You’ll feel better about your life if you sit down and list the good things that happened to you each day. There’s only one reality, but countless ways to describe it.
Like most scientists, I love stories of discovery. These stories also reflect our values – many years passed before Rosalind Franklin’s role in the determining the structure of DNA was acknowledged. Frontal lobe lobotomy was considered so beneficial that it won the Nobel Prize – sane people didn’t have to tolerate as much wild behavior from others. Of course, those others were being erased when we ablated their brains.
Even equations convey an ideological slant. When a chemist writes about the combustion of gasoline, the energy change is negative. The chemicals are losing energy. When an engineer writes about the same reaction, the energy change is described as positive. Who cares about the chemicals? We humans are gaining energy. When octane reacts with oxygen, our cars go vrrrooom!
I’ve been reading a lot of mythology, which contains our oldest stories of discovery. The ways we tell stories haven’t changed much – recent events slide quickly into myth. Plenty of people think of either George W. Bush or Barrack Obama as Darth-Vader-esque villains, but they’re just regular people. They have myriad motivations, some good, some bad. Only in our stories can they be simplified into monsters.
In Ai’s poem, “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” she writes that
I could say anything, couldn’t I?
Like a bed we make and unmake at whim,
the truth is always changing,
always shaped by the latest
collective urge to destroy.
Oppenheimer was a regular person, too. He was good with numbers, and his team of engineers accomplished what they set out to do.
My essay about the ways we mythologize discovery was recently published here, alongside surrealistically mythological art by Jury S. Judge.
One day at nap time, my two-year-old daughter riveted awake and said: “I’m worried about ghosts.”
I know, I know. The fact that she wouldn’t sleep is normal. Hundreds of children books have been written about children refusing their naps or failing to settle down at night and go the ____ to sleep. But I felt that this worry was fixable.
The day before, I’d read a book to her that had a ghost. I thought she was old enough! And I made silly noises! She laughed and seemed unperturbed!
But then she worried. That dark, dark chest had a ghost inside? Where else might ghosts be lurking?
“There was a ghost in that story,” I said, “but it was only a story. Ghosts are only ever in stories. They’re not real.”
She eyed me warily, but, still, she lay down and slept.
Two hours later, she lurched awake and announced that she’d made a song.
“Do you want to hear it, Father?”
“Of course I want to hear it!”
“Ghosts are pretend,” she intoned, over and over to no discernable tune. I smiled, and she hopped off the mattress and began to march around the house, still singing. I heard that song many times over the next few months.
Because she seemed to understand ghosts so well, I used that same language the next year when she asked me about Christmas.
“Some people tell stories about big sky ghosts above the clouds, watching us. There’s a story about one of the sky ghosts, a sky ghost named Yahweh, who had a human kid. So Christmas is a festival when people celebrate the sky ghost kid. Like your birthday, kind of.”
“Ohhh,” she said, nodding. She likes birthdays.
In my first explanation of Christmas, I didn’t include anything about penance. She was only three years old, after all. That’s a little young for the canonical version – Jesus, the sky ghost kid, has to suffer as a human in order for the rest of us humans to be forgiven.
And it’s certainly too young for John-Michael Bloomquist’s beautiful (and far more logical) re-imagining, in which Jesus, a human incarnation of God, has to suffer in this form in order for us humans to forgive God. In “The Prodigal’s Lament” Bloomquist writes that:
I think Christ died for us
to forgive his father, who until he became a man
and dwelt among us had no way of knowing
what it was like to be Job …
Now my daughter is four. And she’s still interested in religion. One day after dinner recently, she asked, “Can you tell me more sky ghost stories?”
“Sure … which one do you want?”
“All of them!”
“Naw, dude, I can’t tell you all of them. There are so many that … even though I don’t know them all … even though I only know a small, small bit of all the stories … I’d be talking for days!”
“Then tell me the sky ghost story about the snake again.”
I’d previously told her about Siddhartha meditating beneath the bodhi tree, sheltered by Mucalinda. She heard that story just before bedtime, and promptly wrapped herself with a blanket like a cobra hood and scampered around the house chanting, “I’m Buddha! I’m Buddha!”
“How about this, I’ll tell you four short sky ghost stories about snakes. Does that sound fair?”
