Monday, June 28, 2010

Envy and Other People's Trips


Brooke’s moved beyond using a one-way speaking valve on his trach to having it capped at part of the time: this means he breathes through his nose and mouth both on the inhale and exhale, just the way we all do. Or rather, it’s just the way we all do, but he still has a something like a piece of white PVC pipe, the trach, in his throat that he has to breathe around or through—but capping it is another big step forward. He hasn’t used the vent in over a week and it’s turned off again, a big awkward but thankfully silent reminder of earlier harder times. The pacer is really working.


This past week, Peggy was at a bioethics conference in Key West. When she got back and told Brooke about it, she realized she was trying to keep the details of the sunshine and the ocean breeze and the blue waves sparkling along the beaches to a minimum, stressing rather that the conference involved many long hours of sessions in closed, heavily air-conditioned rooms, away from the sunshine, and the fact that the weather was in the 90’s much of the time and humid, and that the reef where you go snorkeling is at least at first sight drab compared say to the Caribbean and only interesting after you stop wishing you were seeing schools of brightly colored fishes.

Just the same, it’s hard not to tell Brooke the truth about it. It was delightful, delightful. That’s the trouble.

Other people tell Brooke about their trips too—short intense trips, long leisurely ones, local daytrips, distant Bildungsreise sojourns. Sometimes they bring pictures of European towns or Mexican beaches or remote places in Asia. They give vivid descriptions of architectural treasures and opulent museums and especially of meals at outdoor cafes or 3-star restaurants or little family places specializing in local delicacies. But of course there’s always this tension about whether to talk about such things at all, given that Brooke can’t realistically go any of these places ever again.

So we’re talking about it. It’s about envy, he says. They get to go on trips; I don’t.

Here’s what he says about envy:

Envy corrodes the soul—whatever you mean by “soul,” it’s at least the moral part of one’s being. There’s self-pity, there’s self-blame, there’s shame, all related to envy; and most centrally there’s envy of other people, envy of who they are, what they have, and what they are doing, the kinds of lives they are leading, and the good fortune they are currently enjoying. I want to try to clear the path to a more peaceful, less restless, purer state of soul, Brooke says, that is, that the moral part of one’s being is less corroded by these forms of envy.

On self-pity: I feel it very strongly when other people tell me about their trips. I hate the situation I’m in; I’m not getting any younger, and I’ll be trapped in this broken body depending more and more, and more and more, on other people, while others are out seeing the world, experiencing things, actively doing things I’ll never be able to do. That’s the self-pity part.

It’s so easy to give in to self-pity, Brooke says. I don’t usually play that trick, he says, but sometimes it happens: saying things like “why would I want to travel to Key West, if it’s so hot and humid and filled with tourists and tourist traps and if the reef is so drab compared to the Caribbean?” There are lots of games like this, he says, “why would you want be at the beach at all—you just overhear people engaging in empty chatter or chasing around after a volleyball”-- that doesn’t work, you can’t really fool yourself. You don’t want to go to extremes by insisting that people are frittering their lives away by just traveling, that’s another way of corroding yourself, corroding your soul, trying to fool yourself out of reality. It’s as self-deluding as trying to say, I’m better than they are because I’m suffering more. But you really do wish you could travel and you know it would be interesting, exciting, wonderful, just even the sheer pleasure of walking down a street or getting up in the morning and fixing a cup of coffee, even in a carafe in a dumpy hotel, all the mundane things that “regular” people take for granted, as of course we both did before the accident.

On self-blame: Blaming myself for the accident—was I going too fast? Was I rounding a blind curve too widely? Was it my fault? We’ve written about these things before, but didn’t think of it as related to envy. Was self-blame compounded by the fact that I’d just bought new equipment early in my retirement—new mountaineering skis, a state-of-the-art road bike—in what must have been an attempt to recapture my youth, and I was blissfully unaware of the dangers that a sleeker, faster bike would involve. To relieve myself from self-blame, I’d really like to believe that the accident was the other biker’s fault, that he crossed my path as we both swerved; in fact, I have vivid visual recollections of this, but I can’t be sure they’re really true. In any case, focusing on who caused the accident is in essence self-blame, utterly corrosive, whether I think he caused it or I did. It gets one nowhere, and it makes no difference who actually caused it, if either; it happened, either way. Neither of us can know who was actually to blame, and there weren’t any independent witnesses; but I know my personal sense of what my own role in the accident was fluctuates with how I feel at the moment.

