Saturday, March 24, 2007

Fog, Part II

It’s embarrassing how long it takes me to get back to things sometimes. I wrote “Fog, Part I” back in January. Part of it is just being slammed with work. But part of it is that often the first part of a piece comes quickly, but I can’t solve the problems in the second half. That’s been a problem here too. Who knows if I’ll ever get back to those Gilligan’s island pieces on Marx? That pisses me off. I had fun with Gilligan’s Island and Marx. I was going to talk about the meta-object field. I’m going to put that off one more time. Writing about my problems sorting and suppressing selected emotion really sets that up well. As always, figuring out the ideal order to attack a list is my central problem… Sigh.


Sorting is a task that relies entirely on short-term memory. Say you have a list of things to do. Perhaps you can remember them without writing them down. I certainly cannot. Well, so what, you ask, lots of people are like that. But, if you are looking at that written list, most people, especially those with a gift for organization, can sort that list of tasks in their mind. They hold the items suspended in their memory and shift them around until they find a satisfactory order. I used to do this all the time and just assign numbers to each item on the list. I can’t do that anymore. I have to physically re-order the list, look at it, and decide how well it meets the sorting criteria. I now try to avoid making lists on paper. Re-writing the list takes forever by hand. I can cut and paste on computer. Still, even then, this is a difficult process. My lists have to be very specially crafted. If there are too many items on the list, I won’t be able to order them. It takes too much time—far more time than I did before. But the process is further impeded.

Suppressing selected emotion

We make all our decisions based on emotion. For those among us who like to view themselves as fundamentally rational (and until this illness I was most assuredly of their number), this assertion can provoke resistance. That resistance is utterly unfounded. If a human being experiences damage to their amygdyla, the part of their brain that provides emotion, they begin to make disastrous decisions, because decisions are made on the basis of emotion. The portions of their brain that dealing with reason can be completely untouched and they will still make disastrous decisions. Reason is not at stake in decision making.

Those of us who are fond of being “rational” use reason as a discipline. We take our problem and how we feel about it and we interrogate that problem and those emotions using reason. That critical process can indeed serve as a foundation for making decisions. That said, what the process actually does is change how we look at a situation and, hence, how we feel about it. That said, I’m sure most of us can recall times in which our rational process tells us we should do something, but our emotions overpower that process and we instead do something that, while it feels good at the moment, we know at some cognitive level is the wrong answer. This is because the process of rational inquiry is not a reflex, a fundamental part of our nature. It is a discipline. Discipline is a pattern of behavior that we internalize. The point of that process of internalization is in a sense to reprogram ourselves to feel some way that we would not naturally. That effort can fail.

The principal technique of discipline is the suppression of selected emotion. We use reason to “rationalize” the process in which we are engaged. We analyze the situation decide which of the emotions we feel are the “correct” ones that should be privileged in making our decision, and then we suppress the others. It is this last process that has been severely impaired.

For example, I cry at movies now. I rarely cried at movies before the year 2000. Now I cry all the time. But what is truly embarrassing is that I cry at sappy movies. It’s not that I don’t think the movies are sappy. On the contrary, I know they are sappy and simultaneously feel revulsion for that sappiness, and distress that I am crying over such an obviously sappy movie! However, emotions tend to be reflexive. This is most evident with shame. Shame is a reflex that is triggered when others confront us with having exceeded our proper bounds. It is a shrinking, a desire to disappear. A frequent male response to an individual implying that a person should feel shame is violent anger. This response, however, is not made in place of shame. Rather, it occurs because the individual feels shame as a reflex, thinks about it and realizes they have been forced to feel something they do not want to, or worse, something that they ought not to feel because they have not actually exceeded their bounds. It is this experience that converts the shame into anger and so often leads to violence. When a film “tugs at my heartstrings” now, I have no defense against this. When I was younger, I cried occasionally, but it took something genuinely moving to override my strong will to suppress emotions that I did not wish to feel. Now, I feel it all, all of the time.

