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Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

Reflections on Disability, Capitalism, and Time

In Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Philosophical Musings on March 23, 2015 at 9:00 AM

“Don’t worry, it’ll happen. Just give it some time.”

“But you’re so young. You’ve got plenty of time to try things out.”

“We’re young, though. We’ve got plenty of time before we have to deal with that.”

As a single young adult with an invisible, chronic degenerative condition, these are some of the most unnerving comments that I hear all the time, however banal and unordinary they seem. I hear them especially as a first-year graduate student, a time when the possibilities are supposedly vast and unpredictable, if not entirely “endless.” And as a twentysomething, I have these comments directed at me both from other young adults as well as those who are older, often with the assumption that age is inherently synonymous with a range of life opportunities that are only possible because of time.

To me, such comments are illustrative of how a certain normative standard of temporality is so consistently invoked, rendered so commonplace, that it is beyond noticeability or scrutiny. Unless we’re confronted with clear, visible instances of a bifurcated futurity in youth—say, someone with a terminable health condition—we generally go about our day with unquestioned and prefabricated assumptions about how human life should unfold across our linear version of time.

There are, of course, obvious exceptions and counterarguments, such as that neither youth nor old age are the same for everyone, across all geographical and cultural contexts. We see instances of how standardized periodizations of age are called into question, for example, when examining the culturally divergent definitions of ‘adulthood’—of what it constitutes and when it starts—or the social construction of adolescence. But the dominant time and age-related assumptions are nevertheless there, codified into our social institutions and reproduced in our colloquial expectations.

Although we are conditioned into thinking of it as an absolute and natural given, a mere backdrop against which social events unfold, I would agree with others that time, like space, is socially constructed. We’ve made decisions on how to read it–say, along axes of terrestrial movements using a sexagesimal system and a Gregorian calendar—and how such time is to be “spent” (an allusion to the naturalized connection between productivity, consumption, and time). Histories are made and remade, and our relationship to them shapes our sense of the future as well as our identities and experiences in the present.

And as with other facets of our social existence, the political economy has been instrumental to the ways we conceptualize time, humanity, and the trajectories of life. It’s worth remembering that the production of our first time-telling instruments was driven, in large part, by the needs of agricultural production. The advent of capitalism accelerated the changes as efficiency, productivity, and time became especially intertwined—a fact that was well noted by the so-called founders of sociology, particularly Marx, Weber, and Simmel.

I bring up this social history to highlight the seemingly arbitrary nature of how we temporalize life into discrete parameters and periodizations that are far from “natural.” Capitalist time has performed an incredible feat in measuring virtually everything against time-based markers of efficiency, a fact seen most cruelly today in the way neoliberal logic uses quantifiable metrics to convert schools into test-taking factories, bodies into malleable overtime engines, and brains into calculating computers. Even in our dominant allopathic healthcare, the logic of capitalist time is used in the treatment of bodies as machines, with an increasing trend toward “specialization” turning organs or bodily systems into isolatable cogs and pinwheels.

For people with disabilities or chronic conditions, such parsing of time under this logic continually works against us as our bodies are said to “betray” us. We internalize the idea of failure when we can’t all measure up to the same standards of productivity and efficiency, and rather than devoting our limited energies to living life within a still-enriching range of possibilities, we are punished through de facto institutions of punishment and control: incarceration, hospitalization, or a regulatory “welfare” and its inordinate criteria of eligibility. (Those institutions, as it turns out, have their own alternate temporalities that involve “checking out” from the typical spatial and temporal conditions of the working masses.)

That said, when speaking of the ways in which time doesn’t “work in my favor,” I speak of the perverse ways in which social institutions and everyday expectations of normalized life trajectories make it difficult to live life with my particular set of abilities, skills, and interests. Being coerced into making decisions that align with certain pre-planned futurities, I find it difficult to peg any decisions around future-bounded notions of “climbing the ladder” or “starting the journey” of a career—not to mention those temporalized notions of partner-finding and family-making—when I can’t even be certain of my ability to wake up or pull myself out of bed the next morning. Living with a degenerative condition, I exist in a much different temporality marked by daily, sometimes hourly, unpredictabilities–a temporality that relates unevenly with the presumed “willing and able” logic of long-term work projects or social expectations. Given the nature of the condition, I’m unlikely to see the sort of “rewards,” like certain job opportunities or social accomplishments, that capitalist time tells us to wait for.

Sure, we can talk about how such “uncertainty” is true for all of us, that we can all get struck by a bus tomorrow. But with a disabling chronic condition, those questions of the future are always weighted against the very real possibilities of a changing body in an unaccommodating world. Although I have dreams for the future like everyone else, when I’m reminded of how my in-pained present was the future at one point, I’m also reminded that the future is far from being a limitless or delayable abstraction.

Indeed, it is this tendency toward ‘delay’ that permeates our social life that I see as pivotally hinged to the logic of capitalist time. We justify excessive and exploitative work conditions in the present using obscure promises based on ‘delayed’ rewards and ambiguous futures. (“Don’t worry, you continue working this hard, and you’ll get there.”) We ‘delay’ our attention to issues like climate change or death-promoting destruction in the global south, pointing to all the work that needs to be done before we get to those luxurious issues. If we only had all the time in the world, we would provide that helping hand.

