, but I watch speedruns of it regularly (they’re fascinating, check out MajinPhil for the latest tech in Majora’s Mask speedrunning). It’s incredible how easily they break through obstacles that I couldn’t figure out as a kid.

A Game You Never Play Seriously (But Others Definitely Do)

Remember how I hate multiplayer?

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Yeah. Starcraft 2. I’m in love with the co-op at the moment, don’t get me wrong. But I have neither the competitive drive nor the reflexes necessary to be a Starcraft player, much less a good Starcraft player. I am stunned at how necessary both speed and confidence are to play this game properly, and I have neither of those in any sort of capacity.

I know that Starcraft is an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But don’t mind me, I’ll just swim in the shallow end with the kiddies playing co-op missions and the campaigns over and over. I don’t mind. At least I don’t have carpal tunnel from all the micro.

A Game You Completed (But Hated By The End)

Yeah. Great beginning. Poor ending.

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Dead Island was what I wanted out of a zombie game. It was relatively open world, in an iconic locale, and I’d pick up weapons and loot from luggage and tiki bars, all the while smacking the crap out of undead beach-going corpses until my paddle broke. That is, until I got my electrified katana, and all was well with the world.

And then cliché story about paramilitary something-or-other, zombie wife, ‘kick the dog‘  trope downer ending sequel yadda yadda yadda… All the freshness of the ‘tourist resort turned zombie playground’ got sucked out by the vacuum of the story. I don’t think I’ll be playing it again, but I had my share of fun with it until the ending happened. Why do Colonels always gotta be the bad guys, huh? It’s like that rank has some stigma attached to it or something.

And despite almost being stuck in development hell for six years, Dead Island 2 is still coming. We’ll see if I end up playing it. After the whole Dead Island: Riptide pre-order debacle, I’m not sure I want to shovel any more money towards the company who thought that was a good idea.

A Game You Thought You’d Enjoy (But Definitely Didn’t)

Aww. I was so excited for this game.

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I was stunned speechless by the physics engine and all the pretty lights. I loved the voice acting and the motion capture. The first game was an original Star Wars story; sure, it may not have been canon-friendly, but it was one I was sure I wanted to continue.

By the end, I had had enough. With half the total playtime and a quarter the story of the first game, The Force Unleashed 2 was awful. Playing with the most confusing aspect of the Star Wars extended universe (aka cloning force users) and offering no concrete answers in return, it managed to resurrect the Gary Stu (or male Mary Sue) of Starkiller and make him even more powerful and angsty.

“You weren’t sure of you identity in the first game? Well, this time, you’re not even sure you’re a clone of the original guy or the real article that survived somehow! You squish AT-STs with your bare hands, but Vader controls you by your unstable emotions somehow!”

Yeah, wasn’t impressed, won’t be playing again.

A Game You Didn’t Think Was Meant For You (But Definitely Was)

I’m so glad I played this at least once.

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I’m not a COD player. I’ve only played Modern Warfare 2. First-person shooters are a struggle for me. So I don’t entirely understand what possessed me to pick up Spec Ops: The Line in the first place. It might have been on sale, and I think I was going through a phase.

According to critics (to whom I will defer for details about the combat system), Spec Ops: The Line isn’t the greatest military shooter. But I don’t think that’s why it was created in the first place. If you have the stomach to look at some pretty graphic imagery and understand that the game is trying to tell a very specific story about the realities of war and “heroism”, play this game.

I wouldn’t recommend a replay, although maybe it’s time I did just to take it all in again. But as an English major with great interest in the consequences of the modern Western military mentality (and the industry equivalent that seems to want to make gamers into soldiers), it was definitely for me.

A Game You Are Still Excited For (That Hasn’t Come Out Yet)

This one:

Square-Enix. Square-Enix, please. Please. It has to happen. You would shatter my heart and fill it with such happiness. Yes, it’s a fake trailer. But please make another Chrono game. And please make Janus the main character. He deserves to regain his memories. He deserves redemption. He deserves to be reunited with his sister.

We need to know the consequences of Serge’s actions in Chrono Cross. Did he and his friends free Schala for good, banishing Lavos forever to the darkness beyond time, thereby erasing its existence from history? Could the world even be the same without Lavos in it? Or does some part of the monster still exist in the world as long as humanity thrives?

I need to know.

I NEEEEED TO KNOOOOOW.

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Fill in the blank. Ha!

Anybody else want to fill out their Gaming Confessions before the day is through? 😀

Backstage Tales – A Reason to Game

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Hey everybody, I’m back. Sorta. I’ve emerged from a depression coma into a three-day weekend, so that’s an improvement in anyone’s book. Nothing medicine-wise has changed yet, however, so I’m still stuck in the same darkish mood. Accordingly, I’ve had a really hard time deciding on what to write; I promised Graveyard Keeper, but something about the game is really bugging me, and I can’t explain it. Hopefully for the next blog I can iron it out.

Instead, I wanted to expand upon an answer I recently wrote for Quora, as I felt I wasn’t entirely truthful about my feelings. I’ll post my answer as I wrote it and add more to it, and hopefully it won’t feel like a rambling mess by the time I’m finished. The question I answered went like this:

——–

Does playing video games feel pointless and unproductive to you? Why or why not?

“Very much yes. And very much no. And also absolutely not.

“Very much yes, because (as my Dad would put it) the hundreds of hours I’ve put into Skyrim, Diablo, and Escape Velocity could have been spent honing more practical abilities, such as writing, playing an instrument, or picking up a more hands-on hobby like leatherworking, sculpting, or sewing. While these hobbies are expensive and often require a mentor, I don’t like to comprehend the amount of dollars I’ve put into my Steam library searching for what I hope will become my next favorite time-absorber.

