Life as an Extreme Sport

Patient, Kind, Without Envy or Pride

Did your mother ever tell you, when you were upset and sulking, to just smile and everything would be alright? To “turn that frown upside down” – a sentiment that always seemed so silly and irritatingly cliche, guaranteed to make me snarl more than anything else. Yet, in another one for the “things Mom was right about” column, it really works. Not necessarily turning a frown upside down, but acting in ways that might seem counter-intuitive to how you feel changing your mood. It’s the physicality of affect; how our bodies react is tied to how we feel. Don’t believe me? The next time you’re angry with someone you care about, give them a good hug, and see how you feel – dollars to donuts your anger cracks and you smile and, while holding them, remember how much you care and dissipate out a lot of the negative feelings.

It’s interesting, and fascinating for me on the academic level, but also relevent on the personal. In order to follow the maxim of living with no regrets, I have to be a lot more open to vulnerability than I find comfortable. I have to think about how I behave and what would hang over me to cause regret; at least once recently this has meant forsaking a pointed exit to return for a hug and kiss goodnight. And as a I noted recently, I apparently can’t be irritated with someone if I’m helping out on a project – I get too caught up in the fun of what I’m doing to be able to hold onto the negative, or do anything other than experience the joy of the work.

It’s good for me, I think, to learn to let go of the negative emotions – to acknowledge their existence but not become attached to them. I’ve always been good at nursing a grudge; a holdover from being an overt drama-queen. Grudges help when you need that self-righteous drama to defend yourself from getting close to or with anyone. It’s not who I want to be anymore, but who I do want to be is someone who needs a really strong core of inner strength, and I wonder if I really have it. Can I actually be so open, so vulnerable, and live the life I want to, damned the consequences? Because the consequences will be hurting and pain and people letting me down and all sorts of negative things – can I live the way I want, in the face of all that? I don’t know, I guess I’m afraid to.

And if I do, if I can, how do I know when it’s okay to draw the line? When to say “yes, I love you, but I can’t be around you because it’s hurting me too much, and I need to take care of myself”? …I suppose as I type that out, I realize it for the cop-out that it is: I managed to say that and enforce it with Mars, so why couldn’t I do it with anyone else? (It’s amusing how much that has become a barometer for my life; I lived through X, I can do/get through Y, Z, and the rest of the damned alphabet.)

Intellectually, I know that a life lived in fear is a life half-lived. It doesn’t change how I feel, but maybe it should change how I emote – and then just trust that feelings, as always, will follow the emotive.

Intellectual Jacking Off

I’m at a loss for intelligent things to say this evening, largely because they’ve already been said. I spent what might just be the most productive two hours of this quarter bouncing around ideas with Adam, and have solidified key aspects of my thesis. While this is what I was hoping would come from a session like this, I’m still astonished at the productivity and accomplishment. After editing out side commentary, sarcasm, and secondary conversation, I still have five pages of notes to turn into a coherant document – and, in my not at all humble or detached opinion, it’s stellar stuff; a revisiting of what [societal] we know in separate intellectual spheres but haven’t pulled together into a cohesive whole.

I cannot reiterate enough just how thankful I am to be working with Adam on this process. He surprises me; so often he acts like the dumb fratboy that I forget he has a whip-smart mind and is frighteningly intelligent. But more than thankful, I’m just happy – I haven’t had the chance to wax academia for hours on end with a – what? An equal? A colleague? However you want to phrase it, someone at my ‘level’ of knowledge and esoteria – in I can’t remember how long. It’s wonderful to feel this excited about school and my thesis, and just the re-energizing I needed. I only hope that I can return the favour several-fold in kind.

Thesis Thoughts

I try to keep my thesis grounded in example, otherwise it becomes too meta and in the clouds. I’ve been thinking about using PVS, emergent issues, and mental illness as examples to illustrate points (as well as my beloved anemone – why ditch a solid example?), but today another one came to mind: vaccinations.

The problem with autonomy when it comes to vaccinations is that you are basically relying on everyone else to NOT agree with your autonomous decision, and thus afford your child protection that way. This quickly breaks down, though, if everyone chooses not to vaccinate.

Worth keeping in mind as an example of failure of thought.