“So, this first one is from Sumeria. It’s hot there, a desert now. And in their sky ghost story, a prince named Gilgamesh … “
Yes, I know, Gilgamesh would be more accurately described as a king. But countless Disney films have trained American children to think that princes and princesses are the ones who romp off for adventure. Even though our daughter has only seen Moana, she knows all the other characters from talking to her friends.
“… had a best friend named Enkidu. But then Enkidu died. They couldn’t play together anymore, so Gilgamesh felt sad. He wanted to find a way for people to never die, so he went on a long journey and found a potion, a special drink that would make people live forever. But then he took a nap, and a snake drank the potion.”
“A snake did??”
“It’s just a story potion, it’s not real, but people told that story because they saw snakes shed their skins and thought that meant they lived forever. But really it’s because snakes, when they’re growing, shed their skins all at once. Humans shed our skin bit by bit all the time.”
She glanced down at her arm. It didn’t look like it was shedding.
“And the next story you know, about Buddha. Because there was a prince named Siddhartha Gotama living in a fancy palace, and things were pretty nice inside the palace. But one day Siddhartha took a walk outside and saw that other people weren’t happy, they were sick or hungry or sad. So instead of going back inside the palace, Siddhartha wanted to think about ways for people to be less sad. He sat for a long time under a tree, just thinking. He sat so long that a real person would need to stop to eat, or sleep, or drink water, or use the bathroom …”
She is learning that even when you’re doing something really important, you still have to take breaks to use the bathroom. Otherwise you wind up needing new pants. Every week we have so many loads of laundry to put away.
“… and some other sky ghosts saw him sitting there, thinking. And they realized that he was going to learn their special sky ghost secrets. These sky ghosts weren’t very friendly. They thought that if they shared their things with other people, they’d have less.”
“The sky ghosts decided to make a big storm so that Siddhartha would have to stop thinking. He’d get all wet, or need an umbrella, or have to go inside. But a snake, a naga sky ghost, Mucalinda, saw the storm coming and decided to help. The snake wrapped his big, big hood around Siddhartha to make a bubble, like a tent, so that he could still sit and think as though the storm wasn’t even there.”
“And in the next story, from the Hebrews, a sky ghost named Yahweh made a human out of dirt, and then …”
I stopped for a moment. No, I decided, it’s not worth telling my daughter a story in which boys get made from mud and girls get made from boys.
“ … or, no, better the version from the Quran, where Yahweh made two people out of dirt, a mother and a father, and let them live in a garden where there were so many fruit trees, fruits with such a perfect mix of amino acids that humans wouldn’t need to eat anything else. And there were two super special trees, one that would let anybody who ate it have knowledge and one that would make people live forever. Yahweh thought that those two were the best trees, but he was a jealous ghost, he didn’t want to share. So he told the humans not to eat any fruits from those special trees.”
We have plenty of rules in our house, but I’ve promised my daughter that if she asks why there’s a certain rule, I have to explain it to her as soon as there’s a safe chance to do so. And I’d be remiss in my parenting duties if I told her that in the day that thou eatest Oreos before dinner thou shalt surely die.
“Then a snake came and explained to the humans that Yahweh was being mean and making up a story, that if they ate the fruit from those special trees they wouldn’t actually get sick. So the humans ate fruit from the knowledge tree, but then Yahweh saw them and locked them out of his special garden before they could share his live forever tree.”
She frowned. Two of her grandparents have died; even though we tried to make passing seem normal, she probably understands why so many of the sky ghost stories are about wanting to live forever.
“And then your last sky ghost story for tonight … this one is from a place that’s often really cold, up north where nights are long in wintertime. In that story there’s a sky ghost named Loki, a trickster ghost like Maui from Moana, and he was always making mean jokes.”
“But why was Loki mean?”
“Well, sometimes people told stories to show what not to do. Loki made mean jokes and in the end bad things happened to him, to help teach kids not to make mean jokes anymore.”
“But one time, early in the story, before he’d done too many mean things, Loki had some kids. But the Loki kids weren’t humans, one was a skeleton and one was a big wolf and one was a big, big, big snake. And, well, you know that our planet is like a ball, right, but back then they didn’t know for sure, and they thought it might look more like a swimming pool. So they thought something had to be around the edges, and they figured it was a big, big snake who circled around the world and held in all the water.”
