Intellectual Discipline, Unicorns and Spats

One is gone, one never was, and one is facing extinction.

I had a boss who told me, “Alistair you are a true Sophist.” This was something of a left-handed compliment. As an ad copywriter my ability to argue any side of a point convincingly serves me well. Indeed, I am so skilled in this I can convince a person that is right he is wrong, even though, in his heart of hearts he knows he is right and understands also that I know he’s right. The power to communicate is also the power to deceive. When truth itself becomes slippery one can lose one’s moral center.

In an important sense, we believe today that he who brays loudest is right. On the net everything is true and all information, regardless of source, has the same weight. Evidence supporting any point, no matter how ludicrous, is readily available; our ability to fashion, present and defend a case is weakening like an abandoned muscle. Intellectual slovenliness, a despicable quality, is rampant while intellectual discipline is nearly unknown. This is a terrible problem because we race to truth most quickly when keen, well-tuned minds pursue it, placing intellectual honesty above domination. 

People interested in finding the truth are rare. Those who do must rely upon their own minds, which, ironically, are perfectly configured to stand in their way. Frankly, the most difficult part of the process is not learning new things; it is unlearning old ones. We all carry around an astounding amount of baggage that actively interferes with our quest for truth. Relentless labor gets us closer until we realize that the best we can ever hope for is reaching our own personal truth, what we understand to be real after we have stripped away all ignorance.

If you meet someone who actively practices intellectual discipline and refuses to lapse into slovenly habits – a person that speaks and acts in good faith – you have met an individual worth emulating. If you meet someone who claims certain knowledge of universal truth, ask him to describe what it feels like to ride a unicorn.

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Suffering Judgment

Expect People To Disappoint You When They Don't

When my daughter was young – say 12 – she was going through a rough patch with her friends involving bad-mouthing and backstabbing. I told her, “Honey, people will always talk about you and 95% of what they say will be wrong. You may as well get used it.”

In the rooms they repeat this gem, “What people think of me is none of my business.” Both statements speak to what I call, “benign disinterest in the opinion of others, pro and con.” Indeed, if your self-esteem rises and falls in direct relation to the value applied by others, seasickness is in your future. We all know that true self-esteem comes from within and is blissfully unaware of audience reaction.

This would not be a significant concept if it were not so incredibly hard to achieve. The idea is particularly relevant for those of us residing in any extreme demographic, regardless if it’s admired or loathed by society. For example, envy causes us to secretly despise the beautiful while fear causes us to despise the unattractive. In general, we like people that fall neatly into our own bracket and look upon outliers with suspicion.

Relevance is even greater if you’ve been tarred with the brush of mental illness. For one, the smear is never coming off; you will always be “a few bricks shy of a load” in the eyes of observers. So pretending you’re not “an alien” isn’t a real option. You’ve had experiences completely outside the understanding of most people – this is very scary. (Just like married people often avoid divorced people, they seem to fear it’s contagious.) 

But, as a recovered person, you function normally – just like a real person! – even though your emotional range is far greater and more profound than theirs, and that is thoroughly intimidating. (People, even nice people, are not at their best when intimidated – you’ve worked hard to achieve “normality” but they may be invested in minimizing your accomplishment.)

You have broken through the mirror and become an “aristocrat of the soul” – you will be viewed with a combination of revulsion and envy. You went to the summit of Everest, and lived – they’ve never made it out of the foothills, and never will. But you are not going to be pulled down and changed by the weirdness of their reactions to you, on the contrary, you are simply going to open up and let them into your world, a world they would never get to see if you hadn’t gone there. 

Don’t Give Up

You Just Haven't Lived Until You've Had Nothing

They say that – when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Well, when the going gets tough for Bipolar Bears; Bipolar Bears get going too…right out of town. Of course, flight – in whatever form – provides only short-term comfort since the problem you avoid today is the problem that will perpetually reappear until you confront it.