Emotions in the organization of a regular object-field

When making and dealing with organization, this is an enormous liability. Let’s begin with one of the most ludicrous situations that I have dealt with since the onset of illness. Imagine it’s 9 am. I’ve woken up. I’m groggy, owing to the medicine I take that deepens my sleep so that it is actually restful and benefits me (the disease makes me sleep very lightly and without the drug, my fatigue is far, far worse). I’m hungry. The floor is cold and I’m only wearing socks. My hands and feet have always grown cold very quickly, ever since I was a child. I’m hungry. The sink is full of dishes. Everything is filthy (I suffer from chronic fatigue and am a graduate student. Dishes are a very low priority in my life). There is a proper response. That response is (1) go find and put on your slippers, (2) wash a bowl, a spoon, a mug and the dirty parts of the espresso machine, (3) take your morning meds, (4) make a cup of coffee, (5) pour yourself a bowl of cereal and eat a banana so that you have some fuel in you and (6) do the dishes. I can tell you this with very little cognitive work, even now.

Now, if you read “Fog, Part I” you know that I often forget what I am doing while I am doing it. Add morning grogginess and you really have a disorganized twit. Say I look for my slippers and can’t find them. I go back, but the floor is sucking all the heat out of my feet and they’re freezing. So maybe I impulsively forget that I can’t find them and search again. I eventually get the picture that I’m not going to find them while the house is a mess and I’m groggy and hungry. I need to take some of the emotions off the table. But I can’t suppress any of them. So I start washing the necessary dishes to get caffeine into my system to counteract the grogginess and eat to dispel the hunger. But the dishes are revolting, so maybe I can’t stop doing them. So I do half the dishes before my feet have gotten so cold that I can’t stand it and impulsively break away to search for my slippers again. I’ve spent a lot of energy without eating and I don’t have much energy, so maybe I then sit down. I rest a little and maybe cry (like a girl) because I’m frustrated and don’t know what to do. Well, I still desperately need fuel. Did I wish the proper elements in that big (yet still incomplete) washing of dishes so I can actually do this? If I’m lucky, I did. Maybe I didn’t, so I have to put off eating and drinking coffee yet again to wash them. And God help me if I wind up out of milk, coffee or cereal. By that point I may go down to Starbucks for coffee and a scone. That is, if I’m not also out of money.

All of that and I can still teach you the Arab-Israeli conflict, how to interpret motherfucking hard texts by German theorists, or how to speak Arabic. The humiliation can be unreal.

Since I can’t suppress emotions, I have to balance them against other emotions. Say you’re a student who wants a letter of recommendation. I can promise until the cows come home, but I can’t suppress the urge to procrastinate very well, and I’m forgetful as hell. Procrastinate once, I’m likely not to remember that I need to write a student a letter again for a week, especially if I’m busy. I now try to get the student to meet me and write the letter with them. Since they are physically there and spending their time with me, my feeling of obligation to them will then outweigh the desire to procrastinate. It sucks for the student that he or she has to sit there while I write in order to get his or her letter. But what I do is interview them for good fodder for the letter while I write. Then I let them see the letter and also explain my strategy is writing it. They not only get to know what they’re getting, they get to be asked questions that frequently ferret out thing about themselves they wouldn’t have written in their personal statement, but then realize is gold. They also get taught how to write a letter of recommendation. The students love it. But I’m still humiliated by not being able to keep my word. Instead, I have to learn not to give it and say, “No, I can’t write this letter unless you work with me on it. I’ll blow it and you off without meaning to and you’ll be screwed.” Admitting that I am not capable of being responsible humiliates me more than I can say. It sure makes a mockery of being that noble Nietzschean creature with the right to make promises.


As far as everyone who met me here in Seattle is concerned, I’ve always been a space cadet. Dealing with the shame associated with being unable to control the image people have of me with respect to my competence has been deeply humiliating. I was diagnosed in 2000 and I’m only beginning to come to terms with it this year. I choke far less often now, but I still have issues with it. Imagine taking a summer job with a variable schedule, forgetting to come in for a shift (welcome to short-term recall hell) and put off calling your boss for three days to explain because you are so ashamed that you can’t force yourself to face her. You must understand that I was the soul of responsibility before MS. The shame of fucking up is unreal. Moreover, I can’t suppress the shame. And shame makes you retreat from a situation. So I hide like a fucking ostrich with its goddamned head in the sand. People who do this are usually too stupid to realize that they will have to face it eventually. I know that I have to face it, but am powerless to suppress the emotion. It rules me. I am the slave of my fucking emotions. My only hope is to get really zen and okay with everything. Anyone who knows my personality realizes how difficult that is for me. I'm a pretty passionate guy. Detachment is not my strong suit.

Next time, the damned meta-object field. And music. I can’t handle music anymore either.

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