On silence, states of exception and grace

-a postscript dispatch from the grief process

[I am completing this post, started weeks ago, as my elderly mother is in hospital via the emergency room more than a thousand kilometers away. We, that is family, and the doctors, at the moment, don’t know why, other than her intense pain, or what will happen. I am writing in a state of suspension and insomnia.]



There is no silence in the world.
Monks have created it
to hear the horses every day
and feathers falling from wings.

~Nikola Madzirov quoted in World Poetry Portfolio #53: Nikola Madzirov

At a certain point last year I stopped writing the grief dispatches that I had been doing here after Manoj suddenly died in January. Part of it was because less than 3 months later, in April 2014, I lost someone else who had been very close to me especially when I was younger. She was my best friend when we were in our late teens and throughout our 20s. It was also very sudden and hard to believe.

There were no words for that portion of the grief process when it got REALLY REAL. Initially it had felt like being thrown of a cliff—a sense of everything falling away, nothing there. It was unreal like a strong breeze from a fan on your body. What is that feeling? You’re not floating. You’re not flying. Yet something is passing over, and later I discovered, through you.

I tried in various ways to make sense of it. I wrote blog posts here about some of that process. But at a certain point I gave up and started to resign myself to being unresolved in that empty valley of winds and shadows.

But I found I could not rest in that. Pain, even if you’re quite disconnected from it and not consciously feeling it, tends to shuffle the deck of one’s motivations, desires, habits, thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Something had to be done so I decided to retreat in a lot of ways to deal with myself. [Sorry for all the Facebook unfriending, emails that went unanswered, visits cancelled, and all the rest. This is what it was about. “It’s not you it’s me.” Really.]

One reason I retreated in that way was because it was happening anyways. When you are in a state of exception, that is for whatever reason outside the flow of the everyday or the status quo or “normal” life, be it illness, death, divorce, or other disruptive situation, people tend to pull away from you. Initially they express sympathies, condolences or whatnot, but at a certain point the state of exception becomes more clearly demarcated. This demarcation can become what is termed social death. That is when a person is somehow viewed by others and even at times by themselves, as somehow less than a fully human participant in society. The term is used often to describe the circumstances of racism and slavery where people are assigned to a category in which their life is of little value in social terms when such value defaults to the oppressor’s definitions. It is also used where people are shunned from a circumstance with words like, “You are dead to me”. Those are very deliberate situations practiced consciously.

Where social death is not circumscribed so clearly but evidences itself nonetheless there is social invisibility. You see this as people step around homeless people or as people talk over the excluded person in a conversation as if they are not even there.

In more amorphous circumstances still, social death signifies some kind of change of status or becoming marked in some way, often by being seen in terms of lack. If you lose your job, get divorced, or are diagnosed with an illness for example, people step away. Sometimes they run, but usually they try to be discrete about it and inch towards the door instead.

You become awkward for people to deal with. You are “problematic”. You have slipped from the position that social consciousness once recognized into some grey area that is difficult to categorize and handle with the ease of the usual social scripts. People may just become distant and call it “giving you your space”—even when space is all you’ve got and you don’t really need any more of it–or they may in worse cases resort to sarcasm, callousness and so on as a way of keeping emotional distance from someone.

The effects are internalized too. You can’t relate to them, whoever “they” may be, the way you used to because your circumstances have changed such that you may not even know what to do in a situation that depended on your previous circumstances. There might be embarrassment for you or for them. There might be fear of even further marginalization.  Even if you tried to relate, their responses would likely be altered until, and if, both you and they came to terms with such changes.

Grief by Raymond Carver

Woke up early this morning and from my bed
looked far across the Strait to see
a small boat moving through the choppy water,
a single running light on. Remembered
my friend who used to shout
his dead wife’s name from hilltops
around Perugia. Who set a plate
for her at his simple table long after
she was gone. And opened the windows
so she could have fresh air. Such display
I found embarrassing. So did his other
friends. I couldn’t see it.
Not until this morning.

Another reason I withdrew was because it was clear that I was using a lot of things to try to stuff more stuff into the vacant spaces in my life.  Like anything one uses to try to fill up a nihilistic or uncomfortable sense of lack, that works until it doesn’t any more. Then one is left with that space still along with the fallout of attempts to alleviate the situation. That space beckons to be filled, with something, with anything.

