Me, my Body and I: Part 2

To begin I want to dwell for a minute on Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the human personality. It’s a secular formulation, not surprising as Freud was an atheist. I’ll get to more religious formulations in a bit but Freud shows how personality can be conceived as being made up of three ‘parts’: the id, or libido (sexual energy), the ego, and the superego. The ego, in this scheme of things as I understand it, is the part of the personality where the needs of the id and the superego are negotiated and worked out. The superego is that manifestation of the human personality that accounts for social norms, values and morality. The fact is that the id, ego, and superego are not really ‘parts’ of the human personality, but manifestations of the various and often contradictory needs inherent in the id and superego. In other words, they are not things and can only really be identified by what they do or manifest.

For example, the id of a young man (I can attest from personal experience) may be consumed, or at least, pre-occupied with thoughts of sex, sex and more sex. The superego, on the other hand says, wait up there cowboy, you can’t have sex with anyone or anything at any time. There are social rules around these things. Listen up! NO sex with your sisters, brothers, or your mother, nor with sheep, goats, or monkeys! You hear? The id counters by arguing: well, what am I supposed to do with all this energy? You tell me I’m not even allowed to masturbate! That’s not fair! In these ‘debates’ sometimes the id wins, more often the superego does. There are people who have no social conscience or social ‘brakes’ to their behaviour. We call them psychopaths or sociopaths. People with rampant, out-of-control ids can be very dangerous as sexual predators and can be uncontrollably violent. Freud’s scheme has to be considered along with other aspects of what it means to be human such as bodily integrity, intelligence, and upbringing. Personality is very idiosyncratic if you haven’t noticed. It’s all very complex but it’s what accounts for our individuality.

What Freud’s personality scheme does for my purposes here is to highlight the fact that we can easily conceive of our personalities made up of semi-independent parts. This idea is integrally important to the religious, spiritually-minded, and Christian (certainly) notion that we are made up of body, consciousness, and soul, different aspects of us that are related but have a life of their own, so to speak. To think of the soul as immortal, it’s critical to separate it from the body which dies although some religionists, especially Darbyists* (who would probably find the 1991 film Rapture right up their alley), would prefer to go to heaven with their bodies intact. Rapture (the film) depicts end-of-time second coming of Jesus and the ascension of the human body and soul to heaven. Some religionists are very keen to see their physical bodies live eternally but they’ll settle for their consciousness or soul carrying on after their bodies die.

This is the position of Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish Basque scholar who was for a long time the don of Salamanca University in Bilbao. I introduced you to Unamuno in one of my recent posts. I refer to Unamuno here because he is such a keen advocate for the immortality of the soul. He published The Tragic Sense of Life in 1920. It’s a rambling poetic rant and an impassioned plea to realize the limitations of reason in coming to grips with the most important problem he reckons facing us all and that is the immortality of our souls. For Unamuno, the longing for the immortality of our souls is what makes us human. He writes:

“That is to say that you, I, and Spinoza wish never to die and that this longing of ours never to die is our actual essence. Nevertheless, this poor Portuguese Jew, exiled in the mists of Holland, could never attain to believing in his own personal immortality, and all his philosophy was but a consolation which he contrived for his lack of faith. Just as other men have a pain in hand or foot, heart-ache or head-ache, so he had God-ache. Unhappy man! And unhappy fellow-men!” (from “The Tragic Sense of Life” by Miguel de Unamuno, Kindle Edition, page 43)

According to Unamuno, except for a few minor and aberrant individuals and groups, humans have throughout history consistently believed in the immortality of the soul. That commitment and longing for immortality that is at the very core of our beings and is effectively an instinct of perseverance as Unamuno sees it is our membership card in humanity. If we don’t believe or if we insist on finding a logical, reasonable explanation for the immortality of the soul then we are evil, wicked people who refuse to be a part of the human community. Unamuno can surely be called a hero in the social imperative of death denial. He finds atheists and non-believers of all sorts abhorrent. “If consciousness is, as some inhuman thinker has said, nothing more than a flash of light between two eternities of darkness, then there is nothing more execrable than existence” writes Unamuno. Life, for Unamuno is absolutely meaningless if the immortality of the soul is not the prime human fact and goal. Unamuno is very keen to separate reason from life. He says reason cannot prove one’s immortality, only life can, and it’s a question of faith. The soul has primacy in Unamuno’s scheme of things and is his ticket to immortality. Interestingly, he’s not as concerned with the existence of God as he is in his own immortality.

