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.

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This is Not the Emptiness You’re Looking For

-a dispatch from the grief process

I’m going to have to write about grief and related topics for a while. Because duh! read my last post, it is not possible for me to deal with anything else at this time.

I’m currently located in the deep end of the nihilistic swimming pool. The reason to write about it? Nihilism is really boring and I’m bored of that boringness. So this is busy work…a task invented just to help the time to pass.

Here’s some stuff about Nihilism. Short version from the introductory paragraph:

Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy. While few philosophers would claim to be nihilists, nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that its corrosive effects would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate the greatest crisis in human history. In the 20th century, nihilistic themes–epistemological failure, value destruction, and cosmic purposelessness–have preoccupied artists, social critics, and philosophers. Mid-century, for example, the existentialists helped popularize tenets of nihilism in their attempts to blunt its destructive potential. By the end of the century, existential despair as a response to nihilism gave way to an attitude of indifference, often associated with antifoundationalism.

I don’t know what antifoundationalism is, I mean I can guess considering the context but I don’t feel like looking it up for the particulars.

I was reading about Zen sickness. It affects some people who seek an emptiness (shunyata) that is characterized by nihilism. I was reading something by Gary Ray quoted on The Zennist’s blog. Now I don’t agree with the basic position of The Zennist at the best of times but this quote was kind of interesting. Ray was “editor and publisher, of the defunct Buddhist journal, CyberSangha, [who] wrote the following editorial comment, Why Can’t Zen Buddhism Find an Online Home?”

Attachment to emptiness is so common that the term “Zen sickness” is often used to describe it. Sufferers of this malady run around telling you that “everything is empty” and nothing really exists. In discussions, when these people don’t know the answer to a question or don’t know how to pursue a meaningful dialogue, they often resort to their emptiness claim to stifle conversation, or worse, appear wise. A recent discussion in alt.zen was composed of a someone asking where the Zen was in the discussion group, since everyone seemed to be ranting and raving about new age teachers and Hindu philosophy. The response to his question was overwhelming, as many people slyly informed him of the “emptiness” of the conference. Heck, it doesn’t have Zen because it’s empty. True emptiness represents a lack of permanent form, pregnant with potential for unlimited growth and development. The emptiness discussed in these conferences is a growth impediment, since discussion immediately stops when the emptiness word is used. A response one of my Zen teachers often used when confronted by an emptiness spouter was: “Does emptiness feel pain?” This is especially effective when brandishing a big Zen stick (or listserv software).

This reminded me of the story I read somewhere else about a guy doing Zen training who didn’t want to give up a retreat to go to be with his father who was dying. Because “emptiness”. That’s just stupid.

Nihilism and shunyata are very different things. Attachment and connection/interdependence (Pratītyasamutpāda) are not the same thing. You can love somebody without attaching to them like you own them or you are owned by them.

There are nihilistic moments, like in some of the stages of grief. This is what I’m talking about. In it’s place it may have a function. I am finding it having a function for me presently.

However it is not something to seek. When it comes it has to be recognized also or it turns pathological. It distances one from life. Sometimes, like in grief, a bit of distance can be welcome so as to make sense of the situation. But there are downsides to taking nihilism even as a temporary medicine.

To paraphrase the alchemist Paracelsus “The difference between a medicine, an intoxicant and a poison is in the dosage.” Zen sickness turns nihilism into an intoxicant. Sociopathy turns it into a poison. Grief can make use of it as a medicine but the dangers of that have to be in the forefront of consciousness at all times.

Here’s why.

Nothing is relevant, nothing has any meaning is the worst bit of the nihilistic moment. It’s very dull and can be stifling. Nothing is distinct from anything else. Nothing is relevant. There is no way to distinguish anything from anything else and it doesn’t even matter.

It is the characteristic of being trapped in an is-ought paradox, or to put it another way a cognitive and emotional dissonance.

That is characterized like this. When I phone his number he ought to answer, but he can’t because he’s dead. All my (our) beliefs and plans about the future are just hanging somewhere in the air. They can no longer be enacted. So there is a big blank space all around me now. I cannot see much and have a very limited perspective. I know that. That is what grief does. It narrows perspective so we can focus on it. We need to do that so we can adjust our general perspectives now that things have changed, radically. We need the time to get our new bearings.

Everything that has gone before has been cut loose. There is nothing to hang on to. There is nothing but blankness. It is a full stop. Death is a full stop. Not just for those who have died but those who remain.

Full stop.

So this isn’t a neat little phase like Kubler-Ross outlines. There’s a real urge for denial but facts don’t allow that and that makes me plenty angry. And there’s a bunch of other emotions somewhere but I can’t find them right now.

