Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Analyzing Great Depressed Lives: Part 1

Note: Due to it's length, this is going to be a two-part post. The first will deal with background, the second with my analysis.

I think we can learn a lot by analyzing the lives of great people. Two such people are Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Both led held strikingly similar revolutionary views, and had similar upbringings. Their divergence in thought was more a product of their environment than any intrinsic difference.

Nietzsche and the Kotzer were both mentally head and shoulders above their peers. R' Menachem Mendel grew up in a religious environment, under a father who was overly critical, demanding,and authoritarian. His first Talmud teacher, from whom he learned the methods of Torah study, was of the same bent. Known as "Black Mendel", he was, in the words of his most well-known modern biographer Dr. Joseph Fox, a "self-assured, serious-minded, lonely boy" who mastered the Talmud and Jewish Codes at an early age. He had an early drive towards self-perfection which stayed with him, as far as we can tell, throughout his life. He suffered from terrible depression, and for the last 20 years of his life shut himself up in his private room, only allowing rare visitors. He felt that he was alone in his dedication to truth and said he could not take the stink of falsehood prevailing in the world.

Friedrich Nietzsche came from a religious background as well, with his father and both grandfathers having been Pastors. Again, he is described as being a loner, a voracious reader, and driven towards self-perfection. When he was 5, his father died and, left without money, the family was forced to move to a village where his mother had some friends This, along with the deaths of his younger brother, grandmother and aunt- all of whom lived with Nietzsche's family- would shape and foreshadow a life of suffering for the brilliant young man. He, too, suffered terrible lifelong depression along with various other painful physical ailments, and was similarly obsessed with exposing the truth, however uncomfortable. 11 years before his death, he suffered a mental/emotional breakdown and stayed shut up in his sister's house for the remainder of his life.

Thus ends the important similarities between the two. In their adult life, the Rebbe of Kotzk would go on to become one of the greatest religious Jewish leaders, leaving his personal stamp in Jewish thought and practice by emphasizing internal motivation over external action, while Nietzsche would go on to revolutionize secular intellectual thought by declaring the Judeo-Christian God to be effectually dead, unimportant, and, in fact, destructive to humanity. Both were upset with their religious environments. What led to the divergence in their reactions to it? Why did the Rebbe, fed up with Jewish practice, try to change it from within it's own confines, and Nietzsche leave it completely to establish his own moral ideology?

Greg Geraldo 1965-2010

While we're on the subject of great dead comedians, I need to mention Greg Geraldo. For some reason, not too many people have even heard of him. (If I had to venture a guess, I'd say it's because he's just too defeated for most people to relate to.)  Whatever. Greg Geraldo was the epitome of a professional comedian. And I mean that in all possible ways, mostly good.

He was an astute observer of human behavior, had an excellent imagination along with the vocabulary to express it, and, just as importantly, the deep despair to not give a damn about anything. He was easily the top roaster on Comedy Central, but couldn't quite create a persona to distinguish himself enough to gain a real following. The affectations he did have - the battered leather jacket, the t-shirt, the 3-day beard growth- weren't flashy at all, but seemed cheesy nonetheless. They didn't fit his personality or style of humor. He wasn't some tough dude who didn't care. He was a nice guy who gave up early in life, but kept on hoping for something.

His humor, while often dark, was always on pulse with the times, even ahead of it. (At one of his last roasts, David Hasselhoff's, one of his lines to Hasselhoff was, "Your liver is so shriveled, black and dead, if you put your ear to your side, you can hear it go, 'What you talking 'bout Willis'?". This was right after Gary Coleman had passed away.) 

Like many of the most astute comics, he grew up religious and had a life-long attraction and aversion to authority. He couldn't keep up relationships, and had little self-control. And while he had no trouble pointing out other people's flaws, he was as just as quick in exposing and ridiculing his own.

Punching in day in, day out, to roast other, less talented people, while he plateaued at the relatively low level he did, must have really bothered him. So, I think it's only fitting to roast him for a change:

A big hand for Greg Geraldo! 
You know, some people think Greg's just another 40-yr. old, bitter, depressed, jealous, insecure, dead-end, no-name comic...   But they don't realize: Greg has a tatoo on his forearm. 
Lemme see that tatoo, Greg. What is that, a ring of bullets? Very cool. Does each one represent a time you've gone to sleep without crying? 
Ha Ha!  Kidding. You know, I admire you. No, really. I really admire your work ethic. You must know by now that your career is going nowhere, yet you still come in every day, hoping it'll be all different. You got to admire that...that...child's sense of wonder. 
In all seriousness though, here's to an honest, very funny man. A good man. Your mother would be proud. Greg Geraldo everybody!

P.S. If you want to listen to something funny, get your hands on a copy of Greg Geraldo's 'Good Day to Cross a River'.

Leslie Nielsen, 1926-2010

It's odd. I just wrote a random post about parodies, and Leslie Nielsen up and dies on us. I think it's only fitting we talk about him.

