Theory is not my God

“What are they keeping in there…”

Definitions should, by definition, describe what something is as opposed to what something isn’t. But whereas some ideas become beautiful creatures, others morph into monsters. A little perspective on just how “big” an idea is might help tame the beast.

Note: This is gonna be one of those posts that likely pisses off some of my fellow academics. C’est la vie.

I was facilitating a workshop when the title of this post fell out of my mouth, a half-thought joke made in response to a question about the compatibility of various psychological theories with religious or spiritual beliefs. I stumbled out a phrase that captured more than I realized. Like most simple things, it summarized a complex debate by putting forth a basic premise that shot straight to the heart of the problem.

Here’s the thing: on two fronts I had confronted the “theory debate.” To be field-specific for a moment: the world of psychology, counseling, and mental health likes to argue endlessly about which theory is the best. To add another layer, each theory camp likes to argue about the best way to practice said theory. While there are some valid points regarding the areas in which any particular theory is adept or blind, the fight for alpha-dog in the theory world is largely academic, and often profit-driven. In other words, I want my theory to be king, because then I’ll get all the goodies that go with being king.

It’s a cynical view, but not inaccurate. If you’re thinking that my faith in academia is lacking, you’re spot on.

Don’t get me wrong – I revel in the world of ideas. It was one of the reasons I became a professor; I get to think about stuff and get paid to do it. It’s the ultimate geek-out: playing with ideas, stretching them, seeing how far they can go until they break. And they will break, they always do, and then you get to pick up what is left and see what else can be made. Or toss out the whole lot, start over with what you’ve learned and develop something more efficient, elegant, unexpected. It is a creative process that pushes the creator as much as the creation, and it’s crack for someone like me.

So arguing about theories is not in and of itself a pointless endeavor. Argument can reveal the limitations, address problems, expand the undeveloped territories. Challenges to theory also remind us that no theory is ever truly “complete;” the quest for the theory of everything is, in my opinion, a noble pursuit. But it’s also like charting the universe; if we ever manage to map the entire thing, will we just run out of space?

The other part of the theory equation that can’t be overlooked though, is the human element. People are very good at coming up with good ideas; we are also very good at having not so good motivations. I won’t lay claim as to whether or not “evil” exists, or to the innate “goodness” of people. But is it fair to say we are flawed, limited, often short-sighted beings who will act in our own self-interest? Yup. Even the best of us will slip, fall down the slope and gobble up the fat-ridden, gut-busting, heart-stopping yet utterly scrumptious forbidden jelly donut.

How does one then remove ego from the creation of ideas? Not easily. Thus we do get into some remarkably tedious arguments about which theoretical approach is supreme, or rather debates that veil the real purpose which is to determine who is supreme. Who gets to rule the profession, who gets to own all the business, who gets to make all the decisions. Somewhere along the way, the idea got tangled in with the value of the person making it. I become only as good as my theory will last, and if it doesn’t last then I no longer exist.

Following theory becomes a religious expression in such circumstances. We begin to worship our theorist’s icons and practice based on blind faith. We admonish those who don’t “do what we do.” We cast out those who don’t fit the increasingly narrow-definition of who belongs. The tithes demanded grow larger, eventually taking more than what we have, and in the end we are left waiting at the steps, begging for our bishops to deem us worthy of their scraps.

That presents a pretty bleak view of religion, I realize. But it is not a criticism of what religion could be any more than it is a criticism of what theory could be. Rather it is a charge against what we are turning theory (and perhaps religion?) into – an oppressive mechanism that serves and elevates a few while forgetting its ultimate obligation and purpose to the many. A theoretician who always has the correct answer, who holds a student as simply a replicator of what has been done, has fallen into the trap of self-perpetuation. And like all mechanisms that become too specialized, it will die out. Differentiation is necessary to evolution.

While I don’t think I’m qualified to assert what or who God is, I can make a statement about the nature of theory. Theory is an idea. Theory is a concept. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it no longer stands the test of time and context, it is time to write a new one. Everyone contributes to theory; those who made significant developments to formation of theory did remarkable things. But they did not do it alone, and they are not saints.

