Tag Archives: addiction

Thoughts on “Strangers Drowning” by Larissa MacFarquhar

This is the latest book that I read for the book club to which I belong. It’s a look at people who dedicate themselves to doing the most good that they can possibly do, often sacrificing their own happiness and well-being, as well as that of their families, for the sake of assisting complete strangers. MacFarquhar refers to this type of people as do-gooders.

She begins the book with her definition of a do-gooder.

This book is about a human character who arouses conflicting emotions: the do-gooder. I don’t mean a part-time, normal do-gooder—someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who’s drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who pushes himself to moral extremity, who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy.

(p. 3)

So why would a person who wants only to do good in the world make others uncomfortable? That’s a legitimate question, which MacFarquhar also addresses early in the book.

One reason may be guilt: nobody likes to be reminded, even implicitly, of his own selfishness. Another is irritation: nobody likes to be told, even implicitly, how he should live his life, or be reproached for how he is living it. And nobody likes to be the recipient of charity. But that’s not the whole story.

(p. 6)

The rest of the book explores the personal stories of various altruistic do-gooders—their motivations, challenges, and so forth. They are all really interesting, and many are inspiring, but when MacFarquhar examined social workers, it hit a little close to home for me.

At first the social worker may become too emotionally involved with his clients, so that when they fail he suffers, both because they are unhappy and because their failure is his failure, too. It’s hard to spend his days confronting devastating problems that he cannot fix—the misery and helplessness rub off on him.

Gradually, he learns to be more detached. He realizes that he needs to be tough, and to develop a thick skin. But if he becomes too detached, he stops caring about his clients at all.

(p. 163)

Many years ago, when I decided to go to college in my late 20s as a non-traditional student, I intended to go into counseling. As I started taking my basic required classes, I also took on a part-time job as a mental health technician in the chemical dependency ward at a local hospital. I had a strong desire to help people, and the primary residents in this program were pregnant teenage girls addicted to crack cocaine, so there was no shortage of suffering individuals to whom I could offer help. But the turning point for me was when one young woman completed the 28-day program, was released, went to a crack house, and got shot in the stomach. Her baby died inside of her. I had gotten to know this person fairly well during her four weeks there, and I was devastated. The pain and sadness were so intense, I realized that I could not do this job with the level of detachment needed to be effective, and maintain my levels of compassion and empathy for others. I decided then and there that I would need to pursue a different career path.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Not only is it thought provoking, it is very well written. It challenged me to look at how much I am doing for the overall good of the world, and how much more I could possibly do.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.

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Thoughts on “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

I’ve had my eye on this trilogy for a while. Everyone I know who has read Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy has raved about it. I’m just always hesitant to commit to a trilogy. But at last, I bought the first book and read it, and I have to say that it certainly lived up to all the hype.

Basically, Grossman takes aspects from some of the best fantasy books and weaves together a tale that is unique, yet seems familiar. I had impressions of Harry Potter, Narnia, Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Rings. But there is also a modern edginess to the book, which works well in my opinion.

There is a lot that can be explored in this text—addiction, power, corruption, escapism—just to name a few. But since brevity is the soul of wit, I’m just going to focus this post on the topics of magic and the multiverse.

Early in the book, Quentin enters a school of magic, and one of the professors offers an interesting definition of magic.

“The study of magic is not a science, it is not an art, and it is not a religion. Magic is a craft. When we do magic, we do not wish and we do not pray. We rely upon our will and our knowledge and our skill to make a specific change to the world.”

(p. 48)

This definition resembles Aleister Crowley’s, which states that magick is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” And as Quentin continues his studies, he learns that the actual practice of magic is quite difficult, and is not something that comes easily, which is how magic is often depicted in books.

One thing had always confused Quentin about the magic he had read about in books: it never seemed especially hard to do. There were lots of furrowed brows and thick books and long white beards and whatnot, but when it came right down to it, you memorized the incantation—or you just read it off the page, if that was too much trouble—you collected the herbs, waved the wand, rubbed the lamp, mixed the potion, said the words—and just like that the forces of the beyond did your bidding. It was like making salad dressing or driving stick or assembling Ikea furniture—just another skill you could learn. It took some time and effort, but compared to doing calculus, say, or playing the oboe—well, there really was no comparison. Any idiot could do magic.

Quentin had been perversely relieved when he learned that there was more to it than that.