Even if you've never seen Airplane for reasons unfathomable, you've almost definitely been affected by Leslie Nielsen. If you've enjoyed Scary Movie or any of the spinoffs, an SNL commercial parody, or  MadTV, you've been affected by the white-haired monster of spoof comedy. His deadpan delivery, overt horniness, and general cluelessness created a new genre of comedy, formed in his likeness. Despite his sometimes risque material, since my father was a big fan of his, Leslie was allowed to corrupt my brain at a young age. I'll probably be suffering from it for the rest of my life. Rest in peace old boy.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Commercial Parodies

People are making a big deal about the SNL TSA commercial. I thought it was pretty funny, but not in the same league as some classic SNL parodies, like 'Oops I crapped my pants', 'Uncle Jemima', and 'ShakeWeight'. On the subject, though, I think these would make great commercial parodies:

1. The scene is focused on a garbage can in a New York City subway. A businessman walks by from the right and drops a half-eaten sandwich into it. A homeless guy scurries in and fishes it out. He takes a big bite, smiles widely at the camera, and flashes a big thumbs-up. The voice-over says "Subway. Eat fresh." (With the whole Subway logo imposed over the screen.)

2. Follow up to last one. Show stock footage of zombies in the subway. One zombie bites into someone's neck. "Subway. Eat flesh."

3. Copy of one of those ad-council commercials decrying the misuse of the word "gay". Two guys are looking at guitars at a store. One says to the other, "How do you like this one?" The other guy says "That's gay." A stereotypical gay guy jumps into the screen and yells in an overly gay way, "You shouldn't say that!"
"Wh-what? What shouldn't we say?"
"Uh! Don't say 'gay' when you don't like something."
"What should we say instead?"
"Just say, 'That's so silly!" or something."
"Yeah, that's just gay." And they walk off.

Old Jewish Jokes

There's something appealing about old Jewish jokes. Who wants to hear some?

-Guy's sitting in the exam room waiting for his test results. Doctor comes in and says, "Well Mr. Rudin-". The guy cuts him off. "How much time do I have left Doc? Just give it to me." Doctor says "10-". The guy cuts in again, "I can live with that". Doctor finishes, "9...8...7...".

-In the locker room:
"How long have you been wearing a bra, Harry?"
"Since my wife found it in the glove compartment."

-A guy gets home pissed drunk from the bar and falls into bed, mumbling about golden toilets. The next morning his wife says, "You know, Joe, you kept saying 'golden toilets' last nights. It was pretty funny."
The guy says, "No, no. It was really true. I had the most wonderful time in a bar with beautiful golden toilets." His wife just says, "Uhuh".
Now he's on a mission to find the beautiful golden toilets. He calls one bar after another with no luck. After two hours, he finally calls up an upscale club far outside of town. "Hello, do you have golden toilets?" The woman on the other end says, "Yes, come on in." She hangs up and calls down the hall, "Jerry, I found the guy who peed in your sax."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

#14 Thanksgiving

Here's an underexplored phenomenon. Why do depressed people love Thanksgiving? My take on this is that it's the one holiday that allows connection to others (family and society), without any (religious) preconditions. And especially because it's done over food (free home cooked food = unconditional love). To explain the problem depressed people have with other, religious, holidays, I think we need to explain the problem depressed people have with religion in general.

Belief in Judaism/Christianity, and acceptance of Jewish or Christian ideals, means believing in a higher purpose to our lives. If you feel empowered to take on this challenge, because of a healthy self-esteem, each step is looked at as a sublime mission only you can fulfill. This creates a feeling of supreme accomplishment, which creates a positive feedback system ("One Mitzvah causes another Mitzvah", in Rabbinic terminology).

If you feel deficient (low self-esteem), the "challenge" is usually seen as something completely different. It is something you must do to gain God's (because of Transference) approval and acceptance. You are resentful that you aren't accepted as you are and must do x, y, and z to gain approval, while simultaneously fearful for your eternal soul if you don't. Since religion necessarily posits itself as the point of existence, yours has become a living hell. So, enjoy Thanksgiving while you can!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

# 13 Shopping

In time for the American holidays of Thanksgiving and Black Friday, here's a toast to the start of a great new American tradition: shopping addiction. I really like purely behavioral addictions like Compulsive Buying Disorder. Shopping is not an inborn desire. It's not psychoactive, like alcohol. But it's as real as a repo man's kick in the teeth. It's the kind of thing that makes narrow-minded pop evolutionary psychologists come up with the most ridiculous (though very creative) theories. But I digress...

To the point of this post: While most people aren't "shopaholics", low self-esteem often leads to the development of similar tendencies. A low self-concept (self-esteem) as I've mentioned before, causes depression. It is most often caused by a parent's negation of their child's individuality (not the best word, but it'll have to do), which, in the West today, is usually done by being overly-critical. Getting something you want shows that another person recognizes and validates your desires and, therefore, you. Buying something that is "just so you", also provides this external validation -just like listening to certain music, eating certain foods, following less standard religions, etc. (Congratulations! You are now part of the Narcissistic personality type. You do have an identity after all!) 

