The Stories We Comfort Ourselves With

I was reading Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Trungpa Chogam, and a passage of the book has been popping up in my mind ever since.

We would rather hoard and preserve the flavor and beauty of the experience so that, when bad times come, when we are depressed and down, we can bring that memory to mind in order to comfort ourselves, to tell ourselves that we have actually done something worthwhile.

I believe Chogam was talking about the way some people mentally cling to some of their more moving spiritual experiences (frankly, I don’t fully understand a lot of what he’s saying) but it stuck out to me because it seemed to be a more general applicable. Why do people post only their happiest memories on the internet? Why do people create this sanitized, beautified story about their lives? I had always found it somewhat offensive, even though I do it too. But, when I read that line, instead of feeling my normal annoyance at all the people who did this, I felt a sort of sadness – as if I were looking at a bird with with a broken wing trying to fly.

Apparently, the singer Amy Winehouse died alone of alcohol poisoning watching youtube videos of herself. Something about her death struck me as particularly iconic of our times, as if she had given a bolder expression of what so many of us do every day. It’s so easy to get caught in this loop, watching ourselves, and obsessing, trying to see how beautiful we are but never quite seeing it. I’d always thought facebook was a tool to show off to others, but I think actually it’s appeal is that it allows us to show off to ourselves.

When we are forced to see something difficult about ourselves, we can turn to these stories and say “see, this is who I am, the person in these photos!” But, we never actually believe it do we? Because if we did, we wouldn’t need the stories.

Death of a High School Classmate

One of my high-school classmates was killed recently in a suicide bombing in the Islamic East. I don’t want to be too specific, because I’d rather not have him be identifiable from this post.

I had to look up photos of him on the internet to be sure I was remembering him right. It was strange, because he looked different – older, adult. Not how I remembered him. I watched a video of him talking, and his accent seemed to have changed – or possibly I’m not remembering it correctly in the first place. His voice was definitely deeper. In high school, he was a somewhat conflicted young man. We went to a very liberal school, but he had conservative and patriotic values. I remember arguing with him about women, something about how we should appreciate more of our female heroes, and he argued that there weren’t that many. I also think he may have gotten in trouble at some point for bringing a confederate flag to school.

My senior year, my gay friend apparently came across him on some sort of gay chat room. My friend confronted him about it, and apparently, my classmate said something to the effect that he was a gay man, and comfortable with his sexuality. I didn’t really hear anything about him after that, but in my mind, I sort of filed him away as one of those strange gay conservatives I hear about.

After looking him up after his death, however, he seems to have become a far more complicated individual. A scholar of some renown, (although, obviously still quite young) he had become a governmental advisor, travelled the world, and written a book. His ideas appeared to be well thought out, and unique. Possibly, some of the complexity of his adolescence led to a more thoroughly thought out intellectual standpoint, I’m not sure.

But, reading through my facebook posts was sort of empty.

This is very sad news.

Our prayers are with his family.

Shocking. Tragic.

They were so void, I’m not even completely sure I was remembering the right person – everything they said was so generic it could have been about anyone. They called him “brave” and “unique,” but whitewashed out some of the more interesting aspects of his personality. As I searched for him on the internet, I desperately wanted an answer to the question who was this person? What were his struggles, and his successes? What took him to the place where he finally died? Did he believe in heaven, hell? Was he afraid of dying? Did he fall in love?

I hope he fell in love.

I haven’t thought of this man in over ten years, and yet now I  desperately want to talk to him. When I was younger, I wanted to be seen. As I get older, and a few have started twinkling out, I’m starting to realize how important it is to see who these people really are while there’s still time. Who am I? Who was he? Who are you? It’s all connected, I think. We can never know the answer to one without knowing the answer to all.

Goodbye, and good luck.

The Ring Case

In Europe, there was a push for a while to label photoshopped images in magazines to “discourage the altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.” (New York Times, Nov 2011.)  I watched a recent South Park episode where Wendy shouts “Kim Kardashian is a short, overweight woman who manipulates her image and makes average girls feel horrible about themselves.” The general assumption is that photoshop, these images, have the power to make girls feel bad about themselves and that we should do something about that.

It’s a view that I usually sort of buy into. Whenever I see a view of a beautiful woman, who is likely photoshopped, I usually mentally compare myself to her or feel angry. Part of me just wants someone to make it go away, and I deeply sympathize with people who want to legislate it away – and maybe it would even work, I don’t know. But, I don’t have the power to make it happen, this is not the world I live in. So, why worry about that too much?

