Healthy Dissociation

I had something completely different in mind with which to end the week here, but then I sat down tonight to watch the latest episode of House over dinner. There’s nothing like a really good story that makes you want to discuss things, and this episode was loaded with questions.

A few weeks ago, I posted my review of House and Philosophy: Everybody Lies.  If you’re a regular reader, you already know that I’ve been enamored by this program since Karen introduced me to it two (or is it three?) seasons ago. House’s character is absolutely fascinating, and he’s certainly leaving the viewer much to think about in this episode.

What I loved about this episode, though, isn’t so much the character development, but the overarching question that it leaves the viewer asking. The patient in this episode is initially introduced with, among other things, a rare ability to recall every memory since puberty. Every minute of every day. House asks her how many times she tripped and fell during a given year, and she was able to answer. A quirky and unique attribute to carry around with you, at least in a too-weird-to-be-true, James-Bond-villain sort of way. When the patient encounters her estranged sister, though, we discover that there is a curse that goes with this ability. The patient is unable to forget anything that her sister ever did to her that was wrong. As such, she finds herself unable to forgive. By the end of the episode, we discover that this total recall is actually not a gift but rather a symptom of a different condition. The result is still the same, though: she cannot forgive because she cannot forget.

I’m left asking myself the question: is forgetting actually a gift? Do we actually want to remember everything that happened, exactly as it happened? The character in this episode talks about how we all selectively edit our memories, almost as a coping skill, to dwell on the positive in a situation instead of the negative. Do you think that’s a natural skill that’s hard-wired into us so that we don’t completely forsake everyone who’s ever wronged us?

Think of it this way: when a person is exposed to a trauma, it is not at all uncommon for the person to dissociate. In doing so (at least if you follow the commonly accepted theory), the brain actually blocks out an event or memories of the event. The condition can become extremely serious, theoretically resulting in the formation of multiple personalities in extreme cases.

The patient in this episode finds herself in the undesirable position of judge. Because she can’t forget anything that’s happened, she must weigh the good against the bad in every person, and cut that person off if the bad outweighs the good. There’s obviously a theology at work there, and not, I suspect, by accident (House frequently explores themes of spirituality). Were we to find ourselves without the ability to forget anything wrong that anyone has ever done, would we then find ourselves forced to set up our own sort of soteriology based on relative merit and human performance? If so, would we hate it? Would we find ourselves, as this character does, ostracized from every significant relationship, because we have been unwillingly forced to have a knowledge of good and evil?  Finding ourselves in that position, would we be able to be at all benevolent?

This episode is fascinating because it questions whether or not forgiveness is possible if one cannot forget. This strikes to the core of what true forgiveness really is: casting the offense or hurt behind us and treating it as though it had never happened, intentionally purging it from our memories. That is even a Divine practice in the Christian scriptures. Think of it as a healthy dissociation.

Can we forgive if we cannot forget? Is the ability to forget a gift? Would we want to remember events in all of their details, or is it better to remember the essence of an event? Does our culture permit forgetting, and by potentially not doing so, encourage an absence of forgiveness? Those are some heavy questions. What do you think?

Photo Attribution: Remy Sharp

The Pricetags of Paintings

When Karen and I moved into our new apartment, two friends, both of whom are artists, each gave us one of their pieces as housewarming gifts. One is a sort porcelain and ribbon piece, the other a painting. I love having these pieces on our walls, in our living room and dining room respectively, not just because I like the work, but because these are a part of our friends.

The painting in the dining room was a favorite of mine by the painter, and I had spoken of it so frequently during visits to his studio that he gave it to me. The painting would have sold for a few hundred dollars, I’m sure, but he gave it to me, simply from one friend to another.

Fast forward two years.

My end of the family and Karen’s end of the family have very different Christmas traditions. On my end of the family, you make a list available of what you really want, and people buy you things from that list. On Karen’s end, you have to be surprised, or it isn’t a gift. This year, she made arrangements with the same friend whose painting was a housewarming gift, and purchased two more paintings in a series that I had really liked on recent visits to his studio. I was very happy to have purchased work from our friend.

Still, with three of his paintings now proudly on our walls, I wonder, do we own that art? The traditional, materialist, capitalist view we’ve been taught tells us that we purchased those last two pieces with our hard earned money, so they’re ours. But, are they more ours than the first painting that was a gift to us? Is it possible to own art at all?