Some people’s biggest accomplishment is their misery in such circumstances. You seem to find a state that’s just bad enough to dwell in and not so bad that you go under. That’s the state I reached. I wrote a post about the initial contact with that nihilistic state here, This is Not the Emptiness You’re Looking For. It really grabbed me for a while. You don’t thrive there, you simply exist in a diminished way while you lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling with your hand in a bag of Cheetos, or on a bottle, or with a hand full of pills or what have you. It was arid and empty and I felt nothing of any consequence whatsoever. But I wanted to feel something, anything even if it was just my own damage.

When there’s the feeling of emptiness in the nihilistic sense or in the sense of lack or neediness, there is not enough of anything to fill it. Sometimes we might even fill it with pain just to have something there, something familiar even if, from a less subjective viewpoint, it might complicate things further if not make them worse. Sometimes we might even think about suicide, which I wrote about here, Ghosts and Imagination (also stuff there about Walter Benjamin and equanimity which briefly is neither accepting or rejecting, just engaging)

Pain is easy to grab on to. There’s plenty of it around and plenty of ways to inflict it on each other and on ourselves. Humans are really good at manufacturing and distributing pain and even simulations of pain. There are whole industries devoted to pain distribution now-arms dealers, military contractors, prison systems. That’s besides the pain related epiphenomenon that occurs in commercial enterprises, entertainment, schools and families.

Pain and suffering is sometimes glorified in Christian influenced societies. Some who have suffered harder than others are even made saints by the Catholic church. That’s not to say that pain isn’t glorified in the secular arena as well by those who “play through their injuries” or stood up to a beating “like a man”, the US gives purple heart medals to wounded soldiers, and so on. One is expected to not only embody their pain but embrace it even harder.

This “lean-in” approach is extremist. It doesn’t deal with what is but creates a more intense and artificial situation. It manufactures a false circumstance that can easily bring about a false sense of victory. [Hope some of my Zen friends are hearing that.]

That lean-in type of catharsis is not a road I wanted to go down when I decided to retreat and deal with what was happening. The point was to remove obstacles, or let them fall away, not build a higher artificial wall around them to be cleared first.


“If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.”    ― Simone Weil

Everyone has their own way of introspecting. I’ve meditated for more than 25 years and practiced some cognitive-behavioural techniques so was pretty familiar with my subjective landscape. This, however was all new territory.

Grief is like a strange doppelganger that you carry around inside of you, that sometimes trades places with you and you try to hide from, until one day it slips out and sits across from you and you look into it’s eyes. I’m using (very mixed) metaphors of course but at a certain tipping point emotional baggage can shift in pretty sudden and unexpected ways. This can feel like panic and a loss of control. That loss of control is necessary to some degree in order to resolve the inner dilemma.

Self-examination, particularly when it turns to self-critique, can become a rigid, disciplinary exercise wherein one becomes an ideologue parroting acceptable phrases, rather than undertaking a useful process of learning and growth. That generally happens when the processing is all done on an intellectual level, that is, in the head. Emotion is disciplined into a corner and ideas take over. Intellectualization of this type is a psychological defense mechanism with the purpose of protecting one’s sense of self, esteem and to rationalize behaviour. It can also become rather cold and heartless.  It was somewhat useful to intellectualize as I had to close up our apartment and deal with the practical matters of death along with his family members. But it becomes all empty again, as all psychological defense mechanisms ultimately do if the situations they are invoked to mask is not dealt with.

So I had to abandon that approach, which I’ll admit is my favourite because I’m really good at it, if I wanted to deal with myself. That left me kind of lost and I went into depression off and on for a few months. Eh, it was something.

In that kind of state dissatisfaction is rife, as is anger and a lot of other stuff, but it’s still pretty much under the surface. You still can’t feel it really except during brief and often unintentional flare ups. Once more something had to be done because that felt like a deep hole too.

Finally I said “I really need to contact somebody who understands”.  Finally I decided to contact Manoj’s friends, who were/are also my friends. We were now on different continents and hadn’t spoken much after the initial couple of months.  One of them said, “You are welcome to come home any time, we have been waiting for you.” That broke me. Totally. An unqualified, unconditional statement of care. No amount of thinking could have brought me to that solution. It was the pure need for human connection. It wasn’t just for me either..people had been waiting.