Once, I took an introduction to shiatsu massage class, and half way through I was feeling very relaxed and open. Suddenly, a voice in my head said “I’m going to die soon.” I was deeply unnerved, and not really sure how to take it. I tried to resist it, but no reassurances I could give myself could reassure me that I wouldn’t die soon. What was soon, anyway? Two days? Two years? Two hundred years? Who was this “I” even referring to anyway? Me? Who is me? And who was this voice talking to? Also me, the same me? Why was it not “you’re going do die soon?” (In fact, when I repeated the story too a friend, I remembered it as saying “you’re going to die soon” – I couldn’t keep straight who was “me” and who was “you” when referring to the voices in my head.)

Anyway, I came to the conclusion that even if the voice was completely prophetic, nothing had really changed. Except, when I walked home that night, everything looked different.

As I stepped off the subway, I entered a room completely plastered in express ads. The ads featured skinny women in lacy clothes, with heavy eye makeup, and that slightly open mouthed expression that is so common these days. “Pouty” I think it’s called. I remember when they’d first put the ads up, I’d been so angry. My eyes could not escape them, no matter where I looked. They even had ads plastered on the floor – I was allowed to walk on the pretty women, as long as I looked at them.

But, when I entered that room that night – full of awareness of my own mortality – I didn’t feel angry. Or sad. I felt amused. I stopped in front of one of the large vertical ads, and stared up at these woman who were probably about twice as tall as I was. And, I can’t recall the exact feeling now, but I remember finding it funny.

Since then, sometimes when I pass the ads, I still feel angry. I have tried to remember what it was I found so funny, and I don’t think it’s quite something I can put in words.

But. It had something to do with the pouty expressions, carefully engineered to completely hide the inner world of the models.

Once, when I was a child, my grandmother showed me a case with a beautiful ring in it. She took the ring out to show it to me, but I was more interested in the case. She let me play with the case, but when my brother saw me playing with it, he wanted to play with it too. I had seen ring cases on TV, and had realized that people valued them which was why I wanted to play with it, but I didn’t understand the ring inside was the valuable part. When my brother saw me with the ring case, he was tricked! He also assumed the case was the important part. We sat there fighting over the case, completely ignoring the ring.

Maybe the media is like a giant ring case shop, with huge, beautiful ring cases on display – more elaborate and more ornate than anything that has existed before, most of which you could never afford. And in the corner, there is a bucket full of beautiful diamond rings that you pick up to go in your case.

You enter the shop, and go over the the bucket of diamonds rings in the corner. You spend a minute or two staring at them, then turn to the man who runs the shop and ask, “Can I have one of these?”

He laughs at you, in a condescending but indulgent way. “Sure,” he chuckles. “Help yourself to whatever you want.”

So you reach in and take a big fist full of diamond rings, and put them in your pocket. “Thanks!” you say, as you head out the door. And, he shakes his head with a bemused sort of pity. What type of fool are you, that would want a handful of rings without a good ring case to keep it in?


Apparently, there are 4 things you should say to someone you care about who is dying.

  • Please forgive me
  • I forgive you
  • Thank you
  • I love you

When it came to say goodbye to my grandfather, I forgot all of those except for one. I love you.

He is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, and hardly ever talks. When I visited him six months prior, he didn’t know who I was. My mother asked him if he remembered me, but he said no. Still, when he looked at me – perhaps it was just wishful thinking – but I sensed some recognition. I look somewhat like his sister did when she was my age, so maybe he didn’t know it was *me* per se, but had a sense of my familiarity.

This time, he was bed bound and slept most of the days. Sometimes he seemed to know people were around, and sometimes his eyes drifted into an invisible distance. My father has already lost both his parents, and told me he thought my grandfather was nearing the end. “When they get this way, it’s usually a matter of weeks.” We were visiting from America, so this was probably the last time I would see him alive.

My final day there, I had a few minutes alone with him right before I left. He was awake and looking out the window, and I walked around to be in his sight. I couldn’t talk loudly, because I was on the verge of crying, so I bent over his bed to bring my face close to his, and put my hand on his.

“It’s time for me to go now,” I whispered.

“Oh, ok”

“I just wanted to tell you, that I love you very much, and I wish you the best with whatever comes next.” Then, I kissed him on the forehead.

He opened his mouth as if to respond, but no words came out. So, he looked right at me, and smiled. I think I smiled back, I’m not sure.

Then, his eyes drifted away again. I looked back at him one last time as I walked out the door – and that is probably the last image I will ever have of my grandpa. Laying in bed, blue eyes vacant as he stared at things I could not see. I hope those things were beautiful.