Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Rhetoric and Psychology of Grumpiness

"Before I draw nearer to that stone, tell me! Are these the shadows of things that must be, or are they the shadows of things that MIGHT be?" -- Ebenezer Scrooge
     Nietzsche famously said, “What doesn't kill me, makes me stronger.” Well, syphilis killed Nietzsche; it didn't make him stronger. This weekend I'm suffering from a head and chest cold; it's not killing me, but it also isn't making me any stronger. It's making me grumpy.
     Although there seems to be some kind of strength in grumpiness, it's all bravado and exterior. Whenever we find ourselves pushing others away with grumpiness on the outside, on the inside is the frightened, whiny voice of the inner child who is experiencing the dilemma of both wanting to be comforted while needing to be left alone. Grumpiness is the hard outer coating we use to disguise from others the empty fragility we are experiencing within.
     Grumpiness works in the short term to wall out minor, exterior, psychic nuisances while we focus on coping with some pressing inner turmoil. Thus, as a temporary method of isolating ourselves while we aim our awareness at some particular emotional concern, grumpiness is an effective tactic to block the outside world for a little bit so we can tend to an insistent, inner conflict. Grumpiness in the long term, however, will trap us in our own mental fortifications and make us prisoners of our own selfishness. While a shot of grumpiness can give us a brief resolve to keep moving onward, grumpiness, like whiskey, offers only a temporary jolt of willfulness and its chronic use leads to a miserable addiction to loneliness. Just as alcoholism destroys the body by hardening the liver, habitual grumpiness calcifies the soul.
     Nietzsche said what doesn't kill us makes us stronger; I say what feels good in the short term will eventually wipe us out. This is because unhappiness is a bus and cheerfulness is a bicycle. It is so easy to get on the unhappy bus and let life take us wherever it wants as long as we can just sit there passively, as passengers, and let the wheels go round and round. Looking out the window on the unhappy bus, we are not likely to admire the scenery, but we can still tell ourselves, “Hey, we're only passing through these blighted neighborhoods, we don't have to live here.” But no bus ride last forever; eventually, we are going to have to climb out of Jonah's whale and deal with the realities of our ultimate destinations. Fortunately, bus terminals are only terminal when we can think of no other place to go.
     Bicycles, especially bicycles of cheerfulness, will get us where we want to go, but we always have some hard peddling ahead of us to get them to take us there. Furthermore, when the hills of life are too steep, we have to get off and push. I don't know about you, but I always feel embarrassed and vulnerable whenever I'm riding a bike and I have to give up on a big hill and start walking the bike the rest of the way to the top. I'm embarrassed because I didn't have the stamina to keep working the machine, and anyone who drives by is clearly going to witness that I didn't have what it takes to make it up that particular hill without giving up first. I'm no telepath, but cries of “loser” echo in my head whenever cars pass silently drive by. Walking a bike up a hill feels vulnerable as well because someone who hasn't the strength to keep a bicycle rolling may not have the strength to defend himself. Cheerfulness is a breeze when we feel the pull of gravity on our side; on the other hand, a causal smile can turn into a disturbing grin when we feel ourselves being forced to be nicer than want to be whenever our stamina gives out on life's upslopes.
     Why is it, then, that short-term pleasures are so bad for us in the long run, and long-term benefits only come from ongoing struggles? That's the whole question of existence, isn't it? Why can't we just be grumpy and be happy in our grumpiness?
     The answer, of course, is our basic human anatomy and our essential spiritual core pulls us in two opposing directions. Our physical bodies require certain resources to survive and thrive while our spirits need entirely different resources. As long as we are stranded here within several dozen pounds of flesh, our bodies are going to want things that make it feel good. While our stomaches can be sated with a big meal, the sensation of satisfaction is never complete. No matter how much we eat, we will eventually get hungry again. Thus, what satisfies the body – frees it from desires of hunger, lust, sleep, and comfort – will always diminish over time. The soul hungers for completion as well, but finds its satisfaction in making connections outside itself. It is the purpose of the soul to reach out and connect; it is its reason for existence. Lifelong contentment then requires building the souls capacity to connect with others and this requires the work of peddling cheerfulness. Happiness takes an effort; if you want to be unhappy, then just get on the bus.
     Just as the physical body is never finally satisfied and will always perpetually return to a state of want, the soul, too, will never saturate its need for more and greater connections to the universe as long as it dwells within its skin-covered container. I remain optimistic about this. Although different religions tell the story in various ways, I suspect that when the body dies and finds its completion in the ground, the soul exists as a channel within the universe and continues to make connections long after its previous body has returned to dust. I can't imagine, however, that the soul – as a channel for inspiring truth and grace – will in the afterlife require or desire the paraphernalia of identity anymore than it would want the face that once distinguished its body. In other words, I believe when the body dies, identity goes with it, but whatever was kind and cheerful continues to radiate through the spirit that continues onward in some alternative existence. If there's an afterlife, I can't imagine I'll care anymore about the name I once had than the weight I once had. If, after I've given up the habit of inhaling, it turns out not to be true, and death is as complete for the spirit as it is for the body, then don't bother me with the details of how you've come to know this. Because, right now, I'm grumpy, and I don't want to hear it. If you have cookies, however, I might be willing to listen.
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.

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