Manic Depression has given me more gifts than I can count, but perhaps the most significant is – the gift of desperation.

When you live in comfort, the seductive allure of escape is everywhere. If all you hold dear is taken away, even your faith in your own sanity, escape becomes increasingly difficult until at last it is impossible. At that moment one experiences a kind of blinding clarity – something perfect and exquisite, terrible and joyful in its beauty. Absolute zero.

Life itself becomes binary – one must choose between struggle and death. If one chooses struggle – and sadly, so many don’t – one must face the truth, however terrifying and distasteful. The resultant education can be overwhelming, the work required may seem impossible, but one soldiers on anyway. You just don’t give up.

I did not experience this epiphany until I was well into my 30s, but at least I did experience it, and in doing so, began the journey of finding my true self. The archaic way to say it would be that I became a man, but I prefer to think of it as becoming a three-dimensional human being; fully aware of my power and my responsibility.

I came to understand something I have believed ever since; ultimately, the only thing of consequence one has is one’s character.

The I’m Not Okay Corral

Russian Base Jumping

Most of us engage in a rather juvenile fantasy that goes, “If I paint by the numbers and keep my nose clean things will work out well for me.” We desperately want to believe in a rational, merit-based world, all the while admitting secretly that life metes out misery at random – at least, according to some concept of justice incomprehensible to us – and seems to be as predictable and responsive to bribery as lightning. As a friend of mine likes to say, “What are you pretending not to know?”

Those of us who have crossed that invisible line and wandered the crooked streets of Cookoopantsatopolis can no long pretend not to know that – at any given moment – it is entirely possible that things will go terribly wrong. For us, the knowledge, and the fear, are always in the foreground and shall remain there until confronted eye to eye.

This, of course, is the greatest fear of them all – because any foe with the power to turn your life completely inside out is a foe worthy of your respect. However, just because it has killed before does not mean it is going to kill you. You can live in fear or you can face the music and dance.

I was forced to have a shootout at the I’m Not Okay corral and I’m so glad; since that time nothing has had the power to frighten me. It happened when I was writing my bipolar memoir, Invisible Driving. Every spare minute for an entire year I threw myself back into the one place on earth I was most afraid to go, the memory of my most recent manic episode.

In doing so I was not merely reviewing horribly painful memories, I was running the risk of sparking another episode. I understood this well, but likewise I understood that I simply had to do it if I was to have any chance at all of getting through it, and starting down the road to recovery.

Like the fellows in this cartoon – (one of my best, and most popular) – I knew there was a chance I would not make it. For the first time I had to be fearless, I had to have faith in myself in a life-or-death situation. Importantly, I understood that the wisdom and bravery of this labor in no way guaranteed it would work, and if it failed, I would be dealing with the consequences on my own.

There is purity and beauty to meeting, at last, the adversary you’ve been avoiding all your life, the demon you’ve been pretending not to know.

CLICK HERE TO VISIT COOKOOPANTSATOPOLIS

Great Art Is Made By Great People

The Art Itself Is Not An End, Only A Beginning, Portal Leading

As a young person I was impressed by virtuoso artists, individuals with Faustian technique. I imagined how it felt to take the stage, whether literal or metaphorical, and simply blow the audience away – dazzle them with something they had never seen, heard, experienced before. I felt then that it was the duty of art to smash through barriers, and open up new worlds. Only technical mastery, I believed, made this possible.

Much, much later I discovered that this mythology was just so much elephant dung, a young man’s obsession with ego, self-aggrandizement, and hostility – because that desire to blow the audience away was closely related to “killing” and “destroying” as stand-up comedians use these terms…it was all about demonstrating superiority, establishing dominance. More war than art.

I came to understand that technique is merely a starting point – of course one must master the technical aspects of one’s trade – but more technique won’t compensate for deficits in other key areas. Indeed, many mediocre artists hide behind technique, lots of glitz and razzle-dazzle, but very little content. In short, the missing ingredient is them. They do magic tricks for the audience, they don’t share what’s real.