Theory is not my God.


There’s a Post in There Somewhere…

Should I talk about depression? Potential posts tend to start poking at my insides, enough to bother and eventually distract me from whatever I should be doing. And then I sit and write, as I am now, even though I really should do the thing I’m avoiding.

Avoiding isn’t quite the right word though, because today there isn’t A Thing I’m avoiding but rather many many things I should attend to. About a year ago, I had enough projects going on where I could easily write on a different one every day for several months and still not be finished. That’s the mess I made and I am finding myself in a very similar one right now. Except I did manage to finish all those projects, which might have made my current situation worse. Meaning I successfully completed everything then, so my inner little mad scientist knows I could do it again if I had to, and that is likely adding to tendencies to procrastinate.

But procrastination also isn’t the right word. Admittedly, I do, have, and will procrastinate. I have always believed at my core I’m a rather lazy person wrapped in a high-achieving blanket. So occasionally I cast off the blanket and YouTube binge, or engage in some sort of Fallout 3 marathon session, convincing myself that once I become level 25 strong I’ll finally have what it takes to finish my article. That’s true procrastination and likely some self-preservation, because otherwise I will workaholic myself into oblivion.

I have had to admit to myself though, that this latest bout is likely tinged more by depression, and less by my typical carnal self-soothing interests.

Now let’s pause on this word, Depression. I am qualified to talk about depression from a professional perspective, but I don’t want to. Largely because I don’t find such conversation particularly useful, inventive, or meaningful. I don’t really want to get into the “here’s your symptom and here’s your cure” dialogue, nor do I want to share the multitude of platitudes my field and culture expell on a daily basis whenever someone even hints at being “off.” Depression for me, rather, fits in as a strange visitor who came to my house and never left. He can be a nuisance, but for the most part he sits in the corner in his moldy old chair and grumbles to himself a lot.

Essentially, Depression is really Father Jack Hackett from the series, Father Ted.father-jack

The first time I noticed Jack was when he crashed into my house. I was pretty young at the time and wouldn’t have even known this visitor just barged in. But he didn’t exactly sneak past the guards, so to speak. I think the doors at my house would’ve been wide open to let a figure like Jack in, someone who could show with some amount of force just how unpleasant things had become. And he was a serious pain in the backside, driving me to a great deal of isolation and avoidance, and likely a few self-destructive tendencies.

But as with most uninvited guests, eventually a time came when I told him to just up and fuck off (how I did that is material for a different post). And I thought he did, but really he just hid in the basement for a while. A good long while. He was likely very good at living off the vermin and stale air. I was very good at not paying attention to the odd, occasional banging noise coming from the pipes. Granted, at the time I didn’t know such sounds could emanate from a crazy man in the basement because I didn’t think people lived down there. But looking back, I can see how he cleverly survived in that cellar and even enjoyed himself, prying into all the odds and ends one keeps in a basement.

He emerged, triumphant, in my early adulthood and proceeded to rearrange all the furniture. He also took the liberty of smashing a few pieces while tossing others out, without asking, and was pretty happy to relocate his soiled ratty wingback chair into the middle of my living room. He drank a lot and shouted his all too familiar, “arse, feck, gaarrls” over and over again like a bad nightclub song. I couldn’t help but notice him this time as his frequent appearances prompted panic attacks as well as the desire to hide in the closet. One day I found myself screaming for no real reason, so I decided to enlist some help at dealing with my unexpected roommate.

I don’t remember how long I saw my counselor before she used the word, “depression” for the first time. I do remember being surprised by its use; it was casually introduced by way of, “oh that will help with your depression,” suggesting depression was a) there and b) I needed help with it. This was news to me. It wasn’t that I disagreed with it, nor found my counseling experience bad. It was simply the first time You Are Depressed was bestowed upon me, and I felt the burden of such a mantle. I had a “thing,” to be “helped,” implying it could also “get worse,” and I was supposed to do something about it. Ideally I was supposed to get rid of it.

