Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: Am I doing deep work?
I am looking at my Facebook memory feed today, and this one came up from three years ago:
I just went over and counted the CDs that are now on my shelf. There are 61, including two complete sets of the symphonies, four complete sets of the quartets, and several other multi-CD sets. There are also 19 books, six DVDs, six copies of the DSCH Journal, the issue of Time with Shostakovich on the cover, and four completed pieces of embroidery (#5 in flight).
When I do the deep work, I do the deep work.
I know the Daily Stoic prompt is about doing the deep work on myself. But the thing is is that these deep dives are often, in the end, about myself. All of them. I mean, why does Shostakovich speak to me? It has to do with dealing with, and expressing the inherent complexity and contradictions in life, and the fact that in this case, his medium of expression happens to be music–my mood-altering drug of choice–just happened to be the right thing at the right time. It has to do with how one reconciles the realities of life with the abstract ideals. How can one live a life in pursuit of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom while at the same time knowing so much of your life is not in your control? How do you do that deep work when everything around you is trying to thwart you?
I stated yesterday, commenting on a friend’s post, that we’re all works in progress (although some of us are pieces of work). The work is different for all of us, and it’s not for me to critique someone else’s work or conclusions. In that vein, though, I need to acknowledge that, so long as I am committed to change and evolution, and so long as I remain open and curious, I need to find my own way. The maps are mine, and the routes I choose are mine as well. My path is mine. It is not easier than anyone else’s, or harder. It just is.
On Friday, blogger Jim Wright–who’s been helping me live through the Danger Yam era for years now–wrote an insightful post to his Stonekettle Station blog. Entitled “Combat Fatigue,” the piece notes that it hadn’t taken long after Joe Biden’s inauguration for the complaining to start–and in particular, the attitude that it somehow wasn’t permissible to breathe a huge sigh of relief and maybe have a little fun. That somehow this delegitimized the very real issues facing the United States (and the world). He shared a Larry Niven story about how the desire for vengeance can become all-consuming and life-devouring. He then mentioned how he–and I think so many of us feel this way–has been part of the collateral damage in this particular war, as he has dealt with his own family situation, health challenges, and now, the pandemic–at the same time as watching your country disintegrate before your eyes. As he says in the piece:
That’s the same period America has been going through its own trials. Four years of unending madness and rage and yet more madness. Four years of trying to keep things on track, minimize the damage, while irrational people lost in delusion and paranoia try to burn it all down.
It grinds at you, it changes you, especially when there’s no break. No way out. No relief.
That’s what happens to soldiers, when there’s only unending stress. PTSD. Combat Fatigue. Shell shock. That’s what happens when you can’t get away from it.
That’s America, four years of insanity and relentless grinding pressure.
We’re all damaged from it, some more than others, some less. It has affected — still affects — us all in various ways.
But that’s thing, isn’t it?
Stress, rage, the fight or flight reflex, if it goes on long enough it becomes habit.
More than habit, it becomes an addiction.
He went on to elaborate:
Those who celebrated in the streets of New York at the end of World War II, those iconic pictures of joy in our history books, those men and women they hadn’t forgotten the terrible things that had happened, all those who died, the price they had paid.
Not everyone made it, but they did. And they had a right to feel good in that moment when it was finally over.
The work wasn’t done, there was still decades of effort ahead, but in that one moment, they had every right to feel good, to laugh, to breathe.
Today, in this moment, so much of America is so utterly traumatized, that they can’t — literally cannot — even enjoy just one day.
For them, it’s not over.
It may never be over.
The patterns of this madness are ingrained so deeply into their minds that it can never be over and the very thought of someone else enjoying the new day, however briefly, sends them into a rage, screaming, GODDAMN, YOU SONS OF BITCHES, DON’T YOU KNOW THERE’S A WAR?! THERE ARE PEOPLE DYING AND WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU EVEN DOING?!
That said, I haven’t forgotten the oppressed, I haven’t dismissed them with a few jokes, I don’t think I’m suggesting a “return to the status quo” as my liberal audience accused me of yesterday. Far from it. I know that we have decades of work yet to do. And I’ll be there, as best I’m able. An ally if you’ll have me. On my own if that’s how it has to be.
But once in while, Folks, you have to breathe.
You have to let others have a moment of joy, of relief.
You have to remember how to laugh.
If you don’t, the madness will consume you.