“Very much no, because my electronic hobby has enabled my depressed mind to take a step back from itself and literally voyage into other worlds. For someone with depression and social anxiety, games like Final Fantasy XIV has allowed me to become part of a group of people that enjoy the same game and want to experience it with other fun-loving drama-free people. Minecraft has allowed me to become a kid again and share an infinite blocky world with friends and family in a way that would be prohibitively expensive if we did it with Legos, wood, resin, or metal.

“Absolutely not, because video games have helped me become a more confident and critical reader and writer. I love the medium of video game storytelling because I’ve experienced the shock of betrayals, story twists, and character revelations in an arguably stronger way than books can. Books allow you to follow a protagonist, movies allow you to see the protagonist, but only in video games are you allowed to be the protagonist and experience stories in a way no other medium has yet to share.

“The first time I experienced the climax of Bioshock was something I’ll never forget. Although a little formulaic, the first Knights of the Old Republic reveal really got me good. And the climax and ending to Spec Ops: The Line is something I thought could only dared be done on paper or on the big screen (there’s a reason the game developers promised to never create a sequel). Sure, you get floppy story structures like Fallout 4’s main story. But in the same game, you get the tragedy of Arlen Glass and the challenging of the concept of personhood and personal identity (what is a synth?). As the medium evolves, the stories will improve, and they’ll continually challenge us and our assumptions about what makes good fiction.

“Video games are just like any entertainment medium: it’s up to us to determine what we make of them. From Madden and Arkham Knight to Borderlands 2 and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, they all have a purpose. Find some that suit yours!”

———-

I’ve probably talked about this at length in previous posts, but I think it’s been long enough. There’s another aspect to my love for video games that is perhaps larger than all of the ones I stated in my answer that I couldn’t have covered properly in a Quora answer. And that involves my depression and how I deal with it.

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Madness? Insert ‘this is Sparta’ meme here.

I’ve always fancied myself a very independent person, even though that couldn’t be further from the truth. I simply like to be alone, as being in a large group of people is uncomfortable to me, even if the crowd is made up of friends and family. If I can be home free of distractions at my computer listening to my favorite music and playing my favorite games, that’s where I’m going to be. That’s my default. Is that healthy? No, and I’ll be the first to admit it. Would I prefer that I spend my time honing my writing skills, or drawing, or leatherworking, or learning to play the guitar? Some part of me thinks so, but whenever I sit down by myself and don’t distract my mind as soon as possible, I open myself up to negativity the moment I take a seat.

So I’m damned: do I force myself to enjoy the company of others, building up more and more mental tension inside myself until I go crazy from the social drain, or do I confine myself to a solitary existence, playing the victim to my own treasonous thoughts? My answer is neither. My answer is to distract my mind with as many digital micro-goals as I can focus on to avoid the spiral of depression. Beat this level, obtain this item, talk to this NPC… ever on to the next thing.

This answer has always been a crutch of mine, a backdoor in case someone demands why I waste so much time on my computer. An excuse. But it’s really the only one I’ve got. Let me give you an example of how awful this is.

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This exact one.

Right next to me sitting on my desk right now if a leather-bound journal that I’ve been keeping on and off since 2011. It’s currently a little more than halfway full. My journals have been the source of my worm drawings and are filled with little cartoons and doodles. But if you ignore all the cute pictures and actually read the words I’ve written over the years… It’s not really pretty. I only write in my physical journal when I’m really bored or really depressed, sometimes both. This does not make for a very fun and optimistic read. In fact, I’m hoping that no one reads what’s in my journal for many many years, long after the sting of my emotions has passed.

My previous journals are very similar, especially my mission journals. I was a much happier person on my mission mostly because I didn’t have the burden of my mind keeping me occupied all the time. I had a constant companion and friend that kept the thoughts in check. Of course, even then, I had my off days, not to mention how devastated I felt after I came home early because of kidney stones. My journal writing stopped for a good two years after I came home, starting up again when I got a handle on life.

A handle made of det-cord.

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Now, ten years after I returned home from Los Angeles, I have no companion to help me monitor my thoughts. And the thought of asking a girl on a date and going through the motions of all that again fills me with such dread that I am loathe to think what kind of man I would appear to be if I actually went through with it. Certainly not one I would consider for a healthy long-term relationship with. But there’s my anti-me bias again.

And there the book ever sits, always inviting me to write in it but ever filling with the most negative of my thoughts and anxieties. I’m writing a testament of my own darkness. I’m an observer of my own life, and nothing more, because the alternative to too difficult for me to comprehend.

A few blogs back, I said I would never throw a pity party for myself because of my depression. That I wasn’t a “snowflake Millennial” for all of my experiences. And yet so many of my male peers seem to be going through the same thing for similar reasons. How can I resent a descriptor that is so lock-step with my experience? Video games are wonderful things filled with incredible experiences and innovative systems, but when they come at the cost of my personal health, I begin to wonder if there’s anything I can actually do instead. I always have a choice to play or not. That’s not the question. It’s more of a question of what I would replace video games in my life. And nothing else compares. Not even writing, and I love writing… when I’m not depressed.

Let me tell you, the journal sitting next to me is not an appealing alternative.

Have I chosen my hobby or has my hobby chosen me? Do I play for fun or do I play to survive? I think the answer to that is fairly obvious. Is it bad that my gaming hobby (call it an addiction if you wish) is the only activity I consider strong enough to distract the negativity in my mind? Or is it just sad?

And in the end, is there anything that I will do to try and change?

No, not really. I suppose that’s why you could call it an addiction. I’m not even brazen enough to say, “I can quit whenever I want.” I fully admit to being dependent on my hobby to remain sane. But if my chosen hobby were leatherworking, music, or even writing, would it be any more preferable? Or safe?

Hey, at least I’m not doing hard drugs.

…or am I?