See you at the movies.

by Nic Olson

Abstinence of joy in pursuit of character and knowledge is something I learned from reading Gandhi’s autobiography when I was 18. If I remember correctly he wouldn’t eat anything but fruit and nuts, he wouldn’t even consummate his marriage with his faithful wife. I use it in explaining why I don’t have television or the internet, or why I eat a particular diet, and even something I used as a reason not to sleep with someone in the past. I use it as a noble way to cover less attractive qualities in myself such as cheapness, cowardice. I should have known that reading even a positive influential piece of literature when in the developing years can do a person harm if it is not fully understood. And it wasn’t.

Unlike Gandhi, the intellectual giant and human phenomenon, the abstinence of joys has produced in me an uneven pattern of mental health. For when people are watching Netflix or eating ice cream or having sex on a basement floor, that is, when people are engaging in normal human activities, I am sitting on my couch staring out the window, trying to hide the light from the digital billboard behind a planter pot in order to further abstain from screens. Instead I stare out the window, the sky an apocalyptic yellow, picturing a tornado tearing off the corner of my building and sucking me up two hundred feet in the air before dropping me to the road below and flitting away. Think about how I abstain from distractions and personal weaknesses so that I can spend my time ruminating on philosophical truths and creative outlets, when instead I end up overthinking relationships and decisions and contemplating toenail length and streetlight schedules. My attempts at character building, knowledge gaining, wisdom seeking develop into anxious, panicked sweats. Or I think about thought; admonishing myself for not thinking about the things that a person of intelligence should think about. For not further studying into the history of Palestine, or the teachings of Tagore, or civic policy and politics.

Only when I lay to sleep do I understand that every thought is regurgitation, and therefore not productive. I hear the voices of peers, or my voice repeating things I need to do, or a replay of the things I read, or advertisements plopping out of my subconscious. When tired, the regurgitation of thoughts intensifies. They blow around in your globe and bounce out like the next bingo ball. Meditation; be it unconscious, accidental, or purposeful, is where newness arrives from. From the back shelves, where things have been sorted and stashed. Meditation is being immersed in the lack of thought, either while gardening or biking or baking or sitting in a yogi pose or sleeping or eating. Demanding original and creative thought after ten hours of being pre-consumed and used up is impossible, and the pressure to do this has given me a new relationship with what mental health really is. Abstinence hasn’t ruined me, personal pressure and not knowing the limits of human energy has. And I will be surprised if I truly understand it before I break.

I am learning, despite my previous conditioning, that a proper distraction will do more for an eager mind than eagerness itself. See you at the movies.

What do you think? he asked me again.
How it feels to go crazy? I asked.
I don’t know, I said. Sad and easy, I guess, like losing a friend? You say a few wrong things, you ignore the obvious, you act stupid in an unfunny way. Travis told me that Kafka or someone like that had said insanity could be defined as the attempt to reconcile one’s overwhelming urge to write things down with one’s overwhelming conviction that silence is the most appropriate response. Oh, I said. Okay.

-Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness, Chapter 18, p 149-150