Jack wasn’t exactly too happy about that proposition and we engaged in battle for the next several years. I made my bed, he tore it up. I wanted friends, he didn’t want anyone inside. I used reason, he threw tantrums. There were several occasions where I successfully tricked him outside and locked him out. But then I’d find him sneaking through the bathroom window, or sliding down the chimney, and we’d go round and round again. During this era, the self-help industry exploded. You could find a support group to help match your socks or pick up inner child workbooks while filling up at the gas station. Socially, the message I kept getting over and over again about Depression was clear: it shouldn’t be there, and if it comes back it’s your fault. Work harder, try harder, believe harder, talk harder, whatever the fix was do it harder and your affliction will disappear if you follow the plan.

The fallacy of all this inner talk proselytizing though was that Jack Hacketts really don’t give a fuck if you do anything harder at all. They just sit back, drink, and laugh at your misfortune. You say, “get out,” and he says, “make me.” In fact, the harder you push the more that big lump will suck himself to his nasty chair and throw cups of tea against the wall. What you’re left with is the nagging feeling that you are to blame for your depression, which is Jack’s biggest victory – convincing you that every time you can’t get the energy to move, it’s your own fault. If you were a better person, you never would’ve let some creep like Jack move in to begin with.

I thought I moved him out again for some years. But then a life crisis brought him charging back, more determined than ever to stay and take over the house. He is incredibly childish, because the first words out of his mouth are, “told you so, you can’t make me.” And I felt the desire to let myself be defeated, to just accept that this unhygienic blob was going to lie in the middle of the floor, farting and drinking all the booze. In my life that translated into pure numbness, like I was sitting through a concert but with speakers unplugged. I wanted to get some incurable disease so I could sit in a hospital and let someone else decide what would happen next. Go ahead, Jack, throw a party. I. Just. Don’t. Care.

Jack did throw a party. A hell of a party, a great big whopper that drew a few noise complaints and likely brought the police around. And that’s when it hit me like a gong.

I sat up and said, Jack, you have my attention.

It occurred to me that I had spent so much time trying to kick Jack out that I hadn’t bothered to find out why he was there in the first place. His arrival wasn’t an accident; he walked in because a space was open for him, and that space had been created by circumstances beyond my control. I realized Jack wiggled when something tried to hurt me, and he made noise when something tried to silence me. He drank when I needed a break and he slept when I needed to go outside. But none of that was revealed to me until I started talking to him.

Becoming friends with a gross ogre of a thing is not easy, nor did it happen over night. But it did begin by changing a basic premise: recognizing all that popular speech about “getting rid of” your problems was really part of the problem. I didn’t need to get rid of anything. Having Jack around wasn’t a reflection of personal success or failure, rather it was simply an expression of circumstance. I live with a crazy roommate. He can be a handful, but he can also liven up the place and keep me from taking things too seriously.

Father Jack still keeps a chair in my living room. These days he sleeps most of the time, but we’ve got an understanding. Recently another life transition had him moving about, but he doesn’t cause the damage he once did because he doesn’t need to. We can talk (sometimes shout) to each other but there’s no battle for control because control is no longer the goal. In fact, the first thing that settles Jack down is recognizing and relinquishing the illusion of control and just allowing the flux of emotions to wash over us. We might be sad, angry, ecstatic, irritated, frustrated, enthusiastic, enraged, passionate, or lethargic – but we are not numb.

I quip that Depression hangs around my life, poking fun at me and cracking jokes. It puts me in embarrassing situations at times and nowadays I laugh or tell it to piss off. And sometimes it does slow everything way down, telling me to say “no” and my worth isn’t conditional on being liked. We’re buds. I don’t expect Depression to go anywhere and I don’t think I want it to leave anyway. It is, after all, difficult to be a socially observant existentialist without your own cup of Depression steeping away on the table.

So Father Jack, what do you say to a cup of tea?