I sat for a while in the Yarra River at Warrandyte last week. A woman and her small daughter waded in the shallows. A middle-aged couple huddled side by side on the shore a little way down, naked, soft and tanned.

I watched the water surging along, the infinite flow of dazzling reflections. I thought about the difference between looking at an object and experiencing an unfolding phenomenon, between thinking a thought and appreciating an idea, between saying I love you, and loving. Between what can be captured, and what cannot.

I thought about myself, my own pain. The unending loops my mind has been trained to chase. About the kind of isolation that serves no purpose.

I thought about this virus. I thought about those first few molecules that seeped into the human community. Invisible, organic, tiny.

I thought, if this is what a molecule can do, driven only by the raw instinct of natural laws, imagine the possibilities for a molecule made of love, ministered with intention.

I thought about the necessary solution to coronavirus. Prevent the spread by limiting the movement and interaction of potential hosts, which is everyone. Regular and thorough sanitising. Public education. Social shaming. Policing.

Lockdown: Isolate. Indoctrinate. Shame. Threaten. Arrest.

I thought about the viral entanglement that we call reality. I thought, if even the healthiest person could be invisibly infected with coronavirus, perhaps even the lowliest might be an unwitting carrier of that molecule of love. What if we’re all swimming in it, only most have never been allowed a test?

I thought, if there were ever a time to rail against lockdown, it’s now. The worst effect of coronavirus won’t be its tragic and indiscriminate death toll. It will be the vector that the virus itself provides to viruses long established.

All the while, I ran my hands across the slippery bedrock at my feet. I poked methodically at its crevices, liberating accumulations of silt to drift silently downstream. Perhaps something new would find a home here soon.

And I remembered the mountains of the Sacred Valley, their deep-cut wounds blooming like flowers for eternity.

book review – Erewhon, by Samuel Butler

I’ve just finished reading Erewhon, a particularly fascinating and nourishing read. The opening phase of the book is a little arduous, being focused as it is on establishing the scene. But once underway the story evolves into a very deep and formal philosophical discussion on matters of consciousness, the human condition, social norms, animal welfare, evolution, instinct vs reason, and the blurry distinction between organic and inorganic life – namely animals/plants vs machines – surprisingly prescient (being published in 1872) and pertinent to contemporary discussion around the rise of machine learning, AI, ideas of the hive mind and the like. The writing style is especially charming and precise.

I was pleasantly surprised, having expected a stronger focus on the political, to find such focus on the sociological, ethical and existential. Though my relative historical illiteracy means I can’t really comment on the subtleties of his commentary on Victorian England. In any case, I found the content perfectly ripe with ideas applicable to our modern context.

Given its depth and detail it’s one I look forward to re-reading, particularly because, nearing the end, when the philosophical discussion gives way to the final details of his adventure, it began to dawn on me that the protagonist’s physical journey into this peculiar society, and his eventual escape with one of its inhabitants with whom he had fallen in love, might be intended as a metaphor for a human’s inevitable inner journeys into states of intellectual and emotional maelstroms, delusions, self-destruction, and nature’s seeming proclivity to eventually steer one back to (at least seemingly) firmer ground and new-found clarity.

let’s not gloss over the difficult realities of mental health

Warning: This is a post about mental health. The message is not an uplifting one. If you are struggling right now, caution is advised.

For all the mental health community’s efforts at raising awareness of mental illness, and all their positive impact, I find that many of the more challenging realities of mental illness are rarely addressed. Worse, I feel that the reductive and uncritical simplicity of many awareness-raising articles, memes, personal disclosures and so on often risk leading a lay audience to a false sense of awareness and comfort around mental illness, often to the detriment of their ability to come to a rounded awareness of the issue and support those who suffer.

I could write a thousand pages around this topic, if I could only stomach it. For now, I want to share a personal anecdote in an attempt to paint an often ignored part of the picture.

Around Christmas, social media was buzzing with mental health awareness-raising efforts. We were reminded that major events like these can be triggering for people with mental illness. Attending large social gatherings, being forced to engage in difficult family relationships, having to pretend you’re OK, our friends and family not providing an environment where it’s OK to struggle. Or, on the other end of the scale, the pain of being alone at Christmas.

This message exists for good reason. These are certainly some of the problems a person might face. It is, however, an incomplete message. It is an extension of a more general line of reasoning on mental illness:
The mentally ill would be so much better off if only they had supportive, compassionate people around them; if only they weren’t forced to engage in uncomfortable activities; if only they didn’t have to pretend; in short, if only their illness was properly supported and not stigmatised.

I think it goes without saying that Yes, a world like this would be very much welcomed. The risk in this message, however, at least in the way I see it presented, is that a lay audience might come to an invalid conclusion. Namely, that stigma and lack of support are effectively The problem of mental illness, and that in their absence the effects of mental illness would naturally be greatly diminished. Specifically in the case of Christmas, they might reason that if only a person were not subjected to these uncomfortable expectations, and were provided with a loving and supportive environment, their symptoms would naturally abate.