A more contemporary aficionado of the immortality of the soul is Ram Dass who just died recently. He believes that the soul must exist and it must be immortal because otherwise our earthly lives are meaningless. He writes:

“To be here for fifty to eighty years only to be annihilated at the end just doesn’t make sense. Nothing else in the universe is that inefficient. We have to be here to learn; otherwise our difficulties are truly meaningless. For the Ego, the roles we grow into and the positions we hold at the pinnacle of aging are the culmination of life. For the Soul, learning is the culmination. When we expand our self-image to include the Soul, we notice a marked shift in our personal consciousness, a liberation from the small egotistical self into a far more spacious context. From this Soul level, we are able to view our Egos from the outside in. This allows us to observe our minds and bodies in ways that will seem new and surprising, as if the trapdoors of the “self” have been opened and we can finally step outside, enjoy the view, and put a welcome distance between who we are (from Soul’s perspective) and the suffering we experience at the level of body and mind. Thus, with practice, we cultivate the tremendous healing of knowing ourselves as spiritual beings, too.” (from “Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying” by Ram Dass, page 28)

Well, I see a lot of problems with Dass’ non-sequiturs to start off . Why doesn’t it make sense that we are annihilated at the end of lives? And ‘nothing else in the universe is this inefficient’? What kind of silliness is this? Efficiency as a criterion for the immortality of the soul is ridiculous. Dass would be much better off just borrowing arguments from Unamuno than putting forward illogical ‘reasons’ for the immortality of the soul. Furthermore, he argues that we can see ourselves from “this Soul level”. Magical thinking indeed! But Dass appeals to a large audience of people intent on believing that when they die, they don’t really die because their souls carry on into eternity. I can seriously say that I’ve explored the implications of this idea through years of study, introspection and meditation, including, like Dass, the use of hallucinogens. Frankly, I just don’t see the point in adding a fictitious construction called the soul to our personalities. In a way (and I’m sure I’ll get up some people’s noses for saying this) it strikes me that believing in the immortality of consciousness or the ‘soul’ requires a great deal of collective narcissism and chutzpah. Where do we get off thinking we’re so special under the sun that we get to live eternally and no other life forms do? Note that I write ‘collective’ narcissism. As individuals we have no reference other than social ones to decide what to believe. We can be the humblest of individuals yet still be trapped in the overarching cultural imperative for apotheosis via immortality.

Of course I DO argue that in a sense we DO live eternally, just not in our current human configuration or through the ‘soul’. I know that I’m now a long way from discussing myeloma and my daily grind under its treatments. That is so. However, it’s important for me, as I approach my inevitable death whether it happens in six months or ten years, to clarify my point of view. There’s a certain amount of catharsis going on here, no doubt. Most people want to live forever. Not me. I’m perfectly happy to see my consciousness evaporate when my heart stops and at that point all the atoms and molecules that made up my body will be free to go. Have fun, little buddies!

In the third post in this series coming up shortly, I reflect on the works of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker. Both worked as social scientists. Durkheim died in 1917, Becker in 1974. Both had a lot to say about the soul and the sacredness of society as a source of the personal sense of immortality. Both have played a large part in my intellectual life but Becker sticks with me much more viscerally than the cerebral Durkheim. Both argue in their own way that the power of religion lies in society.

Stay tuned.

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* “Though Darby may have burned his bridges, his message gained a larger and larger following. Today his dispensational premillennialism is the view of many modern fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals.” From: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/pastorsandpreachers/john-nelson-darby.html

This is no fun at all.

Well, this is no fun at all.

I’m not silly enough to believe that a life with myeloma would be fun, but I’m kind of disappointed that it’s been such an unmitigated downer. I am, I can now see, destined to drag this goddamned disease with me into the grave. Come on, I knew that! Still, a bit of a break now and then would be welcome. Is that too much to ask?

Actually, I think the nastiness I’m experiencing in spades right now stems mostly from the chemo meds rather than from the myeloma itself. This past week would support my idea that the meds are as bad as the disease at the moment for making me feel tired, dizzy, and in pain.

I went to the hospital on Thursday for my bortezomib shot after taking all the rest of my chemo drugs in the early morning. I expect Thursdays to be non-days, and this one was certainly that. A non-day is one when I can’t gather enough strength to do much of anything. However, Friday and Saturday also turned out to be non-days and Sunday wasn’t much better.

