October 10

Let’s Start Talking

It’s time to start talking about the elephant in the living room.  I refer to our national mental health problem.  It’s not about mass shootings, though they are a symptom.  It’s not about the homeless, though they too are largely a symptom.  It’s about 1 in 4 Americans suffering from mental illness each year, and our inability to acknolwedge that there’s a problem.

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson is a great place to begin the conversation.  In this series of essays and blog posts, Lawson explores her own mental illness, as well as society’s reaction to mental illness.  The book is hilarious, and also enlightening.  I’m listening to the audiobook, narrated by the author, and it is extremely listenable.  It’s also available on Kindle, although this is one of the few books in which the performance makes it hard to imagine “merely” reading it.

From the description:

Furiously Happy is about “taking those moments when things are fine and making them amazing, because those moments are what make us who we are, and they’re the same moments we take into battle with us when our brains declare war on our very existence. It’s the difference between “surviving life” and “living life”. It’s the difference between “taking a shower” and “teaching your monkey butler how to shampoo your hair.” It’s the difference between being “sane” and being “furiously happy.”

There’s plenty of mention that most of those who live with mental illness “suffer in darkness.”  There’s the note that cancer sufferers get recognized when they survive, but those with severe depression often get ostracized when they survive.

And there’s plenty of profanity, but get over it.  This book is worth a little discomfort, whether at the subject matter or her colorful language.

October 8

Guns and Scars, Liberty and Hell

“You should wear with pride the scars on your skin
They’re a map of the adventures and the places you’ve been.”Poi Dog Pondering

Let me tell you about the time I got shot in the head.  No joke.  I’d recently bought a Ruger LCR .38 Special revolver.  My friend Jason came over, and I wanted to show it to him.  I opened the cylinder and removed the bullets.  He closed the cylinder and took it from me.  Then he asked if he could dry-fire it.

I hadn’t looked closely to ensure that all five bullets were removed.  He hadn’t checked at all when I handed it to him.  There was still one in the cylinder, and it went off.

As best we could tell, the bullet went downward through my file cabinet, ricocheted off the floor, bounced off my desk, and hit me in the temple.  It stunned me, but bounced off.  We never did find it.

I was lucky in so many ways.  First, it was a .38 Special which, although one of the most popular rounds in the U.S. is not very powerful.  Second, the bullets were XTP, designed to expand on impact, so (though they are deadlier in a direct impact) the ricochets took much more velocity out of them than they would a full metal jacket.  Third, the bullet went through several layers of furniture before it hit me.  The accident could have been deadly, but wasn’t.

It was my second firearm mishap.  In the first, after following online directions to adjust and safety-test the trigger assembly on a Remington .270 hunting rifle, a round discharged when I released the safety in the kitchen, blasting through a wall and through my pantry, making a terrible mess and deafening both my dog and me for 24 hours.

I don’t share these two incidents lightly.  I learned from them.  First, always check and double-check to ensure a gun is really empty.  Then treat it as though it’s loaded.  Second, leave critical adjustments to the experts.

And that’s the point: I learned.

I’m always amazed at the conflicting “wisdom” our society offers.

“We learn from our mistakes.”

“Don’t make any mistakes.”

“Adversity builds character.”

“No one should have to face adversity.”

Is it any wonder our nation is led by idiots who have no character?

Some people seem to envision a world that is safe for everyone.  Motorcycle helmets are required.  Cars should be collision-resistant.  Swimming pools should be three feet deep, and fenced, and of course there’s no diving allowed.

I’m a little surprised that after the Boston Marathon bombing, no one suggested background checks and licenses be required to buy a pressure cooker.  Or, in more mundane circumstances, that the law require steel cables be attached to scissors to keep kids from running with them.

I was taught to dive at YMCA camp when I was a kid.  Yes, I can dive safely, even into three feet of water.  And I enjoy it.  Sure, I belly-flopped a few times as I was learning, knocked the wind out of me once off the diving board, and scraped my belly on the sand learning to shallow dive.  But I learned.

The “safe” world doesn’t appeal to me much.  In fact, it sounds like Hell.

As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859,

“[W]hen there is not a certainty, but only a danger of mischief, no one but the person himself can judge of the sufficiency of the motive which may prompt him to incur the risk: in this case, therefore, (unless he is a child, or delirious, or in some state of excitement or absorption incompatible with the full use of the reflecting faculty) he ought, I conceive, to be only warned of the danger; not forcibly prevented from exposing himself to it.” (On Liberty, Chapter 5, v.5)

As for the danger to society,

[I]t must by no means be supposed, because damage, or probability of damage, to the interests of others, can alone justify the interference of society, that therefore it always does justify such interference. (5.3)

It is one of the undisputed functions of government to take precautions against crime before it has been committed, as well as to detect and punish it afterwards. The preventive function of government, however, is far more liable to be abused, to the prejudice of liberty, than the punitory function; for there is hardly any part of the legitimate freedom of action of a human being which would not admit of being represented, and fairly too, as increasing the facilities for some form or other of delinquency. (5.5)

Mill was required reading in my school, back in the 1970s.  How times have changed!

Before us is a choice about what sort of society we wish to live in.  On the one hand, some would have all dangers removed, and encourage government supervision to ensure such is the case.  On the other, absolute freedom for the individual, complete with its inherent dangers. (Few truly believe in this, for even those who claim to support it tend to want to limit others’ actions according to their own moral code.)

There is a middle path, for the liberty on which this nation was founded is not anarchy.  Polluting the oceans so that people get mercury poisoning from eating fish is not legitimate liberty, for it despoils the common resources of the people.  But allowing the majority of Americans who are not criminals to own firearms if they so choose is a risk that in my opinion cannot be legitimately argued against.

The opposing logic would suggest that the cheeseburger (or at least diet in general), which kills 130 times more Americans than guns each year, should be regulated before we even begin to discuss firearms.  Yet few are willing to give up their freedom of choice in food.

Some would argue there’s a difference, that for most Americans firearms are not a necessity but a pleasure.  I would argue the same of cheeseburgers, as I haven’t eaten one in 20 years.  The logic is the same: do we have the right to restrict another’s pleasure, even if its effects cause indirect costs to society?  (In this instance, I’m thinking about the billions of dollars in health care costs incurred by those who ate badly but can’t afford the cost of medical care, and the family members left behind as McDonald’s or Burger King takes another life.)

When I was 11 years old, my cousin Karl and I engaged in a mock duel.  My weapon was a bottle of Elmer’s glue.  His was the Exacto knife I used for building models, a pastime I very much enjoyed.  At that age the lack of parity between weapons did not occur to us.

Karl sliced open a knuckle on my left hand, which required a trip to the hospital and several stitches.  (Naturally, we lied to my mom about how it happened.) I still have that scar, and it’s a reminder of what an idiot I was.

Is the message of that event that children ought not to have access to Exacto knives, or that children learn from their mistakes?  I submit that a life that includes danger teaches in a way a padded room can’t.  Education serves us better than elimination.