Jay Michaelson
Constriction, p. 3

4.    Sadness in the desert

That was going to be the end of the essay: me holding a rock, feeling the doubt melt away into openness and acceptance. But I think that to end on that purely individualistic note in these times feels dishonest.

I don't usually go in for apocalyptic thinking. Yet today, in the shadow September 11, the turning of the tide of world opinion against the United States, and the virtual certainty that we will soon be attacked in some sort of horrifying and devastating way, whether or not we launch our idiotic war against Iraq, many of us - myself included -- have begun to entertain thoughts of apocalyptic change we never took seriously before.

At the same time, every generation has been sure that the end is nigh. I've recently been reading Gershom Scholem's biography of Shabbetai Tzvi, the 17th century Jewish messiah who at the height of his popularity had at least one third of Jewry as followers. Shabbetai Tzvi came at a time of fervent apocalyptic sentiment. In 1648, Christians thought the apocalypse was near because of the Thirty Years' War; Jews thought it was near because of the Chmielnicki Massacres. And the feelings were similar, across different Western cultures, in 1300, 1492, 1945, 1999, 1666, 70, 138. My only comfort in the increasing dread that I feel is that everyone else was wrong, so hopefully I am too.

That's my rational mind. In other places, I have come to feel that we are indeed in the end-time of Western culture as we know it. We have utterly demolished the biosphere's delicate balance, and now await a century of ecocide, in which a majority of the Earth's species will likely be wiped out. America is determined to provoke hatred, and it is just a matter of time before the city I love is, if not destroyed, then seriously harmed by some form of biological, nuclear, or conventional terror attack. If you look closely around New York these days, you realize a startling thing: that everyone knows it will happen. We all know it, and you can feel the foreboding in the air. It seems only a matter of time before the Empire State Building is destroyed. The tower, once a beacon of America's strength, now stands as a symbol of our fragility, vulnerable, awaiting its doom.

I feel a sense of fear more profound than mere revulsion. I feel despair. I feel like I am living in a dystopic society where the richest, most powerful, privileged elites are taking away everyone else's civil liberties, stealing their money, and plunging them into a dark time of fear and distrust. I have no faith in the earnest chants of the anti-war movement or other Leftist movements, of people who believe that repeating the morally correct argument will somehow get it adopted. It won't. Gandhi did not have to fight multinational corporations. When satyagraha prevailed, democracy actually existed. Anyone who believes we are today living in a democracy - by which I mean simply, a political society in which the will of the majority dictates policy - is either a dupe or a knave.

Of course, this hostility, and despair - this, too, is constriction. I see it for what it is. But I do think that the race between compassion and constriction has reached a new level of urgency. To be more honest, I think it is lost. I think constriction has won, that the Dick Cheneys of the world have solidified their power, have so consolidated and perfected the ability to confuse the ignorant, that we will never defeat them.

The only possibility is to soften them, to help them see that the destruction that they are causing exists, like Lennon's bid to fame, because of personal needs that we all share. They are not diseased and not animalistic, these people; they are us. It is probably too late for people as old and hardened as Dick Cheney, which is why I feel it is too late for the world. But I know that I was once much tougher and tighter-wound than I am today. Though I was never famous like Lennon was, I did make constant attempts to impress people with my intelligence, and did pursue conventional notions of success; and, like Lennon, it was all for love. I still want it now. But at least now that I see these acts as manifestations of a deeper sadness, I can address the sadness, rather than cause suffering for myself and others through dysfunctional mechanisms of avoiding it.

Just a few days ago, I saw Gus van Sant's elliptical new film Gerry, which consists of ninety minutes of Matt Damon and Casey Affleck walking and getting lost in a vast desert. There is little dialogue, and lots of time-lapse cinematography of clouds. I walked out of the film refreshed - I like slow film - and also feeling like I had just seen the best 9/11 art yet produced. The movie doesn't mention September 11, or current events, or any culture at all outside of a brief discussion of Wheel of Fortune. But it captured the inexpressible sadness of our times: the hopelessness of the characters, the expanse of the desert, the deep sense that all is soon to be destroyed, and there is nothing that can be done.

Being open to this sadness is the opposite of constriction. Hope Reeves was afraid of tears, the repressed gay Jews too, and all those who seek a simple answer to our recent national pain. The answers, if there are any, are complex. I think there is nothing we can do. But I know that to try to avoid the pain, to close ourselves to it, to pretend it isn't there, is only going to make it worse. What is real? That life is suffering, and we are in for a whole lot more of it.

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Images: CNN, and Gus van Sant

Jay Michaelson is currently at work on The Gate of Sadness: Jewish and Buddhist Teachings on the Broken Heart.
He will be reading on March 20, at Makor, as part of Zeek's night of "Readings and Misreadings."

More by Jay Michaelson (for a full listing, please visit the archive):

What the World is...
...and What to do about It
February, 2002

Quality of Life
What my grandmother's suffering teaches
January, 2002

Go as Far as Possible
Taking life beyond the idea of limits
December, 2002

Are we all asleep?
When life seems irresolvably absurd
November, 2002

Top Ten Lessons for New Homosexuals
Tips and advice from my first gay year
October, 2002

The Warm, Impossible, Wall-less Summer World
Summer days, summer nights are gone...
September, 2002

The Ghost and the Machine
Why is it easier to see God in nature than in the city?
August, 2002

Loneliness and Faith
Being at one with being
July, 2002

On Eighth Avenue in New York
New York, full of life, a cure for loneliness.
June, 2002

The Desert and the City and the Mall
If the desert feeds the spirit, and Paris delights the senses, what does McDonald's do?
May, 2002

Cheap Jews try to Save the World
Am I an environmentalist for the same reasons I don't like to spend money?
April, 2002

January 16, 97th & 3rd
Remembering a car accident one year later. Does anything matter?
February, 2002

McDonald's: A Better Opiate for the Masses?
If crass capitalism stops us from killing each other, is it such a bad thing after all?
October, 2001

March 2003

Readings and Misreadings
Zeek live, March 20 at Makor

surrender monkeys
Michael Shurkin

the reason for
Hal Sirowitz

Jay Michaelson

war and not-peace
Dan Friedman

Only Shelter
Bryn Canner

Abraham Mezrich

josh goes to prague
Josh Ring

David Stromberg

about zeek