All of which leads me to wonder: why are we so busy in the first place?

Oh, right. All that work.

Clocks have become the universal metonym for time. Even the notion of time "running out" uses a particular able-bodied ideal measured within a capitalist frame.

Clocks have become the universal metonym for time. Even the notion of time “running out” uses a particular able-bodied ideal measured within a capitalist frame.

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Whose Day? Our Day!

In Class Politics, History, Identity Politics, The Revolution on April 30, 2013 at 10:30 PM

It’s May Day, or International Worker’s Solidarity Day. If you are reading this in the U.S. and are currently employed, you’re likely not observing this historical day due to some forfeiture by the corporate state. Instead, if you’re “off” today, it is likely because you called in sick, used a personal day, lied to your boss, etc., all of which are ploys and tactics to get around your typical work-slave drudgery.

This year, I join rank with the millions who are jobless or underemployed. And given my various ailments pertaining to meandering medical treatments and relentless chronic pain—problems which I attribute to this country’s for-profit medical-industrial complex, the pollution of our planet, and the crude misinformation that is presented in our media—I still plan on marching on May Day. If there’s anything I’ve learned, May Day is the closest thing to a well-acknowledged global event where the issues that affect us all—workers, students, immigrants, the incarcerated—have some presence in the explosion that has yet to reach its fruition. That is, May Day is a day of possibilities, a day to unshackle ourselves from the servitude for which we’ve been pummeled into accepting, a day to create a world we say is possible. As the son of immigrants, I don’t need a lesson on the global consequences of our ‘postmodern’ neoliberal order, where 1% of the world owns 40% of its wealth. As a working-poor queer Latino, I don’t need to be told how identity politics converge with material politics to oppress my people. As someone with chronic conditions emanating from the abuses of industrialized society (our so-called civilization), I don’t need a lesson on environmental degradation or the threats to our physical survival. What I need is solidarity from the people who claim to be comrades in the struggle for our freedom. What I need is empathy from the people who claim to care.

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Heavily promoted poster in Seattle comparing May Day 2012 with the memorable rioting against neoliberal globalization during the 1999 WTO conference.

For me, May Day is a day that has folded within itself the plentiful struggles and hopes that come from a people dying to be free. My first experience with May Day was back in 2006—the year anti-immigrant legislation was being considered before Congress (H.R. 4437). I was a senior in high school at the time and, as I was making my way home from school that day, I noticed the large procession marching down Broadway, with many signs in support of just immigration reform or against anti-immigrant sentiment. I had only recently opened my eyes to the possibility of community organizing, so I stuck, watching as an onlooker. In the years to come, I saw May Day as another chance to raise awareness about immigrants’ rights issues with fellow comrades doing work in that amorphous realm of “social justice”—a phrase that I’ve come to be more critical of as I delved deeper into the euphemistically categorized “grassroots” “non-profits.” It was only this previous year—in preparing for May Day 2012—that I began to truly research and understand the holiday’s radical origins.

I won’t bother to give details about a day that has been historicized and romanticized enough. Suffice it to be said that a celebration of workers’ solidarity on May 1st came out of several decades’ worth of unionization efforts around the world. What we gently call the “Haymarket Affair” (yet another example of de-radicalization in North American history books) was actually a massacre and pinnacle event stemming from a long history of labor resistance against capital. Preceding the massacre, the American Federation of Labor had adopted a resolution in favor of an eight-hour work day with May 1st, 1886 as their deadline.

Tens of thousands of people took the streets that day, risking their jobs as they fought for this now-commonly-accepted (and continually abused) labor condition. Despite the lack of support by local media, the fervor over a worker’s revolt took hold in Chicago, where labor conditions (including the infamous meatpacking factories) were worse than in other cities. On May 4th, after consecutive days of mobilization, people rallied in front of the McCormick Reaper Works factory near Haymarket Square; there, while police attempted to dismiss a peacefully assembled crowd, a bomb and several police guns went off. Revolutionary anarchist leaders, including August Spies and Albert Parsons (whose roles in the bombing are still debated), were sentenced to death and essentially martyred in the eyes of the labor movement.  In the following years and decades, anarchists, socialists, and communists alike chose May 1st to both honor the anarchist leaders murdered by the amerikan state as well as to commemorate the ongoing fight against capitalist hegemony.

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Before marchers even arrive, police are all “prepared” (and lined up) by Wall St and Broadway

My initial associations with May Day were issues relevant to immigrant justice. Years later, I’ve come to see May Day as being a day for workers, a day for students, a day for the chronically disabled or unemployed. Whether the “turn out” is as high as it was last year is unlikely—but we should also question our understanding of success, if it is defined by numbers, when we are challenging basic capitalist assumptions. This is one year in which I wasn’t actively involved in preparing for May Day events, and having become recently unemployed, I can’t say what resonance this particular May Day will have for me. Regardless, I know there’ll be something in the air as I try to reconcile the different meanings of solidarity. What does it mean for a single Latina mother to join with a white male activist? Or when professional organizers join with unpaid anarchists? Or when we try to assemble such seemingly disparate issues as the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline and the efforts to end stop-and-frisk and police terrorism?

I guess there’s only one way to find out: on the streets.