One thing I have learned is that there is no silence no matter how silently one retreats. Not even in emptiness–of any variety. Life is very full—it is blossoming, withering, exploding, expanding, coagulating, entwining, decaying, convulsing–fecund and noisy in other words.


“The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it.”
― Simone Weil, Waiting for God

When people talk of grace they usually mean divine grace, that is some sort of blessing from a deity that frees someone from suffering and torment. I have no God of any kind to which I might direct such an appeal.

I would not have been able to write this post without the presence of friends. I call it friends because there’s not a better word I can think of. It’s the place where the possibilities of human connection and love really begin. It is the place where one says, maybe in not so many words, “I am prepared to hurt for you, and with you.”

So no possibilities without those friends of the past, those who I am bound to in the present, and those I hope will be friends in the future. Without them I would not have realized much of this. Mostly though it is because of Manoj and Marina, two people who were willing to dive deep with me, laugh with me and hurt with me and I with them, that let me know I was nothing to be scared of, and that nor were other people, in themselves, scary.

What I have found, through them all, is grace. I realize that it has been there all along.

Our planet is poorly equipped for delight.
One must snatch gladness from the days that are.
In this life
it’s not difficult to die.
To make life
is more difficult by far.

~Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, from To Sergei Esenin





Photograph by T. Enami (江南 信國, Enami Nobukuni, 1859 – 1929)



By NellaLou Tagged

Further Comments on Happiness

Drawing in part on some of the points made in Sara Ahmed’s book The Promise of Happiness, which I just reviewed in the last post, as well as current events there are a few more points about the topic of happiness I wish to touch upon.

Self-help books are full of advice about attaining “happiness” but many of them don’t define what they mean by “happiness”.

What does “happiness” even mean in common parlance? Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen answers. Words like blissful, relaxed, stress-free, joyful, carefree, comfortable, ecstatic and peaceful would possibly be used. The problem with these is they don’t really refer to anything. They have no relation to one’s context. They are states of being that seem to be achievable in isolation or that is the way they come across in these books and other media. 

The thing is we don’t live in isolation. We live in an incredibly complex matrix of circumstances, environment, history and relationships. We are wholly dependent upon this matrix for our very survival and are wholly interdependent with it.

The happiness in isolation prescription we are so often offered is at best a placebo. At worst it is a lie.

I can think of at least 10 things I’d want before I would choose that kind of vague “happiness”. Here’s some of them:

  • challenged
  • inspired
  • ethical
  • focused
  • creating
  • aware
  • empathetic
  • insightful
  • doing meaningful work
  • having meaningful friendships and relationships

These are just random off the top of my head. If I were to make up some of those false dichotomous choices, “Would you rather be _____ or happy?” with the blank filled in by one of the above, I’d choose any one of the above and probably about 20 other things first.

In case I haven’t explained myself adequately here’s something further. Happy in relation to what? If you look at the list I provided at the top there’s relation explicitly obvious or implicitly implied in each one of them. This is what I mean:

  • challenged [by something]
  • inspired [by something]
  • ethical [ethics is only an issue when it comes to relationship]
  • focused [on something]
  • creating [something]
  • aware [of something, be that environment or whatever]
  • empathetic [only comes up in relationship]
  • insightful [into something]
  • doing meaningful work [work by its nature involves relations of some sort]

These all underscore the relational nature of our existence. One could, I suppose, turn all this inward, but one might become so self-involved the ability to even function in society would possibly be compromised.

Chati Coronel wrote this on Twitter a while back:

nothing marks your territory. you don’t end with skin

This kind of isolated state of “happiness” that is so often offered as some kind of panacea to the ills of the world is blatantly anti-realist. That is to say it is delusional.

Happiness as an industry may be at its zenith in the United States. Though it is increasingly being sold elsewhere as well. Those who don’t take to this sale may be labeled “happiness averse”. That’s a complicated and loaded term. It presupposes happiness is a principle goal and that it is something to be highly valued, maybe even the highest value or goal. “Happiness aversion” is not the same as depression or somberness although that implication is also conveyed. That is to be expected from the Western psychological framework which presently does seem to be drunk on it’s own positivity kool-aid.