I felt a little beaten down. Of course, I should have expected it because my local oncology GP did warn me that they were going to ‘challenge’ me with my chemo med doses. No more mamby-pamby half doses for me! I was to get the full meal deal! Yes, indeed. Silly me.

Then I figured that maybe I needed a good dose of positive thinking to counteract all of these drugs. Maybe all I needed was a little endorphin fix. After all, I used to teach positive thinking on the Knowledge Network back in the ‘good ol’ days’ of 1986 to 1992. I used to teach as Ehrenreich points out “that on many levels, individual and social, it is good to be ‘positive,’ certainly better than being withdrawn, aggrieved, or chronically sad.”*

The problem is I’ve learned a few things since the early 1990s, not the least of which are the limitations of positive thinking. The American Cancer Society on its website states very clearly:

An important part of coping with a cancer diagnosis is recognizing emotions and feelings. Treatment that deals with our emotions and relationships (sometimes called psychosocial interventions) can help people with cancer feel more upbeat and have a better quality of life. But there’s no good evidence to support the idea that these interventions can reduce the risk of cancer, keep cancer from coming back, or help the person with cancer live longer. Still, things like group support, individual therapy, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques can be used to help reduce distress and cope with the emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis.

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/attitudes-and-cancer.html

So, it seems that belonging to a support group has some positive effects, not on survival or anything like that, but in feeling less tired and in stress reduction. There is a support group in the Valley. I haven’t attended any of the meetings yet. I’ve been too goddamn exhausted to do that until now, but maybe next month! Then, maybe I’ll be less tired!

The American Cancer Society, on its website, starts off with this: When a person is told they have cancer, they might find themselves wondering:

  • Did I bring the cancer on myself?
  • Can my emotions really make cancer grow or affect the outcome of my treatment?
  • Can I control the tumor growth by visualizing how my body is fighting the cancer or by thinking myself well?
  • Would relaxation or keeping a “positive attitude” help cure my cancer?

I can easily reply an emphatic NO! to all these questions and the website goes on to refute each in turn.

Ehrenreich writes:

In the rational explanation that many psychologists would offer today, optimism improves health, personal efficacy, confidence, and resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. A far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology—the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success.✤

The upshot of the idea that negative thoughts produce negative outcomes is the notion that people bring their diseases on to themselves by thinking negatively. Never mind that this idea is completely debunked by the American Cancer Society and people like Barbara Ehrenreich, there is a strong current of belief ‘out there’ that we are the victims of our own negativity. That goes for people with chronic illnesses, auto-immune diseases, and cancer. If you’ve got it the ‘reasoning’ goes you’ve brought it upon yourself.

This of course dovetails nicely with the predominant capitalist morality in our culture which states that individuals are inherently responsible for their actions and weakness of all kinds is abhorred, shunned, and denigrated. If people exhibit any signs of weakness, whether they are poor or in ill-health, it stands to reason that they must be responsible for their condition. That’s why people, especially those caught up in a full-blown subscription to capitalist morality, often go to great lengths to hide their poverty and ill-health. They are also the ones that tend to judge most harshly the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised, the physically disabled, the chronically ill and the aged, even if they themselves could be included in any one of the categories I just mentioned.

Myeloma is a disease of the bone marrow. It’s entirely organic. As of yet there is no cure for it. It will not respond to positive thoughts or negative ones either, for that matter. Ehrenreich writes that “There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.” ✦ If there’s anything I strive toward it’s existential courage. However, if you catch me in a moment of deep angst over my imminent (yes, ten years is imminent) death, cut me some slack. I can’t always be perfect!

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*Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. 2009. Kindle Edition, Location 89.

✤Ibid., Location 125.

✦Ibid., location 145.

About pain, cold sweats, hallucinations, delayed chemotherapy, rashes and, other fun stuff.

[A note: I’m used to writing posts here of approximately a thousand words. Because I’m so fatigued with anemia and other conditions that affect my concentration, for the foreseeable future I’ll make my blog posts a little shorter. That way I will be able to continue writing and not tire myself out too much.]

I started the chemotherapy drugs, lenalidomide and dexamethasone last Thursday morning. I was to take one lenalidomide tablet and five dexamethasone, continue with the lenalidomide for three more weeks and five dexamethasone tablets every Thursday morning until they were done. Frankly, it was a relief to finally get going on a treatment for my multiple myeloma (MM), any treatment. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and me. They never go according to plan, and this was not about to become an exception to the rule.