“And then what did the snake do?”
Um … I didn’t want to answer that one. The Midgard Serpent doesn’t actually do much. Thor mistakenly tries to pick him up during a bet in a giant’s castle once, and then tries to pick him up again when he’s out fishing, and then finally bops him on the head during Ragnarok … and that time gets poisoned and dies.
“We’ll borrow some more sky ghost books from the library and find out,” I told her. “But now it’s bath time!”
In ancient Indian mythology, fire was a god. The word for fire is agni, and Agni the god who ate oblations. Agni served as mouth and gullet for the entire pantheon – when sacrifices were offered to any god, Agni would eat them, ferrying goods from our world to the spirit realm.
(note, in terms of safety for reading at work, that the following passage is decidedly less circumspect than you might expect based on a familiarity with other sacred texts, e.g. the King James rendering of Genesis 38:9)
[A]ll the gods proceeded to Mount Kailasa, adorned with metallic ores, and charged Agni, the god of fire, with the task of begetting a son. ‘You are a god, eater of oblations, and should carry out this task of the gods. Great is your splendor. You must release the semen into the Ganges, the daughter of the mountain.’
Agni, the purifier, promised the gods he would do this and so, approaching the Ganges, he said, ‘Bear this embryo, goddess, as a favor to the gods.’
Hearing these words, she assumed her divine form, and he, seeing her extraordinary beauty, scattered the semen all over. Agni, the purifier, showered it all over the goddess, so that all the channels of the Ganges were filled with it.
In ancient Indian mythology, the semen of powerful males will sprout children wherever it lands, no female gamete required. Numerous heroes were engendered when males chanced across beautiful women bathing and shortly thereafter just happened to ejaculate – their children might be born from baskets, butter jars, or someone’s mouth.
A fetus soon formed from the material sprinkled over Ganges’s body, but although she’d consented willingly to bear the child, she soon declared it to be too powerful, that the embryo was burning her body. She tucked it into the base of the Himalayas to finish gestation.
Later in the Ramayana, Sita attempts to sacrifice herself – but Agni will not take her. Sita was kidnapped and so her husband Rama comes to rescue her. With the help of a monkey army, Rama destroys a South Indian kingdom and slays his wife’s captor. But he assumes that Sita has been tarnished by rape. He tells her (in the Robert Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman translation):
“I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back. I do not love you anymore. Go hence wherever you like.”
Heartbroken, Sita decides to jump into a fire – she’d rather die than lose her husband. But the fire doesn’t burn her. Instead, her presence is said to burn the fire itself. Agni lifts her from the bonfire and tells her husband that she is beyond reproach. The man agrees, briefly, to take her back.
More often, Agni simply burns things. Objects from our world disappear, leaving nothing but ash.
For Vedic thinkers, all that lives survives by consuming other living beings. Humans, too, have a hungry fire burning in their bellies; they have to sacrifice other creatures to that fire every day if they are going to stay alive.
We are heterotrophs. Unlike plants, we can’t create ourselves by drinking in water, air, and sunlight. We have to eat – sacrificing something – to survive.
Much of the time, the sacrifices that allow our lives are violent. Humans evolved as meat eaters – scavengers, likely, then hunters. We stalked, killed, and butchered mammoths. On contemporary industrial farms, plants are culled by nightmarish threshers, ripped from the ground and shaken clean by machines.
We are heterotrophs. It’s either us or them.
But sometimes we’re fueled by willing sacrifice.
Fruit-bearing plants co-evolved with animals. Fruit is a gift. When a plant bears fruit, it hopes for reciprocity, but in a generalized way. The plant isn’t trading – it can’t guarantee that any one offering will procure a service. But over time, many hungry animals have willingly spread the plants’ seeds – that’s the gift we offer in return.
(This is true of all fruit. I’d say it’s foolish to trust our Supreme Court justices’ opinions on just about anything – I definitely wouldn’t expect them to correctly identify the parts of a plant. In addition to bananas, grapes, and apples, things like tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and peppers are fruit. It’s thought that each type of fruit co-evolved with a specific animal that was originally responsible for spreading its seeds.)