I want to explain my Christmas, in the hope of illustrating the error in this thinking. I am not looking for sympathy. And I do not claim that my story is applicable to everyone. I am simply seeking to add some balance to a discussion that I feel is dangerously one-sided.

I spent my Christmas day at my closest friend’s house. Her and her husband are two of my very closest and most trusted friends. They have experienced significant mental illness in their lives, traveled complex journeys, and are deeply aware and compassionate.

We were joined by five of their friends, all of whom I have met previously on many occasions and been comfortable with. Everyone in attendance has experienced mental illness. Everyone is very aware and supportive.

This was a small, casual gathering. There were no family dynamics to contend with. I knew and was friendly with everyone there. I did not have to disguise challenging feelings. I was very compassionately supported. I was not alone. The weather was pleasant.

I could not have spent Christmas in a more ideal environment. And yet, I was in debilitating emotional pain throughout. The whole day, around six hours, I probably uttered no more than fifty words. My mind and body shut down. Eventually I sat alone as the men and women split into two conversation groups. My aloneness was respected. Beware of assuming that my friends were unsupportive by leaving me be – they were aware enough to see this was the best of unfortunate options.

Yes, things would have been worse had I had to endure all of the typically cited issues. Yes, things would probably have been worse had I spent the day alone. But no, my day was in no way made good by the presence of the perfect environment. It was an irredeemably terrible, painful day. I hated every second of it. Every second was a reminder of how disabled I am at feeling calm and experiencing pleasure.

This is one of the painful truths I and many people have to live with. In the best possible surroundings, I was locked in my straight jacket, paralysed and slowly dying inside. We have to live with the truth that we have no known, reliable safe place, and the suspicion that none exists. We are in greater need than anyone of a little safety, comfort, and pleasure, yet we are less capable than anyone of experiencing those things.

Mental illness is vicious. Be mindful not to forget this in amongst all the poetic messages of hope and optimism. Solutions can be far more elusive than we are often led to believe.

Hunt sabotage

Hunt sabotage is the practice of animal rights activists protesting hunting activity, either by physically obstructing hunts or monitoring and reporting illegal hunting activity.

I recently saw a distressing video documenting the experience of hunt saboteurs in the UK. I was shocked by the footage of a saboteur running to the rescue of a fox under attack from a pack of dogs, screaming down the angry resistance of the hunters. My initial reaction was this:

“This person is putting their safety at considerable risk. They are choosing to live a life mired in the pain and suffering of being so aware of the plight of these animals, being reminded daily of the violent extremes of the human condition. How can this person subject themselves to that? How can they tolerate such risky and painful lives? How can the life of this fox justify this risk?”

After a few more moments of reflection, I realised something very powerful. I guess many people have come to this understanding already, but for me it was the first time I’d made the leap so consciously.

I realised that this person has made a profound reckoning in their life. They have understood that there is no self-protection in shrinking away from this injustice. That to ignore one’s own heart, to ignore the suffering of these animals, to acquiese to bullies, is to allow one’s humanity to be violated; to allow oneself to be oppressed; to give one’s life over to slavery. They have understood that to fight for justice, whatever the costs, is the only way to live a deeply free and purposeful life.

This is not particular to animal rights. We are, all of us, every day, stood at the centre of a swirling storm of cultural constructions of how a life is best lived. As the world corporatises, these ideas are increasingly subject to the manipulation and control of people and organisations who are, at base, attempting to exploit others for their own financial and political gain. You can be sure that such salesmen will never suggest that the good life is found in deliberately subjecting oneself to pain – except, of course, if it will make one’s muscles bigger, tummy smaller, or otherwise improve one’s appearance, social standing, sensory pleasure, wealth, or sense of safety. Pain simply does not sell.

I think for many people, including myself, avoiding discomfort is a primary driver of many life choices. Sometimes this comes at the expense of something far more valuable than convenience or the bland comfort of emotional insulation. Our acquiescence to the vacuous and self-serving spiel of the Salesman, whether it’s the voices on the TV or the ones inside our own minds, is robbing us of our birthright – a life of authentic personal agency, lived in service of the truths self-evident to our own hearts.

We owe so many of the freedoms and pleasures of the modern world to the hardy souls throughout history who reckoned that pain is a necessary and worthwhile consequence of the free- and open-hearted life. Those who could imagine that there might be a quiet, humble, vulnerable and ultimately joyous wholeness available to the heart that has reconciled this difficult truth and chosen the pursuit of justice despite its unavoidable stresses and injuries. Who realised that there is no insulated way to live one’s fullest self and protect the Earth’s people, animals and natural systems from violence, oppression and exploitation.

January 2019