It must have been Saturday (I got a CT scan that day) when I noticed that my butt was getting really itchy. Well, naturally, I scratched it. I knew it isn’t a good thing to scratch an itch, but I just couldn’t help myself. The welts just got bigger and hotter and covered my whole midsection. I developed a slight fever. Carolyn, my very competent care aide spread some lotion on my backside and up under my armpits to relieve some of the itching. Damn good thing too because I was close to losing it.

Well, it turns out that the reason I developed this rash in the first place is that I happen to be allergic to my main chemotherapy drug, lenalidomide. Now, that’s not cool! Lenalidomide is an oral therapy drug, and for that reason is very convenient to take. So, it’s the weekend, I’m itchy as hell, but I persist in taking my chemo meds. On Tuesday, yesterday, I call the oncology nurse in Victoria who seemed quite concerned about the rash. She tells me that she would try to track down my oncologist to get some idea of what to do. My regular oncologist was out of the Cancer Centre at meetings but she tracked down his colleague who told the nurse to tell me to cease taking lenolidomide immediately. So, great. Here I am, not a week into taking my first course of chemo meds and now I can’t take them anymore! What the hell is that all about, universe?

I was pretty bummed out for a time there, but then I realized that this is not an uncommon turn of events in oncology. In fact, about 40% of people enrolled in the lenalidomide/dexamethasone regimen turn out not to be able to tolerate the drugs.

A Cancer Clinic receptionist called this morning to set up a telephone consultation with my oncologist for the 20th, next Wednesday. At that time I should learn more about my next course of treatment as well as what they learned from my last CT scan. Strangely enough, I also got a call from the hospital here in Courtenay telling my that I needed to call them and set up a second course of treatment. She mentioned lenalidomide and I said it’s unlikely that it would be for lenalidomide because in all likelihood, I’m allergic to it and I was told to stop taking it. I guess it takes a while for messages to get from Victoria to Courtenay and back. I soon learned to take all phone calls from the hospital or the Cancer Clinic with a grain of salt and usually wait for confirmation from a third source before moving on with anything.

In my next post I’ll address the fun topics of pain, hallucinations, and cold sweats.

I was going to write a post about the social triage that happens in emergency departments everywhere, and I will get around to that, but for now I have other more pressing issues to deal with. I’m intent on documenting my experiences with myeloma as completely as possible so, for the moment, that will be my priority for this blog. One strange thing that’s happened to me is that I have a recurring dream about the emergency department at the Royal Jubilee Hospital. More on that to come.

Roger Albert: Always a Sociologist?

So, I’m thinking of changing the name of my blog from Roger Albert: Always a Sociologist to Let’s See What Happens

The fact is that I’m off on all kinds of tangents all the time and I deal with art as well as politics and I comment on a lot of things not sociological. What do you think? Does it make sense? Any other blog names you might suggest? This is probably the shortest post I’ve ever sent out or will ever send out. Whatever. 

I’m out of control.

I’m working on a post about capitalism and democracy, a topic suggested to me by Jack Minard. It’s a great topic, but my post is growing beyond all bounds of reasonableness. I must be thinking  I’m writing a book or something. I’m up to +5000 words and I’m not done. Nowhere near done. So I’m not sure what to do now. I may just carry on with the post and finish it up as best I can. Problem is, for virtually every sentence I write, I’m left with the unsatisfying feeling that I’ve only scratched the surface of what needs to be said. So I may have to follow up this post with a number of others that deal with related issues such as nationalism (conservative and liberal versions), the ideology of internationalism, corporate supply chains and export processing zones, etc., always keeping in mind contemporary global events as they relate to the topics I just listed. 

What do you really know about corporate supply chains? Do you really believe that Canada trades with other countries? What does globalization mean to you? What do you think is the relationship between government and business? What do you think it should be? Why? 

Nestlé has 447 factories, operates in 189 countries, and employs around 339,000 people. It is one of the main shareholders of L’Oreal, the world’s largest cosmetics company. Nestlé is the largest food company in the world and is headquartered in Switzerland. Less than 5% of its labour force is in Switzerland. Is it a Swiss company? Of course it has to be headquartered somewhere, but what do you think about that? 

Oh, the questions! I have lots of them. I also have answers. Stay tuned for my epic blog post coming soon to a computer near you! 

So much to write about: death, sex, stupidity, ignorance and all of the above together! Oh, and political economy too.

I have been fairly quiet on this blog lately. I got a cold brought to me by my grandson. I grudgingly have to say it was worth it because I saw my family in Vancouver, but I’m not a great fan of colds. I rarely get one, but when I do, it’s usually a doozy. They seem to trigger my immune disease too. Bacteria, viruses and whatnot are having a party in my arteries and veins. Sheesh. 

