Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Regina rabbit in her cage

When I was a kid, I would save my allowance to buy toys; my little brother would spend his allowance on candy. I would rather have toys later than candy now, because candy is temporary and toys last forever.

The rabbit that lives with me, Spots Regina Leonora Bandita Cookies and Cream Skeptical Empiricism Obama, has no concept of progress. She lives in a cage and eats salad and poops it out into her litter box. She will die someday. She doesn't seem to believe in God or heaven. She can't write literature or invent technologies. She will be completely forgotten eventually. She passes her time playing with her favorite toy, a ball that has another ball in it, with a bell in the smaller ball. She picks up the big ball with her mouth and throws it across her cage and the little bell rings. I can't imagine anyone being so callous as to call her life meaningless or hollow.

During the troubles last summer, when I had a hypomanic episode, I couldn't feel my normal feelings about what matters. I was obsessed with ideas about efficiency and rationality, and I was both terrified of and hoping for a future in which robots took over the earth.

During this time, on a particularly painful day, a friend let me hold a rabbit. I felt a little better. I thought it might be nice to get a pet. A couple of weeks later, this friend decided that she had too many mammals and gave me the rabbit that I had held, and that's how Regina came to live with me.

My feelings were contorted during the troubles, I had trouble figuring out which of my old values were still important. I wanted to make a better world, but I had trouble imagining what a good world for me would be like. It was easier for me to imagine a better world for Regina. I make salad for her every day, I let her out to play, I give her toys, I keep her safe. Maybe that doesn't mean much, but it's easy to tell how much taking care of Regina matters: one rabbit's worth. Taking care of Regina matters more than that: by practicing taking care of her, I think I'm a little more compassionate and gentle, in general.

(Now, Regina does not live in natural circumstances, with other rabbits, in a warren, underground. She only gets to really run around when I let her out of her cage, and I don't think she'll ever really get used to wood floors—she slides on them. She isn't about to be eaten or to starve. I don't know whether it's better to be a wild rabbit or a house rabbit, but Regina lives in a house now and I don't think she would do well in the wild anymore, and so I take care of her.)

When on the manic end of the mood scale, people with bipolar disorder are more prone to form mental connections between ideas. I was thinking a lot about how I'm a mammal and how I'm connected to other mammals and how mammals are interesting because their reproductive strategy is, rather than to have a lot of babies, like turtles and fish and flies, we have a few and we nurture them carefully. I thought a lot about how Regina and I are connected by being living beings. Everything that limits meaning for her, being small and mortal and forgettable, applies to me, too.

Siddhattha Gotama was a prince, who had grown up in three palaces, one for each season. His father, the king, kept him from pain all his life, hoping that the prince would be an apt successor. When he was 29, he secretly left the palaces, and went out into the world. On different trips, he saw an old man, a sick man, and then a corpse; on each trip his chariot driver explained to him what he saw: aging, sickness, and death had been alien to Siddhattha. I wonder if Siddhattha felt despair, as he lost belief in a perfect world. If I were in his place, I suppose I would be distraught and confused. I wonder if he felt that he'd lost a world free of pain; can you feel loss about something that was never real? There is suffering in this world; is there any full and lasting relief from it?

When I stopped thinking that God exists, and, with that, any sort of belief in heaven or hell or any place we can go to that isn't in this universe, I felt confined. This universe has an age and a size and a lifetime; the matter might last forever, but, eventually, everything will wind down. Is there any meaning to be had, or is everything vapor?

I think that Regina lives a meaningful life. Who would say that Regina's life is void or meaningless? Who would say that about humans? The main differences between Regina and I are that I live in a bigger cage and that I have thumbs.

It's tough to say whether Regina is happy or sad, overall. I see her relax a lot, but, being a prey animal, she gets frightened easily. Actually, rabbits are unusual because they play. Other animals play, but few animals that play are herbivorous; play is practice for hunting, for most animals. Sometimes, when Regina is out of her cage, she jumps and dances, it seems, for no other reason than fun. It's difficult to compare the emotions of humans and other animals, so saying whether Regina is happy or sad the way you and I feel happy and sad is not straightforward. What is certain is that she is not suicidal or lackadaisical, so maybe she finds her life meaningful to the extent that a rabbit can think about meaning; she always finds something to do that matters to her.

Lessons I learned from Regina:

  • Eat lots of fiber.
  • If you're scared, you can hide under the futon. You can relax under the futon, too, if you feel like it.
  • If you're not in danger of being eaten, playing with toys is your top priority.
  • Exercise is important, and most fun on a red rug.
  • Most things are bigger than you, and that's scary.
  • It's okay if humans make you nervous.
  • Always pay attention to how things smell, because, why not?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A letter to my high school English teacher

[Note: This is a letter for my high school English teacher, but I can't find an easy way to get in contact with her. If I could, I would have sent this to her, first. Some parts are cut for the sake of politeness; at other points, I provide extra context for readers who are not my high school English teacher.]