There are purported differences between cultures on what kind of emotional goals and environment are preferable. In the article Why Happiness Scares Us the author writes:

Aversion to happiness exists across cultures, especially those that value harmony and conformity over individualism, recent research suggests. The findings challenge the Western assumption that everyone is aiming for a life full of unremitting joy. …

Comparing happiness between cultures runs into the problem of how different people define the emotion. …

Some cultures think of happiness as a loss of control — fun, but destructive, like being drunk, Weijers said. Others believe extreme highs must be followed by extreme lows, as revealed by proverbs from many nations. In Iran, people say that "laughing loudly wakes up sadness." In China, a cheerful person might be warned, "Extreme happiness begets tragedy." In English-speaking nations, you might hear, "What goes up, must come down."

Islamic cultures value sadness over happiness, Weijers said, because sad people are seen as serious and connected to God. Artists might fear that soothing their emotional torment will destroy their creativity (and, indeed, creativity has been scientifically linked to mental illness). Activists might see happiness as complacency and seek to rouse anger, instead.

I dislike the phrasing "conformist" with regard to culture though. It is the article writer that uses it while the quotes from study authors use "collectivist" instead which I think is more accurate. "Conformist" denotes a certain authoritarianism (either by hierarchy or social pressure-one could easily say the same about hyper-individualist cultures in terms of influence as well) which I don’t think is necessarily correct in these circumstances.

Some of the characterizations of cultures here suffer from the same problems that the “Culture and Personality” theoretical trend in anthropology did. The idea of “national character” or particular traits belonging to people with particular genetic configurations leads not only to stereotyping but the kind of reductionist viewpoint that underlies a lot of racism. It comes down to phrases like “They’re all like that” or “Have you heard this Polish/German/blond/Jewish/Arab/African joke?” relying on some stereotype or whatever without any examination of contexts, material or ideological, or outside influences such as colonialism and so forth that may have had some causal effects on people in a particular region or circumstance. [Sara Ahmed’s book covers a lot of that too.]

What I’m saying is that these kinds of studies, even if they get some statistically significant data, become popularized and will just as often be misinterpreted or re-framed both the issue and the results to accord with dominant ideology, just as the author there has done with substituting “conformism” for “collectivist”. “Conformism” is a highly negative value in a hyper-individuated culture, hence the people who are “happiness averse” are characterized in an even further negative light. The writer’s biases come to the fore.

Another thing that was in that article:

..most nations in the past defined happiness as a factor of good luck and fortunate circumstances. Modern American English, however, stresses happiness as an internal mood, something more innate to a person and his or her character than to the external world. Bolstering the evidence of this change, the researchers [using Google’s n-gram stats]  found that mentions of a "happy nation" have declined over time in English-language books, while the phrase "happy person" has been climbing steadily.

This atomization is interesting. With the rise of capitalism and emphasis on hyper-individuality, particularly on the “individual consumer” (now you know why they want all our data), those amorphous things that had previously been seen as collective, that is in people having “a share of the nation’s wealth” be it material or not, has really changed. People used to be psychologically and emotionally invested in creating better communities even if it was of no direct immediate benefit to themselves because they could see that in the long run living in an environment where people cared for one another was a lot less stressful than one where it was “everyone for themselves”.

This is an unfastening of communal bonds, a destruction of the commons, not just material commons but intellectual and emotional. It is often even anti-community where community is seen as a collective project.

Can someone be “happy” while they step over people sleeping on the sidewalk? Can they sleep well knowing kids in the next neighborhood are hungry? If they can, are these the people you really want to be associating with? What happens when your luck runs out? Are they going to be the ones on your doorstep offering to help you?

If you want to join the happiness brigade however but can’t quite fake it well enough yet, you can always go for a makeover. Or at least a few Botox shots.

In a recent New York Times article, Don’t Worry, Get Botox, professor of psychiatriy, Richard A. Friedman, suggests that getting Botox shots to ward off unhappy facial expressions can help cure depression.