Even if a plant gives fruit to us willingly, though, you could wonder whether the fruit agrees with the sacrifice. No matter what the tree might want, perhaps an apple would rather not be eaten.
Any one cell might prefer not to die.
Cancer is a rough equivalent to libertarian philosophy. Cancer is the ultimate freedom. In a multicellular organism, most individual cells will voluntarily cease to grow when their industry infringes upon their neighbors. They experience “contact inhibition.” As soon as a cell touches another, it respects the established boundaries as inviolable.
If a cell’s usefulness has waned, it undergoes apoptosis – voluntary suicide.
In a multicellular organism that practices sexual reproduction – even unilateral reproduction like Agni showering sperm over Ganges’s prostrate body – every cell that isn’t part of the germ line is doomed to die. From the perspective of evolution, your body is like a disposable rocket ship, built only to ferry the lineage of cells in your genitalia forward through time. Those cells matter – their descendants might survive forever.
The cells in your hand? They might have children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – but their line will come to an abrupt end. Maybe you were bitten by a radioactive super-power-granting DNA-altering spider and the cells in your hand became amazing. Doesn’t matter. Their glorious kind will go extinct.
And if the cells in your hand decide that this isn’t fair, and instead liberate themselves from the shackles of self-restraint and suicide, growing as much as possible – well, that’s cancer. The host organism will die. And those renegade cells, the ones who adopted the mantra look out for number one, will inevitably also die, starving fruitlessly, progeny-less.
It’s the same old tragedy of the commons, the same reason why there are now so few fish in the sea, and why Easter Island has no trees. Sometimes personal persistence dooms you more completely than would sacrifice toward a common cause.
Siddhartha was born into luxury. Wealth wasn’t enough to banish a nagging sense of emptiness, but if Siddhartha hadn’t left the palace, he never would’ve known deprivation.
Instead, he walked. He met people afflicted with worse ills than his own lack of purpose – bedraggled souls who were poor, and sick, and miserable. He was horrified by the world we humans have been given.
The local gods feared that Siddhartha would gain enlightenment. Like Yahweh in the Old Testament, these gods believed that knowledge should be the exclusive province of the divine; like white supremacists in the Jim Crow era, they believed that shared access to the fountain would tarnish their own privilege. And so they sent a storm to disrupt Siddhartha’s concentration.
Like Satan in the Old Testament, a snake came to help. Mucalinda, a cobra-like naga king, believed in equality – humans too should have access to knowledge. The cobra’s hood formed a protective bubble around Siddhartha, protecting him from the storm.
Siddhartha gained knowledge. He now knew that non-attachment would free humans from suffering. Everything in this world is impermanent – in the very end, each speck of matter will be so far from every other that the entire universe will be dark, empty, and cold – and so our attachments can only bring us pain. We must recognize that our transitory world will always leave us unsatisfied. Even our moments of joy will fade – those fleeting bursts of dopamine aren’t enough to sustain lasting happiness.
To be free of suffering, we have to let go.
But I’m an assistant coach for the local cross country team. I run with the kids. We suffer – that’s kind of the point.
Attachment brings suffering, but, again – that’s kind of the point.
My favorite superhero right now is Deadpool. Most heroes have powers that keep them safe from harm – spider sense, super strength, telepathy. Deadpool’s power is simply the willingness to endure harm. As though tattooed with the word THOLE down his neck, Deadpool knows that life will hurt and sardonically accepts it.
He briefly considers non-attachment. When he learns that he has a daughter, he plans to stay away from her. Distance might keep her safe from Deadpool’s enemies – and would keep him safe from emotional turmoil.
Instead, he lets himself become attached. He will suffer; so will she. But he’s decided that the pain is part of life.
When Deadpool meets a young woman who’s so depressed that she’s contemplating suicide, he doesn’t advocate non-attachment. It’s true that her torments will be temporary, but that’s a Buddhist consolation. Instead, he tells a joke (he justifies his levity by claiming that his powers came when he was “bitten by a sad radioactive clown”) and takes her to experience more pain and suffering.
My own depression has seemed more manageable for similar reasons. Since I’ve been working with people entrapped in the criminal justice system, I experience more pain. More horrors are shared with me now. But that very sharing connects me more clearly to the world.