On shame: Shame is somewhat different, but I get these flashes of feeling: how are other people going to regard me, driving around in this wheelchair? It’s an especially painful feeling when I think of other people who knew me before the accident as a strong, outdoors, always-active, vigorous, and (some said) handsome kind of a guy: now what they will see is a paralytic (notice, I didn’t even say “person”), dependent on an elaborate wheelchair for mobility, completely contained in this mechanized thing. I can only move it with my head or with my left hand; I can’t do anything else. I suspect that others don’t even see the person very much, just the chair. Think about people who’ve been badly burned, or who have some deformity; they no doubt have the same painful experiences. I’ve often looked away from quads I see on the street; I know people will do the same to me. It’s just a fact of life, of my new life. But the shame communicates itself to you just the same.

In my sane moments, I recognize that these things don’t matter. What matters is that your mind gets attached to thoughts about them (to use Buddhist language in thinking about a form of envy, a Christian sin, that “corrodes”); you spend your time shamed by what other people think of you, not what you think of yourself. So what do I think of myself? That’s not easy to answer; when I pass a mirror in the hall and see my own reflection, there’s an opening for shame, even though it’s just me looking at me. Of course, no one who is a patient in this facility or who works here has these thoughts, since there are wheelchairs everywhere, and so far I’ve been pretty well insulated from the outside world, but I think I know what lies ahead. Leaving this protected environment won’t be entirely easy, after all.

On envy in general: I’ve had to struggle with envy all my life, as well as self-pity, self-blame, shame, and many similar challenges. I don’t think I’m alone; I think it’s part of the human condition, but one that is particularly salient in my circumstances now, as it is for others with severe conditions like me. Envy I suppose arises in childhood when we learn to make comparisons between ourselves and others, but this is phony in adulthood, we are who we are. Making comparisons between ourselves now and ourselves in the past or in an imaginary future is also problematic, and a particularly corrosive thing for me is remembering my previous life—who I was vs. what I’ve become—very corrosive, when the new me envies the old one.

We talk on the phone with friends who are sitting on the deck at their cabin in Maine. They’re describing the loons swimming in the lake out in front, the blue heron that has just swept up into the air from its fishing-place on the shore, the little wind in the trees, the way their little city-dog is exploring the red squirrels that tease him out by the shed. Brooke is remembering his visit to them two years ago, only a couple of months before the accident: I used to swim across that lake every day.

The worst form of envy is when you wish that other people suffered misfortunes—they don’t have to be just misfortunes like your own, but seriously unfortunate nevertheless. Sometimes you envy people with lesser misfortunes—when you ride up and down the hall in this hospital and see other people who are only paraplegic, or who can walk even if they have obvious other problems, you want to be like them. But often envy takes the form of wishing someone else’s life were miserable so that you could feel good—these are emotions that one needs to acknowledge in oneself. I’d call that something like a sin, and if I were still a Catholic I’d feel obliged to confess it. “Well, we had a miserable time on our vacation,” somebody says, and I’m lying here in bed thinking good, they had a miserable time, I’m having a miserable time too—these are medieval sins.

One needs to sweep past these forms of envy to a purer, more selfless state of soul, less restive mind, less self-delusionary. Of course none of these emotions or moral feelings are unusual or evil in themselves—they are intensely human, part of the fabric of ordinary life, and anyone in my situation would feel them as strongly as I do, I think. The problem is letting them consume oneself, or corrode one’s heart, making it impossible to enjoy the presence of others and the enjoyments they may be experiencing.

After all, people do come to visit and find themselves talking about their trips. When I’m most whole, this is wonderful for me: I not only experience through their eyes what they’ve experienced, but I also understand how wonderful it has been for them, and that gives me real pleasure. I get two benefits: their vision, and my vision of them.

What I keep forgetting in all this is that from certain perspectives, my situation is most enviable: I’m alive, my brain works, I’m surrounded by loving and caring people, I live in a place for the time being that is not only professional but human, where I’ve made many friends among the staff and experienced genuine compassion and love from them. Compared to many people in the world, who are suffering dreadful diseases or enormous pain or who’ve been essentially abandoned in a facility like this by their family, my situation would seem like bliss. This is very humbling, and only adds another dimension to these moral dilemmas. How can I envy others? How can I feel self-pity and self-blame and shame when others, who exist for most of us out of sight, are in far more terrible conditions than I am?

We heard some time ago from someone we don’t even know, a woman on a disability list who described her frustration and challenges in not even having a wheelchair; she lives in a single room, and it’s only the internet that makes her life tolerable. That seems far more terrible than what I’ve got; I need to remember what it is that makes my life so worth living.

In the bathroom in our little cabin in Torrey, where we haven’t been for over a year and a half and may never be able to go again, there’s a little shelf with stuff to read while you’re sitting on the john. The wisest among these things is the Handbook of Epictetus, translated by our friend and colleague, Nick White, a copy phenomenally rumpled from being read so many times. Here’s paragraph 43, capturing the image of Greek two-handled vases:

Everything has two handles, one by which it may be carried and the other not. If your brother acts unjustly toward you, do not take hold of it by this side, that he has acted unjustly (since this is the handle by which it may not be carried), but instead by this side, that he is your brother and was brought up with you, and you will be taking hold of it in the way that it can be carried.