Cleaning out the Closet: Thoughts at the End of a Year

In Chronic Pain, Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Identity Politics, Life with Chronic Illness, Philosophical Musings on December 31, 2012 at 7:04 PM

Rusted silver keys to locks unknown.

Endless black wires and cords to equipment that no longer exist. Several black, gray, and beige jean jackets folded haphazardly in a large brown box.

Impossible stacks of unopened letters, some trite credit offers, others with peremptory statements like “Immediate Response Needed” and “URGENT.”

All of these are items my brother left, making me the unexpected inheritor of many useless objects. And I was finally able to organize them. This past week, I finally finished a task that was a year in the making: cleaning out my brother’s closet.

Fear and fatigue had kept me from accomplishing this task sooner. It was much easier to keep the closet doors shut and ignore what things I would see, and feel, upon opening them.

While I had created a space of my own in this basement apartment, this particular closet I left untouched…until this past week. Yes, there is a sense of resolution, but the questions surrounding his fate, and mine, will always reverberate against the walls.

It was last year—the week following my brother’s death—that I started the process of cleaning out the basement.

I was definitely overcome by the seeming impossibility of the task: sifting through items that were a reflection of my brother’s quarter-century existence, determining what would survive (the furniture; the movie and video game sets my younger brother coveted; the fiction books that intrigued me) and what would face the black death of a thrash heap (the useless, nearly interminable wiring; the empty DVD box cases; the notebooks scrawled with mathematical equations from now-useless college courses).

Those were the easy decisions. But what to make of the boxes and boxes of brand-name clothing (a logo-galore of Guess©, Armani Exchange©, Old Navy©, Levi’s©, Rocawear©)? What to make of the now-outdated technology he once prized—bulky digital cameras, digital planners, digital everything? What to make of the billiards sticks and the one…two…three…four different air ventilators? What to make of the off-white dirty sheets with the irremovable stench of bed-ridden sweat? What to make of the metal cane with the soft Hyaplon grip? The PortaBook© Notebook stand? The DiscoveryKids© Animated Marine Lamp? The McKesson© powdered latex gloves?

That one person could accumulate and hoard so much stuff was breath-taking. I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt overwhelmed, and a bit despondent. Actually, it was downright depressing. The objects that filled the various closets, drawers, shelves, and various nooks and crannies were all things that entered and exited through his life in some way or another.

Some were clearly transient—like the DVDs he played once, only to stash away in some corner I would later have to inspect, prying their utility with my own eyes. Others were clearly indispensable parts of his sickly life: the Samsung© flat-screen HD TV, the Asus© desktop, the Pfizer© meds. There was also the beige leather recliner where I always found him sitting on—nay, resting on, at a 60 degree angle, since his deformed spine could no longer support his body weight when sitting up. It was his relaxed posture, and it is how I most remember him: slouched on his recliner, staring at a flat-screen TV.

There is no way my brother could have collected so many things without money—and quite a lot of it. When my brother was still in middle school, in the late ‘90s, my parents sued Lutheran Medical Hospital for an excruciating misdiagnosis (they said meningitis) that prevented him from receiving the proper treatment for his later-diagnosed histiocytosis.

Years later, when he turned 18, he finally had access to what was rightfully his due: a quarter million dollars. One can imagine what it must be like to be teenager with an immediate access to so much cash. A quantity most people on this planet will never possess, most definitely not at once.

And for a kid from a working-class immigrant family, this was nothing less than hitting the lotto. With the money came a sense of power, a sense of being able to achieve the American dream that we see repeatedly in the media. At last, success through wealth.

As a teenager, this money was the conduit to a dream world he long harbored, after years of let-downs and humiliations.

By the age of 18 he had overcome the brutality of chemotherapy, forced home-schooling, and years of standing at the sidelines while his peers played basketball, ran a mile, participated in Phys Ed. Although I was too consumed with my own issues at the time to see it, I later developed a clear picture of what he used his money for: wooing a girlfriend with presents, buying a hardly-used car, buying an almost-limitless number of video games (one of his favorite hobbies).

Perhaps his wisest investment was helping with the down-payment of the house in which my family currently lives in. Back then, I was a passenger in a car my brother and parents were driving. Their vision of the American dream. A little house with an iron fence and a backyard. In some liminal urbanscape between the inner-city and the suburbs. A house that was blocks from the subway, a 45-minute ride from downtown Manhattan.

And so it was: with my brother’s help, using the endowment he received from medical malpractice, we were able to “escape” a working-class immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn and become homeowners in a mixed-income neighborhood in far-out section of Queens. In hindsight, there are some things that I think we all failed to see. We were so caught up in the allure of this experience—this sense of accomplishment, this sense of moving forward—that we failed to anticipate the impermanence of our materially-based happiness. After the paint had dried, the furniture moved in, the marble counters installed, we found to our chagrin that the house required more fixing than we anticipated: leaking pipes, an old boiler, an impossibly difficult basement. That year, my brother’s car was hijacked twice for its prized parts. And the neighborhood we were living in had experienced extensive white flight and depressing property values, creating a still-ongoing tension between the remaining, settled whites (mostly Italian, many living in the more decorated houses in the southern portion of the neighborhood) and the recent arrivals (immigrant families hailing from countries like Guyana, India, Puerto Rico, and Peru). In this leap “forward” we also moved so far away from our respective schools, workplaces, and old friends that we were spending countless hours simply commuting.