Anyway, I’m reading a few books at the moment, a couple on sexuality and one on universal myths around the birth of heroes in classical literature, including the bible. I’m a little slow reading right now. I tend to fall asleep after about 10 minutes, and reading in bed is a waste of time because I seem to forget most of what I’ve read by morning. Well, I do remember a lot, but not much detail. That’s fine. I can live with that. 

In any case, like I said, I have a list of topics I want to write about, but I’d sure like to hear from you about what topics you’d like me to address. If you’ve read any of my posts in the past you know that I’m all over the map. I’ve taught courses in introductory sociology, deviance, racism, love and sex, research methods, cultural and physical anthropology, Canadian history, Canadian Justice systems, study techniques, both basic and advanced. I’m an avid reader. I’ve done a lot of research in political economy, Marx, Veblen, Elias, Mills, psychoanalysis (Freud, Rank, Brown) , psychology, evolution, sexuality, nationalism, history, language, pain and mental ‘illness’, and classical studies including books on mythology, ideology, and heroism. Check out my archives. Anything you’d like me to explore further? 

I’ll tell you one thing. The post here that’s got the most hits by far is: Is Canada a Capitalist Country? Maybe I should comment on that issue a bit more. It’s one that is very difficult for people to figure out because it’s so difficult to break through the veil of ideology surrounding the relationship between nations (countries) and the capitalist modes of accumulation and production. Got any ideas?

Stop with the Categorical Thinking Already!

Robert Sapolsky is a Stanford University neuroscientist. In this video he introduces a course he taught (7 years ago at least) on human behavioural biology to a freshman class. As he explains in this video, students don’t need any prerequisites for this course. They don’t need a science background. 

Although the course is called Introduction to Human Behavioural Biology, it’s about avoiding categorical thinking in science but also generally in life. 

Sapolsky is one of the most talented and entertaining lecturers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to and watching. I would have loved to have taken his course. It’s well worth watching this video in its entirety (57 minutes). The second video in the series is  1 hour and 37 minutes long, but again well worth the time to watch and re-watch. Aside from these YouTube videos Sapolsky was featured in a 2008 National Geographic video called Stress (available on YouTube) which I used in my classes. It compares olive baboons in Africa with stressed out British bureaucrats in Whitehall, London, the seat of the British civil service. 

If you want, you could watch the YouTube video now and after watching it continue reading below to see why I suggest you watch it. 

I’ve recently had to think about categorical thinking because of a comment made by a commentator to my blog who suggested, very innocently I’m sure, that it’s probable that older people get set in their ways. She wasn’t denigrating that outcome as she saw it suggesting that it’s likely natural (as I interpret her meaning). I had to think: is categorical thinking inevitable as we age and am I a ‘victim’ of categorical thinking? My answer to both questions is a categorical no! Categorical thinking is not inevitable and if there’s anything I have spent my whole career trying to avoid, it’s categorical thinking. 

At the moment I’m reading a (1999) book by Ellen Meiksins Wood called The Origin of Capitalism. Well, over the years I’ve read dozens of books on this topic from various perspectives within various disciplines. Every time I pick up a book, any book, I’m open to having my mind changed and my ideas modified. Otherwise, why read anything? In this case, Wood is presenting me with a viewpoint on the subject I haven’t seen before and I’m still wondering what to make of it. I keep shaking my head because her perspective is quite foreign to me. For one thing, she is focussed on the origins of capitalism. Capitalism is a word Marx never used. At best it refers to a political-economic system. When Marx discusses capital or the capitalist mode of production, he’s not referring to a system, but to a period in history. I have to re-read Wood to ensure that I understand her notions of capitalism and especially her contention that capitalism originated in English agrarian life. Equally strange is her use of the terms revolution and class. 

Reading Meiksins forces me to rethink categories. I will assess her perspective and incorporate it wholly or in part into my worldview or reject it based on the evidence. 

I just received another book in the mail today. It’s by R.D. Laing, one of favourite rogue psychiatrists. It was written in 1976, the year I entered grad school, and is entitled The Facts of Life.  After I’m done reading these books and watching more Robert Sapolsky on YouTube, something which always helps buoy my spirits, I’ll re-read Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. Sapolsky is really high on this guy so I have to read it again in light of the video posted above. 

Please, enjoy Sapolsky. Find his other videos on YouTube. He’s a delight!