Bad Things

Bad things.  Despite the dangers I have noted about using nouns, and especially the noun “thing,” I use the phrase “bad things” here, and frequently “thing” or “things” throughout these presentations, because that is the way we communicate.  As I emphasized in the last post and will continue to emphasize throughout, the “bad things” involved in pain, fear, shame, etc. are all just ways of describing change and activity, including the activity of feeling about these changes.

Zen Buddhists aspire to empty self and objects, but even a Zen teacher like Ezra Bayda speaks of the “things we fear most” and uses nouns to list them.  Be that as it may, his list captures how Laura felt about her aphasia:

  • the fear of losing safety and control,
  • the fear of aloneness and disconnection, and
  • the fear of unworthiness.”  (Bayda  2012b)

As Bayda notes, “the main reason we have an aversion to fear is that it is physically and emotionally uncomfortable.”

Throughout the course of her illness, Laura rarely expressed fear of her cancer to me, or fear of the discomfort and pain of the treatments she was undergoing, except for the effects of Decadron on her system.  I know from comments they made that she talked with some of her women friends about how she felt about cancer and about dying.

With me she expressed frequently and clearly her fears of disgrace or disrepute.  She was afraid of what people, particularly people at work, might say about her loss of abilities, friends as much as other colleagues and supervisors.  This was not so much a fear about the bad things people might say, as about the saying of those bad things.  She feared what that talk would mean for her professional future and continued employment.  Not so much for herself, but for the future economic well-being of Anne Mei and me.  Laura’s fears about her aphasia were just as much about practical caring as about her self-image as an intellectual and competent professional.

Two fears drove Laura to keep working—failing to vest in the pension system, and losing health insurance coverage.  When she had the flat tire, she still needed another year and a half to vest in the pension system. We were on Laura’s insurance plan through her employer, and didn’t know (pre-ACA) what the implications would be if we had to switch to my plan—coverage, networks, pre-existing conditions, and all that nastiness.  Or how long that switch would be an option, given the volatile fiscal and political situation where I worked.  Laura did not live long enough to vest in the pension system, but thanks to the kindness of the personnel people in Laura’s division and the generosity of her colleagues, Laura never ran out of sick leave and we never had to deal with changing insurance coverage.

It is interesting that Bayda dismisses such fears of what might happen as “imaginary,” but goes on to say that

these three basic fears—insecurity and helplessness, aloneness and disconnection, and unworthiness— are not just mental.  Scientists tell us that fear is written into the cellular memory of the body, particularly into a small part of the brain called the amygdala.

These statements are “interesting” because they split real and imaginary, mind and body.  Buddhists generally avoid such dualistic thinking.  To me “not just mental” means changing and doing emotionally and socially, not just at the cellular level.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines fear as the “expectation of evil” (kakoū).  (NE III.6  1115a10).   We are in the last phase of explicating his definition of fear in the Rhetoric—pain or disturbance caused by seeing danger ahead, imagining imminent destructive and painful evil, phantasías méllontos kakoū phthartikoū ē lúpēroū . (R. II.5  1382a22)

More than 2,300 years later, Walter Cannon observes that we fear the same things we get angry at, such as things that might kill us. (Cannon [1915] 273)  We fear what we are facing, what’s imminent.  Dying is usually not imminent, so most of us do not go around in fear of death all the time.  Laura could talk about wanting to live long enough to vest in the pension system for Anne Mei and me without a trace of fear in her voice.

We do fear when we believe something is likely to happen “at the hand of particular persons, in a particular form, and at a particular time,” say, another flat-tire.   (R. 1382b33)  We don’t fear people or situations just because they’re no good (kaká).  Just because someone is wicked or stupid, whatever we may feel about that, it’s usually not fear.  And if we fear, we fear what seems to have the “great power” to destroy or harm us “in ways that tend to cause great pain (lúpēn).”  (R. 1382a20—1382b10)  We fear even just the signs of forces that have this power to destroy or harm us (Laura’s visual cut, the flat tire, Jop’s arrest, the whalers’ line).