My brother’s condition also worsened over time. The pain from his deformed spine was finally forcing him to quit school, and he finally agreed to a spinal fusion surgery—a surgery I later learned has inconclusive signs of success, with many patients experiencing complications , needing re-operation, falling into permanent disability.1, 23 None of us knew this. We just held hope. The surgery was done in 2007, but it was followed by ruthless procession of additional surgeries, hospitalizations, and treatments.

I was absent for much of this: I was studying away in Rhode Island, where I could conveniently ignore the problems that festered at home. I was too absorbed by own unhappiness to really take on anyone else’s.

While I tried to overcome my psychic pain by consuming myself in my studies, part-time jobs and volunteer gigs, hoping to overcome the pain of isolation through activism, my brother consumed himself in the realms of fantasy: video games, movies, TV shows.

While I tried to run head-first into my reality, trying (if vainly) to change it, my brother tried to avoid it at all costs through digital displays of worlds where indigestible problems were nonexistent.

Worlds that satirized family problems (think of animated shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy), focused on ones that could be turned comedic (movies with plots about chasing “the girl” or dealing with some pesky sibling), or were too unrealistic to touch one to the core (think zombies, warriors, gods, heroes and aliens in our newest supply of sci-fi movies and video games). After learning about the countless efforts my brother made to improve his health, to survive in a world that seemed isolated, cruel, and unjust,

I can’t blame him for using his available resources—his money—to purchase endless distractions and escape routes. But his life in these last years offers an invaluable lesson about the role of material goods in our lives. Even at their best, they only brought him a brief sort of happiness, a brief escape from the present, a turning away from social realities. Although it is oft-noted cliché, something we often nod our heads to before we proceed to worry about our financial problems, relationships, and work, the material objects in our lives do not confer happiness.

From a Buddhist perspective, it is our mind’s interaction with the world that can make us happy, or make us suffer—but the objects in and of themselves do nothing.

When my brother died the objects remained. Hard and lifeless, they were nevertheless reminders of a life long lived.

And they only possessed a reality through others’ perceptions. Sick of the materialism of an affluent society such as ours, one that operates on a deliberate oppression and displacement of the world’s poor, I was more than eager to give it all away, either through donations or ecologically-friendly removal.

My younger brother coveted the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and large stacks of DVDs. My mother insisted on going through the objects I tossed into thrash bags to reclaim their supposed worthiness and relevance, only later to realize that there were too many things to reclaim.

It would have been pointless to keep so many things that would hardly ever be used again. A few days after that, when I was finishing up what seemed to be an interminable project of cleaning out the basement, that my mother finally conceded—with a sigh of impenetrable grief—that my brother had wasted so much of his money on material vanities. It’s like he was trying to fill the emptiness in his heart, my mother said in her soft Spanish. Her chilling words have never left me, for they signified the coldest truth I have ever heard. The resigned despair in her voice was almost unbearable—much worse than the months of wailing that preceded and followed his death. At week’s end, several large garbage bags littered the sidewalk in front of our house.

For me, this was all a new form of social awakening. I had become “socially conscious” and “politicized” before.

During my last year of high school, I had been agitated by my work with an organization of queer youth of color, and I became excited about the prospect of future activism. Midway through college, I was agitated again—except this time I was filled with anger. I was filled with animosity against the rich, white kids I was surrounded by in school, against decadent late-night indulgences and convenient ignorance of university staff, against the rhetoric of leftist radicalism that never left the walls of the ivory tower.

During this time, I was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—what I felt to be a final insult after years of feeling isolated and excluded from dominant society. All throughout these experiences, I felt like an activist, even when I least wanted to be. It had become an integral part of my identity. It was all about how I saw the world around me.

But my brother’s death brought about a new kind of awakening, one that was tinged with a gray sadness and a sense of death-is-imminent urgency. That my health started to deteriorate as my brother was dying was more than just a wake-up call—it was an emergency drill, a realization that I needed to see what my brother finally saw. Yes, there is sadness all around us.

But there is also greatness all around us. Our lives can be ephemeral and tragic, but also long and immensely gratifying. These may seem like platitudes, but I think there is something quite profound in these polarities.

One lesson that I’ve learned the hard way: if we continue to zoom through life with our minds locked onto the future, or dwelling grudgingly on the past, we’ll fail to see the beauty of things in the present. It all relies on our perceptions.

Trying to reconcile my leftist political background with my new-found appreciation of Buddhist philosophy, I’ve come to realize that it is all a matter of perceptions. Our mind interacting with the world. We react based on what we see—or at least, what we think we see. North American conservatives may see a destruction of traditional ways of living that they see as superior as spelling doom.

Liberals may see a diverse multiculturalism and the expansion of voting rights as signs of progress. An affluent person, blindly bound to his wealth, will likely see an increased percentage in taxes as unjust. And so it goes on and on.

Our perceptions of our social reality shape how we respond to the world, to one another, how we treat the beggar on the street, the European tourist asking for directions, the activist shouting against war. It is always a worthwhile question to ask ourselves why we hold the beliefs we do, whether we see the world as hopeless or full of possibilities.

