Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Holocaust of Hearts - On the Tragedy of Modern Romance

Rodin's "Martyr"
Last week I was driving to work and listened to the radio for half an hour. The first song was sad and told a story about a broken relationship. So was the second. And the third. As the commute continued, song after song played that told the story of a broken relationship. The stories told of cheating, of changed phone numbers, of emotional scars, of futile attempts to reconnect. For half an hour, a river of lament flowed through my soul as the music played. That morning, there was not a single exception; every story was about romantic pain.

Maybe it was a fluke. So what songs are radio executives playing, whose profit depends on their selecting songs which speak to our hearts? What are the chart toppers? #1 this week is Somebody that I used to know, all about a broken relationship where the man has been completely cut out by his former lover who sings, “Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over.” #3 is Payphone, about a man trying to call his former lover back to remember the relationship, but concludes:
If "Happy Ever Afters" did exist
I would still be holding you like this
All those fairy tales are full of s***
One more f***ing love song, I'll be sick.
Presently the song that’s been on the charts the longest is Lmafo’s “Party Rock Anthem,” (61 weeks) in which the singer brags of his conquest of your girl, “In the club party rock, lookin' for your girl? She on my jock.” Maroon 5 in Moves like Jagger (48 weeks) has to account for the scarred heart he is singing to, “Maybe it's hard/When you feel like you're broken and scarred.” Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger (22 weeks) argues that the pain of breakup is a good thing in the end; after all, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

In music, we feel the mood of a culture. And this cultural mood matches very closely to the experience of many of my close friends. The only thing like the pain of a breakup is death. I’ve counseled friends and family through a lot of difficult times, but breaking a long-term relationship seems to me to be the only thing that can approach the ultimate tragedy of death. It’s terrible. It’s a pain that interferes with daily life and that persists for months and even years. And it’s not rare. It’s like some savage rite of passage, something we all go through before reaching maturity.

And the data bears this out. OKCupid, a very popular (>3 million users) dating site with my generation who boast that “We use math to get you dates.” According to them, we (mostly 20-somethings using the site) have relationships that last 12-18 months, and on average we've had about 5 lifetime sexual partners. Maybe a girlfriend or two and a few flings.

Just consider that for a moment. The data says that our relationships do not last. Most of us want Happily Ever After with one person. And we go into relationships hoping that it’ll end that way, at least eventually. But it doesn’t. Most of the time, with a periodicity of about a year, one member is torn from the union like an arm off a body. And it hurts. We lower our expectations, we try to convince ourselves that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, we make ourselves more reserved and less idealistic. But it still hurts. We make a lament, our voices rise up, and our cries of agony fill the airwaves. We are in torment. Has any other culture suffered as we have? Or have men and women always been tearing each others’ hearts to shreds as a matter of course? Is this just the final station of the train that is the Sexual Revolution? Are we satisfied with the new rules of the game? Can we be saved from this terrible fate?

This is a eulogy of the American Heart, a message to recognize and mourn the tragedy. Unlike most of my essays, I’m not going to pretend like I have all the answers. But I can do is this: I exhort you to pray for the end of this holocaust of hearts.

*For those of you who know me, this is pretty amazing. Plato (in the Republic) joined forces with Oliver Sachs (in Musicophilia) and my roommate Michael Hole (who whistles every single second of the day) to deliver a team flying face kick to my nonmusicality. I discovered that my car was equipped with a radio frequency receiver. There are transmitters, which modulate the frequency, which send out music that my receiver can pick up. Anyways, these devices are wicked cool!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Storytelling and the Meaning of Life (2 of 2)