(pp. 148 – 149)

As a writer, I understand that words are just symbols intended to represent aspects of our reality. Which is why I was intrigued by a passage that asserts that magic somehow dissolves the boundaries that exist between language and reality, that it merges the symbol and that which the symbol represents into a single form.

“But somehow in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.”

(pp. 216 – 217)

After graduating the school of magic, one of the young magicians, Penny, discovers a way to access parallel dimensions of reality, or what theoretical physics would call the multiverse. He terms this portal to the other dimensions the City (also Neitherlands), which seems like a type of matrix that allows one to pass from one reality to another. Penny goes on to explain to his friends what this means to our limited view of reality.

“The thing is, the more I study it, the more I think it’s exactly the opposite—that our world has much less substance than the City, and what we experience as reality is really just a footnote to what goes on there. An epiphenomenon.”

(p. 250)

Penny proposes exploring an alternate world (Fillory), which was described in a book that the other young magicians had all read. Quentin is reluctant, but Penny pushes the issue, stressing that the exploration of hidden dimensions is truly the greatest quest that humans can embark upon.

“So what?” Penny stood up. “So. What. So what if Fillory doesn’t work out? Which it will? So we end up somewhere else. It’s another world, Quentin. It’s a million other worlds. The Neitherlands are the place where the worlds meet! Who knows what other imaginary universes might turn out to be real? All of human literature could just be a user’s guide to the multiverse! Once I marked off a hundred squares straight in one direction and never saw the edge of this place. We could explore for the rest of our lives and never begin to map it all. This is it, Quentin! It’s the new frontier, the challenge of our generation and the next fifty generations after that!”

(p. 260)

As Hamlet so eloquently put it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I strongly suspect that there are multiple universes existing beyond our current scope of perception, and just maybe, ancient mystical arts once provided glimpses of these hidden realms. It certainly warrants further exploration. If we dismiss ideas and potential knowledge because they conflict with our present paradigms, we are doing so at our own risk.

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“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” by Phoebe Gloeckner

This book is kind of a downer, but at the same time, it made me feel grateful. It’s the tale of a 15-year-old girl who becomes sexually involved with her mother’s boyfriend, which causes a downward spiral of addiction, mental illness, and self-loathing. As a parent, I am so very grateful that none of my daughters got this messed up.

What I really liked about this book is the way the author mixed mediums. While it is written in the form of a diary, it reads like a novel. In addition, the author included her own drawings, snippets of graphic novel style panel illustrations, and letters written by the characters. So it felt like a blend of novel, diary, graphic novel, and epistolary. For me, that is the book’s strongest asset.

As a regular journal writer, I connected with a scene where Minnie (the protagonist) ponders whether her journal writing is an act of creative expression.

Let’s take a little time out and be completely serious for a moment—my writing in this book has become a sort of habit, and a good one. I do think my writing has improved because of it. Would you or would you not consider this journal a creative endeavor?

(p. 65)

Personally, I consider any act of self-expression to be a creative endeavor. Journal writing, especially if one is exploring the deeper parts of the self, is definitely a creative act. Additionally, any practice that one gets writing hones the skill of crafting the written word.

One of the effects of addiction on a person is a deep feeling of isolation. Throughout the book, Gloeckner captures that feeling in beautifully sad words.

I left feeling like the center of the ocean, deep and quiet. Glowing particles of dust or old dead fish atoms slowly filter down from the top through the water. The sun gradually leaves them. They settle down later at the bottom, seven miles below. Dark. Heavy, heavy water.

(p. 107)

As much as this book is disturbing, it does end on a more optimistic note. Without giving away too much, Minnie ends her diary by deciding to start a new one, which reflects the start of a new chapter in her life.

This diary is almost full. The binder rings can barely hold another few pages but I didn’t get a new diary binder yet. Maybe I’ll go downtown to Patrick’s…they probably have a nice serious-looking black binder with heavy-duty rings that won’t burst open. That’s what I want. I want to get a good one.

I haven’t been writing at all because I’ve been waiting to start a new diary. A brand-new diary is like a brand-new life, and I’m ready to leave this one behind me. But since I don’t have a new binder, it’s just too bad: I’ll have to tack a few pages onto my old life.

(p. 285)

Our lives are stories that are being written every moment, and at the risk of sounding cliché, we can change the story or turn the page any time we want. That is the beauty of life and one of the things that gave me hope in my personal dark periods.