Cleaning out my brother’s closet—over a full year later—made me think deeply about what I was really seeing. The anti-capitalist in me saw a hoard of brand-name clothing, digital hardware, and corporate logos that made me feel both angry and empty. It was the same unsettling feeling I’ve experienced many times before, a feeling of fighting a war that cannot be won.

Of being hurled down by the gods after reaching the mountaintop. As my pain medication kicked in, however, a subdued, neglected child surfaced. He saw these same objects with fascination—as if each told a fairy tale of dreams and desires. Tales of unresolved wishes.

I realized just how discerning my mother was in seeing through my brother’s youthful “vanities.” As I thumbed through my brother’s old but hardly-used jean jackets (which I assume he bought when he was a teenager and quite loaded), I started to wonder what he imagined when he purchased them.

Although we grew up in the same household, the same working-class and poor neighborhood (Sunset Park, Brooklyn), my brother and I grew up with different tastes.

I went through different phases in my adolescence and young adulthood (from penniless Goth to preppy gay to I-don’t-give-a-flying-fuck to whatever-I-feel-like), each phase reflective of how I understood the world and where I stood in it.

My brother, on the other hand, went to schools near our neighborhood and dressed in ways that were popular in the late 90s and early 2000s: a hip hop/urban fashion that consisted (for the male-identified) of heavy jean jackets, baseballs caps, bandanas, and gold chains. The image of “P. Diddy” Combs and his Sean John clothing line comes to mind as I picture the sort of images my brother was likely emulating, and which stands out in the two dozen jackets (!!!) he had purchased, along with countless shirts and baggy jeans.

Of course, one can easily attribute this spending spree to youthful naivety, peer pressure, or the like. But it seems equally, if not more, reasonable to trace the sources further upstream: to the incessant barrage of commercials, music videos, magazine ads, etc. that he and his peers watched, glazed over, and responded to. It was a coercion of marketing impacting a community: either buy the commodities that are given cultural valence in your world, or react by rejecting.

There is a story that I read recently has gotten me to think about the role of media imagery and materialism in our world. Actually, it was an account given by a Buddhist activist and linguist, Helena Norberg-Hodge, who documented the changes she saw in Ladakh—a region in northwestern India that was isolated from Western influence up until the 1970s4. As the account goes, the Ladakhis lived, for hundreds of years, as Buddhist farmers. As Buddhist monk Jack Kornfiel relates: “They lived simply, with rainfall enough to grow their crops and time to tend to their temples and follow the sacred rhythm of their year.”5 In the early years of the cultural invasion, they told visiting Westerners about how rich their lives were, how their basic needs were always met. Over the course of twenty years, however, Norberg-Hodge noticed startling changes. The capital of Leh transformed from a rural community of 5,000 inhabitants to a congested, urban sprawl. And after years of exposure to television, music, and fashion from India and the U.S., Ladakhis started to complain about how poor they were. As Kornfield tells it, “many Ladakhis have left their villages to live in crowded, impoverished quarters in the city, seeking the happiness promised by the modern world. There are blessings in modernization, and we can understand the villagers’ desire for running water and electric lights. But we can also recognize the costs of materialism when desire becomes out of balance.”

Desire-out-of-balance was what I saw in those jackets my brother bought. At one end, what I saw was a dream unfulfilled: a desire to look strong, healthy, popular, powerful. Whether I wanted to indulge in them or not, the images of the Sean John ads flooded my mind, showcasing a world of affluence—and black affluence at that.

Who can blame a young man from wanting to indulge such a dream? At the other end, I saw something extremely perverse and unjust: clothing stitched and hemmed by Third World women at paltry wages and substandard working conditions, then marketed to working-class youth of color in the global North and sold at substantially higher prices.

My head hurts trying to keep track of the whirlpool of insanity our modern capitalist world has wrought: the commodification, the marketing, the buying of our media, our education, our government. We don’t see all this in our everyday lives; instead, what we see are people leaving their homes, driving their cars, entering their workplace. And in the course of any given day we pass by countless ads meant to sell us something—on the subway, at the bus station, on our favorite Internet sites.

Ads intended to sprout a desire for things we don’t need. Before we realize the extent of this sensory deluge, these commodities have entered our fantasies and desires exactly as corporate headmasters wanted. And so we continue to struggle—sacrificing our livelihood at times—for those items that will bring us the lifestyle we covet. A house. A car. A flatscreen TV. Those incredible jean jackets P Diddy wears.

We put our bodies through incredible stress to achieve these things, our minds latched onto the rewards. And when the rewards finally come, we feel ecstatic. One would say happy. Until the novelty wears away and we’re left wanting more.

Such was the cycle that I saw in that heap of things my brother had bought over the years. It was as if there was something clawing inside him, a craving that was augmented by darkness. Like an addiction. Like filling an emptiness (as my mother put it) that would never go away. And isn’t this precisely what capitalism thrives on? The incessant, insatiable desire for more? (More capital, more consumption, more land, more war, more, more, more…) A system designed on quick fixes, on short-lasting highs that we then need to keep feeding to prevent a convulsion of our crack-addicted bodies.