Those connections – attachment – will bring suffering, but that’s the very stuff of life. All you can do is endure. As the chemist Primo Levi wrote in If This Is a Man, his account of time spent in a Holocaust concentration camp (translated by Stuart Woolf), as long as you can resist becoming too absorbed in your tiny experience of the present moment, there is always cause for hope:
It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy, and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium – as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom – well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.
You could always kill yourself later, Levi says, so why not see how much more you can bear?
And, yes, Deadpool takes the young woman to the hospital. When one of my acquaintances needed to go, I took her in as well. (I was on the phone with my father: “Just lie to her, tell her anything, but get her in.” I keep the volume on my phone loud enough that she heard everything he said. At least it was something to laugh about.)
Hang in there. The suffering won’t change. But you might.
“Man, she’s great,” he said. “I’ve been reading all the Greek myths and stuff. But she is wicked when she’s mad. Like Arachne committed suicide, and there’s Echo, and Na … Nar …”
“… who she just wrecked.”
It’s true – the god of desire can hurt you. We were discussing mythology in a room full of dudes incarcerated for possession.
Many of them know that desire is wrecking their lives. I often say that I’m not against drugs, but certain drugs, mixed with certain people, are definitely bad news.
“That’s me,” said a guy who told me that he’s been shuffling in and out for the last twenty-four years, with the durations out often lasting no more than weeks. “Last year … after my wife died … my son had to bring me back. I was over at my nephew’s, and we’d had something like a full gram, each time we sold some I had to be like, here, let me try it with you, and I was falling out … but my son just happened to come by in my truck, and I had all the stuff. He hit me with Narcan.”
Narcan – naloxone – revives people after overdose.
“So I know I gotta quit. If I don’t stop, I’m gonna die.”
In AA, people work with a higher power to stay sober. A buddy told me, “It was hard coming out as an atheist in AA.” But Milosz, the poet, would say that there’s no contradiction. Milosz approached religion from a “scientific, atheistic position mostly,” and then he lived under the Nazis in Warsaw – an experience that could shake anybody’s faith.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.
The men know the grim statistics – rehab fails most people. A counselor can’t reach into their minds and save them. Neither can any god. I’d argue that scientists can’t, either, but some scientists are trying – they’re testing transcranial magnetic stimulation aimed at a region of the human brain associated with impulse control.
Do you want drugs now?
A few people in the clinical trials have said “No,” but most people probably still do. Which isn’t to disparage magnets – we’re asking an awful lot of them. Addiction is a loop. So many memories cause desire to swell. For the guys in jail – many of whom started using when they were eleven or twelve – this is the only life they’ve known. Their minds have never dealt with the world sober. They are being asked to start all over again.
But some people manage to quit. When rehab works, change comes from within. And so it doesn’t matter whether any god is listening – prayer is for the person who prays.
My new favorite computer game begins each round as a real-time strategy game like Starcraft. You command your little empire to build temples and offer up various sorts of psalms – will you praise your deity’s ever-gathering hands, its watchful vigilance, its fiery vengeance?
After you feel that you’ve done enough to celebrate your deity, you can command your priests to summon it – at which point the gameplay switches to a third-person adventure mode vaguely reminiscent of the old arcade classic Rampage. You must attempt to destroy opposing civilizations with your deity … but there’s a twist. The attributes of your deity reflect the way it was prayed to. With too much emphasis on its “ever-gathering hands,” your god’s hands become massive. Those unwieldy appendages drag behind you as you walk, plowing deep furrows into the ground.
In this phase of the game, the controls can seem laggy and loose. It turns out that this is intentional; as in the game Octodad, an inability to control your creation is an essential part of the game. Certain types of prayer might make your deity more powerful but also more difficult to manage.
Presumably you’d avoid this sort of self-destructive excess – like praising wrath to the extent that your god destroys your own kingdom promptly after being summoned – but opposing players can infiltrate your civilization with heretics, and the way they pray will affect your god as well.
Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas ends with the idea that “everyone gets the devil he deserves.” This is the underlying concept of the game, but for gods instead of demons.
