Archive for August, 2016

August 1, 2016

Year One: Wittgenstein on Lessons on Anxiety and Kindness

I’ve barely realized or remembered it, but about a year ago I woke up in the middle of the night panting. Only that I couldn’t move my body; up above my right ear there was a sensation of a voice – much like the sensation of presence you get when you share that cramped elevator space with a stranger – that pretty much blabbered nonsense. No, it couldn’t have been nonsense in the first place, they weren’t even words. Drowned sounds of voices, like the morning rush hour, no distinct sense but a distinct awareness of presence. Lasting for God knows how long, I remembered Kill Bill: move your big toe, you can snap out of it. I wasn’t able to. I knew I wouldn’t die, but I also knew it wouldn’t end quickly. The ordeal lasted the entire night, and I woke up tired and swimming on the outline of my body’s sweat.


It turned out it would be that one panic attack that, so to speak, pushed me over the edge. I’ve always dreamed of snagging that MA really young. At 24 during that time with a couple of published papers and international conferences under my belt, it wasn’t exactly a sin to dare to expect too much from myself. That’s the wonderfully destructive and terrible experience of anxiety and depression: it is not so much a spiralling out of control as it is a spiralling into perceived control. You think you’ve got all the cards on your hand, all the bases covered, and then comes the wind to blow your cards away. No self-confidence can ever prepare you for the tempest of your own mind telling you, despite the evidence of the contrary, that you got this. Misplaced hubris? Probably. In any case, there was no other way to save myself than to stop.


In those trying and humbling times Wittgenstein was a silent spectator to what would eventually become a year off of going crazy over a few sentences of philosophical nuggets. It was a fortuitous meeting, an unlikely pair, if you will – his thought provided me the ultimate roadblock that until now I couldn’t get past, and yet strangely, his perplexing and illuminating insights would end up shedding light on a year that has passed. And what a woozy one has it been.


Ending up in government work, of all places, it was a challenge to keep my condition from creeping too much into work, let alone letting people know it was oftentimes difficult to pretend things can be managed, especially when you have other people depending on you, and most especially if the people around you are “personalities,” very much common in government. There were numerous times – probably more than I can count – where it ended up worse than what I left in MA. Things like those force you to question the very choices you make, whether the process of choosing itself was probably the disordered one.


But one year on, it has still been possible to survive. As John Berryman would say, damaged, but functioning. In a sense, the past year has been a year of participating in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, through the most vivid and embodied way possible: through anxiety and depression.



It helps to realize that the very manner of speaking can have a profound impact on a person, especially someone who is suffering from psychological disorders. Most employers and supervisors, probably because they think they’re in charge, conveniently forget to be kind, and then proceed to throw gestures, words, and worse of all, silence, across the room. Someone suffering from a disorder can be caught in a bind: if you tell, you risk the judgment that you’re merely using your condition as an excuse for your oversensitivity, and eventually look weak and privileged. On the other hand, if you don’t react, the reflexive effect can be way worse. The most crippling of all is when you’re forced or pressured to take it all in, especially in a culture that celebrates “toughing it up.” It is cliché to say that everyone is going through something – but in some way it is true, and it is certainly untrue that all that counts is the will to “head down, power through.” In many instances, speech can hurt and psychologically maim. It is the worst because the wounds are invisible. And people are none the wiser to miss out on the numerous times they’ve caused sleepless nights, especially supervisors and bosses.


Kindness is not a personality trait; it is a skill. And like all skills, the only way to be good at it is to cultivate it and practice it often. A skilful person is not one who can perfectly do something without stumble: a truly skilful person is one that is resourceful and flexible enough to adjust to the circumstances he or she is in, in order to achieve her goal. The Filipino word grammatically linked to skill or galing is telling: mautak. More than being witty, it reveals a deeper meaning: being mindful. There seems to be an affinity between mindfulness and skilfulness, and the most profound mode of contact with absolutely anyone is speech. What do all of these syllogisms lead to? – That speech is a space for mindfulness, and that it is a skill that can be cultivated.


