Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Another Damn Melancholic Philosopher

Today has been an exercise in re-membering myself.

I spent last night in a sleep clinic at my local hospital, and consequently got very little good sleep. A kind and patient nurse hooked countless electrodes to my head, my chest, and my legs and then shoved something up my nose before leaving me to fall asleep. Luckily my physician allowed me to take Ambien, or I would've never gotten to sleep. I am not sure what all those electrodes will ultimately reveal about the nature of my insomnia, but my suspicion is that they are looking primarily for some kind of respiratory problem.

Fine. But, deep down I know that my inability to sleep is fundamentally tied up with anxiety. If I had to locate what I think is the source of my anxiety it is my well-honed nature to mull difficult, complex, and morally ambigious situations ad nauseum.

For centuries philosophers have considered themselves melancholics. Some of these melancholics, such as J.S. Mill, considered their dark moods as a catalyst to developing empathy and compassion for others. Some melancholics, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegard or Martin Heidegger, believed that suffering offered unique opportunities for self-creation.

Perhaps anxiety and melancholy is the philosopher's disease, but as I get older, I am less convinced that I am getting any intellectual benefits from it. I am mostly worn down, exhausted, irritable and fragmented.

The fragmentation is the worse consequence of anxious moods. I find myself unable to easily sort out concepts. A million insights and impression are tangled up in my brain, which then continues to whir like my overheated computer hard drive.

So, medication for anxiety sure helps a lot of the time. But, it seems to function more like a restart button than a curative to a busy mind. What I really need is to land on some firm ground. I can't figure everything out. I cannot find the perfect analysis, you know, the one that finally illuminates to the most intractable critic that, hey, I might actually have something of value to say.

What I guess this really means is that I have to choose my battles. I spend far too much time devoting energy toward persuading others that it might be worthwhile to see things from my standpoint for once. Each time I set out to explain why I am a feminist to a conservative who takes for granted that feminism is just plain lunacy, I deprive myself of important energy that I need to sustain my life and my relationships.

After the 2004 elections, I resolved to try to do a better job at explaining to people who fundamentally disagree with me why I value what I do, why I think it matters, and why it would be worthwhile to listento me. The project has, on balance, been a failure. Moreover, it has cost me a kind of inner peace that I require to continue to do what I think is important work.

Don't get me wrong, I will never stop teaching my courses or talking to anyone willing to have a real conversation with me about what matters. But, what I am sick of, and what I need to renounce if I have any hope of remembering myself--putting myself back together--is to try and get someone to listen to me or take me seriously who is unwilling to first consider that I might actually have something of value to say.

It's pretty easy to burn yourself out searching for the perfect phrases, the perfect argument, or the perfect tone to finally get someone to listen to you and care who really has no interest in doing so. Even if I succeed in making some inroads, the energy it costs doesn't seem worth it anymore.

My anxiety, my listlessness, is ultimately the result of expecting the impossible from myself, and knowing that I am, afterall, incapable of delivering the impossible.

I doubt that any of the readouts from my sleep clinic night will say this to the technicians trying to interpret the source of my insomnia.

I suspect that my insomnia might ease up when I finally give myself permission to be utterly rejected and dismissed by those who are so convinced of their own premises and positions that they refuse to stay up all night considering, like I have wasted time doing, that perhaps they aren't always right about everything.