Yet, as much as instant gratification is an assumed part of our “American culture,” it is not the commodities themselves that trouble me (and, as it is, many of the commodities are things we absolutely need for our survival). For me, the more insidious aspects of our capitalist world have nothing to do with the things themselves. It is about how capitalism digs deep into our hearts and minds, shaping our mentality about the people around us, the houses and streets, the earth and the sky.

It is about how we come to think of everything—from a vacation trip to a seashore spot, to the food we eat and the clothes we wear—as quantifiable entities. As things with a price. From there we see a system that runs off dog-eat-dog competition and notions of ‘success’ predicated on wealth and power. We then feel as if we’ve failed when we don’t achieve the sort of ‘success’ that is flaunted at us in television shows and movies: a high-paying job, a nice house and car, a spouse and children.

We live out our lives always in the future, our minds always several steps ahead. And we suffer from anguish, stress, disappointment, loneliness. And a vicious cycle begins: drowning ourselves in work, abusing drugs and alcohol, surrounding ourselves with acquaintances, entering into superficial relationships that ultimately disappoint us…

To be clear, none of this is a denunciation against work, making friends, or building relationships. In fact, these are the activities that have the potential to suffuse our lives with meaning—even contributing to a long-lasting happiness.

But there’s a significant difference between fostering genuine relationships (either with people or our work) and the run-amok bigger-is-better attitude where we try to force our lives to fit some pre-compartmentalized box we were sold on TV.

Although my trip along the dharmic road is in its infancy, I’ve already come to sense Buddhism’s deeper appreciation for self-destroying impulses. Dukkha, an ancient Pali word, is often translated as “suffering” and “stress.”

And the dukkha we experience in the chasing of dream-lives, like those we see on television, has a distinct classification in Buddhist tradition: the dukkha of conditioned states (samkhara-dukkha), a dissatisfaction based on things never measuring up to our expectations. I like to think that my brother, in his wisdom, latched onto to this concept in his final days.

Speaking like an old guru viewing children at play, he commented on the hilarious vanities of the rich he saw on television.

He also came to humbly accept his own old vanities. Certainly, the suffering he experienced from bleeding to death (dukkha of ordinary suffering) was unavoidable. But he understood, in hindsight, how much of his earlier suffering was based on expectations of a life he desired.

A desired life built on expectations mediated by his surroundings. A desired life that always made his actual one seem inferior, festering holes of loneliness and disappointment.

As I’ve noted earlier, perception is key. We saw an extreme case of capitalism-mediated perceptions in the case of Ladakh. And it goes to show that if we are able to see what is good in this world, see what is good in all of us, we can avoid feeling as if our lives are somehow deficient.

In short, we can avoid the suffering from our unhealthy desires. Likewise, although it is a moral imperative to take notice of the evils of our modern world—the destruction of the planet, endless wars, the violence against the poor—we should also take notice of our vast potential for good.

Our ability to laugh at our follies. Give a lending hand to victims of a climate disaster. Resist neoliberal alienation by coming together, sharing our resources, dispensing with the obsession of personal ownership. In emphasizing the importance of the mind in constructing our worldviews, Buddhist philosophy shows us that we can have agency in our lives. We can choose to become passive recipients to corporate conditioning, or we can choose to find those things that will bring us genuine happiness. We can find goodness in our lives in the moment. We can find goodness in simplicity.

Organizing my brother’s closet this past week, I came to realize that I had undergone an incredible change over the past year. It’s still unclear what the legacy of his life will be, but I already have a lot to be thankful for.

To say I have a new-found appreciation for life is an understatement. I breathe in a new air, see a new sky. Walk on a new earth, in a new body with new feet. Even my relationship to objects has changed. Rather than a means to an end, I try to experience them as they are. As objects.

So now, while I try to figure out what to do with those jackets, and the many other things that stayed behind, I think back to the time my brother and I spent together. To how we enjoyed each other’s company while watching a few of his movies. Or the worlds of video game fantasy he showed me on his flatscreen. Yes, we were using material things. But in those moments, it wasn’t the material objects in themselves that brought us joy. Nor were they being used as means of escape or forms of distraction.

This time, they were being used wisely, moderated by a mindfulness of life’s impermanence. A mindfulness that this moment won’t last forever. So it was best to enjoy it.

1) Deyo et al. 2004. “Spinal-Fusion Surgery—The Case for Restraint.” New England Journal of Medicine 350:722-726.

2) Smith, J.C. 2011. “Back Surgery: Too Many, Too Costly, Too Ineffective.” Dynamic Chiropractor Vol. 29, Iss. 8.

3) Nguyen et al. 2011. “Long-term outcomes of lumbar fusion among workers’ compensation subjects: a historical cohort study.” Spine 36(4): 320-31.

4) Unfortunately, given that this is an account by a “Westerner,” I have to leave discussion of the Euro-American imperial gaze for some other time.

5) From Jack Kornfield’s essay, “The Transformation of Desire into Abundance,” as found in In the Face of Fear: Buddhist Wisdom for Challenging Times (2009).

Fighting Chronic Pain and Autoimmunity, Fighting for Our Liberation

In Chronic Pain, Life with Chronic Illness, Multiple Sclerosis, The Revolution on September 18, 2012 at 9:17 PM

Over the past year, a sudden and unexpected worsening of a pre-existing medical condition has caused me to re-evaluate my strengths and limits as an organizer committed to social liberation.