First Coming includes elements of both real-time strategy and arcade smash-em-up. And the idea of human prayer sculpting physically-manifest deities is intriguing. I’d go so far as to argue that it’s the greatestgame, flawed only in that it doesn’t live up to the Ontological Argument for the existence of God.
We live in a culture that reveres vengeance. The majority of the U.S. worships a deity who was praised for his violence.
Sometime around 600 BCE, a kingdom that worshiped a local deity called Yahweh was conquered by Nebuchadnezzer, whose people worshiped the storm god Marduk. After the surrender, many of the conquered people were deported to Babylon, where they would help make that city the most splendid in the world.
But some of the conquered Hebrews were allowed to remain in Jerusalem, where they still worshiped Yahweh in traditional ways – mostly by ritually killing animals – until they attempted to regain their independence. Then the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzer sent an army to circle the city. The people began to starve. The uprising was crushed.
The Hebrew leader was captured. He was held, struggling, a soldier on either side restraining his arms. One by one the Babylonian conquerors brought Zedekiah’s children. The leader surely screamed, begging to die. The soldiers gripped his arms more tightly. And (2 Kings 25) they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah. Those murders were his last sights, lingering in his blinded mind. His sons bodies spilling blood from their slit necks into the dust.
Many more of the remaining Hebrews were then deported to Babylon, to slave for the greatness of that city. They carted stones to build monuments to Marduk. This god’s temples soared into the sky, one some seven stories high.
And the Hebrews saw the ceremonies held to celebrate Marduk. On the fourth day of the New Year’s festival, priests read from a sacred text, the Enuma Elish, describing the origin of the world. The old gods had sex; they were murdered by their children; the flesh of their bodies was used to construct heaven and earth. Other sacred texts included the Atrahasis – which describes the flood that nearly destroyed humanity when we became too noisy and disturbed the gods’ rest – and Gilgamesh– which celebrates fraternal love.
In The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Stephen Greenblat writes that “These works feature gods – a whole pantheon of them – but Yahweh is nowhere among them, let alone their lord and master.”
The Hebrew people were crushed, their god so insignificant that he appeared in none of the victors’ stories. And so the Hebrews fought back … with words. They wrote a sacred text of their own, one in which Yahweh reigned supreme and the Babylonian tales were mockingly tweaked. The glorious temples gave rise to “The Tower of Babel,” symbol of mankind’s unwarranted arrogance. In the Hebrew flood story, humans were killed because the city people – and none were more urbane than the Babylonians – were corrupt. Sex did not mark the origin of the world, but rather began after the fall.
And they sang psalms to a deity patiently waiting to enact murderous revenge:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
… and, in answer of their own question, the conquered people begin to sing …
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hath served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
After the siege, Hebrew sons were murdered, daughters were raped, those of able body were made slaves. They asked of their god revenge. They prayed to a lord who would kill, and abet their killing, to restore their kingdom.
And … several millennia later … our philosophical traditions are rooted in their prayers. Our nation is embroiled in retributive wars. Our punitive prisons are overflowing, with those unfortunate enough to land inside often made worse by their time there.
Yahweh was praised for his patient pursuit of vengeance. And we celebrate those qualities – in school, especially, we praise those able to dispassionately sit for hours, ingesting knowledge. Those with difficulty sitting still, we drug.
Indeed, many cultures have told myths with ADHD heros. In the Apache myth of the origin of fire, Fox joined a flock of geese in flight … but then forgot the rules for staying in the air. But that was okay – it was only after he tumbled to earth that he had a chance to steal fire from a tribe of fireflies and bring it to mankind.
In many Polynesian myths of the origin of fire, it was brought by Maui … whose impulsiveness would almost surely lead to an ADHD diagnosis in the contemporary United States. Each time he received a gift of fire from his ancestor in the underworld – she was pulling off burning finger- or toe-nails and giving them to him – he intentionally quenched them in a nearby stream, just to see what she’d do next. His curiosity was nearly the death of him. Irked, she lit the world on fire.
In the Norse pantheon, Loki sometimes plans … but more often pursues whatever rebellious notion pops into his head. The mutant children he sired will destroy the world. His penchant for vicious barroom taunting (and impromptu murder) angered all other gods and led to his repeated exile from their kingdom.