Everything looks and feels very flat and cartoonish. There is no depth. There is no feeling about much of anything, except a certain simmering anger, though that’s not anywhere near the surface right now (or I couldn’t write this and would probably throw my laptop off the balcony).

For people that say too much intellectualism is a bad thing, you are wrong. Since I’ve never been in this kind of emotional state before, or if I have I either don’t remember it or it was qualitatively different somehow, or not at this kind of depth, the only thing that is keeping me from utterly giving into it is an intellectual curiosity to explore it.

I would imagine this is similar to the way some sociopaths experience life. I am depersonalized as is everyone else. I feel no connection to anything really. It’s just scenery and not even interesting. Everything is just going through the motions and reciting the standard scripts to people I’m talking to on the phone. Not entirely hopeless since I’ve decided to share this particular aspect of this experience with people, so somewhere there is still something else, but I just can’t access it, nor do I want to at the moment. In some ways this sort of limbo is a bit of a blessing though not some place I want to dwell in for any length of time.

It is a very arid sort of place.

The deep end of the nihilistic swimming pool looks something like this:

zWg2B

Now without water there’s not really any way to get out of it you may notice. The transition between the shallow end and the deep end is pretty sharp. But if there were water in it right now I’d probably drown because I’ve no energy to try to swim. So…hmmm…this is a peculiar paradox.

Sort of an existential crisis, though not of the immediate emergency sort.

This is also mindfulness of the nth order. It is impossible to not be mindful of the situation. That is what this report is about. It is a sliver of a current psycho-geography.

There are times in life when one is just going through the motions, without any connection to anything, in some kind of autopilot state or playing along with the situation. I can see myself doing that when I have to interact with others. It is like my avatar is interacting with them as I sit in this deep end of the pool and watch remotely and removed. I characterized the moment this happened, when the news hit me, as being broken into a million shards. Struggling against it was like being tangled in a jungle of razor wire. That was a few days ago. So that struggling has stopped and here is where I am presently. Likely this will change too. Psycho-geography is like that. Especially when one is in the depths and not engaging on a shallow level.

It’s the end of a future history.

I would have given anything to be with him when he died. But the doctors say that since it was heart failure and it occurred when he slept he probably wouldn’t have even been consciously aware it was happening. So that’s pretty much the best alternative one could hope for in terms of death I think.

But here I am. Still.

Maybe this is a kind of semi-bardo experience. I don’t know. A part of me has departed with him.

There will be a time to sort through the myriad threads to see which continue and which don’t. This process starts probably subconsciously but I’m not anywhere near that yet.

Presently is like a limbo I am currently taking rest in, though it is not comfortable nor would it be by choice to be here.

Maybe I can just wait for more debris to fall in so I can pile it up to clamber out. Maybe the edges will crumble and create a climbable slope. Maybe it’ll rain and by the time the pool fills sufficiently I can float out. Maybe I’ll have to tunnel out the bottom somehow. I don’t know.

So as I report from this nihilistic wasteland I am currently traversing, I just want to pass this message on from the bardo to those who think nihilism is equivalent to emptiness (shunyata):

“This is not the emptiness you are looking for”


Don’t give me any advice or platitudes like “Things will get better” or I’ll reach through the screen and slap you. I don’t want things to get better right now. I want to be with this completely for as long as it takes and as deep as it goes.

Maybe I’ll just turn off comments because I don’t really care what anybody has to say right now.

Not Good Enough <rant>

 

Life creeping you out?

The cool people, the important people shutting you down?

Tedious morons trying to troll you into silence?

Pressure to be “good enough” breaking you down?

I read some things tonight and I finally just feel angry. here’s why

Somebody wasn’t going to enter her poetry in a contest because she was beset with demons about it not being “good enough”, her writing wasn’t good enough, her words weren’t good enough, her emotions weren’t good enough, her experiences weren’t good enough…she was crying as she typed her message out…weeping was her word.

Forget the analysis. I’ll just spill out what I see.

Lots of times on social media I see people lamenting that they are not “good enough” for something—a job, a relationship, a certain crowd, some institution or organization, some bullshit awards, the attention of some clique, the attention of the world, a little bit of fucking consideration or respect…

not good enough to bridge the distance

not good enough to dare to ask

not good enough to trust…themselves or anybody else

not good enough to continue to draw breath

Oh there’s a hell of a lot of suicidal ideation floating around on the Internet.

There’s no such thing as good enough.

Where’s the fucking list of “good enough” criteria?

What are the top 10 items on the “good enough” list?

Who makes the list?

Who maintains it and checks off whether you’re doing things right or wrong?

Santa’s long dead and buried once you get past the age of 5 or 6.

People getting all tormented by unending thoughts

“You’re so fucking special,
I wish I was special.”