I am at the beach for the weekend; I have gone "downy ocean" as you would have said in your lesson on dialect. In addition to the library books I'm reading, I wanted to bring an old, small paperback work of fiction that would be safe to read on the beach; I brought One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It's pretty good. There are a lot of elements of the story that I wouldn't have noticed or appreciated if I hadn't taken your ninth grade honors English class. I hated that class.


In the first week of school, you made us take qualifying exams so that we could decide if we wanted to stay in your class. You graded harshly. When I complained of having gotten a D, a 66, on the first exam, a lot of my classmates told me that I shouldn't; I had gotten a very high grade, relatively. About half of the class quit and went to the next-easiest English class. Those of us who stayed were apprehensive.


After reading Of Mice and Men, we had to write essays about the book. [If you have not read it, at the end of Of Mice and Men, the main character, George, kills his best friend, Lennie, rather than have Lennie die at the hands of a mob. When I read it, I thought it was the saddest, most pointless ending to any book I had read.] I wrote that I didn't like it because I'm a Christian, and so I believe that God works everything out in the end. We have a hope for heaven, where things will be as they ought to be. Stories ought to end with a positive resolution. I didn't like Of Mice and Men because it didn't mean anything to me, I didn't learn anything from it; I didn't see any virtue rewarded in it, and it didn't entertain me. I forget what you said about that essay, but I remember getting a bad grade on it. I think it was around then that I tried to get out of your class, to join the regular English class, but it was already filled with students who had previously left your class.

I remember when you gave us assignments on "situational ethics"—my words, not yours. We had to consider various bizarre situations: ten people in a cave, with a fat man blocking the exit, or people on a lifeboat deciding who to eat first, or a person standing at a track switch as a trolly approached, with the trolley about to run someone over or to go off a cliff, depending on how the track switch was thrown. We had to write essays in which we considered possible choices in these scenarios and whether they're right or wrong: is it acceptable for the spelunkers to blow up the fat man with a stick of dynamite, so that they could escape? I thought, at the time, that you were trying to undermine my belief in a God with a set of absolute laws, and that you were trying to make me into a moral relativist. Maybe you were.

When considering whether throwing the track switch is right or wrong, everyone ought to be able to provide a better justification for their decision than "because God says so" or "because it's right". Everyone needs to be able to apply moral reasoning to difficult problems. As I recall, my answer to my ethical dilemma is that if one had faith, God would intervene to resolve the scene.

It's not right for a public school teacher to impose beliefs on students, or to undermine their spirituality, and you certainly did this at times. Regardless, I'm glad you made me write essays about ethics. When I stopped thinking that God exists, I needed a way to figure out how to live a good and meaningful life. Those assignments helped me think about meaning and morality on real, human terms. You did more than any other teacher I have had, in public grade school, or all through college, to prepare me for life as a non-believer.

One time, you criticized a student for starting an essay with "I feel". You made it clear to all of us that starting an essay with "I think", "I feel", or "I believe" is immediate justification for an F; our personal beliefs don't matter as much as whether we can explain them and defend them. I am prone to starting essays with "I think" to relativize what I'm writing, out of some fear of being wrong. Whenever I'm tempted to write "I think" I remember your rule and I find another way to phrase my text.

In reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I've been paying attention to how Miss Ratched, "Big Nurse", a woman, is at the top of the social structure of the ward, then the other nurses, then the black orderlies; the white male patients are at the bottom; in the ward, mental illness is more significant than race or gender in determining class. Chief Bromden is an unreliable narrator; Kesey uses Bromden's narration to emphasize that all stories are perspectival. Bromden's fear of the Combine, the personification of machines and social systems, is a dominant theme. (I've only read fifty pages of the book so far.)

When I was taking your class, I asked why we had to study literature. I understood that reading and writing are important, but I wasn't expecting understanding literature to be part of my job, in the same way that math and science would be.

I don't think anymore that God exists. I used to think that he could define meaning, he would tell stories that we fit into. As I passed through doubt, I read apologetics, then Christian philosophy, Kierkegaard, trying to make sense of God. I read secular philosophers, trying to find a solid, objective purpose in life. The philosophers that I look to now don't write dense logical prose like Hegel, they tell stories. I read fiction because it lets me practice understanding the world and deciding how I want to live in it. And, I don't just read fiction that's supposed to mean something big, I'm reading fiction for fun; fun matters.

After I finished the school year in which I took your class, I spoke ill of you to other people, calling you mean and crazy. I am sorry for that; please forgive me. I could bring up other grievances about that class, but I won't. You challenged me, you made me think. I don't think this was part of your job, but you made me question my beliefs, and I'm glad, now, that I had that practice.