“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom. That’s your battlefield reflexes. In a real fight, they’d keep you alive. As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little. Your senses are better than a regular mortal’s. Of course the teachers want you medicated. Most of them are monsters. They don’t want you seeing them for what they are.”
In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist attempts to commit suicide. Again and again. Death never seems to take – each time, he wakes intact and offs himself again.
Eventually, the character realizes that he is cursed … or, rather, that he is a curse. Whenever his current body dies, his spirit takes possession of the next available shell. Each individual body can be snuffed, but every time that happens, his wants and desires leap into a new home.
We incarcerate drug dealers. But we make little effort to change the world enough to staunch demand. People’s lives are still broken. Impoverished, addicted, they’ll buy. When one dealer is locked up, the job leaps to someone else.
Child molesters receive less sympathy than anyone else in jail or prison. When somebody wants to complain about sentencing, he’ll say “I’m looking at seven years, and that cho-mo got out in two!” When gangs inside want to look tough, they find friendless child molesters and murder them – these murders might go unpunished. Many child molesters spend their time in solitary for their own protection, but solitary confinement is itself a form of torture.
Child molesters were often abused as children. In Joanna Conners’s I Will Find You, she realizes that her rapist was probably re-enacting abuses that he had experienced in prison.
The demon leaps from one shell to the next.
During a university commencement address, J.K. Rowling said that “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.” Perhaps this is helpful for privileged college graduates to hear, but this attitude ignores how brains work. When we have a thought, the synapses that allowed that thought grow stronger. We become better at doing things that we’ve already done.
Bad parenting makes certain choices come easier than others. And then, each time a bad choice is made, it becomes easier to make again. After a long history of bad choices, it’s difficult to do anything else. But the initial mistakes were made by a child. Then these mistakes perpetuated themselves.
We as a society could have helped that child’s parents more – we did not. We could have helped the child more, perhaps through education, or nutrition, or providing stable work for the parents – we did not. We could have helped the young adult more, perhaps, at this point, through rehabilitative jails – we did not.
After all our failures to intervene, we must accept some responsibility for the ensuing criminality.
If buying in to the illusion of agency helps you get your work done, go for it. I too believe in free will. But we have no idea what it feels like inside someone else’s brain. If born into someone else’s circumstances, with that person’s genetics, prenatal nutrition, and entire lifetime of experiences, would you have steered to a better course?
In ancient Tibetan Buddhist mythology, crimes and addiction are the province of demons. A person has been possessed – the demon is influencing choices.
This perspective does not deny free will to the afflicted. It simply implies – correctly – that some decisions will be easier to make than others. This idea was tested in an experiment asking right-handed people to touch a button near the center of a computer screen. Study subjects were not told which hand to use, and most used their right. After a powerful magnetic pulse, people could still chose either hand to touch the button … but pressing it with the left hand suddenly seemed easier, and so that’s what many people did.
Addiction makes choosing not to use drugs more difficult. Either option is available, but the demon is constantly pushing toward one.
In most mythologies, a demon can be exorcised. In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist can die permanently only if his body is killed at a time when the nearest available Homo sapiens shell is already possessed.
Existence, for this demon, is a form of torment. A villain was thrilled to find Shiga’s protagonist … not to do him harm, but as a chance to end the cycle.
Some demons might never leave the body. The brain is plastic, but synaptic connections reflect its entire history. Even after years clean, addiction lingers.
In Buddhist mythology, even demons that cannot be exorcised can be distracted. Apparently demons love to guard treasure. It’s a beautiful image – the demon is still inside, but rather than push its host toward calamity, it hides in a corner, sniggering like Gollum, fondling a jewel-encrusted box.
Addicts are shuttered in jail. The walls are concrete. Fluorescent lights shine nineteen hours a day. People weathering opiate withdrawal can’t sleep even during those few hours of dark. The block is noisy, and feels dangerous. The brain is kept in a constant high-stress state of vigilance. Often, the only thoughts that a person has enough concentration to formulate are the easy ones.
Thoughts of drugs.
But poems can be treasures. If given solace long enough to read a poem, our afflicted might find beauty there. Something for the demon to guard.
We are not helping people if we insist their penitence be bleak.
Many thanks to John-Michael, a wonderful poet & teacher. This essay was inspired by a beautiful book he’s working on.