Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Last Call" by Larissa MacFarquhar

I get sent books, and occasionally other things, like once I got opera tickets. I love the opera. I love movies. I enjoy free things, it makes me feel important. Some people joke that blogging is narcissistic. "Didn't you read my blog," Sheldon Cooper says in Big Bang Theory. There are some blogisattvas.

Sometimes I don't like a book. I try to only say positive things. I write detailed blogs about what I dislike, but I don't publish them. I have a lot of books I didn't really like and I guess the person who sent them might be disappointed. I only comment when I like a book. Often I report I got something in the mail, so as to give it some publicity. I get more than enough stuff though, and if it stopped I would be OK with that too. Often I review books that I have bought. I spent a fortune on books. I've sent a lot of workers at Windhorse on retreat. Sometimes I get something that I really like, and it's just a PDF. That's a low investment that makes me feel less pressure. No mail, no hard copy, just the electronic information.

I started reading the New Yorker in high school in Wisconsin. An English teacher brought in a stack one day and said "read this magazine, it's the best magazine." That's what we did in class that day. I loved the magazine. You'd think the class would misbehave, but we just enjoyed the magazine.

When I moved to NYC I got a subscription. Off and on I've read it over the past 23 years. More on than off. I don't currently have a subscription. When I was out of work I had to tighten my belt, and I will probably be tightening my belt for years to dig out of the debt I've accumulated. Have to cut expenses where you can. I don't have a TV, I don't have cable. I go into the projects, poor neighborhoods, and without fail people have huge flatscreen TVs. How do they get them? But I digress.

So I was pleased when New Yorker sent me this article called "Last Call". It's about suicide in Japan, and a monk who counsels people. It's a fascinating article for me on many levels.

When I was at NYU people started jumping to their death at the library. It has a huge internal space, and a long drop. NYU quickly put up plexiglass barriers. At the time I thought, "that won't work." But I read an article in the New Yorker about how a net worked at the Empire State Building. You'd think if someone really wanted to do it they would jump to the net, and then crawl to the edge and jump, but little things like that stop people. It doesn't seem too easy. Lots of people jump of the Golden Gate Bridge. A few survive. If you go feet first and angle it a little so you don't go too deep, you can survive. Universally everyone who survives reports the minute the stepped off, they regretted it. Instead of nets the Golden Gate Bridge uses volunteers that approach people who look like they are going to jump. They don't want to mar the look of this iconic bridge.

I've felt suicidal in my life. As a teenager who hadn't found his place in the world, I sometimes romanticized the idea.

I worked on Riker's Island in the suicide unit, and learned how to work with people who needed affect regulation and distress tolerance help. Most people just are expressing deep unhappiness. You really need a plan and the intent to carry out the plan to be truly suicidal. Most people are just upset and are trying to dramatize their plight. Once they ventilate their feelings and get some empathy, they settle down. Not that there is much you can do to help people who are incarcerated, but listening sometimes helps.

Riker's Island is a big mental hospital where people who were caught with drugs get time served. If we legalized cannabis we would save so much money. I don't hear the big government haters talking about that one too much. Colorado was smart. Legend has it that it's only an influential newspaper man's antipathy for cannabis that lead to it's being made illegal. Substance abuse is a huge tragedy, and we do need to try and keep a lid on it, so I'm ambivalent about legalization. In our current ruthless politics of the bottom line, I can see arguments for it.

More recently I felt suicidal when I made a big mistake. I never really developed a plan or the intent to carry suicide out, I just had ideation. But I felt so horrible for what I'd done, ending it seemed preferable. Luckily I had loyal friends and family who helped me through that time.

Japan has a particular twist on suicide. They're not the worst country in terms of suicide, a surprising list, not sure what it means to be on top, means. In Japan there are hikikomori, which are shut-ins who don't leave their rooms. They've given up on trying to find a place in society.

A Rinzai monk named Nemoto has connected with these people, and holds workshops where he has people imagine they are dead, and he holds a funeral for them. Often times it has a strange effect on them. Nemoto became weirdly giddy in life when he left the monastery. It was so hard being at the monastery that living ordinary life became so easy. The hardships he endured gave him a kind of perspective. And somehow people started being attracted to his counseling. He's doing bodhisattva work.

Nemoto started to feel overwhelmed by it all, and then his father got sick and he stopped responding to all the e-mails he got. He had heart problems, and got angioplasty. He finally wrote the people he'd been corresponding with for years, and they didn't care. Sitting in the hospital he supposedly cried for weeks. He entered a dark night of the soul, when you realize you're not getting anything back from your spiritual practice. And yet somehow he found a way back. He saw some messages of support. He decided he wanted to meet people face to face, and not take e-mails and phone calls. The ones who made it to his remote temple put in the effort to get there. He felt meetings got a kind of resolution that gave him a better feeling about working with people.

I won't give the dramatic ending away.

Larissa MacFarquhar has written a beautiful article. Unfortunately the content is not free yet. Magazines tease you by giving you some content, but they can't give it all away. A subscription to the New Yorker isn't that much and you really get what I consider to be the best magazine in the USA.

(I've had a few friends who've interned at the New Yorker, and I danced with Emily Naussbaum, the TV critic in the New Yorker, once, about 20 plus years ago at a party. My second ex introduced me to her probably the last time we went out together. ("All my exes live in New York and Connecticut" isn't such a good rhyme.) I don't really hobnob with the intelligencia of New York, despite my desire to join the club. But I can read their lovely work, and so can you.)

Supposedly Japan doesn't have a lot of psychotherapy. Nemoto was functioning as a kind of crisis psychotherapist, listening to people. He realized that people needed to extend some efforts to utilize him, and he wanted to step out of the circular talking. When I was a therapist I used to feel despair when I felt a kind of circular talking, a clinging to a story. What Yalom called the "help refusing complainer" in his famous book on groups.

I notice sometimes that people are focused on their rationalization, and have a hard time seeing past their justification of what they did to see that someone is pointing out "what about this". They just press the button and resume the story. Sometimes empathy can help people feel heard, and then they begin to listen to themselves more deeply. I do that too. I'm not putting myself above others. But it's an interesting phenomenon. How do you really change? I think meditation, relationships and psychotherapy are three ways lots of people work for change. Change isn't easy. We can't solve a problem on the terms that created the problem, we have to be infused with a new  perspective. When you're hunkered down in self justification, it's hard to take on another perspective. Koans are about breaking out of a perspective and trying something new.

So go get a New Yorker and read this awesome article.

(I read an article that you can increase blog traffic by saying "How Can I die?" I think our deep political unrest contributes to individual strife here in the USA.)

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