Learned Helplessness

“Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life.”

-J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy 

I struggle with learned helplessness.  When a good thing comes my way, I don’t see it as a direct result of my work, but as a star flung from a distant universe. Conversely, when a bad thing craters my life, I’m quick to take accountability. I am what I deserve: depressed, destructive, unaccomplished. Of course some bad, dumb thing would irrevocably fuck up my life, because I am irrevocably bad and dumb.

Fuck-ups are never irrevocable, but they can seem that way when ground through the lens of “All or Nothing”: a mentality that either begets or grows from learned helplessness, like a snake eating its tail.  Many people I know experience this cycle.  Most of them are high-functioning.  They’re innovative, creative, respected, loved.  But they can’t let go of their defeatism, the death instinct like an iron splinter contaminating their blood.  

I can drive myself crazy wondering what wild accomplishments, how many advantageous friendships, I would have by now if I didn’t carry around this splinter.  But there’s no disputing the fact of iron. I have it, and like everyone else carrying it around, I have to accept being “mostly okay” and not “great.”

I am an individual that people in one context will talk highly of, but in another will rightfully shit-talk.  This is actually how most of us are: we can’t please everyone.  Swallowing our own unexceptionalism, moving forward, creating–this is all we can do.

 “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” –John Steinbeck.

Writing, photography, and reading have done wonders for my learned helplessness.  Commiseration helps, but only if followed by an appeal to my higher self.  A week ago, I took a photo walk with a friend through City Park.  I desperately need to update my equipment, but the act of documentary is nontheless a healthy compulsion for me. The day was overcast, chilly.  The old oak trees bowed heavy limbs bristling with resurrection ferns.  The birds twisted their long necks into question marks.  

Here’re some photos from our journey:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body 
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.” 
― Mary Oliver 

Greyhound at Night

The bus has no wifi. In my part of the world, this is actually worth complaining about. The clock eeks toward 9 PM. We pass Baton Rouge, a crown of smoke and oil on the river. 

Before that, we crossed flatlands, swamps.  Trees like wrinkled fingers stretched from the water. I had a song in my head, a cyclical, sensual dance jam by a New Orleans musician I had seen perform at a private party.  The song contained maybe 14 words, total–but those 14 words filtered through warbled bass chords, created a hypnotic echo chamber.  I was obsessed.

I remember a news-turned-horror story about a Greyhound bus murderer. It went like this: the murderer looked just like everyone else. He put a gun to the driver’s head, ordered him to pull over. 

“Step out,” said the murderer.  The driver stepped out.  

The murderer followed him.  On some stretch of Texan nowhere, he shot the driver. The sky ran in every direction, stars cringing. Unnoticed, a lizard crossed the highway. One by one, the murderer ordered passengers off the bus. One by one he shot them. 

I like to believe that, were I on that bus, I’d keep my headphones in. I’d run singing that damn cyclical, sensual dance jam to my bullet.  I wanna love you right, I’d croon, leaning into the barrel of whatever gun had been too easy for the murderer to purchase. 

On a bus with no wifi, we can imagine ourselves the heroes of our mobile village. There are no movies or stories to tell us otherwise, no Instagram likes or passive aggressive emails.  And isn’t the point of travel, anyway? To escape our social and professional routines? Grow?

Here are some recent photographs from hangouts, lives, and shows I’ve photographed.  I hope I take many more on this trip:

The Madness Revelation

Dionysus, the twice-born god–so, by extension, the god who died and came back. Of all Greek deities,  Dionysus most resembles Christ.  Offering wine, this theatrical character presents a ying-yang approach to spiritual oneness: through madness, revelation. Recalling the chalice of Catholicism, I am struck by the cyclical nature of ritual and religion: through madness, revelation ; through death, life. 

Chasing the madness revelation, many artists have evoked Dionysus. In Young Sick Bacchus, titled after the gods Roman moniker, Caravaggio embodies Dionysus in a self-portrait. The result is how the deity would appear were he a smidge more mortal–enough to contract malaria while out moon-boozing, perhaps.  

Caravaggio’s curse–the curse of all artists who chase the madness revelation–is mortality.  We are not god-like.  We must moderate ourselves, chip at our madness little by little, or else spend our days working from a hospital bed. 

Engaged in my practice, I tell myself constantly: Slow down, Drink water, The Poem is okay.  Physical and mental health entwine, a grape grasping a stave. Here are two mantras I repeat to keep the grape sweet, the stave strong:

1.  Not Everyone is My Audience (and that’s OK)

We’ve all heard someone say, as if proclaiming some deep, unrecognized truth,  “I hate the Beatles.”  These people are certain: The Beatles, the most garbage band in history, can only be justified by freak rules of fetishized, boy-band appeal. This opinion isn’t invalid, but it doesn’t refute the Beatles’ artistic success.  As proof, I offer all of Paul McCartney’s money, as well as his 18 Grammys.

We live in an age where people voice contrarian opinions just to keep a conversation going. Some people hate what I do.  It’s too easy or too complicated. It rhymes or it doesn’t.  It’s not universal. The region and genre I work in, Appalachian horror, isn’t for everyone.  

Neither is the color mauve.  

Or pepper jelly. 

My work isn’t for the people who reject it. 

I used to agonize over pleasing others.  After wasting lots of time and energy, I learned that I must either banish this worry from my mind or get lost in a labyrinth of infinitely dividing-paths.  Everyone will tell you how they want your song to sound. What’s more important is how you want your song to sound.

2. Food, Water and Sleep Are More Important Than Every Other Thing

When I embark on difficult work, self-care becomes paramount . I cannot go into a traumatic creative space and come out unscathed unless I take certain precautions, protect myself.   Because I am still learning, I have often failed here.  Chasing the madness revelation with only wine and an empty body, I have broken glass and cried in the armpits of friends.  It took some years, but I’m finally coming out of this haze with a more ritualistic approach.  

Art, like religion, thrives on ritual. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche claims that the Dionysian impulse chafes against the logic of organized society, begetting conflict. Those partaking of Dionysius’ “narcotic drink” dance through semblances of health before returning to their “ghostly, corpse-like” selves. I would argue that, because Dionysus is a god, and a god demands ritual, Nietzsche’s assertion is false. In fact, ritual is perhaps the most ignored and the most effective element of a Dionysian creative process.  Ritual protects us from the flames of hell, the brightness of heaven. Through ritual, we harness the madness revelation ; It does not harness us. 

For all of you who write difficult stories, play songs in discordant, minor keys or create images that, despite their catastrophe reach for healing–thank you, you inspire me every day.  As usual, here is a visual diary from recent weeks:

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