Of course, as I've said ad nauseum, this doesn't fix your problem of a low self concept, the root of all your other  problems. Though it quiets your anxiety for a while, as long as you keep feeding it money. And how bad could some invisible baggage really be?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

# 12 Comedy

In his controversial article, "Why women aren't funny", Christopher Hitchens quotes Nietzsche as saying, "A witticism is an epitaph on the death of a feeling". Regardless of the rest of the article, I think this definition of humor resonates with me more than any other. (It's interesting to note that Nietzsche was notoriously depressed.)

Humor attracts depressed people to the relatively large extent it does for it's capacity to be used as a defense mechanism. Most depressed people, as I've mentioned before, see the world in a competitive, zero-sum-game hue. Nietzsche's depression sheds light on his own philosophy and outlook on life, his "weltanschauung", as it's known. He is famous for saying:

"What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself.
What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness." 

His philosophically original ideas on necessary self-loathing, Nihilism, Man and Ubermensch, etc., all point to his general self-centered, competitive outlook on life. 

But coming back to the original point, humor allows us to pretend to be superior to, or at the very least, capable of dealing with, an adversarial experience, situation, or person. By making fun of this thing that dominates and/or scares us, or hearing it being made fun of, we can focus on it's shortcomings and take away some or all of the fear, if just for the moment. Comedy not followed by an action to stand up to the adversary however, is, of course, empty. Joking among friends, therefore, is especially important in this context because we get to show them that we are unaffected by whatever thing we truly fear. This outside approval can help bolster the case for the fraud we are committing in our minds, the main objective of which, i.e. the removal of the adversary or the fear-based stress, was never really achieved (i.e. the denial does not rid us of the fear, contrary to our demonstrations to the opposite). 

That's what Nietzche means. Reducing a serious subject (like the feeling of inadequacy at something) into a witticism allows us to deny the uncomfortable feelings it brings up by finding something about it to laugh at, since we feel unequipped to really deal with it. Unfortunately, acting in this denial state never allows us to deal with the feeling rationally. 

This is similar to using coarse language to put on a show of bravado and uncaring to something we feel unable to deal with. Phrases like, "Making love: What my girlfriend does while I fuck her", pretend to deny feeling a basic human need by ridiculing it. It is therefore, a priori, stupid. Denying and repressing a part of ourselves, though, leaves us feeling stifled, stressed, and ultimately, depressed underneath. And like all defense mechanisms, it is unhealthy and unhelpful whatever form it takes. I hope you're not waiting for me to end with a joke now.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Famous members

You may have noticed I've slowed down a bit with the writing. I guess I ran out of activities we have in common. (If anyone has another idea for one, let me know.) So for now, to keep you all entertained, I'm posting links to other people's stuff. There's a smart and funny piece here: Depressed not to do's (although it's aimed at women, men can relate to most of it).  And here's a list of famous depressed people: Famous Depressed's. That one's very good, actually. Apparently, some of the most outstanding people in history have been depressed. (Of course, it may just be that I think they're cool because, as depressed people, they were into similar things as I am. Mindbending. I know.)

Just a sneak peak: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, Drew Carey, Jim Carrey, Ellen Degeneres, Rodney Dangerfield, Emily Dickinson, Queen Elizabeth (Ok, she isn't as outstanding as Winston Churchill or Drew Carey, but she's famous), Harrison Ford, Jane Goodall (I know, a shocker), Andrew Jackson, frikkin Isaac Newton, the guy who started J.C. Penny, Mark Twain, Joan Rivers and George "the man" Washington.

Other famous depressed people who didn't make the list might be more familiar to Jews: King David, the 1st Lubavitcher Rebbe (the Baal Hatanya), Rabbi Nachman of Breslev, the Kotzker Rebbe, and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

Hope this holds you over till next time.

Monday, November 8, 2010

#11 [Over]Sleeping

I could probably just say, "See #5 Addictions" and get away with it, but that doesn't do sleep-addiction justice. One aspect is, of course, an addiction like any other. You know, escaping life and creating your own world. But sleep is a basic human function, and therefore able to be screwed up very early in development. An interesting (and pretty widely accepted) theory is that sleep reminds children of the womb. This makes it a natural place to escape to when faced with overwhelming hostility.

More importantly, though; since sleep, like eating, is an inborn desire (and, parenthetically, therefore the foundation of an individual's identity), it is also one of the earliest ways people exert their own control over their environment, i.e. by choosing when to sleep and eat, and when not to. When they are later denied control over their own life in other areas, they can revert to sleep - and food, and defecation - to exert their control and thereby relieve the anxiety. (A fun caveat here is that if these things are denied at an early age, for example by forcing a child to eat past when it denies food or by forcing it to stay up or go to sleep- with enough regularity to prove to the child that they are out of it's control- you can be successful in introducing a host of interesting neuroses). This over-dominance by parents is also very useful in developing poor impulse control- as delaying gratification now causes existential anxiety- Addictive personalities, and pathological Narcissism. On the plus side, dreams are pretty sweet. Except when they try to tell you things in a creepy way. Intrusive subconscious assholes.

Btw: I couldn't find any good sleeping pictures, but I did find this one, which I'm sure you'll admit, is awesome.