Thursday, September 24, 2020

What is the extent of our obligation to know?

 I've always been a bit of a Cassandra.  At times, if there's a silver lining, I'll find the dark cloud. How much of this is just my nature, how much of it is garden variety Jewish pessimism born of inherited Holocaust-related PTSD that at least one study has shown is an actual thing, and how much is born of the experience of having always been short, fatter than others, and always marching to a different drummer, I cannot say. But I've never had the sense that "everything will work out fine."  

Everything DOESN'T work out fine. That's not to say that the worst possible scenario always occurs, because it doesn't.  And once we get into the habit of worrying about things, that habit is hard to break.  A very good therapist once told me that "Worry doesn't change any outcome.  It keeps your mind busy so you think you have control when you really don't." I have had to remind myself of this over and over again, especially since early 2013.

There is a kind of pessimism I've noticed in life that seems to be uniquely Jewish. It is informed by a long heritage of "You're not paranoid if they really ARE out to get you." For thousands of years, there have been attempts to eradicate the Jews, and yet we persevere.  It's something of which we are proud, but that pride always comes with a sense of unease.  

I used to get irritated with my mother, who saw anti-Semites around every corner.  There were very few gentiles that she ever really trusted.  This was not because she was so religious, because she wasn't. What she WAS, was a very damaged woman whose own mother had seen her parents and three sisters come to the US, become homesick, and return home to Poland, just in time for Hitler. Home movies from my mother's early childhood show a happy child with a smiling mother.  Yet somewhere along the line, that changed. I suspect that when my grandmother found out what had happened to her family, her grief and guilt destroyed her.  With no therapists or support groups available in those days, she took it out on her husband and children. Certainly the dour grandmother I knew bore no relation to the woman in these videos. And the mother I had bore little resemblance to the happy child in the videos.

But when I look around me today; when the name "George Soros" is used as a dogwhistle that means "Jews", when I see a president who calls people who march in the streets chanting "Jews will not replace us" some "very fine people," I have to both rethink whether my mother was really wrong, and also give thanks that she is not here to a) see this; and b) gloat and say "I told you so." Because it often DOES feel unsafe to be even a lapsed secular Jew in this country today.

Whatever the reason, the feeling of being besieged is something that exists so deeply in my soul that all that therapy has been able to do is give me the tools to cope with it.  And my way of coping has been not to worry, but just be cognizant of the dangers and then kind of shrug my shoulders and say "What is going to happen will happen." 

Before going on, I want to make one thing clear:  The many words spilled above on Jewish fear do not mean that Jews, American or otherwise, have some kind of a patent on suffering.  I am writing this on the day after a grand jury in Louisville, Kentucky has refused to issue any charges against police officers who pumped six bullets into a young woman named Breonna Taylor while she slept, and months after the summary execution in the street of a man named George Floyd.  This has been a summer of systematic and institutional eliminationism of Black Americans; one that has forced many of us whose skin is white, even those of us who are Jews, to examine the ways that we take for granted the benefit of the doubt that is given to us by virtue of our skin color. My view is that as people who have benefitted from white privilege while simultaneously dealing with the generations of reality of bigotry and eliminationism, we have a special obligation to fight alongside our Black Lives Matter kin. 

We are suffering right now from grief overload, from outrage overload, from terror overload, and all this is combined with the isolation many of us are enduring from the coronavirus pandemic. I'm weathering this better on the surface than many people are, because most of the time I seem able to "compartmentalize" it all.  I am steeped in news much of the time, whether it's having news on as background sound to help minimize my sense of aloneness, or because I've been a news junkie since I was twelve. 

People have asked me, "How can you stay so calm?" I tell them it's because I can compartmentalize. I know where my burnout point is, and then I tune into TinyKittens or Kitten Academy or I watch reaction videos on YouTube or something else to quiet my brain down a bit. My blood pressure is still normal. I sleep well. So to some degree it's working.  But not completely, because my hair loss in the last six months has been alarming.  My old hair stylist in New Jersey used to say he could always tell when I was under stress because my hair was thinner on top.  I think back to 2013, when I was dealing with Mr. B's illness and death and the loss of Maggie and Jenny, all while working an extremely high-stress job. Or 2015, when my father died before I could get to Florida to visit one more time. Or when I moved.  Or when I was still working 14 hours a day from home and was so tired that I would look at my work and it might as well have been written in Aramaic. Yes, my hair would thin out, but not now, when not even the "old lady combover" I've been doing for the last five years, pulling everything to the front, covers what is happening.