I recently watched a documentary called The Art of the Steal, which chronicles the conspiracy to relocate the Barnes collection in Philadelphia. Should you find yourself inclined to watch the movie, listen to the prices quoted for some of the individual pieces in the collection, or the collection as a whole. They’re big. Like, national-debt sort of big. How do priceless works of art end up with a monetary value attached to them? Who formulates these numbers? If I pay millions of dollars (a pipe dream, but stay with me) for, say, a Monet, would that make that piece of art mine? Is it a possession? Does it diminish the piece to think of it that way, to make it something to be bought and sold? Certainly, many colleges and universities who are struggling financially have recently felt it was acceptable to auction off artwork in their collections to pay the bills.

If we work under the assumption that one creative act is as valid as another, then stop to consider graffiti:

When a graffiti artists paints his work on a train overpass or an abandoned wall, does anyone own that work? What if we thought of it as a gift to a city at large? A temporary gift, at that, as it will certainly be painted over within weeks. What about the scenic design of a play? After a two week run, the set is destroyed to make room for the next show. Did the designer own that set? Or is it a gift to the audience?

I’m concerned about the way in which we think about art, the manner in which we attempt to commodify it. The culture of record labels and publishers and art dealers perpetuate this seemingly forever, and, in media parlance, art and images and books and music are now collectively reduced to the term “content.” They are something that we “consume,” not engage. Certainly not something we view as a gift.

I’ve mused here before that, perhaps, the only way in which an artist can be true to his or her craft is to not make a living doing it. Conversely, I’ve also spoken of how maddening it is to have your creativity sucked out by a day job and then try to find one precious hour each day to sit down and write, or paint, or compose. Someone once said that the only thing worse than having a job is not having a job.

As we struggle in the same way generations before us have to pay the rent while being creative, we ultimately have to find a way to earn something for our creativity, whether it’s selling a paining or an MP3 or placing ads in a blog. That’s ultimately never enough, and so the arts have historically existed primarily on the generous funding of patrons. In order to exist this way, I suppose it’s a natural outcome that the art be viewed as a commodity, as something to be bought and sold. And, thus, it is something that is reduced to a price.

Just as our consumer society attempts to reduce human beings to a number, and our labors to a number, so it attempts to reduce our art to a number. On a good day, I end up recognizing this as a necessary evil. Every day, however, I think we lose something precious as a result.

Television Worth Watching…For A Change…

Parenthood: Season 1I don’t watch much television. I’d rather read a book or have an intelligent conversation, because I find most television to be vacuous and without redeeming value. There are, however, a small handful of programs that I keep in the Hulu cue, and that I make certain I watch every week.  I’m hesitant to add new ones, because I don’t like to spend a great deal of time watching video. One hour a night (not including random YouTube subscriptions or streaming news coverage), perhaps a movie or two on weekends, is my self-imposed limit that I break infrequently. I just don’t go looking for the next cool show.

Karen watches a lot more than I do. Occasionally, she’ll recommend a program to me, and often I’ll enjoy it, but not enough to keep up with it on a regular basis. She keeps up with several programs that I’ll watch if I’m bored…but I have to be pretty bored.

Every now and then, I find one that takes me by surprise. Even more rarely, I find one that I thought I wouldn’t care for at all, and end up amazed at it’s quality.

And, let’s face it: any time you find quality in prime-time programming, you should be amazed.

The most recent incident of this is a show called Parenthood. At first blush, I really expected this show to be a soap opera. Most true-to-life family dramas, after all, are rarely true to life. The writing tends to be horrible, the characters flat, and the melodrama overwhelming.

Parenthood is exactly the opposite of all of those things. The plots are believable. The characters are deep, engaging, and thoroughly and progressively developed with each episode. The writing is just good: simple and solid, with dialogue that carries its own weight every time. I’m drawn into the story arcs, and I run a gambit of emotions alongside the characters.  What I love most is that there is no moralizing in the characters’ crises. The events speak for themselves, and you’re left realizing that there are no easy answers, just like the life that we experience every day. This isn’t so much a show that you escape with, as a show that you learn from, a show that gives you insight into situations so real that you’ll likely find yourself dealing with some of them sooner rather than later.

Essentially, Parenthood does exactly what good art should do.

I’m the last person to tell you to add something else to watch to your busy life, but I have to recommend this program. If you haven’t already, check out a season. Unlike most television, I can honestly say you’ll be better off for watching.

I Heart You…or, Something Like That…

Have I ever written a post regarding Valentine’s Day here? I don’t think that I have, but I don’t recall. The topic seems like one of those that I would avoid on purpose as far as my blogging life goes. It’s just one of those “everyone else is doing it” things that tends to turn me off.