Part of living with condition like Multiple Sclerosis (MS) has meant learning to adjust to the changes in my body: there is now a mandatory minimum number of hours of sleep I must have, a mandatory maximum number of hours I can work in a day, and there are diets and exercises that may improve my long-term health outcomes.

That said, my experience has shown me there is considerable confusion around chronic health conditions–and even more so, around chronic pain.

There might be many reasons for this, but mere visibility plays a key role: people can’t understand what they can’t see. After all, you can see someone’s crying, screaming, yelling, and various expressions of pain, but not the pain itself.

But I also like to think of pain broadly, encompassing the emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual. This understanding of pain also shapes my understanding of my own struggles, for as a queer activist of color with a chronic health condition, I know that I’m fighting pain on multiple fronts: the physiological pain stimulated—in my case—by irreparable nerve damage; the psycho-emotional pain of years of individualized social ostracism and alienation; and the transgenerational pain of centuries of racism-fueled colonization and genocide against my family and ancestors.

Explaining all of this in a manner that elicits compassion and empathy is a gargantuan feat: at best, I am left with an annoying task of trying to find precisely worded allegories and metaphors to describe a pain that I feel on a constant basis.

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As the World Burst Aflame

For me, one of the most harrowing examples of how I struggled with my chronic condition came last September, with the explosion (of all things) of Occupy Wall Street.

To be physically distant from a movement and consequentially feeling out of the loop is one thing. But to be living and working so near one of the most impactful movements in recent memory and still being unable to be physically present made me feel hopeless and aggravated.

Geographic distance was not a barrier in this case—but for my body, hardly sustaining the energy to make the commute to work and back—and in the worst occasions, being slogged around from one ER to the next—Wall Street may just as well have been at the other end of the planet.

My problems started one morning in September last year, waking up unable to feel the left side of my body while the world around my bed spun vigorously.

I felt like I was injured at sea, throttling about in a flimsy boat during a torturous typhoon. Everything was spinning so rapidly that I couldn’t read the front page of a newspaper if I tried, or see whether my father’s expression was a smile or a scowl. Quite literally, from one day to the next, my body had unleashed a storm that I’ve yet to recover from—and probably will never fully recover from.

I was diagnosed with MS four years ago, after a sudden, inexplicable blindness in my left eye (optic neuritis). I regained my eyesight within months, and although I experienced certain MS-related symptoms while finishing my college years, I was virtually asymptomatic for three years.

As many know, MS is a chronic, neurodegenerative condition that often first rears its ugly head in young adults (ages 20 to 40), altering life paths in unexpected ways. The embodied experience of MS varies from person to person: as remarkably complex as the nervous system is, individualized manifestations of the conditions are just unpredictable.

Although I was not problem-free since I was first diagnosed, I can say that I was generally satisfied with my state of health as I finished college and entered the workforce. Then swiftly, with little support and preparation, I started to go through a wave of relapses.

The extreme vertigo I felt in September was only the beginning of my immune system’s attack on my nervous system–one that would re-shape the way I experienced the world. I had a constant burning sensation at the back of my neck. I was experiencing a mental fogginess that made getting through the work day a nightmare. Some days, an all-body fatigue would overwhelm me, forcing me into a sleep coma the moment I snagged a seat on the subway.

Worst of all were the hard-to-describe symptoms—the symptoms that simply nagged me all day, but seemed too strange to be real, like the buzzing sensations that ran through my abdomen and thighs, the periodic numbness and weakness in a leg or finger, or the dreaded feeling of being “squeezed” at the head. (I later learned that a term, “dysesthesia,” is used to refer to these hard-to-describe sensations.) Needless to say, these were all uncomfortable sensations that made it difficult to make it through otherwise simple life tasks.

Like a brush fire, the changes that began in my body started happening suddenly, unexpectedly, and with awe-inspiring speed. And it was that same sort of storm-like celerity that shaped much of what was happening in and around me, inside my body as much as the heart of the city, between September 2011 and January 2012. The question for me was: what initiated the spark? And why?

For better or for worse, for its shortcomings and its strengths, OWS had a unprecedented impact on my city, suddenly transforming downtown Manhattan–to say nothing of Wall St!–into a hub of alternate world-making. Being more than just an encampment, it was, at its best (and for all its shortcomings) also a reflection of a new possibility–a world simmering with energy, confusion, creativity, frustration, and optimism at once.

But as much as the movement meant—for some—a connecting across class, race, and gender lines for the creation of revolutionary community, my family wouldn’t be a part of any of this.

That’s because my older brother, who spent most of his life battling a crippling, painful rare medical condition of his own, was on his death bed. My parents cried, yelled, and appealed to the supernatural as I prayed that my body would hold its ground. There’s no question for me that the stress likely ignited my flare ups, igniting my body’s inflammatory response and quickly driving it into a tailspin I couldn’t control.

It was clear that a burden my family carried for decades was now igniting something in my body. I even prayed that I would at least make it to my brother’s funeral.

I recall one night watching the news in a room at my brother’s hospice.

I remember him saying to me, “With everything that’s happening in this world, it’s probably good that I’m leaving it.”