Over-emphasis on technique is what magicians call “léger de main” – the artist distracts you from the lack of substance by drawing your eye to something “bright and sparkly” – and you leave the theatre thinking you’ve had an experience. But this is to art as cotton candy is to food. The true role of technique, and the reason why it must be practiced until it is second nature, is to reveal, not call attention to itself. The best writing is transparent, one sees through it to the meaning that dwells inside.

Many artists achieve technical mastery, but few are brave enough to use it as a tool for self-revelation, openly sharing their personal truth in a way that allows audiences to feel it and benefit from it. For these special, wonderful people, the audience is more important than the performer and the technique is simply a tool for doing important work. I do not for a moment want to deny the sheer beauty of a fugue executed exquisitely, a painting that captures light the way a child captures fireflies in a jar, or a poem crafted with such love that the words chime like bells – these achievements have value in their own right.

But technique itself is never the point. The works of art that last, the ones that lift us off our feet, are the ones where craft was used to create a portal through which we gazed another world, and having done so were inexorably enriched.

FOR A GOOD TIME CLICK HERE

A Life Of Crime Begins Inauspiciously

The World Is Not Fair For Most Of Us That's Good

I have failed in many ways, which helps explain my success. One of my most notable is crime. I’m not exactly certain which element of the criminal character I lack, perhaps if I’d thought about it first I could have studied. Certainly I have the sloth, entitlement, lack of ambition, and contempt for authority needed to excel, but for some reason life on the wrong side of the law never worked out for me.

Like many before me I dabbled in drug smuggling, which seems ideally suited to unimaginative slackers. A brief, and ill-fated, career began in Izmir, a Turkish city on the Mediterranean. My traveling companion and I secured a kilogram of hashish, neatly wrapped in transparent wax paper and ready to travel. We were on our way back into Greece.

Drug buys tend to be anxiety-ridden events, especially when they involve strangers; being in a foreign country just made it that much worse. So we were naturally relieved after the exchange was complete to be on our way back up the coast. Giddy with the elation of “getting away with it” we purchased a bottle of unbelievably nasty wine from a roadside vendor. Our route to Athens was a winding road that hugged the seashore and offered spectacular views as it did.

The two of us relished our gangster lifestyle, smoking hash, drinking wine, and enjoying the scenery. It got dark and we discussed pulling over for a while but, with signature manic intensity, I insisted on going until we were back in Athens where I believed we would be safer. We continued, my buddy drifted off to sleep and I struggled to keep my eyelids from drooping. Black night, black sea, no sound or lights to poke me awake, only the waving pair of parallel white lines.

Blubadubablubadubadub. The car was at rest in the furrows of a plowed field. We checked to see if it still moved and it did. We checked ourselves for cuts and broken bones; there were none. And so, we finally went to sleep properly, it seemed like the thing to do.

The next morning I surveyed the scene properly. We were only a few feet off the road. On the other side of the road was a long, sheer drop to the sea, certainly 70 feet. I looked at the waves slapping against the stony beach and realized – this was only the toss of a coin. My stomach tightened like a fist, I fell to my knees right in the middle of the road and kissed the pavement.

My Best Radio Interview

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN: Dr. Dave Van Nuys and I discuss Manic Depression, Recovery, and writing Invisible Driving.

Dr. Dave Van Nuys, who has a terrific podcast called Wise Counsel, kept me on the ropes for almost half an hour. We covered a broad range of topics which included snow in New Hampshire, The University of Pennsylvania, driving with one’s eyes closed, the challenge of writing a bipolar memoir, and spiritual growth as a requisite element of recovery. We even took turns reading favorite passages from my book. “Dr. Dave” is a fascinating guy in his own right, and an extremely skilled interviewer.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER INVISIBLE DRIVING

No Good Dad Goes Unpunished

Do Right Thing Expedient Morally Bankrupt

When I begin counting my blessings I quickly run out of fingers and toes. Of course, there are the obvious ones – Manic Depression and Alcoholism – both of which have given me more than I could ever repay. But those afflictions are commonplace.