Still, I witnessed something profound today, and it bears mention. A small moment of about ten minutes that deserves reflection, because, like a good poem, it completely alters one’s perspective if we give it some of our time and look past the surface. That profound event? A colleague received flowers at work.

Not just “flowers,” mind you. This girl was the slightly embarrassed, but altogether giddy, recipient of a dozen roses, so red that they seemed to flare from the screen of life in technicolor. She was nearly in tears. She squealed in excitement. She snapped photos and sent text messages.

I grinned and went on with my day.

I’m a bit bothered, though, that I went on with my day. Valentine’s Day has always been a serious celebration for Karen and I, because our first date was on Valentine’s Day. Since we married, we’ve celebrated today with more fervor than our anniversary. This has just been a very special event to us. This year, life seemed to explode…not in a bad way at all, but things have just been hectic. A sad truth to life, be it in romance or our daily communion with close friends and family, is that there’s nothing like a hectic pace to kill tender expressions of affection.

The reason it’s sad is because our culture prizes the hectic pace so highly as to worship it and expect it. Yet, love of any type, be it philia or eros, or perhaps especially agape, tends to give rapidly as humans crumble under the very inhuman demand of multi-tasking.

I’m drawing a metaphor here. At first blush, this is, in fact, a post about how upset I am with myself that I let Valentine’s Day slip by me this year in the business that drags down relationships even as it propels them forward. I am, in fact, upset with myself. Beyond that, however, I want to re-discover that type of  thrilled emotional swooning that I witnessed in my colleague today. I don’t just want to re-discover it in my marriage (a union that is about so, so much more than excited emotional states), but I want to re-discover that zeal and anticipation of all the positives that lay ahead. I want to re-discover that in other friendships, and I want to re-discover that in life pursuits.

I don’t think it looks like what we might think. I think it involves being much less concerned with how things affect us than we are about how things affect others. I’m so bogged down right now, I’m not even certain I know what that means. I just know that I’m motivated to find a passion to which I’ve grown numb in many areas of life. I wish the same for you.

An odd Valentine’s wish, but a well-intentioned one, nonetheless.

Photo Copyright by Austin-Lee Barron. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. 

Less is More

I’m tweeting less lately.

When I first started using Twitter, after discovering that several friends were already using it (which had been my major source of hesitancy…a social network is only as good as how many people you actually have to socialize with), I quickly became addicted to keeping up with friends. I met new people, people from around the country and around the world, sharing common interests or common opinions or a common faith. I enjoyed keeping up with them. I found it very useful and enlightening.

I also began linking status updates, and my thought-out Facebook status updates that required crafting lessened somewhat as I began thinking in short, rapid-fire “what am I doing now” updates.

After a while, I began to miss other Twitter-users, especially those that I didn’t encounter in real life on a regular basis. I would think about them one day, and wonder, “whatever happened to that person? I haven’t seen an update from them in a long time!”

Now, I’m one of those people.

Some friends stopped using Twitter altogether. For my part, I had to learn not to make status updates universal, and began keeping track of who read which  “stream,” because it’s important to know who might be reading a complaint.

Then I learned to complain less.

Lately, however…perhaps because I’ve just been leading a relatively routine life in going to my day job, coming home, and working with words…I find myself either without much to tweet about, or too involved with whatever I’m doing to update everyone that I’m doing it.

Hopefully, it’s the latter.

I have a friend who practices Zen Buddhism. He tells me that one of the central tenants of Buddhism is to be fully present in whatever you’re doing. In modern terms, that involves focusing on the conversation, not taking that phone call or text message. In working on projects, it involves not permitting your attention to be pulled away by incoming emails.

Have I ever mentioned that I’ve learned to turn off “push” notifications? Life’s so much nicer that way.

I’m not a Buddhist, but I think that they have something in that principle. I think that our culture worships multi-tasking so much that we’re pressured to not fully engage what we’re doing in the interest of doing more. Actually, the issue is probably more that we worship efficiency. Blame Frederick Winslow Taylor and the industrial revolution. We try to do so many things that we don’t accomplish any one thing, at least not well.

So, I’m not sad that I’m not tweeting as frequently. I still check in, I still read what’s going on. Now, though, I only post when I have something worthwhile to say. Which, pithy and witty cracks aside, tends to be relatively seldom when you’re working with 140 character limit.

So, perhaps more to the point, I just don’t have many not-thought-out things to say. So I decide to keep them to myself.  Somehow, I think life’s better that way. Don’t you?