So I think about think about how people visit me and talk about their trips. If I hold it by one handle, it’s like this: “people visit me and talk about their trips.” If I hold it by the other handle, the one by which it can be carried, it’s like this: “people visit me and talk about their trips.”

The great thing is that they come.


ed ranney said...

Hi Brook and Peggy,

Just catching up on your recent postings, which seem better than ever, writing wonderful, thoughts, worries, achievements all moving, all right to the point. That's wonderful about the van, and that it exists for you as a possibility, a reality, when the time comes for it to be used. Very smart. I loved hearing about your dentist friend, and the saga of his enduring life, and squareness in meeting with his condition. I'm reminded of my cousin Strachan, our classmate, who the last time I saw him was able to say he had no regrets, that it was immaterial to think of complaining. You arrive at contemplating an ongoing life with even more assurance, and difficulty, because you can convey so many complicated emotions, sides to be considered, and end up with the wonderful balance of the 2 handled jug, the choice of handles. I love you for that.
I won't tell you about my recent trip, because I haven't been on one, though Melanie gets back today from 3 weeks in Scotland (where I've been once with her) and visiting an uncle and aunt in London, who are taking their last turns a round the track - good for her to have a last visit with them. I hope she'll have some good stories, probably mostly about birds and music (but also the rain), so I can envy perhaps her fun, but not the
trip (particularly the last 24 hrs stuck in Dallas airport on her return). As I'm sure you know, my own trips to Peru are full of such torments, but it is the combating of them, putting up with absurd conditions, that perhaps keeps it all intriguing, and makes it seem not too heavenly, romantic...

The end result for me is of course the pictures, not any writing about the area or trip - I rather wish it were as thoughtful as writing, but then it's not. Not that the thoughts are not there, wrestling away back behind the usual expressions. Fortunately I have found some forms of collaborating on projects so that thoughts are engaged - most recently in the new book with writer Lucy Lippard, on our study "Down Country: the Tano of the Galisteo Basin, 1250-1782". The photographs made over the last ten years are of the now buried pueblo sites, the landscape, and her text is the first attempt to bring together the archaeological history of the local area, and the complex interaction of hispano culture with the pueblo througout the conquest - a long saga, difficult and sad. But the land and some remains do speak, and give us stories we need to know. Thus this big book, big as an adobe.

No real adobe making going on just now, though plenty of summer work just keeping Chaquaco running and habitable for all of us. An interesting balance to studio work, and the nonsense of keeping the picture operation functioning. One realizes it's not all as easy as it used to be.

Today must be Peggy's hernia operation - I turst all goes well and she rests enough after - just tell her you have plenty of people working with you, so she'd better watch out for her proprio cuerpo.

Much love to you both, keep up the writing, Iim sure it's appreciated widely, much more than you can ever know.


coryb said...

Dear Brooke and Peggy,

I will introduce myself again. I took a masters class from Brooke about twenty years ago, It was the Victorian Novel. I still think back on that experience and feel amazed that I was able to read all those lengthy, difficult novels during the short winter quarter. Each book was a wonderful discovery: "Waverly," "Vanity Fair," "Daniel Deronda", and "Bleak House." I know that today I could not accomplish what I did then.

Your most recent blog really touched my heart. I can identify with the feelings of envy, sorrow, and loss. My father suffered a severe stroke in the early eighties and lost his abilities to speak, walk, live at home, and participate meaningfully in life.

He did have visitors, but many times when they came by, it was all about their trips, homes, family, sometimes in excruciating detail. For instance, one couple told about all the ugly statues they had seen on a Roman tour, and one man even said that my father suffered and was chastened so that they could know how to appreciate what they had.

My heart would ache for my father, and I wanted to tell the people to please be more sensitive. How could my dad want to hear all this.

Your insights and emotions are so powerful. I really appreciate your levels of honesty.

My thoughts are with you both.

Cory Bauman

Marilyn McLaughlin said...

As usual I have so many responses to all of this that I can say nothing- other than thank you for writing it, for sharing your true humanity and your remarkable ability to openly wrestle with it all.

I can't wait to see you next week .
xxxooo Marilyn

Marilyn McLaughlin said...

As usual I have so many responses to all of this that I can say nothing- other than thank you for writing it, for sharing your true humanity and your remarkable ability to openly wrestle with it all.

I can't wait to see you next week .
xxxooo Marilyn

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the envy post. I was just envying other people's summer trips myself, as I'm tied to a summer class with *lots* of reading (American Lit: Realism to Naturalism). But I'm realizing the luxuriousness of lots of *reading*--I get to read for a living! How sweet is that?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


GrandmaLiz said...