I saw this first hand in the reaction to the Bernie memes. I’m not talking about the people who are simply tired of them, or who don’t really get them. Those are fair reactions. The internet, when it seizes on an idea, can get a bit obsessive. But the people posting the Bernie memes are the same people who have, for the most part, spent the last four years consumed by some quantity of existential dread. The policies of the recently-departed government have impacted all of us–and those of us who it has impacted less all know friends, family, and colleagues that have suffered more. Nor was this a situation of overlooking more worthy things that happened during the inauguration–because almost universally, the first thing most folks on my feed at least noted was the powerful women–from Kamala Harris herself being sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, to J Lo and Lady Gaga, to the wonderful firefighter who signed the Pledge of Allegiance as she spoke, to the fact that Biden’s wife is a PhD, but especially for what was really the emotional heart of the ceremony–Amanda Gordon’s amazing poetry. The Bernie memes started as we all came down off of the emotional high of the occasion, and had a chance to breathe, and to look around for the moments of silliness. And there sat Bernie in his mask and mittens. It wouldn’t have been as funny if it had been anyone else. And it wouldn’t have been so sweet had he not almost immediately gone down on the record as being amused by the memes, and had he not immediately put a sweatshirt with the image up in his online shop, with all proceeds going to his local Meals on Wheels.
I posted my Bernie with Shosty photo to the Shostakovich subreddit. Most people liked it. But one person thought it distinctly unfunny that I’d taken a 1937 photo of Shostakovich and plopped a “millionaire socialist” in there. Me? I’d thought about it a little bit. I knew what the timing of a photo taken in the summer of 1937 meant. And I posted a followup.
So because I’m interested in the history, here’s the context of the original photo. You’ve probably figured out from the age of his daughter the approximate date of the photo–it dates from the summer of 1937, where he spent the summer “in Daimische, a village near Leningrad.” There are a couple of other photos from May, when he was in the Crimea on holiday. He’s sitting on a rock, playing tennis. And he was working on the 5th symphony.
Tukhachevsky was arrested on May 22 of the same year, and executed on June 12. So it was likely around May-ish that the story of Shostakovich’s interview with the NKVD (and subsequent apparent near miss with more severe penalties when his interrogator was himself arrested) falls in this same timeframe.
The fascinating thing about the photos from this period is how utterly normal things look. There’s very little sign of just how completely messed up things had to have been at that point. Those contradictions are right there in the 5th as well–intentionally so. The Shostakovich who was playing tennis (and having a good time, it looks like) and sitting with his young daughter is the exact same man who was in fear for his life.
Shostakovich was living through trauma that would impact the rest of his creative life. To me, putting Bernie in there had nothing to do with Bernie himself (or whether he’s anywhere near the kind of “socialist” I think my critic was thinking of–the same kind that was directly responsible for the trauma of 1937 in the Soviet Union). It was an acknowledgement of survival. Because despite what popular opinion will tell you, surviving 1937 did not make Shostakovich a humourless drudge, the sort who was so consumed with the seriousness of his own personal trauma and that of his friends. Humour very likely was for him, and for many others, a salvation. He did not let the madness consume him. The man would have loved Death of Stalin, and if you don’t believe that, you haven’t listened to the finale of the 10th Symphony or experienced the exquisitely black humourous perfection that is Antiformalist Rayok.
And being able to laugh means that doing the hard work of recovery is eased. Simply acknowledging that that pain is real is the first step, but Biden went further and took real, concrete, immediate steps towards healing the damage. And it seemed the moment someone popped up with a “But whatabout X?” statement, another set of actions and executive orders was released. You have to stop the bleeding before you can heal, and sometimes, that involves bandaids. We’re going to have plenty of time to discuss longer-term cures, but the word right now is battle medicine. And humour is a kind of battle medicine itself.
I don’t know what kind of president Joe Biden will be. But I do know he’s a good man. He has flaws. All of us do. He’s an old-fashioned style politician, yes–in both the good and not-so-good connotations of that word. And yes, he and the Democratic party are largely capitalists. But if you’re ever going to make progress towards justice, you have to get people out of panic mode, where fighting for mere survival consumes your days. A little bit of revolution goes a long way–and if it doesn’t flow into evolution, it’s likely to spur counterrevolution (or worse yet, the ossification of revolution into repression).
In the meantime, I will breathe. And laugh. I’ve lived for so long with the dark side of my sense of humour. It’s amazing to break out the goofy again.
Sealioning. If you don’t know the term, the comic at the top explains its origins. While what I’ve been talking about today isn’t precisely sealioning, it’s definitely a related phenomenon.