Erotic Morality and Affect

These are general thoughts from and spawned by the book Erotic Morality: The Role of Touch in Moral Agency by Linda Holler, and just get your mind out of the gutter right now, children. From the back cover, “Erotic Morality examines the role of the senses and emotions, especially touch, in moral reflection and agency. Moving from organic disorders such as autism to culturally induced feeling disorders found in dualistic philosophy, pornography, and some forms of sadomasochism, Linda Holler argues that reclaiming the sentient awareness necessary to our physical and moral well-being demands healing the places where we have become numb or hypersensitive to touch.” One of the things she says is “our understanding of love, like our understanding of morality, has been privatized and sexualized.” So, she’s moving the discussion away from sexual morality and the private arena towards discussing our capacity for intimacy and passion in the public arena.

Anyhow, with that background, this is just basically me thinking ‘aloud’ about the first two chapters (“Autistic Touch–Body as Prison” and “Disembodied Touch–Body as Object”), and speculating on just what an affect-centered ethics might mean, as part of an assignment around my undergraduate thesis.

The first lesson in erotic morality that we can learn from…is the importance of touch and emotion in connecting self to world. -Holler, p 57

Shared pain is lessoned, shared joy increased–thus do we refute entropy. -Callahan’s Law of Conservation of Joy and Pain

Autonomy requires a strong clinging to self in order to keep the boundaries of ‘I’ impermeable. To touch the world, to be in contact and communication with it–to affect it–those boundaries must come down. You must be able to dissolve yourself into the perspective of another, not only to feel with them, sharing in their joy and pleasure, but to suffer with them as well. So then we must not only blur the artificial boundary Descartes erected between mind and body, we must also blur the boundary between self and other in order to effectively affect (and be affected).

How does this then apply to medical ethics? It could be that we need to borrow from John Rawls and utilize his theory of justice and the veil of ignorance–make our decisions not based on what we would logically (inherent rational thought coupled with desire) but that we make the decision with emphasis on a feeling and the acknowledgment of pleasure and pain.1 This would likely necessitate doctors moving away from the rational, knowing diagnostic/empiricist machine and towards a more speculative and e-motive (almost literally with movement; doctors have abysmal body language) dialogue. For example, when describing a patient in a persistent vegetative state, a doctor should clearly explain what we know of the autonomous nervous system and the current understanding of the sensory experiences that the PVS patient could be experiencing outside of the higher cognitive processes associated with feeling: that although s/he can experience pain via said autonomous nervous system, and will flinch, this reaction is much in the way an anemone reacts to painful stimulus in the environment, and is not indicative of feeling; pain cannot be processed on a cognitive level that gives name to the feeling.

In an ideal world, the primary caregiver(s) would then need to think, if they could not know if they were the person in this action/reaction feedback loop, the caregiver, or the doctor, would they want to risk being stuck in that feedback loop of experiencing pain and being unable to end it on their own? What sort of decision would they make if they had to assume they were the worst off of the group of options? How would they mitigate damages to receive greatest benefit?2

Of course, then the question comes back to how affect-centered ethics differs from social contract theory, specifically Rawls’ envisioning of social contract theory. The best answer I have right now is that Rawls is still utilizing a very utilitarian cost-benefit approach in his model, and I want to move away from an impartial/empirical notion of ethics and towards one that emphasizes the connectivity between people. Adam3 ran with my original example of autonomy being the idea that we’re all islands unto ourselves and pointed out that if you remove the water between the islands, they’re all a single connected landmass. We have no visible barrier fluid between us as individuals (because we are not going to go to Elizabeth Grosz, no matter how tempting), but perhaps we could refer back to Merleau-Ponty and see the air as that binding medium, and under that binding medium we are all joined as one.4

Any which way, I’m starting to feel a pressure on clarifying the alternative to autonomy. Another suggestion I’ve received is that it’s a question of scale, and I need to shift focus a level up from autonomy and approach the question there. I think this is an incredibly valid and viable suggestion; Powell’s kindly delivered me two books today, O’Neill’s Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics and Gaylin and Jennings’ The Perversion of Autonomy; I’m hoping that these two might give me a bit of direction and grounding. And, of course, I’m more than open to (further) suggestion…