Thanks for stopping by, and have an inspired day.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 1: On the Addictive Power of Books

Eugène Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix

I recently decided to read Cervantes’ famous book, Don Quixote, mainly because I am planning a trip to Spain and figured I should read it before I visit. Also, it’s been on my reading list for a long time, but I’ve put it off, mainly due to the length. But I figured, now is a good time to read it. Since it is long and probably would not work as a single blog post, I decided to do a series of posts as I work my way through the text. For my first post, I wanted to write about the addictive power of books.

Cervantes begins the book by explaining that the protagonist is a person who is addicted to books, which is something I can relate to. Someone may ask: Can you really become addicted to books? I’d say yes. Addiction is the constant search for something that changes how you feel inside and ultimately serves as an escape from reality.

As is often the case with addiction, the obsession and constant immersion in the vehicle of escape causes one to lose touch with reality, which happens to the protagonist in this book.

In short, he became so absorbed in his books that he spent his nights from sunset to sunrise, and his days from dawn to dark, poring over them; and what with little sleep and much reading his brains got so dry that he lost his wits. His fancy grew full of what he used to read about in his books, enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooings, loves, agonies, and all sorts of impossible nonsense; and it so possessed his mind that the whole fabric of invention and fancy he read of was true, that to him no history in the world had more reality in it.

(p. 4)

As the barriers between reality and fantasy crumble, the protagonist decides to live the life described in the books he reads. He takes on the persona of Don Quixote and allows the literary realm of chivalry to become his dominant paradigm in real life.

In short, his wits being quite gone, he hit upon the strangest notion that ever madman in this world hit upon, and that was that he fancied it was right and requisite, as well for the support of his own honour as for the service of his country, that he should make a knight-errant of himself, roaming the world over in full armour and on horseback in quest of adventures, and putting in practice himself all that he had read of as being the usual practices of knights-errant; righting every kind of wrong, and exposing himself to peril and danger from which, in the issue, he was to reap eternal renown and fame.

(p. 5)

While this may seem extreme, there is a universal truth here that needs addressing. As thinking, sentient beings, we are the sum product of our experiences, and reading is an experience that directly impacts who we are as individuals. This leads to the question: Is it better to focus your reading on a single topic or idea, or should one read broadly and diversely? It appears that Cervantes is asserting that one should read broadly, that reading only one type of book will instill a myopic view of life and ultimately become a singular obsession.

As is often the case with addiction, family and friends will often attempt an intervention to help the suffering addict. This happens to Don Quixote. People close to him try to intervene by ridding Don Quixote of his books, essentially, trying to cure the addiction by taking away the drug.

But I take all the blame upon myself for never having told your worships of my uncle’s vagaries, that you might put a stop to them before things had come to pass, and burn these accursed books—for he has a great number—that richly deserve to be burned like heretics.

(p. 33)

So, at this point, I want to conclude by saying: “Hi. My name is Jeff, and I’m a book addict.” And yes, like Don Quixote, I often imagine myself in the realm of the books I read. I love losing myself in the world of imagination. But I think it’s a healthy addiction, as long as you maintain a firm foot in reality and read broadly. So to all my book-addict friends, go out and read something different and new.

Thanks for stopping by, and look for another post about Don Quixote soon.

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The Black Monday Murders: Issue 01

BlackMondayMurders_01

I recently went to pick up my weekly cache of comics and the owner had dropped a copy of this new graphic novel in with my usual collection, assuming it would be something I would enjoy. I was hesitant, so I left it in the folder until the following week, figuring I would research the comic online and read about it before committing. What I read piqued my interest, to say the least. So I purchased it the next week and just now read it. I was not disappointed!

Basically, this is a story about occult forces manipulating global investment banking. While this in and of itself is more than enough to warrant taking on yet another reading commitment, there is much more to this tale that promises a deep exploration of who we are as a society.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we are addicted to money and power. We might like to tell ourselves that we are detached from our material things, but are we really? I used to feel that way until I was living on Miami Beach and Hurricane Andrew was bearing down. I had to evacuate, and as I looked around my apartment at all my “material things,” suddenly, everything took on new meaning. My books, my records, my instruments, my photo albums, my games, my keepsakes—all this I assumed would be lost, and I cried. And I had to accept that I was attached to my things.

Anyway, this first issue asks readers to take an honest look at their relationship with money.

