The One You Feed (Excerpt)

anger management compulsive behavior duality emotion management habit change habit recovery inner child healing mindfulness mythbusting recovery two wolves Dec 19, 2022

“What a revelation,” Adichie notes, “how much laughter is a part of grief.”

A revelation indeed, since we have collectively deemed it inappropriate to revel in the complexity of grief. And why shouldn’t it be common knowledge: how grief finds its way across the full spectrum of human emotion, present in warmer waters and sunlit shallows as it is in the cool depths of melancholy.

To reach the good we are told, we must relinquish the bad. To properly suffer, we must abandon all possibilities of joy. Emotional experience as a zero-sum game: an ultimatum in which we are compelled to abandon either our angels or our demons. 

In communicating emotions, we split them into artificial, operational categories: happy vs. sad, angry vs. forgiving, fulfilled vs. deprived. Good vs. bad. But the words we use only possess a limited capacity to describe the things we feel—and such terms rest on certain erroneous assumptions about emotional states, namely, that they are discrete and discrepant—mutually incompatible. Again, semantics matter. It is easy to forget the subjective, ambiguous, coeval, and often contradictory nature of human feelings—to confuse the experience with the term we use to designate it. 

Take grief for instance.

Grief isn’t just sadness—it’s also joy, humor, liberation. Grief was listening to my father’s rambling voicemails to fall asleep. It was rubbing his ashes between my fingers, juxtaposing the memory of skin and hair over splinters of bone. Grief was recalling his mishaps with joy: the time he answered the door with no pants on, the expired lubricant in the fridge. Grief was laughter—aching and unmitigated.

There is a hackneyed story that illustrates the problem well. It is heavily trafficked in rehab facilities, self-help circles, and on Facebook to demonstrate the power of behavioral reinforcement. To this end, it achieves its purpose. Here is the abbreviated version. A Cherokee grandfather told his grandson: “there are two wolves at war inside of you. One is kind, compassionate, and gentle (boring). The other is cruel, violent, selfish, etc. Which one wins? The one you feed.”

Despite its overuse (at least, amongst the communities I frequent), the story is powerful for its axiomatic clarity. As with all good stories, it speaks to something we already know. But its conclusion is predicated on the assumption that one must win over the other, that there is room for only one wolf. Relinquishing joy is an understandably unappealing idea—but so is releasing suffering—for who would we be without our demons?

Analogies are never entirely accurate—partly because language isn’t entirely accurate. Words are mere approximations of the capital-T Truth. But the problem is made worse when the terms of an equation are poorly defined. And because human beings are metaphorical thinkers, we often struggle to distinguish between observation and interpretation. This begs the question: what do the wolves represent, and who is feeding them?

The popular interpretation, contingent upon decades of psycho-political polarization, contends that we are the wolves—both of them—the human psyche apparently consisting of a base, instinctual self and a superior, divine self—the proverbial angel and devil feuding over the strings of a clay puppet. Because such rigid dichotomies are rare in nature, I suspect they are also rare in human beings. Could the solution to all the evils of this world be that simple? Just starve it out

But there is a risk in equating existential dilemmas to warring dualities. Life is not, as we should by now know, a zero-sum game. Such a restrictive paradigm quickly devolves into rabid dogmatism—zealotry is essentially the reduction of dichotomies into dualities. The issue with orthodoxy isn’t content validity but semantic rigidity; the wolf allegory is not untrue as much as it is superficial. 

Given the broadly holistic worldview of America’s Indigenous people, the story’s alleged Native American origins are dubious. Further research confirmed my suspicions: Billy Graham, an evangelist (populist) Baptist minister, concocted the story in the late 1970s. Graham recounted the “ancient parable” in a 1978 sermon, electing to attribute his fabrication to the Cherokee tribe because Indigenous representation in the media was highly restricted throughout the 20th century (and across most of American history). Actually, Graham initially attributed the tale to the Inuit people, who were, in fact, significantly represented in the Canadian Press. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Undaunted, Graham simply changed his story; he was confident in his capacity to override Indigenous protests.

Indeed, the notion of “original sin” or “inner evil” so integral to the Judeo-Christian interpretation of this story is virtually non-existent in Native tradition. There are few universal constants across the diverse Indigenous ideologies. Still, one unifying factor is the rejection of Western, Judeo-Christian dualism: Indigenous people, by and large, adopt a monistic view of human experience and the natural world, one that emphasizes coexistence rather than exclusion, reciprocity over uniformity.

I relay this charming anecdote because it illustrates the unfortunate tendency of Western language (language being both the product and producer of belief) to reduce inconvenient nuances to remissive and simplistic terms—to “frantically flatten the chthonic world into Euclidean patterns.” You are the wolf you feed, so choose wisely.

Thankfully, the beauty of allegory is that it admits the inescapability of interpretation. Perhaps we aren’t meant to see ourselves in the wolves at all—but in the one who feeds them, in which case, we have a vested responsibility to keep them both alive. Is it ethical to feed only one wolf at the expense of the other?And is fulfillment really just the absence of adversity?

The practices that comprise so much of modern spirituality—gratitude, affirmations, manifestation—do not equip us to manage the pain when it comes. And because practicing positivity is far preferable to accepting pain, what many refer to as enlightenment becomes, instead, evasion. Spiritual bypassing seems to be particularly pronounced in Anglo-American cultures, where damaging myths of self-reliance and solipsism are so deeply encoded in our mythos that we leave everything up to blame and bootstraps, a culture in which the primary operative belief is that if we aren’t happy or prosperous, it’s because we’ve decided not to be.

You can’t work out what is making you sad, said a wise woman whose advice I ignored; you have to let it out. Striving for allowance is a reductio ad absurdum—a self-defeating egoic exercise—yet effort seems to be a prerequisite for effortlessness.