The poet Mary Ruefle recites all the “bad things” that Laura and I feared during this experience.

I think it is time to list some concrete fears:  fear of death of illness of pain of suffering of despair of not understanding of disturbance or reversal of powers of being unloved of the unknown or strange of destruction of humiliation of degradation of poverty of hunger of aging of unworthiness of transgression of punishment of making a mistake of loss of dignity of failure of oblivion of outliving the mind of eating an anchovy These are not simian fears. These are human fears.

Even the bit about “eating an anchovy” is not an inappropriate, facetious wisecrack.  It’s not just a good metaphor, or metonymy, or poetic image.  It was a physical fact. The way we were feeling, the slightest challenge (such as to our sense of smell or to our taste) could overwhelm us with all the other fears.

During Laura’s illness I had two jobs about which I felt mixed emotions for doing them right.  At times I felt that doing these jobs right meant doing wrong to others.  I didn’t fear disgrace so much as I feared hurting others.  The two jobs were being Laura’s caregiver and working as township manager.  As Laura’s caregiver I had to witness intimate details of her bodily functions that I knew pained her for me to see.  We will talk more about this shortly when we talk about the proverb that “shame dwells in the eyes.”  The job of township manager is to make sure that the municipality provides the services in the quantity and quality specified by the elected representatives of the people.  There is no getting around the fact that ensuring that these services are provided correctly means hurting some people by not hiring, criticizing, disciplining, demoting, firing, reorganizing people out of jobs or into jobs at lower pay.  You cannot last in jobs like this if let yourself become paralyzed by fear of inflicting hurt or of payback.  You shouldn’t feel shame for doing what your job requires.  You will feel pain and turmoil when others are hurt by your decisions or actions.  That pain and turmoil is not fear and not pity.  You may not feel ashamed for doing your job well, but you are well aware of the looks and the talk that says you ought to feel ashamed of yourself.  In other words, you feel that others think that you have done wrong, even if it’s just not doing enough to protect them.   You see yourself as disgraced, and you “shrink from the disgrace itself and not from its consequences.” (1384a24-30)   We feel shame because we care about what people will think of us. This sentence provides the key to how to deal with this situation, but I will leave it at that because this is not an essay on how to be a township manager.

Laura’s feelings about how her aphasia would affect her at her work fall more within Aristotle’s discussions of fear and shame.  Aristotle probably wouldn’t understand how a supervisor could care what his subordinates thought of him, except in the case of dishonor in front of subordinates.  He says that we care what people think of us because of who these people are.  In Laura’s case, she was concerned particularly about those with whom she was competing, and those from whom she wanted to get recognition and advancement. She was also worried about

  • “those who will always be with us and those who notice what we do,”
  • those who are hard on even those who do no wrong,
  • those who like to tell others,
  • those who like to mock others. (R. 1384b30, 1384a35ff.)

There were also people whom she admired and whose opinion she respected.   With shame, we internalize “a figure who sees the subject’s failing” qua failing only because of shared “standards and expectations.”   Laura was motivated to avoid shame because she anticipated how she would feel if someone saw her struggling with words.  (Williams 79, 219)

Aristotle uses ádoxía to describe both what we fear and what hurts in shame.  Translated as disgrace, dishonor, the word primarily refers to ill-repute or contempt.  It comes from the verb dokein, which means “to expect,” and hence to judge, to believe, to think, to estimate. Here we are talking about how we are affected by the judgments and expectations of others that there is something bad about us.  The negativity of these judgements is even stronger in the Latin word Aquinas uses for disgrace—turpitudo from turpis, foul, filthy, ugly, base, vile, depraved, wicked. (ST I-IIae q. 41 a.4 co.) The Vulgate uses turpitudo for nakedness and, hence, shame.