Rodin's "Walking Man" at Stanford

Telling Great Stories

Learning to tell a good story is perhaps the most challenging and most important thing that can occupy our species. We are ever persuaded to add this or that perspective. And, most of us weary and unthinking, do. But what kind of story do we want to tell our grandchildren? Certainly we want it to include virtue, courage and kindness, loyalty and love. Adventure and romance also should find a part. But how often do we make our decisions with aesthetics in mind? How often do we consider our own decisions as an author considers those of his hero? Do we live the kind of romance that makes it into sonnets and plays? It’s like we’re in a movie and we don’t realize the cameras are rolling, having missed the director shout “Action!” Henry V goads his men to courage by reminding them that their heroism will make a great and oft repeated story: 
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
As a society and as individuals, we have failed to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Douglas Adams answers sarcastically, “42”. Apple’s question-answering program Siri (sometimes) answers the question, “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” Would Troy have fallen, Odysseus sailed or Aeneas founded Rome with a “be nice to people” script? Would Julius have crossed the Rubicon, Washington the Deleware, or Eisenhower the English Channel if their stories were about living together in “peace and harmony”? This is the question facing us every day. And, in the immortal words of Rush “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” If we wake up without answering it for ourselves, we let our bosses or governments or societies answer for us. Why do you go to work on Monday morning? Why do you drink on Friday night? Why do you do anything?

Who is telling your story?

If you do not have a clear answer, you will be at the mercy of every wind of fancy in politics, economics or religion. Your self-confidence will be at the mercy of every boss, supervisor, racial majority, or whomever else happens to presume power. The conflicts in the story will lead to anxiety and depression at best, and calm slavery at worst. The stronger your story, and the louder your voice, the more resistant you will be to tyrants. And so, in retrospect, I am glad that I discovered my weakness. I am glad that I remembered my own story and learned to tell it in the face of an alternative version. I hope that others would do likewise.

<-- Back to Part I - My Hijacked Story

Storytelling and the Meaning of Life (1 of 2)

What I was doing. Engraving from courtyard in front of MPPC.
My Hijacked Story

When I was young, my dad would tell me stories. And then, as the story continued, he would stop, and it would be my turn to continue the story. The story game would continue as the hero would be controlled alternatively by my dad and I. But I played the game again a few weeks ago. Except this time, it was not with my dad and it was not a fictional story. It was my story. And the co-narrator was the doctor supervising me, my attending.

Like the stories we used to tell, the story she told was very different from the one I was trying to tell. In my story, I was a hard-working medical student with my shoulders in the yoke, and though I didn’t have the mental strength of others, I nonetheless would press on hard. In her version, I was a stupid medical student, lazy and unwilling to do what the work required. And for about a week, I forgot about my version of the story.

Victor Frankyl was a Jewish psychiatrist during WWII. He was captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. There he saw what kept men alive. It was not a sexual impulse as Freud suggested, or the “will to power” proposed by Adler, but it was meaning. Those prisoners who could put their struggle into a good story were those who survived. As soon as the events fell outside the story a person was telling, he gave up hope and ran into an electric fence or a bayonet. In Frankyl’s opinion, stories matter, maybe more than anything. The human soul cannot live without them. Frankyl escaped and survived the camps, ultimately founding a third Viennese school of psychotherapy (after Freud and Adler) called Logotherapy, whose focus is on helping patients find meaning to their lives.

So what was my story? I had two, and they were contradictory. That week, I lived in a tension. I experienced terrible anxiety: hands sweating, voice trembling, body trembling. I thought I was the Hardworking Ox, but I was treated like the Lazy Dunce. What was I? How had I allowed this to happen?

This happened because I believed a story that was false. I trusted my supervisor too much. Storytelling is serious business. Everyone but true friends will tell stories about you that benefit them. Business will tell about your being happy when you buy their product; this is the gimmick of every commercial. Government will tell about your being safe when you give up your freedom; this is the underlying message of every dictator. Society will tell about your being accepted when you conform; this is the bad kind of peer pressure. Bosses will tell about your being successful when you work hard; this is the cheese at the end of the rat maze. But none of these stories should be your story. None of these people actually care about you mainly because none of them actually know you.

After that week I remembered: “This is not my story!” And I began to win back my freedom. I wrestled in my soul to remember: “You are the Ox,” no matter how often I was treated like the Dunce. Slowly, I regained my confidence and my identity.

This episode taught me an important lesson. A prince in prison is still a prince. He will maintain his dignity, and not allow any jailer take it from him. His story will be about injustice, and about perseverance in the face of adversity. But if he ever accepts the story of his jailer, he gives up his crown and renounces his throne. So my readers, Princes and Princesses, do not listen to your jailers, masters or slave drivers. Tell your own story. Define victory on your own terms. Do not let their ideas of success or richness or happiness persuade you. This is why the Ancient Greek advice, gnĊthi seauton, is so important; it is critical to “know thyself” if you’re going to tell a good story.

--> On to Part II - Telling Great Stories