Alan Watts wrote extensively of the “seeming conflict between those who held that the mystical experience required a supreme effort of will, and those who held that such effort was simply an exhibition of egocentric pride which could only postpone the experience and push it away.” It’s a “seeming conflict” because it’s not a conflict at all; surrender ultimately requires a profound, destabilizing awareness of the impotence of human willpower.

Allowance is a creative act, a fragile balance between effort and effortlessness, human reason and divine inspiration. A mind in flow is a generator and a conduit, the source, and recipient of insight. Creativity lives in the response to adversity. In her essay on the journals of Cesare Pavese, Sontag quotes his perspective on suffering:  “to choose a hardship for ourselves is our only defense against that hardship. Those who can suffer completely, have an advantage. This is how we can disarm the power of suffering, make it our creation, our choice; submit to it.”

Pain, like money or religion, is neutral, anodyne—it fills the space we clear for it, amplifies what is already there. Pain defies willpower. It arises at random and subsides when satisfied. Only when we suppress emotions do they become pathological. Only when we resist thoughts are they intrusive. Characteristically, I had to learn this the hard way.

If suffering is selfish, then freedom from suffering is freedom from the self. In life as in death, in suffering as in grief, so much is dictated by self-preservation. “Death,” Sontag wrote, “is unbearable unless you can get beyond the ‘I.’” But how many of us cannot get beyond the “I,” fearful, as we so often are, of losing ourselves in the fray?

Death doesn’t just want our family, pets, and friends: it wants us. I watch the seasons change and the sunlight dim. I watch death wrap itself around everything I love. Still, I think: surely it will not come for me. “When we mourn our losses,” Didion wrote, “we also mourn, for better or worse, ourselves as we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”

Western cultures conspire to compel the repudiation of a world without the self. We are a nation of death-deniers, increasingly alienated from the birth and death of organic life, powered by pills, injections, operations, and diets that promise to keep it at bay. Like corporate scientists obfuscating the obvious–climate change, the risks of smoking, the opioid epidemic—modernity cowers behind fortresses of money, marketing, and misinformation, striving to beat back that which is already there. This is the second arrow, summoned by our misguided attempts to remove the first. 

The grieving person is likely to hear of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s six stages of grief, the last stage of which is acceptance. It was most frequently presented to me as a to-do list, a series of steps to be conquered—just get through the stages, and you’ll reach acceptance. But of course, suffering is not chronological, and I soon learned that acceptance, rather than being the end, is most often the beginning.

In “The Trouble With Being Born,” E.M.Cioran writes: “lucidity—” or acceptance—"is the only vice that makes us free: free in a desert.”  Acceptance alone is ignorant—immoral even. It represents only one half of a cyclical, iterative process of surrender and creativity. Passivity is a desert devoid of creative life. It is a state in which we are free only because we do not exist. Healing halfway is worse than no healing at all.

The trouble with being born, as it were, is that one is inducted into duality, reliant upon operative terms like good and evil to make sense of nuance. It is a necessary illusion, reinforced by the limitations of language, without which communication and expression would be futile. But language shapes perception and experience. One forgets the operative nature of polarizing terms, their fundamental incongruity with the fluidity of nature. It’s the age-old problem of missing the forest for the trees.

It’s a strange paradox: this faith in the ceaseless wheel of desire and craving, the psychotic conviction that the cycle will one day resolve itself, that a special sort of freedom awaits us, one that consists only in freedom from pain, a heaven in which we embrace our loved ones and eat all the ice cream we can dream of—but are spared the pain of death and diabetes.

Evading the second arrow is simply a matter of refraining from nocking it on the bow. Contending with the first is the heart of grief work. It is here that one encounters the amalgamated world. It is here that immortality lives.

In The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Francis Weller conceives grief as an opportunity to cultivate one’s “apprenticeship” with sorrow. Apprenticeship implies proximity and intimacy—a certain power dynamic that transcends the hierarchical. “Grief work,” Weller writes, is about “engaging the images, emotions, memories, and dreams that arise in times of grief,” developing rituals around these feelings and images that “deepen our capacity to hold the vulnerable emotions surrounding loss without being overwhelmed by them.” Grief work is “an act of devotion, rooted in love and compassion.” It is an apprenticeship: a relationship built on mutual recognition, founded to cultivate mastery. 

Thus, I practice dying. It is my ritual of apprenticeship—an ongoing effort to steadily ameliorate my relationship with death in preparation for the day when it's the only one I am left with. Together, we practice our inevitable rapprochement.

And I meditate on the echoes that still haunt me: the silence, the whispers of an empty house in upstate New York, my father’s books and instruments gathering dust, his excitement about Eugene Debs, his parting advice: have fun. These are my rituals of grief. In acquainting me with pain, they release me from suffering.“Ritual,” Weller writes, “ is able to hold the long-discarded shards of our stories and make them whole again. It has the strength and elasticity to contain what we cannot contain on our own, what we cannot face in solitude.” When I allow my pain, it no longer itches to remind me of its presence.

Death isn’t suffering. It’s just death. Grief isn’t suffering, either. Sometimes, it’s anger. Often, it’s laughter. I think of my Dad, shucking oysters for the new boyfriend I’ve brought home from college, the flaps of his silk kimono swinging open to reveal more of him than any of us bargained for. I think of my Dad, swimming in neck-deep basement sewage, on a doomed mission to save the washing machine, sparks snapping on the water. I think of Dad on his motorcycle, riding the wind, transcending his broken body, toppling over in the parking lot, laughing.

Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s not. Often, it hurts. Mostly, it is many things at once, a kaleidoscopic vision of vaporous memories and complex feelings, glistening with teardrops as innumerable as the stars in the sky. 

But these are my stars. 

This is my astrology of grief.


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