“I don’t know the name, but I know it lies closest to your heart.”
Sometimes a phrase shows up in your brain and refuses to leave. It sits there, patiently or impatiently, and waits for you to catch on to the fact that a) it’s not leaving, and b) it means something.
There is exactly one way that I have ever found to resolve this situation: figure out what the words mean, and write it down. Sometimes it takes a while, though. Sometimes you have to puzzle through for days, weeks, or months before enough small things add up that you can say, with complete truth, what needs to be said.
The above phrase crept into my head quietly, one day at work. At first I thought it was a modern ghost story – some sort of meta-The Turn of the Screw, Henry James with an identity crisis thrown in. That sounds cheerful, I thought, and went back to minding my own business.
You can guess how that turned out.
After several days of more bits and pieces hitting me in the head, Poltergiest-style, I found enough of the lines to start to recognize the thing. Only it wasn’t one thing; it was three different posts. It turns out they’re all related by the idea of … trauma. I know, I have a cheerful brain. Here’s the thought process:
Trauma is one of the most contagious substances in the Universe. It likes to spread from person to person through both space and time.
Trauma isn’t always recognized by the society that creates it.
I see many unrecognized traumas in my own society.
People are living with and absorbing the weight of these traumas, these injustices, today; the results will travel with us into our future.
Trauma tends to wrap around individual lives and experiences and weave them so tightly into a certain pattern of History that they can’t untangle themselves from it, even generations into the future.
How does that turn into three different posts?
The first piece of writing (Happy Endings) deals with the idea of trauma as something that overshadows lives beyond the extent of people who directly experienced or participated in it.
The second (Today My Words Are Simple: Trick History) deals with the idea of history (or – let’s be precise – human behavior) as something that displays patterns. Sometimes people think, “Oh, that’s sad, but it’s just the way it is.” No, nothing is “just the way it is.” If you can see the pattern, you have an option to change it.
The third (Insurance Is Not A Poetic Thing) (which I’m still not completely happy with, still tinkering with) – recognizes the feeling of valuelessness resulting from everyday injustices is as much a type of trauma as the large-scale disasters with film adaptations and epic soundtracks.
Common to each of these ideas is the implied question, what is the value of a life? (Yep, the philosophy is starting to hit hard.) Part of what traumatizes people is feeling like choice is valueless, and thus life has no value. It’s a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness, a state of disconnection from options.
There are many ways to make it clear to people that they are not, in fact, worth anything. I used to know an economist who would argue that you could know the value of a person by checking the black market. Technicalities and edginess aside, I prefer a world in which people are valued for more than their economic value – for more than the value they produce for others, and the value they give others through consumption.
Of course, economic systems do produce a type of value, but it only works within the system of that economy. It can be very useful as long as you plan to limit the scope of your actions and understanding. But limiting your scope is dangerous when you forget you’re doing it, especially when thinking about something so crucial as the concept of “value”. So here’s a mental exercise: let’s look at this from the field of physics. (Because as they say, everything else is just stamp collecting*.)
Physics doesn’t recognize value. Or rather, physics understands that nothing is wasted. Even “nothing” has its place (alright, possibly most of the universe is “nothing”, if you believe those popular science articles), and the fact that nothing is wasted is the value of the whole: there are no externalities. No getting away from something. A small effect becomes large, a large system breaks down, but the sum of the whole has an integrity that denies nihilism.
In a society, each person has a vital spot in maintaining the integrity of the whole. Cynicism, apathy, and failed definitions of value tear away at this whole. If a society doesn’t repair itself faster than it’s broken down, the end result is its individuals will experience the crippling weight of accumulated choicelessness.
How do societies recover from this state? How do individuals deal with the understanding that their society has no use for them, that they are an inconvenience, a problem to be removed or ignored? How does one regain value?
Lucky for us, the phrase “trick history” is stuck in my head – but that’s a post for another day.
*A quote attributed to Earnest Rutherford: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/05/08/stamp/
Very Important Note: do not click on xkcd while researching, even if the article you are reading references it. That said, https://xkcd.com/1520/.