Independence Day 2010

Dear Peggy and Brooke:

We meant to go to an Independence Day parade and the dedication of a gazebo built in honor of my dear friend Paula’s mother who died last year, but the car wouldn’t start. Instead, I came in the house and, since we just got dial-up access, I looked up the Gettysburg Address. I used to keep it on the refrigerator when I was raising my kids and I wanted to reread it because the Fourth should celebrate government of the people, by the people and for the people. Then I caught up on the blog. I had read the envy entry, but I had missed a couple before that.

Independence. Liberty. We who are free to get up on our own in the morning, make a cup of coffee, and walk, simply walk, are deeply grateful to be reminded of these precious liberties. I try to rejoice that I am alive every minute but fail, and try to remember to do so at least several minutes a day and sometimes succeed. We learn from you to pay attention. I hold out the hope, Brooke, that one day before long you will be on the deck under the arbor and a light rain will begin to fall on the grape leaves. You will see the little quail in your garden stealing the peas and a house finch will burst into song in the tree over your head. Please believe that such pleasures will soon be yours again.

Imprisoned and oppressed so unjustly in your broken body, you nevertheless have a liberty, an independence of mind that is enviable. Your discussion of envy is complex, subtle, so very lucid and extremely interesting. Who else has ever linked guilt and shame to envy?

I have thought a lot about guilt. I find pop psyche’s easy dismissal of “guilt trips” simplistic and shallow. Children who grow up in violent, chaotic environments very often come to believe that the chaos is their fault. It is a way of asserting some control in an out-of-control situation: if it is my fault, surely I can fix it. That might be the real temptation of guilt: a powerless desire for power.

Guilt’s close relative, responsibility, however, is such an important personal and social construct. Kierkegaard makes a useful distinction between remorse and repentance: the former involves a corrosive wallowing; the latter requires turning around, taking action to counteract mistakes, to reverse corrosion. I wonder if you understand that in writing the blog, you take responsibility for us, your family and friends, and effectively help us avoid wallowing in impotent anxieties. Reading about your fight against corrosion invites us to our own acts of mental bravery.

You are so brave to keep in your heart those whose circumstances are even worse than yours. Lincoln used the word “consecrated” to describe the struggles of the living and the dead at Gettysburg. Your refusal to succumb to self-pity, your insistence on gratitude for your “good fortune,” these are consecrated moral struggles. They inspire me to rededicate myself to the fight against giving up.

In the blog about your friend who is dying, you give us the Hopkins (the other Hopkins) word “inscape,” expanded by you to signify personal inner landscape. You have sometimes mentioned a remark I made to you about the transformative impact you have on the people around you. You have described my comment as a gift to you. But what I was talking about is another example of an acute and powerful act of your own mind. “Inscape” is the word I was looking for. You pay attention to inscape, not necessarily the best we are capable of, but, for each of us, most truly who we are. You look for that in us, recognize it and acknowledge it. How liberating it is to so deeply known. When our friends here ask us about recent adventures, we don’t talk about travels and restaurants, we talk about you, both of you, and the extraordinary impact you have on our lives.

Harry said...

Brook you are a wonderful human being, who has always been approachable, human, caring. What you mentioned about looking away...I think often this act of looking away is misunderstood. We look away because we recognize that the person in the wheelchair faces challenges and has undergone challenges that we ourselves cannot comprehend, we become unsteady and unsure of ourselves. I mean we pretty much know how to relate to all the mundane challenges we all face, like why do I get up in the morning in spite of the existential dilemma? But when someone endures some profound suffering, we can't see ourselves enduring or surviving as you have, or having the courage and this haunts us. I've ridden up City Creek all my adult life and I've had close calls and even ridden off the road to avoid vehicles coming up the canyon. I always think now "that could have been" no, correction, "that could be me...that could happen to me" and that gets followed by "I could have a stroke" and suddenly my outlook is fearful and apprehensive. I, for one, will ever have a shameful thought about you and will always view it as an honor or privilege to be in your company. You are not your body. You are a legacy and a life time of experience and compassion and activism and achievement and now great courage. That's alot for one life. Oh, and the whole trip thing...its about the trips we took not the ones that we take I think. I'm glad you are still with us. You've been very kind to me and human...and I just like knowing you are still in the world, which has always been a terrifying place for me. Though I haven't seen you often I always find it consoling to know you're just a few blocks away up in the Avenues by my old place. Hope you are able to go home very soon.

sarah said...

Hi, my name is Sarah (I am one of Steve's students at the U), and this blog entry left a deep impression on me. I have felt similar feelings of envy due to a medical condition I used to have, although on a much smaller scale in comparison to your own experience. I had never been able to really articulate the way I felt about my situation but this put into words the way I felt at the time.