This is another facet of the individuation of the field of psychology and psychiatry. Even things like family therapy and milieu therapies are taking a back seat to these individual approaches. Some of this is due to the rise of cognitive therapy and theory particularly in the form of the cognitive-behavioral approach. Interestingly that is the approach through which most “mindfulness” is being inculcated or subsumed into psychology.

In CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) the gist is that your thoughts make you sick. Change or challenge your thoughts and things can get better. It is proven to work to an extent. I’m not going to deny that because I’ve used this approach personally. And it works as far as it goes. It doesn’t change your circumstances however or the kinds of things in the world that continue to trigger anxiety and/or depression. If one is in a lousy marriage for example, say with someone who has a serious addiction or abuse problem, CBT is not going to solve that. It may help re-formulate a response to the situation, or not. Likewise if one is in a crappy job CBT isn’t going to improve that no matter how much one’s mood improves while doing that crappy job.

This folds back into the discussion of ideas like “the happy slave” or “domestic bliss” in Ahmed’s book. Not only is it delusional to think that people in oppressed conditions are happy about it (remember that opinion the Bundy guy had about black people being “better off” under slavery—this is the kind of rationalization that is used for that) but that they *should* be happy about it.

On the [Western, convert] Buddhist happiness industry front we then get smarmy books about how to be a happy worker by adjusting ourselves to our oppressive conditions rather than overthrowing the bosses or making a stand for better working conditions or something else that would disrupt the status quo. The happiness industry is all about preserving that status quo. It’s not about “liberation” or anything else of that sort. It’s about being a better drone.

One can be a good little economic soldier and carry out all the little meaningless duties required of a good consumer-citizen. Take the pills, get the shots, do the exercises, comply with all the treatment regimens, talk the self-talk and so on but THEN WHAT? Well you die and somebody else gets to occupy your slot in the machine.

Professor Mark Fisher wrote an excellent post about the current neoliberal economic situation and his own depression. In Good For Nothing he states:

The dominant school of thought in psychiatry locates the origins of such [depressive] ‘beliefs’ in malfunctioning brain chemistry, which are to be corrected by pharmaceuticals; psychoanalysis and forms of therapy influenced by it famously look for the roots of mental distress in family background, while Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is less interested in locating the source of negative beliefs than it is in simply replacing them with a set of positive stories. It is not that these models are entirely false, it is that they miss – and must miss – the most likely cause of such feelings of inferiority: social power. The form of social power that had most effect on me was class power, although of course gender, race and other forms of oppression work by producing the same sense of ontological inferiority, which is best expressed in exactly the thought I articulated above: that one is not the kind of person who can fulfill roles which are earmarked for the dominant group.

Anyone who’s had a taste of depression is familiar with the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness that comes with it. Even if a person hasn’t gone into a full scale depression vestiges of it that can still float into one’s consciousness. Some of the reactions can reach into that delusional sort of “I control the universe” The Secret kind of thinking.

In a recent interview with Mark Fisher, the interviewer wrote:

Deal or No Deal throws randomly selected amounts of money at randomly selected people. Yet the entire message the show insists on the precise opposite: that individual decisions – a simple yes/no to the Banker – can somehow make a difference.

Mark calls this magical voluntarism – “the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be”. Magical voluntarism is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, he argues, pushed by reality TV experts and business gurus as much as by politicians.

~The politics of depression: Mark Fisher on mental health and class confidence

In further explication writer “sometimes explode” wrote on the Libcom blog A reply to Mark Fisher on magical voluntarism. He furthers the concept of “magical volunteerism” and places it in a larger context.

This is the image of the consumer as a soul able to emit desire-transmissions into a receptive universe, and implies an entire metaphysics built around Loreal’s insistence that “you’re worth it”. Mark Fisher is quick to point out the core political problem here: if you fail to find work, pay your bills, get that holiday/car/pair of trainers, it’s because you didn’t want it enough. This implies a deficiency in your ability to desire or, in the language of the Secret, to emit frequencies into the universe.

He goes into some depth discussing the origins and history of this kind of attitude within the psychotherapy milieu. The point of contention is what to do about it. Fisher suggests a more mainstream approach while sometimes explode takes a more radical tack. The whole piece, along with Fisher’s is well worth a read. Comments are also good.

So those are the tangents.