 

Maybe you think you’re a creep or a loser. So what! Even if you were you could make art out of it and get a couple million bucks, fame and popularity. Works either way. If that’s what you’re after. If the adulation of others is so important. Is that the only thing that matters? That’s some kind of fucked up priorities.

If everything’s turned into a contest. A competition.

Oh maybe there’s an app for winning that!

For every winner there’s a hundred losers all nursing the same wounds. The judges move on. They move on fast and don’t even remember your name.

 

Nobody gets through without wounds. Nobody even gets out of here alive.

Climbing all these mountains of emotional turmoil for what? For what?

Carrying some burden of the pain of sharp words knifed in the back when you find out the world’s not what you thought it was. It’s not what was promised.

It’s not really real. Whatever the situation. Mediated by desires messaged and massaged 24/7. Oh where’s McLuhan when you need him?

Maybe it’s not that kind of competition.

Maybe it’s a lover leaving.

Thinking the scent of somebody else’s sweat will be somehow more intoxicating, will be a better trip, for a while longer.

Maybe even your best friend has grabbed the goods while you weren’t looking

…there’s never going to be a world without the Jolenes in it.

 

Was it because you weren’t beautiful enough. What is beautiful enough?

Do we need reasons to be beautiful? Why?

“And they said in the end…you’d get better just like them..”

 

The only way to be different is to be the same.

All those beautiful lonely people…an accomplishment?

Everybody’s looking for a place with a sign that says “Come as you are” Bring your wounds, bring your pain and your insecurities, bring something honest and real…

When you lay it down on the table they all turn away because of the reminder…

…of everything that they sold to be where they are.

But there’s no neon flashing in the distance, there’s no rest stop along the dark highways

There’s no place to land

There is a flash of the truth every now and then but it’s gone before it can be captured, before it can stop your world from being upended.

The people you love say they don’t have a gun, either literally or metaphorically, but you walk around feeling like you’ve been shot with something anyways.

Yet how can you walk so wounded?

How can you carry a lead filled heart that weighs so much?

How can what you dream of be so daunting and impossible?

Maybe you’re not seeing it clearly.

It’s all been dreamed before. A billion billion times.

It’s all a fucked up Californication…a spectacle that sucks up what’s left of humanity in people and turns it into fast cash and flashy pictures. Hurray for fucking Hollywood that tells us if we’re “good enough” the world is just and we will all get what we deserve because…

…God or gods, karma, the universe, justice, fairness or some hero will fly in to save the day?

Nothing is promised when your head emerges into this world and you take your first breath.

“What a bitch! Taking away all the hope and promises.”

Whatevs babe. That’s the way it goes.

We can sit around and wait to be deemed “good enough”. We’ll be waiting til we die because nobody’s ever “good enough” by everybody, all the time, or for long.

So I say to that poet, that musician, that artist, that scholar, that person who wants something out of the funhouse, who craves a place at that banquet table…go for it, but remember

it’s not about you, it’s not even about your words or your song or anything like that. It’s not personal. It’s about what the market will bear, about tastes and trends, about who a few people think are in charge, about desire and craving, it’s about being insatiable, it’s about dissatisfaction and regret, it’s about arbitrary lists that change on a daily basis, it’s about ratings and profit, it’s about fake and faker, it’s about an enactment, a pretend sort of life that emulates human thought and desire, imposters playing imposter games…

but it’s not about you, or what you are really worth. If you can keep that in mind, go for it, grab some of the goodies, and be prepared to walk away when the time comes.

"Californication"

Psychic spies from China
Try to steal your mind’s elation
Little girls from Sweden
Dream of silver screen quotations
And if you want these kind of dreams
It’s Californication
It’s the edge of the world
And all of western civilization
The sun may rise in the East
At least it settles in the final location
It’s understood that Hollywood
sells Californication
Pay your surgeon very well
To break the spell of aging
Celebrity skin is this your chin
Or is that war you’re waging
[Chorus:]
First born unicorn
Hard core soft porn
Dream of Californication
Dream of Californication
Marry me girl be my fairy to the world
Be my very own constellation
A teenage bride with a baby inside
Getting high on information
And buy me a star on the boulevard
It’s Californication
Space may be the final frontier
But it’s made in a Hollywood basement
Cobain can you hear the spheres
Singing songs off Station to Station
And Alderon’s not far away
It’s Californication
Born and raised by those who praise
Control of population everybody’s been there
and I don’t mean on vacation
[Chorus]
Destruction leads to a very rough road
But it also breeds creation
And earthquakes are to a girl’s guitar
They’re just another good vibration
And tidal waves couldn’t save the world
From Californication
Pay your surgeon very well
To break the spell of aging
Sicker than the rest
There is no test
But this is what you’re craving