Speech is the locus of the possibility for kindness. There are absolutely innumerable ways to be kind, but these ways seem to focus too much on the materiality of that kindness. People in government are all too familiar of this: offering “bonuses” and favors, like a trip abroad, extra money, and “free” leaves. What people often forget is that the things you say are absolutely the first point of contact with another person that has the possibility of kindness. “Speech” is not just the words you say, it also includes the gestures, the subtle twitches in your facial expression, the intonation and tone of your voice, even the volume and diction. People with anxiety have this ironic gift of being too sensitive, and one of the biggest problems anxious people have is that they tend to generalize or overreach on the tones and gestures, and they immediately jump to conclusions. It may probably be one of the most debilitating conditions of the disorder.


Granted it is something that people living with these disorders should work through themselves, but it doesn’t help if the environment is resistant to people helping themselves in the first place. Call it stigma, culture, what have you, the implications are the same: sick people cannot do it alone. Kindness is not a private language (sorry for this bastard, Wittgenstein) – it is a shared activity. It can only be cultivated when people do it in a certain way for a period of time such that it becomes unquestionable. And that’s the reason why speech is almost always left out of that consideration: speech is treated as superfluous, arbitrary, unimportant even, because what matters are results. And this is a disturbing state of affairs, if you ask me: to treat words as mere words, neglecting their weight and the modalities of kindness and cruelty that can spring from their use and abuse. It points to a disturbing fact: that we do not value things we don’t see.


But no, speech is the first contact and therefore the first possibility of kindness. The expression “your words touched me” is more meaningful than we take it to be. It begins when we are humble enough to acknowledge that the things that move us most are the things we do not see, and it begins to take flight when we are humble enough to help each other out, starting with the choice to be more kind in the things we say to other people. There is always a choice to be kind, and it always starts with the words we want to let go to another person. It is words that make it possible to share kindness in the first place, and it is through words that one can build a culture of kindness, even in something as small as an office.



Kindness can also be cultivated in the stories we tell ourselves. In the year I’ve spent processing my own muddles, I was fortunate enough to have a therapist who guided me through that slow and tedious process of working through your own disorder. Most of the time we think of therapists as experts of the mind, being able to see connections and links we otherwise could have missed. But after a year, while they are good at pointing out connections, what sets therapists apart from others is their capacity to be kind. And this is made apparent when they are willing to listen. A listening and accommodating ear is what it takes for you to tell your story to someone you can trust, to someone who won’t judge you in a manner that is unkind and unjust. And the strange – I daresay mystical – thing in all of this is that through the therapist’s kind gesture of silence in the act of listening, you get to be kind to yourself by telling your own story. Thinking about yourself is different from hearing yourself, much more different from letting someone hear your story. It does a strange thing: you get to see modalities of living otherwise, outside your purview of action. Telling your own story helps you see that there are other ways of telling your story, and this is a humbling experience. Who tells that “other” story? – Why of course yourself, through the help of the therapist’s questions, and sometimes, a listening friend, and for me, most of the time, God.


It is that mystical moment when you are othered to yourself, when the only thing capable of explaining yourself sits outside yourself. And when you open yourself up to others – another story, another person, another life? – that life takes a mold of something reminiscent of kindness. And then you begin to reimagine different stories, different lives.


What this gives you is the incomparable gift of perspective, and at the end of the day, it is what determines kindness: the ability to shift perspectives. It begins in speech, and is always recreated in the innumerable perspectives we can lay out in front of us.



And amid all of these lessons I’ve only begun to digest in the past few months, I’ve realized that it was my acquaintance with Wittgenstein, his musings on language and meaning, on rule-following and agreements in judgments, on the untenability of private language, even the duck-rabbit figure, that has actually helped me through. Pretty strange, for a philosopher known to leave stones unturned for us to discover ourselves. I guess that’s the key of Wittgenstein’s Investigations: that the reader him or herself is forced to participate in his games. For me, it was the unfortunate game of psychological disability. And for me, it was fortunately therapeutic, and it couldn’t have happened without others.


And so begins another year of learning to be kind: it will be one tough battle to show everyone – especially myself – that kindness is always a choice, and the only way to cultivate a culture of kindness is to choose to be kind. Year two has begun. For better or for worse, I still haven’t figured Wittgenstein out.