I also have a rare blessing, an unsolicited gift bestowed upon me by a higher authority. It is: I know exactly why I exist and what I am on earth to do. The point of me, the purpose, is clear. I am here to turn my bizarre life experience into balm for fellow travelers. However, I know that one is not afforded the luxury of choosing who one helps, and offering assistance to the ill is somewhat more difficult than one might imagine.

Every now and again it is imperative that I return to the concept that – Doing the right thing is its own reward. Once more I defer to the wisdom of Taz Mopula who said, “If you do the right thing because it is also yields the sweetest practical resolution, you’re already morally bankrupt.” In the damp basements my fellow dipsomaniacs often agonize over how to determine “the next right thing” – I find this disingenuous and somewhat amusing since the next right thing is usually easy to identify – it is almost always the choice that is harder, less appealing, and nets you little, if any, visible reward.

If you do the right thing in hopes of increasing the value of your stock in the eyes of others, you’re doomed. If you do the right thing with the expectation of reward, you’re doomed. I am so lucky that I started down this road involuntarily; otherwise I would never have chosen it. I began writing INVISIBLE DRIVING to save my own life, only later did it even dawn on me that it could benefit others. By then it was too late, I had my work order in hand – I knew what I had to do.

Of course, I had no idea at the time how much punishment I would receive for doing the right thing, but when you’ve spent season after season trudging the landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch, the concept of punishment really loses its meaning.

Irony Overload

Multi-tasking The Fine Art Of Doing Many Things Badly

Picture a glorious living room on Christmas Day. Magnificent high ceiling, cozy fire, exquisite tree, vast windows overlooking thick woods. Now imagine it filled with various members of an extended, albeit cattywhumpus, family, many of whom have not seen each other for a year or more.

Now imagine that any conversation taking place is a tossed-off afterthought; the primary occupation of nearly all inhabitants is cell phone manipulation.

Now, to me, talking on or playing with a phone while in the presence of another person is rude beyond imagination. To be fair, my parents were both from Europe and very opinionated on this subject, consequently I have an old-fashioned sense of good-manners, propriety, and behavior predicated on respect for self and others. I am no longer surprised to watch civility slip into the mist where it can comfortably join the dodo. So, while I find the incivility appalling, I am not surprised by it.

What does surprise me is the almost thundering irony. This astonishing device – no longer anything resembling a phone but rather a palm-sized communications network – has apparently robbed us of our ability to simply be – to enjoy the presence of another – savoring stillness, silence, and calm – to listen, and then, having listened and considered – to respond thoughtfully and politely.

In a word, it seems as though our need to constantly fetch and transmit information has profoundly damaged if not destroyed our ability to converse. (Once again, these people are close relatives and have not seen each other for a long time; Christmas in this case is more than a pseudo-religious shindig, it is an important opportunity to revitalize old bonds and forge new ones.)

When I go into an AA meeting the chairman reminds all of us that cell phones must be turned off. The reason is simple, what we are doing is a matter of life and death and requires absolute concentration. (I will again quote Taz Mopula who said, “Multi-tasking is the art of doing many things badly at the same time.”)

Our obsession with gadgets has caused us to forget what many of us never went to the trouble of learning in the first place, that is – the most essential element of conversation is listening and if you are thinking about what you will say next after the other person finally shuts up you’re not listening, you’re treading water.

To simply witness the life of a loved one, to be with them, is a priceless gift that demands elimination of ego, however briefly. Hard to do that with a horrid monster in your pocket, constantly demanding attention.

Is there anybody left who still believes these little machines serve us, or is it now clear to all we serve them?