The oldest relationship in the world is the one man has with money. It’s the dirty little secret we all share . . . just how much we love it. It’s a better life. It’s living in a better world. For money is power, it is influence. So when someone asks, do you have a price? Everyone — and I mean everyone — knows the answer is yes . . . The only question remaining is . . . what are they gonna have to pay?

The installment concludes with definitions of money, power, and magic, and the connection between the definitions of these words portends what we can expect in subsequent issues.

Power

  • the ability to influence the behavior of others or alter the course of events: having power over another | she had me under her power.

Money

  • a medium of exchange | substitution of coin for something of similar value.
  • a physical manifestation of influence or power.

Magic

  • the power to influence using supernatural forces: do you believe in magic? | suddenly, as if by magic, the words appeared.

I’m looking forward to the next installment. As soon as it is published, you can expect my thoughts to follow shortly afterward.

“All Hail God Mammon.”

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House of Penance: Issue 04 – The Addictive Power of Violence

HouseOfPenance_04

I really like this series and its exploration of issues of sin and atonement. The artwork is dark and surreal and the writing is sparse yet moving. But this installment in the series also explores the related issue of addiction, specifically addiction to violence.

My favorite definition of addiction is that it is the constant searching for something outside yourself to change the way you feel within. For this reason, you can become addicted to anything that elicits a powerful feeling inside, and violence can certainly fall into that category. I have known people in my younger days who were addicted to the adrenaline rush of violent behavior, starting fights for no reason other than the thrill of the fight.

In this issue of the graphic novel, there is a scene where several men who are serving their penance for violent acts discover a room that houses confiscated weapons waiting destruction. The men stare through the glass with a deep longing in their eyes, like the recovering alcoholic struggling with internal conflict as he stares through the window of a liquor store.

If we honestly look at our society—the films we watch, the books we read, the games we play—we are forced to admit that we are a society that is addicted to violence, and yet we act surprised and abhorred when we hear stories of people actually committing violent acts. Now I am not condoning the censorship of violence in the arts, just as I would not condone banning alcohol, but we need to acknowledge that violence, just like drugs, is addictive and remain vigilant with ourselves.

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Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 9

Nosferatu

Nosferatu

As a musician, I have always been intrigued at the way sounds and rhythms can be used to stimulate parts of the subconscious mind and cause hidden aspects of the psyche to surface. I believe this is why chanting and drumming are integral parts of ritual, the goal of which is to alter the consciousness of the participants.

There is a great passage in Infinite Jest where a recovering addict is sharing an experience he had where he was playing violin and the notes blended with other vibrations resulting in a sudden shift in his consciousness. This shift allowed a dark, primordial aspect of his psyche to surface, an experience that was terrifying and traumatic.

‘The direction of flow is beside the point. It was on, and its position in the window made the glass of the upraised pane vibrate somehow. It produced an odd high-pitched vibration, invariant and constant. By itself it was strange but benign. But on this afternoon, the fan’s vibration combined with some certain set of notes I was practicing on the violin, and the two vibrations set up a resonance that made something happen in my head. It is impossible really to explain it, but it was a certain quality of this resonance that produced it.’

‘A thing.’

‘As the two vibrations combined, it was as if a large dark billowing shape came billowing out of some corner in my mind. I can be no more precise than to say large, dark, shape, and billowing, what came flapping out of some backwater of my psyche I had not had the slightest inkling was there.’

‘But it was inside you, though.’

‘Katherine, Kate, it was total horror. It was all horror everywhere, distilled and given form. It rose in me, out of me, summoned somehow by the odd confluence of the fan and those notes. It rose and grew larger and became engulfing and more horrible than I shall ever have the power to convey. I dropped the violin and ran from the room.’

(p. 649)

In this scene, the addict experiences the emergence of what Jung termed the shadow.

The shadow, said celebrated Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung, is the unknown “dark side” of our personality–dark both because it tends to consist predominantly of the primitive, negative, socially or religiously depreciated human emotions and impulses like sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger or rage, and due to its unenlightened nature, completely obscured from consciousness.

(Source: Psychology Today)

Throughout my life, I have experienced instances where music or sound caused my consciousness to shift, sometimes dramatically. But it can be particularly unsettling when the shift is unexpected. It’s one thing to experience this while meditating and actively seeking to unlock hidden realms of the psyche, but when it occurs for no apparent reason, it can have a devastating effect on a person.

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