Back in 2004, I started writing at the old place just after the 2004 Democratic National Convention because poor Mr. B. needed a break from my incessant ranting.  These days, most of my ranting takes place over on Facebook, where some of even my closest friends and relatives have unfollowed me because they just can't deal with the things I'm sharing.  It gets them too upset. Some of the people who have unfollowed me are just "not political" and don't want to read about the things I write about.  As long as they have their jobs, and their spouses and kids are all right, and everyone's healthy, it's all good. Others just aren't able to stop the runaway train of anxiety that comes from being steeped all the time in the hellscape that is life in the Trump era.  I get that; I really do.  It must be sort of like those times when I was a kid when the certainty of eventual death would wake me up in the middle of the night. It's the terror of things we can't do anything about.

Here's the problem though:  At what point do we have an obligation to stop looking away? Does looking away mean pretending that everything is OK? How do we find a way to be hyper-aware without it taking us down a psychological path that leads to emotional paralysis, or worse? How do we look away when our fellow citizens are being summarily murdered by those who job it is to protect them as well as us?  How do we look away when the very institutions we profess to revere every time we hang a flag or celebrate a holiday are in very real and imminent danger of collapsing completely? How do we look at the hurricanes and wildfires and think that pulling the cellophane windows out of junk mail envelopes before recycling is going to make one iota of difference? Is there even hope?  What does hope even mean today?  What's the difference between hope and delusion? And what kinds of action are even effective at a time when demonstrable facts are given the same weight as utter horsepuckey?

Yes, it infuriates me when I see people who have children and grandchildren who either don't care about what's happening or else have embraced the GOP worldview because it looks more like what they're accustomed to.  "DON'T YOU CARE ABOUT THE WORLD YOUR CHILDREN ARE GOING TO LIVE IN???" I want to scream. Yes, I care what's happening but does anything I do even mean anything? Will my money change a single vote? My Senators' staffs most of the time don't even answer the phone. I am one of those hyper-aware people. I KNOW.  But does it even matter?  Do we have an obligation to know when far too many of our fellow citizens choose not to? Or should we just join those who look away, live out our lives and let it all shake out the way it seems destined to?


  1. I think there is a grey areas between looking away/not caring/living in delusion and being hyper-aware/choked with anxiety and terror/emotionally paralyzed. I can only speak for myself, but here are my thoughts. I choose not to listen to the news much, especially when it has to do with politics. However, this does not mean that I don't care about the state of our world or am living in a state of delusion. Quite the opposite. However, I value my mental health and choose not to live in a state of fear or anxiety, to the best of my ability. I choose not to project about what might or might not happen, because in reality I don't know. In reality, I can only control what I do or say or think or feel at this very moment. Yes, we can look at history as a guide to the future at times, but who the hell in 1970 thought Trump would be president in 2020? The code I try to live by is to do my very best to do the next right thing. That may mean voting. That may mean using my skills, gifts, talents to make the world a better place with one small action at a time. That may mean turning off the TV which is showing Trump spewing his lies and hate because I don't want to infect my brain with his shit that I am powerless over to change. I am not really a believer in hope. For me, hope is delusion. Hope is not living in reality. Hope is ignoring the truth of what is. So, I guess the bottom line for me is I know what the big picture is, even when I do turn off the TV, and do what I can to change what I find unacceptable.

  2. As a vet who survived Vietnam a day at a time and feeling that every minute was under a dark cloud, it took me nearly two years to understand I was suffering from PTSD. Not severely, but subtly. Hyperaware, always checking my position in relation to others and exits, awakening to nascent sounds, and, in my first weeks back, dropping to the ground at sudden loud noises. I thought at first it was instinctive behavior, but no, it was learned quickly under the influence of rapid horrific events and a continuous adrenaline cocktail to crystalize unconscious function into protecting myself and my buddies.

    I can see how your life events, family history, and persistent sense of vague danger would activate anxiety and panic. Maybe even panic attacks. These self protection modes have gone into hyperdrive and are crippling physically and emotionally. Finding a lifestyle that reduces stresses, evokes a sense of well being, knowing you are not alone in your concerns or anger at a world seemingly gone insane is not easy, but can be done.

    My wife has symptoms similar to yours and her path to mitigating anxiety is bi-weekly therapy sessions, no caffeine ever, Xanax as needed, very small doses of tv news from neutral sources, and exercise. And letting her vent or rant when shit just boils over.

    I was able to unwind my PTSD by understanding my behavior, my anger at Kennedy and Johnson (especially), the government lies and cover ups and finally accepting that I could not change the past. I was determined not to become bitter, or use drugs (the really bad kinds) to tune out, or lash out at every injustice. I learned to take responsibility for my actions; how I would react to people challenging me in inappropriate ways. The best examples of folks who do that so well are Barack and Michelle Obama. And as Carla said, " the next right thing." So I do that and, together, we will make a difference.

    Take care, be safe, vote, stay strong, and make the change you want to be. And don't stop posting!


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