He was right about the whirlwind changes: between the Arab Spring and May Day 2012, it felt–for those of us paying attention–as if the world were catching on fire. But so were my nerves. And it might have been limited to my own social circles, but everything seemed and felt urgent. Everything—from our bodies to the electronic media to capitalism to the global biosphere—seemed frail enough that it could break apart in months or days.

More importantly, however, were the questions that were newly ignited in my consciousness about spirituality and mortality and the meaning of being human. Understood alongside everything happening locally and globally, I also saw it all in relation to a larger, more urgent question about what it means to truly live in the moment. The importance of the ever-changing, ever-precarious now.

In a way, although my body felt like an urn full of ashes, I felt spiritually reignited into fighting for what truly mattered.

Fighting for What Matters

An otherwise relatively controlled, asymptomatic MS for three years went completely haywire in a matter of three months (September through November).

And only after several disheartening attempts of dealing with doctors, nurses, hospital administrators and my health insurance that I was able to get the medication I needed to tame this beast.

I now receive a monthly infusion, and several months after the unexpected set of relapses, the condition has supposedly stabilized. However, it created irreparable damage to my central nervous system that has transformed my day-to-day life.

Chronic headaches and fatigue are no longer minor nuisances that I can fight off with a cup of coffee or aspirin. These days, I wake up and fall asleep with a constant throbbing at the back of my head, and under conditions of high stress, humidity, or exercise, the throbbing persists at a faster rate, spreading to my upper back and ears.

The medication I’ve been taking for the headaches have been superficially helpful, at best, making it tolerable to get through the day.  However, the same medicine also worsens my almost-equally crippling fatigue requires its own drug treatment, meaning that I’m often playing hop-scotch with potent pharmaceuticals day and night.

What has been among the most harrowing of my experiences has been the ability to relay what I’m dealing with to those close to me, and has been one of the most puzzling identity-related experiences of my life.

As a queer Latinx of urban, working-class origins, having conversations about race, gender, class, and sexuality have been a part of my adult life for quite a while, and although I don’t think anyone can be an expert at these things, I was at least somewhat familiar with the territory of conversation.

These days, whenever I started bringing up my health issues at meetings or other social gatherings, I sensed a mix of well-intentioned concerns and incredible confusion.

This has all led me into intense questions about privilege and intersectionality, particularly as it relates to illness and disability. On one hand, I have some privileges relative to other individuals with chronic, degenerative conditions: I am young, mobile, and not obviously sick as far as appearances are concerned. On the other, the invisibility and unpredictability of my symptoms created issues in terms of others’ understanding.

How do I explain the sudden onset of mental fog or crushing fatigue one moment, or a sudden ebb of symptoms the next? These are difficult questions to tackle if you are someone who has been committed to community organizing for some time, working on campaigns, facilitating meetings, knocking on doors, and juggling various other life (non-activism-related) demands.

What truly made me feel disabled was being unable to see my brother in the hospice program where he was sent, or to be present at the general assemblies happening just miles away. I felt the burn most strongly in being absent—emotionally, mentally, spiritually—from those spaces where things seemed to matter.

To Have a Body and a Voice

It’s been several months later and my MS is seemingly under control—though I continue to live my day-to-day with chronic pain and fatigue. Today, I experience activities that matter with a new level of gratitude. I am grateful to be able to be here, typing this, reflecting on issues of carnal importance (for what could be more important than the fight for one’s life and freedom?).

I’ve also made decisions that reflect the lessons I’ve learned in the past year. Though I may live with a limited reserve of energy, I’ve chosen to spend as much of it as possible doing what I think will enhance my spiritual and intellectual growth, as well as doing the work of fighting for the liberation of my communities.

That said, my struggles are constant and run deep; I share them with the understanding that I have privileges many others in similar situations do not.

Even among us revolutionaries who talk about capitalism, ecocide, and heteropatriachy, we’re often mute about the sort of capital that Marx did not always discuss—the love and support of friends, family, and colleagues; the ability to build community; the ability to glide through life not bumping into as many obstacles as others.

In bringing up my issues with MS, my family, social justice organizing, and even the metaphysical questions about what it means to be human, I’m also trying to think through their inter-relationship.

For one thing, a truly intersectional understanding of social justice would need to include disability justice. Full stop. I also think the work for social liberation must necessarily acknowledge a common humanity as well as the social realities that make our lives painfully different.

I also write about voice and privilege because a newfound recognition of my humanity has made me fear complicity through silence.

As we continue to awaken to the harsh realities that mass silence has created in the form of our prisons, military and medical industrial complexes, and food-warping industries, I’ve also come to realize (with my brother’s help) that I’m of no use hiding in a library corner or computer desk if that is all I do. Meaning, in other words: we need to find a way to fight from our positions, wherever that is, and whatever form it takes.

There’s an online meme that’s become popular as of late that has become branded in my brain. “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that. Then I realized I am somebody.”

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This message is simple and clear.

Confronting the death of a loved one, dealing with chronic pain, and being part of a social movement provided me a crucial perspective on exactly how to be someone. Admittedly, it can be frightening to give up our habits, comforts, and attachments–to face the ugliness head on in an attempt to change it. On the other hand, given everything that we could potentially lose over time if we don’t reverse ongoing wars, destruction, and violence, what is there left to lose?

After all, whose lives and freedoms are we fighting for?

Kristin Richardson Jordan

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