After centuries and volumes of talk about evil, we still argue about what evil is, about why evil happens. Perhaps evil is as simple and obvious as what Laura was facing.  Evil occurs when someone feels or should feel ashamed.    For those who believe in an all-knowing, all-mighty, perfectly good God, sometimes the person who should feel ashamed is God, which Job doesn’t mind telling him.  Job concludes a list of the evils perpetrated by the wicked on the orphan, the widow, and “the poor of the earth” with the charge:

From the city the dying groan,
and the throat of the wounded cries for help;
yet God pays no attention to their prayer. (Job 24:12)

In Laura’s case, she had done nothing wrong, committed no sin, perpetrated no crime—to use two everyday, practical terms for evil and how it happens.  Putting aside the very real possibility that environmental pollution contributes to the causes of brain cancer, no identifiable human actors caused the evil growing inside Laura’s head.

As much as we struggle over the question of how a good God could allow the wickedness that people inflict on each other, we puzzle even more over the evils of nature.  There’s no doctrine of free-will to mediate between a good God and the bad things in his creation—storms, earthquakes, disease.  Laura didn’t cause this evil; yet, she felt ashamed of what it was doing to her.  Laura didn’t cause this evil; yet, she felt the need to protest that she was not guilty of living an unhealthy life.  We have survivors’ guilt, and the shame of the victim.  The survivor and the victim are not evil, did not do evil.  Evil is the name we give to what makes us feel guilty or ashamed, regardless of who caused that evil.

Shame and guilt are not the only emotions in this mix.   Fear and anger frequently send the first signals. Kaká may be a better word to use to get at what Simone Weil is trying to say when she describes “evil” as a natural phenomenon or movement, like the waves in the sea that smash the boat and drown the sailor. (Weil [1973] 129)  Kaká works like the tsunami that crushed whole villages. Laura’s flat tire and visual cut signaled dangers from physical forces, which though they may have seemed like it at times, did not have a human will to do things that affected Laura.  Laura could fear what they told her was happening to her body.  Where her fear does enter the sphere of human intention is the fear of the social consequences—not being able to drive, having to go back on sick leave (if she had it). The whaleman’s line was fearsome because it represented two, intertwined (sorry!) blind forces: the whale and the chance of mishap during the run.  The signifier in the visual cut was purely physical.  Laura couldn’t see to her right.  The signifier in the flat tire was a physical object (a tire), but it was not so much the tire as flat that signaled danger, as the social event that flattened the tire.  The line may have seemed just a rope, but it was the social placing of the line and the social activity of whaling that made it dangerous.

Two aspects of these thoughts require care.  First, remember that kaká is a noun.  We use it to refer to change, movement, action.  There are no things that are inherently kaká.  Even a substance philosopher like Aquinas did not believe that there is any such thing as an evil thing (insofar as it is what it is) or that evil was a thing.  Secondly, when we use kaká, we are talking about these changes insofar as they concern us.  Perhaps kaká is “non-emotive,” as Beye says, but using the English word “evil” involves feelings.

In his Rhetoric Aristotle describes emotions as changes that change our judgments and that our judgments change. (R. 1378a19-22)   The question is—do we fear or feel ashamed about things because they are bad, or are things bad because we fear or feel ashamed about them?  Pointing at emotions, expectations, and perceptions does not make evil any less real or less independent of our emotions, expectations, and perceptions.  But we only “know” evil through our emotions, expectations, and perceptions.  It is the mix of emotions, expectations, and perceptions that enables us to identify the presence of evil and to say what kind of evil it is.

In the depth of suffering people see themselves as abandoned and forsaken by everyone.  That which gave life its meaning has become empty and void; it turned out to be an error, an illusion that is shattered, a guilt that cannot be rectified, a void.  …  The ground on which life was built, the primal trust in the world’s reliability … is destroyed.  (Soelle [1975] 86)

This is how Laura felt about her aphasia.  At times.  Most of the time she just gritted her teeth and worked on The New Yorker.


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