06 November, 2020

A Direct Route to Madness

"I haven't seen you in so long," my mother lamented. She and I talk on the phone every other day, but COVID-19 procedures of the Missouri Department of Corrections include a moratorium on visits that's been in place since February. "Have you heard anything about when they're going to lift the visiting ban?" she wants to know.

In a certain famous play, an anxious king, hoping to avoid contemplating the unthinkable, waved the thoughts away while remarking how such hypothetical thinking was crazy-making. That old playwright (whoever he was) knew a thing or two about human nature, cutting straight to the heart of dissatisfaction when he wrote the king's line.

The Buddha also spoke about accepting what is. He taught that setting aside intellectual abstractions and doing things for their own sake was a key part of realizing contentment. Don't overthink shit, he said, more or less. Some of us might've heard this before.

Consider this anecdote. My dad and I were film buffs. Our wallets bulged with membership cards for movie-rental stores large and small. We also went to the theater about twice a month. After a late showing, one dark summer night, as we crossed the parking lot outside a local multiplex, I brimmed with complaints, as I frequently did, about scientific inaccuracies in the sci-fi flick we'd just sat through. As I remember it now, some scenes egregiously violated the law of gravity – seeming more fantasy than science fiction – and thereby got my dander up. I was roughly twelve years old.

There are so many tidbits that I came to understand only after my father's death. I wonder at times if I'd have realized what he sought to teach, even if he never said anything. In this particular instance, he casually opened the driver-side door of his little Honda and pierced me with one of those offhanded shards of wisdom that penetrates to your core without you feeling a thing until years later, when you're right in the middle of household chores or some utterly mundane, mindless activity, and you suddenly realize that wisdom for what it is. "It's called 'suspension of disbelief,'" my father explained, that night in the parking lot. "If you can't even stop picking things apart long enough for a movie, you're never going to enjoy anything in life."

I seem to recall someone once saying that ignorance is bliss. The trick just lies in accepting that not-knowing, in embracing it when you encounter it. This takes effort. Experience in the dark (figuratively speaking) can be good training. For the record, Pops was no bodhisattva. I'm hardly some enlightened sage, either, but I do have nearly two decades' experience living with uncertainty, thanks to prison's rampant inconsistencies. Heedlessness to the physics of zero-gravity no longer ruins movies for me; now I can usually recognize what's not worth fretting over.

I want to see my mother again, but she wants to know when we'll see each other again. Maybe that's too fine a distinction, but I think it makes all the difference. There's a little set of rules that I made up and try to live by.

Rule Number One: accept what you can't do anything about.

Rule Number Two: do what you can with what you can.

Rule Number Three: recognize when to employ Rule Number One and when to employ Rule Number Two.

How can I possibly answer my mother's question? Engaging in wild speculation has never been my bag. Anyone predicting the future, or how the post-pandemic world will look, is either lying or delusional. And yet people persist. The craving for certainty runs deep. If I tried to give Mum's question a meaningful response, it'd be nothing more than guesswork, which could only inspire unwarranted hope or invite despair. I want to keep it real.

So I tell her the truth – an answer, just not the answer. I let her know that her suffering isn't unique, telling her how no other Missouri prisons are allowing visits right now either. I tell her that I love her, that I miss her, and how glad I am to be afforded the multiple phone calls per week that we get. Many families have suffered far more painful, more complete separations than ours. We should consider ourselves lucky and focus on the good. There's certainly enough of the alternative in the world.

And then Mum sighs and concedes that I'm right, and we move on from there with somewhat lighter hearts. It's a disagreement I'm happy to have won – for both our sakes.

1 comment:

  1. I was reminded again yesterday, as I was reading a psychology book, that humans don't deal very well with ambiguity, meaning uncertainty. I see that every day now, as media writers try to second guess Trump's next move or how the pandemic will develop. With two viable vaccines appearing on the scene, the assumption, for those commenting so far, is that the end of the pandemic is now in sight. So all those deniers who refuse to wear face masks and will undoubtedly refuse vaccination are just going to go away?

    Stay well


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