Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Sine Wave #26 and How Do Agnostics Sustain Optimism?

The Existential Don Quixote

I am no knight in titanium armor
pushing destiny's buttons with a mailed finger,
more a janitor of chance collisions
sweeping up debris.

As a toddler I would have petted
the snakes Hercules strangled—
and his reward? A poison shirt
woven from immortal jealousy.

I was never captain of my soul,
just a kite's dream of control,
a myth of wind, the string too thin
to see between the windmill blades.

(Published in the now defunct shallow end.)


This is my penultimate posting before the NBA Finals break.

Above the speaker no longer dwells upon the significance of his own chemically-induced sorrow, instead endorses entropy, admitting how little control he has over anything, including himself--a good therapeutic negotiation.

Hercules is used as an example; as the son of Zeus he did nearly everything right, and when he didn't, he repented and tried to make restitution. But that's not good enough for the gods; they are capricious. He died not in battle but by trickery, and a painful death it was. Ironically it was the blood of his own tutor, Chiron the centaur, that killed him, possibly because he did not follow his teacher's precepts as well as he might have--if one looks for a moral in the story.

If this is how a son of God was treated, how could I deserve anything better? Long-term the hard question is: If I were wrongly condemned to death and executed, would I still believe in the goodness of God? That's an easy "yes" for a believer. For the unbeliever I find it hard to understand optimism as derived from experience. "If mercy were based on evidence, I'd shoot you," I wrote in an earlier poem. If life sucks, why believe in anything better?

Jack London's Wolf Larsen declares man's individual ambition to be the ability to indulge in more "piggishness" than others. There is little to refute this in this world. "Steal a little and you go to jail, steal a lot and they make you king."

I'm sure I'm being too simplistic for enlightened humanists, but without a supernatural hope about the nature of the universe, morality is as much an impediment as anything else. From where do the agnostic majority derive hope? Radio gurus, self-help books, self-talk? Does it matter if such things are true or merely that they help?

I did read a great Arab proverb today: "If you ask a mule who his father was, he'll say, 'My mother was a horse.'" (from Wallace Stegner)



  1. Anonymous11:35 PM PDT

    Believing in man does not necessarily mean that you believe there is goodness in all men. Frankly I have utter faith in only two, three at the most, and I consider myself a humanist. Though by the addition of the word "enlightened" I fail to make the category that you referenced, and as such, perhaps my comment is nonapplicable.
    Truthfully, I am writing this more to say "thank you" for the effect you have had on someone close to me. You have inspired a great writer to continue to write, and you have aided him in understanding both himself and his partner. (You see he is both brilliant and struggles with depression at times, and his wife, well she is overwhelmed by it.)
    I hope that you find distraction in the games, and a little peace for your mind. Oh, and please keep writing. I realize the term "gifted" is overused to an irritating degree, but in your case it is an understatement. Thanks again.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    Your kindness does not go unnoticed. Glad to be of some small help to your writer friend.

    Briefly, the one thing a depressive must learn is not to mistake his depression for himself. This is the soul-damning mistake.

    Personality is not depression. Depression is an illness that destroys personality. So much I know.

    I'm still going through a down cycle, but I summoned the courage yesterday morning to try abalone-picking for the first time on the rugged Mendocino coast. I got no pleasure from it; I feared I might seriously injure my knee among the kelp-slick rocks at low tide; I felt very old and decrepit; and I didn't feel any better afterwards, as if I had "accomplished" something.

    But I behaved like someone who was not depressed, someone who might enjoy searching for abalone at low tide.

    As Winston Churchill so famously said of his own "black dog" of depression, "Two hundred bricks and two thousand words a day."

    Eventually one's mood will approximate one's behavior again and things will feel normal, even if the ground is a little shaky.

    After you get your heart cut enough times, after the emotional seat of human feeling we often feel in the solar plexus above our heart has been firebombed by this disease, you begin to believe the heart will grow back--even as you feel it is impossible while so afflicted. Difficult dance to do. My wife, Kathleen, acts as my life raft sometimes.

    All the best,



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