Misery – Tom Waits and Mao, Jodi and Me
Misery is the River of the World
As Mike E and I commuted back and forth on our trip to the Great Smokey Mountain National Park last month, he introduced me to his favorite artist, Tom Waits. There were a number of songs that I was fond of (especially from a live album Mike played), but my favorite song was Misery is the River of the World. That song has a very methodic rhythm to it, reminiscent of tides or currents. I especially liked trying to make my voice deep and rough to mimic Waits’ gravelly vocals and try to sing along. But, it’s the title of the song that is proving to be the most lasting impression:
Misery is the River of the World
The notion that misery flows throughout and feeds the entire world reminds me of a quote I read by Mao Zedong:
A long period of peace, pure peace without any disorder of any kind, would be unbearable…and it would be inevitable that peace would give birth to waves… I am sure that once we entered [an age] of Great Harmony, waves of competition and friction would inevitably break forth that would disrupt [it]… Human beings always hate chaos and hope for order, not realizing that chaos too is part of the process of historical life, that it too has value…
So according to Mao the absence of misery (aka “pure peace”) would bring forth boredom and unrest. My tournament bridge experience may support this theory. At times, I managed to upset myself with a poor play more than I upset my partner, otherwise known as “Dad”. In those cases, my father would remind me (paraphrased):
If we played perfect every time, it would be boring. There’d be no point.
Another thing I find notable about the Mao quote is his thought that “chaos too is part of the process of historical life, that it too has value.” Historically the times of war are accompanied by periods of innovation, invention and increased productivity. WWII brought forth a number of inventions and new products ranging from the atomic bomb to M&Ms. It also brought strides in quality control processes as well as recycling. Misery brings with it necessity and necessity brings forth revolution.
Misery is the Unit of Measurement (for Vicky)
Waits and Mao paint misery as inevitable part of life and Mao extends it to a necessary and valuable part of life. In my life, I don’t think I actively seek out misery (some may point to my work schedule and cite that as contradictory evidence). However, I have a whole slew of recent examples where I am unnerved by the absence of misery. I’ve grown accustomed to using it as a subconscious unit of measurement. When the misery does not match what I expected from the task at hand, I feel out of sorts.
Backpacking in the Smokies
When Mike, Kipp and I went backpacking in the Smokies, we carried our heavy packs for 8 miles and ascended up (and back down) roughly 2000 feet. Although I struggled a lot that first mile and had my fair share of discomfort and doubt, I certainly did not have the magnitude of misery I expected. I expected it to be harder than all other hikes I’ve attempted. I expected to want to turn around; I expected to want to cry; I expected to have to force my legs to keep moving on. That just never happened. So when it was all said and done, it did not feel like we ascended as much as we did. It still doesn’t.
Last week was our annual User’s Conference. Like last year, I had some speaking engagements. This year we had almost twice the amount of attendees, so the audience was quite a bit larger. Now, although I did have some nerves before I spoke, it was no where near the amount from the year before. In fact, I believe last year my hands quivered at the very beginning. This year said hands were steady. So this year, when my speeches were over, I found myself thinking, “Wow, did that really happen?” The sensation didn’t solidify in my head without the nerves.
Back when I suffered from the self-induced misery of emetophobia (fear of vomiting), traveling proved to be an ordeal wrought with all sorts of anxiety. It would start weeks ahead of time. I’d worry about getting the stomach flu or food poisoning when I was so far away from home. I’d worry about turbulence causing motion sickness on the plane. I’d worry about losing my appetite from worrying. Why? If I lost my appetite and didn’t eat, I’d get so hungry I’d grow nauseous and when I grew nauseous, I’d gag. Even when I was already on a trip and I had some successful meals behind me, I’d still worry. Will I be hungry for dinner? What if I’m not hungry? If I am hungry, what will I eat? What if they don’t have anything I like? I didn’t realize it at the time, but all that worrying and anxiety really monopolized and taxed my body’s resources. I would completely drain myself, adding to the misery that was already there.
Welp, it has now been years since I’ve been liberated from that worry and I’ve certainly traveled up a storm! Without all the worry and anxiety, even the most unpleasant trips and circumstances, are so peaceful and pleasant. In other words, external miseries (flight cancellations, lodging mishaps, etc) are absolutely no match for the internal misery of my past.
Despite all the years that have passed and all my successful travels, it still feels very weird to me that trips do go so smoothly without any mental anguish. Very frequently, it almost feels like the trip did not happen. I marvel about the sensation in my journal entries from numerous trips. Here’s an excerpt from my trip to London in January 2005:
These latest trips I’ve been taking — it feels like they aren’t real — they feel like a dream. Why? Because I have no anxiety. It still doesn’t feel like a trip if I don’t have a horrid ado in my head for weeks beforehand.
I wonder how many decades will have to pass before I adjust to the missing anxiety?
Misery is the Unit of Measurement (for Others?)
I may not be alone in feeling surprised by the absence of misery. Last weekend, Sean and I visited Brian and Jodi in their new home in Charlotte. During the evening, Jodi and I were talking about the birth of her daughter. The couple’s blog reads, “In what can only be described as ‘very fast’, Jodi had to push only 8 times across 3 contractions before Alison came out.” Jodi’s account confirmed that as she described how quick and easy the actual act of pushing and delivery went. When she was done, she said (paraphrased):
It felt like it should have been harder. It feels like it didn’t really happen, you know?”
I’ve never given birth, but I knew exactly what she meant!